Sara R. Turnquist

Leaving Stoneybrook

Chapter 1 Sneak Peek

Chapter One

Was she completely out of her mind? Mary Foster stared at a pink satin ribbon. It stood out among the others—bright and brilliant. And nothing like her. Why did she so easy blend in? Was she not special enough to stand out? Not even a little?

She pulled her attention away from such frivolous things and set her mind firmly on the task before her. This was not the time for her to take a flight of fancy. Ma had requested she gather a few things at the General Store and Pa would be by soon to take her home.

She sighed and moved past the small display table and the shiny strips of luxury. What did it matter? She was plain. A fancy ribbon would not change that. What did she think? That the pieces of pink poking out of her pale hair would make David Matthews notice her?

Her face heated at that thought. What a ninny indeed!

Directing her gaze to the barrels of fruit, she collected several apples as she thought over her list. These would conclude her shopping…at least for the day. Ma had struggled of late to do the simplest things. And so Mary found herself making these jaunts to town on a mission for Ma more often of late. But she didn’t want to think on that either. Ma would be fine, wouldn’t she?

“Mary?” The voice called from somewhere behind her. A voice Mary knew all too well—David’s sister, Katherine.

Now? Must she face the Matthews siblings now? Her dress was certain to be in disarray and dirt smeared from the trip into town. Not to mention her hair, in shambles after being blown about by the wind. She was in no state for anyone to see her—least of all David.

Mary turned slowly, praying she was somehow mistaken.

Sure enough, there stood Katherine Matthews. But God had shown grace—David was nowhere to be seen.

Mary let out a breath. “Good to see you, Katie. What brings you to town?”

“Same as you, I suppose…picking up a few things.”

Mary nodded. Of course. It wasn’t unusual for Katie to make these trips for her mother as well. Though, not because Mrs. Matthews was ailing. The woman had likely never been sick a day in her life. An ache expanded in Mary’s chest, but she fought it. Ma would be all right. The doctor had assured them all she needed was rest.

“Are you well?” Katie stepped closer, eyebrows gathered over concerned eyes.

What? Oh, she had become rather distracted with her wandering thoughts. “Yes, just…wondering.”

A smile tugged at Katie’s lips. “What about? Or should I say who?”

Mary’s cheeks grew hot. What a thing for her friend to say! Did Katie know that Mary had a care for the younger woman’s brother? Or for how long Mary had borne it? She couldn’t. It wasn’t possible.

“No,” Mary said, then attempted to clear her throat…and her thoughts. “I am just trying to remember what Ma asked me to get.”

Katie peered into Mary’s basket. “Apples, cinnamon, a swatch of fabric…” The girl’s fingers roamed over the wares. “I daresay I wouldn’t want to be eating at your house tonight.”

Mary balked, but then realized…Katie only teased her. “Pa requested a pie and Ma has some mending to attend to.”

Katie grinned. “Your ma is the best seamstress in the whole of Cripple Creek.”

Mary’s lips turned upward at the corners. “Yes. She has quite a talent.” Yet another gift that had not passed on to Mary.

“I hope one day she’ll make me something special—a bonnet maybe.”

“Perhaps. I’m sure she would enjoy that if…” Mary stopped herself. Their challenges as a family were not publically known. Nor did her mother wish them to be.

“If what?” Katie looked at the shelf to her right and plucked out a jar filled with beets.

“Oh nothing.” Mary shifted her regard opposite. Perhaps Katie would dismiss it as easily as Mary wished her to.

Katie sighed. “Well I, for one, am looking forward to warmer weather.”

That was an understatement. Mary fairly iced over every time she stepped outside into these frigid temperatures. But this turn int eh conversation was an opening. It gave Mary an opportunity to ask after Katie’s family and take the focus off hers. “How are things at Stoneybrook?”

Oh, the ranch is all well and good.” Katie sounded bored. “Same old, same old.”

“And…” Mary swallowed, fearful she shouldn’t ask, but unable to stop herself. “…what of your brother?”

Katie’s eyes glinted as she returned her gaze to Mary.

If Mary didn’t know better, she would think Katie did know. Maybe she did. Would that be so bad?

“He is as difficult and boring as ever.” Katie’s gentle smirk betrayed that she wanted to say more. But what?

Mary shrugged and glanced in the direction of the counter, hoping she appeared every bit as uninterested as she wished she could be. As she did so, she spotted Reverend Jones’s wife coming down the aisle just adjacent to their position. Oh dear, she had intended to avoid such a confrontation.

