“Hope in Cripple Creek” Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The stagecoach moved along, bumping and rocking as it went. Trees and other green scenery whisked by the window. Views of mountains and open plains were visible from the seat of the coach, vistas familiar to its occupant. Katherine Matthews was coming home. She returned to Cripple Creek, no longer the scared, unsure teenager who had left to further her education so many years ago with hopes and dreams of a new life in a new place. No, she had matured into a confident young woman who had grown in stature and in beauty. Her hair was no longer the mousy color she always hated, for it had deepened into the same beautiful chestnut brown she had always admired in her mother’s appearance. She’d grown out of her awkward teenage features, and was now well regarded among her peers as a rather handsome woman.

Returning to Cripple Creek brought many rather-mixed emotions to the surface. Imagine, one of her first postings would be at the same schoolhouse where she received her educational start. When her mother wrote to her of the interim need, she was glad to help out. What an odd coincidence that the letter would find her, too, in transition. Would this turn into a permanent placement? Did she want it to?

The mountain scenery became more recognizable, and she thought back on her childhood. There were so many happy times here. Unbidden, her mind wandered to the day of the great tragedy that had marred her spirit—the day Ellie Mae died.

Even all these years later, she carried the scar in her heart. The events of that day had left her broken. Why must thoughts of Ellie Mae plague her so? And all the more as her return became imminent? She shivered as the images from her nightmares the previous evening flitted across her mind. They would not stop. These same visions visited her in sleep night after night. All the more frequently these last weeks.

Closing her eyes, the hazy images took form and became memory. It was as if no time had passed. She and Ellie, walking through the schoolyard just as they did every other day . . .

Hooking arms with Ellie Mae, Katherine stepped out of the schoolhouse and into the yard. A rather large group of students gathered off to the right near the old tree. It didn’t bother Katherine. She turned her attention toward the path that would lead home.

“What do you think they’re up to?” Ellie Mae whispered.

Katherine glanced in that direction and noticed Betsy Callaway at the center, flapping her jaws. Why would anyone listen to anything she said? But they did. The class at large seemed to adore Betsy. It didn’t make sense. Clenching her teeth, Katherine grabbed for Ellie Mae’s hand. “Whatever it is, we don’t want to be involved.” She pulled Ellie Mae along as she walked on, trying to pass the gathering.

“I know Miss Matthews couldn’t do it,” Betsy said loudly.

Katherine froze in her tracks. What had she just said?

The crowd of students parted and glared at Katherine and Ellie Mae.

“Let’s keep going,” Ellie Mae pleaded, tugging on Katherine’s hand.

She should listen to Ellie Mae and not become a part of whatever game Betsy played. But she could not let Betsy get the best of her. What would everyone think of her?

So, she turned to face her accuser. There stood Betsy with Wyatt Sullivan, the most popular boy in school, right beside her. Betsy’s blonde pigtails, tied back with perfect pink ribbons, shone in the sun. Her dress was no less perfect, pink with just the right amount of lace and even a slight puff to the sleeves.

“Do what, pray tell?” Katherine shot back. Her heart beat furiously in her chest.

“Go down through the mine shaft.” Betsy folded her arms in front of her chest and raised an eyebrow.

Katherine’s heart skipped a beat then, but she tried not to show her fear.

Ellie Mae’s grip tightened on her hand.

“I assure you, Miss Callaway, it’s not that I can’t do it. It’s simply that I have better things to do than to be traipsing about a mine shaft.” She turned to leave and hoped that would be enough to silence Betsy.

“Prove it.” Betsy’s voice rang out after her.

Katherine’s eyes slid closed. Was there any way around this? “I have nothing to prove to you,” she called back over her shoulder.

“Fraidycat!” Betsy laughed.

The other students joined in.

Katherine’s face burned. A fire had been lit within her. She was not afraid of anything! Releasing Ellie Mae’s hand, she then whirled around. “I am not afraid!”

“There’s only one way we’ll believe that.” Betsy’s hands moved from her chest to her hips.

