Cover image for Jessica
Miller, Linda Lael.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Sonnet Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
151 pages ; 18 cm.
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X Adult Mass Market Paperback Open Shelf
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Romance
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Library
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Paperback

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Outspoken spinster Jessica Barnes arrives in Springwater to help her ailing brother run the Springwater Gazette, only to find her family in upheaval with the newspaper nearly bankrupt and to clash with Gage Calloway, the strong-willed, opinionated mayor of Springwater.

Author Notes

Linda Miller was born in Spokane, Washington and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She began writing when she was 10 years old after a teacher praised her for a story she had written. Through a correspondence course, she sold over 30 stories to magazines like True Confessions and True Romance. She sold her first novel, Fletcher's Woman, in 1983. Her first hardcover novels were Pirates (1995) followed by Knights (1996). She has written over 80 contemporary and historical romance novels. She is the author of numerous series including Stone Creek series; Montana Creeds series; The Women of Primrose Creek series; and Springwater Seasons series. In 2007, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Romance Writers of America.

(Bowker Author Biography)



Chapter One Winter, 1880 Behind her, Alma was weeping. Plump, glistening flakes of snow swayed like languorous dancers past the bay windows set into the rear wall of the tiny parlor, but Jessica Barnes took no note of their feathery beauty. Her attention, indeed the whole of her being, was fixed upon the new grave in the churchyard just across the way. The place where her brother, Michael, a true and devoted friend through all twenty-three years of her life, lay buried. He had died precisely one week prior to her arrival yesterday in the remote Montana Territory town of Springwater. How he had gone on about this place in his letters: the scenery was breathtaking, he'd written; the people had gathered him and Victoria in like family; there was so much sky that you could lie on your back in the deep, sweet grass, looking up, and lose yourself in all that blue. Not that he ever had time for such things, he'd been quick to stress, always working on the next issue of the paper the way he was. Jessica swallowed a bitter sob. They had killed him, in her opinion -- the work and the town. He'd always been a frail man, physically at least, and as far as she was concerned, the whole enterprise -- buying that ancient press, traveling across prairies, deserts, and mountains in a wagon drawn by oxen -- had been plain foolhardy. He should have stayed in Missouri, put aside his pride, and worked on their uncle's newspaper, as he'd been raised to do, instead of traveling way out here and exhausting himself. But no. Instead, he'd sold what little he had and turned his back on a respectable family business. He'd bought that huge, greasy, secondhand contrivance he called a press, dismantled it, and loaded it up -- along with his frightened bride, a few sacks of dried beans, and a paltry assortment of supplies -- for the journey west. Jessica recalled the day of their leaving with a clarity that stung even now, nearly six years later; seventeen and strong, she had begged to accompany Michael and Victoria on the trip west. Michael had refused her gently, saying it was far too dangerous a trip for a scrap of a girl like her -- she was but a year younger than Victoria -- and she'd realized that she would be in the way, an unwanted encumbrance. So it was that she had, with her uncle's hearty approval, stayed and accepted a post as companion to an elderly but spry widow, Mrs. Frederick Covington, Sr. For two years she and Mrs. Covington had traveled on the European continent, and Jessica had enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal from her lively minded charge. The dear old woman had passed away in her sleep on the journey back across the Atlantic, leaving Jessica a small, secret legacy and several pieces of jewelry, neither of which had been directly mentioned in her will. By that time Jessica's uncle had died as well, but there was no bequest this time -- only a stack of demands from his impatient creditors. She had sold everything -- the newspaper, her uncle's modest house and personal belongings, even the clock from his mantelpiece -- to settle his debts, and waited for Michael to send for her. He didn't. The offer of a new position, in the household of Mrs. Covington's only son, Frederick II, and his wife, Sarah, had seemed a godsend. Appearances, however, were deceiving -- unhappy in his