The Spinster (Emerson Pass Historicals, Book 2)
The letter from Phillip Baker came on paper as thin as our pond’s ice after a first autumn freeze. Perhaps that delicate paper should have been a clue as to what was to come. How my life would change. One could not skate on ice that thin. How right I was.
I read his correspondence twice, thinking through his offer. With a lightness in my steps that did not match my heavy heart, I walked to the window of my parents’ sitting room. A first snowfall had blanketed the valley where my father’s estate dwelt between two Colorado mountains. Our winter wonderland had come late this year. A brilliant, sunny, crisp fall had gone on for months. Given all that the last few years had bestowed upon us, we gratefully enjoyed every moment.
We’d survived the days and days of worry over my twin brothers fighting in France and the threat of the Spanish flu to the troops. Then, a second wave— the deadliest wave— of the Spanish flu had plundered the world. A third in the fall, threatening us once more. Emerson Pass had managed to remain isolated enough that we’d been spared.
Finally, though, it seemed as if the world would return to our lives before the war. Papa and Mama had seemed to be able breath again for the first time since the boys had enlisted, not yet seventeen, having lied about their age. Our dear friend Isak Olofsson had also survived. All three were home now. Not quite the same, but physically intact.
Not all of our boys returned to Emerson Pass. We’d lost Francis Lane. I hadn’t known him well, but he was part of us. A soul lost. Buried in a cemetery across the seas. A young man who would never know what it was like to marry, have children, grow old.
And I’d lost Walter Green. He was not one of us. No one but I mourned him here. I had enough grief for a whole town.
The first letter from Phillip Baker had come in the fall of 1918. I could remember every word.
My name is Phillip Baker. I’m not sure if Walter ever mentioned me in his letters, but we knew each other for a brief time when we were children and then by coincidence, were assigned to the same unit for basic training and sent to France together. I’m writing to tell you that Walter was killed in action last week. I was aware of your correspondence with him and that you would want to know. I’m sorry. He died bravely and without any suffering.
Just a month before the end, he’d been killed in action. The promise of our future together snuffed out before it began. I’d had only two weeks with him. Two weeks of bliss. Now I had only the memories. They would have to sustain me for the rest of my life. I would be a spinster. A librarian spinster and auntie to my six siblings’ children.
I touched my fingertips to the cold glass. Snow fell steadily outside the windows. In Colorado, we had at least a dozen words to describe snowflakes. Today it was a dry, fat flake. Good for skiing, according to Flynn and Theo. A new sport they’d fallen in love with after their time in Europe. They’d come home determined to bring skiing here to Emerson Pass. The sport of the future, Flynn had declared. A way for our town to continue to grow and flourish. Shops would be built around the visitors. They’d seen it in the Alps. It would work here too, they’d told Papa. He’d agreed to let them use part of their trust for the investment in their future. They were now happily planning away for the new version of our town. They’d cleared trees on the northern mountain for runs and built a lodge from the logs. In the spring, they would complete the pulley for the ski lift. By next winter, if all went well, skiing would have come to us for good.
I returned to the letter, reading the neat handwriting.
November 20, 1919
Dear Josephine, I hope this letter will find you well. I’m also hopeful that you’ll remember who I am. If not, I’ll be mortified. Since returning from the war, I’ve been in New York City. Unfortunately, I became very ill last year with the Spanish flu. While convalescing, I remembered your descriptions of Emerson Pass from the letters you wrote to Walter. (He often read passages to me and the other men.)
Your descriptions of the wildflowers, sky, and trees have convinced me to travel west in pursuit of my own place of belonging. I’ve decided to take a leap of faith and come to Colorado, perhaps to settle for good. I’m writing to see if I might visit you and your family? I ended up with your letters and the books you sent. I feel guilty that I haven’t sent them to you before now, as I’m sure you’d like to have them.
My request and trip may sound strange to you, but there’s nothing or no one keeping me here. I grew up in an orphanage and have never truly had a home.
We all looked forward to your letters, as Walter shared many stories of you and your family with the rest of us lonely boys who, sadly, had no one writing to us. From your stories, I feel as if I know you all. I’d be honored to bring your letters, novels, and photograph and to meet you and your family.