There was no way this would be a one-way challenge. “Are you going?” Katherine poked her chin out, putting her own hands on her hips, attempting to puff up her chest as much as she could.

“Of course,” Betsy said, though her voice caught.

“Then, let’s go.” Katherine grabbed after Ellie Mae’s hand and headed out in the direction of the old mine shaft. She hoped Ellie Mae didn’t feel how her palms had started to sweat. Perspiration covered her whole body. How was she to keep up this façade?

The group of students followed, a din of voices behind. As they neared the cavernous opening, they became quiet as they halted several feet short of the forbidden place.

Wyatt pushed through the crowd once they had stopped. “Now, girls, this is foolishness. Talking about it is one thing, but you’re not actually going down there, are you?”

Katherine glanced at the mine opening. It looked dark and ominous. Not what she wanted to see. Then she eyed Betsy. She had everything—the popularity, the most handsome boy in school … But she would not have Katherine’s pride, too. “I am.”

“Then I am, too.” Betsy stared at Katherine, matching her glare through slitted eyes.

“Kath-rine,” Ellie whispered, tugging on her hand.

Katherine looked over at her friend. Ellie’s eyes begged her not to go. Katherine wondered again at the danger. Her friend had every right to be concerned, she supposed. But it would not last. Betsy would go but a few steps in and give up. Katherine was sure of it. So, she would not be dissuaded.

Wyatt’s eyes moved from one girl to the other. A couple of years older than the girls at their thirteen years, he stood a good head taller than Katherine. At last, he threw his hands up in the air. “Then I’m going too.”

“And so am I,” came Ellie Mae’s quiet response.

Katherine leaned toward her friend. “Ellie, you don’t have to go.” Her eyes held Ellie’s. What was she going to do? She couldn’t take Ellie into that place. But something had eased in her when Ellie Mae volunteered to go. Was it selfish of her to want her friend to accompany her?

“Yes, I do.” Her voice was firm, though her chin quivered. “I’m sticking with you.”

A bump in the trail jolted Katherine from her reverie. The scenery outside became blurred. Or was it her? Touching her face, she felt moisture. She wiped at the tears. This would not do! Whatever happened when she returned, Katherine was determined she would face it with as much bravery as she could muster.

Not for the first time, she wondered what had become of Wyatt Sullivan and Betsy Calloway. She had avoided this subject in her correspondence with her parents over the last few years. Knowing Wyatt, he had gone on to bigger and better things and gotten himself out of Cripple Creek. And Betsy had probably caught the first stagecoach that took her wherever Wyatt went. So that was that.

The coach slowed and the town she knew so well appeared in the distance. In a matter of moments, she would be home. What a state this trip had left her in! With gloved hands, she smoothed over her dress and straightened her jacket. Her fingers worked to once again secure the pins that held her hat in place as the coach turned. Then they trotted down the main stretch into town.

Some of the changes her parents had written her about became visible. Cripple Creek had become a mining town. When Ol’ Bob Womack filed his claim, which he’d named the El Paso Lode, he’d started another gold rush, this one in Cripple Creek. She remembered the old man. Everyone thought he was crazy and at first no one paid attention to Ol’ Bob until a mining man formed the Cripple Creek Mining District, bringing in thousands of miners and prospectors within weeks. And then a stranger to their town, a Mr. Winfield Stratton, struck gold as well. Not just a little bit of gold, but such a lode that he became the first millionaire to grace this part of Colorado. That did nothing to deter interest. Some of these things were part of her memories, some her parents had told her through letters, but the events blurred between the two.

The stagecoach came to a slow stop, and the door opened. Katherine coughed at the burst of dust that flew into the coach. Once that settled, she was thankful for the fresh air. She gathered her things and stepped out of the coach.

Taking in the sights around her, she was struck at the amount of activity that filled the main thoroughfare. The main street appeared quite different with tents, makeshift cabins, and lean-tos set up all along the way. At the same time, it amazed her how little Cripple Creek had changed. As she gazed down the street, she spotted the bank, the church, the General Store… Katherine could almost see Ellie Mae standing there at the corner of the street, waiting for her so that they could walk the rest of the way to school. Blinking back tears, she fidgeted with the hem of her jacket.

