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Book 1 of the Wild Rose series.
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Ruth Axtell Morren now writes under Ruth Axtell.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Haven's End, June 1873
The door to Mr. Watson's general store banged shut behind Geneva. She paused a few seconds at the door to give herself time to adjust to the dim light. The sweeter smells of spices, tobacco and new leather mingled with the more pungent odors of pickling barrels, hard cheeses and salted fish.
Three women leaned over one end of the long counter that ran the width of the store, examining lengths of ribbon and lace. At the sight of Geneva, they drew in their ranks, as if afraid of contagion in such close quarters. Used to such a reaction to her presence, Geneva ignored them and strode to the opposite end of the counter. She would state her business and leave as quickly as she had come.
Leaning her hands against the counter, she drummed her fingers lightly against the scarred, wooden surface.
"What can I do for you, Geneva?" Mr. Watson approached her with a smile.
Geneva didn't smile back, lest she give the storekeeper any encouragement. Suspicious of the teasing look in his eyes, she deemed it best to keep him at a distance.
"I'll take two dozen long nails."
Mr. Watson slapped the counter with his palms. "Two dozen nails it'll be."
When he turned his back to her to rummage in the keg, Geneva could hear Mrs. Bidwell's voice at the other end of the store.
"I hear tell he begged and pleaded with his intended to forgive him."
Geneva glanced toward the speaker, whose bonnet nod-ded up and down, giving the impression she had been in the very room at the time, an eyewitness to the scene she was de-scribing. Her listeners seemed to think so, too, the way they drank in her words.
"Poor Miss Arabella Harding must have been broken-hearted." Young Annie Chase, who was engaged to one of Mrs. Bidwell's boys, expressed this opinion. "Such a pretty woman. So ladylike."
At the name, Geneva's fingers stopped their drumbeat against the countertop. She'd never forget that name. Nor the way Captain Caleb had looked at its owner when he'd intro-duced her, as if she were an angel.
Annie was soft-spoken, and everything she said came out sounding tenderhearted. "I don't know what I'd do if my Amos ever did anything dishonest like Captain Caleb." She hugged herself. "But Amos would never dishonor his family name in such a despicable manner."
"Of course not! Amos would never do any such thing," his mother answered, aghast at the mere notion. "He hasn't been brought up that way."
What gave these biddies the right to pass judgment on Captain Caleb? She bit her lip, holding in her anger, when Mr. Watson set the nails down in front of her.
"These long enough?"
She glared at him, as if he, too, were guilty of blasphem-ing her sacred memory of the captain.
She shook her head, her reasons for being in his store pushed aside by the more pressing matter of Captain Caleb's reputation.
carried the clearest. Geneva knew she prided herself on her opinions, and she gave full voice to them now. "Embezzling company money! Didn't he think he was going to get caught? He was Phelps' heir. Had everything he could wish for. If anyone was ever born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was Caleb Phelps III. To go and steal from his own father! Why, it's wicked!"
The thudding between Geneva's temples drowned out their voices. She was sick and tired of hearing the captain gossiped about. It seemed she couldn't come into the village anymore without hearing the accusations hashed and rehashed. Didn't people have anything else to talk about?
"He had to pay for that big, fancy cottage on the Point," Mrs. Webb reminded the others. "The old farmhouse wasn't good enough for him. Oh, no. He had to tear that down. He probably ran short of money to pay for it all."
Mr. Watson looked toward the women and gave a chuckle. "I hear Phelps Senior's a mite close to the bark. I figure he kept young Phelps on a tight leash with his salary. The young captain probably got impatient, wantin' to give that pretty Miss Harding all that money can buy. After all, he had to fight off her other suitors. She was the belle of Boston, I hear."
Geneva told herself to turn around and march out of the store, but her feet seemed stuck to the floor with spruce gum.
Mrs. Webb tapped the counter with a large knuckled fore-finger. "That doesn't excuse what he did. If he was short on money, he should have gone straight to his father. What did he do with all the money he earned as a captain? Look at our own captains—they live well on their shares the rest of their lives."