marriage, Frederick soon began pursuing Jessica. She had managed to avoid being alone with him for a very long time. Then one of the maids found the jewelry his mother had given Jessica on her deathbed, and, thinking Jessica had stolen it, turned it over to Mr. Covington. It was exactly the blackmail he needed. After that, he'd threatened her with ruin and scandal at best, prison at worst, if she continued to refuse him her bed. She'd been prepared to plead with Michael and Victoria to take her in when, on the very day of Covington's ultimatum, her brother finally broached the subject himself in one of his more revealing letters. Things weren't going well, he'd written. Victoria was having a hard time with her pregnancy, and his debts were mounting. He suspected a certain lawyer, a Mr. Gage Calloway, of persuading the bank in Choteau to call in his loans. That was when she'd fled St. Louis for good and used part of the money Mrs. Covington had left her to travel west. What remained -- and there was precious little -- was secure in a Missouri bank. Jessica brought her mind back to the present with a forceful tug. The injustice, the humiliation -- all of it was too much to bear on top of losing Michael. She must think of it another time or, better yet, put it behind her forever. Now, watching as the snow outlined her brother's plain wooden marker in an airy, lace-trimmed script, Jessica pressed the back of one hand to her mouth in yet another effort to contain her grief -- and her fury. The world ground and clanked and clattered around her like the works of some enormous mechanism, and on the edges of her consciousness she was aware of Alma Stewart's soft voice singing a lullaby in the next room; the fretful whimpers of the two babies, left orphaned only weeks after their birth; the damnably steady, ponderous ticking of the mail-order clock on a rickety side table. Wagons and buggies jostled by over rutted ground frozen solid beneath the snow, and both men and women called to each other in jovial, wintry voices. But beneath her feet, in the offices of the town's fledgling newspaper -- the Springwater Gazette -- the press was utterly still. "Jessie?" Alma's gentle inquiry caused her to turn at last from considering Michael's final resting place. No one, save her brother, had ever called her Jessie, but she did not protest. Alma, too, was mourning, not only for Michael, but for his wife -- her niece -- Victoria. Weakened by her own illness, Victoria had perished in childbirth, barely a month before Michael's fever, born of exhaustion and despair, took his life. Jessica turned to face the deceptively delicate-looking woman who was just entering from one of the two nooks they called bedrooms. "Yes?" Although she had a husband waiting for her on a ranch some forty miles away, Alma had come to Springwater when Victoria was due to have the babies, just to lend a hand. She was generous and capable and understandably anxious to get back home. "He tried," Alma said staunchly. "He tried his best to hold on, Michael did. But when Victoria died, it was like something had been torn out of him. He worked himself blind after that, down there setting and resetting type and repairing that secondhand press all day and half the night. That was what finished him, Jessie. He just used himself up." Alma paused; her chin quivered and she dabbed at red-rimmed eyes with a wadded handkerchief. "You understand, don't you -- I can't raise these babies? I'm an old woman, past the age for such things, and frankly it's all I can do most days to look after what's mine to tend. I've left a good and patient man alone too long as it is." Jessica had given little thought to children in general or to her infant nieces in particular, having been met with the news of both Victoria's and Michael's deaths directly after stepping off the stagecoach, though she had practically lived for word of them before fleeing St. Louis. Now, suddenly, she felt a fierce, almost primitive desire to protect them. They were so small, so fragile, so beautiful! Was this, then, what it felt like to be a mother, this swift and ferocious love? They were a beacon of light, the twins were, in the otherwise impenetrable darkness of her grief, something to cherish and move toward. As dear as the Covington children -- Susan and young Freddy -- had been to her, and she had loved them with the whole of her heart, despite the contempt in which she held their father, this was a keener, deeper sort of caring. These babies were blood of her blood, bone of her bone, soul of her soul. They were family. "It's all right, Alma," she said as tenderly as she could. She'd come west because Michael had summoned her at long last, because she'd had nowhere else to go, her reputation thoroughly spoiled, and she was set on taking hold and making a good life for herself and for the babies. "I'll provide for them." Alma looked