Alex Marsden dragged Penny Layton out of the gutter and promised her a happy-ever-after-love with a house and a white-picket fence. But the Civil War changed their paths. Separated twice by circumstances beyond their control, Penny learned to survive on her own, but lost hope.
Five years later when Alex miraculously returns to her, Penny doesn't believe in happy endings or miracles. Will Alex's faith and love be strong enough to drag Penny out of the gutter one more time?
Bodie, California 1867
Penny Marsden pulled the chimney off the kerosene lamp and struck a match. She settled the glass cylinder back in place and light filled all but the dark corners of the little office beneath the stairs of her saloon.
She tallied the bills that had come across her desk that afternoon. Paying them took a huge chunk out of her cash, and tomorrow she’d have to buy food, liquor, and wood.
Judging from the sound of the crowd outside, tonight’s take would be even less than the night before. How long could she sustain her saloon if this kept up? A month, maybe two. Then she’d have to do the unthinkable: abandon her business.
Men’s laughter exploded just outside her door. She lurched to her feet and shook out her skirts. Now wasn’t the time to think about it. Now was the time to build her business.
Brown beads shimmered around the high collar and hem of her dress. It was her best. She’d worn it, hoping it would give her confidence. So far, it wasn’t working.
She smoothed loose tendrils of hair back into the tight knot at the back of her head, pinched her cheeks for color and opened the door.
A small group of men stood at the bar while others gathered around the tables. A poker game drew a few more in the corner. The crowd wasn’t as small as she thought, but not large enough to bolster her confidence, either.
Jewel, her friend, walked towards her, a tray balanced in her hands. Her gown gleamed silky black with sequins around the bodice and the hem. Slim and straight, with a small bustle in the back, the dress clung gently to Jewel’s figure. The top was cut low to show off her curves, but she had filled it in with two layers of black lace, affording only a hint at what lay beneath.
Penny was struck yet again by her friend’s beauty. Black hair shone like a raven’s wing. Cornflower blue eyes and flawless skin made a stunning contrast. Those lovely features distracted most people from noticing the circles under her eyes and the hollowness of her cheeks.
She looked much better now than when she had first shown up at Penny’s back stoop. Now Jewel looked healthy. But neither broken bones nor broken hearts showed on the outside.
“Are you all right?” Jewel asked as she came close to Penny.
Penny nodded, determined to keep any hint of her concerns from those close to her. “Yes, just a little tired, I guess.”
Jewel looked as if she was going to say something else, but sixteen-year-old Jann Swenson appeared at Penny’s elbow. White-blond, nearly six feet tall, and built like a rock, he was intimidating, especially since most people didn’t know he had the mind of a child.
“Tell him I don’t tell stories, Aunt Penny. He thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about. Tell him it’s true.”
“Now, Jann, there ain’t no cause to get upset.” Brady Calhoun stood at the bar and raised his voice loud enough for everyone in the saloon to hear. A braggart and a bully, he tormented Jann every chance he got. He turned to face Penny, unkempt hair hanging in his face, his belly oozing over his gun belt, and malice in his cold gaze. “We all know things ain’t always what they seem when we’re young.” Brady hitched up his pants.
Jann turned to Penny. “See. He thinks I’m stupid, Aunt Penny. He thinks I don’t know nothin’. I told him you sing real good. You used to sing to me and Lexie all the time and he said I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I do. You can sing better than anyone.”
All the men at the bar had turned to listen to the young man’s sincere declaration. Their small corner of the room became the focus of the entire saloon.
“Penny, I just pointed out a fact. There’s no cause for the kid to get all bent up about it. It ain’t no reflection on him.”
But it was. Brady had taken advantage of yet another opportunity to humiliate Jann.
Even in her flustered state, Penny recognized the issue had become a matter of honor for Jann. She had to tell the truth, no matter the consequences. “He’s right, Brady, I can sing.”
Laughing, he lifted his glass in a mock salute. “So can I, but you’ll thank me if I don’t.”
“I told you, she can sing good,” Jann insisted.
Brady glanced at his companions with a tolerant look and nodded. “Sure, she can, boy. Sure, she can.”
“Show him. Show him how you sing.”
