Fire & Lace

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Chapter 1

Clara - 1899

“Have you seen Mr. Gilmore’s house since he finished it?” Grace asked, keeping her voice hushed as we stocked the library shelves.

“Can’t say I have.” Involuntarily, I rolled my eyes. In my defense, Jack Gilmore was the talk of the town and had been for the last year and a half. I was tired of hearing about Jack, and I’m sure the poor man was tired of hearing gossip about himself too. I know I would’ve been.

“It’s quite nice. He invited my family over for supper the other day.” Grace scooted the book cart down a little, the wheel crying out for oil. When I didn’t ask for details, she offered more information anyway. “I guess Daddy helped him fell a tree, or something. I’m not exactly sure what it was, but Jack felt the need to make it up to Daddy.”

“That’s nice, Grace.” I brushed off the spine of the book I’d just put on the shelf, narrowing my eyes at the stubborn fuz that clung to the leather.

“Momma thinks Jack will start courting me.” Grace flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder.

“Oh yeah. I’m sure,” I giggled, glancing at her from the corner of my eye.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Clara?” Grace turned to face me fully. Her hands rested on her hips as her lower lip pouted. “You don’t think a man as handsome as Jack would court me? Is that it?”

It’s true that Jack was probably the most handsome and eligible bachelor in Little Hallow. This much was obvious to anyone who had eyes. The man was so herculean that he shamed Hercules himself. Not to mention, the storm of gray in his eyes set him apart from the sea of brown that flooded the populus of Little Hallow. Jack Gilmore was so handsome, in fact, that even the older, married women wanted a chance to run their fingers through his midnight locks. And then they went to church every Sunday, lusting after a man half their age.

But that wasn’t why I laughed at Grace’s suggestion of him courting her. I laughed because he was so...aloof. Momma had brought him a batch of her famous molasses cookies that first week he was here, and he refused them. It was “too kind” of her, he’d said. In fact, based on the church gossip, when any of Little Hallow’s women tried to butter up Jack, he’d rejected them. So, it was obvious that Mr. Gilmore did not have courting on his mind.

“No, of course not, Grace!” I shook my head to her question, taking a step towards the cart. “I’m only saying that because I know Jack isn’t the...courting type.”

“How would you know? Just because Joshua Manning has been courting you since y’all were in diapers doesn’t mean you’re the expert, you know!” Grace stamped her foot, crossing her arms over her large chest. There was no arguing with her at this point, even if she was wrong about Joshua and me.

“I know. I know.” Picking up another book, I set it on the shelf in its place. This seemed to appease Grace enough for her to continue with her talk of Jack. Yay.

“Daddy says it’s odd that he doesn’t go to church. I guess Jack just works straight through the week, starting Sunday.” Grace picked up a couple more books. “Do you think it’s odd?”

“I mean...it is a little odd.” I offered her a small shrug. “Everyone else comes to Preacher David’s sermons. Even the people from the outskirts.”

“Yeah, true…” Another sideways glance caught Grace worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. There seemed to be more she wanted to say, more that was bothering her about Jack. This was peculiar because Grace never kept secrets from me.

However, she quickly swallowed whatever it was and set a book on the shelf. “Do you think he’s seeing anyone in town?

“How should I know?”
The look that Grace gave me was unforgiving. “I didn’t ask if you knew. I asked what you thought. A girl ought to know which men are available for the taking, and which ones are spoken for.”

“He’s probably going up north to the brothels in Tanford, like Cyrus does.” I really wished she would’ve just let me work in silence rather than talk about Jack. The man’s love life was a mystery, just like the rest of his life.

For all we knew, the man was a criminal. Poppa reminded me of this as often as he could, warning me to keep my distance from him. Jack had first arrived at Little Hallow with a questionable bullet wound, but he told us it was a hunting accident. Poppa and Benjamin, my oldest brother, were both apprehensive about that explanation.

If the man wants to lie, then let him. Preacher David explained during one sermon. Proverbs 19:5 tells us that “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will not escape.” Let us trust in the lord, my friends, that our newcomer, Jack, will come to trust in us enough to reveal his true self.

That was a year and a half ago, and we still knew practically nothing about Jack Gilmore. Not that I wanted to know him anymore than I did. There was something dark that followed the man, and I wasn’t about to get involved with that. If I had to guess, it was probably the same thing that kept him out of church.

“I don’t know, Grace. I bet he’s a murderer.” I wiggled my fingers as if casting a spell on her. “Or a baby stealer.”

“Oh stop.” Grace rolled her eyes, but not before shoving the book cart at me enough to make me jump. We both devolved into a mess of giggles when the cart bumped the shelf, toppling over a couple books.