“Ma’am?” a man’s voice interrupted her thoughts as fingers touched her arm.

Turning her head in the direction of the sound, she found a well-dressed man looking at her. He seemed to be expecting an answer. Had he asked her a question?

“I’m sorry, sir. My mind was elsewhere.” She fought the urge to touch her face and wipe away any incriminating tears.

“That’s quite all right. I’m John Jacobs, the town mayor. Katherine Matthews, I presume?” He stuck his hand out to shake hers.

She slid hers forward, forcing a smile she didn’t truly feel. “Yes, nice to meet you.”

“And you as well. Welcome to Cripple Creek. Rather, I suppose I should say ‘welcome back.’”

Katherine nodded, her eyes drifting past Mayor Jacobs to the town once more. The voices from the past called to her. But she drew her attention to the present and to Mayor Jacobs. “Yes, it’s good to be home. Although it has changed.”

“That’s what I understand. The population of this town has grown in the time I’ve been here. I can’t imagine how much it’s changed for you.”

She nodded again. How much indeed. The streets are full, Ellie Mae isn’t here, and I’m doing business with the Mayor. A loud clap on the wooden boards of the sidewalk startled Katherine. Turning, she placed a hand on her chest. Only her trunk and bags being unloaded from the coach.

Mayor Jacobs gestured toward the stack. “Shall I have these things taken to the boarding house? That is still your plan, I take it?”

“Yes, I thank you.” She released her grip over her heart and let out a deep breath in hopes it would slow its beating.

He nodded and then continued with some hesitation, “I hate to impose, Miss Matthews, but I hoped you would be agreeable to meeting with the town council. They are eager to speak with you.”

The trip had tired her. She had traveled for many days, and the emotions of being back in Cripple Creek had begun to overwhelm her. What she truly wanted was a couple hours of rest before her parents came to collect her for dinner. This delay would affect her plans. However, this was her job, and she didn’t want to disappoint the town council. After all, they hadn’t had the opportunity to interview her properly before offering her the position. So she tipped her head in agreement.

He smiled. “Good. They’ll be at the schoolhouse within the hour. Do you need some refreshment after your trip? The boarding house has a nice café.”

Maybe this would help her relax before the meeting. “Perhaps a glass of water or lemonade. I am parched.”

“Of course you are.” The mayor ushered her toward the lower level of the two-story building. “We have time for a bite to eat as well.”

Eat? She was far too anxious to put anything in her stomach. “No, but thank you. I’d rather get a look at the state of the schoolhouse and I don’t want to keep the council waiting.”

“All right.”

Mayor Jacobs opened the door, and Katherine stepped off the wood planked porch and into the cooler rooms within. The space was open and smelled of coffee and pot roast. Katherine’s mouth began to water at the enticing aroma, but she reminded herself she did not wish to chance a meal. Simple oak tables covered with white linens were scattered about, and burgundy curtains lifted in the breeze that flowed through the space from the open windows. Altogether, a pleasant sort of place. Nothing quite so quaint existed in San Francisco where she’d gone to receive her higher education. But it fit Cripple Creek.

Once inside the small café, they were acknowledged and seated quickly. The mayor ordered two lemonades. As they sipped on their cool beverages, the mayor made small talk about the town, the townsfolk in general, and the mining operations. He inquired after her family, and they concluded their visit with some chitchat about her father’s ranching business.

By the time Katherine finished her lemonade, the mayor had long since drained his glass. She blotted her mouth with her napkin and stood. Mayor Jacobs left enough money on the table to cover the bill and escorted her out of the café and back into the hot sun.

Now on the main stretch, he held his arm up in the direction of the schoolhouse. “This way, ma’am, as I’m sure you remember.”

