Tony checked up and down Bilberry Street. This had to be it. The fellow at the train station had said Sullivan Spreckelmeyer lived northwest of town in a two-story Georgian, shaded by giant pecan trees on a spacious lot and surrounded by a white picket fence.
It was nothing like the ostentatious Morgan mansion, but the place had all the makings of a well-to-do, respectable family home.
Giving his Stetson a determined tug, Tony opened the gate and approached the front porch that ran the entire width of the house, its cedar posts enhanced with carved appliqués. He paused a moment to admire the work, then took the steps two at a time and allowed himself a quick peek through the screen door.
An open dogtrot ran clear to the back of the house, with rooms on either side and a set of stairs just inside the threshold. He raised his hand to knock, then paused, noticing in the darkness at the top of the stairs a creeping figure looking to the left and right.
Tony jumped back out of sight, then peered around the edge of the door. The figure at the top of the stairs straddled the banister and rode it down, flying off the end and landing with a thump on both feet, arms flung into the air.
Tony lunged forward instinctively, pushing open the screen door, expecting to cushion the fall of a misbehaving boy, but stopped in shock when he found himself facing the back of a woman.
Her infernal knickerbockers --- along with the means by which she'd decided to descend the stairs --- initially misled him as to her gender. But this was no young lad. This was a fully grown woman. Complete with hat, pinned-up hair, tiny waist, and pointy boots.
Her landing looked perfect at first, but then something on her left side gave, an ankle maybe, and with a squeak, the woman crumbled.
She hit the floor before he could react. Kneeling down, he helped her to a sitting position. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"My stars and garters," she said, a feather from her hat poking him in the eye. "Would you just look at this?"
Repositioning himself, Tony watched as she propped her left foot onto her right knee, wiggling the heel of her boot. It hung like a loose tooth that should have long since been pulled.
"These are brand new," she said. "Straight out of the Montgomery Ward Catalogue. Can you even imagine?"
What he couldn't imagine was how that hat of hers stayed attached. One-and-a-half times as tall as her entire head, this haberdasher's nightmare had steel buckles, looped ribbons, feathers, foliage, and even a blue bird. The only evidence it gave of her fall was a slight tilt to the left.
She thrust out her arm for assistance. He took her hand and placed his other beneath her elbow, helping her stand.
"Well, you'd think a pair of boots that came clear from Michigan Avenue could hold up a little better than that." She brushed the front of her skirt, then raised her gaze to his.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.
The commandment popped into his head just as he noticed the blue of her eyes, the dimples carved into her cheeks, and the peach color of her heart-shaped lips. He'd thought Spreckelmeyer's wife was deceased. But clearly he was mistaken, for here she was --- alive, healthy, and fine looking. He'd had no idea she was so young. And a wheeler, as well. Though it made sense, since the daughter was such an avid cyclist.
He whipped off his hat. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
Narrowing her eyes, she brushed off her backside and glanced at him, the screen door, and back again. "How long have you been standing there?"
"I was just fixing to knock when you, uh, fell."
She touched her hand to her mouth. "You saw me?"
"I saw you fall, ma'am."
She studied him for several seconds before a smile crept up. "I reckon that's not all you saw, is it?"
He answered her smile. "I have no idea what you mean."
She chuckled. "Well, sir. I do apologize and thank you for helping me up."
" 'Twas no trouble. Are you all right?"
"Fine, fine. Heavens, I've taken much worse tumbles than that. Now, is there something I can help you with?"
"Yes, ma'am. I was here to ask your husband if he had any need for a cable-tool worker."
"Ah." Her grin widened. "If you're wanting to speak to my husband, you're going to have one loooong wait. But, now, if you wanted to speak with my father, well, you'd find him right through there." She indicated a closed door along the wall.
He felt a surge of blood rush to his face. "I beg your pardon, miss."
"No need to worry yourself." She twirled her hand in a dismissive gesture. "Now, what's your name, son?"
Son? "Tony Bryant, miss."
"Come on, then, Mr. Bryant, and I'll introduce you to Papa." She hobbled a few steps, then came up short and turned back to face him. "You, uh, you won't tell, will you?"
"About ... you know." She nodded toward the banister, the bird in her hat coming perilously close to losing its perch.
"I didn't see a thing." He licked his finger, crossed his heart and winked.
"Oh, thank you," she said, her laugh sounding like bell chimes.
She knocked and poked her head inside a door, mumbling something, then threw it open, inviting Tony in with a sweep of her hand.
"Papa? This is Mr. Tony Bryant of ...?"
"Beaumont," Tony offered.
"Beaumont," she repeated. "Mr. Bryant, this is my father, Judge Spreckelmeyer."
"Judge?" Tony asked.
"Of the 35th Judicial District," she confirmed.
"Come in, come in," Spreckelmeyer said. The robust man with a full gray-and-white beard, and blue eyes just like his daughter's, placed his pen in an ornate brass holder. If his brown worsted suit had been red, the man could have been Santa Claus.
"Would you fetch us some coffee, Esther?" Spreckelmeyer asked.
"I'll bring it right in," she answered, then turned to go.
She paused at the open door, her hand on the knob.
"Are you limping?" her father asked.
She glanced quickly at Tony before looking down at her feet. "Oh, it's my new boots. The heel snapped right off. Just as I was about to answer the door."
"Those bicycle boots you ordered?"
"Yes. Can you imagine? They just don't make things the way they used to."
"Well, you must take it to the cobbler at once."
"And so I shall. Now, if you will excuse me?"
She backed out of the room and closed the door.
Judge Spreckelmeyer stared after her for a long moment, his frown becoming more and more pronounced. "Surely she didn't slide ... naw," he muttered, then with a shake of his head, he stood and offered Tony a hand. "Mr. Bryant, please have a seat."
Excerpted from DEEP IN THE HEART OF TROUBLE © Copyright 2011 by Deeanne Gist. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.