Adrian Gamble wasn’t his name, but it was the one he was willing to use.
He led his horse down Hartville’s main street, taking note of the sights and sounds it offered. On either side, solid buildings replaced the ramshackle structures he’d expected to find in the mining town. Evidently, the residents had found a good enough living here and decided to stay. They’d established permanent homes and businesses and looked to be thriving.
Perhaps he’d live long enough to do the same.
As had become his habit, he glanced over his shoulder and to either side, checking to see if any familiar faces followed in his wake. He prayed every minute of every day for the Lord to keep him safe from his pursuers.
He hoped out-of-the-way Hartville and its established mining company would provide a measure of anonymity.
A wooden sign in the window of a plain, whitewashed storefront on the right side of the street told him he’d reached his destination. Douglas Carlson, attorney-at-law, did business within.
“Good afternoon,” he said to the bespectacled and serious man he found shuffling papers in a cabinet just inside the door. “I’m looking for Mr. Carlson.”
“You’ve found him. And you are . . . ?”
He bit his tongue to keep the dangerous name from popping forth. “Gamble,” he said instead. “Adrian Gamble, and I’m here to finalize my purchase of the Heart of Silver Mining Company.”
A flicker of interest showed from behind the glass lenses as the lawyer extended his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. I’ve been looking forward to this day.”
Adrian returned the firm clasp. “So have I.” But for very different reasons. He ignored his irritating conscience, aware that subterfuge was his only choice at present.
“Please, follow me.” Douglas gestured toward the open doorway at the left side of the room. “My secretary had to go to Denver for a family funeral, but she prepared all the documents you need to sign. I have them at my desk.”
The attorney closed the door to the simple, attractive office and pointed to the comfortable-looking leather armchair in front of his neat desk. “Do take a seat.”
Adrian sank into the chair. “Ah, it’s a pleasure to sit in something other than a saddle after riding a ways.”
“There’s a reason trains are such popular means of travel from practically any part of the country.”
Adrian didn’t take the bait. He had no intention of revealing his departure point or explaining his reasons for avoiding crowds.
“So you say everything is in order.”
Douglas’s eyes again gleamed, this time to broadcast that little escaped his notice. Adrian would have to remember that in the future and guard his tongue.
“Everything from the deed to the property to the general store and its inventory, as well as the Harts’ former home and all its furnishings. You only need to sign and assume the reins.”
Adrian allowed himself a satisfied smile. “I’ll also need to gather the two boxes I shipped ahead in care of the company. Would they still be at the train station?”
The lawyer pushed a pen-and-inkwell stand toward Adrian and handed him a sheaf of papers. “No. I decided it made more sense if everything was delivered to the general store, since the porters know to take all mining company supplies there.”
With conscious effort, Adrian avoided signing the wrong name on the deed. His man in Virginia had assured him that he would be the owner of the mine and all the other company property despite signing as the stranger, Adrian Gamble. The man he once was no longer existed.
“There,” he said. “What’s next?”
Douglas stood. “As I said, all you need is to move right in—to your new home and business. Both are ready.”
“You did indeed take care of everything. I’m much obliged.”
The lawyer shrugged and reached for a brown overcoat hanging from a hook on the frame of a tall mirror near the door. “If you don’t object, I’d like to show you around.”
“First I must find a livery.”
“Of course. Amos Jimson’s stables are right around the corner, and you won’t find a finer man or better place to keep your animal.”
Adrian followed his guide. He’d achieved a major goal and wanted to celebrate, but the wariness that had replaced his once easygoing nature prevented him from even the slightest lowering of his guard. His life depended on his vigilance.
The stables were as clean and well tended as any Adrian had ever seen. And the owner? Amos was another matter altogether.
“Where you hail from, son?” the large black man asked in a kind voice.
Adrian gave the reply that had served him well for a while.
“Oh, from just about everywhere.”