Grabbing for Katie’s arm, Mary turned in the opposite direction. Perhaps escape was possible. But she wasn’t quick enough.

“Mary Foster,” Mrs. Jones called. “My dear child, however are you?”

Mary grimaced. She did not want to have this conversation. Least of all in front of someone as observant and intuitive as Katherine Matthews. Still, Mary had her manners. And she would not betray them lest her parents get wind of it and give her a tongue lashing.

“Mrs. Jones,” she said, turning back toward the older woman. “How lovely to see you.

“Of course,” Mrs. Jones said as she stopped just short of Mary. “You are such a kind and thoughtful girl.”

Mary forced a smile she didn’t feel. If she could, she would duck under the ribbon table and remain there until everyone was gone. She hated these uncomfortable exchanges.

“I thank you.” Mary fumbled with her basket as she ran a hand down her skirt. Though it was impossible to erase the wrinkles and dirt as easily as she’d like. “But I must be on my way. I have to get these things home before—”

“Yes, of course.” The woman waved a hand. “But before you go, dear, tell me how your mother fares.”

Katie piqued an eyebrow.

Few in town knew of her mother’s condition. And those few were the closest of family friends…and Reverend Jones, of course. Unlike Mrs. Jones, Ma’s dearest friends knew better than to speak of something so private in a public place. There were too many ears. And even more judgments.

Mary cleared her throat. “She is well.”

Mrs. Jones tisked, clicking her tongue against her teeth. “That is not what I am made to understand.”

Mary felt Katie’s gaze boring into her, but forced her attention to stay on Mrs. Jones. Her hands felt as weak as if they had turned into porridge. Surely, she couldn’t keep her grip on the basket’s handle firm enough for much longer. How could she escape this?

Putting forth her most sincere voice and expression, she said, “Ma has her days, but I tell you, she is well enough.”

“Poor dear.” Mrs. Jones went on as if Mary had not spoken. “I do pray for her recovery daily.”

Mary wished she could roll her eyes, but she dare not. Was there no reprieve from this woman? She lifted a prayer that God would be gracious to her once more and open up a way out.

“I thank you for your kindness,” Mary said through clenched teeth, not able to hold on to her appearance of interest any longer.

“Well, we mustn’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Mrs. Jones admonished. “It’s all in God’s timing.”

Mary held her breath to keep from pushing it out in her exasperation. “Of course.” She doubted the woman cared as much for Ma’s health as she did a piece of gossip.

“If you will excuse me, Mrs. Jones, I do need to get these things home.” Without pausing, she whirled.

And ran directly into David Matthews.

David Otis Matthews didn’t know what had hit him. Or who. But his hands came up to steady whomever had barrelled into him. He opened his mouth to issue an admonishment when he found himself staring into brilliantly bright blue eyes. Familiar eyes. Whose?

He pulled back slightly, still ensuring that the smaller figure gained firm footing. The azure pools had widened and appeared every bit frightened by the clash of their bodies.

“Whoa,” he said, keeping his voice gentler than he perhaps needed to. As he took in the features of her upturned face, he offered a smile. “You all right, Mary?”

She nodded, stepping away from him and looking at the floor as if something of great interest had happened upon her feet.

That gave him cause to worry. Had he injured her? He touched her arm. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.” The word shot out, her voice wavering.

It did not ease his concern.

She peered up at him through long lashes and shook blonde hair that shimmered in the sunlight streaming in from the nearby window. “That is, I am well. And you?”

Her features shifted and looked every bit aghast. Because she was embarrassed at bumping into someone? Or because she had run into him?

He settled his hands on his belt. “Never better.”

Her face colored and she looked down again.

What was this? Mary had always seemed friendly, even if a bit on the quiet side. But he had never known her to be downright shy.

Katie came alongside Mary and looped an arm around friend’s. “You just startled her is all.” He couldn’t help but notice that Katie’s grin was a bit too wide, and her manner a bit too outgoing.

Would he ever understand females?

He waved her off. “Nonsense.” But as he looked at Mary, he had reason to doubt. She appeared rather rattled.

“Perhaps we should see you home.” It was the right thing to offer, but he had to admit there was a selfishness in it. He wanted to ensure that she was truly unharmed. Maybe a ride to her folks’ place would loosen her tongue.

“No!” The word shot out of her mouth. A bit too loudly. Her cheeks reddened all the more. She licked her lips and then said, “That is, I’m quite well. My father will be along to collect me shortly.”

David nodded, not taking his eyes off Mary’s delicate features. She always had a way about her that drove him to want to protect her, shield her even. What about her brought that out in him? Maybe her kind and gentle manner. Or perhaps her timid nature.

