Her brother-in-law had no living relatives, so Emma was the sole heir to his assets, but without proof of death, everything had been frozen. Now she was left to pay a mortgage. Small though it might be, thanks to her sister’s financial prowess, it was still beyond her pay grade.
The quintessential modern woman and self-confessed technology junkie, Emma always had the latest iPhone, Blackberry, Blueberry, whatever berry was currently hitting the market. But a checkbook and its balancing scared her to death.
The melodic chime of the doorbell interrupted her thoughts. She pushed her glasses back up her nose, and made her way to the front door, hoping it wasn’t yet another barrage of ponytails and green sashes ready to sell her a month’s supply of cookies. The horde of sugar inevitably only lasted a week, and settled quite firmly on her rear end. Emma strode down the hallway and tried to force her mind off the minty chocolate goodness that suddenly overtook her thoughts.
A quick glance out the side window had her grimacing. Slipping the deadbolt, she swung the door open to find Alexandria Smith, Sophie’s best friend standing on the front step. Emma had been avoiding her for weeks.
“Hi, Alex.” She stepped back to let her inside.
“Emma!” Alex crossed the threshold and pulled her in for a quick hug. “You look terrible.”
“Thanks,” she retorted.
“What happened to your contacts?”
Emma wrinkled her nose, dislodging her glasses, requiring her to secure them again. “I haven’t gotten around to ordering more. I wore my last pair for nearly three months and the left one tore yesterday.”
“I thought the cat look went out in the sixties,” Alex joked.
Emma pulled out of her embrace with a quiet snort. “Meow.”
Alex narrowed her eyes and let out a sigh. “Are you not eating?”
Emma shrugged. “I haven’t been hungry.”
“Where’s the girl who can eat anything at any time in any circumstance? Hm? The girl who convinced Hannah that a tub of ice cream was an essential dairy snack?”
Emma dropped her gaze to the floor. “That was before I had to cook for myself.”
“Emma Justine, you can’t do this to yourself.”
Tears pricked Emma’s eyes. “I just want to know where my family is.”
“I know.” Alex pulled a tissue out of her purse and handed it to her. “Any word from the FBI?”
Emma shook her head as she closed the door, her blonde hair falling around her face. “No, none. At least, nothing relating to an answer. But I see them watching the house sometimes.”
Emma shuddered. “I guess some agent seems to think our house is ground zero.”
Alex sighed. “Em, why don’t you ever ask questions?”
“What do you mean?”
Alex’s eyes widened. “You and Hannah couldn’t be any different. Hannah asks unending questions and looks for all the angles, but you clam up when you’re in strange situations. You take everything in stride and let the situation run you.”
“I do not! I just don’t feel it’s necessary to ask a million questions that only lead to lies anyway.”
“What?” Emma threw her hands up in the air. “Everyone lies. And since I’m not the greatest judge of character to begin with, I prefer to observe the situation and figure things out for myself.”
“I know you do. I just worry about what this all means.”
Emma ran her hands through her hair. “It might mean nothing, Alex. It might be some underlying, diabolical plan to bring down the world. All I know is that my family is gone, and the FBI is watching my house.”
“Don’t you think that’s weird as well?”
“Them watching the house?”
Alex nodded. “Yeah. It seems strange that Sophie and Jamie’s disappearances would go all the way up the ladder to the FBI. This is all so X-Files.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I don’t get it.” Alex patted her back. “Why would they think you could do anything? They just disappeared. No explanations.”
“I know. But, no one really believes me.” Emma scowled. “They think I know more than I’m saying.”
“I believe you.”
Emma snorted. “Thanks.”
“Anything else weird going on?” Alex set her purse on the bench in the foyer.
“I did have a strange call from that grief counselor.”
“The French one that irritated Jamie?”
Emma nodded. “Yes. Bernadette.”
Alex’s eyebrows knitted together. “Why?”
“I don’t know. She asked me how I was and if I needed anything.”
“But, why now?”
“She didn’t say.”
