It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Bethany House (June 1, 2010)
***Special thanks to Karen Witemeyer for sending me a review copy.***
Karen Witemeyer holds a master’s degree in psychology from Abilene Christian University and is a member of ACFW, RWA, and the Texas Coalition of Authors. She has published fiction in Focus on the Family’s children’s magazine, and has written several articles for online publications and anthologies. Tailor-Made Bride is her first novel. Karen lives in Abilene, Texas, with her husband and three children.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Bethany House (June 1, 2010)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
San Antonio, Texas—March 1881
“Red? Have you no shame, Auntie Vic? You can’t be buried in a scarlet gown.”
“It’s cerise, Nan.”
Hannah Richards bit back a laugh as Victoria Ashmont effectively put her nephew’s wife in her place with three little words. Trying hard to appear as if she wasn’t listening to her client’s conversation, Hannah pulled the last pin from between her lips and slid it into the hem of the controversial fabric.
“Must you flout convention to the very end?” Nan’s whine heightened to a near screech as she stomped toward the door. A delicate sniff followed by a tiny hiccup foreshadowed the coming of tears. “Sherman and I will be the ones to pay the price. You’ll make us a laughingstock among our friends. But then, you’ve never cared for anyone except yourself, have you?”
Miss Victoria pivoted with impressive speed, the cane she used for balance nearly clobbering Hannah in the head as she spun.
“You may have my nephew wrapped around your little finger, but don’t think you can manipulate me with your theatrics.” Like an angry goddess from the Greek myths, Victoria Ashmont held her chin at a regal angle and pointed her aged hand toward the woman who dared challenge her. Hannah almost expected a lightning bolt to shoot from her finger to disintegrate Nan where she stood.
“You’ve been circling like a vulture since the day Dr. Bowman declared my heart to be failing, taking over the running of my household and plotting how to spend Sherman’s inheritance. Well, you won’t be controlling me, missy. I’ll wear what I choose, when I choose, whether or not you approve. And if your friends have nothing better to do at a funeral than snicker about your great aunt’s attire, perhaps you’d do well to find some companions with a little more depth of character.”
Nan’s affronted gasp echoed through the room like the crack of a mule skinner’s whip.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Miss Victoria called out as her niece yanked open the bedchamber door. “You’ll have my money to console you. I’m sure you’ll recover from any embarrassment I cause in the blink of an eye.”
The door slammed shut, and the resulting bang appeared to knock the starch right out of Miss Victoria. She wobbled, and Hannah lurched to her feet to steady the elderly lady.
“Here, ma’am. Why don’t you rest for a minute?” Hannah gripped her client’s arm and led her to the fainting couch at the foot of the large four-poster bed that dominated the room. “Would you like me to ring for some tea?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, girl. I’m not so infirm that a verbal skirmish leaves me in want of fortification. I just need to catch my breath.”
Hannah nodded, not about to argue. She gathered her sewing box instead, collecting her shears, pins, and needle case from where they lay upon the thick tapestry carpet.
She had sewn for Miss Victoria for the last eighteen months, and it disturbed her to see the woman reduced to tremors and pallor so easily. The eccentric spinster never shied from a fight and always kept her razor-sharp tongue at the ready.
Hannah had felt the lash of that tongue herself on several occasions, but she’d developed a thick skin over the years. A woman making her own way in the world had to toughen up quickly or get squashed. Perhaps that was why she respected Victoria Ashmont enough to brave her scathing comments time after time. The woman had been living life on her own terms for years and had done well for herself in the process. True, she’d had money and the power of the Ashmont name to lend her support, but from all public reports—and a few overheard conversations—it was clear Victoria Ashmont’s fortune had steadily grown during her tenure as head of the family, not dwindled, which was more than many men could say. Hannah liked to think that, given half a chance, she’d be able to duplicate the woman’s success. At least to a modest degree.
“How long have you worked for Mrs. Granbury, Miss Richards?”
Hannah jumped at the barked question and scurried back to Miss Victoria’s side, her sewing box tucked under her arm. “Nearly two years, ma’am.”
