A Precarious Homecoming
Arabella Stewart, grieving the losses of her parents and brother, returns home from serving as an Army Signal Corps operator in the Great War determined to save Ballantyne, her family resort. An impediment arises when she becomes involved in a murder investigation. Helping solve the crime is crucial, but Bella must work with Constable Jackson Hastings. Once part of her life, Jax turned his back on Bella after her brother, his best friend, died in the trenches. His cold attitude hasn’t softened, but she can’t let that stop her. Both her hometown and family resort, once popular tourist destinations, may not survive if the crime isn’t solved quickly.
Jax, a war veteran, faces his own challenges. Wounded in body and spirit, his dreams shattered, he finds himself doing what he said he’d never do—follow in his father’s footsteps as constable. When a crime wave hits town, culminating in murder, his competence is questioned. In a struggle to find the killer and save his job, Jax needs all the help he can get—but he doesn’t want assistance from Bella. Not when he feels responsible for her brother’s death. But more is at stake than his job. He can’t stand by and let Moreley become a ghost town. Nor can he watch while Bella loses Ballantyne.
Working together is the only way to solve the crime and offer hope—to their community and for themselves. Will their efforts succeed, or will it be a precarious homecoming?
Release date: March 26, 2021
Publisher: DS Lang Books
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Behind the book
The inspiration behind the book and series comes from two family members: my great uncle who served in the American Expetionary Force during the Great War and my dad who was a golf pro and amateur golf historian.
A Precarious Homecoming
Arabella Stewart pressed her gloved hand to the window, wiped away the steam fogging its surface, and gazed out into the dawning light. Cold penetrated the glass and her gloves, but the real chill was inside her. Outside barren fields stretched to the horizon. Coming home should have been a cause for celebration but now, like thousands of others, she had little to celebrate.
As the train slowed before entering her hometown, she strained to see the Methodist church marking the outskirts of Moreley. The familiar spire was barely visible against the pale gray sky and swirling snow, as was the cemetery in its shadow. Gravestones—dark silhouettes in the faint light—rose in silent testimony to those now at rest. Bella didn’t have to count the markers to know many more had been added since she had left home almost two years earlier.
Hot moisture pricked her eyes, and she blinked hastily to clear it away. Bella didn’t want to greet Mac with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Although the hour was early, he would be at the station to greet her. For that, Bella was grateful. Her family was gone, but she still had Mac, and they still had Ballantyne, the resort founded by him and her Grandfather Stewart four decades earlier.
By the time she stepped off the train, kit in hand, Bella gained a semblance of control. No longer on the verge of tears, she scanned the station, but there was no sign of Mac, or anyone else for that matter. The place was vacant.
“Here, miss,” the conductor, a tall man in his early forties, said. He laid her other bag on the platform under the station roof’s overhang. He looked around before glancing back at her. “Is someone coming to collect you?”
“Yes, a family friend will be here.” Once again, she noted the silence. Bella had been in the station many times, but never had it been so quiet, so empty. When Bella had left to join the Army Signal Corps, the train stopped at the Moreley station three times every day during the winter months and more often during the summer season. Three years ago, at this same time, the station would have been decked out in its holiday finery with visitors arriving to spend Christmas in town or at the resort. Now, not even a sprig of holly was visible.
“Why isn’t the station open?”
The man frowned. “You’re just getting home from France, aren’t you?” he asked, acknowledging their exchange about her uniform as she boarded the train in Sandusky. “Since you’re from here, you must know this area was hit hard by the Spanish flu. That affected business at the nearby resort and in town. Between losing some of their boys in France and other people with the pandemic, Moreley isn’t the same as it used to be.”
Bella fought to maintain her composure. “I know,” she murmured. “Mac MacLendon, our family friend, has been in touch with me. He said there was only one train south out of Sandusky weekdays now, but I didn’t realize the station was closed.” Bella made a closer study of the place. Not only was it barren, the building’s paint was chipped and faded while the arrival and departure board was blank. Cobwebs, filling every corner and crevice, projected an overall atmosphere of neglect and abandonment.
“The ticket office will open shortly for a couple of hours,” he told her. “Geneve may be running late because he is usually here by now.”
“Is he the only employee these days?” Edgar Geneve had been the station master as long as Bella could remember, but there had been other workers. A number of others. As Ballantyne had grown in popularity, Moreley had prospered from overflow visitors.
“Yes. The line still goes from Sandusky to Columbus, but as I said, we don’t stop here nearly as often these days.”
The conductor looked past Bella. “Your friend is here,” he said with a smile. “I’ll leave you in his hands. A Merry Christmas to you, miss.”
“Merry Christmas.” Her reply, an automatic one, went to his retreating back. Despite the gloom of the station, Bella felt a smile curving her lips as she turned to greet Mac, but it quickly died because Mac wasn’t walking toward her, Jackson Hastings was.
Tall and lean, Jax was a familiar figure and, for a moment, Bella was again swept back in time—back to Christmas three years earlier when he had also been the one to collect her. She had been returning from school and not only had the station been bustling and festive, Jax had welcomed her with a wide smile and a warm hug. Now, no smile lit his handsome face and no hug was forthcoming, either. Not that she expected or wanted one. Not anymore. Not from him.
Jax stopped a few feet from Bella. With his constable’s cap pulled down, his grass green eyes were barely visible but the hard set of his square jaw was clear. “Good morning, Bella, and welcome home.”
His deep baritone sounded slightly rough, and no trace of warmth was evident. As far as welcomes went, it wasn’t much. “Good morning,” she replied, keeping her own voice and expression as devoid of emotion as his was. Bella looked past him. “Mac will be here to pick me up any minute.”
“No, he won’t. Doc called and asked me to get you. Mac caught a bad cold and needs to stay in bed for a couple of days.”
“A bad cold? Are they sure it’s not influenza?” Panic gripped Bella, and she knew it was in her voice and expression, but she didn’t care. Nothing could happen to Mac. She couldn’t bear to lose him, too.