Katherine moved through the town, taking the same steps she had so many times before. Her view of the road changed and before her eyes she saw the ghosts of her past. As if the townsfolk she had known were before her, and her childhood classmates moved through the streets to get to the schoolhouse on time.

As they neared the old tree in the schoolyard, Katherine took a moment to touch the sturdy trunk. How many times had her younger hands touched this very spot? How many games had she played around its frame? A fine bench had been put in underneath its branches. She sat on it and ran her hand over the smooth wood. It was unimaginable the hours two friends could pass here, telling stories and sharing secrets. The new playground lay nearby, but as she gazed at it, it was not faceless children she imagined there; it was her classmates. And Ellie Mae . . .

Ellie Mae had been Katherine’s best friend for as long as she could remember. They had grown up together. Her friend’s raven-colored hair and blue eyes made her one of the more intriguing-looking girls in class. She also had Katherine’s pale complexion. However, Katherine thought it much more becoming on Ellie Mae.

“Hey,” Ellie Mae said, waving, having spotted her friend.

Katherine rushed over to her. Pleased, as always, that her friend waited to walk the rest of the way to school with her. “Hey, Ellie.”

They linked arms and turned toward the schoolhouse.

“Did you see Betsy this morning?” Ellie lowered her voice as if she shared a great secret.

“No.” Katherine rolled her eyes. What was Betsy up to now? Always something with her.

“She is wearing quite the dress today. And mooning over Wyatt.”

“I’ll bet.” Betsy was always throwing herself at Wyatt. Even more so now with the fall dance coming up. That girl would do anything to get him to ask her to the dance. Katherine was curious why he hadn’t. Why did he continue to make everyone suffer Betsy’s through antics?

Not that it truly bothered her. He wasn’t her beau. And she didn’t have a crush on him. Heavens no!

“She is so obvious. I wish he would just ask her already.” Ellie Mae’s eyebrows furrowed.

“I think he likes the attention.” Katherine scowled. Wyatt was just plain vain.

“Shhh!” Ellie Mae elbowed her as she stifled a giggle.

Katherine looked around. Why had Ellie Mae cut her off?

Now in the schoolyard, they had just passed Betsy, Wyatt, and their classmates gathered by the old tree. But as Katherine glanced in their direction, Wyatt stared at her. Their eyes met. Katherine turned away. Why would he be looking at her? Did he hear what she had said? Did he know she was talking about him?

Katherine, her face warming, ducked her head and quickened her pace to get inside the schoolhouse.

Ellie Mae wasn’t able to keep up. As they reached their seats inside, she caught her breath at last.

“What was that all about?” Ellie Mae’s eyes sought Katherine’s after they did a sweep of the area. “Why did Wyatt look at you like that?”

“I don’t know. Do you think he heard us?” Katherine’s heart raced, and her body coursed with energy as if she could run away. And that’s just what she wanted to do — run a million miles away!

Ellie Mae shook her head. “Surely not.”

Katherine looked in the direction of the door. “I hope not.” But the warmth continued to creep further into her face. She was hopeless!

The school bell rang and a flood of students came through the doors. Katherine’s eyes remained fixed on the open doorway until Wyatt appeared. When she spotted his tall, slender frame, she spun around and dropped into her seat with a thump, dropping her head into her hands.

As the rest of the students took their seats, Miss Johnson, the schoolteacher, moved through the room toward the front of the class.

Katherine pulled her head up, but couldn’t focus. Had Wyatt heard her comment? Did he know it was about him? Wyatt was by far the most handsome boy in the whole schoolhouse. His sandy blond hair and blue eyes weren’t all that remarkable, but the strength of his features won him acclaim among the females.

To Katherine, he was her greatest rival. She might not be much to look at, but she knew she was smart. Well, so was Wyatt. For every high mark she made, he made one point above or below her. They always challenged each other for the top score. How unfair that he could have both the smarts and the looks! But that was life.

Everything became quiet around her.

Ellie Mae poked her.

“Wha—?” she startled in response. One look at Miss Johnson silenced her.

Miss Johnson stared at her.