Alex tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Maybe she was being nice. I mean, she was really kind after Sophie disappeared, comforting and all that.”
Emma took her arm and led her to the living room, sidestepping several boxes as they made their way to the sofa. “It just seems weird, a year and a half after the fact, to call me. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, it does,” Alex said distractedly.
Emma made a sweeping motion with her hands, indicating her pack-ing procrastination. “I really don’t know what to do with Sophie’s things. I may have to sell a lot of them off just to afford the mortgage.”
“I know, honey, but what’s the alternative?”
“Why don’t you and Luke move in? I’ll rent it to you for cheap and then live here with you for a few years,” Emma asked with a hopeful glance in her friend’s direction. “You could invest the money from your home until all this is settled and who knows, if...” Emma choked a bit. “I mean when Jamie and Sophie come back we can sort details out then. You know Jamie and Sophie would have both wanted that. You’re our only family.”
Alex stalled, arms crossed, a look of surprise on her face.
Emma clasped her hands together. “Well? What do you think?”
“That’s not a bad idea, actually. Especially now.” Alex’s hands settled possessively over her abdomen. “Luke and I are going to have a baby.”
“Seriously? Oh, my gosh, that’s incredible!” Emma squealed and gave her a hug.
“If we did this, it would mean having to sell our house, but that wouldn’t kill me. To be honest, I never did feel at home there. Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight and stay. We can talk to Luke about it then.”
Emma hugged her again. “Does that mean I can forget about cleaning out her library right now? It gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I go near that room.”
“Yes, we’ll leave it—for now. Let’s go get some lunch. We’ll wait to pack anything up until after we’ve talked to Luke.”
Emma ran upstairs and got her purse, grabbed a change of clothes, set the house alarm, and followed Alex out the front door. She climbed into the passenger seat and dropped her purse on her lap with a thud.
“Do you think your bag is big enough?” Alex teased as they took off toward their favorite restaurant.
“It’s about being prepared.” Emma looked down at the purse her sister used to refer to as Mary Poppins’s carpetbag.
“Prepared for carrying several small children around?”
“Oh, you’re funny.”
As they drove through the streets of downtown Portland, Emma thought about her sister and the life Sophie had made for her.
Emma was fourteen, Sophie barely eighteen, when their mother lost her battle with cancer and their world was turned upside down. And now, a year later, their father lay dying with a heart defect and no hope for a transplant. Sophie’s father had wanted to send Emma to his sister’s home in Texas, but Sophie wouldn’t hear of it. Emma remembered poking her head through the stairway slats, listening to their argument.
“She needs a firm hand, Sophie. Send her to Austin.”
“Texas?” her sister squealed. “I won’t do that to her, Daddy. Emma hates cowboys.”
Emma had gone to Texas the year before to visit her aunt and had experienced a painful childhood crush on a young man who was working the ranch. It was her first broken heart, and she’d come back with a deep hatred of anyone wearing a cowboy hat.
“She’s not even fifteen, Sofa. She’s too young to hate cowboys.”
“Dad! Emma and I’ll figure it out—together.”
Sophie gave up college to take care of her, and that decision weighed heavy on Emma. Sophie was the smart one, the one who should have gone on to teach about the history she loved so much. The bright spot had come in the form of Jamie, and once again, Emma had been blessed with the option to continue to live with Sophie and Sophie’s new husband.
Emma had been given everything simply because Sophie sacrificed for her. Other than the ability to maneuver through the world of iPods and Blackberry’s, Emma felt more like a typical blonde. She had been blessed with light blonde hair that highlighted a peaches and cream complexion, framing deep blue eyes. She and Sophie looked very much alike--the only difference was that Emma was an inch taller and had straight hair, rather than curly. Her looks worked for her, and she used them to her advantage every chance she got.
Alex parked the car less than a block from the restaurant, and they made their way to one of their favorite places to eat. Entering Manzana Grill, the waiter showed them to their table, and as she sank into the comfy leather club chairs, Emma felt the knots of tension she’d carried for weeks subside.