decidedly relieved as she groped for the back of a chair and then lowered herself shakily onto the frayed cushion of the seat. Jessica knew a moment of deep chagrin; yes, she had lost a beloved brother, and with shattering suddenness, but Alma had cherished Victoria, daughter of her long-dead and much idolized brother, Frank. Jessica knew all that from her correspondence with Michael. Alma and her husband had never had children of their own. Settled at last, the older woman looked up at Jessica with eyes awash in tears. "You won't put those poor little darlings into a foundling home, will you?" she asked in a breathless rush. "Why, there are folks right around here who'd take them in. Good people. Gage Calloway told me just the other day -- " Gage Calloway. Now there was a name Jessica definitely remembered from her brother's letters. Mr. Calloway had wanted to be mayor of Springwater, and Michael had campaigned against him. He'd responded by using the power of his wealth to destroy her brother, however indirectly. Jessica raised a slightly tremulous hand to call a halt to Alma's discourse. Under other circumstances she might have waxed indignant at the mere suggestion -- consign Michael's children to an orphanage? -- but she knew Alma's emotions were as brittle as her own, and therefore made a sturdy attempt to hold her annoyance in check. They were both doing the best they could under very trying conditions, and there was nothing to be gained by the exchange of harsh and hasty words. Jessica straightened her shoulders and smoothed her black sateen skirts, as she generally did whenever she was challenged in any way. "You may rest assured that I will raise those children with as much care and devotion as I would if they were my own." She paused, then slid her teeth over her lower lip once, in a gesture of suppressed exasperation. Her voice, when she spoke, was almost plaintive. "How could you think for one moment that I would give them up? Those little girls are the only family I have now." Michael had no doubt told Alma how his and Jessica's parents had died in a carriage accident, leaving their two small children to be raised by a bachelor uncle who took little interest in the task. Alma would not meet Jessica's gaze -- not immediately, in any case -- and even though she started at the sound of footsteps on the covered stairs leading to the crude board sidewalk out front, there was an air of profound relief about her, too. She had been spared making a reply and that was probably just as well. Michael, no doubt, had described his sister as a spinster, somewhat distant, with no knowledge or particular fondness for babies. The Covington children, being older, had needed an entirely different sort of care. Indeed, she did wonder how she was ever going to adjust to Springwater, with its one store, one church, and scattered handful of houses. Without Michael, it had little or no appeal. Patting her fair hair to make sure none of it had escaped its pins to tumble untidily down her neck, Jessica put her private reflections aside for the moment at least, crossed the room, and opened the door. The caller, a dark-haired man of imposing height, with eyes the color of malachite, had one fist raised, poised to knock. A chill wind rushed past him to nip at Jessica's very bones, and yet the sight of him caused a warm wrench, somewhere deep inside, leaving her with a sense of having turned some mysterious spiritual corner. Always wary of strangers and equally determined to disguise that fact, Jessica lengthened her spine and did not even attempt a smile. The man's effect upon her was, she concluded, reason to be extra cautious. "Good day," she said politely, if not warmly, lending the greeting the tone of a question. She might as well have told him "State your business and leave." "Miss Barnes?" His teeth were as white as any she'd ever seen, and he smelled of fresh air and snow and the distant pine trees that covered the foothills. She tried to look pleasant, if not exactly glad to see him. These were frontier people, and it was probably considered neighborly to pay a call on any new arrival. "Yes?" she said. She did not step back or invite the visitor inside. This was, after all, a household in mourning and, therefore, seclusion. He removed his hat, a rather dapper affair with a round brim and a band of shimmering silver conchos, holding it in both hands. His hair was thick and had a silky gloss to it, Jessica noticed, and she was amazed at herself when she felt an instinctive desire to reach up and flick a lock of it back from his forehead with the ends of her fingers. Her reaction was curious indeed, and she would have been the last person who would presume to explain it. "My name is Gage Calloway," the man announced after clearing his throat once. Even that simple statement sounded eloquent coming from him, but of course it landed on her with