“Hmmph.” The woman’s cane rapped three staccato beats against the leg of the couch before she continued. “I nagged that woman for years to hire some girls with gumption. I was pleased when she finally took my advice. Your predecessors failed to last more than a month or two with me. Either I didn’t approve of their workmanship, or they couldn’t stand up to my plain speaking. It’s a dratted nuisance having to explain my preferences over and over to new girls every time I need something made up. I’ve not missed that chore.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hannah’s forehead scrunched. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Victoria Ashmont might have just paid her a compliment.
“Have you ever thought of opening your own shop?”
Hannah’s gaze flew to her client’s face. Miss Victoria’s slate gray eyes assessed her, probing, drilling into her core, as if she meant to rip the truth from her with or without her consent.
Ducking away from the penetrating stare, Hannah fiddled with the sewing box. “Mrs. Granbury has been good to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to set some of my earnings aside. It will be several years yet, but one day I do hope to set up my own establishment.”
“Good. Now help me get out of this dress.”
Dizzy from the abrupt starts, stops, and turns of the strange conversation, Hannah kept her mouth closed and assisted Miss Victoria. She unfastened the brightly colored silk, careful not to snag the pins on either the delicate material of the gown or on Miss Victoria’s stockings. Once the dress had been safely removed, she set it aside and helped the woman don a loose-fitting wrapper.
“I’m anxious to have these details put in order,” Miss Victoria said as she took a seat at the ladies’ writing desk along the east wall. “I will pay you a bonus if you will stay here and finish the garment for me before you leave. You may use the chair in the corner.” She gestured toward a small upholstered rocker that sat angled toward the desk.
Hannah’s throat constricted. Her mind scrambled for a polite refusal, yet she found no excuse valid enough to withstand Miss Victoria’s scrutiny. Left with no choice, she swallowed her misgivings and forced the appropriate reply past her lips.
“As you wish.”
Masking her disappointment, Hannah set her box of supplies on the floor near the chair Miss Victoria had indicated and turned to fetch the dress.
She disliked sewing in front of clients. Though her tiny boardinghouse room was dim and lacked the comforts afforded in Miss Victoria’s mansion, the solitude saved her from suffering endless questions and suggestions while she worked.
Hannah drew in a deep breath. I might as well make the best of it. No use dwelling on what couldn’t be changed. It was just a hem and few darts to compensate for her client’s recent weight loss. She could finish the task in less than an hour.
Miss Victoria proved gracious. She busied herself with papers of some kind at her desk and didn’t interfere with Hannah’s work. She did keep up a healthy stream of chatter, though.
“You probably think me morbid for finalizing all my funeral details in advance.” Miss Victoria lifted the lid of a small silver case and extracted a pair of eyeglasses. She wedged them onto her nose and began leafing through a stack of documents in a large oak box.
Hannah turned back to her stitching. “Not morbid, ma’am. Just . . . efficient.”
“Hmmph. Truth is, I know I’m dying, and I’d rather go out in a memorable fashion than slip away quietly, never to be thought of again.”
“I’m sure your nephew will remember you.” Hannah glanced up as she twisted the dress to allow her better access to the next section of hem.
“Sherman? Bah! That boy would forget his own name if given half a chance.” Miss Victoria pulled a document out of the box. She set it in front of her, then dragged her inkstand close and unscrewed the cap. “I’ve got half a mind to donate my estate to charity instead of letting it sift through my nephew’s fingers. He and that flighty wife of his will surely do nothing of value with it.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “But they are family, after all, and I suppose I’ll no longer care about how the money is spent after I’m gone.”
Hannah poked her needle up and back through the red silk in rapid succession, focused on making each stitch even and straight. It wasn’t her place to offer advice, but it burned on her tongue nonetheless. Any church or charitable organization in the city could do a great amount of good with even a fraction of the Ashmont estate. Miss Victoria could make several small donations without her nephew ever knowing the difference. Hannah pressed her lips together and continued weaving her needle in and out, keeping her unsolicited opinion to herself.
She was relieved when a soft tapping at the door saved her from having to come up with an appropriate response.
A young maid entered and bobbed a curtsy. “The post has arrived, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Millie.” Miss Victoria accepted the envelope. “You may go.”
