Snow draped across the city like a solid, frozen frosting. A few lonely carriages rolled through the bitterly cold evening. The sound of the horses’ iron-shod hooves against the cobbles was muffled by the thick covering of white. The streetlights sent flickers of light skipping and reflecting off the crystals coating the world.
In a tiny terraced house in a down-at-heel street, Natalie Silver lifted the baking sheet of fresh gingerbread out of the oven. Setting it down on the table, she smiled in satisfaction as she saw the dough was perfectly cooked to an even golden brown.
Tucking a strand of her long, curly brown hair back into the bun on the back of her head, she draped the towel that had been protecting her hands over her shoulder.
“That smells delicious,” Millie breathed, leaning dangerously close to the steaming goodies.
Natalie shooed her younger sister away, then picked up a palette knife to cut the tray of warm gingerbread into even squares.
“You can eat them when they’re cool,” she said, noting with delight how the rich notes of dark molasses ran under the spicy scent of the ginger. “Not before then. Else you’ll burn your tongue.”
“Is that the gingerbread?” squeaked Lizzie, the youngest of the Silver sisters, as she poked her head into the kitchen.
“It is, indeed,” Natalie replied, clearing away the final few ingredients she had used for the treat. “Now the two of you set the table for dinner, please. Mama will be home from work any minute and I want everything ready and waiting for her.”
Taking a pan down from the top shelf of their sagging oak shelf, Natalie watched with a fond smile as her two sisters scampered about the miniscule kitchen. At twenty-three, she was the oldest by eight years and, in recent days, had felt more like a second mother to her sisters than a sibling.
“Does Mama really not know I’m home for the weekend?” Millie asked, unfolding the patched but clean tablecloth over the worn, rickety table that took up much of the kitchen space.
“She has no idea,” Natalie said, moving the tray of gingerbread to sit at the back of the stovetop so her sisters could lay the cloth. “I wanted it to be a surprise for her after work. She misses you terribly during the week.”
“Poor Mama,” Millie sighed, picking up the old tin can that had once contained beans but that they now used to hold mismatched silverware. “She wouldn’t expect Mrs. Winchcombe to give me the time off, I imagine.”
At sixteen, Millie was a bright and bubbly girl. She had the same mass of brown curls as both of her sisters, but was the only one of the three to have inherited her mother’s brown eyes rather than the green eyes of her father.
After excelling in school, Millie now worked as a governess to a family who lived in one of the richest suburbs of Boston. Usually, due to the distance, she lived there seven days a week. Occasionally, she would come home on her Sundays off, but the walk was long and the trolley ride expensive, so she would only be able to stay for a few hours.
This weekend, however, the lady of the house, Mrs. Winchcombe, had been feeling generous and had given Millie permission to see her family for two whole days.
Millie’s time at home was an opportunity Natalie did not intend to squander. Two whole days to talk and laugh and share what little luxuries they could spare to spend money on.
“Will you pass me the milk, please, Lizzie?” Natalie asked, quickly chopping an onion and tossing it into the sizzling pork fat in the skillet. “I need it for this chowder.”
The youngest Silver sister hurried to the cold box, carefully lifting out the glass bottle of milk. At just thirteen, Lizzie tended to be a winsome and dreamy child, but there was too often a furrow to her brow and her green eyes flickered with worries. It was as if she carried the weight of the world on her narrow little shoulders.
“Could you save some of the milk, Nat?” she asked sweetly as she passed over the bottle. “I would so dearly love to have a cup of warm milk with the gingerbread after dinner.”
Tipping the parboiled potatoes into the pan just as the recipe by Fannie Merritt Farmer instructed, Natalie tossed in a handful of dried thyme and then paused to pat her sister gently on the head. “Of course, Lizzie. Now, go wash your face and hands before tea. I think I hear Mama at the door.”
Sure enough, at that moment the front door rattled and then opened to admit a figure swathed in a snow-covered cloak. There was a burst of sharp, cold air and then the outside world was shut out once again as their mother Claudia closed the flimsy door.
Lizzie immediately ran to her mother, helping the weary woman unwrap the many layers she was wearing to turn away the snow and wind. Natalie watched with a smile on her face despite her heavy heart as Lizzie knelt to untie their mother’s boot laces.
It was what their father Patrick used to do every evening. Claudia would arrive home from her job at one of the big, fancy department stores filled with things she could never afford for herself. She would be greeted by her husband kneeling to gently remove the boots from her aching feet. Once, she told Natalie that no matter how bad the day had been, that simple little act had made her feel like a queen.
But life had gotten harder since then. Now, the three sisters had taken over the task of honouring their mother, as their father had done before them.
Claudia gratefully took the knitted slippers that Lizzie held out to her, pulling them on over her numbed feet.
“Thank you, buttercup,” she said, kissing her youngest child sweetly on the forehead. “And what are these delightful scents assailing my nostrils, Natalie dear?”
After pouring milk and a can of corn into the cooking potatoes, Natalie wrapped her mother into a hug, trying to give the slender woman some of her body heat.
“Nothing special,” she said, chafing one of her mother’s work-roughened hands between both of hers. “I’ve been trying out some more of the recipes from that new cooking book Aunt Elspeth sent me for Christmas.”
Her mother Claudia rolled her eyes. “You mean the one she spent far too much money on and intended as a passive aggressive criticism of your domestic talents?”
Natalie grimaced. “Yes… Although I would say the note that she sent with it wasn’t passive aggressive. Saying she hoped the book might help fix whatever failings were present in my character that were hindering my chances of marriage was just aggressive.”
“As gentle and loving as always,” Millie said, sauntering into the kitchen. “Hello, Mama.”
Claudia gave a sudden shriek of delight, rushing forward to hug her second daughter. There were a few moments of laughter and explanation before Natalie announced that dinner was ready.
Taking their seats, the four women took hold of one another’s hands, creating an unbroken circle as Claudia led her family in saying grace over the sparse but nourishing meal.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” she said softly, the dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes standing out in the light cast by the oil lamps. “We thank you for this food prepared by Natalie. We thank you that Millie has been able to join us here tonight, bringing our whole family together once again.”
