A plaintive cry of purty, purty, purty sounded from the treetops overhead. Charity Bloom glanced up and frowned. The redbird’s compliment once caused her to flush with pleasure. Now it just made her mad.
Hush, deceitful scoundrel! I don’t believe you anymore. Pretty was the last thing she felt and might never feel again.
Without the sun to warm her, the threadbare fabric of Charity’s dress did little to prevent the north wind from biting at her back. Only sparse, mottled beams of light fought through the canopy of pine, so the trail into town hoarded the morning chill. She pulled her shawl closer and told herself the cold was the reason for her shivers. Relieved, she reached the trailhead and took her first grateful steps into the light.
The rapscallion cardinal hopped to a lower branch and made one last attempt to convince her before she moved out of range. She ignored him and pushed his song from her mind.
It wasn’t long before another voice took its place. “It’s too soon, daughter,” Mama had cautioned. “You’ll wind up lashed to the spit and roasted. Fresh scandal’s scarce around these parts. Them spiteful cats are bound to gnaw on yours ’til the hide’s wore off. Folks feast on others’ misery.”
Charity forced the words and the shame they conjured to a dark corner and covered them with righteous determination. Humble, Texas, was home, and they wouldn’t drive her away. After all, she’d done no wrong --- unless love and misplaced trust were sins.
She defiantly lifted her chin, only to lower it again and sigh as Main Street came into view. Humble was indeed her home, but the landscape had changed so much over the last week she hardly knew it. Scowling, she gazed eastward to Moonshine Hill with its towering oil derrick, the culprit to blame. Strange how the unrest in Humble rivaled the recent upheaval in her life. Otherwise unrelated, both events had landed in her lap with the force of a runaway train.
Reflected sun from a row of tin roofs across the way stabbed at her eyes. She shielded them with her hand then ducked into a strip of shade along the front of the dry goods store and headed for the Lone Star Hotel. Where the crowd became as thick as Mama’s grits, she raised her elbows, steeled her resolve, and surged into the multitude.
Hordes of tents spread in an ever-widening circle from the heart of town, their occupants swarming like insects. The mingled voices, all shouting to be heard, made a deafening din, and Charity resisted the urge to hold her ears until she passed. Scores of men, women, and children spilled onto the street in droves, making it hard to gain any progress. She tried to stay head-down, mind on her business, but before long the meddlesome stares and huddles of pointing, whispering people weakened her resolve along with her knees. Mama was right. She was a hardheaded girl on a foolhardy mission.
“Hush now. Here she comes.”
The words filtered back from just ahead on the boardwalk. Charity glanced up in time to see Elsa Pike bury a bony elbow in her daughter’s ribs. The women strolled ahead of her, Mrs. Pike tall and thin next to the decidedly round Amy Jane. The pair put Charity in mind of the number ten. Taken together, they were ten times the trouble no matter how she ciphered.
They slowed their pace and waited while Charity caught up. Why hadn’t she listened to Mama?
Mrs. Pike turned with a smile as sweet as caramel corn. “Hello, Charity. What a shock to see you in town. Feeling better so soon?” Amy Jane wore a sugary smile, too --- as if seconds ago they weren’t crouched, feeding on her misfortune.
She fought the urge to turn tail and run but braced herself and met them head-on. “I’m feeling fine, ma’am. Thank you for asking.”
Mrs. Pike took Charity’s hand in her long, gloved talons. “I want you to know how awfully bad we feel for you, dear.”
Charity eased her hand free. “There’s no need.”
Mrs. Pike clucked her tongue then lowered her voice to a whisper. “Your poor mama. I hear she took in boarders to buy material for your wedding gown.”
“And what an exquisite dress!” Amy Jane added, her voice too loud. “All that fandangle and fancywork. Your mama really outdid herself.”
Charity cringed. A picture swam into her mind of Mama hunched in a circle of lantern light drawing a needle through tiny sequins with work-weary hands. More than once Charity found her asleep the next morning, her face pressed to the hard kitchen table.
She could manage disgrace and every indignity heaped upon her, but the memory of Mama’s fingers, blistered for naught, dealt her shame. She lowered her head. “Yes, she worked powerful hard on it.”