The sound of paper ripping echoed in the quiet room as Miss Victoria slid her letter opener through the upper edge of the flap.
“Well, I must give the gentleman credit for persistence,” the older woman murmured. “This is the third letter he’s sent in two months.”
Hannah turned the dress again and bent her head a little closer to her task, hoping to escape Miss Victoria’s notice. It was not to be. The older woman’s voice only grew louder and more pointed as she continued.
“He wants to buy one of my railroad properties.”
Hannah made the mistake of looking up. Miss Victoria’s eyes, magnified by the lenses she wore, demanded a response. Yet how did a working-class seamstress participate in a conversation of a personal nature with one so above her station? She didn’t want to offend by appearing uninterested. However, showing too keen an interest might come across as presumptuous. Hannah floundered to find a suitably innocuous response and finally settled on, “Oh?”
It seemed to be enough, and Miss Victoria turned back to her correspondence as she continued her ramblings.
“When the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway out of Galveston started up construction again last year, I invested in a handful of properties along the proposed route, in towns that were already established. I’ve made a tidy profit on most, but for some reason, I find myself reluctant to part with this one.”
An expectant pause hung in the air. Keeping her eyes on her work, Hannah voiced the first thought that came to mind.
“Does the gentleman not make a fair offer?”
“No, Mr. Tucker proposes a respectable price.” Miss Victoria tapped the handle of the letter opener against the desktop in a rhythmic pattern, then seemed to become aware of what she was doing and set it aside. “Perhaps I am reticent because I do not know the man personally. He is in good standing with the bank in Coventry and by all accounts is respected in the community, yet in the past I’ve made my decision to sell after meeting with the buyer in person. Unfortunately, my health precludes that now.”
“Coventry?” Hannah seized upon the less personal topic. “I’m not familiar with that town.”
“That’s because it’s about two hundred miles north of here—and it is quite small. The surveyors tell me it’s in a pretty little spot along the North Bosque River. I had hoped to visit, but it looks as if I won’t be afforded that opportunity.”
Hannah tied off her thread and snipped the tail. She reached for her spool and unwound another long section, thankful that the discussion had finally moved in a more neutral direction. She clipped the end of the thread and held the needle up to gauge the position of the eye.
“What do you think, Miss Richards? Should I sell it to him?”
The needle slipped out of her hand.
“You’re asking me?”
“Is there another Miss Richards in the room? Of course I’m asking you.” She clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Goodness, girl. I’ve always thought you to be an intelligent sort. Have I been wrong all this time?”
That rankled. Hannah sat a little straighter and lifted her chin. “No, ma’am.”
“Good.” Miss Victoria slapped her palm against the desk. “Now, tell me what you think.”
If the woman was determined to have her speak her mind, Hannah would oblige. This was the last project she’d ever sew for the woman anyway. It couldn’t hurt. The only problem was, she’d worked so hard not to form an opinion during this exchange, that now that she was asked for one, she had none to give. Trying not to let the silence rush her into saying something that would indeed prove her lacking in intellect, she scrambled to gather her thoughts while she searched for the dropped needle.
“It seems to me,” she said, uncovering the needle along with a speck of insight, “you need to decide if you would rather have the property go to a man you know only by reputation or to the nephew you know through experience.” Hannah lifted her gaze to meet Miss Victoria’s and held firm, not allowing the woman’s critical stare to cow her. “Which scenario gives you the greatest likelihood of leaving behind the legacy you desire?”
Victoria Ashmont considered her for several moments, her eyes piercing Hannah and bringing to mind the staring contests the school boys used to challenge her to when she was still in braids. The memory triggered her competitive nature, and a stubborn determination to win rose within her.
At last, Miss Victoria nodded and turned away. “Thank you, Miss Richards. I think I have my answer.”
Exultation flashed through her for a brief second at her victory, but self-recrimination soon followed. This wasn’t a schoolyard game. It was an aging woman’s search to create meaning in her death.
“Forgive my boldness, ma’am.”
Her client turned back and wagged a bony finger at Hannah. “Boldness is exactly what you need to run your own business, girl. Boldness, skill, and a lot of hard work. When you get that shop of yours, hardships are sure to find their way to your doorstep. Confidence is the only way to combat them—confidence in yourself and in the God who equips you to overcome. Never forget that.”
