Victoria's Promise (Brides of Serenity Book 2), page 1
Brides of Serenity
For Susan and Barbara
Table of Contents
“Promise, Victoria,” the man wheezed.
Victoria Dawson brushed her fingers across his warm face. “Shh, Jonathon, I’m here. Everything is going to be all right. Just rest.”
Jonathon turned his face toward her. His blue eyes were clouded with pain, but she saw awareness in his gaze. For the moment, at least, he knew what was happening. “Promise me,” he repeated.
“Anything,” she whispered. “What do you need, my love?”
“Marry again . . . after. Find a man who will love you as much . . . as I did.”
“Don’t be silly, Jonathon.” She laughed without a trace a humor in her voice. “You’re going to be just fine in a few days.”
“Stop it!” Victoria rose from her chair beside their bed and stalked to the window. The St. Clair River sparkled in the rising sun on what promised to be another hot, steamy day, and she ached for the touch of a cool breeze on her skin. She wondered idly if autumn was drawing near; she had lost count of how many days and weeks she had spent in this bedroom tending to her husband in his illness.
Dr. Winslow had told her that it was only a matter of days at this point. The disease that ravaged Jonathon’s body was slowly taking his life, and there was nothing anyone could do to save him.
“I want you to leave Port Huron . . . start a new life away from . . . memories of me.”
She whirled and stared at him. Surely, he was delirious again. No sane man would suggest that she leave the cozy little home they had made for themselves here.
But his eyes were still clear as he watched her. “I wrote . . . letters,” he said, and began coughing. She hurried back to his side and held him while the coughs wracked his body. When the spasms finally eased, she wiped the flecks of blood from his lips and helped him take small sips of water.
“Rest,” she whispered, kissing his cheek.
“I wrote letters,” he said again. “Forgive me.”
“What – what kind of letters, Jonathon?”
“They need a teacher in Serenity,” he told her. “I said you’d . . . take the job. When I – when I am gone . . . sell the house and go. Start over.”
She gasped. She hadn’t taught since she married him nearly two years ago, and even then she’d been one of a handful of teachers at a big-city school. Serenity was a back woods lumber town on the other side of the state. She wasn’t prepared to teach at under those conditions. Besides, the thought of leaving Port Huron was preposterous.
“But I want to stay and take care of you,” she protested.
“I’ll be gone soon,” her husband said. “Promise me, Victoria. . . you’ll start over in Serenity . . . you’ll marry again. Please. Give me your word.”
She opened her mouth to protest again, but stopped when she saw the haunted look in his eyes. In that moment, she realized that it was time to believe both her husband and the doctor. Jonathon was not long for this world. He needed peace of mind in his final moments.
“I promise,” she said slowly, choking back tears.
He smiled and closed his eyes, drifting into a fitful sleep. Victoria stayed with him through the night, holding his hand and wiping his face with a damp cloth from time to time. And when he slipped away sometime near morning, she kissed his forehead once more.
“I promise,” she told him one last time. “I promise to make a fresh start, and I promise to marry again. But I will never love anyone again, Jonathon. Never.”
The countryside that flew past the train windows had stopped holding Victoria’s attention long ago. Although most of the snow had melted, there were still tired-looking piles of it dotting the sodden ground beneath barren trees and a wet gray sky. Here and there, she thought she saw a flash of color that may have been a spring flower peeking through, but they were moving much too fast to be sure.
She shifted in her seat. She was tired of sitting, but she didn’t dare get up and stroll up and down the aisles as some of the other passengers did. She was already pushing the limits of what was proper as a young woman to travel unaccompanied; there was no need to draw even more attention to herself by walking around.
Victoria was bored. She had brought some books to read on her trip from Port Huron to Serenity, but the motion of the train made her queasy when she tried to read. She had napped for a while after putting the book away, and then she’d spent some time observing her fellow passengers. Now, she thought she might have to jump up and scream if she didn’t find something to occupy her mind.
She spotted a young blond girl sitting across the aisle and twirling a bit of string between her fingers. The girl looked to be about twelve or thirteen years old, and more importantly, she looked just as bored as Victoria felt.
She saw Victoria looking at her and held up the string hopefully. “D’you know how to play Cat’s Cradle?” she asked.
“Certainly!” Victoria motioned for the girl to take the empty seat beside her. The girl looked at her mother for approval and fairly leaped across the aisle when she received a nod.
“I’m Sophie Phillips,” the girl said, wrapping the looped string around her hands and deftly weaving her middle fingers through the center to create a cradle shape. “Who’re you?”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sophie. I am Mrs. Dawson.” Victoria took her turn with the string.
Sophie dipped her fingers into the string and pulled to create a new shape. They passed the string back and forth in silence, and Victoria noticed that the girl stuck her tongue out when she concentrated.