“Absolutely sure.” His voice lost some of the chill. “Doc has been out to check on him every day. Carl is staying in the inn, so he’s there if Mac needs anything. It’s simply a precaution that he stays home, especially in this weather.”
The snow wasn’t heavy, but the wind was harsh and icy. “Of course.” She tamped down her fear and looked at Jax again. His expression had lost any trace of warmth or softness. She sighed. “I’m sorry they had to bother you.”
He bit his lower lip and glanced away. When Jax met her gaze again, some emotion clouded his eyes but Bella couldn’t identify it. Nor could she identify the tenor of his tone when he responded. “It isn’t any trouble.”
For long moments, they stood looking at one another, yet, as close as they were, Bella was very aware of an invisible barrier between them. His cold rejection and clear disinterest after her brother—his best friend—died was still inexplicable to her. A shiver ran through Bella as she recalled that day in France when Jax had offered a brief condolence before turning away from her and to a pretty, young French nurse. If he had slapped her, Bella couldn’t have felt more rejected. She had fought to forget the moment, but it rose in her mind’s eye now, and a shiver ripped through her.
“You need to get out of the snow and cold,” he said when she made no reply. “These bags are yours?” Jax picked up her kit bag and portmanteau. “I’m parked just outside the station.”
“I can carry my kit,” Bella said as he started toward the station exit. Jax turned back with a frown. Once again, she remembered December 1916 when she’d gladly allowed him to carry her luggage. But that was a different time, and they’d had a different relationship. Her chin lifted a fraction. “In France, I always carried it myself.”
He inhaled sharply, but said nothing. Instead, Jax handed the kit bag to her and, once again, headed away.
When they got to the car, Jax stored both bags and moved to the driver’s side. Once they were settled in the Chevrolet Chummy, he glanced at Bella, who was looking straight ahead. Unsure what to say, he studied her for several moments. Up close, the mauve shadows beneath her dark eyes were obvious. So was the fact she was reed slim. Not for the first time, he wondered why Bella had been among the last of the Army Signal Corps operators to come home. Only a handful had stayed in Europe after the expeditionary force left. Why had she been one of them? Since asking might put a chink in the wall he’d built between them, Jax made a milder inquiry. “Do you need anything while you’re in town? The drug store should be open.”
Briefly, she met his gaze before glancing away. “No, I spent a few days with Ida and her family in the Cleveland area and picked up some items there.”
Jax knew her best friend, Ida Byington, had stayed in Europe with Bella. He merely nodded, pulled away from the curb, and headed down Main Street into the business district. Since no other vehicles were on the road, Jax shifted into a higher gear. Within moments, Bella put one hand on top of her uniform cap. At the same time, he saw the ends of her bob being whipped by the cold wind. Since the Chummy, a sporty two-door, had no side curtains or isinglass, a breeze was inevitable. Jax never paid much attention, but he rarely had any passengers and never any females. “Sorry,” he said, shifting into a lower gear. “I should have brought a blanket for you.”
“I’m fine,” Bella murmured, but her attention was on the passing buildings. “The hotel, theater, bookstore, and emporium are all closed. Is it just for the winter?”
Jax followed her gaze and remembered his own reaction upon returning home eight months earlier. Over the years, Moreley had turned into a resort town of sorts, mostly due to Ballantyne’s proximity. The resort, on a river downstream from Lake Erie, had grown as people had more leisure time and wanted to escape the city. Since accommodations at Ballantyne were limited, many visitors had once stayed at the Moreley hotel. Jax imagined Bella was picturing how things had been when businesses flourished. Back then, shops of various kinds would normally be opening at this hour, but little activity was apparent. “I’m afraid not. Didn’t Mac mention how things have changed?”
“Yes, of course, he told me. It’s just seeing the place and hearing about it aren’t the same. I knew he and Dad cancelled most of the summer events in 1917 since I hadn’t left for France yet, and Mac let me know he couldn’t keep the inn and cottages open last year. It was too much for him to do alone.”
Jax took a sidelong glance at Bella. Reluctantly, he filled out the story, but only a little. “Very few people came last summer, so I doubt if opening the inn and cottages would have been profitable. That’s why the hotel in town closed. Not enough visitors to make keeping it open worthwhile.” He scanned both sides of the street. A faded, battered sign was the only remnant of the small dress shop where his mother had purchased all of her ready-made clothes. The same was true for the furniture store. As he glanced around, Jax considered how Bella must feel at the sights.
“Mac never said how bad it was.”
A moment passed before Jax spoke again. “You had enough to handle, so I’m sure he wanted to spare you. And I’m sure he hoped the town and Ballantyne would be back to normal before you got home.”
“But they aren’t.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No, unfortunately, they aren’t. After the war, there was a slowdown everywhere. Things improved last spring. Other places. Not here.”
“At this time of year, it used to be busy in town and at the resort. Ice skating and sledding were popular. The theater showed moving pictures every night,” she said as they drove past the building’s boarded doors. “And all the shops had special window displays for Christmas. Everything was bustling and busy.”
The note of nostalgia in her voice opened a door in his mind. “Moreley prospered after your Grandfather Stewart and Mac opened Ballantyne. A golf course and inn on the river were a big draw for city people with more leisure time.” He heard a heavy sigh escape her.
“People must still have time and means to escape the cities. If they don’t come here, where do they go?”
“Cedar Point is very popular. So are Crystal Beach, Port Clinton, and Catawba.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jax saw Bella nod.
“Grampa Stew and Mac opened Ballantyne because Cedar Point was a big tourist attraction. Even though Ballantyne isn’t on the lake, the golf course was something other area resorts didn’t have.”
“It didn’t hurt that both of them had been golf professionals in Cleveland,” Jax said. “They knew a lot of people who came to Ballantyne for golf and spread the word about how great the course is.” Golf has gained in popularity over the years. It still was. “Adding the tennis courts helped, and so did making boats available so folks could enjoy the river.”
“Yes, they were smart to add activities beyond golf. That helped the town, too.”
Bella continued to gaze out at the town. “Now, it’s filled with empty stores and empty houses.” She turned back to Jax. “How bad is the resort?”