Feeling chastised and oddly encouraged at the same time, Hannah threaded her needle and returned to work. The scratching of pen against paper replaced the chatter of Miss Victoria’s voice as the woman gave her full attention to the documents spread across her desk. Time passed swiftly, and soon the alterations were complete.
After trying the gown on a second time to assure a proper fit and examining every seam for quality and durability, as was her custom, Victoria Ashmont ushered Hannah down to the front hall.
“My man will see you home, Miss Richards.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Hannah collected her bonnet from the butler and tied the ribbons beneath her chin.
“I will settle my account with Mrs. Granbury by the end of the week, but here is the bonus I promised you.” She held out a plain white envelope.
Hannah accepted it and placed it carefully in her reticule. She dipped her head and made a quick curtsy. “Thank you. I have enjoyed the privilege of working for you, ma’am, and I pray that your health improves so that I might do so again.”
A strange light came into Miss Victoria’s eyes, a secretive gleam, as if she could see into the future. “You have better things to do than make outlandish red dresses for old women, Miss Richards. Don’t waste your energy worrying over my health. I’ll go when it’s my time and not a moment before.”
Hannah smiled as she stepped out the door, sure that not even the angels could drag Miss Victoria away until she was ready to go. Yet underneath the woman’s tough exterior beat a kind heart. Although Hannah didn’t fully understand how kind until she arrived home and opened her bonus envelope.
Instead of the two or three greenbacks she had assumed were tucked inside, she found a gift that stole her breath and her balance. She slumped against the boardinghouse wall and slid down its blue-papered length into a trembling heap on the floor. She blinked several times, but the writing on the paper didn’t change, only blurred as tears welled and distorted her vision.
She held in her hand the deed to her new dress shop in Coventry, Texas.
Coventry, Texas—September 1881
“J.T.! J.T.! I got a customer for ya.” Tom Packard lumbered down the street with his distinctive uneven gait, waving his arm in the air.
Jericho “J.T.” Tucker stepped out of the livery’s office with a sigh and waited for his right-hand man to jog past the blacksmith and bootmaker shops. He’d lost count of how many times he’d reminded Tom not to yell out his business for everyone to hear, but social niceties tended to slip the boy’s notice when he got excited.
It wasn’t his fault, though. At eighteen, Tom had the body of a man, but his mind hadn’t developed quite as far. He couldn’t read a lick and could barely pen his own name, but he had a gentle way with horses, so J.T. let him hang around the stable and paid him to help out with the chores. In gratitude, the boy did everything in his power to prove himself worthy, including trying to drum up clientele from among the railroad passengers who unloaded at the station a mile south of town. After weeks without so much as a nibble, it seemed the kid had finally managed to hook himself a fish.
J.T. leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and slid a toothpick out of his shirt pocket. He clamped the wooden sliver between his teeth and kept his face void of expression save for a single raised brow as Tom stumbled to a halt in front of him. The kid grasped his knees and gulped air for a moment, then unfolded to his full height, which was nearly as tall as his employer. His cheeks, flushed from his exertions, darkened further when he met J.T.’s eye.
“I done forgot about the yelling again, huh? Sorry.” Tom slumped, his chin bending toward his chest.
J.T. gripped the kid’s shoulder, straightened him up, and slapped him on the back. “You’ll remember next time. Now, what’s this about a customer?”
Tom brightened in an instant. “I gots us a good one. She’s right purty and has more boxes and gewgaws than I ever did see. I ’spect there’s enough to fill up the General.”
“The General, huh?” J.T. rubbed his jaw and used the motion to cover his grin.
Tom had names for all the wagons. Fancy Pants was the fringed surrey J.T. kept on hand for family outings or courting couples; the buggy’s name was Doc after the man who rented it out most frequently; the buckboard was just plain Buck; and his freight wagon was affectionately dubbed The General. The kid’s monikers inspired a heap of good-natured ribbing amongst the men who gathered at the livery to swap stories and escape their womenfolk, but over time the names stuck. Just last week, Alistair Smythe plopped down a silver dollar and demanded he be allowed to take Fancy Pants out for a drive. Hearing the pretentious bank clerk use Tom’s nickname for the surrey left the fellas guffawing for days.