And so did everyone else.

Had the teacher just called her name?

“Um . . . present,” she said, rubbing her offended arm. She shot Ellie Mae a mean look.

“Are you sure?” Miss Johnson raised an eyebrow.

The class laughed.

Though she did not think it possible, Katherine’s cheeks heated several more degrees. “Yes.”

Miss Johnson moved on with the roll.

Mayor Jacobs coughed, drawing her attention back to the present.

“I’m so sorry, Mayor. I seem to have lost my sense of time again.” Katherine stood and strode over to the schoolhouse stairs. She ducked her head as she passed him, almost as embarrassed by this lapse as she had been that day so long ago.

The town had kept the building up quite well. It appeared to have recently received a new coat of paint. Taking the few stairs, she stepped inside the one-room structure and pushed a fresh flood of memories to the side to focus on what lay in front of her. The student benches and desks all seemed to be in good repair, and the leg of the teacher’s desk, which Miss Johnson had propped up with books, had been fixed.

Forgetting the mayor was with her, she moved among the desks, letting her hand graze the tops, hearing Miss Johnson calling roll. Walking toward the front of the classroom, she let her hands run over the edge of the teacher’s desk and chair. Now at the chalkboard, she shifted to take in the whole room. Her eyes drifted across the room, seeing her classmates as Miss Johnson would have seen them. And the desk she shared with Ellie Mae.

“Well, what do you think?” the mayor’s voice interrupted her reverie.

She must get control of herself. Katherine shook her head and cleared her throat. “Quite nice. Rather well kept.”

“Thank you.” His voice was soft.

Did he know she was struggling to stay in the present?

“We do what we can. Our children and their education are important to the people of this town.”

“That’s good to hear.” She swallowed hard, attempting to quell the myriad of emotions welling up within her. This always had been a good town. Full of heart.

The stairs creaked outside. Katherine’s eyes darted toward the door and she guessed they were about to be joined by the first of the town council.

A tall man dressed in black entered the room. His pastoral collar caught her eye. But as she looked at his face, she knew this preacher was familiar to her. He had grown into a man and a beard hid some of his features, but she would know the eyes of her first schoolyard beau anywhere.

“Timothy,” she said as he closed the door behind himself.

He grinned. “Katherine.”

They moved toward each other, meeting in the middle of the classroom, embracing as old friends.

“It is so good to see you.” Katherine found herself leaning into his strong frame. It did feel good to be received so well. Not all of her classmates would have done the same.

“You too, Katie,” he said as he pulled back. “My goodness, look at you.”

Katherine’s face warmed. “And you, the town preacher.” She straightened the lapels of his jacket. Why had she done that? There was time and distance between them, but he still smiled at her. And so the edges of her mouth formed a wider smile as they continued to gaze at one another.

While they had kept up correspondence when she left for school, over time, her letters became few and far between. And then she stopped writing altogether. Katherine just couldn’t make herself stay so connected to home. The last she knew, he had gone off to seminary and hoped to return as Cripple Creek’s preacher. She had suspected her chances of coming across Timothy were good and she prayed for understanding. And now here he was, welcoming her back with open arms.

“Does it suit me?” The pride in his eyes could not be mistaken.

She nodded. “It does.” There was much of the boy she knew in the man before her. Yet he had grown up. What had changed? What was the same?

“I guess no introduction is necessary here,” the mayor interjected, stepping in from somewhere.

Katherine had forgotten anyone else was present. “No.” She took a step back. “The Reverend and I are old friends.” Referring to Timothy as ‘Reverend’ seemed odd. When she said that word, the face that flashed through her mind was that of old Reverend Jones. May he rest in peace.

The door opened again and two men Katherine did not recognize joined them. They were introduced as Michael Hammond, the town’s banker, and Phillip Yerby, who ran the General Store. Once Mr. Yerby was made known, Katherine could see in the older man’s face the features of the man she had known as a girl. The years had been hard on him.

“We’re just waiting on Doc, as usual,” Mr. Yerby said. “And who knows when he’ll be free?”