“Needless to say, no golf or tennis is being played now. Some golfers from the area played last summer, and a few folks came from Toledo. Mac let the tennis courts go, but they can be brought back in shape quickly. The boats are safely stored away, so they could be used again with no problem. Nolen and I take turns running out there a couple of times per week, and the property looks fine.”
“Nolen?” Bella echoed. “Nolen Rogers?”
“Yes, he’s my part-time deputy.”
“I still think of him as a boy, but I know he was your platoon sergeant during the last few weeks of the war. Why only part-time?”
Jax’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “For the first few months after I took the position, I didn’t have a deputy at all. With the population down, the mayor and council thought I could do the job alone.”
“And now they don’t?” She turned to study his profile, but his attention had moved to something on the sidewalk. Bella followed his gaze and frowned when she saw a small group of men gathered—their voices loud enough to carry well—in front of the café. Almost simultaneously, Jax slowed the car and muttered under his breath.
“I need to intercede before things get out of hand.” He pulled into a parking place, killed the engine, and glanced at Bella. “Stay here.”
The words were an unwelcome order, but she had no chance to object because Jax was quickly out of the car and on the sidewalk. Bella watched the exchange with rapt attention. The biggest man—a muscular blonde in his mid-forties—turned to Jax with a furious expression on his weathered face. For a moment, Bella wondered who he was. Finally, his name came to her—Gustav Schwarz, a farmer who lived outside Moreley. Bella knew him primarily by reputation, a bad reputation as a bully. His current demeanor reinforced that view. Trepidation rippled through her and, despite Jax’s admonition, she got out of the vehicle and moved to stand behind him.
“Gus, step back,” Jax said.
The big man’s eyes flashed with blue fire. “Why don’t you tell your men to step back? Taking up for them, as usual. To you, they can’t do nothing wrong—set my livestock loose, burn my sheds, and do the same to Meyers.”
Jax’s nostrils flared with a sharp intake of breath. “Gus, you know we’ve investigated all the crimes, and we haven’t found the guilty party yet. We’re still trying. Right now, I’m telling all of you,” he said as his gaze went from the farmer to two younger men clad in army overcoats, “to step back. Owen and Curt, what’s going on here?”
Bella turned her attention to the veterans. Although she hadn’t seen either of them in France, Owen Carlson and Curt Molitor had been in her brother’s platoon. From what she knew, both had been with Matt when he died. She swallowed hard over the lump of grief that still rose so easily. With effort, Bella fought to stay grounded in the present and focused on what was happening in front of her. Gus Schwarz—fists clenched and jaw set—looked enraged while Owen and Curt appeared uneasy. Curt shifted from one foot to the other as he put one hand on Owen’s shoulder. She studied their pale faces and shadowed eyes. The war had exacted a heavy toll on soldiers and civilians alike.
Curt plucked at his army coat, which hung loosely on his lean frame. “Schwarz don’t like our attire.”
“The war is over,” Gus said in a hard, harsh tone. “You need to forget it.”
“I don’t have no other coat, lieutenant.” Owen’s voice was barely audible.
“Even if you did,” Curt put in, “you can wear what you want. Gus has got no say over you.”
“I think it’s best if everyone goes on about his own business.” Jax glanced at another man who stood a few feet back from the trio. “Mr. Smith, are you involved?”
The short, square man shook his head. “No, constable. I left the café as they started to argue. Not involved at all and, since I need to open the post office, I will be on my way.”
Jax nodded, and the older man hurried off.
Once he was gone, Schwarz’s attention went to Bella. “You living in the past, too?” the farmer asked in a contemptuous tone as his gaze went from her cap to her service boots.
Resentment flared within her. As a Signal Corps operator, Bella had been limited in what she could take to France, which meant she’d had little extra space in her bags, and none for civilian attire. Once back at Ballantyne, she planned to tuck her uniforms away and return to regular clothes, but that was none of this man’s business. She was about to say so when Jax spoke.
“Miss Stewart is just returning home, and she can wear whatever she wants. Now, I suggest you move along, Gus.”
For a moment, Bella thought Schwarz might strike Jax. Instead, he snorted derisively before looking back at Owen and Curt. “The constable let you off, but I better not catch either of you on my land or I’ll be after you. Mark my words.” He turned on his heel and stalked away.
“Don’t take the law into your own hands, Gus,” Jax said to the retreating figure. Curt started after the farmer, but Jax caught his sleeve. “Let him go.”
Curt released a long, low breath. “I’m fed up with him and Meyers getting after us for wearing our uniforms.”
“I know,” Jax replied as he released the other man. “Gus is set on taking offense, but try to ignore him. The same with Meyers.”
“I’ll try,” Curt said, but his tone was not convincing.
Jax turned to the other man. “Owen?”
“I can’t afford new clothes, lieutenant. Haven’t been able to hold a job, neither.” Once again, tremors rippled through him. “Schwarz don’t understand and don’t care.”
A look of genuine anxiety softened Jax’s expression. “I know it’s been hard for you, Owen. Just look after yourself and let me worry about Gus.”
Owen’s heavily shadowed and red-rimmed eyes met Jax’s steady gaze. “Yes, sir, but it’s hard to take.”
“Let’s go,” Curt said to Owen before looking at Bella. “Not a very nice welcome, but it’s good to see you again.”
“And you two, as well,” she said with a forced smile.
Once Curt and Owen left, Jax turned to Bella with a forbidding frown. “Didn’t I tell you to stay in the car?”
His expression and tone telegraphed deep disapproval which annoyed Bella. He had no right to rebuke her. “I don’t have to follow your orders, Jax.”
He ground his teeth until a muscle jumped in his jaw. “When a law officer says not to do something, you’d be wise to follow the advice. This could have turned into a physical fight, and I didn’t want or need you in the middle of it.”
Concern replaced censure which made Bella wonder about what she’d heard in the exchange. “What was Gus talking about when he mentioned his animals being set loose and his buildings being burned?”
With one hand, Jax rubbed his forehead. “Let’s get in the car, and I’ll tell you on the way to Ballantyne.”