Either way, he often enjoyed her company and found himself wanting to linger when he was with her.

“I’ll just be on my way, then.” Mary pulled free of Katie’s hold and tried to step around David.

He halted her with a hand on her arm.

She froze and looked from his hand to his face, then back again.

He released his grip. It had not been his intention to cause her discomfort. “I only thought to apologize.” He shot her one of his most disarming grins. I don’t make a habit of bumping into people.”

Her eyebrows rose. “I assure you, the fault is mine. I did not watch where I was going.”

“All the same,” he said before thinking, “I’d prefer you let Katie and I see to you until your Pa comes.”

That only made the color in her cheeks deepen. “Oh.” She glanced toward the counter as if longing for escape. Was she not comfortable with him? How had he never noticed that before?

“Please,” he said, lowering his voice, “Maybe we can find a bench. There is one just outside.” He reached for her basket.

She allowed him to take it, only releasing her hold after a moment of hesitation.

Then he ushered her to Mr. Yerby, who greeted them and made short work of tallying her items. “Will that be all, Miss Foster?”

“Yes.” Why did she sound so sheepish? Something was definitely off here.

“I’ll put it on your Pa’s account.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Mary reached for the basket, but David beat her to it, lifting it with ease. Then he indicated that they go outside with an arm outstretched in the direction of the door.

She gave a quick nod toward Mr. Yerby and didn’t resist when Katie came alongside her once more. “Did you see the new gingham fabric? It would make a wonderful dress for the Valentine’s Dance, don’t you think?”

Leave it to Katie and her ability to chatter aimlessly…almost inanely. Though David had to admit, it seemed to put Mary more at ease.

They stepped into the brightness of the overhead sun. He was pleased to find the bench just beyond the General Store vacant. Without prompting, Katie all but dragged Mary to it, moving almost as if prodded.

Mary stole a couple of glances his way, but appeared to at least try to attend to Katie’s slew of questions.

“Do you plan to come to the dance?” Katie droned on as she settled on the bench, tugging Mary down with her. “It’s only a month away. We should start planning our dresses.”

“I don’t know. It will depend on how—” Mary halted and swallowed. Was something more amiss? She was quite out of sorts today.

“Depends on what?” Katie did not seem the least bit sensitive to Mary’s reticence.

“I just…need to ask my parents’ thoughts on it.”

Katie waved a hand. “Your Ma always loves a good get-together.”

Mary nodded and offered a small smile. “That she does.”

It didn’t deter David, for there was something wistful about her statement.

Maybe it was something personal…beyond the boundaries of friendship. Either way, he had not been invited into the conversation. So he allowed his attention to wander. Not that the ladies were apt to notice. Katie could make conversation with a fence post. And probably had.

Several of the townsfolk milled about, going this way and that. Nothing new there. Did anything exciting ever happen in this town? He could say that Bob Womack’s discovery of gold several years’ back would qualify. It had created quite a stir and drove some to scour their own land for any gold that may be hidden there. Not to mention the fortune hunters who flocked to the area. Cripple Creek had become home to quite the mining operation. David had no doubt this once sleepy town would become all the more interesting over the next several months.

David’s attention landed on a well-dressed man walking by with Mr. Hammond. They were on the other side of the dirt road, but the pair came closer. David couldn’t hide his curiosity. Nor did he try. The bank owner was known to have intriguing friends. And new individuals to the town were still a bit of an oddity.

The two men crossed the road and moved toward the General Store. Mr. Hammond’s companion met David’s gaze. Had he been staring? The man tipped his hat in David’s direction.

Though a little put off that he’d been caught, David touched the brim of his hat in return.

The man seemed to think that an invitation and tugged at Mr. Hammond to alter course. What could the man want? Did he intend to work a swindle? Or did he wish to speak with the ladies? David wasn’t too keen on that.

But as the men neared, Mr. Hammond called out. “How are you today, Mr. Matthews?”

It was still a strange thing for the townsfolk to address him so formally. When did he stop being just ‘David’? Though this happened more often as he grew into a man.

David glanced at the ladies, who watched the exchange. Stepping in front of them, he hoped to block this stranger’s path and even his view of them.

The men stopped just short of David’s position.

“Mr. Green,” Mr. Hammond said quite boldly. I would like to introduce you to David Matthews. His father Tom Matthews owns Stoneybrook Ranch just south of town.” 

“Ah, yes,” Mr. Green said as he extended his hand. “What a fine piece of property out there.”