I’m also hopeful that your father and brothers might have ideas for me in regard to work. Before the war, I apprenticed with a cabinetmaker. If they know of anything, I’d be pleased to hear of it.
If you’re amenable to my visit, I thank you kindly and look forward to hearing from you.
His request to visit wasn’t the strange part. I found it odd that he made no mention of Walter, other than to say he’d shared my letters. An image of Walter laughing during one of our picnics flashed before my eyes. His sunny head of hair and light blue eyes had transfixed me from the start. He’d had an infectious smile that made me feel dizzy. I’d met him in Denver while I was attending a librarian conference. He’d been passing through on his way to report for duty. Our meeting had been pure chance. He happened to be out that warm evening while I walked in the park with colleagues. I’d thought at the time it was destiny. I now knew it was the day that led to my broken heart. Did I wish I’d never met him and be spared the pain of losing him? I couldn’t answer that question.
I pressed my forehead against the glass. If only the coolness would numb the rest of me. Even for a few minutes. To feel like my old self instead of a worn-out, dried-up spinster. I would be twenty-three on my next birthday. Most women were married with a child by this age.
“What is it, Jo? Why did you sigh?” Papa asked from behind his newspaper.
I hadn’t realized I’d sighed. Papa knew me too well. After everything we’d been through together, it was no wonder. I turned from the window and stepped nearer to the couch where he and Mama Quinn were having their tea. “It’s a letter from Walter’s friend. The one who wrote to tell me of Walter’s death.”
“Yes, we remember.” Mama’s eyes immediately softened with sympathy. “What does he want?”
“He wants to come out here for a visit and possibly to stay. My letters were a travel brochure, I guess.”
Papa lowered the paper onto his lap. “How interesting.” His English accent, according to my friends, remained as strong today as it had been when he came to America so many years ago. I, however, could not hear it. He sounded only like my beloved Papa.
“Does he have a wife and family?” Mama folded her hands together on her lap. I’d pulled her from reading. The novel, My Ántonia, was face-open on the couch next to her. Her fair hair was arranged in waves pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck. Younger than my father by fifteen years, she was blessed with delicate, even features and a heart-shaped face.
Just over ten years had passed since she’d arrived to open the first school of Emerson Pass and my father’s heart. Almost immediately she’d become the heart of our family. All five of us thought of her as our mother. Since their marriage, two little sisters had come, bringing our total to seven. Papa called us “The Lucky Seven.”
“He has no family of any kind,” I said. “In fact, he was raised in an orphanage. I have the feeling he’s in need of a fresh start and work. He thought Papa might have ideas for him.”
“How sad. We’ll help him in any way we can.” Mama set her teacup onto its saucer and fixed her kind brown eyes upon me. “Unless there’s a reason you wouldn’t want him to come here?” The anxious way she looked at me lately filled me with guilt. Papa, Mama, and my sisters had been worried about me. I hated knowing I caused them concern. My job was to be the responsible, steady eldest, not the sad, mopey mess I’d become.
“No, not at all,” I said. “Should we invite him to stay with us? Just until he can figure out what to do next?”
“Yes, we’ve room for him if he doesn’t mind bunking with the boys.” Papa drained the last of his tea and set aside his cup. “I’m keen to help any man who fought in that terrible war.”
“He says he trained as a cabinetmaker.” I hugged my middle as I walked over to the fire that roared in the hearth, crackling and snapping. “He says Walter shared the contents of my letters with him and the rest of the boys. I find that… perplexing.”
“Which part?” Mama asked.
“That he shared them. My letters were intimate, meant for only one pair of eyes.” I looked down at my hands to keep from crying.
“Darling, it doesn’t really matter,” Papa said softly. “If your letters brought them some relief, isn’t it an honor?”
“I suppose.” I sat in one of the armchairs and watched the fire. One end of a log looked like the nose of a fox.
Mama smoothed her hands over the top of her day dress made of crimson organza. “Phillip must stay for Christmas.”