“From just about everywhere, you say.” Canny smarts lay behind the slow, molasses-rich southern voice. “And precisely whereabouts is everywhere?”
“I see. Back east.” The livery owner’s perusal turned to scrutiny, and Adrian began to chafe under its intensity. Then Amos added, “An’ just what brings you to Hartville?”
“Give the man a chance to catch his breath, Amos.” Douglas evidently knew the livery owner well. “He’s just ridden into town, and from the looks of him and his horse, he’s been on the road for a fair spell. This is Adrian Gamble, the mine’s new owner.”
Still more interest lit Amos’s smile. “Mm-hmm. Looks like we’ll have us plenty time to get us better acquainted, won’t we, Mister Adrian Gamble? I don’t figger you’ll be travelin’ everywhere for a spell. Running the Heart of Silver takes a toll on a man’s time.”
“I’m not afraid of work—never have been. I know I’ve taken on a large responsibility, but I trust the Lord will make me equal to it.”
Again the wise brown eyes narrowed, and the lines at their corners, lines surely gained over years of life’s experiences, deepened. Adrian felt as though his drawers were flapping open in the brisk Colorado wind.
“Glad to see you’re a God-fearing man, Mister Gamble. Always good to know another brother on the straight and narrow road to heaven.”
He squirmed. He hadn’t fooled Amos for a second. And he wouldn’t be taking him up on his roundabout invitation to get better acquainted either. “I must be on my way, Mr. Jimson. Pleasure meeting you.”
Amos laughed. “Is it now? Well, we’ll soon see, son, how much pleasure you’ll be finding in Hartville. At least you’ll know for the next while where you hail from, now won’t you?”
Adrian spun on his heel and headed out the wide entry to the stables. Douglas took several loping steps and caught up with him seconds later.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said, gasping. “Amos is incorrigible. He survived the hell of slavery and figures he’s entitled to say whatever’s on his mind. Sometimes he goes a mite far.”
“A man has a right to speak as he wishes.” Adrian cast a sideways glance at his companion. “And to keep his counsel, too.”
Without missing a step, Douglas met Adrian’s gaze, acknowledging his meaning.
“He certainly does.” The lawyer then waved toward the substantial structure they’d reached. “And the general store’s a good place to be mindful of that. Not much that happens or is said here stays within these four walls.”
Adrian paused on the steps to the boardwalk right in front of the store. “Surely you’re not saying I have a gossiping busybody in my employ.”
“Heavens no,” Douglas said. “Phoebe Williams is a hardworking woman, not given to excesses of any sort. And as a pastor’s widow, she’s the soul of discretion.”
Adrian forced his shoulders to relax. “I’m glad to hear that. I can certainly use an efficient and sensible manager at the store.”
Douglas cast Adrian a sharp look. “Excellent. The whole town has worried about Mrs. Williams’s future. No one knew your intentions for the store, and she depends on her wages.”
“I hope no one’s thought I’d come to turn folks out on the street. I don’t intend to make many changes—if any—to what seems to be a well-managed operation.”
“Well,” Douglas said, “there is something you might want to consider. You’ve a sizable number of Chinamen working the mine, and the situation might be growing troublesome. You’ll have to watch for—”
“Oh! Dear me, Douglas,” exclaimed the tiny, gray-garbed dynamo who barreled into the attorney. “I had no idea you were out here. Did I hurt you?”
The woman’s question brought a smile to Adrian’s lips. Douglas laughed. “Letty, you’re no bigger than a minute. Of course you didn’t hurt me. And if you had, what then? Why, I’m sure you’d patch me up right quick.”
He turned to Adrian. “Allow me to introduce our intrepid physician, Dr. Letitia Morgan—”
“Dr. Letitia Wagner,” the petite woman interjected.
Adrian arched a brow and extended his hand. “A most progressive town, Hartville.”
The doctor’s chin rose as she took his fingers in a firm clasp.
“As they all should be, Mr. Gamble.”
