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Keep a Little Secret
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 1, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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As a child, Charlotte Tucker was raised in small town Minnesota where the only real company was the people who came to her aunt Louise’s boarding house. Several years later, Charlotte is a young woman and thirsty to get out of her hometown and see the world. When a teaching position opens up in Oklahoma, she jumps at the opportunity to take a room on John Grant’s ranch in Sawyer, a small town to the north, to begin her new career.
She soon befriends Owen and Hannah Wallace, a brother and sister who have come from Colorado following the death of their mother. Abandoned at an early age by a father they never knew, they are set on revenge against the man who left them — a man they believe is John Grant. As the summer heats up and a brutal storm wreaks havoc on the town, a secret is revealed that threatens to change Charlotte’s life — and her new friends — forever.
Table of Contents
Kansas City, Missouri—June 1939
WITH AN OPEN HAND, Charlotte Tucker slapped the well-dressed young man flush across his clean-shaven face, releasing a storm of shock and anger to darken his handsome features. While her blow clearly hadn't hurt him, her reaction to his forward and improper advances had undeniably taken him aback. The sound of her striking him, loud as a gunshot, hung in the air of the train depot.
All around them on the busy station platform, people had begun to gawk. In the instant after Charlotte struck the man, there had been a deafening silence, hushing the frantic hustle and bustle of travelers scurrying to their destinations. But that quiet was short-lived. Murmuring voices rose as faces turned, fingers pointing at the source of the commotion.
"How dare you say such things to me!" Charlotte shouted, ignoring the attention she was attracting. "Have you no shame!"
"Miss… I… I…" the man stammered. "I'm afraid that you must have misunderstood me…"
"How could I possibly have mistaken what you said?" she disagreed forcefully. "When a man approaches a young woman he doesn't know, has never so much as spoken to before, and asks if she would like to find a hotel room for the afternoon, what could his intentions possibly be?"
Color rose at the man's collar, a bright, obvious crimson of embarrassment, in stark contrast to the perfect white of his starched shirt. His discomfort was worsened by the snickers that rose among the crowd.
"But… but I never said such things!" he argued defensively.
"And now you go and make it worse by lying!" Charlotte accused. "How many other young women have you approached in such a scandalous way, scheming and lurking in the shadows until you found an easy mark?"
"I suppose you imagined that I would go along with your ridiculous, insulting plans," she continued, not giving the man a moment's pause. "You never imagined you would be exposed, did you?"
"What kind of man says such a thing?" a voice asked from the crowd.
"Must be some kind'a pervert!" another added.
Quickly looking from side to side, the man was uncomfortably aware that he was drawing too much attention to himself. Dropping the façade of innocence, he stepped closer to Charlotte, reached out, and snatched her tightly and painfully by the wrist.
"You better keep that mouth of yours shut, bitch," the man threatened, "unless you're looking to get hurt!"
Instead of shrinking in fear from the man's threats, Charlotte rose to meet them defiantly, her gaze never wavering, even as she unsuccessfully tried to disentangle herself from his grip.
"Let go of me this instant!" she cried.
Before the sound of her angry voice could fade into the depot, the man suddenly raised his hand as if he meant to strike her, a blow that would have hurt more than the one she had struck. Still, Charlotte never flinched, facing her would-be attacker with steely determination. But before the man could follow through with his intentions, a voice cut through the relative quiet of the platform, startling all those who watched.
"Now what seems to be the matter here!" a deep baritone bellowed. "That ain't no way to treat a lady, fella!"
Charlotte turned to see a squat, frowning policeman waddle over menacingly to where she and the man stood, his watchman's stick clutched tightly between calloused, thick fingers. He looked ready to act and broach no disagreement. At the sight of him, the man released his grip on Charlotte and took two hesitant steps backward.
With his arrival, the crowd began shouting in explanation, a jumble of voices where only bits could be heard.
"… and then that man laid hands on her…"
"… was only defendin' herself!"
"… and it's just like she done said, 'cause I seen the whole darned thing!"
"Now, now, now, let's everybody quiet down!" the police officer shouted, putting a quick end to the rising chatter. Turning to Charlotte, he asked, "Is what these here people is sayin' true, miss? Was this chap botherin' you?"
