Tending Each Other’s Scars (Preview)

Chapter One

“Well, Emily, my dear, I’m sure you must realize why I asked Matron to bring you to the office today.”

“Yes, Mrs. Rankin. I could guess, anyway.”

In common with every other resident of the New Day Orphans’ Home in Iverson, Iowa, Emily Dalton, seated with hands in lap, clunky shoes flat on the floor, and almost at attention, was wearing the standard uniform assigned by those in authority. This meant a plain black shirtwaist and limp black skirt, topped by a white apron and white collar. She and her fellow orphans might have been in training for the sisterhood, simply by the way they were dressed.

At her desk, Headmistress Beatrice Rankin sorted through various papers, gathering information to remind her of the girl’s status, while a downcast Emily waited with resignation for a final verdict on her fate.

Why question any detail of any decision made by adults when it concerned her future? She was powerless to fight for her own rights.

In one way, the two years of her forced confinement to the orphans’ home had—crowded full of grief, adjustment to a new location and new routine, bereft of all she loved—flown by quickly. In other ways, for the same reasons, the days had dragged on like the slow drain of molasses from a broken pottery jug.

Never mind the lifestyle she had had to abandon, or the pretty clothes she had had to leave behind, or the friends no longer available. She had never gotten used to the fact that she had been torn away from all that was familiar, had been dumped into strange surroundings a hundred miles from home—all by someone who professed to love her.

“You are certainly aware that you aged out of our facility a year ago, are you not, dear?” asked Mrs. Rankin in a kindly tone.

“Yes, ma’am. Seventeen, you said.”

“Yes. But I was able to convince the trustees that you might remain for another year, helping out with the other children—as you have done so well all this time, at a nominal salary.”

“You did, Mrs. Rankin. And I appreciate it. I had nowhere else to go, and no idea what to do once I got there.” Emily, with her heart in her throat and a middle seemingly filled with a sucking quagmire of quicksand, managed a soft and feeble chuckle.

Another pause followed, while the headmistress, apparently uncomfortable in this unusual situation, turned over a few more papers. Could Emily, at the tender age of eighteen, possibly have so much history that it could be crammed into a file all on its own?

“I have been in contact with a few employers in the area,” the woman finally ventured, adjusting her spectacles. “Their names and addresses are listed here for you, along with the type of work required, should you be interested in talking to them.”

Blood ran cold in Emily’s veins. Miserable as she had felt at the beginning of this forced servitude, now she was somewhat settled in, having grown accustomed to her circumstances, the home’s routine, and the presence of her fellow orphans. It would come as a wrench, leaving another place that had given her shelter, to be shoved out once more into the unknown.

Wetting dry lips, she leaned forward slightly to quaver, “May I not just—go home—?”

A wave of sympathy rippled across Mrs. Rankin’s face. “Emily,” she said very gently, “you know there is no home left to you. That was sold long ago, and new owners have taken possession. I’m so sorry.”

The truth had been lurking deep inside her for a long time, disturbing her sleep, asserting itself slyly into daylight hours; the girl was aware of the facts. That didn’t mean she had to accept them.

“I so desperately wish I could keep you on here, my dear. But I have been given my orders, and I’m afraid I must obey. If there is anything else I can do…”

“No. No, clearly not. I’m sure you have tried your best, Mrs. Rankin, and I thank you.”

Moving stiffly and slowly, like an arthritic requiring the use of cane or crutch, Emily rose. There was nothing more to be said. Door shut, case closed.

Outside the office, in the hall, Emily stopped for a moment to draw a deep breath and marshal her forces. The announcement from Mrs. Rankin and her higher-up board of trustees hadn’t come as a surprise; she was aware that she had been living on borrowed time. Still, the realization that she must soon make her way somewhere—anywhere—all alone sent icicles of apprehension up and down her spine.

Well. A half-formed plan had existed in her active brain for months. Now she must simply put that plan into action—once she straightened her backbone and buckled up her courage.

A fund had been established to aid those leaving the premises for good, Mrs. Rankin had explained, so Emily would not pass completely destitute through the secure doors of the orphanage into the outside world. Train fare, stagecoach fare, boarding house fees, or whatever might be necessary would be made available.