At this, Natalie couldn’t help but glance at the unused plate on the kitchen cabinet, feeling the familiar pang of grief. It wasn’t entirely true that the whole family was together.
The previous summer, their father had fallen ill, steadily growing weaker and thinner no matter what they tried to do to help. He’d had to quit his job as a bookkeeper when it reached the point where he could barely stand, let alone bend over account books all day.
What spare money the family had went on visits to doctors, but all to no avail. By the time a specialist, who kindly offered his services free of charge, was able to diagnose the rare blood condition that had reduced the once lively, vigorous Patrick Silver to a shadow, it was too late.
Her father had clung to life for one final, beautiful fall with his wife and daughters, soaking up the luminous colours of the turning leaves, and the fierce love of his family. But as the first crisp notes of winter began to blow through the air, he had silently stepped away from his mortal life to whatever lay beyond.
Natalie blinked away a sudden wash of tears, not wanting her mother and sisters to see. His death was still fresh in the minds and hearts of the family he left behind, but Natalie, her sisters, and their mother had all leaned into one another. There was very little money in the cramped house, but there was an abundance of love.
“We humbly ask, Father God,” her mother said softly, squeezing her daughters’ hands, “for wisdom and for courage in these uncertain times. And we thank you for your love and the blessings you have given us in the form of one another. Please bless this food that we gratefully receive. Amen.”
“Amen,” the three daughters echoed before Natalie stood to serve the food.
As she ladled the steaming chowder out of the pot, she noted with some worry how small the portions were, even though she’d used up the last of the potatoes in the sack. But she made sure to smile brightly as she set the bowls in front of her family.
It didn’t matter that her bowl was almost empty before she’d even begun; her mother and Millie and Lizzie needed the food more than she did. Besides, there was a large loaf of coarse rye bread to split between them that she could fill her stomach with. No one would be going to bed hungry, and that was what mattered.
“That was absolutely wonderful,” her mother said, wiping the last of the broth from the bowl with a final crust of bread. “I can’t explain how wonderful it is to arrive home to a hot meal. It makes the cold walk through the streets from work a little easier.”
“But tonight, isn’t just any night,” Natalie said dramatically, taking one more sip of her tea before rising to her feet. “Tonight, we have a very special treat in honour of our darling Millie being home with us.”
“As well as another little surprise,” Millie announced, exiting her seat. “Excuse me a moment.”
Lizzie, squirming excitedly in her chair, asked, “Can we have the warm milk with it now, Nat?”
“Of course,” Natalie replied with a laugh as she slid the now cool gingerbread off the tray onto one of their faded and chipped floral-patterned plates. “I think we have one last stick of cinnamon at the back of the cupboard somewhere. Have a look.”
As Lizzie began digging through the spices that were a remnant of a more prosperous time in their family’s history, Millie returned to the room with something concealed behind her back.
“What are you hiding there?” their mother said teasingly. “It had better not be the kitten that Lizzie keeps begging me for.”
“Even better,” Millie said with a little shimmy of her shoulders.
Lizzie scoffed from where she was burrowed halfway into the cupboard. “There’s nothing better than a kitten.”
Natalie bit back a laugh as Millie quirked one fine eyebrow.
“Oh really,” she said, bringing a box out from behind her back. “What about chocolate?”
There was a sharp thud as the youngest Silver hit her head in her haste to exit the cupboard. But it didn’t slow her down and a moment later she launched herself at Millie to give her a vice-like hug.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she squealed.
Millie squeezed her sister, rocking the two of them from side to side. “Now, it’s nothing super fancy,” she warned. “But we can make hot chocolate.”
“Wherever did you get them?” their mother asked, carrying the used dishes to the sink. “I can’t remember the last time we could afford chocolate.”
Millie shrugged, passing the box to Natalie. “I helped Mr. Winchcombe organize his library a few weeks ago. He bought them for me as a thank you gift.”
“That was very kind of him,” Natalie said, dropping the slightly gritty squares of chocolate into the steaming milk.
In a few moments, the drink was ready. The four women gathered at the table once more, hands wrapped around their steaming mugs.
Pinching a gingerbread square between thumb and forefinger, Lizzie sniffed it delicately before nibbling at the crisp edge. Natalie grinned at the look of unfettered delight that washed across her baby sister’s face.
“Oh Natalie, these are wonderful,” her mother said. “You took a basic recipe from a book and absolutely made it your own.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said, ducking her head a little shyly. “I was actually thinking of taking some of these down to that fancy bakery downtown. Maybe see if I can get a job there.”
“What a splendid idea,” their mother said. “Just let me sneak one or two more before you whisk the plate away!”
* * *
There was a silvery ting from the bell above the door as Natalie entered the city’s famous bakery, Levall’s Luxury Dessert Emporium.
It was early in the morning, so the store was currently empty. The sweet, rich, doughy smell of a variety of baked goodies drifted through the air, drawing Natalie in like a siren’s call.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment, madam,” said a deep friendly voice over by the counter.
Startled, Natalie looked for the unseen speaker, nervously clutching her small bag of gingerbread like it was a lifeline. In some ways, she thought, it kind of was. If she could get a job here, the financial burden would perhaps lighten just a little for her family.
She gave a squeak of surprise as a man suddenly rose from under the counter. In his hands he held a tray covered in delicately iced cookies and tiny puff pastry creations dusted with powdered sugar. The treats looked like something from a fairy tale and Natalie felt her face begin to heat as she thought of the plain, square gingerbreads she was about to offer this master baker.
“Well, good morning, madam,” the man said jovially. “I’m Tony Levall, the owner and master baker here at Levall’s Luxury Dessert Emporium. How can I assist you on this bright, cold morning?”
Tony Levall looked to be in his late thirties. He was a big man who was pleasantly round in all aspects of his person. With his doughy cheeks and slightly protruding gut, he looked like the dough that he worked with every day, topped with a sprinkling of slicked black hair and eyes like shiny brown currants.