Was the doctor not to be inconvenienced for council meetings? Or was it that he felt his work was more important than meeting the new teacher?

“Our town doctor is the fifth member of the council,” the mayor explained. “He’ll be here as soon as he can. What with emergencies and whatnot. That being said, we might not see him at all.”

Emergencies? Were there that many emergencies in little Cripple Creek?

“Why don’t we start without him?” Timothy offered.

The men let out a chorus of agreement. Mayor Jacobs pulled the teacher’s chair around to the front of the desk, indicating for Katherine to sit, and the councilmen took seats at the students’ desks.

Katherine took the offered seat and turned her thoughts to the men in front of her, attempting to give the man who was not present the benefit of the doubt.

“First, we want to thank you for coming to fill our interim position. We are so pleased to have a qualified teacher with our children during this time of transition,” the mayor said as they all got settled.

“I’m glad to be here.” Katherine smiled. It was true after all, right? She didn’t know anymore.

“The Reverend tells us you are from Cripple Creek.” Mr. Hammond gave her a curious look.

“Yes, sir. You might know my parents, Tom and Lauren Matthews.” She had this. Her parents were good people, strong people in the community. They were certainly well regarded.

Murmurs of acknowledgement rumbled among the group.

Mr. Hammond’s features relaxed, but his questions continued. “And you went away to further your education?”

“Yes, to San Francisco.” They didn’t need to know that it wasn’t the only reason she’d gone away.

“And how long have you been a teacher?” Mr. Yerby piped up.

“Since I graduated, three years ago.”

While she spoke, the door opened to admit the final member of the town council. The long awaited doctor had finally arrived. The man nodded in her direction as he entered, his features masked as his head was tilted forward. But as he came closer, she began to make out nuances of his face.

A chill ran down her spine and she froze.

It was none other than Wyatt Sullivan.

“Miss Matthews?” Mayor Jacobs’s chair squeaked as he leaned forward.

“Yes?” She caught herself. Had he been speaking to her?

“I said, ‘I believe you may already know our doctor as well.’”

She nodded, unable to speak. Yes, she knew him. Better than she wanted to. So much so that she would do anything to erase the memory of everything surrounding him.

“I hope you don’t mind, Wyatt. We got started without you.” Timothy waved to a nearby student desk. “But jump in whenever you’d like.”

How could Timothy just speak to him so amicably? Had he forgotten?

Wyatt nodded, sliding into the chair that was much too small for his tall frame. “Certainly.” He turned toward Katherine. “Good to see you again.”

Katherine nodded at him but still couldn’t find her voice. She looked at his shirt, his hair, everywhere but his eyes.

“Did you spend those three years teaching at the same institution?” Mr. Yerby pulled out his handkerchief and wiped at his brow.

So the room was warm, it wasn’t just her. She longed to fan herself or loosen her collar. Anything to relieve some of this heat inside her. A moment lapsed before Katherine remembered she still sat in a session with the town council. “Yes,” she said, closing her eyes to focus her thoughts. “The Billingham Boarding School for Girls.”

“Katherine,” Wyatt leaned forward on his elbows. “If I walked into your classroom on a typical afternoon, what would I see?”

Meeting his eyes at last, she blinked a few times before finding an answer. “You would find students learning.” She bit her lip. It was not her intention to be snarky. “But I don’t think that’s what you mean.” Taking a deep breath, she continued, “You would find the students and I engaged in a discussion about a book or a topic in science. Perhaps we would be doing math on our tablets, but I prefer most of our learning to be done through discussion.” There, that was done. His question had been answered. Her eyes moved toward the other men, but Wyatt spoke up with another question.

“Why did you want to become a teacher?”

Pause. Breathe. She met his gaze. “Because I love learning and I want to share that with the next generation.”

Wyatt’s next inquiry came within a breath of her answer. “Tell us about your discipline philosophy.”