As they pulled away from the curb, Jax continued. “As Gus said, we’ve had some incidents. That’s the main reason Nolen was hired. People want more protection than I could provide alone.”
Alarm flickered through Bella as she shifted toward Jax. “What’s been going on?”
When Jax replied, his voice telegraphed tension. “Schwarz had several chickens killed last spring. Around the same time, two of his sheds caught fire. This fall, his horses were found on the road and the gate was open although Gus swears he closed and locked it himself. Werner Meyers has also had livestock get loose—two cows and a goat—and one of his fields and a shed were set on fire. Both Meyers and Schwarz have had other more minor vandalism as far back as last spring.” He paused briefly before continuing. “Unfortunately, news of the local trouble spread quickly, and it’s played a big part in visitors not returning to the area. And in Mac not opening the inn or cottages.”
Bella struggled to absorb the revelations. “I can hardly believe such things are happening around here. I know there were petty thefts occasionally, but vandalism, arson, bothering animals…” Her voice trailed off. Little wonder the tourist trade hadn’t resumed. The war and influenza were behind them, but crime had evidently become a new challenge.
“It’s troubling, especially since, as you say, this type of thing has never happened around Moreley until recently.”
“Did the problems start during the war?”
Jax briefly turned his head to glance at her before looking back at the road. “No, they only began last spring after most of us got home from France. They’ve gotten worse over the past couple of months.”
Niggling suspicion assailed Bella. “Gus and Werner are from German families. Their folks were immigrants. Curt mentioned their heritage, and Gus obviously dislikes seeing veterans in uniform. Do you think the crimes relate to that?” She hoped not, but the possibility could not be ignored.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to think it is. I’ve talked to almost everyone in town, and there were no problems during the war. At least none were obvious. If some held a grudge against German-Americans here, they hid it very well. Besides, others of German descent haven’t been victims of any crimes.” Frustration underscored the observations. “You heard Gus. He’s said much the same to all of the soldiers over the past few months, and he started before the incidents began from what I know. In fact, he was mad about America getting into the conflict at all. I remember some of his ranting from before I was called up.”
“Do you think that’s why he was targeted?”
A sigh escaped Jax. “In the past two years, he and Meyers evidently took offense at anti-German sentiments common in other parts of the state and the country. Mrs. Meyers has relatives in Cincinnati, and the problems were especially bad there. Meyers has said, to me and to others, that his in-laws were harassed. As far as Gus, he’s always been hot-headed, and I can see him taking offense even if he didn’t experience hatred himself.”
Bella studied his chiseled profile. “Do you know if any of the soldiers holds a grudge?”
Jax shrugged. “None of us loved being gassed or shot at, but I never heard anything hateful from any of the men. You could see Curt is angry. So are most of the others, and I can’t blame them. They don’t need to be berated for wearing their uniforms, and forgetting the war is impossible.” His nostrils flared with a sharp intake of breath. “I want to find out who is behind the incidents and make sure the problems don’t get worse. The town and the resort aren’t likely to recover if crimes continue like they have.”
Bella chewed on her lower lip as she considered the dilemma. “Has anyone who lost a son or brother in France been angry or upset?”
“Not that I know of and, like I said, I’ve spoken to almost everyone in town. I can’t know how grieving folks feel inside but, if people hold a grudge, they’ve kept it to themselves. The worst part is this all started soon after we came back.”
“Do people other than Gus Schwarz suspect them?” The possibility was as troubling as the incidents themselves. Bella knew every one of the men who had served in France, and she didn’t want to think any of them were behind the recent crimes. She didn’t want to think any of them could harbor so much hatred.
“It might be more correct to say that most are under suspicion. Curt Molitor is one of the main suspects to Schwarz and Meyers. He’s been living out at Ballantyne with his brother Carl since he got home. Since their cabin is between the two farms, Gus and Werner say he has easy access to both places. I’ve told Mac about my concerns, but you need to know, too, especially after witnessing that confrontation. I don’t think Gus would come after Curt at the resort, but I can’t be sure.”
Bella mulled over the observation. “I appreciate that, but I can’t imagine Curt ever doing harm to anyone or anything, and I especially don’t think he’d ever hurt an animal. He loves animals and always has.” He had looked furious with Schwarz, but as Jax had said, who could blame him?
“I know, and I don’t believe he’s guilty, either, but he doesn’t have an alibi for any of the incidents. Of course, neither do Owen Carlson, Fred Snyder, Harold Horton, or Warren Ritter.”
“All of them are under suspicion?” Bella asked in dismay. Some had served in Jax’s platoon and others in her brother’s. The men had been in the same National Guard unit, so they were called up together.
“Schwarz and Meyers confronted Owen, Fred, and Warren before Nick stepped down as constable last May. When I took over, I spoke with them, Curt, and Harold. As the incidents have gotten worse, Nolen and I have talked to a number of people. We haven’t learned anything helpful,” he admitted on a sigh.
“Have Schwarz and Meyers done more than talk to the men? I never really knew either of them, but Mr. Schwarz seemed very angry.”
“Yes, angry and mean. He’s always been a bully. Since the latest incident, he’s threatened more than once to take care of the problem if I can’t. You heard him say the same thing a few minutes ago, so you can understand why I’m concerned. Werner may go along with him, which is another worry.” Jax took a sidelong glance at Bella. “Mac didn’t like Curt and Carl being in the cabin without a telephone since it’s isolated. Week before last, he got them to move into the inn. Since Mac caught a bad cold, they’ve been a big help to him.”
“I’m glad,” Bella said, but her mind reeled with Jax’s revelations.
Several moments of silence filled the confines of the car before Jax spoke again. “Curt isn’t the same guy who left for France. I don’t believe for one minute that he’s dangerous but, as you could see, he’s not himself. He helped Carl with the golf course last summer, and he’s done odd jobs for Mac but he can’t hold a regular job. Not yet anyhow. He’s too unsteady.”
For several moments, Bella absorbed the information. “He isn’t the only soldier with those problems. Many left France with similar issues.”
“No, he isn’t. Most of the townspeople understand that war changes men.” He paused briefly before continuing. “Curt and Owen may only need time. Or they may never be the same.”
Sad remembrance filled Bella. “Curt was Matt’s sergeant, so he’ll always have a place at Ballantyne,” she replied. Out of the corner of her eye, Bella saw Jax stiffen as if struck. Immediately, she swiveled to look at him. The color had drained from his face and tension was clear in the set of his square jaw. Bella wanted to say more, but Jax’s voice kept her from doing so.
“I believe it’s good for him to be with Carl and at Ballantyne. I just wanted you to know he isn’t the same but, as I said, I don’t think he’s a danger to anyone.” The coolness was back in his voice and in his manner.
Bella wanted to ask if the mention of Matt was upsetting to him, but Jax looked so cold and remote that she simply followed the new line of conversation. “What about Owen? He seemed very shaky, and he said he can’t hold a job.”
Jax sighed. “Owen is even worse off. The theater closed a year ago which was before he got home, so his old job was gone. He might have been able to do that since he wouldn’t have been interacting with people as the projectionist, but he hasn’t been able to find anything else. Even worse, his wife left him a few months ago. Since then, he’s really struggled.”
“I wish we could hire all of the veterans who need work,” she murmured. A sigh escaped her. “Do you think Gus and Werner would attack any of the men?”
“I don’t know. Curt has taken up for all of them, which might make him a bigger target. He’s told Gus to leave the boys alone a few times that I know about. Like I said, I don’t think Schwarz will come after him at the inn. Just be aware of the situation. If anything happens, let Nolen or me know. We’re trying to get to the bottom of the problem since it seems to be worse and worse.”
“Of course. If I see or hear anything, I’ll call the office,” Bella readily agreed, but this news disturbed her. Only a short time ago, her focus had been on helping Mac restore Ballantyne. Now, there was much, much more to consider.
As they drew closer to the resort, Bella put the troubling revelations aside. At long last, she was home. Tears filled her eyes, and she quickly brushed them away as a host of emotions assailed her. This wasn’t the homecoming that she had dreamed about when she left for France, but—despite everything—she was happy to be back.
Her heart twisted when the Ballantyne sign came into view and, as Jax turned on to the long drive, Bella’s attention immediately went to the inn sitting in the distance. The large three-story Georgian home, white with black shutters, had been built in 1870 by an Ohio industrialist. When a big economic depression hit in the 1890s, he had been forced to sell his home and land at a low price. More than once, Mac and Grandfather Stew had stated that the man’s misfortune had been their luck. They had started with a nine-hole golf course. Later, they’d added other amenities. Over the years, good fortune and hard work had helped them make Ballantyne into a fine and popular resort and, as Jax had observed, that success had spilled over into Moreley.
When the car stopped at the base of the porch steps, Bella climbed out and looked across the expanse of white spreading from the inn to the golf course. Once again, she thought of her last Christmas at home. Dozens of guests had filled the inn and cottages. Ice skating, sledding, and sleigh rides had added to the festive spirit. Her train had arrived later, one of several bringing people to Moreley, so the place had been alive with activity when she’d gotten to Ballantyne. Both the resort and town had gone all out to welcome holiday guests in those days.
Had all progress been lost? Jax’s disclosure about tourists staying away due to crime was disturbing.
“I’ll put your bags in the foyer,” Jax said, his voice breaking into her reverie.
Bella swallowed hard and turned to face him. “Thank you,” she replied and followed him up the steps and on to the wide veranda. Adirondack chairs still sat on each side of the porch. On summer days, guests could watch the tennis courts, the golf course, or the river in the distance. She sighed. With luck, the seats would be filled in a few months. Hope and anxiety tangled inside her until she saw the front door. A large balsam wreath with a crimson bow, much like ones from years past, was a warm and welcoming touch. Mac’s touch, no doubt. Some of the sadness left her. Not everything had changed.
Jax stopped beside Bella, following her gaze. “According to Carl, Mac insisted decorations be up when you got home.” He opened the door for her and let her precede him.
“How lovely,” she said before stepping into the inn’s large lobby where another surprise waited. “Mac,” she cried out as she saw the gray-haired man sitting next to the blazing fire. Bella hurried to his side, dropped to her knees, and hugged him. Tears came again but, this time, she let them fall.
Mac gently patted her back. “Lass, let me see ye,” he said in his rich Scots brogue. Despite having left his homeland more than thirty years earlier, his accent hadn’t disappeared.
Bella looked up at the man who was like a grandfather to her. His gray waves were still closely cropped, but new lines bracketed his mouth and radiated from his silver-gray eyes. He looked pale and wan. Fresh apprehension filled her. “Mac, you’re sick. You should be in bed.”
He shook his head. “The lads built up the fire, so I’m cozy and comfortable. Besides, I wanted to be out here to welcome ye home, lass. It’s been too long.”
She bit down on her trembling lip and wiped away the moisture streaking her cheeks. In an effort to gain more control, Bella scanned the wide foyer. “It looks like you’ve done more than simply sit here.” A quick survey revealed a tall spruce tree standing next to the wide stone fireplace and greenery decorated the stair rails leading to the second floor. Mac had made sure everything was just as it had been for all of the holidays of her youth. Bella’s heart swelled with gratitude.
“Carl and Curt did all of this,” Mac said with a sweep of his broad, wrinkled hand. His gray eyes twinkled with pleasure. “Christmas is only two days away, and I dinna want ye working to deck the place out.”
The observation caught Bella off-guard. She hadn’t given a single thought to decorating until she’d seen the wreath on the front door. Suddenly, she was very aware of Jax’s earlier words: War changes men… But it changed women, too. It had changed her. A tremulous breath left Bella. It wasn’t only war that had changed her. It was loss and grief. Her attention moved to Jax, who had laid her bags at the base of the stairs before coming to stand by Mac’s chair. Once again, his features looked as if they’d been carved out of granite. Despite his proximity, she felt as if they were as far apart as Heaven and Earth—and perhaps even farther.
“How are you feeling, Mac?” he asked.
“Much better now that our girl is home.”