Clearing her throat nervously, Natalie placed her bag down on the polished wooden counter.
“I was actually hoping to be of assistance to you,” she said, relieved that her voice only wavered a little. “After years of practice, I’ve become a rather good baker and would very much love to come and work for you in your marvellous shop.”
Levall looked bemused, folding his surprisingly muscular arms across his large chest. “Nothing I admire quite as much as confidence,” he said. “I assume you’ve worked in a bakery or some kind of confectionary store before, yes?”
Natalie bit her lip, but took a deep breath to steel her courage. “I haven’t actually, but I’ve provided catering for several high-class private events.”
She didn’t mention that “catering for several high-class private events” actually meant making cakes and cookies for the birthdays of several friends and making mini cherry pies for a literature salon her rich Aunt Edith threw last fall. It wasn’t a lie… it was just creatively framing her experience.
There was a moment of quiet as Levall looked at her in consideration. When he still hadn’t told her to get out of his shop after a few moments, Natalie boldly took out the paper package tied with string that contained her gingerbread.
“Try my baking,” she said, holding it out to him. “It’s a recipe from the new book released by the Boston Cooking School that I added my own twist to.”
“I appreciate your guts,” Levall said, taking the package, “so I’ll try your baking. And if I like it, hey, I might even let you work in the kitchen for a few days. See if you can cut it.”
Natalie watched with bated breath as he took a large bite of a cookie. There was a satisfying snap and crunch and then Levall chewed with careful consideration. She watched his eyes go wide in surprise and then narrow as he clearly tried to define the flavors she had added to the recipe.
Putting down the gingerbread, Levall dusted off his hand and held it out to Natalie across the counter.
“When can you start?” he asked.
The Township of Dempsy, Kansas 1897
It was mid-afternoon on a warm June day and Harland Cole, sheriff of the town of Dempsy, had been sitting on his bed for nearly an hour.
A man of average height, Harland had a charmingly square face that he kept clean shaven, broad shoulders, and a demeanour that many mistook as shy. In truth, he was merely quiet and a little awkward with people he didn’t know well. Still, he hadn’t let a lack of social confidence stop him from excelling in his job as sheriff.
Right now, however, he was neglecting his duties. Roger Stone, the deputy for the town of Dempsy, was waiting for him at the sheriff’s office in town. Harland had only intended to briefly drop by the neat, if sparse, four-roomed building on the edge of town that he called home. The day was dusty, and he’d wanted a neckerchief to protect his mouth and nose.
But when he’d gone searching through the dresser, instead he had found the ring box containing all his dashed hopes and dreams. So now he was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at the delicate silver band studded with tiny diamonds.
Harland really had thought that he and Catherine would spend the rest of their lives together. With a heavy sigh, he ran a hand through his short brown hair, as if he could pluck out the memories of the love of his life that tormented him.
But the images ruthlessly replayed in his mind. Again, and again, he saw Catherine as she ran into the arms of Sanders Malone, the traveling musician that her father so disapproved of. The man she’d promised Harland she no longer loved.
How did things go so wrong? He thought Catherine had been happy as the beau of the sheriff, ready and willing to become his wife.
But then Malone had come back to town that spring, and only days later he and Catherine ran away, leaving Harland alone, heartbroken, and confused. Although she had tried to let him down gently, in the note he found pushed under his front door, she made it very clear that she didn’t love Harland the way he loved her. She intended to spend her life with Sanders Malone despite her father’s disapproval.
Clicking the ring box shut, Harland finally broke the spell that had held him still for the past hour. Getting to his feet, he tucked the ring box into the back of the drawer once again. Closing it, he gripped the edge of the chest of drawers with his large, work-worn hands, broad shoulders curling.
As much as he had appreciated Catherine’s honesty, it had done nothing to ease his heartbreak. It felt as if he was carrying around a broken bottle inside his chest, the shards of glass stabbing and cutting his heart with every breath.
Letting his eyes fall shut for several beats of his heart, Harland then blinked several times to bring himself back to the present moment.
“Wasted enough time already today,” he said quietly to himself in the mirror, meeting his own dark brown eyes. “Back to work.”
Finding the neckerchief that he had originally come in for, Harland tied it loosely around his neck, then set out to face the rest of the day.
* * *
“What took you so long?” Roger Stone asked as Harland joined him outside the sheriff’s office in town.
“Just got a little waylaid,” Harland replied, adjusting his hat in order to busy his hands.
Roger Stone was a short and slender man in his late twenties with almost white blond hair and pale blue eyes. A silvery scar under his right eye gave him a permanent squint on that side of his face. But there was always a friendly grin ready on his face, and he was well-liked about the town.
“Well, it’s a good thing you’re here now,” Roger said, tossing Harland something wrapped in greasy paper and string. “We got a tip through about that house over on West Vine we’ve been keeping an eye on.”
Harland quickly caught the package, finding it to be warm and slightly doughy. A quick sniff confirmed his suspicion that it was one of the hearty bierocks that Ma Gretchen over at the diner on Main Street was known for.
“From the food, I assume we’re staking the place out?” Harland asked, using his free hand to open the gun safe and equip himself with his favored revolver. “I know we’ve heard rumblings about some illegal activity, but you’ve got something solid now?”
Roger nodded, taking a bite of the minced beef, onion, and cabbage pastry parcel as he walked out the door. “I had some folks keep an eye on the place for me over the last couple of weeks,” he said, speaking with his mouth full. “Just to see if the same people kept showing up time and again.”
“And do they?” Harland asked, taking a bite of his own meal as he followed Roger out the door.
The sudden kick of black pepper Ma Gretchen worked into the meat was strangely comforting. Bierocks were a snack that Harland had been getting from the Crossed Scythe Diner since he was child. The blend of familiar flavours never failed to remind him of those days before fever had taken both of his parents.
Roger nodded. “Turns out there’s a small gang that comes into town every Friday evening. They set up some kind of unregulated gambling den and then leave town on Sunday morning.”
“Which means they’ll be here in a few hours,” Harland noted, squinting at his pocket watch. “Nearly three now. Not going to be sundown until around eight.”