all the weight of a derailed freight car. Here, then, was her brother's enemy. Her enemy, now that Michael was gone. "I'm the mayor of Springwater." He paused, looking pained. "We're awfully sorry about your brother, Miss Barnes. The townsfolk, I mean. It must have been a real shock to step down from the stage and be told right off that a loved one had passed over..." Jessica's throat constricted at the memory; it was indeed fresh to the point of rawness, and her eyes stung. A sort of cold fury filled her, mingled with a deep sense of guilt because she knew she had instantly warmed to the man despite all he'd done. Had the visitor been practically anyone else, she would have invited him in, offered him tea, perhaps, and certainly a chair next to the fire. As it was, she simply could not make the necessary effort. "You will forgive us, Mr. Calloway -- " she began, fully intending to send him on his way, but before she could complete the sentence, Alma interrupted. "Why, Gage, it's dear of you to come calling," the other woman said from the doorway of the tiny kitchen, in a voice Jessica would have sworn was fluttery. "Do come in out of the wind. I've put some coffee on to brew, and you look frozen straight through." Gage Calloway met Jessica's unyielding gaze, albeit briefly, and nodded his acceptance of Alma's invitation. The smile he gave, reserved for Alma, was dazzling. "I wouldn't mind a few minutes by the fire," he allowed. "Looks like we're in for a pretty bad winter." Jessica was left with no viable choice but to step aside, short of spreading both arms and barring his way. Judging by the size of Mr. Calloway, the effort would have been futile as well as ludicrous; he stood over six feet tall, and his shoulders very nearly brushed the door frame. "Yes," she said in a slightly clipped tone that was more defensive than scornful, " do come in." A smile played at the corners of Calloway's fine, supple mouth as he entered. His eyes, though solemn with sympathy at the moment, were normally more given to mischief, calculation, and merriment, Jessica ascertained, via some as-yet-unrecognized sense. "No one makes better coffee than you do, Miss Alma," he said, though he was looking straight at Jessica all the while he spoke. "Just don't tell Junebug McCaffrey I said so. She's downright prideful about her cooking." Alma made a sound that was part laugh, part twitter; maybe she didn't know that this man had been Michael's foe. In fact, it was obvious that she enjoyed Mr. Calloway's company, even in this time of sorrow. Probably a great many women would, Jessica thought pragmatically; she had to admit that he was a very attractive specimen, scoundrel or not. She, on the other hand, had good reason to dislike him. His manner reminded her of her own nemesis, Frederick Covington. He'd been handsome, too. He'd had money and power, just as this man did. He'd also been a devil, and it was likely, given what Michael had said about Mr. Calloway in his editorials, that the two men were the same in that regard, as well. When Alma went back into the kitchen, Jessica gestured stiffly toward one of the two chairs facing the inadequate brick fireplace. She had to make a home in Springwater for herself and for her nieces, and she needed the good will of the townspeople if the Gazette was to prosper. Therefore, she would be as civil to everyone as possible -- including this man, however much it galled her. "Sit down, Mr. Calloway," she urged, with a sort of wry resignation. He moved as gracefully as she imagined an Indian warrior might do, or a panther on the prowl. Inside, she seethed just to think of all the suffering he must have caused her poor brother. He smiled as if they had every reason to be friends -- it might have been more apt to say he grinned, for the expression was boyish -- but hesitated. "After you," he said. Jessica took the second chair, and her quiet rage was pushed aside by a fresh and sorely painful sense of sorrow. Surely Michael and Victoria had sat together on that very hearth many times, planning their happy life in Springwater. They'd dreamed of expanding the weekly newspaper to a daily, of building a spacious home and filling it with children. In more than one letter, Michael had referred to Springwater as "idyllic," though from what Jessica had seen so far, it was merely a small conglomeration of plain buildings huddled together in the midst of a fierce wilderness, like wild horses trying to find shelter from a high wind. The babies had quieted at last, and Jessica almost regretted that, for a little fussing on their part would have given her a reason to excuse herself and leave the entertainment of this unexpected and most unwanted guest to Alma. Once Jessica was seated, Calloway took a chair as well, and stared into the fire for a few long moments. She was just beginning to hope he did not intend to make conversation when he