“Girls, what’s going on over here?” Mr. Wrey hissed from the end of our aisle. This snapped Grace and me into order right quick. If there was one person who scared me more than Poppa, it was Mr. Wrey. His nose hooked at the end, like a beak, and all of his features were sharp. The glasses that were propped up on the bridge of his nose made no compensations for his cold exterior.

“Nothing, Mr. Wrey,” Grace hung her head as she spoke. In all honesty, if there was someone who could soften Mr. Wrey, it was Grace.

“Hmph… Clara, why don’t you head out, hm? Grace can finish the rest of the books.” Mr. Wrey pushed the glasses up his nose. “It seems having you both is just a nuisance, and a hazard to my library.”

“Right…” I raised my eyebrows at Grace, who simply shrugged in reply. “I guess I’ll go then.”

Taking my leave, I scurried past Grace and made my way to the front door. My heartbeat quickened when I saw the afternoon sun peaking through the front windows. If I left now, I could still get to the lake before sunset and be home by dark. With a little skip in my step, I made my way out into the chilled, February air. It smelled of pine and the previous night’s rain.

If I was heading to the lake, I’d need some snacks. So, I went over to the general store before going to get my stallion out of the stables. Mr. Vance must’ve been out because his wife, Dahlia, was covering the counter when I walked in, the bell signalling my entrance.

“Oh, hey, Clara. How’s your Momma?” Dahlia offered a warm smile, her eyes crinkling at the corners. Even though she was at least ten years older than me, she was heavily pregnant with her first child. It was practically unheard of in these parts, considering most women had at least three or four children by twenty-five.

“She’s fine.” I snagged a tin of crackers and an apple, then headed to the counter. “How’s Mr. Vance?”

“Isaac’s fine. Worried about the baby comin’ early. You know.”

But I didn’t know. I was nineteen, unmarried, and never slept with a man before. So no, I didn’t know anything about babies coming early. Of course, I didn’t tell Dahlia that. I just smiled and nodded, placing my items on the counter.

“That all?” Dahlia looked over my items, punching the numbers into her register. When I nodded, she smiled again. “Total’s gonna be eight cents, sweetheart.”

Going into my apron pocket, I produced a few coins and set them up on the counter. After bidding Dahlia goodbye, I took my things and left the store. I was too busy putting my apple in my apron, even though the pocket was too small, to notice who was in front of me.

“Woah, Clara.” Mr. Peck chuckled, stopping me from running smack into him. I glanced up, giving him a sheepish look as the apple dropped into my apron pocket with a soft jingle of coins.

“Sorry, Mr. Peck. I was just heading home.” I tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear.

“Willard, please. Mr. Peck was my father.” Willard smiled even wider. A bead of sweat dripped down his temple, reminding me that he was probably on break from logging. Then he gestured to his companion. “Oliver and I were just stopping in for some lunch.”

“Oh, hi, Oliver.” I nodded my head in greeting to Willard’s oldest son. “I just left Grace at the library.”

“That girl and her books.” Oliver shook his head. “I think she just fancies Mr. Wrey.”

This earned Oliver a wallop on the back of his head from his father. I had to press my fist to my mouth to keep from laughing at the pair.

“You’re not gonna talk that way about your sister. Or Mr. Wrey.” Willard shook his head, all traces of a smile erased from his lips. Then he shoved Oliver towards the door of the general store. “Go get us some food, will ya?”

“Okay, okay!” Oliver slunk into the store, obviously nursing a wounded ego.

“Pray you never have boys, Clara.” Willard shot me a wink before following his son into the shop. When the door shut behind him, I started towards the town stables.

Perhaps I got along with Grace because of our love for books. This was no secret, given that we were the first girls, along with my older sister, allowed into the school house when Momma opened it up. All Grace and I did was read. It was our favorite pastime, finding books and obsessing over the knights in shining armor. I wasn’t sure when Grace turned her attention to the knights of real life, but she must’ve if she was actually interested in the prospect of courting Jack.

When I entered the stables, I could hear the agitated whinnies of my stallion, Poe. He was dying for a ride, not that I could blame him. Winter had been harsh, and spring had only just thawed the last of the snow. There was no reason to make him wait anymore, so I hurried to his stall and grinned at the chestnut-colored horse. A content nicker left the animal, knowing he’d be free from his confines soon.

Once the saddle and bridle were in place, I made one final check of my saddlebags to ensure I had my sketchbook, pencil, and latest novel in them. Then I put my snacks in the saddlebags as well and led Poe from the stables. Before he had a second to contemplate bolting, I mounted the horse and he took off down the familiar road to the lake.