Charlotte nodded, explaining the man's repugnant suggestion that they find a hotel room. "And that's when I slapped him," she added.
The police officer laughed heartily. "Can't say I blame ya for it!"
"But… but… but what she's saying isn't true, Officer," the man protested, assuming the innocent look he had unsuccessfully used just after Charlotte slapped him. "I'd never so much as spoken a word to her before she walked up and slapped—"
"Now why don't you and I head on back to the depot office," the officer said as he clamped a vicelike grip on the man's wrist while wiggling his watchman's stick threateningly. "That way we can have ourselves a little chat 'bout the whole thing.
"Sorry for the problem, miss," he added to Charlotte as he led the man away.
A small smile crept across Charlotte's lips at the satisfaction of having the disgusting man led away to his just punishment, but just as she was feeling smug about her victory, she glanced up at the large clock at the far end of the depot, and realized that she was about to be late. Snatching up her bags, she turned on her heel and dashed toward her rail line.
She had a train to catch.
Settling breathlessly into her seat, Charlotte thanked her lucky stars that she hadn't missed her train. Out on the platform, the conductor shouted, "All aboard!" Moments later, the engine's shrill whistle pierced the air of the busy depot and the train began to pick up speed and head toward its destination.
"We're moving, Mommy! We're moving!" the little girl in the seat ahead said in excitement.
"Yes, dear, we sure are," her mother answered.
Charlotte smiled and settled into her seat.
Outside her window, the hustle and bustle of Kansas City, the cars and trucks and trolley cars, the buildings and construction that strained upward toward the summer sky, soon began to fall away, replaced first by houses and then by tall stalks of corn and endless fields of cattle as the city gave way to the countryside.
Removing her white hat, Charlotte pulled a small mirrored compact from her purse and began fixing her long, tousled blond curls. For a moment she paused, examining her bright blue eyes, high cheekbones, and pert nose. Accepting compliments, welcome or otherwise, had always been difficult for Charlotte, even if she knew she had some beauty. All her life, she had been told that she was the image of her mother, Alice, who had died while giving birth to her.
With a sigh, Charlotte closed her compact, smoothed the soft fabric of her white blouse and dark blue skirt, and settled back into her seat, thankful that her ordeal on the platform was over.
I've come a long way from Minnesota…
In her purse, folded carefully, was the telegram sent to her from Sawyer, a small town out in northern Oklahoma, hiring her to teach in their school. Her hands had shaken, with equal parts of excitement and nervousness, when she stood in the telegraph office at Lancaster College to send her acceptance. From that moment to now, traveling to her brand-new job, she had walked on air.
All her life, Charlotte had wanted to get away, to see what the world had to offer her. Growing up in Carlson, Minnesota, little more than a hiccup of a town north of the Twin Cities, she'd spent her childhood days playing in the woods that lined the shores of Lake Washington. But even before she went away to teachers' college, she had yearned to see more of the world.
And that telegram from Oklahoma promised the opportunity to be independent in a new environment.
But excited as she was over what lay ahead, she knew that there were things she'd miss about the life she was leaving behind.
Saying good-bye to her family, especially her parents, was hard. They were in tears the whole way to the depot. For Rachel, her mother's younger sister who had raised Charlotte and then married her father, the separation was particularly painful. Though there was no doubt that Rachel wanted her "daughter" to go out in the world and succeed, she still felt as if she were losing her little girl. Leaving her father, Mason, brought back some of Charlotte's earliest memories. For her first six years, she had believed, as had the rest of Carlson, that her father had perished on some unknown battlefield in France during the Great War. When he finally returned, his face terribly scarred by an exploding shell, Charlotte had been the one to find him, deathly sick in a shack in the woods. To have him returned to her life, to watch as he smiled over her accomplishments and he worried at her failures, was a greater joy than she could ever have imagined. Seeing him at the depot, his dark hair growing white at the temples, affection beaming from his face, was a memory that Charlotte would carry with her to Oklahoma.
Even her grandmother, Eliza, who had helped Rachel raise her, had come to the depot to see her off. She had often chastised Charlotte for the troubles she caused as a child, but Eliza was now proud at what her granddaughter had achieved.
