Logan Meadows, Wyoming Territory, October 1883
Wielding a hammer, Tabitha Canterbury pried at the wooden lid of a container with the claw end of the tool. It slipped and clattered to the floor, missing her toe by an inch. Determined to open the crate on her own, she hefted the weighty hammer once again and wedged the iron prongs under the lid, pressing down with as much force as she could muster.
Stubborn thing won’t budge!
Exasperated after fifteen minutes of fruitless labor, she let an uncharacteristic curse whisper through her lips—just as the front door opened. Silver bells jingled in announcement.
Her forehead warm and sticky, Tabitha glanced up. Jessie Logan, who Tabitha had met upon moving to Logan Meadows almost a year ago, stood in the doorway, her son balanced on her hip and a teasing smile on her face.
“Tabitha, you’ve scalded my ears. I’ve never heard you curse before.” Jessie laughed and set Shane on the wooden floor, keeping ahold of his hand. In a swish of fabric, she came forward, looking curiously at the good-sized crate. “Books, I presume?”
Tabitha sighed, and then nodded. “Exactly. I’d like to get them on the shelves that look so empty, but I’m ashamed to say this crate has gotten the better of me. I swear!” She gave the sturdy wooden box a disgruntled glare. “One would think it had a mind of its own.”
“Let me fetch Chase. He’s just a couple of doors down at the bank speaking with your uncle. He’ll have the top off in a jiffy.”
Jessie was almost to the door when Tabitha caught her arm.
Startled, Shane frowned as if she’d just struck his mother. “Stop!” he cried. “Let go my ma!” His back straightened as he prepared for a fight.
“I’m sorry, Shane,” Tabitha said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” She crouched to his level, and a wary look slowly replaced his frown. A deep longing grasped her heart and squeezed with a vengeance as she looked into his inquisitive eyes. Reaching out, she pushed back a hank of hair that drooped over his forehead. What would her child look like? At nearly twenty-nine, marriage may have passed her by, but she’d make sure her life didn’t. She’d traveled west without a man and built this store. That was a huge accomplishment. How many single women could claim the same? Her parents would hold the feat in high esteem once they finally forgave her for the bold move. Marriage and motherhood weren’t the only paths that made life worth living.
“Can you forgive me, sweetie?” she implored, gazing into the child’s large blue eyes. She cupped his cheek, made pink by the light wind blowing outside. “I just didn’t want your mommy fetching your pa. He’s a very busy man and has better things to do. With your aid, I’m sure we can get this done on our own. Will you help?”
Shane glanced up at his ma, still holding his hand, and Jessie nodded, then crooked her brow as Tabitha stood. “You’re one stubborn woman, Tabitha Canterbury. It wouldn’t hurt to let Chase pop that off. However, I guess I understand. You want to prove to everyone in Logan Meadows that you’re capable of doing for yourself.” She wagged her head from side to side.
“It’s not quite like that.” I need to prove to myself I can provide as I grow old—alone. I can’t scurry off in search of a man each time I run into an obstacle.
“No? I think you’re trying to convince yourself more than anyone else. We all see what you’ve achieved in the short time you’ve been in Logan Meadows.”
Her admiring glance around Storybook Lodge, at the different sections of books, even in their meager state, warmed Tabitha.
“I love spending time in your cute little shop,” Jessie continued. “Reminds me of a dollhouse. It’s my favorite place to visit.”
They’d had this conversation before. Everyone and their brother had turned out to help the new “town spinster.” She shivered. How she hated that title! Why was a man handsomer and more respected as he grew older, even if he chose to remain a bachelor forever, but a woman was just an old maid? Past her prime.Only good for baking for church socials or mending old socks.
It wasn’t fair!
She was the same woman she’d been at nineteen, only wiser by a country mile. What about that gray hair you pulled from your temple this morning?
“I’m sorry.I got lost . . .”
“In your thoughts? I know. I guess that’s normal for a bookstore owner with all the places you can read about every single day, since you don’t have a family to do for, or suppers to cook . . .”
Pain sliced Tabitha, but she didn’t look away.
Jessie quickly reached for Tabitha’s arm. “I’m so sorry! That didn’t come out the way I’d intended. I just meant—”
“I understand. I’m sure most married women dream of time to do as they please. By the time chores are complete, nighttime has fallen and the day is over.” Then, once in bed, lying next to their husbands . . . no, I won’t go there.
Jessie Logan was a dear friend. She’d been Tabitha’s first customer on the day the shop had opened. Her husband, Chase, had learned to read in the last few years and seemed to be making up for lost time. After the Logans’ costly purchase of several books, Tabitha had offered to lend them some from her personal shelf upstairs. No one here in Wyoming Territory had pockets filled with gold, unless you counted family love as such. The Logans had gladly accepted her offer, but only if they could pay a fee when they returned the copy.
One book turned into three, and then five, and before she knew what had transpired, she had her own small lending library in the corner of the store. That was fine. Tabitha wasn’t trying to earn a fortune. Only enough to get by and pay her monthly loan to Uncle Frank. Just because her uncle was the owner of the town bank, she didn’t expect special treatment. She’d make her own way without his help, too. For now, she was paying off her debt with her savings she’d earned assisting at the library back home. She looked forward to the day the shop would pay for itself.
“Now, back to the problem at hand,” she said. “If the two of us push down at the same time, maybe we can pry off the lid together.”
“So you’ll accept my help.”
“Of course. I’m not stupid, Jessie, just stubborn. You’re a woman, I’m a woman. I welcome a hand from you.”
She winked, and then went back to the crate. Seesawing the claw prongs under the well-constructed lid, she beckoned her friend over.