Just as I had guessed, we arrived at the lake right as the sun started its descent. I had probably an hour or so to sketch before we had to turn back, so I navigated Poe to our perch that overlooked the dock.

Typically, the rock I sat on was surrounded with little clovers that had purple flowers, but the winter had taken all of the blooms. I’d have to wait until April for the little flowers to return. That was fine, considering there was plenty to sketch still. For example, the thin ice had melted from the lake, which meant I could practice reflections again.

And I would’ve, had I been alone. Unfortunately, there was someone down on the dock, his white horse grazing freely around the edge of the lake. Due to the distance, I couldn’t quite make out the person, but based on his build, there was no doubt in my mind that it was Jack Gilmore. My heart sunk at the thought of having to share the peaceful atmosphere with another. Especially him.

Nevertheless, I slid off Poe’s back and took out my sketchbook with a pencil. Then I took my seat on the uncomfortable rock, crossing my legs under myself as Poe began to wander somewhere behind me. Taking in a deep breath of mountain air, I closed my eyes and waited for a muse to strike me. One that didn’t include drawing anything near the dock or Jack.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the willow tree that grew near the road, diagonal from the dock. It would have to do, it’s barren branches blowing in the breeze. I could practically hear the whistling it produced, even though there was no wind blowing now. Exhaling, I opened my eyes and...

Was completely distracted by Jack on the dock.

Obviously, he was unaware of my presence, otherwise he wouldn’t have been stripping down to his undergarments right in front of me. A blush crept onto my cheeks, knowing I shouldn’t watch him, and yet, being unable to tear my eyes away. My teeth trapped my lower lip, biting down hard. Herculean seemed like an injustice, seeing the way his muscles formed around his body. Even though I was at a distance, I swore I could see them rippling. Perhaps that was just a wishful imagination.

Stretching his arms out, Jack made his way to the end of the dock. My awe turned to disbelief as he walked. It was obvious that he meant to jump into the water, but I couldn’t fathom why. Things were thawing, yes, but only just. The lake would be glacial. Only a suicidal person would jump into the water this time of year! Or...Jack Gilmore, it seemed.

The water lapped up onto the dock as soon as the splash happened. My eyes widened, my lip freeing from my teeth as I leaned forwards to search the water for any sign of life. With each second, my heart pounded. It seemed like time had slowed, and Jack was not going to resurface. Perhaps that was a good thing. At least then the gossip had to stop.

I mentally reprimanded myself as soon as the thought crossed my mind. What Christian girl thought suicide was...good?

A loud squeal pierced the air as Poe came flying down the hill, obviously startled by something in the woods. This spurred me from my drawing place, sending me into a full-out sprint toward the lake. Even though I was running from an unknown threat, it seemed that it was in my best interest. Afterall, I thought I heard snorting behind me, but I couldn’t have been sure. Maybe growling?

From his underwater hideaway, Jack pushed himself onto the dock, water making wet trails down his shirtless torso. His gray eyes pierced through me like swords as his jaw clenched, narrowing his eyes at me. If looks could kill, I would’ve dropped right there. Especially when he put his fingers in his mouth, letting out the loudest whistle I’d ever heard.

Stopping at the edge of the dock, Jack’s horse blocked him from my vision for a brief moment. When the creature fled from sight again, I froze while Jack aimed a rifle right at me.

My heart hammered in my chest.

“Get down!” Jack bellowed, and he didn’t need to ask twice.

My body hit the ground so hard, I lost the air in my lungs. Not even a second later, a gunshot rang out through the mountain valley, followed by the deafening flapping and screeching of scared birds.

A deep thump shook the ground beneath me, but I was too scared to look behind to see what Jack had shot. My entire body was quaking, my sketchbook and pencil lost when I dropped to the ground. There was a click as Jack dispelled the rifle shell on the dock, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Every breath I managed to pull in was just as shaky as the first. If it had been chaotic before, it was dead silent now.

Footsteps came closer, the sound of dirt under skin squishing with each step. My heart all but stopped, thinking I was the next to die at the hands of Jack’s rifle. When they were right by my head, the footsteps stopped. The ground shifted as Jack knelt beside me, his hand gently touching my shoulder.

“Um...Clara, right?” His voice was the sound of thunder and lightning.

Lifting my head up, I peeked at Jack through the curtain of my brown hair. “Yeah…”
I’d never been so close to Jack before, but there was no mistaking his God-given beauty then. Well, maybe it was actually devil-given beauty. None of God’s creations had been so perfect, not even Adam. Perhaps this was the snake that had tempted Eve. When our eyes locked, though, Jack looked uncomfortable. His gaze darted away, and he cleared his throat.

