Authors: Christina Yother
Copyright © 2014 Christina Yother
All rights reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.
I still choose us.
Table of Contents
“Sit in reverie, and watch the changing color of the waves that
break upon the idle seashore of the mind.”
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
Writing may be a solitary activity, but moving this story from an idea to a finished book was done with the help and encouragement of a great many people. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the following people:
To Betty and Steve Yother – you have no idea how much your support and excitement for this project (and all my others!) means to me. Thank you for spending time with the children so I could write in peace. A girl could not ask for better in-laws.
To my mother, Sherry - You never stopped encouraging me to dream big and I love you for that. And thank you for occasionally interrupting my writing time with phone calls. You always seem to know when I need a break!
To my Grandpa Bill – I love that each week you never fail to ask me how my writing is going. I love you!
To my favorite critique buddies: Dana and Erica – your feedback and excitement are invaluable. I’m so glad I found both of you!
To Dena Pruitt – thank you, old friend, for playing the role of the grammar police and giving me much needed feedback that made this novel so much better!
To Amelia, Jacob, and Charlotte - I love you with my whole heart.
Finally, To Andy – your love, patience, and constant support made this entire thing possible. Thank you for giving me my very own happy ending.
Hetty grace looked out the window and noticed the breeze dancing through the bushes. The movements were erratic and jumpy, and several leaves made their way to the ground having lost their grip in the wind.
There must be a storm coming,
she thought. She looked over at her employer, Mrs. Alma Rose Calhoun, and noticed her soft breathing and closed eyes. She sighed, placed the Bible she was reading aloud moments ago on the side table and quietly made her escape from the sitting room.
Though Hetty was young and grateful to have a job as Mrs. Calhoun’s companion, in her heart she felt the need for more.
A family of my own
. She chuckled to herself.
Orphans do not usually find their dreams becoming reality.
It troubled her that, at the young age of 19, she already knew her fate: working for Mrs. Calhoun, living the life of a spinster with only the small possibility of someday having a home or a family to call her own. She made her way to the kitchen thinking back to what brought her here and if this was the life her parents pictured for their only child.
Hetty’s parents, Michael and Eunice Hoffman, had married young with plans to live a quiet life, farming and raising a family. Their dreams were short-lived when the birth of their only child left Eunice unable to recover. She died within days of Hetty’s birth. Though her father struggled with the passing of his beloved wife, he worked tirelessly to purchase his own land and try to build a life for Hetty. When the fever took him from Hetty at the age of three, she was left with no family. The authorities attempted to contact any distant relatives, but no responses left Hetty Grace in the care of the local orphanage run by the callous and authoritative orphanage mistress, Catherine.
Life in the orphanage was a struggle for Hetty. She quickly learned that a quiet, even meek, existence proved her best ally. The work was hard, the care was minimal, and the hope of adoption was nonexistent, but she made do. She lost herself in acquiring sewing and embroidery skills, only hoping to be one of the few older children lucky enough to earn their keep by mending for the wealthier families in town. As her skills improved she was excused from some of the more manual chores at the orphanage and allowed to spend her days with a needle and thread. It wasn’t until she was sixteen that she found her opportunity to leave the orphanage behind. Miss Catherine requested Hetty to deliver some embroidered handkerchiefs she had completed to Mrs. Calhoun. Hetty was delighted to be asked to deliver her mending projects and found herself excited to see what she knew to be the grand home of one of Hollow, Montana’s wealthiest residents.
Upon entering the home with her mending tucked tightly under her arm, she was escorted into a lavish sitting room, the furniture so grand that she feared sitting on it. Mrs. Calhoun was seated in the corner with a cup of tea to her lips. Her grandiose stature was apparent not only in the decor of the room, but also in the physical girth of the woman. Hetty found herself drawn to the roundness of the woman, the sheer size of her sitting in her chair, and the extravagant black gown covering her from neck to foot. The woman’s eyes appeared as dark as her gown and her scowl nearly made Hetty turn and run.
“Come here, child. Who are you?” the voiced boomed through the room. Hetty hesitated, unable to find her voice in that moment. “Speak, child!”
“I’m Hetty Grace Hoffman, ma’am. I’ve brought your embroidery order from Hope Place, the orphanage...” she was interrupted.
“Of course I know Hope Place!” the voice boomed again. “Goodness, child. You’re a nervous little thing. Come sit down.” Hetty quickly walked to the sofa, lush and cream covered with slight little flecks of
what is that? Gold?
