Okay, I’ll confess. I attempted two different blog posts for today, but about halfway through writing each one they started to sound gloomy and whiney. That’s the kind of week I’ve been having. And frankly, no one wants to read about that. But how about reading something much more fun and adorable for a Friday? How about the first chapter of my forthcoming novella, Sarah Sunshine? (Official release date: August 24th)
Sarah Withers stepped through the front door of the saloon, crossed over the line where the overhang split the porch from shade into sun, and took a deep breath of freedom. The cold air with its honest, dusty taste filled her lungs and her heart with happiness. Five years and at last she was her own woman.
“Good morning, Mr. Jones!” She waved to Cold Springs’s lanky station master as he strode down Main Street on his way to work.
Lewis Jones tipped his hat and smiled. “Morning, Sarah.”
“How’s your back today? You need me to help deliver the mail again?”
Mr. Jones’s smile widened. “Nope. I’m feeling much better, thank you.”
“Have a nice day then.”
“You too.” He waved and walked on to the train station at the end of the town’s central thoroughfare.
New and half-constructed buildings spread out from the train station on all sides, and even early in the morning the sounds of hammering and sawing could be heard. It sent a thrill of giddy excitement through Sarah. When she’d arrived in Cold Springs five years ago, it’d been nothing but a crossroads. Now there were buildings all around her and even more stretching into what had once been a meadow on the other side of the train tracks. New houses, new shops, a new school, and even a new hotel. She smiled at the new hotel’s roof, just visible across town, beyond the buildings lining Main Street. New possibilities.
Make no mistake about it, Cold Springs was her home and it was growing by leaps and bounds. Now that her contract was up, she could grow with it and become an honest citizen. With a contented sigh, she dropped her gaze to the general store across the street.
“Good morning, Mrs. West.” Sarah waved across to Mrs. Charlie West as she turned the sign on the general store’s door from “Closed” to “Open”. Even though she was just a shop-keeper’s wife, Mrs. West was one of the most beautiful women Sarah knew. She had shining black hair and Mr. West always bought the most elegant dresses for her. She had a large basket of something heavy draped off one arm now and her precious baby girl squirming in the other, but she still looked like a fancy city woman.
“Need help?” Sarah asked. She didn’t wait for an answer, but pulled her fringed shawl tighter over her shoulders and rushed across the street.
“Thank you!” Mrs. West said breathlessly as Sarah scooped the gurgling baby girl into her arms. Mrs. West turned to dump the basket of apples into one of the bins in front of the store. “Big day today, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is!” Sarah beamed, bouncing little Eloise West in her arms. She had dark hair and blue eyes, like her mother and would surely grow up to be a beauty someday.
“Have you got plans to celebrate?” Mrs. West asked, arranging the apples.
Sarah cooed at the laughing baby, then shrugged. “Moving into the boarding house. That’s about as big as my plans get.”
“Oh? Which boarding house?”
“Miss Viola Jones’s.” Sarah beamed with pride and touched her finger to Eloise’s nose.
“You’re moving into Viola Jones’s boarding house?” Mrs. West asked, eyeing her sideways as she finished with her apples.
“Yes, ma’am,” Sarah said. “Mr. Sutcliffe says Miss Jones owes him a favor and he’s calling it in.”
“A favor?” Mrs. West arched a dubious eyebrow.
“Something about making up for past wrongs.” Sarah shrugged. “It’s not my place to pry. All I know is Miss Jones runs the most respectable boarding house in Montana. I’m gonna live there and work for her and be a fine, respectable woman, just like you.”
Mrs. West’s laugh seemed wary at best. “Well, best of luck to you nonetheless,” she said. She set the basket under the bins and turned to take her baby from Sarah’s arms. “Thanks for your help.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” Sarah replied.
Mrs. West nodded to her and stepped back into the store, busy as always.
Sarah peeked in through the window, a rack of ready-made dresses catching her eye. She sighed with longing. Once she’d earned some money working for Miss Jones, she’d come back to the general store and buy some pretty clothes, like Mrs. West wore. Then everyone in Cold Springs would forget what she used to be. She’d fit in right and proper.
With a smile of promise, she turned and headed back to the saloon. It was still warm in spite of the chill in the air. November was only a few days old, and it had been an unseasonably warm autumn. Today was a perfect day for moving – moving out of the saloon and moving on with her life. She hopped up onto the saloon porch with joy in her heart.