J.T. thrust the memory from his mind and crossed his arms over his chest, using his tongue to shift the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “The buckboard is easier to get to. I reckon it’d do the job just as well.”
“I dunno.” Tom mimicked J.T.’s posture, crossing his own arms and leaning against the livery wall. “She said her stuff was mighty heavy and she’d pay extra to have it unloaded at her shop.”
“Shop?” J.T.’s good humor shriveled. His arms fell to his sides as his gaze slid past Tom to the vacant building across the street. The only unoccupied shop in Coventry stood adjacent to Louisa James’s laundry—the shop he’d tried, and failed, to purchase. J.T.’s jaw clenched so tight the toothpick started to splinter. Forcing himself to relax, he straightened away from the doorpost.
“I think she’s a dressmaker,” Tom said. “There were a bunch of them dummies with no heads or arms with her on the platform. Looked right peculiar, them all standin’ around her like they’s gonna start a quiltin’ bee or something.” The kid chuckled at his own joke, but J.T. didn’t join in his amusement.
A dressmaker? A woman who made her living by exploiting the vanity of her customers? That’s who was moving into his shop?
A sick sensation oozed like molasses through his gut as memories clawed over the wall he’d erected to keep them contained.
“So we gonna get the General, J.T.?”
Tom’s question jerked him back to the present and allowed him to stuff the unpleasant thoughts back down where they belonged. He loosened his fingers from the fist he didn’t remember making and adjusted his hat to sit lower on his forehead, covering his eyes. It wouldn’t do for the kid to see the anger that surely lurked there. He’d probably go and make some fool assumption that he’d done something wrong. Or worse, he’d ask questions J.T. didn’t want to answer.
He cleared his throat and clasped the kid’s shoulder. “If you think we need the freight wagon, then we’ll get the freight wagon. Why don’t you harness up the grays then come help me wrangle the General?”
“Yes, sir!” Tom bounded off to the corral to gather the horses, his chest so inflated with pride J.T. was amazed he could see where he was going.
Ducking back inside the livery, J.T. closed up his office and strode past the stalls to the oversized double doors that opened his wagon shed up to the street. He grasped the handle of the first and rolled it backward, using his body weight as leverage. As his muscles strained against the heavy wooden door, his mind struggled to control his rising frustration.
He’d finally accepted the fact that the owner of the shop across the street refused to sell to him. J.T. believed in Providence, that the Lord would direct his steps. He didn’t like it, but he’d worked his way to peace with the decision. Until a few minutes ago. The idea that God would allow it to go to a dressmaker really stuck in his craw.
It wasn’t as if he wanted the shop for selfish reasons. He saw it as a chance to help out a widow and her orphans. Isn’t that what the Bible defined as “pure religion”? What could be nobler than that? Louisa James supported three kids with her laundry business and barely eked out an existence. The building she worked in was crumbling around her ears even though the majority of her income went to pay the rent. He’d planned to buy the adjacent shop and rent it to her at half the price she was currently paying in exchange for storing some of his tack in the large back room.
J.T. squinted against the afternoon sunlight that streamed into the dim stable and strode to the opposite side of the entrance, his indignation growing with every step. Ignoring the handle, he slammed his shoulder into the second door and ground his teeth as he dug his boots into the packed dirt floor, forcing the wood to yield to his will.
How could a bunch of fripperies and ruffles do more to serve the community than a new roof for a family in need? Most of the women in and around Coventry sewed their own clothes, and those that didn’t bought ready-made duds through the dry-goods store or mail order. Sensible clothes, durable clothes, not fashion-plate items that stroked their vanity or elicited covetous desires in their hearts for things they couldn’t afford. A dressmaker had no place in Coventry.
This can’t be God’s will. The world and its schemers had brought her to town, not God.
Horse hooves thudded and harness jangled as Tom led the grays toward the front of the livery.