She stared at him. This seemed more like an interview and less like a ‘get to know you’ session thanks to Wyatt’s questions. Still, she responded, shoulders back, chest tight. “I think it’s important to reduce behavior problems by offering students a stimulating environment.” This time, she continued to stare at him, daring him to continue questioning her.

He rose to the challenge. “But how do you handle discipline issues?”

Her heart started to pound. She became rather uncomfortable under his scrutiny. The others eyed her, and she decided it best to do what she could to remain calm. “I prefer to remove privileges and have the students do write offs.”

“What are your classroom rules?” Mr. Hammond interrupted the back and forth.

Somewhat relieved for the respite from Wyatt’s steel blue eyes, Katherine shifted her attention over to the banker. “My rules revolve around the students respecting myself, other students, and the schoolhouse. That involves things like no talking when someone else is talking, raising hands to be recognized to talk, no behaviors that would be destructive to the schoolhouse or the desks . . .”

“What about students who are not performing as they should?” Wyatt interjected.

“It depends on whether it is a discipline issue or a capability issue.” Katherine raised an eyebrow at him. Would his questions never end?

He leaned back, folding his arms across his chest as if he had not considered that fine point.

Not wanting to give him any opportunity to gain on her, she continued, “If the student is willing, I can give him or her extra attention and time in order to support them.”

Wyatt opened his mouth, but the mayor cut him off.

“Miss Matthews, thank you for answering our questions. Do you have any questions for us?”

“Whom do I take any of my concerns to?” She had been dreading the answer to that question since Wyatt had walked into the schoolhouse. Holding her breath, she waited for the mayor to confirm or alleviate her fears.

“You will work most closely with the Reverend,” the mayor said, tipping his head toward Timothy. “Most issues and concerns will be addressed by him.”

Timothy offered her a winning smile.

A deep sigh of relief escaped her. Was it audible?

“Serious issues that, for whatever reason, need to go beyond the Reverend will be handled by myself.” Mayor Jacobs placed a hand on his chest. “But we only want to support you.”

She nodded. Nothing would faze her as long as she didn’t have to answer to Wyatt. “I understand.”

“Anything else?”

Katherine shook her head. She hadn’t expected to end this session with such an elated feeling in her heart. “Unless something has changed from our most recent correspondence as far as salary and start date?”

The mayor shook his head. “Everything is the same.”

“Then I have all the information I need.” Still aware of Wyatt’s gaze on her, she fidgeted with her hands in her lap.

“Well, gentlemen,” Mayor Jacobs said as he looked at the other men. “I think we need to let Miss Matthews rest after her trip.” He turned back toward her. “Thank you for meeting with us.”

And the men rose, each nodding in her direction in turn before shuffling toward the door, making small talk with each other.

Katherine stood as well, only to realize how weak her knees were. But she maintained her posture as the men clustered near the back of the room, still chatting.

Timothy alone stepped toward her. “Might I walk you back to your parent’s house?”

Was he being forward? Did she want him to be? “I’m actually staying at the boarding house in town.”

“Oh.” He looked toward the floor.

Did he think her refusal was a rejection? She had not intended that. “But I would welcome your company back into town, if it’s no trouble.”

The other men had already started moving in the direction of the doorway. Was it her imagination, or did Wyatt linger? Was he eavesdropping? It wasn’t long though before even he had vacated the schoolhouse, leaving her and Timothy alone.

“No, no trouble at all.” The corners of his mouth twitched and turned upward.

A warmth spread through Katherine. Yes, she still rather enjoyed the way Timothy’s smile made her feel.

Katherine took one last long look around the room where she’d be spending most of her time in the days to come. She allowed herself a few more moments to lose herself in her memories. Perhaps she should rearrange the schoolroom to prevent these flashbacks.

Turning back to Timothy, she offered him her best smile. Maybe he would come to like her smile too. “Ready when you are.”

With that, they made their way toward town.

“So,” she couldn’t help but say, grinning. “Find any good lizards lately?”

When they were but schoolkids, Timothy had been well known for his obsession with all things creepy crawly. He tried to share this love with her, but her obsession had been books. Hopeless even then.