“You looked lovely in it, too, dear, with your hair swept up, black as pitch against all that lace.” Mrs. Pike wagged a bony finger in Charity’s face as if she were the culprit. “Your young man should hang his head for all the trouble he’s caused.”
“He’s not my young man.” Her correction came out a whisper neither woman seemed to hear.
A brisk wind had picked up, a low moan at first and then a howl through the center of town. It whistled under the boardwalk and gusted around them, plucking at Mrs. Pike’s tall, jaunty hat and Amy Jane’s balloon sleeves, frills she knew Mr. Pike could ill afford.
Charity held a tender spot for Shamus Pike, her departed papa’s oldest friend. How many hours of backbreaking labor had it cost the poor man to provide his two peacocks their gaudy feathers?
Mama Peacock seemed in need of extra wings as she struggled to hold her bonnet while protecting her modesty and that of her daughter from the blustery wind. “But then, men never think of such things,” she said from under the flapping brim. “I’m sure Daniel never gave a thought to your mama’s sacrifice.”
Amy Jane stepped closer and licked her lips, eyes wide in her round, freckled face. “About the dress... will you be selling it? I would dearly love to have it.”
Mrs. Pike whirled on the girl. “Amy Jane! How utterly crass.”
“What, Mother? I didn’t leave Charity at the altar. I’m sure she has no use for it now.”
The wind stopped as quickly as it had come, leaving behind a palpable hush.
Charity looked over their shoulders, past the low row of buildings, to the backdrop of tall Texas pine, longing to be at home in her room.
“What on earth would you do with Charity’s dress?” Mrs. Pike asked.
“Wear it, silly. Did you forget I’m getting married in three months’ time?”
“It won’t fit you, dear. You’re quite a bit larger than she is, you know.”
Charity’s head jerked up at this. Poor Amy.
Amy Jane looked indignant. “I’ve starved myself, or haven’t you noticed? I’ll be much smaller by then. And Mrs. Bloom could let it out for me.” She glanced at Charity. “Couldn’t she?”
Mrs. Pike shook her head. “Amy Jane, there’s not enough material on that tiny dress to cover your backside, never mind the rest of you.”
Charity fought the smile tugging at her lips as she watched them spit and spar, her presence forgotten. Amused, she slipped past and continued on her way. She felt a mite guilty for walking off without saying good-bye but had no stomach for the direction the conversation had taken. Besides, a peek over her shoulder at their waving arms and lively faces told her they hadn’t noticed she’d gone.
“Charity Bloom! Wait right there, sugar.”
Charity groaned. She didn’t have to glance to see who’d shouted, didn’t need a look to know who charged her way. Serves me right for having a laugh at Amy Jane’s expense.
It wasn’t that she minded seeing Magdalena Dane. In fact, she loved Mama’s old friend. She just didn’t relish an encounter with her in the middle of town.
Mother Dane lifted the hem of her stylish blue dress and sashayed into the street, to the delight of the locals gathering behind her. Oblivious to them, she picked her way across the ruts and bore down on Charity. When she reached the boardwalk and stepped up, Charity attempted to speak, but the older woman pulled her so tightly against her ample, satin-covered bosom that just to breathe was enough. “My spunky girl!” Mother Dane cried. “Imagine that, you coming out so soon. Are you all right, precious?”
“I’m fine,” she said, her words muffled by yards of cloth and copious flesh. “At least I will be when you turn me loose.”
Mercifully, Mother Dane eased her grip and stepped back. “Don’t put on a brave front for me. Go ahead and cry if you like. You have every reason to.” Her anguished eyes searched Charity’s face. “I haven’t called on you, dear. Please forgive me. I didn’t know what to say.”
Charity reached for her hand. “I understand, I really do, but Mama laid out her deck of cards on Monday.”
“She did?” Mother Dane’s eyes grew wide and wet. The prying cluster of busybodies across the way mumbled and shuffled when she pulled a lace handkerchief from her bodice. “Dear, sweet Bertha. I thought she wouldn’t ever want to see me again, much less play cards.”