J.T. blew out a breath and rubbed a hand along his jaw. No matter what had brought her to Coventry, the dressmaker was still a woman, and his father had drummed into him the truth that all women were to be treated with courtesy and respect. So he’d smile and doff his hat and make polite conversation. Shoot, he’d even lug her heavy junk around for her and unload all her falderal. But once she was out of his wagon, he’d have nothing more to do with her.
Hannah sat atop one of her five trunks, waiting for young Tom to return. Most of the other passengers had left the depot already, making their way on foot or in wagons with family members who’d come to meet them. Hannah wasn’t about to let her belongings out of her sight, though—or trust them to a porter she didn’t know. So she waited.
Thanks to Victoria Ashmont’s generosity, she’d been able to use the money she’d saved for a shop to buy fabric and supplies. Not knowing what would be available in the small town of Coventry, she brought everything she needed with her. Including her prized possession—a Singer Improved Family Model 15 treadle machine with five-drawer walnut cabinet and extension leaf. The monster weighed nearly as much as the locomotive that brought her here, but it was a thing of beauty, and she intended to make certain it arrived at the shop without incident.
Her toes tapped against the wooden platform. Only a mile of dusty road stood between her and her dream. Yet the final minutes of waiting felt longer than the hours, even years, that preceded them. Could she really run her own business, or would Miss Ashmont’s belief in her prove misplaced? A tingle of apprehension tiptoed over Hannah’s spine. What if the women of Coventry had no need of a dressmaker? What if they didn’t like her designs? What if . . .
Hannah surged to her feet and began to pace. Miss Ashmont had directed her to be bold. Bold and self-confident. Oh, and confident in God. Hannah paused. Her gaze slid to the bushy hills rising around her like ocean swells. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” The psalm seeped into her soul, bringing a measure of assurance with it. God had led her here. He would provide.
She resumed her pacing, anticipation building as fear receded. On her sixth lap around her mound of luggage, the creak of wagon wheels brought her to a halt.
A conveyance drew near, and Hannah’s pulse vaulted into a new pace. Young Tom wasn’t driving. Another man with a worn brown felt hat pulled low over his eyes sat on the bench. It must be that J.T. person Tom had rambled on about. Well, it didn’t matter who was driving, as long as he had the strength to maneuver her sewing machine without dropping it.
A figure in the back of the wagon waved a cheerful greeting, and the movement caught Hannah’s eye. She waved back, glad to see Tom had returned as well. Two men working together would have a much easier time of it.
The liveryman pulled the horses to a halt and set the brake. Masculine grace exuded from him as he climbed down and made his way to the platform. His long stride projected confidence, a vivid contrast to Tom’s childish gamboling behind him. Judging by the breadth of his shoulders and the way the blue cotton of his shirt stretched across the expanse of his chest and arms, this man would have no trouble moving her sewing cabinet.
Tom dashed ahead of the newcomer and swiped the gray slouch hat from his head. Tufts of his dark blond hair stuck out at odd angles, but his eyes sparkled with warmth. “I got the General, ma’am. We’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.” Not wasting a minute, he slapped his hat back on and moved past her.
Hannah’s gaze roamed to the man waiting a few steps away. He didn’t look much like a general. No military uniform. Instead he sported scuffed boots and denims that were wearing thin at the knees. The tip of a toothpick protruded from his lips, wiggling a little as he gnawed on it. Perhaps General was a nickname of sorts. He hadn’t spoken a word, yet there was something about his carriage and posture that gave him an air of authority.
She straightened her shoulders in response and closed the distance between them. Still giddy about starting up her shop, she couldn’t resist the urge to tease the stoic man who held himself apart.
“Thank you for assisting me today, General.” She smiled up at him as she drew near, finally able to see more than just his jaw. He had lovely amber eyes, although they were a bit cold. “Should I salute or something?”
His right brow arced upward. Then a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth told her he’d caught on.
“I’m afraid I’m a civilian through and through, ma’am.” He tilted his head in the direction of the wagon. “That’s the General. Tom likes to name things.”
Hannah gave a little laugh. “I see. Well, I’m glad to have you both lending me a hand. I’m Hannah Richards.”
The man tweaked the brim of his hat. “J.T. Tucker.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tucker.”
He dipped his chin in a small nod. Not a very demonstrative fellow. Nor very talkative.