Mrs. Bidwell sniffed. "They don't squander their wealth on extravagant living. I saw the wagon-loads on their way to the Point to build that grand summer cottage of his. Cap'n Caleb only bought the best for his place. No hand-split shakes for his roof. Only slate all the way from Wales. And the glass! Enough panes you'd think he was going to live in a greenhouse. Mahogany shipped in from Santo Domingo. And that's not sayin' a thing about his residence in Boston. He overreached himself, all right!"
"I hear he up and left everything in Boston." Mrs. Webb snapped her fingers. "Just like that. If anything's proof of guilt, it's running. Now he's buried himself up in that mausoleum. Thinkin' he can hide himself here." She sniffed. "We're hon-est, God-fearing folk. He'll find that out in short order."
Mr. Watson nodded. "What I always say is, money's the root of all evil." He wrapped up the nails in brown paper. "That'll be twelve cents," he told Geneva, then turned back to the ladies. "You know how rich folks think they can be above the law, but things have a way of catchin'up with 'em." He gave a final nod of emphasis.
Geneva slapped her coins onto the counter. Mrs. Bidwell opened her mouth to speak. Before she could draw breath, Geneva turned to the three women, hands on her hips, her back straight, her eyes narrowed.
"Poor folks seem to think they're above mindin' their own business. Guess they've never heard gossipin's a sin just like stealin'. Nor 'bout hittin'a man when he's down, even though he's never done nothing to them. I seem to recall just a while back, nothing but praise for Cap'n Caleb. Now he's tarred and feathered with your tongues when no one knows what really went on down there in Boston. Why, he's never treated any one of us but kindly and fairly, even some that don't deserve it!"
She glared at each one in turn. They stared at her, their jaws slack. These women probably hadn't ever heard her say so much all of a piece. Deciding the sooner she was away from these old harpies the better, she turned back to Mr. Watson.
Stifling the urge to tell him to wipe the smirk off his face, she picked up the parcel of nails. "Good day to you!"
She shoved away from the counter. It was then she noticed the silence. Not one of the women had said a word, not even the outspoken Mrs. Bidwell. In fact, they weren't even looking at her. Everyone was staring at the door.
Slowly Geneva turned. There, his dark form silhouetted against the sunshine of the open doorway, stood Caleb Phelps. She couldn't make out his features, but she could feel his gaze on her, as intense as it had been that day last summer.
Hugging the parcel to her chest as if it might conceal the workings of her heart, Geneva took a step forward, then another. The pounding of her heart was so loud, he must surely see the bib of her overalls flapping up and down clear across the store. She kept on marching until she reached the captain's looming figure. She'd forgotten how tall he was, a good head above her, and she was as tall as several men of her acquaintance.
He moved aside just as she approached and tipped his hat to her as she passed. Touching her own hat briefly at the brim, she lunged through the doorway into the sunshine. She took the steps down two at a time, her boots clattering on the rickety wooden planks.
Why was it that every time she ran into the captain, she felt compelled to flee afterward, as if she were guilty of some-thing?
Caleb Phelps turned toward the banging screen door, the only sound in the small village store. He watched the long strides of the overalled figure taking her rapidly away from the store and toward the wharf.
Only her voice gave her away as a woman.
In the couple of weeks he'd been back to Haven's End, he'd felt a distinct chill every time he was in the presence of the villagers.
Funny how quickly bad news traveled. He had thought he'd become inured to suspicious looks—or worse, those self-righteous, smug expressions that said more clearly than words, Well, he got his just deserts! He'd certainly endured enough of them in Boston.
Somehow he'd thought this little village where he was scarcely known, but where he'd always had pleasant if su-perficial dealings with the residents, would welcome him dif-ferently.
The woman's harsh words to the villagers rang in his ears. She'd expressed more clearly than he ever could ex-actly what he'd felt.
Strange, how belief in one's integrity could come from the strangest quarters. What did she know of him or of events in Boston?
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Book Description Steeple Hill, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0373786093
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