The hardest person to say good-bye to had been her half sister, Christina, younger by seven years, and her closest friend. There were many differences between the two of them physically; Christina had black hair and piercing green eyes and an even temperament while Charlotte was far more prone to fly off the handle, but the bond between them had always been unshakeable. All the hours they spent together, talking about their dreams and hopes, seemed to have passed by in an instant. To watch her older sister set off on the course of her life had prompted Christina to count the days until she could do the same.
And so, two days earlier, the twenty-year-old Charlotte Tucker had waved farewell to all that she had known. Through tears, she imagined that those who had passed away from her life—her mother, old Uncle Otis who had died one night in his sleep with a beaming smile across his face, and even Jasper, the mangy mutt who used to follow Charlotte on her many adventures around Carlson—were all watching down approvingly from Heaven above.
What lay ahead Charlotte couldn't know, but she couldn't wait to get to Oklahoma and begin her new life. Whether it was teaching schoolchildren, seeing new sights, meeting new people, or even, as impossible as it was to imagine, falling in love, she was ready to enjoy every step of the way.
As the reddish yellow sun, as full as a saucer, began its descent on the far distant horizon and stars crowded the edges of the sky announcing the coming of the night, Charlotte closed her eyes, relaxing with the gentle rocking and swaying of the train car, and slowly drifted to sleep.
One of the first days of the rest of her life was finally drawing to an end.
Charlotte awoke to bright rays of sunlight streaming through the window onto her face and the sounds of her few fellow passengers as they began to stir. Her sleep hadn't been peaceful; a man's snoring had wakened her and she had the vague memory of gazing out her window upon the shimmering surface of a slow-moving river silvered by moonlight. Fortunately, she'd been able to fall back to sleep. She rubbed at her neck, stiff from the discomfort of having to sleep sitting up.
Outside, the landscape had changed as the train sped through the night; gone were the gently rolling hills of prairie grass, replaced by a mostly flat scrabble occasionally spotted by squat, clumpy hills of much-redder soil than any she had ever seen before. Tufts of buffalo grass sprang up here and there, far taller than the rest of the short, parched-looking grass. Trees were few and far between, with bunches of scrub bushes scattered about.
Having grown up on the shores of a large lake, surrounded by majestic maple, elm, and pine trees and the thick woods full of wildlife, Charlotte found the many differences of the Oklahoma landscape startling, yet beautiful at the same time. She wondered whether the people she would meet in Sawyer would be so different from those at home.
Suddenly, Charlotte spotted one of them. Up on a rocky rise, sitting atop a tan and white horse, was a cowboy. When he caught sight of the passengers looking up at him, he took off his dusty hat and gave them a hearty wave. Charlotte managed to wave in return, but only after the train had moved on and the cowboy had fallen from sight.
At the front of the train car, the door opened and in walked the train's conductor, a portly man with a thick, bushy white mustache wider than the small hat sitting atop his head. Checking a pocket watch connected by a chain fob to his vest, he nodded to passengers as he made his way down the narrow aisle.
"How much longer until the train arrives in Sawyer?" Charlotte asked.
"Next stop." He thumbed in the direction the train was heading. "By my watch we should be there in just under twelve minutes."
The first signs of Sawyer soon began to come into view. There were ranches with enormous steers and dozens of horses all lazing behind sturdy fences. As the train passed by one ranch, a battered pickup truck pulled out and followed alongside Charlotte's car, its tires kicking up enormous plumes of dust, before finally turning away just short of town.
Craning her neck out the window to get a better view, Charlotte could see the center of town ahead. Except for its water tower, it didn't appear to be much different from Carlson. Businesses lined the main street, their signs and awnings announcing their wares, as people milled about on their daily business. On the far side of town rose a church spire, stark white against the brilliance of the blue sky. A group of children, with a yapping dog in tow, did their best to keep up with the train as it slowed. Near the small train depot, its iron wheels screamed against the iron tracks. With another blast of its whistle, it shuddered to a stop.
Gathering her things, Charlotte hurried into the aisle, scarcely able to contain the nervous excitement that coursed through her. Up ahead, a man groaned exhaustedly as he heaved himself out of his seat, planted his cowboy hat over his sun-burned head, and headed for the door, stopping when he saw Charlotte approach.