The sound of sweeping from the old hotel, across the alley from the saloon, caught that joy and fluttered it all through her.
“Good morning, Roy.” She swayed to the end of the porch, cheeks flushing pink.
Roy LaCroix stopped mid-sweep and met her eyes across the alley. The hotel porch was several feet above where she stood, and looking up at him—tall and handsome and smart as a tack in his dark blue bellhop uniform—was like looking up at an angel. Especially when a smile lit his face from ear to ear.
“Good morning, Sarah.” He straightened to his full height and tipped his round bellhop hat to her, replacing it on his head at a rakish angle. “You’re looking awful pretty this morning.”
“Thanks.” She blushed and lowered her eyes, glancing up at him through her lashes.
Roy LaCroix was just about the nicest, sweetest man in all of Montana. He was built strong for a bellhop with arms that could hold a woman and make her feel right. He had the most dazzling brown eyes too, with long lashes and a sparkle that set her insides quivering. It didn’t feel like work at all when he came to the saloon to visit her. In fact, those were the very best evenings of all.
“You’re contract’s up today, isn’t it?” he said. He set his broom aside and ambled to the end of the hotel porch to lean against the railing, hands in his pockets. The sunlight gave his brown hair a warm reddish glow under his blue cap.
Sarah kept her head bowed modestly as she answered, “Yes, it is.”
Roy’s smile widened. “I’m awful glad to hear it.”
“Are you?” She could feel the warmth of his gaze as surely as the sun.
“Well, I’ll be sorry not to spend time with you,” he answered, a blush spreading across his face. “You wanna go for a picnic later, maybe?” His eyebrows rose with the question.
“Why, yes, I would.” Her heart bounced to her gut then back up again. Roy LaCroix was asking her on a picnic. The amazing thought filled her for two seconds before her smile and her shoulders dropped. “Oh, but I can’t. I’m moving my things over to the boarding house this morning and then I’ve got to work.”
Roy’s gallant joy dropped to a frown. “But I thought you said your contract was up. You’re not still … working, are you?” Sarah giggled, pressing a hand to her mouth.
“No, no, not like that.” Tickles of hope spread from her chest to her toes as Roy’s smile returned. “I’m gonna be working for Miss Jones now, cleaning and mending and things. Mr. Sutcliffe arranged it. A woman’s got to have gainful employment if she’s gonna make her own way in the world.”
“But you’re definitely not … entertaining no more?” The spark in Roy’s eyes vacillated between relief and disappointment. She shook her head, pressing a hand to her hot cheek. “The only man I’ll ever entertain like that for the rest of my days is my husband, and that’s the truth.”
As quick as she said it, a wave of bashfulness swirled over her. She lowered her eyes and bit her lip, then peeked up at Roy. He had that hungry look in his eyes—that look he had when he came to the saloon. It sent prickles across her skin.
“I’m mighty glad to hear it,” he said. He sniffed and shrugged. “I don’t think I have much call to go in the saloon now myself, all things considered.”
“Not if you’re not there.” He watched his foot as he dug his toe against the boards of the hotel porch before saying, “Maybe you’re free for a picnic tomorrow then?” His eyes met hers.
The swarm of butterflies in Sarah’s stomach took wing and lifted her nearly off her feet. “I’d like that.”
“Roy?” The voice of Mrs. Delilah Reynolds sounded from inside the hotel just before the woman herself stepped out onto the porch.
Sarah jumped to stand up straight, brushing her hair back to be sure she was presentable. Mrs. Reynolds wore a fancy lavender dress with a high collar and sleeves that were puffed just so in the latest fashion. Her silver hair was piled in shining curls on her head. The paint she wore on her face was smooth and natural.
“There you are, Roy.”
Roy straightened and stood at attention as Mrs. Reynolds marched down the porch towards him.
“Now what are you doing sweeping out here? You don’t have to do this kind of work anymore. Get James to do it. I need you to- Oh!” When she saw Sarah, her handsome face softened into a smile. “I see. Good morning, Sarah.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Reynolds.” Sarah returned the smile with a bashful nod and pink cheeks. Part of her felt like she should curtsy, as if she were talking to the Queen. Mrs. Delilah Reynolds was as close as Cold Springs could come to a queen to Sarah’s way of thinking.