“You do not have issue with me examining the work before I pay for services, do you, child?” The woman glared at Hetty, her eyes almost piercing the little bit of nerve she had worked up.
“No, ma’am.” Hetty folded her hands and placed them in her lap, moving her gaze from the old woman to the folds of her skirt.
“Good. I never pay for work until I’m satisfied.” Mrs. Calhoun carefully untied the ribbon and unwrapped the bundle. There lay her handkerchiefs, starched to a crisp white. The embroidery in the corner revealed the most delicately stitched lilacs - their hue and life-like quality unlike any other work she’d done in the past.
“Who stitched these? Answer, child!” her voice taking what Hetty assumed was a tone of anger. She hadn’t prepared herself for the possibility of Mrs. Calhoun being displeased with the work.
“I did, Ma’am.” Hetty refused to meet her eyes.
“You did? You’re responsible for this work?” That tone again...
Hetty only nodded.
“Well, child. I must say the work on my handkerchiefs is exquisite.”
Hetty’s eyes darted up and she saw a slight grin on Mrs. Calhoun’s face despite her brisk tone. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“You’re welcome, child. I don’t give compliments easily, but this work deserves praise.” She placed the bundle to the side and reached again for her cup of tea. “Will you join me for tea?”
Hetty’s surprise at the request did not go unnoticed. “Thank you, Ma’am, but I should be returning to Hope Place. I promised a swift return upon delivering your linens.”
The voice began to boom again. “Listen, child. I have invited you to join me for tea. I’m sure Miss Catherine would see it as impolite to refuse my request for your company.” Given little choice in the matter, she stayed for tea.
Hetty continued to make deliveries to Mrs. Calhoun over the course of several months. Each time her work was praised and she was invited for tea. The old woman became inquisitive regarding Hetty’s life and family, and Hetty began to enjoy her short visits away from the orphanage. Though still nervous at the firm presence of the woman, Hetty felt spoiled in the time she spent in the company of Mrs. Calhoun. They’d sip their tea and discuss a variety of books and the goings-on around town. What Hetty loved most, though, was when Mrs. Calhoun regaled her with tales of her earlier travels. It wasn’t long before Mrs. Calhoun offered Hetty a job as her companion—reading to her, escorting her on social calls, and providing company in the quiet hours of the evening. With no sadness at leaving the orphanage and Catherine’s unloving care behind, Hetty accepted the opportunity, moved into a small room within the grand home, and began spending her days in the manner dictated by Mrs. Calhoun’s desires.
It’s not an unpleasant job by any means
, Hetty thought, as she made her way to the kitchen, the room she considered her favorite in Mrs. Calhoun’s grand home.
But, this isn’t what I dreamed my life would be.
She quietly pushed open the door to the kitchen in an effort not to startle Sol, Mrs. Calhoun’s cook and the person Hetty considered most to be her friend, though he’d come to expect her afternoon interruptions while their employer rested.
As Hetty entered the room she was greeted with delicious and overwhelming smells indicating Sol was hard at work on another exquisite meal. She breathed in the warmth and spices, allowing them to tickle her senses and excite her stomach.
“Miss Hetty, you know better than to try to sneak up on me. Old Sol always senses when his favorite girl enters the kitchen,” the old man turned and winked at Hetty, his smile shining bright through the age on his face.
“Hello, Sol. It smells wonderful in here!” she announced as she walked up behind him and placed a small peck on his wrinkled cheek.
“Would you like some tea?” he asked.
“That would be lovely, thank you.” Hetty moved to sit in her favorite chair at the table. It allowed her the ability to watch Sol do his work and still feel like she could engage in the delightful banter that always accompanied her afternoon visits to the kitchen.
He placed a tray in front of her. Nestled next to the delicate teapot sat a plate of his wonderful shortbread cookies. “Help yourself, Miss Hetty. Nothing warms the bones more before a storm than a good cup of tea.”
“I saw it getting quite windy out there. Do you think this will be a bad storm?”
“Well my pumpkins could use the rain, but my knees don’t feel this will be a bad one.” Sol smiled and placed a fresh loaf of bread in the oven.
Hetty laughed. “Do you really believe your knees can tell the weather?”
“They haven’t let me down yet.”
“Oh, Sol. What would I do without you?” She smiled kindly at the old man, grateful for the moments when he made her troubles seem so far away with his humor and ever-optimistic outlook.