“Jann…” Penny had given up singing five years ago, when she lost her husband in the war, her hopes and dreams crashed down around her, and she found herself alone again. Since then, she only sang for her daughter and Jann, for Jewel, and Jann’s mother, Inga, the small family she’d gathered around her. She sang when they were alone and she felt safe. This wasn’t one of those times.
Jann knew she was afraid. Somehow, some way, he always knew how people felt. Taking her hand, he wound his big fingers through hers.
“Please, Aunt Penny. Pretend it’s just me and Lexie. You can do it.”
She looked at their linked hands. This was important to him, too important to be swept under a carpet. And the crowd was small…
“All right. I’ll sing for you.”
She tried to ignore the murmurs of surprise filtering through the room. Instead, she focused on Jann, on his thankful smile and the confidence in his features.
“What do you want me to sing?” she murmured.
“My favorite, o’ course.”
She returned his smile, and then, before she could stop him, he’d lifted her by the waist and set her on the polished bar. Taking a quick, startled breath, she forced herself not to look around, not to see the men, but she could feel their gazes. The intense focus sparked old fears. She tuned them out by studying Jann’s face.
There were always pianos in the saloons where her mother worked. On her own, Penny had learned to play, and then to sing. In her mind, she heard the piano key. She focused on the note and filled her lungs.
“What child is this…” her voice warbled, sounded thin, reedy and shaky. But it didn’t matter. This was for Jann, his favorite Christmas song.
He leaned over the bar on both elbows, his head close to her lap, his white-blond hair falling over his forehead like it had since he was a scrawny eleven-year-old.
She remembered Christmases past when they’d closed the saloon, exchanged gifts, eaten Christmas pies, and sang songs. All of them safe and happy in their own little world. How fast he and Lexie had grown. She pushed back his hair.
Filled with emotion, her voice rang clear and clean. Buoyed by memories, she allowed the words to carry her away. Her voice grew stronger as she lost herself in the sweet purity of the notes.
“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”
She had always guarded them, Jann and Lexie, always protected them. Jann was almost a man now. How could she hope to protect him, to keep him in their sheltered little world…to keep him safe?
“Why lies He in such mean estate…”
She couldn’t protect them anymore. She had to find a way to take them far from here, far from saloons and bars with men like Brady Calhoun. She had to find a way, before it was too late.
“This, this is Christ the King, whom Shepherds guard and angels sing.” Her voice rose in the last notes, as if in prayer. But Penny had stopped praying a long time ago.
“Thanks, Aunt Penny,” Jann murmured. “You’re the best.”
For one short moment, she believed it. Felt like she could conquer anything.
Then the men began to clap and cheer.
“I guess I owe you an apology, young man. Penny is a fine singer.” Brady looked at her with something different in his eyes.
She knew the look and hated it. It had frightened her as a young girl. Now it sickened her. She ducked her head and would have jumped from the bar, but Brady reached for her. She shied away from his hands, closer to Jann.
“Sing one more,” Brady coaxed.
She shook her head, but the men crowded in around her and pressed for more. It was always this way. Her singing awakened something hot and dangerous in them. After she sang, they looked at her differently, like an object to be possessed at all costs.
Tonight was no different. She felt smothered, as if she sank into a deep, dark pit of groping male hands and wet lips.
“No…no, I can’t.” She shook her head again.
They didn’t hear her, wouldn’t stop, and they were so close, too close.
She couldn’t move or breathe. She closed her eyes.
“Just one. We ain’t heard nothing that pretty since Jenny Lind came through.”
Suddenly, strong hands gripped her waist and lifted her effortlessly off the bar.
She opened her eyes to see a dark, jacket-covered chest. There was something familiar about the feel of those arms…something…
Penny opened her eyes and looked straight into Alex Marsden’s face.
She screamed and shoved the man away with both hands.
It couldn’t be Alex. He was dead. He had to be, or he would have come back for her.
“Penny!” The man stepped towards her.
She let out another startled cry and put out a hand to stop him.
He sounded like Alex. Looked like Alex. But he couldn’t be.
She shook her head.
He couldn’t be.
Men grabbed him, held him back. He struggled for a moment, then stopped fighting and stood up straight.
“It’s me, Penny. It’s really me.”
It was truly him. Her dead husband was alive. Alex!
Her thoughts and senses came to a screeching halt. Everything went black.