“Ya okay?”

“Mhm…” I pushed myself to my knees, attempting to brush the mud off my dress but only smearing it into the pale blue. Momma would whip my hide for staining another dress. “Just fine…”

“Good.” Jack let out a sigh of relief. He sat back on his heels, resting his rifle across his lap. Running a hand through his hair, he shook out droplets of water. “What are ya doin’ out here without...an escort?”

“I never come out here with an escort.” I raised my eyebrows at him. “Why would I need one?”

“Oh I dunno...bears, maybe?” Jack thrust his hand towards what he’d shot behind me. Hesitantly, I looked over my shoulder to gape at the mound of brown fur that Jack was gesturing to. “Ain’t ya know the mountains ain’t safe for little ladies?”

This caught my attention, and my ire. Snapping my head back to face Jack, I quickly stood up and walked past him. “For your information, I’ve lived here my whole life and never seen one bear.”

“Ya only have to see one for it to be your last!” Jack called from behind me. I could hear him scrambling to his feet, the clunking of his gun giving him away as he ran up behind me. “Now I feel responsible for ya!”

“Well, don’t! I don’t need you, I just need my…” I spun to the left, looking for Poe. Then to the right, only to find the vast expanse of the lake. “My...my…”

“Your what?” Jack prompted, coming to a stop just behind me.

“My goddamn horse!” My hands flew to my mouth, knowing if Momma or Poppa had heard me, they would’ve made me pick my own switch. However, Momma and Poppa weren’t there. Just Jack. And by the looks of it, he found this to be quite amusing.

“Ya kiss your momma with that mouth?” Jack grinned.

“You...you…” I wasn’t exactly sure if I was mad at Jack, or embarrassed because he had called me weak, in need of male companionship. Perhaps I was both. So, I shoved my hands against his bare chest, but he didn’t budge.

“Now, now, sweetheart, I wouldn’t push the man with a gun if I was ya.” Jack clicked his tongue at me, still grinning. The dark aura that surrounded him threatened to engulf me too. A chill ran up my back so powerful that I had to step away to find the warmth of the fading light again. He must have noticed my fear because Jack stopped grinning, tilting his head to the side. His expression seemed to ask, What’d I do?

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to tell him, so I turned my back on him, looking for a sign of Poe again. Now that I knew there were bears in these woods, I feared the worst. If Poe had become a bear’s supper, how was I supposed to get home? Wrapping my arms around myself, I asked, “You don’t think another bear got Poe...do you?”

“Poe?”

“My horse.”

“Ah, nah. Males don’t stick too close to other males. Probably ain’t another bear around for a few miles, ‘specially since they’re just comin’ out of hibernation.” The depth of his knowledge was a little impressive. The only people I knew in Little Hallow that had an inkling of the wildlife around here were the hunters, and even they only knew enough to hunt a few pelts.

“That’s good…” I squeezed myself a little tighter.

“But wolves...wolves are the ones ya wanna worry about.” Jack fiddled with his gun behind me. “Nasty bastards.”

“Why do you know so much about these animals?” I looked over my shoulder at him, noting that he’d slung his rifle over his back with the attached, leather strap. As my eyes lingered a little too long on the strap across his chest, I blushed and turned away. How inappropriate this whole situation was, and yet, Jack didn’t seem the least bit bothered by the cold or by his lack of clothes in the presence of a lady.

“Hobby,” Jack replied after an unusual length of time.

The brush to our left rustled, and Poe came trotting out. A sigh of relief left my body, and I walked over to the horse. He was still agitated, that much was obvious so I tried my best to calm him down. Only when he nuzzled my shoulder did I know he was okay. I gave his snout a gentle stroke.

“Why’d ya name him Poe?” Jack’s voice startled me, mostly because of house close he was again. My jump caused Poe to jerk his head up, but with agile reflexes, Jack caught Poe’s reins and held him from running.

“Like.. Edgar Allan Poe.” I took the reins from Jack, leading Poe towards the dirt road that went home. “The poet.”

“Ah… Get home safe, Clara.” Jack brushed past me, his stride much longer than mine as he made his way back to his clothes on the dock.

My eyes trailed after him for a moment before they darted over to the fur mound just a bit back from the road. The bear that could have eaten me, or Poe. Or both. The one that Jack killed without a moment’s hesitation. Flicking my gaze back to Jack, I furrowed my brow. Was it even possible to have been as calm and collected as he’d been?

I wanted to get to the bottom of it, but a voice told me to be grateful to have had him there when he was. So, I mounted Poe and started for home, all thoughts of my sketchbook abandoned completely.

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