Sol walked over to the table and sat down next to her. He took one of her hands in his and looked right at her, his eyes filled with kindness. “You’d be just fine, Miss Hetty. You’d be just fine.”
“Thankfully I don’t believe I’ll have to find out. It seems you and I are destined to be here for quite a while.” She sipped the warm tea carefully and reached out to take a cookie.
“No better place to be, I believe. I’ve been here most of my life. Mrs. Calhoun is kind to me and I believe my purpose is to take care of her since Mr. Calhoun passed. She gets lonely, you know, just like anyone.”
Hetty shook her head. “I can’t imagine her lonely. Her social calls always keep her in good company even when I’m busy with other tasks.”
“Don’t be deceived, Miss Hetty. Sometimes even the strongest people feel loneliness in their hearts.”
Hetty knew he was right. She was all too familiar with feelings of loneliness. Without a family to go home to or parents to wrap her in love, she was constantly aware of the emptiness that even good friends like Old Sol couldn’t fill. She looked at Old Sol and smiled. No point in pouring her troubles on him. She didn’t want to spoil the afternoon and his kindness, and his genuine smiles were enough to keep her troubles away...for the moment. But one question nagged her heart.
“Have you ever had the desire to do something different, Sol?” she asked. “Do something other than cook?”
“Can’t say that I have, Miss Hetty. Old Sol’s been here since Mrs. Calhoun was a young bride. She and Mr. Calhoun have always been good to me. I get the joy of cooking for folks, I have a roof over my head, and I haven’t found someone yet that didn’t beg for my summer tomatoes. No, Miss Hetty, I’m happy to live my days right here. Though I suppose none of us truly know where we will end up. That knowledge is reserved for the good Lord.” He rose from his chair and returned to prepping the evening meal.
“I suppose you’re right. Circumstances could be worse,” she said, thinking back to her time at the orphanage. “Mrs. Calhoun is kind to us and that makes us luckier than most.” She watched Old Sol nod his head in agreement as he began to hum softly to himself.
After quietly enjoying her tea and the soft hum of Sol’s song, Hetty decided she needed to check on Mrs. Calhoun to be sure she was comfortable and the impending storm was not causing a chill in the sitting room. She slipped quietly out of the kitchen, leaving the tune of Old Sol behind her, and made her way back down the hallway to the sitting room. Mrs. Calhoun’s eyes were still closed, her breathing quiet. Hetty reached for the shawl she always kept within reach and laid it gently across her employer’s chest. Without opening her eyes, Mrs. Calhoun began to speak.
“Did you enjoy your visit with Solomon, child?”
“I hope my leaving didn’t disturb you,” Hetty said quietly.
“Nonsense!” Mrs. Calhoun opened her eyes and adjusted her glasses. “I know having a conversation with someone other than an old woman is good for you. Though you understand you’re replacing one old miser with another?” She smiled and reached to the pocket of her skirt to produce a letter. “Hetty, I need to speak frankly to you about something of importance.”
Hetty sat in the adjacent chair, giving her full attention to her employer. “Of course. Would you like me to bring you some tea first?”
Mrs. Calhoun sat up straight, adjusted the shawl so it now hugged her shoulders, shook her head, and breathed a deep sigh. “I received a letter last week from my sister, Ethel. I’m not sure I’ve told you much about her.”
“Only that she makes her home in Philadelphia,” Hetty said, listening intently.
“Yes, she does. It’s where we were raised. My sister never married. She stayed in Philadelphia to care for our parents when Samuel, Mr. Calhoun, and I made our journey to Montana. When they passed on I invited her to come here and live with us, but she declined. She was settled in Philadelphia, quite involved in social and cultural affairs, and did not feel moving to ‘
the middle of nowhere—
as she called it—would make her happy.”
“I understand her reasoning. I’ve never been to a large city, but I imagine it is quite different from living in a small town like Hollow.”
“Indeed. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make a home here when my Samuel brought me here as a young bride. But I loved him and I chose to support my husband just like the good book says. But, I digress.” She leaned forward as if to get a better look at Hetty. No matter how long Hetty spent in the company of Mrs. Calhoun she could never quite adjust to the sternness those eyes held. “I must tell you that my sister is not well.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear her health is poor,” Hetty said as she reached out and touched the woman’s hand.
“Thank you, child. Her health is struggling and she has informed me in her letter that she has grown quite lonely. I imagine she has been unable to be as involved as she used to with social outings. I tell you this because she has asked me to return to Philadelphia.”