turned to her and said, "Your brother was a good man and an asset to the community. We all liked him, and Miss Victoria, too." It was a bold-faced lie, of course. She'd seen Michael's editorials. This man could not have liked him. Jessica felt tears threaten yet again -- dear Lord, she was so weary of weeping, for she'd cried more in the past twenty-four hours than in all her life put together -- and she did not like for Mr. Calloway, of all people, to be a witness to her weakness. She raised her chin. "Yes," she agreed. "Michael was a wonderful person, and Victoria was the heart of his life." Alma reappeared just then, bearing a tray set with three cups and a steaming china coffeepot, and Mr. Calloway immediately got to his feet, managing to display proper deference by taking the burden from those small, blue-veined hands in one smooth motion. Jessica felt herself flush slightly -- it was as though the floor had suddenly dissolved beneath her feet -- and she looked away for a moment in order to recover her composure. When she looked back, it was with narrowed eyes. Exhausted by grief and despair, coupled with the long and difficult journey out from Missouri, first by train and then by stagecoach, she felt downright peevish. She wanted to sleep for a month and cry for another month after that. There was a small stir, in which Mr. Calloway found and brought over another chair, and Jessica, backbone rigid, observed the rites of hospitality out of the corner of one eye. Surely he would not stay long, she assured herself. He would take himself and the curious electricity that surrounded him away. "I suppose you plan to sell the newspaper and go back home," said the mayor -- that he'd triumphed in the election despite Michael's efforts to oppose him was one more reason not to like him -- when what he probably regarded as a decent interval had passed. He looked down into his cup for a long moment, then raised those arresting eyes of his to lock with Jessica's. "It may be too soon to speak of such matters, ma'am -- forgive me if I offend you -- but I am prepared to make you a very generous offer on this place. One that should enable both you and Miss Alma to live comfortably for some time." Jessica glanced quickly at Alma, who was watching the snow fall with a wistful expression. It probably would make sense to sell the Gazette, but now, in the face of an actual opportunity, she wanted to hold on to it more fiercely than ever before. She raised her eyebrows slightly and stirred her coffee with a tinkling clatter of spoon against porcelain. "I should like," she announced, surprising even herself by the certainty in her voice, "to keep the Gazette for my nieces." His expression sharpened, but it was only a moment before he had relaxed that spectacular face into a placid mask. Mr. Covington had possessed that same ability, that affinity for easy deceit. Both men were lawyers, members of a profession Jessica deemed only slightly above prostitution. Calloway shifted in his chair, revealing only the mildest discomfort; no doubt even that was merely a pretense. Men like him spent their days and nights breaking as many commandments as possible. He put his cup and saucer down and, with another glance at Alma, leaned forward a little way, his hands dangling between his knees, his fine round-brimmed hat resting on the floor beside his chair. Alma was still lost in her own thoughts, probably missing home and husband and thinking of household tasks that needed doing. Jessica wondered what on earth she was going to do once Alma went back to the ranch. She'd never fed or diapered a baby in her life; indeed, until the twins were four or five, poor little things, she wouldn't have the first idea what to do with them. Only one thing was certain -- she was fresh out of choices. Calloway cleared his throat again and lowered his voice. "It has been mentioned that you, being an unmarried woman and all, might not wish to raise your brother's daughters on your own. I understand you've been serving as a governess for some time now, and that you travel a great deal in your work. Therefore -- " Jessica waited, content to watch him squirm a little and suspecting, with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, that she knew what he was going to say. "I thought you might be willing to consider a formal adoption. My clients are able to offer your nieces a fine home -- " "Your clients?" She gave the words an edge. One of the babies began to cry and Alma rose, with a sigh, and toddled away to attend to the child. "Why, Mr. Calloway, you gave me the impression this was a condolence call. I suppose next you're going to tell me that Michael appointed you the executor of his will." Jessica had been guessing, where the will was concerned, but it was plain from Mr. Calloway's expression that she'd struck her mark. The realization that Michael hadn't trusted her to serve