The pair were walking slowly through the narrow, dusty street of Dempsy. At this point in the afternoon, everything felt weighted down by the heat as the sun heaved itself toward evening across the flat blue sky.
“So, we get five hours full of exactly nothing,” Roger said with a grin. “Good thing I brought my pack of cards with me. I can destroy you at poker again.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little hypocritical to play cards while we’re waiting to break up an illegal gambling establishment?” Harland asked, stepping around a group of grubby, laughing children drawing with chalk on the lumpy cobblestones at the front of Town Hall.
He made a mental note that if Mayor Whitestone had an issue with the drawings, he’d come down with a stiff brush and scrub them away himself.
Roger shrugged. “I think you’d be more interested in the idea if you actually won a hand every now and again,” he joked, tossing his paper into a nearby trash can.
Harland rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Are you aware that you’re insufferable?”
“I’m very much aware, which is why I’m so good at it.” Roger gestured for Harland to follow him down a narrow cut-through between two shops.
Crates and garbage cans were piled high along the edges and at a few points Harland struggled to squeeze his bulk between the stacks. When they emerged on the other side, he saw that they were at the top of West Vine, the street where the out-of-town gang had set up their weekend den.
The building that housed the gambling ring was an old brick construction that had perhaps once been a small warehouse or store but was now clearly abandoned. The sagging double doors were boarded shut, as were the grimy windows.
Harland had to admit, it was a good place to run an illegal gambling den. The road was quiet, with very little carriage or foot traffic. West Vine was one of the less frequented roads in Dempsy, with most of the buildings being used to hold spare goods by the stores in the centre of town.
“I found us a place where we can watch,” Roger said, pointing to a ramshackle house on the opposite side of the street just a few buildings down from their target.
“Looks like it’s going to be a very comfortable wait,” Harland said dryly. “Come on, let’s get in there and settle before anyone sees the sheriff and his deputy hanging around.”
* * *
The hours passed slowly in the stuffy house. While the light lasted, the two men played cards, with Roger winning every hand as expected. But as the sun began to sink toward the horizon, it became impossible to see the cards and they couldn’t have any kind of light as it would give away their position.
So, they fell into silence and an easy pattern. Each would take turns watching by the window while the other took the opportunity to sit on one of the wooden crates, lean against the wall, and doze.
Harland didn’t mind the silence. As much as he enjoyed conversation with Roger and the younger man’s witty character, Harland was just as comfortable sitting with his deputy and having neither of them say a word. In general, Harland thought of himself as a quiet sort of man, not prone to talking for the sake of it, or being the life of the party.
Perhaps it was part of the reason why Catherine hadn’t been able to be happy with him, not really. She was sparkling and vivacious, always chattering about whatever bright, unique thought flitted into her mind. Everywhere she went was lit up with her symphonic laughter and everyone left an interaction with her feeling brighter about their day.
How could he, with his long silences and uncertainty about what to do with his hands when he talked to someone, compete? What did he have to offer when there was a man who could give Catherine the musical accompaniment that she needed for the fleet-footed dance that was her life?
Harland was drawn from his melancholy musings by Roger signalling to him to come over to the window.
“We’ve got movement,” the deputy said in a low voice as the pair looked out across the street.
In this part of town, there were no street lamps and so, the flicker of lanterns was clear to see between the loose boards covering the windows. As the two of them watched, figures began to slink through the shadows, slipping into the building through what Harland assumed was a side door or an uncovered window.
Carefully, he slipped his revolver out of the holster, double-checking that it was fully loaded. Roger did the same, and then the two men stepped out into the night.
As he always did in situations like these, Harland felt the swirling blend of fear and excitement rush through his blood. His mouth was dry, but his hands were steady. There was a certain sense of calm brought on by the fact that he knew Roger had his back.
With a synchronization that spoke to several years of working together, Harland and his deputy circled around the crumbling building, taking note of the entrances and exits. Sounds of arguments, laughter, clinking glasses, and clattering coins told them both that the gambling was under way.
Keeping his shotgun trained on a rusting side door, Roger carefully jammed a thick plank under the handle, making sure no one would be leaving that way.
Waving sharply, Harland pointed toward one of the final two exits: a window with all the glass smashed from the frame and the boards pulled loose to allow entry. A small pool of weak light trickled from the gap, suggesting this wasn’t the main room, but was still close enough to be reached by the lanterns.
Nodding in understanding, Roger stayed in place, crouching low behind an old tin bathtub that now held weeds and broken bottles instead of water.
Approaching the one remaining door, Harland took a deep breath as he prepared to begin the raid. Then, with a great grunt of effort, he front-kicked the flimsy door as hard as he could, ripping away the bolt that held it closed from the inside.
“This is the sheriff!” he roared, charging into the room, revolver at the ready. “Hands on your heads!”
The half a dozen or so men in the room scattered like cockroaches. Chairs toppled backwards, cards fluttered through the air like fall leaves, and Harland tried to keep his revolver trained on everyone at once.
Most of them tried to bolt through the back door, and Harland grinned as he heard them cursing when they found the door blocked from the outside. A few crawled out of the window toward where Roger was waiting, leaving Harland facing a short, scar-faced man with straggly blond hair and tattoos coiling up his muscular forearms.
Dropping his shoulders, the man charged like a bull, catching Harland by surprise. The force of the tackle knocked him back several feet, sending the revolver flying from his hand.
With a guttural snarl, the shorter man tried to throw Harland onto his back, but the sheriff stood firm. There was a short scuffle that sent the two of them crashing into walls and the tables that had been set up for the gambling.
At one point, an oil lamp tipped over, starting a small fire, but Harland managed to kick dust over it in the moments before his opponent charged again.
It was a close thing, but eventually, Harland managed to pin the miscreant to the floor and wrestle his hands into a pair of shackles.
“No point in struggling now,” Harland said, chest heaving from the effort of the fight. “Only thing waiting for you tonight is a jail cell. Maybe a cup of coffee if I’m feeling generous.”