Bella felt more than saw Jax flinch. She had never been his girl. Not really. She’d hoped she might be some day, but that had been a different life. She had been a different person and so had he. As awkward silence filled the room, she got to her feet. “I’m glad to be home.” Her comment and her attention were for Mac.
“I’m more than glad to have ye here, lass.” Mac’s deep voice was filled with emotion that resonated inside Bella.
Several moments of silence passed before Jax spoke. “I need to get back to town.”
“Thank ye for picking her up, lad,” Mac told him. A smile wreathed his weathered face.
“It was no trouble, Mac.” Jax managed the semblance of a smile for the older man but, when he looked at Bella, it faltered. “Again, welcome home.”
“Thank you for coming to the station,” she managed, although her own voice lacked any real gratitude. The gulf between them was too great. Jax had shared a lot of information about the current issues in Moreley, but only because she had witnessed the confrontation in town—and because Curt lived at Ballantyne. Otherwise, Bella doubted if he would have revealed a single detail to her.
He nodded before turning toward the door and walking out into the swirling snow. Bella watched him go with mixed emotions. While Jax had provided information and a warning, his cold demeanor still stung. Not as badly as it had right after Matt died. Then, her heart had felt like it was caught in a steel vice. Now, it was more like it was gripped by an unseen fist. The worst part was that she had no idea why Jax acted so coldly toward her. Bella surmised it had something to do with the nurse, but she didn’t plan to ask. Her focus now was Ballantyne.
Before taking the chair across from Mac, Bella put a smile on her face. “You really should go back to bed, but I can fix breakfast before you do.”
“Carl already made toast and tea for me, lass. Let’s just talk for a few minutes. Then, I’ll go back to my room willingly.”
Concern furrowed her brow. “I don’t want you to wear yourself out.”
“I’ll nay do that, but it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen ye and heard ye. Humor an old man and chat a bit.”
“You’ll never be old, Mac,” Bella replied, although she was very aware that the weariness in his gray eyes was not only from a bad cold. More likely, it resulted from the losses and ensuing strains of the past sixteen months. A man nearing seventy should be relaxing. Instead, Mac had been left to handle the resort on his own. Regret filled Bella. “I’m sorry I didn’t get home sooner.”
“Ye were doing yer duty to our country, lass.”
“But you were left to manage everything after…” Her voice broke as raw emotion again assailed her. Bella bit hard on her lower lip to control the rising tide of sorrow.
Mac reached across the space between them and patted her hands, now clasped in her lap. “By the time yer father left us, there was little left to manage,” he said, his voice rough and ragged. “We’d already closed the tennis courts, inn, and cottages due to the Spanish flu. And we hadn’t planned on holiday guests last year, either.”
“What about last summer? You wrote about the course being open,” she commented. “Jax told me about the area crimes. He thought people didn’t return due to them.”
“The lad is right. Some reservations were made before the trouble started. Most cancelled. Word spread that our boys were causing problems.”
“That’s terrible,” Bella said. “I know all of them, and I can’t believe they would have damaged property or harmed animals.”
Mac shook his gray head in disgust. “Around here, mostly Schwarz and Meyers think so. They’re both riled up, most especially toward Curt, but the other boys, as well.”
“I know,” she said before describing the confrontation she and Jax had witnessed.
“I’m sorry ye saw that yer first morning home,” Mac said. “Gus knows how to stir folks up, and most of our boys are quick to react.”
“Jax mentioned Curt always takes up for the others, and it certainly seemed so this morning. He also said both Curt and Owen are having problems since they got home,” Bella said, unsure of how to characterize Curt’s issues. “Jax wasn’t very specific. Mostly, he said war changes men.”
“That it does. As close as ye were to the front, ye saw for yerself, I’m sure.” A troubled expression blanketed his weathered features.
Bella knew he was asking, as much as observing, and she offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “I was near the front for a few months, but I was in Paris, too. We were luckier than the boys in the trenches. They suffered terribly although they didn’t complain.”
“Harold Horton said ye went to visit him after he was wounded. Ye lifted his spirits, lass. And, from what I know, ye did the same for many of our other boys.”
The pride shining in his eyes was a healing balm to Bella’s wounded heart. “If I was close enough, I tried to see them in the field hospitals. Occasionally, I ran into a few when they came back from the line, if they were near my posting. I was as happy to see familiar faces as they were. At least, most were glad to see me.” Once again, the image of Jax on the day after her brother’s death—cold and hard and dismissive—came to her mind. With effort, she thrust it away.
Something flickered in Mac’s gaze. “As Jax said, war changes men. Some can nay accept being seen as weak and debilitated, especially by someone close to them.”
Bella sensed a message underlying the words, but she no longer felt close to Jax. He’d spoken at length on the way to Ballantyne, but as town constable, not as Matt’s best friend. Not as her friend. “Yes, I’m sure that’s true,” she said without any real conviction. “Anyhow, I’m glad you asked Carl and Curt to stay in the inn. I think it’s best for all of us. What rooms do they have?”
“They’re in Julia’s old suite off the kitchen. Since she wed, the space has been vacant. As I said, we did nay open the inn these last two seasons, so a cook-housekeeper was nay needed. Julia has been kind enough to come three days a week for light cleaning and to cook enough food to keep us going. We manage in-between.”
“That’s kind of her,” Bella replied with a smile. “I’m glad Curt and Carl are here, though.”
“I suggested a bigger suite on the second floor, but both lads preferred those rooms,” he told her. “I s’pose it’s a big change from the cabin, but a good one.”
“I’m sure it is,” she agreed. Mac’s pallor and weakness were becoming more obvious, so Bella got to her feet. “I think you belong in bed. Once I have breakfast, I may lie down myself. I slept a bit on the train, but a nap would not go amiss.”
Carl and Curt came to help Mac back to bed and to take Bella’s bags to her third-floor suite. When the brothers arrived in the kitchen a few minutes later, she thanked them and said, “I’m going to fix breakfast. I see there are plenty of eggs and some ham. I can make biscuits. How does that sound?”