“Mother Dane, you know Mama better than that. She wouldn’t cast off a friendship of thirty years’ standing over something like this.” She winked. “Much less a game of penny candy poker.”
“Stop it, now! Honey, how can you jest? I’ve been distraught. Grievously vexed. How’s your mama taking it?” She fanned herself with her hankie. “Bertha’s my touchstone. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
“Yes, ma’am, she knows that. You’re hers as well.” And a more unlikely pair there never was.
“She’s been on my mind every second. You both have. If there’s anything I can do, anything at all...”
“Goodness, no, you’ve done enough. Sending Nash out to the house with her wages was far too generous.”
The truth was, Mama nearly split a gut when Mother Dane’s hired man turned up with a fistful of money for the days she’d missed, but there was no need to mention that now. “Mama plans to work off every penny, but I’m ever so grateful. Having her home the last few days has meant the world to me.”
“Of course it has.” Mother Dane enveloped her again. “I shrink in my boots to think my own daughter caused you such pain --- and after all you’ve meant to each other. She always was selfish and headstrong. But you already know that, don’t you?” She moved Charity to arm’s length and peered at her again. “Was there any warning? Any sign Emmy and Daniel might do such a thing?”
The question brought fresh the memory Charity had struggled for days to forget. In that instant she stood again at the altar of Free Grace Church, clothed in yards of sequined lace, while Daniel Clark walked away from her.
She watched again as Emmy’s lovely silhouette stepped into the aisle, took two deep breaths, and ran --- not toward Charity as she expected, but out the door on Daniel’s heels. That was when she knew. Given the collective gasp from the assembled guests, they knew it, too.
Her cheeks flamed at the memory, and she cast an embarrassed glance across the street.
“Emily has disgraced our family in the past, that’s for sure, yet no more than we expected,” Mother Dane was saying. “But this! Leave it to my Emmy to be in the right place at the right time. She always was an opportunist.”
The harsh words tugged at Charity’s heart. “Maybe we should give her a chance to explain.”
“Don’t.” Mother Dane held up her satin-gloved hand. “Don’t you defend her, dear. Not after what she’s done. Lord knows I love my daughter, but let’s be frank. She’d not extend you the same courtesy.”
Charity hesitated then had to nod.
“Besides, how can she explain when she’s not talking? She’s holed up in her room and won’t let me in. Mind you, she doesn’t have a thing to tell that I don’t already know. All of Humble knows her guilty little secret.”
Charity shook her head, not ready to accept what the words implied. “Whatever happened, I refuse to believe she meant to do me harm.”
Pain flashed in Mother Dane’s eyes. “I’m afraid the days for pretense are past, dear. We know Emmy’s heart best, you and I. She may be confection on the outside; inside she’s a festering sore.”
For the second time that morning Charity longed to cover her ears. “Please don’t.”
Mother Dane lifted Charity’s chin with her knuckle and gazed into her eyes. “It’s true, though it hurts me to say it. I prayed she might be more like you, wished with all my heart you might influence her with your goodness.” She shrugged, her countenance the picture of despair. “I guess it wasn’t to be. I fear my only child is bound to deal me heartache.”
Charity drew the teary-eyed woman into an embrace. Over a padded blue shoulder she noticed that the interest of the locals had drawn a crowd. Now a collection of curious strangers stood alongside her friends and neighbors, and Charity grew warm under their scrutiny. She fished a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and dabbed her friend’s cheeks. “There now, you just brighten up some. Emmy will be fine. You’ll see.”
Mother Dane drew herself up and managed a shaky smile. “There you go fretting about me in the midst of your own suffering.” She squeezed Charity’s hand. “You’re a good girl, Charity Bloom.”
Charity summoned a wry smile. “If that’s so, then I need to finish my errands and get home before Mama starts to worry.”
“All right, darling. You run along. Do give Bertha my love.”
Charity sighed and turned. She’d almost made good on her escape and wanted nothing more than to flee. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Before you go, may I offer one last word of encouragement?”
With eyes like thunderheads, Mother Dane cast a withering glance at the gathered snoops. “Don’t let these tongue-wags get at you. They’re spewing nonsense. This was all Emmy’s fault... and Daniel’s. It had nothing to do with your mama.”
