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“He’s out with Sylvester checking ice on the cattle’s water. I don’t expect him back until middle of the afternoon.” She glanced at him. “Will you stay that long?”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to get back to my shop.”
“Shop? Where? What kind?”
“I purchased a building in town and set up a boot making shop. I learned the trade in prison. I’ve been making a good living on special orders and thought it was about time I came back and showed Pa I didn’t need him to make my way.” The last words came out more bitter than he’d intended.
“I knew you would be successful in whatever you did. You had the grit of your father and the brains of your mother.” She winked at him, and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“How have you lived with him all these years and stayed so bright?” He took a cookie off the plate she set on the table. Grace had shed her coat and sat across from him, watching him intently while nibbling on a cookie.
“Because I love him and understand where his foul disposition comes from.” Ma sat in the chair beside him and placed a hand on his arm. “Your father had a hard life growing up. He scraped and scrounged to get by. He was hard on you because wanted you to learn it took hard work to get ahead. He didn’t want you having things handed to you because you were his son.”
“But why didn’t you come see me in the Baker City jail before they hauled me to prison?” He could forgive his father being hard on him because he’d been a goof off a good deal of the time, but not the fact they didn’t visit him when they had a chance. “Or show up for the trial?”
Tears glistened in Ma’s eyes. She squeezed his arm. “There’s a part of our lives we don’t like to think about.” She drew in a deep breath. “Grace, go in the other room and work on that scarf you’re making your pa.”
His sister reluctantly stood and shuffled into the other room.
“You know your pa and I moved here shortly after we married.”
Van nodded. His pa was looking for a fresh start away from the actions of his brothers.
“You don’t know the real reason.” She walked over to the stove, brought the coffee pot back, and placed it on a towel in the middle of the table.
His gut gurgled and squeezed. Finally, maybe some insight into Pa.
“I was betrothed to another when I met your father while visiting relatives in his town. We-we were inseparable from the minute we laid eyes on one another.” The wistful smile reminded him of Tessa when she didn’t know he was looking. She had the same dreamy gaze and smile.
His mother turned troubled eyes on him. “I didn’t want to return, but knew I had to face my betrothed and tell him I couldn’t marry him. I loved your father.” She shook her head and sadness steeped in her eyes. “I cared for Thomas, but I didn’t love him. He said he didn’t care if I’d been seen at a dance with another, he’d help me forget your pa.” She looked away. “But I couldn’t.”
His heart lodged in his throat when she looked at him with tears spilling out of eyes filled with love. “You were already growing inside of me.”
He didn’t know what to say. Found it hard to believe Ma would… But he also knew if Tessa let him he’d make love to her without marriage. He wanted her that much.
She clasped his hand between her two small work worn hands. “I told him, and he shoved me away and called me… you don’t need to know, but I saddled a horse and rode all night and all day to get to your father. He married me and we moved here.” She wiped at the tears sliding down her sun-kissed skin etched with faint wrinkles. “I’ve never regretted marrying your father or your birth.” Her mouth formed a firm straight line. “But I will regret making an enemy of Judge Thomas Spencer.”
Van stared at his ma. Judge Spencer was the spurned suitor? Was that why they hadn’t come to the trial? Neither wanted to see the man? Or cause him to add even more years to a ridiculous punishment?
“That’s why we didn’t come to the trial. We were afraid if he saw us and knew you were our son, the one that caused me to break my promise to him, he’d be unyielding in his sentencing. When we heard he gave you ten years, your pa wanted to have it out with him. But I wouldn’t let him.” She shook her head. “But I don’t know why your father didn’t let me read the letters. He was as torn up about it as I was. Blamed himself for everything. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with your sister that he stopped being so hard on himself.”
Van felt the boulder of resentment that had settled between his shoulders years ago slowly rise. Pa had reasons for his actions. Reasons as an adult, Van understood. Not completely. The letters. But enough, the hurt and rage he’d festered, lanced and oozed out allowing forgiveness to enter.
“Tessa and I’ll be at church tomorrow, we were to go to Beth and Brett’s afterwards, but we could all meet at the hotel restaurant, my treat.” Brett wanted his family to meet Tessa and her to meet them, properly.
“Tessa? Are you talking about Tessa Harrison? She works in a saloon.” Ma’s sudden snobbery stung.
“She works in my boot shop.”
“B-but is that such a good idea? Her working there and you being seen with her?”
Van looked hard and long at his ma. “I would think you’d be happy I provided her a means to get out of the saloon.”
“W-well yes, I am. That’s wonderful you could help her, but showing up in church with her… She’ll—”
“She’ll be welcomed if you and Beth show the other women she isn’t tainted. And she isn’t. All she did at the saloon was serve drinks.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I asked her, and I can tell she’s innocent.” He thought of their shared passionate kisses and was glad he was the only one to have experienced them.
Ma scrutinized him, her dulling blue eyes searching his face. “You have feelings for Tessa?”
“Strong ones.” He smiled. He had very strong ones. So strong it took all his control the night before to not creep up the stairs and share his bed with her.
“Then I guess I better make sure the other ladies reach out to her in a Christian way.”
“That’s all I ask. So, you’ll plan to join us after services tomorrow?” He would have a meal with his family, one he’d pay for with his own hard earned money.
“Yes. We’ll save you a seat at church.”
Van rose, kissed his ma’s forehead and called into the other room, “Grace, see you tomorrow.”
The child raced into the kitchen and smiled broadly. “You bet.”
He hugged Ma when she stood and shoved his hat on his head. Tomorrow would be the dawning of a new life for him. He’d have his family back and if all went well he’d earn even more regard from Miss Tessa Harrison.