“Nice catch,” Roger said from the doorway. His usually neatly combed hair was rumpled, and blood stained his lower lip. “One of the rascals from out of town took a pop at me, but I took him down and left him shackled to a fence out there. The others got away though while my hands were full.”
“I think we caught the two most important players,” Harland said, pulling the tattooed man to his feet as he grumbled and cursed. “We can see about tracking down some of the others tomorrow.”
He hustled his catch toward the door, the dark of the night overwhelming for a moment until his eyes adjusted. “For now, let’s get these two to the cells. There’s still a whole lot of paperwork to do before we get to sleep tonight.”
“You know how much I love paperwork,” Roger muttered, dabbing at the blood on his lip as he followed Harland into the dark. “The life of a true hero.”
Harland was sharply pulled from sleep by the crash of the front door opening. Jerking upright from where he had been sleeping with his head resting on the paper-strewn desk, he winced as his stiff neck twinged with pain.
Standing in the doorway of the sheriff’s office, Roger Stone was backlit by the bright Saturday sunshine. Squinting, Harland was just able to make out the judgmental look the deputy was sending his way.
“I don’t want to hear it, Stone,” he groaned, standing slowly and stretching. “The paperwork just took a while longer than I expected.”
“Sure, it did,” Roger said, his tone making it very clear that he didn’t believe this story in the slightest. “The same way that you got so caught up in the filing on Tuesday that you ended up falling asleep on the couch here.”
Harland pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, temples pulsing with a headache. He was dehydrated and from the gritty feeling in his eyes, he was in desperate need of a wash. The last thing he was interested in was Roger’s needling.
“Just leave it,” he said, taking his jacket off the back of the chair and pulling it on over the shirt and waistcoat still stained with sweat and dust from last night’s scuffle in the gambling den. “The two rogues in the cells are due to be picked up at eleven by the Topeka Marshalls. Make sure they’re ready for transport when the wagon arrives.”
Roger tutted, stepping forward and holding out a paper bag. “Not so fast, boss. I picked up breakfast from the bakery on Fredrickson Street. At least get some food in you before you go home to mope for the afternoon.”
Crossing his arms, Harland did his best to scowl. “One day I’m going to fire you for insubordination,” he growled. “Besides, you have no idea what I’m going to do this afternoon. Maybe I’ve got important business to attend to.”
“The only important business you have to attend to is helping me eat these doughnuts and then getting rid of that ring. I know you still have it hidden in a drawer somewhere,” Roger said. “And you’ll never fire me. I’m far too good at this job.”
“What makes you think I still have the ring?” Harland asked, knowing from the quirk of Roger’s pale blond eyebrows that his weak protest had not been convincing in the slightest.
Reaching into the bag, Roger pulled out a doughnut, took a bite, and held the bag out to Harland. The smell of warm dough and cinnamon sugar drifted through the air and his stomach grumbled.
Refusing for a stubborn minute, Harland finally snatched the bag from the deputy’s hands and headed toward the tiny kitchen in the back of the sheriff’s office.
“I am guessing you want coffee, right?” he asked gruffly, grabbing the pot from the drying rack by the small metal sink.
“Not if you’re making it,” Stone muttered, several crumbs tumbling out of his mouth onto the floor. “I have no idea how you always manage to burn it so badly.”
“Feel free to make it yourself,” Harland said snidely, stoking the fire in the potbelly stove back to life. “I would hate to offend your delicate palate.”
“Were you always this short-tempered upon waking or has heartbreak altered your personality somehow?” Roger asked, leaving the bag of doughnuts on the counter and starting to make coffee. “Whatever it is, I must say that it makes you less than pleasant company.”
Harland dropped into one of the two chairs set beside a tiny table, burying his head in his hands.
“No,” he mumbled between his palms, “my bad temper is definitely a new development. Can you blame me?”
“Yes,” Roger said immediately, setting the coffee on to boil. “I respect you immensely, Harland, but you’ve got to move on. Catherine is gone. She’s not coming back to you. Her life is with that foppish musician fellow with the weak chin and the ridiculous name.”
“Sanders Malone,” Harland immediately replied, gritting his teeth as he remembered the man’s curly black hair, bright blue eyes, and easy, brilliant smile. “And he had a very strong chin, actually.”
Roger sighed, clearly exasperated. “My dear friend, you are very much missing the point here. The messy pair of them— Sanders and Catherine—should be nothing more than a slightly irritating memory. It’s been months and you’re still sitting here in dire need of a bath, looking like death warmed over.”
Harland looked up at that. “Well, don’t try and spare my pride or anything.”
“I’ll do whatever I need to do to get you out of this pit you’ve fallen into,” Roger said and there was genuine care in his tone. “You’re a good sheriff, Harland, and a better man. I know a lot of people around town are starting to worry about you. Why do you think Elliot Moss over at the bakery insisted I bring you fresh doughnuts for breakfast?”
Leaning back in the chair, Harland took another bite of the doughnut. It was a little dry as always and slightly too salty in a way that left his mouth feeling gritty.
“Maybe he sent them because he knows he’s a mediocre baker? And he still thinks he can use fresh doughnuts to bribe me into giving him a stall in the square for free?” Harland asked.
Roger chuckled, taking the bubbling coffee off the stove and filling two large mugs. “You’re probably not wrong. But free food is free food.”
With a hum of thanks, Harland took the offered cup and sipped thoughtfully. He remembered going hungry too many days as a child when money was tight. The passing of his parents within days of each other, two more victims of a vicious fever that tore through their hometown when he was only thirteen, had only made it worse.
When he’d staggered into Dempsy nearly a week after burying his parents beside their house, he was delirious from lack of food. The kindness of the people of Dempsy had saved him then, had led to him being voted in as sheriff by a landslide, and continued to this day.
What was he doing, wasting time clinging to the past and a woman who had clearly never really loved him?
“Affection, trust, unremarkable doughnuts… there’s much to be grateful for in this life,” he said quietly, staring down at the rich darkness of the coffee in the cup. “Thank you for the reminder, Stone.”