in that capacity -- indeed, that he had put more faith in his worst enemy -- was devastating, but she managed to keep up her facade. Calloway, meanwhile, had the decency to redden a little along the base of his jaw, but there was a glint of determination in his eyes, too. "Dr. and Mrs. Parrish are good people, Miss Barnes. Upstanding citizens, well-regarded by everyone in town. They have a four-year-old daughter of their own, but Savannah -- Mrs. Parrish -- well, they'd like more children." A charged silence filled the room, punctuated only by the popping and shifting of the pine logs burning in the grate. The pleasant scents of wood smoke and stout coffee filled the room, and beyond the windows the snow, so quiet and so white, seemed sadly, poignantly magical. When she could trust herself to speak in a moderate fashion, Jessica made her reply. "I'm sure your clients are very nice people," she said in tones measured out as carefully as a length of exceedingly fine cloth. "However, I have no intention of surrendering my brother's children -- my only living blood relations -- to anyone, however worthy they might be. If you have completed your business, sir..." A muscle tightened in Mr. Calloway's closely shaven cheek, but he was a lawyer, after all, and he smoothed his features before Jessica could even be sure that he was irritated. "I'm sorry," he said, glancing in the direction Alma had taken when she left the room. "I was given to understand -- " Only then did it occur to Jessica, in her grief-addled state, that it had not been Alma alone who had suggested this arrangement, but Michael, too. Perhaps, even on his deathbed, he had been reluctant to leave the raising of his daughters to her. That stung even more than the fact that he'd appointed a virtual stranger to see that his last wishes were carried out. She was filled with an inestimable and echoing sadness. Still, she decided, after a few moments of inward reeling, she must make an effort to be charitable. It was possible that Mr. Calloway meant well, though not very likely. "I'm sure," she said, in what was almost certainly too abrupt a manner, "that you are only trying to help." She took a thoughtful sip of her coffee, which had grown cold, and her next words were meant to come as a shock. "I'm planning to run the newspaper myself," she said. "Provided that Michael left it to me, of course." She felt safe in assuming that, at least, since Mr. Calloway wouldn't have offered to buy the business from her if she hadn't been the rightful owner. He looked truly startled, and did not even bother to comment on her statement, yea or nay. "You're not returning to St. Louis?" he asked. She couldn't rightly tell whether he was pleased or disappointed by this news, but he was definitely astounded. In all likelihood, she concluded, he did not care one way or the other what she did -- why should he? -- as long as he got what he wanted. "Your brother told me -- " "I don't care what my brother told you," Jessica lied, a bit pettishly. She wanted very much to know, but she was also weary to the innermost wellsprings of her soul, too weary to pursue the matter further. "I'm staying right here. In Springwater." She had enjoyed her work in St. Louis before the trouble with Mr. Covington, not only because it paid unusually well, but because she was deeply fond of her two charges. In truth, however, the children were growing up fast and would soon go away to their respective boarding schools -- Susan's in Switzerland, Freddy's in England -- where, of course, they would not need a governess. She would have had to leave them soon anyway. Besides, she had always wanted children of her own, and now she had them, even if they were her nieces and not her daughters. "This Dr. Parrish you referred to," she began cautiously, holding all her emotions at bay until she could sort them out, one by one, in the privacy of her own mind. "Did he look after my brother? At -- at the end, I mean?" "Yes, ma'am," Calloway said. He looked a mite grim, and had retrieved his hat from the floor to turn it slowly, round and round, between his fingers. "It isn't possible to find better medical care than you'd get right here in Springwater. Pres did everything he could to keep Michael alive, but he was real sick. The fever took him down fast." Jessica closed her eyes against the image of Michael breathing his last, slipping away forever, but it was imprinted on her mind and she could not escape the force of it. She would gladly have died in his place but, alas, she had not been given a choice in the matter. "I should like to speak with the doctor," she said, when she was fairly sure she would not break down and sob as she had done the whole night through. "There are questions I want to ask. About Michael's passing. And -- of course -- about Victoria's, too. I trust this Dr. Parrish attended her as well?" The mayor of Springwater