Feeling a trifle thunderstruck, she wandered to the female communal dormitory. Time to assemble the items in her limited wardrobe and her meager personal possessions and start packing.

The small mirror lying flat atop the small dresser beside her narrow bed caught her attention. Sinking down onto the limp and lumpy mattress, she stared at her image in the glass.

A solemn and pale heart-shaped face, embellished with a wealth of hair the color of old gold that  formed a sweet widow’s peak, stared back at her from eyes green as the grass of Ireland. Did she appear capable enough to attract the attention of a potential employer, in no matter what field? If all else failed, was she appealing enough to attract the attention of—God forbid!—a potential husband?

“Oh, Emmie, I just heard—you gotta leave!”

A girl aged no more than thirteen or so pelted into the long, tidy room, threw herself down on the cot, and flung both arms around Emily Dalton.

“Yes, Lucy, I was just so informed by Mrs. Rankin.”

“She can’t just send you out, all on your own, only because of that age thing! Didn’t you tell her? Didn’t you beg to stay? I don’t want you to leave, Emmie. What’ll I do? Oh, what’ll I do without you here?”

Emily sighed and patted the girl’s shoulders in an attempt at comfort. “You’re a good, strong girl, Luce. You’ll have to step up and guide the other children. Because they’ll need someone to listen to, and to follow. And I know you’ll do fine; I have such faith in you.”

A few sniffles followed the muffled wail of protest. “But, Emmie—you can’t—you can’t—” a series of hiccups were unleashed “—you can’t leave. I can’t ever—hic—take your place—!”

“Hush, now, Lucy, hush. You won’t take my place; you’ll make your own.”

For a few minutes Emily did her best to soothe the child, to calm her fears. Who in this crazy cockeyed world wasn’t apprehensive about change? Some walked forward and accepted it; others had it thrust upon them, willing or not. In most cases, change would come regardless, and it must be dealt with.

The announcement of Emily’s imminent departure the next morning was made at supper that night. Just before dessert—a wholesome glob of some sort of sweetened porridge—Mrs. Rankin spoke briefly of the young woman’s shining character, attributes (to which all the other residents ought to aspire), and how much she would be missed. Everyone could offer her their good wishes once their plates had been emptied.

A fitting farewell, thought Emily, blinking back tears as the children surrounded her with their chatter of congratulations and regret.

She glanced around the large, shabby dining hall, where some forty residents, boys and girls ranging in age from five years to seventeen, inhaled three filling if unappetizing meals a day. Duty rosters listed teams responsible, by rotation, for the setting and clearing of tables, the washing and drying of crockery, the sweeping and swabbing necessary to keep the place in good order.

Upstairs chores, for the dormitories, were required postings for the same lists, except in opposite sequence. Everyone took their turn. The hours in between were spent on class time and outside labor, depending upon season and weather, to shovel snow outside and coal inside during the winter, to spade and plant and cull the garden produce in summer.

The Orphans’ Home was—as far as Emily, with her limited experience, could see—well-run and maintained to the limits of its budget. The board had laid out a sensible curriculum, mixing school work and physical work in a fair distribution. Corners were not cut to any great extent, and it seemed that no one was profiting from the toil of the children being cared for—unlike many similar so-called responsible establishments, rife with graft and corruption.

New Day had supported Emily Dalton’s existence for two impressionable years of her life, and she would never forget the inhabitants, the officials, or the institution itself.

Nor would she ever forget—or forgive—her abandonment here.

One door closes; another opens.

This chapter of her life was finished, and it was time to move on.

Whether or not she was ready.

Chapter Two

Iverson, a small typically American town moving stolidly toward a new century within the next score of years, had been established about halfway between Sioux Falls, in South Dakota, and Omaha, Nebraska, said to be the fastest growing city in the U.S. That fact translated to about a hundred miles from each. Therefore, Emily had her choice of two larger communities in which to pursue whatever her next step would be.

But she had decided upon a third choice, one which Mrs. Rankin had probably not expected.

She was going to stay right here, in Iverson, and make her way to the old family home.

New Day was located some twenty miles out of town. Close enough for infrequent shopping or necessary errands, but far enough to prevent regular contact between orphanage and townsfolk—and certainly far enough to prevent any of the braver youngsters from hiking or hitching.

Even on her free days, even had she asked to accompany the farm wagon driver in to market, it would have been difficult for Emily gain permission to visit Iverson. The young residents, while not exactly incarcerated, were kept confined inside the property boundaries—probably to avoid any interaction or confrontation with a citizenry not entirely receptive to outliers. So, she had seen nothing of the community during those two years, which, now that she was free, seemed part of a whole other world.

Today, with her few possessions stuffed into a very old and shabby carpet bag, she was at last allowed to clamber in beside the baskets and crates of produce being taken for sale. Herman Bower, the aged retainer who oversaw the details of this undertaking every few days, smiled at her and waited until she was settled in the wagon bed before flicking the reins of his team of gray Belgians.

Since Mr. Bower was hard of hearing, Emily could spend the hour of travel in contemplation, mentally reviewing her plans for possibly the dozenth time in the hope that everything would fall into place and nothing would go wrong. She would exit the buckboard when her driver had reached his destination of the market area, where purveyors of all and sundry would be setting up their booths and carts in the center of town.

“There y’ go, missy,” Mr. Bower proclaimed in a loud voice, as he pulled the horses to a halt in front of Cutter’s Mercantile. “And all the best of luck to you!”

Her last tie to the Orphans’ Home, at last dissolved and broken.

With both feet settled firmly on the ground, baggage in hand, Emily waved to the driver and went on her way.

At least the weather gods must have been smiling down at her during this fresh start, for the mid-April morning was one of those unusual spring days for the Midwest: perfect. The air held a mixture of both fragrant and pungent scents, from the market flower cart filled with trillium and bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches, gathered at dawn by some industrious soul, to the chimneys sending forth thin trails of wood smoke from breakfast fires.

The sky had been painted that soft opalescent blue with a few puffs of white cloud drifting along, which said it wasn’t sure if it would stay clear or possibly drop down a few rain showers later on. The temperature was mild—light coat temperature—and the oaks and black gums and quaking aspens had already begun to open their leaves and flowers to match the calendar’s date.

Traffic held light but steady: a few buckboards, a few horses, a number of pedestrians looking for bargains. No one recognized her, in her outgrown and outworn black, with a dingy straw hat hiding her glorious mane of hair.

The town was much as she remembered—many of the same businesses, a few of the same proprietors mingling with the good citizens—and yet, not.

The United Federal Bank building had been razed and rebuilt, from frame to handsome red brick, with an imposing front door of solid oak and brass. Clearly someone was riding a profitable financial wave. The short block whose edifice had held various offices—one belonging to Dr. Paul Rivers, one holding a firm of two lawyers (both equally detested), and a cubbyhole space that served who knew what—had been demolished, with the tenants scattered throughout a whole gamut of store fronts up and down Main Street.

One frame house on the fringe of the business district stood as a burned-out shell, black and menacing. The fire must have taken place recently, since the mess of bubbled siding and bits of rubble hadn’t yet been cleared away. Fortunately, Iverson, with its pretty tree-lined avenues and its usually attractive face to show to visitors, had possessed a quite reliable volunteer fire department. Emily assumed that still held true.

As she wandered along sidewalks made of two-inch pine or hemlock planks, she noticed improvements. Instituted, no doubt, by the Iverson Garden Club, whose active members were so bent on assuring the town (population of some 1,000 residents, according to the signposts entering or departing) would put its best foot forward to attract visitors and, hopefully, new residents.

A small town square, complete with plenty of greenery, blooming plants, and a couple of benches, had been installed as a lure for passersby. That had certainly been built during her absence, as had the flower boxes and tubs scattered here and there. It seemed that someone had been given a free hand, both with ideas and funds. That was probably the mayor’s wife—if Mr. Silas Bishop still retained power.

Emily had resided in Iverson for the first sixteen years of her life, and she had loved the place. Its people and its personality reflected the solid, substantial pioneer spirit that had crossed the rivers and tamed the plains. Yes, she had loved everything about the town where she had been born and raised.

That was, until her father disappeared and her stepmother dropped her off at New Day, just before midnight, never to be seen again.

Emily, shivering a little under a sudden onslaught of painful memories, strode steadily again. Just ahead stood the three-story Iverson Hotel, a landmark for the era due to its size and graciousness. What with the miniscule amount of stipend she had been able to save, and the small endowment presented to her this morning by Headmistress Beatrice Rankin, she would be able to take a room here for at least a short time.

“Yes, ma’am.” The desk clerk, who had been sitting sideways behind the counter with pen in hand and ledger at the ready, immediately stood upon her entrance. “May I be of assistance?”

Another unfamiliar face. Much had changed in two years. Probably just as well. She had no desire for any hail-fellow-well-met encounters, or any booming reminisces or what-happened-to demands for information.

With a smile, she explained that she would like to rent a room. Open-ended, on a day-to-day basis, if you please.

He smiled back. A prepossessing young man, with brown hair parted neatly in the middle and a mustache that would do some walrus credit. “Now that,” he said, a trifle pompously, “is exactly why I am here. At the moment, we have an abundance of spaces free, so you may take your choice of floor, size, and type of personal—ahem—accommodations.”

Easy enough. She settled on the first floor, with amenities.

“Aha,” he said, turning the registry to read her name. “And will a Mr. Bennett be joining you?”

Dimples. A flash of dimples could work wonders, she had learned.

“Alas, no. I am not yet wed.” Her expression, as she returned his pen, indicated one of two options. Either she was deeply distressed about her spinsterhood, thus inviting him to help end it, or a future husband stood somewhere in the wings and would be along shortly.

Meanwhile, she had snatched out of memory the first name that came to mind of a wronged heroine: Elizabeth (Eliza, or Lizzie) Bennett, of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fame. Since she intended to keep to the shadows for as long as possible, Emily decided it would be better to remain incognito while in public. Heaven grant that she might maintain a new identity for the time it took to accomplish her purpose.

“Well, then, Miss Bennett, pray let me introduce myself,” said the dandy behind the desk, puffing out his chest like a white Leghorn rooster. “I am Charles Hepple, and I am delighted to be at your service. Simply call on me for any of your needs. Now, I shall see you to your room.”

Her form, viewed only from the waist up in black and white just a minute ago, would draw no overt attention. As he stepped around the counter, however, his nostrils actually flared just a little in disdain as he beheld not only the rest of her service uniform but also her shabby carpet bag. Clearly deflated, as his view of her importance shrank, he picked up the luggage nevertheless and escorted her down the hall.

After opening the door with a flourish and presenting her with the key, he paused at the threshold. Not such an exalted lady as he had guessed—in fact, definitely lower class—his behavior seemed to be saying, but perhaps he could have a go at her anyway.

“Remember, anything I can do for you, anything at all, you just let me know.” His survey of her, up and down, wasn’t exactly a leer. But it was close.

Emily’s chin went up and her lips tightened. Such unwanted masculine attention was, she knew, the threat visited upon any woman traveling anywhere, even locally, alone and unaccompanied by a male acquaintance or relative.

Well, she would certainly not have been so treated under her father’s care, and she refused to accept it on her own. Her upbringing, cushioned by love and financial security, had included every educational opportunity, a substantial and charming wardrobe, and exposure to all the finer elements in life.

Despite the last two years of deprivation, these components of her character had not changed. This man, hinting at dark lurid details that he would share as if she were some cheap trollop, stood far beneath her in dignity and bearing.

“Thank you,” she told him crisply. “I mustn’t keep you from your duties any longer.”

And she shut the door gently but firmly in his face.

Would she be forced to confront him, there at his desk in the lobby, every time she left her room?

Well, no matter for now. After a sleepless night, a very early rising, a lengthy and bumpy ride in the box of the wagon, and nerves shaken to the core by a return to her hometown, she needed rest first of all. A surcease of activity, a shutdown of the brain (if possible), possibly a luxurious nap upon sheets she hadn’t had to launder, perhaps an even more luxurious and precious interval spent reading one of the books she had been able to bring along (with the permission of Mrs. Rankin).

Stripping off the hated old New Day garments down to her chemise and drawers, she took a quick sponge bath, pulled the shades of two windows facing the afternoon sun, and sank slowly and blissfully onto the mattress.

Chapter Three

Emily woke with a start during the night, stabbed suddenly by such a feeling of homesickness, stronger and more poignant than even during her period of adjustment at New Day, that she nearly burst into tears. As it was, deeply disquieted, she moved from her bed to a chair by the window to stare out at the moonlit verge between hotel and street.

The skin of her arms had raised into chill bumps, sending her to set struck match flame to candle wick and wrap herself in a shawl.

Odd, that her senses would react in such a way, when she had worked so diligently at the Orphans’ Home to tamp down all feelings about her former life. Dredging oneself in misery over events that cannot be changed would only lead to even more misery—and depression, the type that wants to keep one in bed forever, without stirring.

Wearing her rusty black but armed with cash, she had splurged on a solitary early supper at the Iverson Eatery, taking refuge in the size of the room and the number of diners to retain her pose of anonymity. That ploy had succeeded; not a single person had seemed to recognize her. Then she had returned to her chamber, feeling—at that time—rejuvenated and almost overcome by her freedom of choice after being forced to follow orders from a higher authority.

Whence, then, this miasma of loss and desolation that had settled down around her? And why always during the darkest hours, when lack of light seemed only to multiply problems and double anxieties of the heart and soul?

There was no more to it, she realized, than the apprehension generated by thought of visiting her former home, the gray-painted three-story Queen Anne with its white trim, gables, wraparound porch, and turret. That charming turret, where she had lived out her childhood fantasies as princess and heroine of any number of fairy tales.

Gone, now. Sold at auction to another, with the proceeds sent off to who knew where.

Certainly, she had seen no penny of such, nor received any information as to the sale.

Probably all had gone into the possession of her good-for-nothing stepmother, who had no doubt killed her husband, Emily’s beloved father, and thrown his body into a makeshift grave somewhere before she herself had disappeared.

So many questions, so few answers. No wonder her brain was addled by the vast unknown—and her own helplessness against overpowering odds!

Thinking through the process of her next step had helped to settle her nerves. With a sigh and a few final tears, she extinguished the candle’s friendly flame and slipped into bed.

Next morning, she tended to ablutions and dressed in a soft blue gown of quiet and modest appearance, whose hem fell only a few inches shorter than average, whose sleeves did likewise (donated, again by Mrs. Rankin, from the orphans’ closet at New Day, thus not too badly worn). She managed to evade the avaricious clutches of Charles Heppel at the front desk by the simple expedient of hiding in the midst of several locals as everyone moved cheerfully into the dining room for breakfast.

Afterward, she exited through a set of French doors to the rear into the April sunshine.

Yesterday’s tentative rainfall had not taken place, leaving today’s golden light shining down as if to kiss the human race as a whole and extend blessings like scattered fairy dust.

Smiling, Emily pushed back her straw hat and lifted her face. While she still felt trepidation over the mere thought of viewing her former home once more, her mood had brightened with the sun’s rays, and she was eager to be on with her mission.

Her stroll, absent the parasol most self-respecting ladies carried as a matter of course, took her some eight or ten blocks to the west, on the outer and more preferred fringes of town. An easy walk, one she had made so many times in the past. The family homestead had been built on a plot of land well-endowed with towering maples and poplars, green-tipped now on this heavenly day of springtime weather. Green-tipped as well, and flowering, were the many plantings of leafy borders around the foundation, the groups of peonies that would be fragrant and colorful within a few weeks, the bridal wreath beginning to bud, the lilac bushes sending out tiny purple spikes.

Emily could close her eyes and envision all those details even as she passed by other sedate and sizable estates of similar disposition. Clearly this part of town was on the “right” side of the tracks, even if a “wrong” side actually existed somewhere in Iverson.

Activity in this neighborhood was sporadic.