“Yes, I agree,” Papa said. “He shouldn’t be alone for the holidays. We’ll take care of him until he can get on his feet. The boys can show him around town, do a little carousing.”
“Alexander, carousing?” Mama raised her eyebrows and looked properly mortified. “Our boys do not
Papa didn’t answer, but his eyes twinkled as he gazed at her. My chest ached with both gratitude and sorrow. Their love pleased me. Yet it also brought to light what I’d lost. I’d hoped Walter and I would share a life as they had.
Mama returned her gaze to me. “Jo, what’s troubling you?”
“We don’t know Phillip,” I said. “What if he’s awful?”
“I doubt he will be,” Mama said. “He was so kind to write to you about Walter’s death.”
“That’s true. If he’s Walter’s friend, he must be all right,” I said.
“We didn’t really know Walter,” Papa said.
I sucked in my bottom lip to hold back a retort. Never in my life had there been any discord between my parents and me. However, they hadn’t approved of my whirlwind courtship with Walter. Which was in no way his fault. He hadn’t had time to come home with me and meet my family. “He was here such a short time. There wasn’t an opportunity for him to court me properly. He planned to, when he returned from the war.”
“Yes, of course, darling. We understand,” Mama said in a soothing voice.
“Yes, yes, quite right.” Papa followed up too hastily. No one wanted to upset me these days. I missed when my family treated me normally. Now it felt as if I were a fragile piece of china no one wanted to break.
“May I read the letter?” Quinn asked.
I nodded and handed it over the tea set. She unfolded the letter and began to read.
“Sweetheart, have a biscuit,” Papa said to me. “You’re looking much too thin.”
I obeyed, not having the energy to disagree, and put a cookie, which Papa called a biscuit, on a plate. He poured a cup of tea and set it on the table front of me. He believed most problems could be solved after a cup of tea. Given my troubled mother’s death when I was nine, I’d known differently for a long time.
Mama folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. She had a strange look on her face, somewhere between puzzled and intrigued. “I think it might be good for you to have him here.”
“You mean to tell me stories about Walter?”
“Not that exactly,” Mama said. “He’s someone of your own age group. Perhaps he will become a new friend?”
Mama and Papa exchanged a glance I couldn’t decipher.
“I don’t need friends. I have Poppy and my sisters.” Poppy and I had grown up together. Their parents had died when Poppy was young and her older brother, Harley, had raised her while acting as groundskeeper and gardener. Poppy had been away for the better part of two years, working as an apprentice to a veterinarian in cattle country. I’d missed her more than I’d thought possible. She had just always been there and now she was off to her own adventures. “Poppy will be back in a few weeks. But I shall be a good hostess, don’t worry.”
“Regardless, we can’t let a hero be alone during what’s supposed to be the merriest time of the year.” Mama had the biggest heart in the world, rivaled only by my sister Fiona, who seemed to think it was her job to look after every single person in the world.
“I’ll write him this evening and ask if he’d like to stay with us,” I said.
All four of my gaggle of sisters rushed into the room. Those who thought only boys were loud had never met my sisters. Harley had taken them into town in the sleigh to ice-skate for the afternoon. The pond in the center of town had frozen solid for the first time this season just last night.
“You won’t believe what Delphia did,” Cymbeline said, without concern over interrupting the adults.
Delphia, in preparation for the admonishment, tore a cap from her mushroom of blond curls and glared at her older sister. “I didn’t do it.”
At sixteen, Cymbeline lorded over the younger ones. Fiona, thirteen, was the protector. Adelaide, or Addie as we called her, was quiet and shy and obedient to bossy Cymbeline’s wishes. Four-year-old Delphia, bless her, had the same fire as Cymbeline. From the time she could talk, she was having none of the dictatorship.
“She challenged a boy twice her age to a race,” Cymbeline said. “And when she didn’t win, she knocked him to the ground.”
Delphia’s bottom lip trembled. “I didn’t.”
“The whole thing was an accident.” Fiona placed her hand on Delphia’s head. “She slid into him because she was going so fast. Anyway, she learned it from you, Cym. You’re always racing boys.”