Her use of his recently acquired name gave him pause. She noticed. “I’m afraid your fame precedes you, sir.” At his alarm, she chuckled and waved. “Nothing to worry about though. It’s merely a matter of small-town reality. Everyone knows most everyone here. You see, before she left, Mrs. Hart gave us enough particulars regarding the sale of her late husband’s holdings to satisfy the rampant curiosity, and your name was one of those particulars. We’ve been expecting your arrival these last few days.”
“I see.” As his heart beat a wild tattoo, Adrian renewed his determination to guard his privacy. With a bob of her head, the doctor smiled, patted Douglas’s hand in a friendly way, and started down the boardwalk in the direction from which he and Douglas had just come.
She paused and said over her shoulder, “Do keep in mind, Mr. Gamble, that my clinic is on Willow Lane, just a few houses down from Silver Creek Church—in case you’re in need of my services, of course.”
“Of course.” Was the good doctor someone of concern? “Letty is the most generous and caring woman in town.”
Carlson held the store’s door open for Adrian. “Besides my dear wife, you understand.”
Adrian grinned. “Ever given thought to politics, counselor?”
The lawyer laughed as they stepped inside. “Call me Douglas, and no. I just favor living longer. My Randy happens to be Letty’s closest crony, and I have a healthy respect for those two. Alone they’re impressive, but together they’re nothing short of formidable.”
Adrian blinked at the contrast in lighting. “Perhaps there’s a good reason for a man to remain a bachelor.”
“Life would be too dull if I had to live it alone. Randy and our new little Emma Letitia—after the good doctor, you see—are God’s greatest gifts to me.”
Pain stabbed Adrian in the deepest part of his heart. He’d said farewell to his family forever. He’d had to do so to ensure their safety. The hole created by the knowledge that he’d never again see Mother; his brother, Stuart; sweet Priscilla, the youngest of the three; and Aunt Sally was a deep, ever-aching wound.
“Hello, Mr. Carlson,” a woman said, her voice melodic and sweet.
“Good afternoon, Phoebe. I’ve someone here I’m sure you’re anxious to meet. This is Adrian Gamble, your new employer.”
Although Adrian’s eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the darkness, he didn’t need perfect vision to recognize fear. The woman’s sharply indrawn breath said it all.
When the shadows around him cleared, brightened by a gas lamp, Adrian made out a feminine form next to a long counter. Tall and well proportioned, Phoebe Williams seemed stunned by his presence in the store.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” he said in his kindest voice. He remembered Douglas’s concern for the widow’s livelihood. “I’ve heard excellent things about your skills. I hope you’ll do me the honor of continuing in my employ.”
Evidently, he’d said the right thing. The tightness of her shoulders and neck eased just enough to let her nod.
“I’d be much obliged, Mr. Gamble,” she said. “I hope everything is to your approval, but if it’s not, please let me know, and I’ll take care of those changes you wish to make.”
To his delight, his eyes finally cooperated. Although pale, Phoebe Williams looked quite unlike what he’d expected. From Douglas’s description, he’d thought the preacher’s widow would be much more timeworn and gray. Instead, she looked scarcely more than twenty, with soft blue eyes and honey-colored hair pulled up into a soft knot on her crown. Her simple cotton blouse buttoned up to her throat, and a small cameo brooch held it closed. Her hands, clasped at her waist, looked more like those of an artist than those of a shopkeeper. Although not beautiful in the classical sense, Phoebe Williams was attractive and undoubtedly the most feminine creature Adrian had ever seen.
He was intrigued.
Realizing Douglas and Phoebe still awaited his response, he repeated his earlier sentiment. “I’m not one to make hasty or unwise changes, so I won’t disrupt what appears to be a smoothrunning operation. I’m certain the store’s success is in no small measure due to your excellent influence.”
He turned to Douglas. “Lead the way to the house, counselor. I’m afraid the trip has got the best of me. I’m looking forward to washing away the road dust and crawling into bed.”