“Any time,” his deputy said, raising his cup of coffee as if he was making a toast. “Now let’s finish eating Moss’ bribe. Then I think you should go home for a bath and some real sleep. I’ll deal with the prisoner transfer when the boys from Topeka arrive.”
As the two men sat, sipping their strong coffee and eating their free breakfast, they chatted easily about matters around the town. Roger recounted how a cow had gotten loose from the barn by the local inn and run rampant through at least three fields before she had been recaptured.
Harland pointed out that there had been repeated complaints about patrons at the saloon getting rowdy at night and that the two of them would need to talk to the owner at some point to issue a warning.
They took the time to make notes about the possible identities of the men who had escaped from the gambling den the night before, planning when they would go and talk to each.
As was often the case, Harland was quietly impressed with Roger’s sharp mind and insight. In the three years they had been working together, the deputy had proved himself time and again that he was excellent at his job. When the time came that Harland decided he wanted to step down as sheriff, he knew without a doubt that Roger Stone would make a more than suitable replacement.
“Before you head off,” Roger said, creating some suspense by drinking the last of his coffee before finishing his thought. “I’ve got something I want you to have a look at.”
Immediately suspicious, Harland narrowed his eyes. “This had better be a suggestion on how we’re going to handle the stray dog problem.”
With a grimace, Roger reached into his pocket, pulling out a square of folded newspaper.
“Not exactly,” he said, dragging out the syllables as he pushed the paper across the table. “Although it might be a solution to a different kind of problem. I’ve had it for about a week and was just waiting for the best time to give it to you.”
Snatching up the paper, Harland skimmed the slightly smudged print. It was a page from the Topeka State Journal containing several adverts for mail-order brides.
Harland gave his deputy a dirty look. “You can’t be serious. I thought you said that mail-order brides are for desperate, aging loners or greasy miners who haven’t seen daylight in years?”
“I have since revised my opinion,” Roger said breezily. “It turned out I was actually incredibly ignorant about the whole process. But then I met this stunning young German woman in the next town over, who had moved to Kansas as a mail-order bride.”
“Maybe you should sign up,” Harland said, pushing the paper back toward his deputy. “You live with your equally single childhood best friend in a house that I swear is going to collapse on you any day. Maybe I’m not the one who needs a wife.”
“Ah,” he replied quickly, “but I have no intention of ever marrying, my good Sheriff. I am quite happy to stay in my unstable house with William until death whisks me away from this mortal plane.”
It was clear that he had plenty of arguments ready to counter any protests Harland might have.
“Didn’t we just agree it would be better to put Catherine in the past sooner than later?” he asked, his tone almost pleading.
“I don’t remember agreeing to ordering a wife by mail as if she was a sack of grass seed,” Harland replied, rising to his feet. “It’s… it’s insulting to treat a woman like that.”
Roger gave a slow sigh of exasperation. “They’re not doing it against their will, Harland,” he said slowly. “The women who sign up to this service have plenty of reasons to do so. Maybe they have no prospects in their local area. Maybe they want to see another part of the country. Maybe they want to support family members they leave behind.”
Harland said nothing. Although he didn’t sit back down, he didn’t flee the kitchen as he had been intending. He didn’t know why the idea didn’t sit right in his head or his heart. Plenty of people were introduced through mail-order bride services. Several of the couples in Dempsy had met that way.
“I just don’t like the idea of a stranger coming all the way here with the expectation of marriage,” he said weakly. “What if she doesn’t like me but has no other option but to stay?”
“Then I’m sure she’d be perfectly happy to make her life in Dempsy some other way,” Roger countered. “I know the idea makes you uncomfortable. But the problem is, I know you’re going to be reluctant to try and find love with anyone local. Every woman in Dempsy Township knows about how Catherine broke your heart.”
A flash of humiliation sparked in the back of Harland’s mind, a feeling he’d worked hard to ignore for the past months. In the time immediately following Catherine running off with Sanders Malone, it had been excruciating for Harland to show his face around town and do his job.
He was, by and large, a very private person; the knowledge that everyone knew of his heartbreak and were no doubt gossiping about the situation when he wasn’t around made him deeply uncomfortable.
So, Roger was right. Trying to find love here in Dempsy was a little difficult. Every woman that he met knew about Catherine running off with a musician only days after Harland had bought an engagement ring from the local jeweller.
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Harland released a long, weary breath.
“Fine,” he conceded. “I’ll look into it. I still think it’s a waste of time and will lead to nothing but embarrassment… but I’ll try.”
In a slightly begrudging manner, he patted the younger man on the shoulder. “Thank you for the suggestion. I know your meddling comes from a place of care.”
“You’re welcome, boss.” Roger grinned, grabbing the last doughnut from the bag. “I’m glad you agreed since I took the liberty of posting the ad for you a few weeks ago. There are already three letters waiting for you.”
He took a bite of the doughnut, apparently immune to the burning glare Harland was giving him.
“I’ll drop the letters off at your house once the marshals from Topeka have taken the two gamblers off our hands,” he said nonchalantly. “You can go home and sleep until then if you like.”
“You’re an impressive pain in my behind, you know that?” Harland snapped stalking out of the kitchen.
“There will come a day when you’ll thank me,” Roger called after him, laughter in his voice.
Snatching his hat from the stand beside the door, Harland stepped out into the early morning. However, despite the scowl on his face, a tiny beam of hope cut through the grief that had filled his head since Catherine left.
Maybe something good would come of Stone’s meddling after all.
Natalie found it incredible that she’d been working at Levall’s Luxury Dessert Emporium for more than six months now.
After Tony Levall had tasted her gingerbread, he had invited her to come back the next day to have a trial in the kitchen. It was a test that Natalie had passed with flying colours and she had been offered a job on the spot.
Her family had been ecstatic at this news, not least of all because Natalie began bringing home the leftover, damaged, or slightly stale treats from the bakery. Those heavenly bites of luxury that they would never have been able to afford otherwise had gotten the Silver family through the dark days of winter.