“Lay those things down, Tom,” he called out as he stepped away. “We don’t want them to tip over the side if we hit a rut.”
“Oh. Wait just a minute, please.” There was no telling what foul things had been carted around in that wagon bed before today. It didn’t matter so much for her trunks and sewing cabinet, but the linen covering her mannequins would be easily soiled.
“I have an old quilt that I wrapped around them in the railroad freight car. Let me fetch it.”
Hannah sensed more than heard Mr. Tucker’s sigh as she hurried to collect the quilt from the trunk she had been sitting on. Well, he could sigh all he liked. Her display dummies were going to be covered. She had one chance to make a first impression on the ladies of Coventry, and she vowed it would be a pristine one.
Making a point not to look at the liveryman as she scurried by, Hannah clutched the quilt to her chest and headed for the wagon. She draped it over the side, then climbed the spokes and hopped into the back, just as she had done as a child. Then she laid out the quilt along the back wall and gently piled the six dummies horizontally atop it, alternating the placement of the tripod pedestals to allow them to fit together in a more compact fashion. As she flipped the remaining fabric of the quilt over the pile, a loud thud sounded from behind, and the wagon jostled her. She gasped and teetered to the side. Glancing over her shoulder, she caught sight of Mr. Tucker as he shoved the first of her trunks into the wagon bed, its iron bottom scraping against the wooden floor.
The man could have warned her of his presence instead of scaring the wits out of her like that. But taking him to task would only make her look like a shrew, so she ignored him. When Tom arrived with the second trunk, she was ready. After he set it down, she moved to the end of the wagon.
“Would you help me down, please?”
He grinned up at her. “Sure thing.”
Hannah set her hands on his shoulders as he clasped her waist and lifted her down. A tiny voice of regret chided her for not asking the favor of the rugged Mr. Tucker, but she squelched it. Tom was a safer choice. Besides, his affable manner put her at ease—unlike his companion, who from one minute to the next alternated between sparking her interest and her ire.
She bit back her admonishments to take care as the men hefted her sewing machine. Thankfully, they managed to accomplish the task without her guidance. With the large cabinet secured in the wagon bed, it didn’t take long for them to load the rest of her belongings. Once they finished, Tom handed her up to the bench seat, then scrambled into the back, leaving her alone with Mr. Tucker.
A cool autumn breeze caressed her cheeks and tugged lightly on her bonnet as the wagon rolled forward. She smoothed her skirts, not sure what to say to the reticent man beside her. However, he surprised her by starting the conversation on his own.
“What made you choose Coventry, Miss Richards?”
She twisted on the seat to look at him, but his eyes remained focused on the road.
“I guess you could say it chose me.”
“It was really a most extraordinary sequence of events. I do not doubt that the Lord’s Providence brought me here.”
That got a reaction. His chin swiveled toward her, and beneath his hat, his intense gaze speared her for a handful of seconds before he blinked and turned away.
She swallowed the moisture that had accumulated under her tongue as he stared at her, then continued.
“Two years ago, I was hired by Mrs. Granbury of San Antonio to sew for her most particular clientele. One of these clients was an elderly spinster with a reputation for being impossible to work with. Well, I needed the job too badly to allow her to scare me away and was too stubborn to let her get the best of me, so I stuck it out and eventually the two of us found a way to coexist and even respect each other.
“Before she died, she called me in to make a final gown for her, and we fell to talking about her legacy. She had invested in several railroad properties, and had only one left that had not sold. In an act of generosity that I still find hard to believe, she gave me the deed as a gift, knowing that I had always dreamed of opening my own shop.”
“What kept her from selling it before then?” His deep voice rumbled with something more pointed than simple curiosity.
A prickle of unease wiggled down Hannah’s neck, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint the cause.
“She told me that she preferred to meet the buyers in person, to assess their character before selling off her properties. Unfortunately, her health had begun to decline, and she was unable to travel. There had been a gentleman of good reputation from this area who made an offer several times. A Mr. Tuck…”
A hard lump of dread formed in the back of Hannah’s throat.
“Oh dear. Don’t tell me you’re that Mr. Tucker?”