Douglas nodded and headed for the door. In Adrian’s last glimpse of Phoebe, he noted the heightened peach tint of her cheeks. “I look forward to working closely with you here at the store, Mrs. Williams.”
Something he said must have flustered her, because she blushed a deeper shade of apricot and nodded, her knuckles whitening as she tightened her clasped hands. Then she smiled, and Adrian felt as though the sun had just come over the eastern horizon for the second time that day. Her smile made him think physical beauty inconsequential as it illuminated her features from within, bringing them a certain softness and a warmth that reached him where he’d been too cold for a long time.
She glowed with something he lacked, something his words had just given her.
It glowed from the lovely widow’s face, and Adrian knew he had to watch himself. Phoebe held the future in her graceful hands, while his future had died on a train nearly a year ago.
Without his identity and with killers on his trail, he had no hope, nothing to offer, no future in sight. He certainly had nothing for the too-appealing Phoebe Williams, nor even for himself. His life had come to an end on the day he killed another man.
“Did you meet him, Phoebe? Did you?” Young Julia Miller, cheeks flushed, brown curls bobbing, dodged the makeshift seats around the pot-bellied stove in the Heart of Silver Mining Company’s general store. Phoebe Williams bit her bottom lip. She sent her friend Letty Wagner an anxious look and handed her the parcel of homeopathic remedies she’d ordered from the Luyties Apothecary in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I did,” she said.
Julia, full of youthful fervor, fairly quivered in anticipation. When neither Phoebe nor Letty spoke further, she frowned.
“Well? What do you reckon?”
Again Phoebe looked at Letty, who shook her head. She shrugged. “I reckon I know nothing more than you do.”
Julia’s exuberance deflated. “Oh.”
Phoebe smiled at the girl’s crestfallen expression. “Was there something your mother wanted, or did you just come to visit?”
Julia blushed. She tangled the fingers of one hand with those of the other, then scrubbed the palms of her hands on her skirt. She shifted her weight from her left foot to her right. “Well, I’d just delivered a load of fresh laundry to one of her customers, and . . . well, I thought you might know more about the new owner.”
“Nothing, dear,” Phoebe said with a sigh. “I don’t know a thing beyond what Mrs. Hart said at church three weeks ago before she went back east. She had to sell the mining company after Mr. Hart went to his eternal rest, and Mr. Adrian Gamble bought everything. He’s here in town now.”
Julia leaned against the gleaming oak counter, eyes sparkling with curiosity. “Well then, what do you reckon he’ll do with the store? My ma says no eastern swell’s going to want to fuss with it. He likely only wants more of what he has—silver, and plenty of it.”
An icy lump landed in Phoebe’s middle. “I’ll have you know the store does a solid business and turns a tidy profit,” she said to convince herself as well as Julia. “I wouldn’t ever let down my Father in heaven or my employer on earth by lazing about instead of working. I assure you, this store is no loss to its owner. Besides, he said he wouldn’t disturb our smooth-running operation.”
Before the girl could gather her wits, Letty stepped in. “Haven’t you something more fruitful to do than chatter, Miss Julia Miller? I’d think your mother could use help with the laundry.”
Julia winced and lowered her head. “Yes, ma’am, I reckon she could. I’ll be heading home, then. Afternoon, Dr. Morgan . . . er . . . Mrs. Wagner . . . Oh, botheration. What do I call you now you’re right and wedded?”
Letty struggled with a smile. “You may call me Dr. Wagner or Mrs. Wagner, Julia. Now do hurry on home. If your mother doesn’t need you for the wash, then she can certainly use you to help keep your brothers in hand.”
A mulish expression replaced the young woman’s abashment, but she marched back up the store’s central aisle. “I’d as soon scrub the skin clear off my knuckles on a rusty old washboard, Dr. Wagner.”
The cowbell on the establishment’s half-glass door jangled in Julia’s wake. Phoebe tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but she realized no relief could be found. Not yet.