Maybe, just maybe, everything will work out. Maybe, just maybe, the pain and frustration will disappear and I’ll be able to get on with my life.
* * *
Clayton Madden’s frustration manifested itself in the death grip he had on the arms of the high-backed leather chair in the house he shared with his brother, Richard. Since the beginning of the war, Harrisburg had become his secondary home, and he didn’t get much time to visit. His primary residence was in Washington, D.C., where he worked for Lincoln’s War Cabinet. His friend and colleague, Christopher Butler, had given him the leeway to return to Harrisburg to check on Richard, not easy to do when they were preparing for the President’s trip to Gettysburg in a month.
However, Richard had promised to deliver horses to Maryland, and Richard had yet to fulfill his commitment. Vincent Butler, Christopher’s father, was a prominent farmer and horse breeder for many of the counties in Maryland, and with the shortage on horses due to the war, relied on the ones Richard provided. Clayton had known something must be wrong, but had no idea Richard’s drinking had become as bad as it is.
For three days, Clayton had watched Richard drink himself into yet another stupor—a violent one. Richard Madden, wounded severely at Gettysburg, hadn’t done well after his stay in the hospital, and although his injuries were healing, he continued to self-medicate with alcohol.
Richard told Clayton the reason he chose whiskey over other available methods of pain relief was to avoid the “Army Disease” of addiction to laudanum or morphine. Trouble was, he didn’t seem to realize, or refused to see, his growing addiction to alcohol. Truth be told, his dependency began long before any physical injuries.
A broken heart compounded Richard’s need for alcohol. Forced to watch the object of his affection in love with and pregnant by another man left him crushed. Clayton relaxed his hands and settled his forearms on his knees as he leaned forward. “Richard. You need to slow down, your conduct is atrocious.”
“You don’t know a damn thing about any damn thing, Clayton,” Richard snapped.
“I know you’re drinking entirely too much. Why don’t you drink water for the remainder of the day?”
“Why don’t you go to hell?” Richard bellowed as he shook his half-empty glass at Clayton. “Did you see how she treated me last night? Her husband came to her rescue as though I did something wrong.” Richard took another swig and stared off into space for several minutes.
Clayton sighed. “Richard.”
“The lieutenant has been nothing but trouble since he got here.”
“She’s pregnant, Richard, and you tried to accost her.”
“I did not accost her! I greeted her.”
“With your lips. On her mouth!” Clayton ran his hands through his hair.
Richard waved his glass in the air dismissively, mumbling incoherently.
Clayton knew bits and pieces of the Sophie Ford story, Richard’s lost love…or new obsession…he couldn’t quite discern which. Her arrival to Harrisburg nine months ago had been a strange one, and still unexplained. He’d met her briefly when her life had been threatened, and had also made the acquaintance of her husband, Jamie. Clayton liked the man. He was genuine, had a gift with people, and did his best to be patient with Richard, despite the fact that his brother treated him poorly.
But the issues with Sophie were simply the last straw. Richard had wounds far deeper than anyone had ever been able to reach.
Polar opposites in personality, Clayton and his brother were a combustible combination. Richard could be aggressive and a bully at times, whereas Clayton was the peacemaker. Clayton made his point with words, rather than his fists. Growing up with Richard, however, made him a crafty fighter. He’d had to be…just to survive the frequent brawls with his older brother.
Clayton hadn’t realized how badly his brother was doing. The rumors didn’t come close to the truth, and he was both shocked and saddened by the sight of Richard’s deterioration. “I’m leaving on the four o’clock train. I would like to report to the President that all is well here. Why don’t you go upstairs and try to rest?”
“I’m perfectly rested,” Richard slurred.
“You need to sober up.”
Richard staggered to his feet. “And you need to get the hell out of my office!”
Fists clenched, Clayton stood and walked slowly towards the office door. He knew he had to take a walk or he would end up punching his brother. And no good ever came out of a fight with Richard. Taking a deep breath, he turned towards him. “Richard, be sober before I return, or I’ll be forced to take action.”