“Mama?” Charity closed the distance between them. “What are they saying?”
Mother Dane’s chin shot up. “Never you mind. That highfalutin Eunice Clark may consider her son too good for you, but Daniel’s cut from different cloth. I don’t believe for a minute he feels the same.”
Charity’s heart sank, because she knew the truth of it. The cloth Daniel was cut from didn’t fall far from his mama’s bolt. Though smitten with her, Daniel had been troubled that his fiancée was the daughter of a widowed servant. It didn’t help that folks believed Mama to be mad as a hatter.
“What Daniel feels doesn’t concern me anymore,” Charity said with a lift of one shoulder. “It’s over. There’s no use trying to make sense of it now. I just want it behind me if this town will allow it.”
Thankfully, Mother Dane’s gaze held compassion, not pity. “Are you so certain it’s over, dear? Daniel could have a change of heart.”
Charity’s spine stiffened. “But I won’t.”
Tears snuffed the flicker of hope in Mother Dane’s brown eyes. “It’s such a tragedy, then. Daniel was a good match for you, honey. All we might’ve hoped for. He could’ve given you so much.”
“Hush, now,” Charity soothed. “Don’t worry about me for another minute. I’ll be fine.”
Mother Dane wiped her eyes. “Yes, you will. You’re Bertha Bloom’s daughter, aren’t you?”
She squared her shoulders. “I am, and glad of it. Speaking of Mama, give me a kiss and let me be on my way. I left her elbow-deep in chores.”
“Now there’s a dear girl. Tell Bertha to take a few more days off and to look for me come Monday. Tell her to lay out those poker cards again. I got my hands on some candy corn.”
Charity smiled. “You won’t make it home with any, you know.”
Mother Dane sniffed. “That remains to be seen. You just tell her, you hear?”
She wagged her finger. “Don’t forget.”
“No, ma’am, I won’t.”
Charity moved away, painfully aware that those around her were reluctant to disperse. She wasn’t sure what they’d hoped to witness between Emmy’s mama and herself, but they seemed sorely disappointed by what they saw. Charity wanted only to finish her business and get home, so she quickened her pace and headed for the first of the only two stops on her list she still planned to make. The rest of her errands could wait for a better day --- sometime next year perhaps.
Stubby Morgan had taken to fetching her mail from the commissary post office at Bender’s Mill. Then he left it with Sam, the hotel clerk, saving Charity a trip out to the mill. Rumor had it that Stubby went to the trouble because he was sweet on her. She didn’t think it so.
Inside the new hotel, she crossed the lobby, raising an eyebrow in greeting as she passed the huge portrait of Pleasant S. Humble, the town founder. Uncle Plez, as he was known by the locals, stared down at her from his place of honor, and she would have sworn she saw one bushy brow twitch.
Sam had the mail in his hands before she reached the front desk.
Charity thanked him and stepped aside to sort it. She tried not to think about Daniel, but his face and Emmy’s, too, swam in her head, making it impossible to concentrate on the letters. What they’d done was sure to hurt later. Right now she felt only anger. Which influence had Daniel finally given in to --- his mama’s constant braying about marrying beneath himself or Emmy’s pale ringlets and haunting blue eyes?
Hang Daniel... and Emmy, too. They deserve each other.
Charity jumped so violently she nearly took leave of her shoes, and the stack of mail flew in every direction. She whirled to find a stranger in a wide-brimmed hat beaming down from a considerable height. She pressed her empty hands to her heart. “Goodness me! You startled me out of my wits.”
“I sure did, didn’t I? Such a start this early in the morning can’t be good for a body.”
Charity struggled to settle her pounding heart. “Sir, I’m now qualified to assure you it isn’t.” She gazed around at the letters and mail-order catalogs scattered over the lobby then scowled up at the man.
He stepped closer and tipped his hat. “Please forgive me, ma’am.”
They were the proper words and gestures, all right, but Charity reckoned he’d seem more contrite if he could straighten his grinning face.
Excerpted from CHASING CHARITY: Texas Fortunes Trilogy, Book 2 © Copyright 2011 by Marcia Gruver. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.