The Love Knot

By: Karen Witemeyer

Chapter

1


MAY 1895

HARPER’S STATION, TEXAS

Claire Nevin frowned at the cheerful white clouds frolicking across the blue sky and tried to close her ears against the melodies the birds insisted on singing in response to the deceptively fine morning. Ignorant creatures. Could they not sense that this day held no cause for celebration? Cause for trepidation, aye. The letter in her reticule felt like a stone weighing on her wrist, demanding sacrificial action with no more than veiled hints for explanation. Yet family was family. Claire would do her duty. She wouldn’t abandon them in their time of need.

And if she secretly grumbled about her flighty sister jumping into trouble again without once considering the consequences, leaving her older sister to clean up her mess from half a continent away? Well, no one need be privy to that wee detail.

Claire set her chin and straightened her spine against the hard bench outside Harper’s Station’s general store and smoothed the fabric of her myrtle green traveling dress over her knees. She wouldn’t feel guilty for her uncharitable thoughts. Polly was sixteen, no longer in short skirts and pigtails. It was high time she learned a thing or two about responsibility. Claire had been working in Miss Fester’s embroidery shop for two years by the time she turned sixteen. She’d left school—though not her books, heaven forbid—to work in a dark little room at the back of the shop, pricking her fingers constantly as she dressed up handkerchiefs and hemlines with tiny flowers and French knots for a trifling wage. Her earnings might have been piddling, but she’d managed to put food on the table when her da drank away all his wages at the pub.

She still sent money home every month. With seven Nevin daughters still filling the nooks and crannies of their New York tenement apartment, and her da with no intention of denying his insatiable thirst, her mam needed all the help she could get. Claire was glad to do it. Glad to help in any way necessary—unless it required her to travel to Seymour. In that case, glad was the precise opposite of what she felt.

Where was Benjamin Porter? Claire tapped her toe on the wooden floorboards beneath her feet, then cast a glance over her shoulder toward the store entrance. The freighter had always been the punctual sort, until he married. Lately he seemed to prefer lingering over breakfast with his wife to running his routes.

Claire’s shoulders sagged. When had she become such a shrew? Ben and Tori had been married barely a fortnight, and here she sat casting silent aspersions on their character. Mr. Porter should linger over his breakfast. Kiss Tori on the cheek and ruffle little Lewis’s hair. He was a family man now, and family came before business. Always. In truth, she dreaded this excursion to Seymour so much that she’d forced herself to arrive far ahead of the appointed time in order to sidestep the temptation of not arriving at all. Mr. Porter probably didn’t even realize she was waiting for him.

At the quiet click of a door handle unlatching, Claire pasted on a bright smile, determined to be a pleasant traveling companion for the man who had been kind enough to offer her a ride to Seymour before making his usual deliveries. Only it wasn’t Mr. Porter who glided through the doorway, but Mrs. Porter.

“Claire? Why didn’t you knock? You would have been welcome to join us for a plate of biscuits and gravy.” Tori extended a china teacup with a moss rose design toward Claire. “With Ben in the house now, I make enough to feed an army. I swear he can put away more food than those giant horses of his do. And Lewis is determined to follow his new pa’s example, though I think he shares half of his plate with Hercules.”

Claire’s smile softened into something much more genuine as she pictured the towheaded boy slipping his dog treats beneath the table. Her second-youngest sister, Brigid, would be about Lewis’s age now. She used to sneak crumbs from her own meager supper to a skin-and-bones tabby that wandered the alley behind their building. Did she still? A twinge of homesickness pricked Claire’s heart with unexpected sharpness. Leaving Mam and the girls last summer was the hardest thing she’d ever done. Yet it had been the best thing, as well.

“I don’t want to be intrudin’,” she said, her Irish brogue thicker than usual on her tongue, no doubt exaggerated by thoughts of home. She accepted the tea Tori offered and scooted over to make room for her friend on the bench. “I had a bite with Maybelle afore I left the clinic.”