The ring of Richard’s humorless laughter followed Clayton as he quietly pulled the office door closed and made his way to the stables to check on the cavalry training. Hearing the forceful voice of Sergeant Lowe directing the horses in several military movements as he app-roached the arena, Clayton took a deep, steely breath, and tried to shake off his anger towards his brother. A slight breeze carried the briskness of the ensuing winter and the scents of horseflesh, and the soldiers took advantage of the mild weather to get in an extra exercise session.
Clayton’s thoughts were diverted when he saw Jamie in deep conversation with his wife. Feeling slightly like a voyeur, yet unable to turn away, Clayton watched as Jamie smiled down at her as though she were the only person on earth. Tall with long, blonde curls that cascaded down the middle of her back, Sophie commanded attention by the men around her. However, she seemed unaware of her effect. Jamie looked up as he approached and Sophie turned, welcoming Clayton with a quick smile.
No wonder Richard is a mess.
“Good afternoon, Clayton.” Jamie stretched his hand out in greeting.
“Good afternoon.” Clayton removed his hat and turned to Sophie with a slight bow. “Mrs. Ford, lovely to see you again.”
“You, too, Mr. Madden.”
“How’s Richard?” Jamie asked. At Sophie’s grimace, he wrapped his arm around her back and pulled her up against him.
Clayton tucked his hat under his arm. “Not doing well today, I’m afraid.”
“What time is your train?”
Jamie frowned. “Will Richard see you off?”
“I doubt it.” Clayton crossed his arms. “I’m hoping he’ll pass out soon. I’d hate a scene at the station.”
“I’m so sorry. I hadn’t realized it’d gotten that bad,” Sophie whispered sadly.
Clayton held his hand up. “Please don’t apologize, it’s his doing.”
Sophie leaned heavily against Jamie with a sigh.
“If you need a ride, let me know,” Jamie offered.
“That won’t be necessary.” Clayton grimaced. “Richard was supposed to deliver horses to Maryland. However, in his condition—” He paused with a scowl. “Nevertheless, Andrew Simmonds has offered to deliver them to Vincent Butler, so we’ll ride them to the station. I’ll disembark at Union Station, and Andrew will continue with them to Camden.”
Jamie nodded. “When will you be back?”
“Not for several weeks, I would imagine. I have to report to Christopher Butler and the President, which will require time.”
Sophie raised an eyebrow. “Will you let them know about Richard?”
“I will tell Christopher. The President has too much on his mind to be concerned about my brother. I am satisfied with the work in spite of Richard’s illness.”
“Excellent.” Jamie gave a quick nod. “Well, my wife needs to rest, so we’ll see you next time you’re in town.”
Clayton shook Jamie’s hand and watched him lean down to whisper something in Sophie’s ear as they walked away. A few seconds later, Jamie handed her a handkerchief. Clayton hoped it wasn’t something he’d said.
“Clayton!” Andrew approached him, leading a pair of award-winning Morgans.
Andrew had to fight to keep the stallion from sidestepping into the mare, so Clayton rushed to assist. “They’re beautiful.”
Andrew nodded. “Richard chose well with these two. Once Vincent mates them, their foal will be a nice addition to his stable.”
Clayton took the stallion’s lead from Andrew and noticed he grabbed his knee briefly before standing again. Andrew Simmonds had been severely injured at Shiloh and was left with a badly damaged knee and scarring on his face. He would joke that the scar finally made him less pretty, but Clayton always felt there was something deeper behind his comedic façade. “I have nothing to take with me, so I’ll check on Richard and meet you out front in ten minutes, if that is acceptable.”
Andrew nodded. “Yes, fine. My bag’s on the back of the mare, so I’m ready to go.”
Clayton jogged back to the house and made his way to Richard’s office. He pushed the door open to find Richard passed out in his large leather chair. With a curse of disgust, Clayton penned a quick note, put another log on the fire, and met Andrew outside.