“Paul letting you go today?” Mrs. Reynolds asked, the corner of her mouth twitching in a grin as she glanced from Sarah to Roy.
“Yes, Mrs. Reynolds. I mean no, he’s not letting me go exactly. I mean, yes, he is. I’m moving into Miss Jones’s boarding house this morning. He arranged it specially.”
“Mmm hmm,” Mrs. Reynolds answered. She leaned over the porch railing as if she would share a confidence, curls shimmering in the sunlight. “Well, just you tell me if you need any help. I could get Roy here to carry your bags over to Miss Jones’s place if you’d like.” She winked.
Sarah’s heart turned cartwheels in her chest. “Oh, Roy’s much too important for that.”
“Nonsense.” Mrs. Reynolds waved away her protest. “I’m sure he’d love the chance to help you, wouldn’t you, Roy?” “Why, yes, I-”
“What’s all this noise out here?”
Mr. Paul Sutcliffe slapped open the saloon door and stepped out to have a look around. He was rumpled, as if he’d just woken up, and he hadn’t shaved or brushed his hair yet. His moustache twitched when he saw Mrs. Reynolds standing on the hotel porch above and he frowned. He sauntered toward her combing his fingers through his hair, puffing out his chest.
“Delilah.” He nodded to Mrs. Reynolds.
“Paul,” Mrs. Reynolds replied. The morning took a frosty turn.
Sarah darted a look back and forth between the two. Everyone in town knew that there was history between Mrs. Reynolds and Mr. Sutcliffe, but Sarah, for one, wasn’t brave enough to guess what that history was.
“Sarah, sweetie, these folks bothering you?” Mr. Sutcliffe turned his frown on Roy.
“Oh, no, Mr. Sutcliffe,” she rushed to defend him, “not at all. Mrs. Reynolds was just saying hello. And Roy asked to take me on a picnic.”
Mrs. Reynolds stood a little straighter, the twitch back in her grin. Mr. Sutcliffe crossed his arms and spit into the dirt in the alley between the two porches.
“You can’t go on any picnic, darling, you’re due at the boarding house at noon,” he told her.
“Yes, sir, I know.” She nodded dutifully. “That’s what I told him too. But I got some time tomorrow and I’d like to go on a picnic then, if you think it’s all right.”
“Hmm,” Mr. Sutcliffe grunted. “We’ll see.”
“Don’t be a dunderhead, Paul,” Mrs. Reynolds snapped. “If Sarah wants to go on a picnic with Roy, well, they’re both grown up, and it’s not any of your business now, is it?”
Mr. Sutcliffe fixed Mrs. Reynolds with a stare that would have made Sarah wither in her shoes.
“Sarah will always be my business,” he told Mrs. Reynolds. “Her contract may be up, but she means more to me than a piece of paper. She needs someone looking out for her.”
“And that someone is you?” Mrs. Reynolds arched an eyebrow.
“Well it sure as hell isn’t that milksop bellhop of yours!”
“Now looky here, Mr. Sutcliffe.” Roy jerked straighter.
“Don’t you go bullying my staff.” Mrs. Reynolds shook her finger at Mr. Sutcliffe.
“Please don’t cause a fuss,” Sarah gasped, stomach twisting at the raised voices.
“Sorry, honey.” Delilah backed off with an apologetic smile. “What I meant to say was, Roy’s a bright, enterprising young man with a good future in front of him. He’ll be managing my new hotel when it opens in a few weeks, so I would appreciate it if you would be polite.”
“Polite, huh?” Mr. Sutcliffe snorted.
“Polite is nice, isn’t it?” Sarah glanced hopefully between them.
“Why, I certainly think so.” Roy smiled and Sarah’s racing heart skipped a beat.
Mr. Sutcliffe narrowed his eyes.
“Oh, get off your high horse, Paul,” Mrs. Reynolds scolded him. “Even the sweetest chicks leave the nest at some point. Besides, with his smarts and ambition, Roy reminds me of someone else I knew at that age.” Mrs. Reynolds finished by arching an eyebrow and planting her fists on her hips.
“Is that so?” Mr. Sutcliffe grunted. “You do know where he comes to spend all that money you pay him to haul bags around, don’t you?”
“Same place you spent yours, as I recall,” Mrs. Reynolds finished, a sly grin on her painted lips. She turned to Sarah. “You shoulda seen the way he pouted twenty years ago when my contract was up!”
“It was because you raised your prices,” Mr. Sutcliffe drawled.
“I did what any self-respecting woman woulda done under the circumstances.”
An icy silence followed. Sarah snuck a peek at Roy. He met her eyes with as much bafflement as she felt.
“I been saving my money too.” Roy broke the tension. “I been saving a little bit out of each paycheck over at Mr. Bell’s bank. Reckon it’ll be time to settle down and start a family before too long.”
“A family?” Butterflies danced in Sarah’s stomach.
“Yes, indeed.” Roy’s eyebrow gave the barest of flickers.
Mr. Sutcliffe huffed. “I’ll believe that when I see it!”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?” Mrs. Reynolds demanded.
Instead of answering her, Mr. Sutcliffe turned to Sarah. “Sweetheart, don’t you go trusting any of them shifty, hotel-types. They love ambition more than they ever loved anyone else.”
“Paul, don’t go confusing the poor child,” Mrs. Reynolds sighed.
“Yeah!” Roy piped in. “Some hotel-types are far more interested in things besides ambition.”
Mr. Sutcliffe snorted.
“You made your choices all them years ago just like I did,” Mrs. Reynolds added. “Which, I suppose, is why you’re throwing Sarah into that harpy, Viola Jones’s clutches.”
“You leave Viola out of this!”
“Why? You aren’t. In fact, I think you set Sarah up over there to rub my nose in it.”
“There you go,” Mr. Sutcliffe drawled, “thinking everything’s about you.”
“I’ll have you know-”
“Please stop!” Sarah held up her hands, her heart racing for all the wrong reasons. “Folks’ll hear you.” She glanced over her shoulder, and sure enough, a pair of ladies on errands were watching the scene between the hotel and the saloon. Sarah’s face burned hot with shame. Mr. Sutcliffe and Mrs. Reynolds continued to stare each other down.
“It’s all right, Sunshine,” Roy said. “And don’t you worry, I’ll help you move your things to the boarding house later. That is if Delilah can spare me.” He asked Mrs. Reynolds’s permission with the most charming smile Sarah had ever seen.
“Sure, Roy,” Mrs. Reynolds said. She looked away from Mr. Sutcliffe, a hint of a wistful sigh escaping her.
“I can help Sarah just fine on my own,” Mr. Sutcliffe contradicted her.
“Land sakes, Paul!” Mrs. Reynolds threw up her hands. “She’s not your daughter!”
Sarah would have giggled at the dizzy suggestion that Mr. Sutcliffe was her father, but both Mrs. Reynolds and Mr. Sutcliffe looked so serious about it that she gulped instead.
“If you wanted kids,” Mrs. Reynolds went on, “you shoulda married Viola! Let the boy help her.”
Mr. Sutcliffe bristled. “Sarah’s a sweetheart,” he argued, “and she ain’t got a father. She needs someone to look out for her, keep her safe and happy.”
“Well, Paul, on that we are agreed.” Mrs. Reynolds arched an eyebrow. “I’ll send Roy over at eleven-thirty.”
She turned and walked back to the hotel door, heels clicking on the porch boards and skirt swishing. Sarah watched her until she disappeared into the hotel, admiration warring with anxiety.
“I’ll be there at eleven-thirty sharp,” Roy said, his back straight in imitation of Mrs. Reynolds. He marched off to the other side of the porch to retrieve his broom and returned to work.
Mr. Sutcliffe sighed. “Bunch of meddling know-it-alls,” he muttered. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s make sure all your things are packed and ready.”
“Yes, Mr. Sutcliffe.”
Mr. Sutcliffe put an arm around Sarah’s shoulders and led her back towards the saloon door. The ladies on their errands were still staring at them and whispering. The thought of what they must be saying was a dark cloud over Sarah’s otherwise sunny day.
She glanced over her shoulder for one last peek at Roy before entering the saloon. He caught her eye across the porches and winked. It was almost enough to set her heart to rights.
Did I say it was coming out on August 24th? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s actually up on Amazon right now. Click here. 😉 It’ll be up everywhere else soon!