"Ma'am," he said with a nod of his hat, letting her go by.
"Thank you," she replied.
Once she had passed, Charlotte stifled a smile at the thought that the man looked as if he would have been much more comfortable on the back of a horse than inside the train. She wondered if he wasn't the source of the snoring that had woken her in the night!
Finally, she was before the door. Pausing until a box was placed beneath the steps, Charlotte took a deep breath, accepted the assisting hand of the conductor, and stepped out onto the platform.
THE EARLY AFTERNOON summer sun felt warm upon Charlotte's skin as she futilely tried to shade her eyes from the bright glare. A sniffing wind swirled the scattered dust at her feet. The air felt dry and heavy, a far cry from the oppressive humidity of Minnesota, but no less hot.
Sawyer's train platform lacked the activity of the depot in Kansas City; besides the cowboy who had nodded to her, the only other passenger who disembarked was an older woman, her shoulders hunched low from the weight of the pair of heavy bags she carried.
At first glance, Charlotte saw no one waiting for her.
"Miss Tucker?" a loud voice asked, startling her.
Charlotte looked up as a middle-aged man, well-worn cowboy hat in his hand, strode toward her from deep shadows inside the depot. Trailing behind him was another man.
"Yes?" she replied cautiously.
Smiling broadly, the man stretched out his hand in greeting. "I'm John Grant. You'll be stayin' at my ranch while you're here in Sawyer."
Immediately, Charlotte felt at ease. She had received a letter weeks earlier from Mr. Grant, offering her a place in his home on a horse ranch. Apparently, he rented out a couple of rooms in much the same way her grandmother had at her boardinghouse in Carlson. Having grown up in such an environment, Charlotte had readily accepted his offer.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grant," she answered.
"Now, the only men I ever knew that went by 'Mr. Grant' was my pa and my grandpappy before him, and since I ain't half the man either one of them managed to be, it just don't seem right for me to be takin' their names. I'd like it best if you'd call me John."
"Only if you call me Charlotte," she replied, taking his offered hand.
"Then you got yourself a deal."
John Grant made a strong first impression with his neatly combed, snow-white hair, his deep-set, sparkling blue eyes, and his broad, welcoming smile. But the ruggedness of a rancher was hard to disguise. The many lines and wrinkles on his weathered face, his hands worn and calloused, and his bronzed skin were the result of his days spent working beneath the hot Oklahoma sun. With his shirt, pants, and boots caked with dust he would never be mistaken for a banker or lawyer.
"This is one of my men, Del Grissom," John explained, introducing Charlotte to the man who had followed him from the depot.
"Nice to meet you," Del offered with a tip of his dusty hat. He was much younger than his boss; his thick coal black hair fell from beneath the hat's brim and framed a worn, narrow face. Occasionally, his left eye gave a sort of nervous tic, all of its own accord. Still, he looked to Charlotte to be a hardworking, pleasant man.
"Your trip weren't too hard, I hope," John said.
"Not at all," she said. "It was wonderful to see a different landscape. It sure is a far cry from what we have in Minnesota."
"Even so, my thinkin' is that people who spend too much time in one of them iron contraptions," John said, nodding at the idling train, "find themselves needing a washbasin and a few hours of shut-eye. Once we're back on the ranch, you'll have a chance to have both."
When Charlotte's heavy black trunk in which she'd packed away all of the life she had known was unloaded from the train with a heavy thud, John and Del each grabbed an end and hoisted it up as if it were lighter than a bale of hay, and headed for the end of the platform.
Charlotte followed along behind, smiling with every step.
John Grant drove the old truck from the station and headed down Sawyer's main street with Charlotte in the passenger's seat. Del sat in the truck's bed, riding alongside her baggage. Glancing back, she saw that he seemed content to travel in the back, one arm resting upon the truck's railing as the afternoon sun shone brilliantly down.
As they drove, John pointed out all of the sights in town; from the post office, to the grocer's, and even to the theater, Charlotte felt dizzy with all of the information that was being sent her way. The streets were lively with people going into the stores and other places of business. John explained that they were trying to get their business done before the sun got to be too much to bear.