“That’s different.” Cymbeline’s color heightened, making her even more beautiful than the moment before. God help us all, she was stunning and looked more like a woman than a girl. Mama always said we only had two types in this family. Fair and blond, like her, me, and the two youngest girls. Or dark hair and deep blue eyes, like Papa, the boys, Cymbeline and Fiona.
“Come here, little one,” Papa said to Delphia.
She trudged over to him. He pulled her into his lap. “Tell me what happened.”
She looked up at him with angelic eyes. “It’s what Fiona said. I was going fast, pretending that a monster was chasing me, and then I ran into him.”
“Did you say you were sorry?” Mama asked.
“Yes, that’s not the problem,” Cymbeline said as she grabbed a cookie from the plate. “She said she was sorry and then she planted a kiss on him. On his cheek.”
I had to cover my mouth with my hand to hide my smile.
“His cheeks looked like an apple,” Delphia said. “I just had to kiss one.”
I caught Mama’s eye. She seemed to be trying not to laugh but kept it together enough to say, “Delphia, you mustn’t ever kiss a boy.”
“But why?” Delphia blinked her big blue eyes.
“Because it’s not proper,” Mama said.
I noticed Addie was shivering. “Come here, doll. I’ll warm you up.” I tucked her into the chair next to me and rubbed her cold hands between mine. Addie was quiet and serious like me. I adored her.
“Mama and Papa kiss all the time,” Delphia said.
“They’re married.” Cymbeline plopped into armchair next to me. “You don’t understand anything about how the world works.”
“Cym, don’t say it like that. She’s just a little girl.” Fiona went to stand in front of the fire with her hands behind her back.
“I’m your baby,” Delphia said as she gazed up at our father. “Right, Papa?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to kiss boys.” Papa put his chin on her head and looked over at me with eyes that danced with humor. Mama always says it was his dancing eyes that drew her to him. I knew exactly what she meant. “You’re my baby, which means you can’t love any boy but me.”
“I won’t do it again.” Delphia let out a long-suffering sigh, as if all the fun in the world was taken from her.
“Besides the unfortunate incident with the apple cheek,” Mama said, “what else happened?”
“That ridiculous Viktor Olofsson was skating with all the girls, one after another.” Cymbeline shook her dark curls. “He had the nerve to ask me.”
“What did you say?” I asked, knowing the answer, but teasing her anyway.
“Jo, don’t be daft,” Cymbeline said. “I would never let that big oaf touch my hand.”
He was a large man but most certainly not an oaf. Although his shoulders were thick and wide like a Colorado mountain, he was a gentle, intelligent soul who I suspected had a deep and long-lasting crush on Cymbeline. “I think he’s like a hero in a storybook. Brave and strong.” I’d once seen him pick up a wagon off a man’s leg when the horse had bucked and broken free, leaving his owner under a wheel. With almost white hair and light green eyes, he looked like the Vikings in one of the history books I had in the library.
Cymbeline’s eyes flashed as she stuck out her plump bottom lip and scowled. Strangely, her sour expression did nothing to disguise her beauty. “He’s such a show-off, doing tricks on the ice.”
“You do tricks on the ice,” Fiona said, not unkindly but more as a fact. “All the same ones Viktor does.”
Her observation was correct. If Viktor learned a trick on the ice, Cymbeline practiced until she’d conquered it.
Mama had confided in me more than once that she was afraid Cymbeline would never be satisfied living in a man’s world as we do. If she’d been old enough, I had no doubt she would have volunteered to be a nurse in the war effort overseas.
“Well, be that as it may,” Mama said, “we have exciting news. Jo’s acquaintance, Phillip Baker, is coming to stay with us for the holidays.”
“The one who wrote to you about Walter?” Fiona asked.
“The same,” I said. “How did you remember?”
Fiona shrugged. “I remember everything about my family. Anyway, it wasn’t like I could ever forget that day.” Her eyes glistened. “I shouldn’t like to ever see you that way again, Jo.”
I held out my hand to her. “Come here, sweet sister.” She sat on the arm of my chair and I patted her knee. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll never give my heart to anyone else. I’m the spinster of the family.”