“Candlesticks, Em!” Sophie crowed. “I did it!”
Another blonde girl peeked around the seat. She looked almost exactly like Sophie. “I knew you would get it if you just kept trying,” she said. “Aunt Caroline, did you hear? Sophie finally figured out Candlesticks.”
The woman Victoria had thought was their mother leaned around to smile at both girls. “Thank you for entertaining my niece, Mrs. Dawson,” she said. “I’m Caroline Phillips. It’s been a long trip, and I think I would have screamed if I had to play one more round of Cat’s Cradle.”
Victoria worked the string away from Sophie’s fingers. “It’s my pleasure. Please, call me Victoria. It’s been a long trip for me, as well.”
It was Sophie’s turn again. She wrinkled her forehead and stared at the string for so long that Victoria’s fingers began to cramp. Finally, she reached around awkwardly to pinch two little x’s on the sides and pulled.
“Oh, well done!” Victoria told her. “You created diamonds.”
Sophie beamed triumphantly and stood up to drop a quick curtsey. Just then, the train lurched, and she had to grab at the seat to keep her balance. “Are we stopping? Are we home?” she dem
“No, not yet.” The aunt told her. “I think this is Kalamazoo. Serenity isn’t far now.”
Victoria caught her breath. Serenity. Even the name of the town gave her a warm, pleasant feeling. How could one go wrong, she had reasoned, when the very name of the place spoke of exactly what she was looking for to make her new start in life?
“Pardon me, but did you say you are going to Serenity?” she asked.
“Yes,” Caroline told her. “We lost our home in the big fire last fall, so the girls and I have been staying with relatives in New York while my husband rebuilt it.”
“I’m sorry about your home,” Victoria said. She’d been one of the few people in Port Huron who hadn’t lost everything in the wildfires that swept across much of the state the previous October, but she’d still seen her share of grief. Nearly everyone she knew had been affected in some way by the tragedy. She glanced out the window at the bleak countryside once more and sighed.
Caroline was looking at her expectantly, and Victoria realized that she had been lost in her own thoughts. “I’m sorry,” she said ruefully. “Did you say something?”
The other woman chuckled. “It’s all right. It’s hard to pay attention to anything after sitting on this train for so long. I asked if you are also going to Serenity.”
“Yes. I have taken a job as the new schoolteacher.”
The girls gaped at her. Even their aunt seemed shocked by the revelation.
“But -- but . . . I thought the new teacher was an older widow,” Caroline stammered.
Victoria winced at the word.
“I’m so sorry!” The other woman motioned at Sophie and quickly changed seats with her. “Victoria, that was terribly rude of me. Please forgive me. It’s just that you’re not what any of us were expecting. Will -- Mr. Baxter -- was very much set against the idea of hiring a young woman as the new teacher. The last one was a flighty young thing who fell in love and ran away in the middle of the term, and he wanted to be sure that the new teacher was someone older and more stable.”
Stable. Victoria bit back a smile. “Believe me, I’m as stable as they come,” she said. “I am indeed a widow, and Mr. Baxter has nothing to worry about. Once I am settled in Serenity, I have no intention of going anywhere else.”
Caroline looked doubtful, and Victoria didn’t blame her. She hadn’t intended to mislead Will Baxter about her age, but she’d done nothing to correct him in her letters to him when she realized he was under the mistaken impression that she was much older than her twenty-six years. She wished for what seemed like the hundredth time she knew exactly what Jonathon had written in his letter when he’d accepted the position in her name.
Surely Mr. Baxter and the other parents in town would still accept her as their schoolteacher once she’d been given a chance to prove herself. If they were as desperate for a teacher as it seemed, they should be happy to see her, regardless of age.
Victoria shifted uncomfortably in her seat once more. “Will your husband be meeting you at the station in Serenity?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
Caroline blushed and nodded. Victoria saw the girls exchanging glances and giggling.
“That’s enough, girls.” Caroline looked up at Victoria, her face still bright red. “Adam and I are newlyweds, married only a few weeks before the fire,” she explained.
“Aunt Caroline answered an ad in the newspaper!” Sophie blurted.
“Hush, Sophie, you’re being rude,” Emily scolded.
Victoria gaped at the other woman. “You married a stranger you found in a newspaper ad?”
“Yes and no. It’s a long story.”
Victoria said nothing. She thought of all the years she and Jonathon had known each other before they were married, all the time spend getting to know each other and fall so deeply in love. She put a hand over her heart, trying to will away the ache that always hit her at the thought of her late husband.
Perhaps marrying a stranger was for the best, she decided. Losing a stranger wouldn’t hurt as much as losing Jonathon had hurt her.