“You’re just home, Bella,” Carl said. “You shouldn’t be doing no chores.” Slight and gaunt, the man was soft-spoken and shy. His hazel eyes, so much like his brother’s, darted away from her.
“It’s been a long time since I had a chance to cook a real meal. I’m making food for myself, so it’s easy to make a little extra,” she assured him. “I see you already started a fire in the stove.”
A smile touched Carl’s mouth. Despite his weathered face, earned from years of working in the sun and wind, at thirty-six, he looked almost boyish. “That sounds mighty good. How about you, Curt?”
When Bella looked at Carl’s younger brother, she saw his eyes held the residual weariness and wariness common to those who had served in the trenches. She had noted the differences in him earlier, but only in passing.
His gaze flickered from Carl to Bella and back before settling on a spot on the floor. “I ate at the café. I gotta shovel snow and bring more wood in. We got some upstairs for you yesterday.” His medium brown hair, also like his brother’s, had not seen scissors in some time. That and the dark stubble on his face made him look rough. She hadn’t noticed any of that earlier, but then her attention had mostly been on Gus Schwarz. Jax’s observation about Curt being a different person resurfaced. Bella hoped the change was temporary.
“That can wait,” she assured him. “I made coffee, so why don’t the two of you sit down? The rest will be ready soon. Besides, even if you ate, Curt, some fresh biscuits would be good with coffee, if I haven’t lost my touch in making them.” The last was meant to inject a casual note.
Curt’s expression didn’t lighten, but he acquiesced. “Sounds fine.”
Bella served the meal in short order. Both men stood up as she joined them, and Curt pulled out a chair for her.
During the meal, Curt said nothing, but Carl, who had always been quiet and reserved, managed to keep the conversation going. Bella was glad to see it. In the past, Curt had been the one to look out for his big brother. Now, when he needed support, Carl was there for him. Bella was pleased, but it also made her yearn for her own brother.
Sorrow suddenly welled within her. In France, she hadn’t felt Matt’s loss so keenly since she had seldom seen him there, but here at home, his absence left a terrible hole. With her parents gone, too, the hole seemed like an abyss. A deep abyss that might swallow her whole, if she let it. Knowing the danger in being consumed by the past, Bella brought her thoughts back to the present. It was only when the meal was over and the men made to leave that Curt spoke again.
“Bella, I should have said something earlier…” He clasped his hands in front of him and studied them as if he could find the right words there. “It was the first I saw you since Matt died. I was with him.” His voice faltered briefly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save him. So very sorry.”
When Bella saw moisture gather in Curt’s hazel eyes, she laid her hands over his. His dark lashes fluttered down. “Thank you, Curt. Thank you for your kind words and for being with him. That means more to me than I can say.” The memory of hearing about her brother’s death filled her mind. Matt had been leading his men over the top and, only twenty yards out of the trenches, he’d been hit with gunfire from a sniper’s nest. Bella could too easily imagine the awful scene and, when Curt’s gaze returned to meet hers, Bella saw a world of devastation there.
“The lieutenant was very brave. A loyal friend, a good man, a fine officer. We all liked and respected him.” Curt paused for a moment. “Doing the right thing shouldn’t have ended his life.”
The last words confused Bella. Doing the right thing didn’t really describe Matt leading his men into battle, but she simply nodded. “He was a great big brother, and I’m glad to know his men also held him in high esteem.”
“The highest.” Although Curt’s voice remained rough and raspy, it rang with certitude.
Bella released his hands and glanced away. “Thank you.” She cleared her voice. “Now, I should clean up the kitchen. Since I spent a lot of last night in the Sandusky station, I didn’t get much sleep. I’ll probably nap in my room until lunchtime, but I’ll see the two of you then. If you’d check on Mac once, I’d appreciate it.”
Carl assured her that they would before the pair went out to shovel snow and gather wood.
Weary in body and spirit, Bella finished cleaning up, banked the fire in the stove, and went to her room. Immediately, she realized the brothers had not only carried wood up yesterday, one of them had started a fire in the grate today. The warmth encompassed her and, exhausted, she took no more time to study her surroundings. Bella simply collapsed on to the bed with its familiar rose and pink quilt. As she was about to doze off, she wondered again what Curt had meant that Matt shouldn’t have died doing the right thing. She didn’t know the details surrounding his death, but he’d been leading his men as he had all during the war. Again, she decided Curt’s confusion must have made him misspeak. Or maybe he simply meant Matt always did the right thing, but why say so? The question lingered as she fell asleep.
Jax found no such respite. During the short drive to town, his mind kept replaying the awkward scene at the train station and the troubling exchange in front of the café. If he was honest, going into the inn again was just as disturbing. While he drove out to Ballantyne every week or so, Jax never went inside the rambling old mansion or the cozy golf shop. Too many memories lurked in both places.
Tired and unsettled, he headed back to work. When he opened the door to the constable’s office, he was immediately greeted by his deputy.
“I bet Bella is happy to be home,” Nolen said. The younger man’s smiling welcome and friendly observation did nothing to lift Jax’s spirits. Neither did the dreary office. The scuffed floor and dingy walls were outward evidence of neglect by the town council, whose members refused to spend an extra penny on the space.
After dusting the snow off his cap and coat, Jax focused on his deputy’s words. “Yes, I believe so.”
Nolen’s smile faded, and his freckled face took on a concerned look. “You believe she is. Didn’t she seem happy?” For several moments, the younger man studied Jax. “She’s planning to stay, isn’t she?”
The last question made Jax start in surprise. He hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the possibility that Bella might leave again. With her parents and Matt gone, she and Mac were partners. She wouldn’t desert him, would she? “I don’t think so, but I don’t really know. Bella and I only spoke briefly about Ballantyne. What makes you ask?”
“She left college to join the Signal Corps, so I thought maybe she’d go back. Didn’t she want to teach?”
“Yes, she did,” Jax agreed. Would she return to college and leave Mac alone? If she did, would Ballantyne survive? The resort was no longer part of his life, but it had been for years and Jax couldn’t imagine the area without it. He couldn’t imagine Ballantyne without Bella. “I don’t know if she’s going back or not.”