narrowed his eyes again, as if he were on the alert for a slur directed at the town doctor, who was obviously his friend. "Like I said, you won't find a better man anywhere than Pres is." It was then that Alma returned. "I declare," she fretted, "that those two defenseless little darlings know they have" -- she paused, perhaps for the sake of drama -- "neither father nor mother to look after them." By then, Jessica was looking at the visitor, and not at Alma. "They have me," she said pointedly. Then she rose from her chair, all dignity and bravado. She wasn't such a bargain, she reckoned, but she was a blood relation, and she loved those babies with all the scattered pieces of her heart. "We mustn't keep you, Mr. Calloway," she said. "You surely have a great many things to do." Because Jessica stood, Mr. Calloway was, of course, forced to stand as well. She found she could not draw an accurate measure of his response merely by looking at his face, and that nettled her. He was a lawyer, she reminded herself, and that meant he had probably cultivated wily ways. "If there's anything you need," Mr. Calloway said, and though he glanced at Jessica it did seem that his polite words were directed more toward Alma, "you just let me know. The people of Springwater look after their own." Once again Alma was almost blushing, and Jessica glimpsed in her the pretty and charming girl she had once been, long ago. It was Alma, in fact, who saw Mr. Calloway most graciously to the door. His departure was audible; his boot heels made a firm even distinctive sound on the outside stairs. When Alma turned back to face Jessica, her color was still high, and her eyes were snapping with uncharacteristic fury. "Whatever possessed you to be so rude to such a fine man as Gage Calloway?" she demanded, with such spirit that Jessica was quite taken aback. She ignored the question, having no good response to make, and returned to her post at the set of windows overlooking the main street. As she watched Mr. Calloway stalk across the snowy street, his strides long and angry, she smiled. What a good thing it was, she thought, that she did not have to explain her reactions to this disturbing man, for she did not begin to understand them herself. Clouds were moving in from the west, heavy with still more snow, and the light was fading. Quickly Jessica hurried in to fetch her warm cloak. "You're going out?" Alma asked, clearly surprised. "I'll be back shortly," Jessica promised, and made for the door. The wooden stairway was steep and slick, exposed as it was, and she was careful making her way down. If she fell and hurt herself, she and the babies would starve. Looking neither to the right nor the left, lest someone catch her eye and expect to converse, Jessica rounded the side of the humble newspaper building and made for the churchyard across the way. She had some trouble with the gate, for the metal latch had frozen in place, but soon, by sheer force of will, she had wrestled it open. The snow, ever-deepening, was heavy, and she had to push hard before she could enter. She raised her gaze briefly to look at the church itself. A small, trim structure, painted white, it boasted its own bell tower and mullioned windows. The double doors were closed fast against the cold -- not that Jessica had any desire whatsoever to set foot inside. She and God were civil to each other, but that was the extent of the matter. Michael's death had only served to widen the gulf. Holding her cloak more tightly around her, Jessica began slogging laboriously toward the small graveyard on the left side of the building. It was guarded by towering maple trees that were bare of leaves but lined with a fine tracery of frost and snow. Her knees were wet by the time she gained the place where Michael had been buried. The snow was shallower there, hardly covering the still-raw earth of the grave. The wooden marker looked even more forlorn up close than it had from the apartment windows. She blinked back stinging tears and breathed slowly and deeply. She was torn between kicking at the mound in pure outrage, and throwing herself down upon it in a fit of sobbing. Neither option was acceptable. "I'm here," she said, and sniffled. Her nose was turning red -- she could feel it -- and her eyes were puffy. Her whole face felt swollen, in fact. "I'm here, Michael, and I'll look after the babies and the newspaper, I promise. Somehow, we'll all get by." There was no reply, naturally, only more snow drifting down from the charcoal sky, and a wind that prickled even through her clothes. Jessica was seized by such a sense of loneliness that she might have been the only person in the universe, lost and wandering. "You can depend on me," she vowed, in a whisper. Then she touched the cross once, where Michael's name was carved, before turning to make her way back to the gate. Copyright © 1999 by Linda Lael Miller