She found herself beginning to wish that the train would slow down. As much as she wanted to arrive in Serenity to begin her new life, she dreaded meeting Will Baxter face to face. What if he fired her on the spot when he discovered how young she was? Would he put her right back on the train and send her away?
Her stomach churned from nerves and hunger, but it was too late now to change anything because the train was pulling into the station in Serenity.
Will Baxter shielded his eyes against the watery spring sunshine. He could have sworn he’d heard the train approaching, but he could see nothing moving on the tracks from the east. He must have been mistaken. Still, he hated to give up and head back to his store.
He still wasn’t entirely sure how he’d ended up in charge of the school committee or why he was responsible for meeting the new teacher at the train station, but here he was. He’d agreed to write the advertisement last year when the previous teacher abandoned her job, and somehow, he’d become the person in charge of sorting through the responses, choosing the best candidate, and making all the arrangements for her arrival.
With a sigh, Will turned up his collar against the cold. Spring in Michigan was an unpredictable beast at best, and yesterday’s brilliant sunshine had given way to today’s wet and gusty winds. He imagined the new teacher might just take one step off the train and turn right around at her first taste of the local weather.
No, she was from Michigan, he reminded himself, so she must have some sort of familiarity with the ever-changing weather. Victoria Dawson may have been travelling from Port Huron, all the way on the other side of the state, but surely the weather couldn’t be all that different.
He hoped she hadn’t brought many belongings with her. In the letters he’d written to her, he’d made it clear that her lodgings would consist primarily of one guest room in a home with a family of five. She was to be a boarder without much room for her own things.
From the letters she’d written in reply, Mrs. Dawson seemed to be a reasonable and straightforward person. In his mind, Will pictured her as a stern, gray-haired type, perhaps with tiny spectacles perched on the end of her wrinkled nose. She was, after all, a widow who was eager to return to teaching now that her husband was gone. She had no children, she’d told him, and no remaining family in Port Huron. All in all, she was perfect for the job of teaching the children of Serenity, who had been without a teacher for far too long.
He squinted into the distance once more. Yes, that little smudge on the horizon must be the train. Will allowed himself a small smile. He was the kind of man who took great pride in being proven right, even if only to himself.
Will closed his eyes for a moment and ran over a quick mental inventory of the preparations that had been made for the new teacher. He didn’t think he had forgotten anything. Of course, it would have been better if she could have arrived in the fall, but October’s wildfires had made travel impossible at that time. She’d only be able to teach half a term when she arrived, but that would be a good opportunity to make sure she was a good fit for the job and the town.
He turned when he heard footsteps approaching. His friend Adam Phillips was hurrying toward him, tugging his woolen hat down more snugly over his ears as he ran.
“Was . . . afraid I . . . missed it,” he panted, waving vaguely in the direction of the train.
“Nope, you made it with time to spare. Today’s the big day?”
Adam nodded. “Caroline and girls are coming home today,” he said. He swallowed noisily. “I wonder if they’ve changed. I wonder if she’s changed. What if -- what if they aren’t on the train, Will? What if they decided to stay in New York?”
“If Caroline said they’d be on the train, they’ll be on the train.” Will felt a touch of sympathy for the man. Adam and Caroline had married as strangers just days before the raging fires had
Will thought back to that first year after he had lost his own wife. The loneliness had been nearly unbearable, even with their young son as company. He knew how Adam had suffered throughout this long winter without his little family, but at least Adam knew they would eventually return.
A sharp blast of the train’s whistle startled him out of his reverie. He glanced to the east again and saw that the train had almost reached Serenity’s tiny station. He rubbed his hands together, partly to warm them and partly in sheer satisfaction of a job well done. In just a few minutes, the town would have its teacher, all thanks to him and the hard work he had put in to find her and bring her here.
“Nothing can go wrong now,” he told himself. He wondered if she had a cane or if she would need to lean on him when the time came to help her walk to her new home. Oh, dear, he thought, perhaps he should have brought a wagon? Perhaps Adam would give her a ride if necessary.
“You’re waiting for the teacher?” Adam wanted to know.
“Yup. Mrs. Dawson. She’ll be staying with the Visser children.”
“Good idea, Will. It will be nice for those kids to have a dependable older woman to look after them.”
Moments later, the train pulled into the station. They waited in silence for what seemed like forever while the step was lowered, and then one of Adam’s nieces burst through the door and flung herself into her uncle’s arms.
“Uncle Adam!” she squealed.
“Sophie! You grew! Oh, I missed you so much!” He hugged the girl tightly, as though afraid that a gust of wind my tear her from his grasp.
Sophie’s twin followed at a more dignified pace, but squeezed her uncle just as tightly. She was sobbing quietly.
“It’s all right, Em, we’re all back together now,” Adam soothed. “Easy now, let a man breathe. Where’s -- oh, Caroline.”