By now, at the height of summer, Natalie was the prize baker of the Boston emporium. The number of customers had massively increased, even though Tony hadn’t been struggling for business prior to her arrival. Every new cookie, cake, or pastry creation she sent out onto the shelves became a huge hit.
Pausing in her task of wiping down the kitchen surfaces, Natalie couldn’t help but smile. Tony was a good boss; he treated her with respect and encouraged her to try out every new recipe or decoration idea that she brought to him.
The only thing that worried her was how the rest of the baking staff were clearly beginning to get bitter about what they perceived as Tony’s special treatment of her.
Leaning back against the counter, Natalie massaged her aching hands, a furrow of worry carving along her brow. As much as she loved the work here, life was still difficult at home.
Millie had lost her job a few months ago when the Winchcombes decided they were moving to England. Since then, she had been searching for another governess position, but work was hard to find and so, for now, she was bringing in a meager wage working at a grocer’s.
That left Natalie as the highest earner in the household, and the one mostly responsible for covering the bills and repairs needed to keep the old house in decent shape. And, even though she was valued at the bakery, her wage was still that of someone just starting out.
A few times she had considered asking Tony about a pay raise, but she hadn’t told him the truth of her family’s struggle. Her concern was that if she asked for money so soon into her time working for him, that Tony would think her to be greedy or entitled. She couldn’t risk losing her job or damaging her reputation with him.
So, she worked every hour that she possibly could, ignoring the snide comments and sneering looks some of the other staff gave her. Her only interest was in keeping her head down and putting food on the table at home.
“You still here, Miss Silver?”
Putting a smile on her face as she turned toward her boss, Natalie held up the flour-streaked cloth in her hand.
“Just finishing up the cleaning,” she said, continuing to clean as Tony began checking the racks filled with proving bread. “I checked on the dough for tomorrow’s rosemary and sea salt dinner rolls. It’s looking good. Smells incredible.”
Lifting the cloth covering the trough of dough, Tony hummed in appreciation, bending his head low to sniff deeply.
“It most certainly does,” he said, straightening up. “You were right about using a touch of rosemary oil as well as the chopped rosemary. Good work as always, Silver.”
A grin spread across her face despite her earlier worries. “Thank you, Mr. Levall. I think the customers are really going to like them.”
Placing the cloth back down, he snorted a laugh. “I don’t doubt it. Everything you have a hand in making just flies off the shelves. I’ve started calling it the Silver Effect whenever anyone asks why my sales have jumped up so much the last few months.”
Natalie felt a blush heat her cheeks and she busied herself with rinsing out the cleaning cloth and placing it into the basket of linens due to be dropped off at the laundry the next morning.
“Let me take that,” Tony said kindly, lifting the basket out of her arms. “I’ll drop it off on my way home rather than have one of the girls take it over tomorrow.”
The bakery was silent apart from the sound of their voices and their footsteps on the cool stone floors.
“Thank you very much,” Natalie said, taking her hat and jacket off the hook in the staff room. “If that’s everything, Mr. Levall, I’ll be heading home now. It’s starting to get dark and I have quite a walk.”
“Walk?” Tony shook his head. “Nonsense, my dear. I must insist that I give you a ride back. You’ve been on your feet all day and look utterly exhausted. Not to mention I won’t hear of you walking back home alone in the dark.” He leaned in and gave a friendly wink. “There are ruffians around this city you know, Miss Silver.”
She laughed as she pinned her hat in place. “I’m quite able to get home by myself, Mr. Levall. I don’t want to take you out of your way.”
In truth, the idea of a carriage ride home sounded heavenly. She’d been awake since three in the morning and had worked all day with only a few short breaks to sit down and rest. Her lower back ached terribly and the bones of her worn-out corset had been digging into her for hours.
Yet, she didn’t want her boss to see where she lived. It would be a cross-over of home and work that would make her feel deeply uncomfortable. Every time he saw her working in the shop, surrounded by the luxury and beauty of the towering cakes and light-as-air pastries, he would think of her stepping out onto the rubbish-strewn street in front of the tiny, crumbling house that she called home.
“As much as I respect your independence, Miss Silver,” Tony said gently, opening the door for her, “I really must insist that I drop you at least near your accommodation. What kind of employer, or indeed what kind of man, would I be if I let you make your own way home?”
Biting her lip, Natalie hesitated. “If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble,” she said. “Just dropping me at the edge of my block will be fine.”
“As the lady wishes,” Tony said, ushering her out the door.
Natalie waited, feeling slightly awkward, as he locked up the doors. The evening was warm but had a slight breeze that kept the city from feeling stuffy. In this part of downtown, the streets were wide and lined with actual paved sidewalks rather than the sagging boardwalks around her neighbourhood.
The streetlamps had just been lit, their yellow light illuminating the carriages bearing rich folks to an evening of entertainment or a fancy dinner. People still strolled along the sidewalks, many seemingly intending to take a turn around the small park that lay opposite the bakery.
In just a few moments, Tony flagged down a horse-drawn cab, opening the door for Natalie to step inside. As soon as they were both seated, Tony rapped sharply on the roof. Outside, the driver cracked his whip and the horse broke into a smart trot.
Now rattling over the cobblestones at a brisk pace, Natalie tried to relax. It was a strange situation for sure, being escorted home by her boss. Despite her anxieties about him seeing the reality of her home, she had to admit that sitting in the darkness of the cab, watching the world fly past outside, was far preferable to making the long journey home on foot.
“Any plans for the rest of the day, Miss Silver?” Tony asked, only half of his face visible.
Natalie gave an almost incredulous chuckle. “My only intention this evening is to try to remember to take my shoes off before I fall into bed.”
Tony hummed thoughtfully. “It has been a rather long day, hasn’t it?” he said, then clicked his fingers. “Take the morning off tomorrow, Silver.”
He barrelled on before she could protest. “I’ll still pay you for the hours, but you’ve earned yourself some extra sleep and time for a decent breakfast.”
Entwining her fingers, Natalie stared at the lean baker’s muscles clearly developing in her hands. If she focused on something then maybe she wouldn’t embarrass herself with grateful tears.