"Folks in these parts ain't too complicated, not like in a city," John explained, giving a wave out the window. "They go to church, look after their loved ones, and say, 'Howdy,' to their neighbors. They like things to be simple, but that doesn't mean they're simple folks, if you know what I mean."
"I do." Charlotte nodded. "Sawyer sounds a lot like where I come from."
"Good folks is good folks, no matter where they call home."
Occasionally, John would give the truck's horn a brief tap and yell out the window at someone he knew.
"There's Carlton Timmons' barber shop," John told her, pointing out the business as they passed. "Known Carl 'bout all my life, and except for one reservation, I can say he's as fine a man as this town's ever produced."
"What's that one thing?" Charlotte asked.
"He's one hell of a cheat at cards," John answered. "You ain't a fancier of poker, are you?"
"No, I can't say that I am. Are you?"
"Used to be, but I ain't no more on account of Carl!" John exclaimed.
Soon, the truck passed by the last business that lined Sawyer's Main Street and took a gentle turn alongside the dried-up remnants of a creek's bed. In an instant, the sights of the town had vanished, replaced by the same kind of scrabbly earth as she had seen from the train.
"Where's the school?" Charlotte asked, looking around, wondering just where it was that she would be spending her days.
"Back on the eastern side of town," John explained, thumbing over his shoulder back toward where they had come. "Since it's the opposite direction from the depot, I figured it'd be best to wait until the next visit into town 'fore givin' you a chance to become acquainted with it. School won't be startin' for a few more weeks, so there's plenty of time."
"Is the ranch far from Sawyer?" Even as she asked her questions, Charlotte wondered why she hadn't bothered to inquire about where she would be staying in all of the time she'd been corresponding with John Grant.
"Not far," the rancher answered. " 'Bout two miles or so."
When John glanced over at Charlotte, he could clearly see the confusion written plainly across her face. To soothe her, he explained that although his ranch was a distance from town, he had long been a member of Sawyer's School Board, and that after she had agreed to come and teach at the school he had volunteered to provide her with lodging.
"You see, the truth of the matter," he explained a bit sheepishly, "is that… well, I was hopin' that maybe you'd be able to help me with a… a problem I've been havin' on the ranch. My askin' you to stay with us ain't without other motives."
"A problem? What sort of problem?" she asked, her interest rising.
"While I'd be happy to try explainin' it to you, it's really the sort of thing that's best seein', I reckon. Somehow, I ain't just sure that my words would explain."
For a long moment, Charlotte stared at John Grant as the truck continued on its way. On the one hand, she didn't like thinking that she had agreed to come all the way from Minnesota under false pretenses. But on the other hand, something in the old rancher's face made her believe she was not being maliciously manipulated.
"Will it interfere with my job at the school?" she asked.
"If it does, then I won't fault you for stoppin'."
Charlotte thought it over for a moment longer before saying, "I'm not agreeing to anything without knowing what it is exactly that you want me to do, but I'll do my best to go into it with an open mind. If it's something I feel I can do without harming the reason I was brought here, then we might be able to manage to work something out."
"I couldn't expect you to be agreein' to more."
"But if I'm going to be living out on the ranch, how will I be getting back and forth to the school?"
"You mean to say you can't drive a truck?"
"Do you expect me to drive this every day?" Charlotte exclaimed, more than a bit surprised.
"Hell, ole Betsy here don't much like me drivin' her." John chuckled, patting the seat between them. "Some days gettin' her started is tougher then coaxin' a stubborn horse out of its stall, sometimes the damn steerin' wheel jerks to the left so hard it feels like it's tryin' to escape right on out the window, and I don't even want to warn you 'bout drivin' her in the rain."
"Then why did you ask?"
"Just an old rancher's sense of humor, is all."
"I can't say that I found it particularly funny," she admitted.
"Most folks don't," John snorted. "The truth is that one of the fellas that's workin' for me on the ranch heads into town pert near every day for some errand or other and I reckon catchin' a ride with him'll get you anywhere you'd want to go. Even if it's rainin', blowin' to beat the band, or even snowin', we'll manage to get you wherever it is you'd need to be."
"So this employee of yours has managed to tame Betsy," Charlotte teased, clearly liking the fact that John Grant was so quick to humor.
- "There is nothing better than Dorothy Garlock at her best."—Sandra Brown, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing