A couple of weeks ago, I was overjoyed to find the November selection of Heartsong Presents at my local Walmart. If you're not familiar with these books, they're romance novels, both contemporary and historical, that can be compared to the Love Inspired line.
So today, for your reading pleasure, I'm featuring the first chapter of The Carpenter's Inheritance, a November release from Laurie Alice Eakes. If you're not familiar with Laurie Alice's work, you're in for a real treat!
The Carpenter's Inheritance by Laurie Alice Eakes
Miss Trudy Perry, Attorney at Law, would not, after all, be joining Miss Lucinda Bell, Attorney at Law, in practice in Loveland, Massachusetts. She had decided to follow her brother to San Francisco and practice law out on the West Coast.
"Follow her brother indeed." Lucinda folded the flimsy yellow telegram and glanced around her office. "Follow her heart is more like it."
And who could blame her? California was friendlier to lady lawyers than Trudy's home state of South Carolina.
"Just like Virginia." Lucinda stuffed Trudy's telegram into a folder marked Personal Correspondences, where it joined another wired message that had shattered her hopes of practicing law alongside her father, as he had practiced alongside his, and his father had done before that
We lost Stop Supreme Court says Virginia can prevent women from practicing law Stop
That telegram from Belva Lockwood had sent Lucinda, freshly graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, hundreds of miles from the Virginia mountains she loved to an unfamiliar and, thus far, unfriendly town in Massachusetts, where becoming a lawyer as a female wasn't considered wrong. At least the state bar didn't consider it wrong. She had yet to learn about the citizenry.
She glanced around the second-floor office she'd acquired with the help of one of her father's numerous friends and colleagues in the law. His son had started there in the small town on the Connecticut border. He had long since moved back to Boston but said the county was in need of another lawyer. He gave her suggestions, advice, and names of people to befriend.
He hadn't told her the law office had become a storage room for the saddle and harness shop on the first floor in the year the premises had been empty. All shelving had been removed, apparent from the brackets left behind without their boards, and hooks installed. Massive hooks so high on the wall, Lucinda couldn't so much as fling her hat atop one. All that remained of any use was the desk. Though scarred, it was solid oak, wide and deep, with lots of drawers.
"I need a carpenter." She supposed she spoke to the spiders likely hiding in the corners. Talking aloud was better than the silence. "Where do I find a carpenter?"
"Ask Gertie," Daddy's friend had advised her when talking about the town. "That woman knows everyone."
Lucinda hadn't met her yet. She had walked into the office thirty minutes earlier, found Trudy's telegram waiting for her, and simply sat staring at it the whole time.
Useless where she sat, Lucinda rose, found her hat hanging from a bent bookshelf bracket, and perched it on her head at a more or less reasonable angle. Gertie could be found at the cafe across Main Street, and down two blocks. The Love Knot Cafe, not the Loveland Cafe. That belonged to Selma Dickerson, who didn't approve of ladies doing anything but entering her premises for tea and scones, if they weren't home being wives and mothers. Or so Lu-cinda had been warned.
She exited her office and paused on the landing to jiggle the key in the lock until she heard the tumblers fall home. The telegrams were the only thing in the office to steal, but a good habit was a good habit. Once she had client files in there, she must keep matters secure.
The steps led down the outside of the building. Still, the smell of leather and mink oil turned her stomach before she reached the pavement. As soon as she could manage it, she would have to move her office somewhere more appealing to female clientele. At least Lucinda hoped she would draw female clientele. She wouldn't turn down men, of course, but the ladies' plights appealed to her, from collecting pensions long denied them, to helping them make out their own wills, to whatever anyone needed. She wasn't about to be choosy at this stage of the game, though she preferred not to handle criminal matters.
Once away from the harness shop, the sharp sweetness of dried leaves crunching underfoot freshened the crisp autumn air. Overhead, those still clinging to their branches blazed red on the maples and golden on the oaks lining the streets. A few wood fires burned in the distance, perfuming the air with fragrant smoke, masking the less pleasant aromas of the oil or coal stoves. In the middle of the afternoon, few pedestrians strolled the business area of town. A handful of ladies in frothy taffeta gowns and befeathered hats entered the Loveland Cafe, a block from Lucin-da's office. Each woman gave her a bold glance from her black felt hat with its one feather to her black serge skirt and her jacket over a white blouse trimmed with only a narrow band of lace. She wasn't unfashionably dressed, just looked more like she attended to business than wore her finery for tea with friends. She smiled at the ladies. Only one returned her smile, a woman about Lucinda's age with coppery curls bouncing beneath her leghorn straw hat. The other ladies either did not or pretended not to see Lucinda, as they turned their backs on her and entered the tea shop. She suspected the latter. It wasn't the first time in the three days she'd been in town that ladies had pretended the female lawyer didn't exist.
"But I am a lawyer," Lucinda murmured to herself. "I am a member of the bar."
And without having to go awfully far from home, though she was farther north than she wanted to be. She likely would wish she had taken Trudy's path and gone to California instead, regardless of the distance from Virginia.
Lucinda turned her back on the Loveland Cafe then trotted past the bank, a dress emporium, and a jewelry store. Across the street from the library, a free public library at that, the Love Knot Cafe rested, its blue-and-white-striped awning cheerful, the gaslights inside bright even on this sunny autumn day. Encouraged, she opened the door. Warmth, light, and the aromas of hearty, wholesome food like apple pie and roasting chicken surrounded her. So did silence. The instant the bell above the door chimed her arrival, everyone in the oak-paneled room ceased talking, ceased eating, seemingly ceased breathing. They didn't cease moving, at least not their heads and eyes. Every head that needed to swiveled in her direction. Every pair of eyes fastened on her.
They all belonged to men. Not the soft-handed, suited kind of men with whom Lucinda usually associated. Men in rugged flannel shirts, denim pants, and boots; men with bronzed hands, whose faces needed the attention of a razor.
As if those eyes were darts, Lucinda slammed back against the glass window in the door. Its coolness penetrated through her jacket and shirt. The rest of her heated as though she slaved over the stove, cooking the delicious food scenting the air. Her face flamed like one of the gas jets on the wall. Mouth dry, she tried to think of something to say, how to ask the men for Gertie, or simply how to flee with grace and a smidgen of her dignity left.
She groped behind her for the door handle. If she got the door open, she could spin on her heel and rush away, let the men think she'd simply stumbled into the cafe instead of—of the hardware store next door. Her fingers felt cold metal, grasped it.
And it turned. The whole door moved, flying outward. So did Lucinda. One minute the support of the portal lay behind her; the next she fell back against something else, something solid, with a thud hard enough to drive the wind from her lungs. In front of her, the room erupted in laughter. Behind her, two hands grasped her waist, steadying her. A man exclaimed, "I am so sorry, miss, wasn't paying attention. Are you all right?"
All right? With his hands nearly spanning her waist and his chest still against her back? All right with that cafe full of men—well, half a dozen or so of them—laughing at her?
No, not at her. With her breathing and balance restored, she caught their remarks.
"Dreaming of Samantha Howard again?"
"I was dreaming of Gertie's beef stew." The gentleman released Lucinda. "Were you coming or going, miss?"
"Going." Lucinda turned toward the street.
A mistake. It brought her nearly face to chest with the man. Because she wanted to drop her gaze to the pavement and scuttle away, but she needed practice looking men in the eye, she raised her gaze to his face. A young face, not much older than hers. A clean-shaven face surrounded by unruly waves the gloss and color of polished mahogany. Eyes the rich golden brown of amber smiled down at her.
"I believe the ladies' aid society is meeting at the other cafe," he said.
"I'm not a member. That is—" Lucinda licked her parchment lips and sought for the right answer.
Her downfall as a lawyer. She got nervous when speaking aloud to strangers.
She tried again, though speaking too quickly: "I came to see Gertie about finding me a carpenter."
The cafe erupted in laughter again. "Looks like you got yourself one, miss."
If the man hadn't blocked her way still, Lucinda would have fled down the street, possibly all the way to the train station. Surely being a lawyer in her own right wasn't worth this kind of humiliation.
"Ignore them." The man they'd called Matt tucked one big hand beneath her elbow and guided her inside the cafe. "We'll see what's keeping Gertie from helping protect you from these oafs."
"We're the oafs?" a man shouted. "You're the one nearly knocked her down."
"And got to hold her up," another man pointed out. "Always did have the luck with the—"
For the second time in the past ten minutes, the room fell silent as though a door had slammed on everyone's mouth. A woman, with a massive bosom heaving above a miniscule waist, swept through a swinging door in the back, brandishing a coffeepot in one hand and a basket of rolls in the other, like they were a sword and a cutlass. "What's going on out here?" she demanded in a voice as deep as most men's. "Can't I get the bread out of the oven and set a new batch rising without having you all causing— What you got there, Matthew Templin?"
"Looks like a lady." He pulled the door shut behind him and Lucinda. "Says she's come to ask you to recommend her a carpenter. Think you can do that?" He grinned.
Lucinda caught it from the corner of her eye, and her stomach performed a somersault. Hunger. She was hungry, and the smell of the fresh bread made her mouth water.
"Stop teasing the poor girl." Gertie plunked the coffee and bread onto a table before a grizzled man with more hair on his face than his head. "You pour the coffee, Ned, while I help this young lady." She bustled forward, black bombazine skirt swirling around her, and clasped Lucinda's hands. "What fool sent you in here without warning you?"
"M-Mr. Smithfield." Lucinda's face heated again at her slight stammer.
Behind her, Matthew Templin jerked as though she'd shoved her elbow into his middle.
"Smith—aha." Gertie enveloped Lucinda in a fragrant hug. "You're the new lady lawyer come to take his place. Well, why didn't you say so straight off? These men might have shown you some respect. Matthew, you pull out a chair for her and get that coffee away from Ned. Have you had lunch, child? You don't look like it. Come sit. Ain't no one with you?"
"No, my father had to get home for a trial." Lucinda made the explanation so no one would think poorly of Thomas Bell, Esquire.
Hmm, if male attorneys were esquires, were female attorneys esquires, too?
She was delirious with hunger, fatigue, maybe a little apprehension, to judge from the shaking of her knees and flips still going on in her middle, not to mention absurd thoughts like signing her name Lucinda B. Bell, Esq.
She dropped onto the chair Mr. Templin pulled out at one side of the room, the side away from the men and not beneath one of the gaslights. Pooled in darkness and in a corner on her own, she would be unnoticeable enough for the men to forget her presence—she hoped.
A cup and saucer appeared in front of her. Rich, dark coffee jetted into it, the aroma itself heartening.
"Cream, Miss Bell?"
She jumped. Matthew Templin had served her, not Gertie. That lady had vanished through the swinging door.
"Yes, thank you." She made herself look up at him. Way up. She wasn't a short woman, but he was a tall man.
He produced a cream pitcher and set it on the table, then seated himself across from her. She opened her mouth to object to this bold behavior, but he raised a staying hand as though knowing her intentions. "You said you need a carpenter. What all do you need done?"
"You know a carpenter?" She eyed his woolen coat and blue flannel shirt. "I mean—a good one?"
"I'm the best in at least three counties. Just ask anyone here." He said it with such matter-of-fact calm, the words held no arrogance or braggadocio—only simple truth. Confidence. And in a man no older than twenty-five or twenty-six.
She wrapped her fingers around her thick, warm coffee mug, looked into his face, started at that weird tumbling in her middle, and busied herself pouring too much cream into her coffee. "I need help straightaway. If you're that good, you're likely not available straightaway."
"Depends on what you need. I— Ah, Gertie, is that your venison stew?" He flashed the buxom middle-aged woman his heart-melting smile.
She batted her eyelashes back at him. "It is. Saved you a bowl."
"Only one." He sounded genuinely disappointed.
"Two, but you'll have to share with Miss Bell, here." Gertie set two wide soup plates on the table.
Lucinda shook her head. "No, I couldn't."
"Refuse Gertie? No." Templin gave the thick pottage, smelling of garlic and thyme, a longing glance. "And if you don't eat, then neither can I."
"I'll bring you some more bread." Gertie bustled off.
Reluctantly, Lucinda picked up her spoon and took a mouthful. Then she took another, and another. The bowl had dropped to half full when she realized she'd been eating like a starving person rather than a lady.
"I'm so sorry." She stared at the succulent bits of stewed meat, potatoes, and carrots floating in savory gravy before her. "I didn't realize what I was doing."
"You mean eating?" Matthew Templin laughed. It sounded rich and a little hollow in the empty cafe.
Lucinda realized the cafe had emptied save for them—probably not good for her reputation.
"I thought you were hungry. Ready to talk about your office? You're above Shannon's Harness, aren't you?"
"Yes." She wasn't at all surprised that he knew its location. "I think they used it for storage while it sat empty. It's bleak. No shelving, no paneling, nothing left."
"So what do you want?" He set down his spoon, his bowl empty, and leaned back in his chair. "More shelves? You have books, I presume?"
"Yes, quite a lot of them. And I need shelves in the other room, my living quarters."
"That's not an office, too? We thought two of you were coming."
"Two were. One"—Lucinda sighed—"went to California with her brother."