“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Levall.” The words were nearly a whisper, but she cleared her throat of emotion and spoke again. “In truth, it’s been a busy few weeks and I’d be thankful for the extra sleep.”
“Of course,” Tony said, and what she could see of his expression seemed concerned. “I do hope you know what a valued member of my team you are. In less than six months you have proved yourself to be absolutely indispensable. Hiring you was the best decision I’ve made in years.”
Natalie could feel herself blushing and ducked her head to avoid eye contact. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Levall. I’ve just been grateful for the opportunity.”
They fell into slightly uncomfortable silence after that, with Natalie racking her brain for some form of suitable small talk. But she was exhausted, and her mind was filled with nothing but a vague fog. She barely managed to blurt out that the cab needed to stop, only realizing as she saw her street pass by.
“I don’t want to see you in the store before noon, Miss Silver,” Tony called after her as she stepped down from the horse-drawn cab. “Take the time to rest and come back to work fresh and ready to create more of those magical desserts of yours!”
She managed a small laugh and a wave, waiting until the cab had rumbled away before sagging into a weary slump. Walking slowly, she headed down the dim, winding roads that led to the row of cheap terraces that made up her street.
The house was quiet as she stepped inside, with only a candle under glass lighting the kitchen. Beside the candle was a bowl carefully draped in a cloth, on top of which lay a note written in her mother’s neat hand.
Don’t forget that you need to eat too, my darling. It’s nothing fancy, but there is plenty of love in every bite that I hope will nourish your heart as well as your body.
Smiling, she pressed a kiss to the sweet note and unwrapped the bowl. At the sight of her mother’s famous slow-cooked baked beans with molasses and salt pork, Natalie released a sigh of delight. The perfect comfort food after a long day of rushing around trying to please customers.
Sitting down at the table, the first thing Natalie did was unlace her boots and toss them aside. She groaned with relief as she circled her ankles and stretched her aching toes. Peeling off her knee-gartered stockings, she tucked up her dress and sat cross-legged on the chair like a child, tucking into her bowl of pork and beans.
Pausing between mouthfuls, she pulled a creased copy of the Boston Mail that Lizzie had no doubt pulled out of a trashcan toward her across the table, flicking it open at random for something to casually read while eating.
Although arriving home had lifted her flagging spirits somewhat, Natalie was still too tired to read the tiny print properly. So, she skimmed headlines and squinted at the text in more detail if something caught her eye. Mostly she just let herself enjoy the quiet of the house and the warm food filling up her empty belly.
There was a story about a cattle rustler out in Colorado. He’d been arrested after it was discovered that he was involved in a scheme to intimidate the owners of other ranches in the area, forcing them to sell land to him.
Another story was about the gold slowly starting to arrive from the Yukon.
“I guess it’s all right for some,” she muttered, beginning to fold up the paper.
As she tossed it toward the fire to be used the next morning, a sheet fell loose, landing corner first into her nearly empty bowl.
Snatching it out before the ink bled into her dinner, Natalie started to scrunch it into a ball, intending to send it to join the rest by the fire.
However, an odd feeling prompted her to pause and her eyes suddenly focused on a small heading on the back of the news sheet.
Looking closer, she saw it was an ad with the headline “Respected and Well-Mannered Kansas Sheriff in Search of a Kind and Dedicated Bride.”
She couldn’t help but conjure up an image of a handsome brooding lawman, his face obscured by the brim of his battered leather Stetson. Indulging in the daydream, she continued reading, curious to see if there was any more to the story of why a sheriff from Kansas was advertising for a bride in a Boston newspaper.
As it turned out, the ad had been placed by an official mail-order bride service which “finds the perfect match no matter the distance!” The respected and well-mannered sheriff of the headline was apparently from Dempsy, a large town about twenty miles from the state capital Topeka.
The ad was neat and concise.
A hard-working, honourable man searching for a woman willing to become a partner in life and in love. Although life as a sheriff’s wife will not always be easy, I can promise a life of reasonable comfort, a place to call home, and a welcoming community of townsfolk delighted to welcome a new resident. If any ladies are interested in learning more, please send a letter to the mail-order bride service addressed to Harland Cole, Dempsy, Kansas.
Despite herself, Natalie was drawn in, trying to build a picture of Harland Cole and his life. Why was he looking outside of his town for a match? How long had he been sheriff for? Why had he used the words “kind” and “dedicated” to describe the kind of woman he was seeking? Had he perhaps been unlucky in love previously?
She suddenly found it altogether very strange how she, sitting in her dimly lit kitchen in Boston, was now in possession of the name and romantic hopes of a sheriff in Kansas. Yet he had no idea that she existed. It felt almost like she was spying on him without his knowledge, a feeling that prompted her to set the paper down.
I should write to him.
The thought emerged out of nowhere, blossoming into a vague plan before she could catch it. A marriage to a well-respected man with a steady job and his own home could be the start of a new life for her and her family.
Maybe she could open a bakery in Dempsy! She would send most of the money back to her mother and sisters until they could join her. They’d never need to worry about poverty again.
“Slow down there, Nat,” she muttered to herself, hurrying to her feet and setting her empty bowl to soak in the sink. “That’s wishful thinking, not a solid life plan.”
Besides, things would soon get better here in Boston. Her mother and Millie and Lizzie were here; she had a good job that she loved at the bakery. What possible benefit could there be writing to this Harland Cole?
Pushing the idea out of her head, she carried the candle through to the cramped bedroom-come-sewing room that she shared with Millie. As quietly as possible, she stripped off her dress, her chemise, corset, and undergarments. Barely awake, she pulled on her nightdress and then crawled into bed beside an already sleeping Millie.
The last thing she did was blow out the candle, the scent of its drifting smoke prompting her to wonder if the rosemary bread would taste even better if they baked it over a particular type of wood…
Sleep pulled her under and soon Natalie was dreaming of cakes and breads and pastries. Strangely, she handed every beautiful treat joyfully to a dark, brooding sheriff with a shirt made of newsprint.