“Has your husband learned anything about the new buyer?” she asked her friend. “Has he prepared a story about Mr. Gamble for his newspaper?”
Letty patted Phoebe’s hand. “Don’t fret. Eric has no more information than the rest of us do, but I doubt the new owner will close the store. Surely he knows it does a hearty trade, and I’m certain he also knows he must keep his miners supplied and content. Keeping the company store open and successful is a sensible and wise proposition.”
Phoebe nodded without much conviction. “I know what he said, but I can’t be sure of a stranger. I don’t know what I’ll do if he does close it down. Now that my dear John is gone, I’ve no one else—”
“Hush now. You’re not at all alone. You have brothers and sisters at Silver Creek Church.”
Phoebe stiffened her spine and held her head high. “I could never let myself become a burden to anyone. The good Lord called John to join Pastor Stone as his junior, and He must have had a reason to bring me here, too. But why He let the mine shaft cave in and take my John—”
“Plus Mr. Hart and a dozen and a half miners, too.”
Phoebe winced, chagrined by her uncharacteristic selfcenteredness.
“I’m so sorry. I can’t seem to take my eyes off myself these days. Of course I’m not the only one who lost someone dear that day. It’s just . . .”
“That you feel your own loss most deeply. Especially since you’d only been married a brief time.”
“I’m so glad you understand, you being a newlywed and all.”
Phoebe made herself don a smile. “Thirteen months and two weeks is all we had, to be precise.”
The memories of happy times rushed to her mind, times she still couldn’t revisit. They were much too sad to remember when she no longer had John’s loving presence at her side. She pushed the images away and tried to put words to the feelings inside her.
“That’s what makes it so hard, Letty. I can’t know what the future holds. I try to trust the Father, but He’s kept His counsel so far. He must have something for me.” She looked around the store, at the floor-to-ceiling shelves replete with every conceivable necessity—and a few items not so necessary, too. “I can’t imagine life without greater purpose than selling flour, calico, tin pans, salt mackerel, crackers, pickles, and tea.”
“Oh, but it is an important task. Hartville needs this store. The miners depend on its reduced prices to replenish their supplies, and the rest of us appreciate the convenience it provides. I’m sure the Lord has a purpose for you, and He’ll reveal it in His own good time, even if storekeeping happens to be it. Do think of the ministry in service.”
Phoebe frowned, certain that storekeeping wasn’t a purpose—not in the way she meant. “I must say, I’m praying He doesn’t take too long. I tremble each time someone mentions the sale of the mine.”
Letty gathered the remedies Phoebe had wrapped in brown paper and placed the package in a large basket over her arm. “I daresay I risk sounding as though I’m offering only platitudes, but do try not to fret until you know for certain what Mr.—Oh, what was his name?”
“Gamble.” Phoebe could never forget the name. Too much depended on the man who bore it. “Adrian Gamble is his name.”
As she skirted the stove on her way to the door, Letty nodded.
“Trust in the Lord, Phoebe, and wait on Mr. Gamble. I’m certain neither shall leave you destitute.”
Oh, Lord, I certainly pray that is the case.
Phoebe remembered something she’d wanted to ask her friend. “Will we see you at the quilting circle tonight?”
Letty opened the door and set its bell to jangling. “I can’t understand why all you expert needle women continue to invite me. I can’t sew a straight line even when you’ve drawn it for me.”
She shook her head, smiling. “But it’s a lovely way to spend a few hours, so I will be there—unless someone’s baby decides to come along right at that time. It’s a daily hazard for a doctor, you understand.”
Letty stepped outside, and Phoebe stayed behind the counter. Life teemed with hazards, and Phoebe knew too well their consequences. Widowhood was a true calamity for a young associate preacher’s wife. With no one to count on and nothing to fall back on, she lived at the mercy of others.
She prayed mercy had a home in Adrian Gamble’s heart.