David looked at the proffered hand and hesitated before shaking it. Though he still questioned the man’s intentions, it would be rude to outright refuse such niceties. And he did have some level of trust for Mr. Hammond.

As he shook the Mr. Green’s hand, he asked, “What can I do for you? You looking to buy land around these parts?”

“Goodness, no.” The man half laughed.

David scowled. Was Cripple Creek not a decent enough place for him? Too rugged for an upstanding gentleman?

Mr. Green cleared his throat. “That is…I would be delighted to say I lived in such a glorious place, but I am unfortunately not in the market to relocate at this time.”

Nice try. The man couldn’t side step his insult that easily.

“What brings you to Cripple Creek then?” David was already bored with the conversation and the airs the man put on.

“I work with the stagecoach.” There was a lot of pride in Mr. Green’s voice.

David would wager he ran the stagecoach opperation in some respect.

Mr. Green continued, “You must have heard of the stage route that will come through this area. Even making a stop right here in Cripple Creek.”

David nodded. He had heard that about town. But he was never one to count on something until it happened.

The man looked a bit flustered. Was David supposed to have reacted some other way? Was the man used to a different response? If so, David wasn’t certain what that was.

“It will be a wonderful thing for your town. Bringing mail and packages much faster. And new folks to the area.” Was he trying to sell David something? It mattered little to him.

David shrugged. “Maybe some that are looking to stay in our…little part of the world.”

Mr. Hammond’s face reddened—and not in the sweet way Mary’s had. It did no favors for his affect. Clearly, he caught David’s insult and wasn’t pleased.

Mr. Green did not let David’s slight slow him in the least. “I am looking for able bodied men such as yourself to hire on as stage drivers.”

“Why would I want to do that?” David was intrigued, but he refused to let on that he was. He wasn’t sure he wanted anyone thinking—much less telling Pa—that he had any mind of a future other than the ranch. Even if that itself was a future he wasn’t certain he wanted. And David was all too aware that Katie, though quiet, probably soaked in every word.

“Just think of the money you could make. But more than that, think of the adventure! You would be able to see many new places and meet all kinds of people. Tell me, have you always lived in Cripple Creek?”

David nodded.

“A young man like yourself should be free to see the world. There are so many opportunities for a strapping young man. Think of the possibilities! All you need is a little ambition and a willingness to do hard work and you could really make something of yourself.”

David opened his mouth to naysay Mr. Green, but the man’s words gave him pause. Make something of himself? Could he see a future like that? A future where he could be his own man and not just Tom Matthew’s son?

Looking at the boarded sidewalk beneath his feet, he tried to give off an air of disinterest, but he wasn’t certain he couldn’t hide his true feelings.

Katie was beside him in an instant. “He will make something of himself. And he has a future.” Her rebuke of the man was sharp. More so than necessary. More than was polite.

Mr. Green and Mr. Hammond’s eyes widened.

“Respectfully, sir,” Katie added before shrinking back behind her brother.

“I see,” Mr. Green said as he took out his handkerchief and dabbed at his brow. Was the man perspiring? It was far too cold for him to be overheated. “Well, Mr. Matthews, if you change your mind, Mr. Hammond knows where to find me.”

The man smiled broadly at David and offered a quick nod in Katie’s direction.

David wasn’t sure he liked the way the man dismissed her, but she had been impertinent.

The two finely dressed men turned and moved off into the General Store.

Katie was at David in the next second. “Why did you let him go on like that? You’re not interested in driving the stage are you?”

David sighed and tried to appear exasperated. “That’s none of your concern.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What would Pa think of that?”

He gave her a sharp look. “It’s nothing to concern Pa with. Don’t you go tellin’ stories about such ridiculous things.”

Katie crossed her arms, her stiff stance betraying her displeasure.

Mary rose and moved between the siblings. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Katie.” The young woman soothed with a tone that sounded more melody than words. “Your brother was just being kind.”

Something about the way Mary defended him warmed his core. What would it be like to have someone on his side no matter what the world threw at him?

He shook his head. Not only was he unable to entertain marriage while he was still behoven to his father, he was in no position to court a woman either. Still, Mary would make some man a fine wife.

“I’ve got to check on the horse,” he muttered before turning to Mary. “Are you sure you’ll be fine until your pa gets here?”

She nodded. “Of course.” Nervous laughter followed. What was that about? “I’ll just sit with Katie for a bit.”

He let one side of his mouth quirk upward. Then his gaze fell on Katie. “I’ll be back in a few minutes to get you home.”

Katie’s features were still hard, but she nodded.

If only he could ensure she kept her mouth shut when they got home. If only.