Older children were noticeably absent, being cooped up in the schoolhouse at this hour, probably looking wistfully out the windows and longing for recess to begin. Softball games, keep-away, and tag awaited most of the boys; most of the girls would engage in quieter play, such as using the swings or indulging in dress-up with dolls.

On the opposite side of Grainger Street, a young woman togged out in a maid’s uniform was pushing a perambulator, filled, presumably, by a baby being treated to fresh air. Farther down, a dog raced happily around a fenced-in yard, barking and tossing around some toy. Next door to that, a handyman in rough clothing was digging up a bed of sod along the side of a house.

Robins hopped about here and there, returned from their winter migration, gathering bits of straw or dried grass to build nests, tweeting their pleasure in the warmth and the availability of a fresh meal squirming below the surface of the earth.

Emily, striding along with head held high, wished she could feel that cheerful.

The house looked just as she remembered, and a pang of nostalgia shot straight through her middle for those lost years and her lost family. Two years in desperately unhappy circumstances could seem an eternity.

A low black wrought-iron fence encircled the front and sides of the property, with a neat flagstone walk leading up to the sprawling veranda and the front door. Same color of paint, she noted; same shrubbery and plant life, same two wicker chairs and swing established on the porch.

For a few moments, Emily simply stood in the sweet half-shade of a budding maple and took in her surroundings.A myriad of questions buzzed around in her brain like a hive of determined bees.

She saw no sign of occupancy, no sign of human habitation. Other than a squirrel that flitted out of the bushes and flung itself madly up a tree to hang there, chittering angrily at her, she saw no other sign of life.

Had the Dalton furniture been left intact inside, she wondered, in the exact same locations? Had the rugs and curtains been replaced? Had her favorite third-story tower room been made over into something no little girl would ever want to enter again?

Her heart ached with recalled pain, and against the soft rays of sunshine she was forced to blink back tears. Suppose she were somehow able to obtain entrance to her former home, whether by hook or by crook. What would she find? And how would she react?

Ought she to re-think this whole mad scheme of somehow tracking down the mysterious details of her past? Ought she to give up on her quest of finding out how her father died, and where her stepmother had gone?

She was all alone. Deprived of relatives and resources, she felt completely bereft, overwhelmed by the task she had set herself.

More to the point, how long could she stand here, surveying the place as if she meant to break in and steal anything of value, before her presence began to attract attention? Things were quiet now, on this block, but that could so easily change, with residents coming and going to business, to market, to errands, to school.

“Buck up, Emily,” she whispered to herself, curling her gloved fingers into fists. “You can do this. It’s what you’ve dreamed of for months and months.”

Praying to a deity of whose existence she had been growing less and less assured, she reached out, gave the gate handle a little shake to open (the latch had always had a tendency to stick), and slipped inside.

At the front door, she twisted the brass bell and listened to its familiar rusty sound echo in the foyer. She was at least prepared with a story: supposedly sponsored by the fictional Grace Evangelical Church, located far from town, she was collecting funds for a missionary group being sent to Africa. She had even painstakingly hand-printed an envelope in which to place any donations, as proof.

“Tending Each Other’s Scars” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

There is no escaping the loneliness at the orphanage, but Emily Dalton endures it all until she is finally released. Upon returning to her family home, she is surprised to discover that her father is missing and two complete strangers have taken over his estate. Being brave by nature, Emily is more than determined to fight tooth and nail to reclaim what’s lawfully hers. What she didn’t foresee, though, was that her opponent would capture her heart…

Justice or love – is it possible for Emily to choose one over the other?

After hearing the tale of a beautiful young woman who appears out of nowhere, Jesse Garret is shocked. Soon, however, he is taken in by her story and wants to help—even if it means possibly losing the estate he and his brother have inherited. Without a second thought, Jesse decides to accompany Emily in her wild quest to uncover the truth, which will take them a thousand miles south and west.

Just for a glance at her smile, he could give up everything…

Throughout their journey, Jesse and Emily desperately try to assemble as many clues as possible. Their search brings them closer together, but they soon discover that a mysterious man is following them… Will they unravel the mystery amidst the chaos, no matter what the risk? In the end, will their love survive and allow them to live happily ever after?

“Tending Each Other’s Scars” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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