Nolen’s auburn brows rose as if in amazement. “You picked her up. Didn’t you two talk?”
Jax sighed. “I got her because Mac was too sick to go, and Doc asked me to do it. Unfortunately, on the way home, we saw a confrontation involving Owen, Curt, and Schwarz in front of the café, and I stopped.” Jax summarized the clash while mentally reviewing his time with Bella. They’d talked about the recent troubles on their way to Ballantyne, but nothing else. In fact, if he was honest, he had barely looked at Bella. Her pallor and slimness had been obvious, as had her fatigue, but Jax hadn’t asked how she felt. He hadn’t asked about her journey home. He hadn’t asked about her future plans. He hadn’t even offered his condolences on the loss of her parents who had died of influenza within weeks of each other. While not overtly rude, Jax had treated her with less concern than he would a stranger because he wanted to maintain distance between them. Unfortunately, doing so without being callous wasn’t easy. Neither was keeping his attention away from her. Despite her weariness and sorrow, Bella’s eyes—as dark as her bobbed hair—had still sparkled with pleasure when she saw her home and Mac. But not when she had looked at him. Chocolate ice had been in her gaze then.
Nolen’s next observation broke into Jax’s thoughts. “Not a very nice welcome for Bella to have Gus go after her for wearing a uniform.”
“No, but I told her to stay in the car, and she didn’t listen.”
Nolen blinked as if in surprise. “Did you really expect her to?”
“I’m the constable, so, yes. I expected her to do what I said.”
A low laugh left the deputy. “You know Bella a lot better than me, but I can’t picture her being ordered around, except by a commanding officer.”
The observation was certainly apt. Bella had never liked being told what to do. Jax need only remember her decision to join the Army Signal Corps, something that had worried her brother, her parents, and him. Bella had listened to their qualms and gone ahead with her plan. He cleared his throat. “Yes, well, she might consider heeding a law officer.”
Nolen chuckled again. “She might, but she probably won’t.” His humor ebbed. “Did you tell her about the other incidents with Schwarz and Meyers?”
Jax nodded. “I did. And I asked her to let us know if she sees or hears anything. I doubt if Gus or Werner will go to the resort to confront Curt, but she needed to understand that he’s one of Gus’ targets.”
“It’s good Curt is living in the inn in case anything else happens,” Nolen observed. “But he’s only one of many who had run-ins with Schwarz, if not Meyers.”
“That is certainly an issue,” Jax agreed. “I just hope there aren’t any more incidents.” It was probably a futile hope which made him question his decision to take the job as constable.
“Maybe the holidays will be calm,” Nolen said.
“Maybe so,” Jax agreed, but he couldn’t shake his uneasiness. Calm did not describe Gus Schwarz at all. But it didn’t describe a lot of others in Moreley, either. Not anymore.
The next day after breakfast, Bella headed to town. Although she had a gift for Mac, she wanted to find presents for Carl and Curt since they would be sharing the holiday celebration.
Shivers rippled through her once she got on the main road. While the side curtains of the Model T helped, they didn’t keep out all the damp air. Yesterday’s snow had started to melt overnight, leaving slush and puddles along the road. She shifted into a lower gear to lessen the breeze and avoid road spray. At least the trip to town was short.
As she drove along, Bella scanned the fields. Several small farms lay between Ballantyne and Moreley. Some of the homes were set on side lanes, but she was familiar with the buildings, if not with all the farmers. They tended to do business in nearby Boxwood, where they sold their grain and corn. Some sent their children to school there, as well.
Bella downshifted again to navigate a sharp curve and gasped in surprise when a figure came into view. Quickly, she steered to the side of the road and pulled to a stop. When the person turned toward her, Bella realized it was a woman. “Ma’am, can I help you?” she called out after pushing the Model T’s side curtain out of the way.
Hard shudders racked the thin form, and the reply was unintelligible. Worried, Bella climbed out of the car and went to the lady’s side. Her legs were bare beneath her faded, frayed coat and her well-worn shoes were soaked. Blonde hair peaked out from a too-big knit cap, one that surely belonged to a father, husband, or son and not the woman herself. Her face had a waxy, ashen appearance. How long had she been outside and why she was walking in such weather? Was there some emergency at her home? “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand you, ma’am.”
The woman, still shivering, pointed across the field and mumbled again but her teeth chattered so badly that Bella still wasn’t sure what she said. “Does someone at your house need help? A child or your husband? One of your folks?”
“My husband,” the woman finally managed to say in a hoarse, weak voice. “He’s near our fence line. Down the side road. Just short of our house.”
Unsure which house belonged to the woman and her family, Bella merely said, “Get in the car, and we’ll go to him.”
The woman let Bella assist her into the vehicle. She tried to say more but a series of coughs rattled through her slight form.
“Just rest, ma’am.” Bella grabbed a blanket from the rear seat and tucked it around her passenger, who murmured her appreciation. After climbing behind the steering wheel, Bella headed the car in the direction indicated by the woman.
Only moments passed before the lady began gesturing to the left side of the car. “Turn here. He’s down this way.”
Bella pulled off the main road and stopped. Although the snow was melting, driving any farther was likely to get them stuck in the soft earth. “We need to walk from here.” She glanced at the woman again. “You could stay in the car since you’re already chilled.”
“No. I want to go with you.”
Bella didn’t argue. Instead, she fell into step beside the woman.
When they had gone about thirty feet, Bella saw a form slumped on the ground. A lantern was next to his right hand. She and the woman both rushed to the man who lay on his side. Only part of his face was visible, but red stained the snow around him. For a moment, shock held her silent. When Bella spoke again, her voice was hoarse. “Do you have any idea what happened to him?”
Although the woman continued to tremble, she managed to speak intelligibly. “I think he was shot.”
Bella knelt beside the body. With a shaking hand, she touched the side of his neck. During her time in France, she learned how to check for a heartbeat. But no pulse was evident, so she slowly and carefully levered him to his back. A gasp escaped her when two bloody chest wounds became visible. After staring for several moments, she recognized the man. It was Gus Schwarz.
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