“Now, you hold here and I’ll take it here. One, two, three . . .”
They both heaved down. The corner lifted in a crackling of splintering wood, but the loud crash that followed wasn’t the lid coming off. Both women spun around.
Shane stood next to the window, a shattered water glass at his feet.
“Shane!” Jessie let go of the hammer and rushed to her son, hefting Shane into her arms.
The door opened and Chase Logan stepped in. At thirty-one, Jesse’s husband was a man who drew attention. The few lines fanning from his eyes, and his tanned face from working out in the elements, actually added to his appeal. Wide-set shoulders and strong arms off set his trim waist. He would catch any woman’s eye, and Tabitha was no exception.
“What’s going on?” he asked, his gaze taking in the mess. “I saw Shane in the window.” His gaze rose from the shards on the floor to Tabitha, who still held the hammer attached to the crate, and he assessed the situation instantly.
Without asking, he extracted the hammer from Tabitha’s grip, and had the lid off in seconds. Smiling, he handed back her tool, then strode over to Jessie and lifted Shane from his wife’s arms. “I can see a whole lot of trouble is going on in here.” He ruffled Shane’s hair. “What did I tell you, son, about not touching things that aren’t yours?” Shane ducked his head into his pa’s shoulder. “Sorry about your glassware, Tabitha. We’ll replace it.”
“No need.” Tabitha hurried for her broom and dustpan in the storage closet. “I shouldn’t have left it on the windowsill where little hands could reach.” Shane’s earnest expression brought a smile.
With a few sweeps, she had the mess in a pile, and Jessie held the dustpan to make the cleanup faster. Finished, she took the remnants and put them into her trash barrel out back, only to return quickly. “Now that Chase has victoriously beaten the book crate and my dilemma is over, how can I help you?” She glanced at the small table by the door where Jessie had set her reticule, to see if she was returning books. “Or did you just stop by to visit? That’s more than welcome on these slow days.”
“I came to browse while Chase was at the bank. See if you’d acquired anything new since last week.” Jessie glanced longingly at the crate. “I’m pleased to see that you have.”
“Yes. I’ve been waiting on this order for over a month.” It took a great deal of inventory to fill the amount of space she’d built. Perhaps she’d been overzealous in her thinking. Even with hundreds of volumes, the area would still look like she’d just opened. The sight of Chase reminded her she was waiting on an important decision. “Chase, any news from the town council about the saloon?”
Chase shook his head. “You’re fighting a losing battle, Tabitha. There’s not a man in this town that will agree that the saloon should close at midnight. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you may as well give up now.”
“It’s not in me to give up, Chase, no matter how much Kendall or the other men dislike me. Every night, shop owners try to sleep, and drunken yelling and gunshots make that impossible. Besides, think about all their hard-earned pay they’re wasting.”
Chase chuckled. “It’s not all that bad. You make our sleepy little town sound like the stockyards in Kansas City.”
Jessie nodded. “I agree with Tabitha. How many hours do the ranch hands need to carry on anyway? You’d think they’d want to get some sleep.”
Chase turned for the door, clearly sensing he was in a losing fight. “How about I take this little cowboy with me? I still have beef to drop off at the restaurant. I’m not ready to head back to the ranch just yet.”
“Thank you, Chase, if you’re sure you don’t mind.” Jessie was already eyeing the books packed in the crate.
“ ’Course I don’t.”
“You’ll know where to find her when you’re finished with business, Chase. I appreciate your help.” She turned in time to see Jessie’s smile and raised eyebrows. “Be sure and tell Hannah I said hello.” She and her younger cousin got along like sisters. Since the moment Tabitha had arrived in Logan Meadows, her cousin and aunt had lovingly taken her under their wings. Introduced her to the town folk, acquainted her with where the best bargains were to be had, extended dinner invitations every so often. Aunt Roberta had been as generous as Uncle Frank in her way. Both siblings were so different from Tabitha’s mother, and she didn’t want to let them down, too. Their approval felt good after the condemnation and disappointment she’d suffered from her parents. “Oh, and please remind Hannah she promised to stop by this afternoon when she gets off at the restaurant.”
Tabitha and Jessie waited as father and son exited through the door.
“Just let me retrieve my order sheet from my desk so we can mark off the volumes as we unpack. But before I do that, I’ll put on some water so we can have a cup of tea while we work.”
Tabitha turned to go into the small kitchen in the corner of her store sectioned off with two drapes, but something outside winked in the sunlight. She stopped to glance out. A stranger was riding down the middle of the street. He had one hand on his horse’s reins, the other holding the lead rope to a mule that followed a half a length behind. He was dressed in a fringed buckskin shirt. Tall black boots hugged his muscular calves. With his brimmed black hat, he reminded her of a character from the Wild West stories she was so fond of reading. His sandy-brown hair hung loose, brushing the tops of his extremely wide shoulders.
“Who’s that?” she asked, intrigued by the newcomer.
Jessie came to her side and looked out. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before. He looks very—windblown though.”
More like untamed.
The two women stood in silence as he rode by.
The stranger halted in front of the Bright Nugget saloon. Dismounting, he looked around as if assessing the town. When his gaze landed on her bookstore, Tabitha knew from his angle he couldn’t see them watching through the window, but something made her take a small step back anyway. He was a good-looking man. Not young, but certainly not old. Not an ounce of city in his bones.
She watched as he moved around his animals, loosening the cinch of his saddle and then the packsaddle on his mule. Is he just passing through?she wondered. Or has he come to stay? One thought brought disappointment, and the other a warm flush of something she didn’t recognize at all.