He shook his head, stifling a laugh. “I haven’t been on a good reptile hunt in quite a while.”

“That’s a shame. I think you must take my students on one of your famous reptile hunts!” Had she just said that? Was she flirting with Timothy? Would that be all right?

“Truly?” One of his eyebrows shot up.

“If only you would.” She tugged playfully at his arm.

“I think I would like that.”

“It’s settled then.” She once again surprised herself and slid a hand into the crook of his arm. It was her turn to be forward.

He seemed surprised by her familiarity, but soon fell into step with her, bending his arm to create a better space for her handhold. A silence fell between them for a few moments. The time and distance hung in that space. She needed to speak about it. If it remained unsaid, it would only create a greater gap.

“I’m sorry I stopped writing.” Her voice became quiet.

“I understand why you did,” he said, his voice soft. With his free hand, he reached across to lay it on hers.

She nodded, biting at her lip to contain her emotions. “Thank you . . . for understanding.”

“I’m glad you’re back in town.” His voice seemed deeper somehow when it was so quiet.

Katherine kept her gaze on the ground for a few seconds before looking over at him. How much should she trust him? He was the closest thing she had to a friend here. Ever since . . . “I have mixed feelings about it.”

She didn’t have to say anything further. Timothy would understand.

That same silence fell on them again, only this time it was thick with memories.

He slowed their steps, breaking the spell. “I wanted to say, don’t let Wyatt’s questioning bother you. He’s just that way about things. It’s nothing to do with you.”

Surely Timothy meant to reassure her. That could not be so. “I wish I could believe that,” she confided.

Timothy pressed her hand, but said nothing.

Katherine drew her attention from Timothy to her surroundings. Long had they left the grassy surroundings of the schoolhouse and entered the dusty streets of town as they approached the boarding house.

“Here we are,” Timothy said, turning to face her, but not releasing her hand.

“Yes, we are.” She glanced down at her captive hand. Why did he hold her hand so? Was it possible he maintained his interest in her?

“What would you say to dinner tomorrow night?” His breath quickened and his voice shook, almost imperceptibly. As if he were that same young kid asking her to the fall dance so many years ago.

Her stomach flipped. “I think that would be nice, Timothy.” Smiling up at him, she gave his arm a little squeeze.
“Good.” He beamed. “If you need anything before then, don’t hesitate to stop by.”

“Thanks.” She thrilled at the thought of spending more time with Timothy. He would also be an invaluable ally with Wyatt in town and on the council. Not to mention how relieved she was that their friendship was still intact despite her actions.

With that, he released her hand and moved in the direction of the church.

She watched him go, thankful again for her old friend’s presence and help during this transition. And perhaps the hope of something more.

Katherine’s father would be by to collect her for dinner soon, so she’d best get out of her travel clothes and into something more comfortable. What a day it had been! The memories, the interrogation, the promise of an evening out. She stepped into the boarding house and moved toward the stairs at the back of the café.

As Katherine passed the small mass of tables, she paused. Was that . . . ? She turned her head to get a better view of the café. It was – Wyatt and a blonde woman. But why should it stop her in her tracks? Why should Wyatt’s dining habits concern her? Still, she couldn’t help but chance another glance in his direction, letting her eyes drift over to his dinner companion. Her breath caught. His dining partner was none other than Betsy Calloway.

Betsy hung on Wyatt’s every word, eyes glued to his face. But Katherine watched Betsy’s face, every bit as beautiful as Katherine remembered, a clear step above her peers. It irked Katherine, and she chided herself for feeling that way. She was no longer the preteen girl who felt lost among her peers. As a grown woman, Katherine had become well regarded and respected by those who knew her. Why should it matter to her what Betsy looked like? But Betsy’s presence here with Wyatt did strike Katherine.

So, after all this time, she had finally gotten her man. Good for her.

Katherine turned her attention to the stairs and made her way toward her room, trying, for the millionth time, to put Wyatt Sullivan out of her mind.