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"A Dangerous Love Affair"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Evelyn Boyett

Blurb


Evangeline Nell fled to the New World to escape her past as a courtesan and more importantly, to escape Cornelius, a man bent on owning her. Fleeing Cornelius, Evangeline attempts to lose him on the American frontier. She never dreamed she’d find love with a rancher named Simon.

After one year, Evangeline feels sure she’s safe and that Simon will never know the past she’s tried so hard to hide. She and Simon build a life together and she makes new friends in this small town in the Colorado Rockies, but Cornelius is not a man to give up easily.

When Evangeline spots him on the streets of Unrest, she knows she has only one way to free herself permanently from his pursuit, but that choice means she has to leave Simon for good and abandon any hope of happiness. Evangeline knows she must die.

However, Simon can’t accept the woman he adores is gone. When he realizes he will never recover from Evangeline’s loss, he sets out on a quest that will take him across snow covered mountains into the heart of danger unlike any he’s ever known before. 

But is Simon a match for a man willing to burn down the world to have what he most wants?

"A Dangerous Love Affair" is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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Prologue

Evangeline Nell walked down the sidewalk of the small town she now called home, feeling like she was being watched. Her childhood had been spent in the countryside of her native England. She’d been raised just on the outskirts of London in a small cottage owned by her father. 

They’d never had a lot of money when she was growing up. She spent a lot of time sitting in the field, watching her father work. During those formative years, she learned how to sketch, realizing a natural talent that made her feel wonderful and gained her the respect of her peers in school. 

Evie looked ahead to the store on the corner. It was one of the best supply stores in Unrest, Colorado. The town was small, but it wasn’t the smallest in the state. There were almost three thousand people occupying the valley that sat in the middle of a horizon with mountains on every side. 

Evie thought America was beautiful, Colorado in particular, though she couldn’t claim to have been anywhere else. She loved her native England, but something about the brash boldness of the American people fascinated her. She didn’t understand how they could all be so confident and outgoing. She hadn’t met anyone who didn’t come off as the typical American she’d heard of for years growing up.

She was proud of the dress she was wearing. Simon, her husband of just one year, bought it for her on their first anniversary. It was a dark green color that accentuated her green eyes and red hair beautifully. He’d purchased the matching bonnet, which was tied under her chin with a green silk ribbon. 

She passed the small delicatessen and looked through the window as she went by. The restaurant was packed, which meant there were about a dozen people inside. There were only six tables and each one was full. She recognized a few of the faces, but she’d only been in Unrest for a year and hadn’t met everyone. 

She told herself she would have plenty of time to meet new people once she and Simon began having children. She would join the other mothers on their trips out with the children and volunteer regularly at the schoolhouse. Evie was looking forward to a happy future. 

She came up to the store and went inside, getting a little thrill from the small bell that tinkled over her head when the door pushed it up. She looked around, going straight to the butcher’s counter to buy some meat. She wanted to make a special dinner for her husband, his old dog, Crowe, and his help, a young man named Benjamin. 

Evie went up to the counter and stood looking at the small price sheet attached to the surface. 

“Good morning, Mrs. Nell.” The butcher, Olly Johnson, smiled at her, coming through the swinging door, rubbing his hands in a towel. “What can I get for you and Simon today? Some nice ground chuck? A few slabs of strip steak?”

“I think I’ll take the steak today, Olly,” Evie replied. “I know Simon and Benjamin are going to be very hungry. And I think old Crowe might be, too.” She leaned forward a little, beaming at him, and whispered in a conspiratorial voice. “Simon likes to give his dog some of his dinner whenever he can, especially when we have meat.”

Olly laughed good-naturedly and nodded. He set the towel down and began to prepare the meat, tying it with twine after wrapping it in brown paper. He set it on the counter, writing the price on the outside of the paper. “Here you go, Mrs. Nell. Anything else I can get for you?”

Evie shook her head. “No, this will be enough meat for the three of us.”

“All right, you need anything else, just holler. I’ll be in the back.”

“I’ll do that, Olly. Take care of yourself.”

Olly’s smile remained until she turned away. He’d told her in the past that he liked talking to her because of her accent. Most of the people in Unrest liked the accent. It made her stand out, which she didn’t mind. 

She walked around the store, contemplating what to make with the steaks. She picked up some greens, carrots and potatoes. When she walked out of the store, she had two brown paper bags filled with foods, one held in each hand.

She smiled when a friend walked up to her and greeted her. “Evie! How are you today, my girl?”

Evie looked at the woman, returning a matching smile. “Gretchen! I’m doing well! How are you?”

Gretchen had come to Unrest about the same time as Evie and they’d quickly made friends, both bonding over the fact that they were foreigners in America. Gretchen was from Germany, but spoke fluent English as well as her native German.

Over the past year, Gretchen had attempted to teach Evie German and currently, they were able to hold entire conversation with each other, much to the frustration of anyone around them, who would have preferred to only hear American English spoken in America. They also enjoyed each other’s accents. They often attempted to imitate the American accent they heard on a daily basis, making each other laugh hysterically, which Evie loved to do.

“I’m doing so well, Evie.” Gretchen shook her head, which seemed to be the opposite of what she was saying, but at the same time, she closed her eyes briefly and Evie detected a sweet, small smile on her lips. “I’m so happy with John. I just can’t express it in enough words.”

Gretchen continued on, but Evie’s eyes drifted over her shoulder to stare at a new man, obviously riding through for some reason. His horse was packed with gear, his saddlebags filled to the maximum. He was staring around him as if he was searching for someone.

And Evie knew just who he was looking for. He was looking for her.

A terrified chill covered her. A rush of emotion passed over her that she was almost unable to conceal. She didn’t do as well as she would have liked because Gretchen picked up on her change of mood almost immediately.

“What is it, Evie? You look so scared.” Instinctively, Gretchen turned to see where Evie was looking. Evie grabbed her hand and spun her back around. Gretchen stared at her in shock. “My heavens, Evie, who is that? Why does he scare you so?”

Evie slowly moved her eyes back to Gretchen, speaking softly. “I know him from before I came here. Do you remember me telling you I had to run from a terrible man in England?”

“Of course I do! Is that him? I really want to get a good look at him.”

Evie shook her head. “That’s not Cornelius.”

Gretchen grinned at her. “Cornelius?”

“Yes, that’s my...the man who wished to marry me in England. He’s why I left. That’s one of his men. By all means, go ahead and give us away.”

Gretchen’s eyebrows shot up. “Give us away? Whatever do you mean? Surely he wouldn’t hurt you when I’m here?”

“I don’t want him to see me, Gretchen. I’ll talk to you later, all right?”

Gretchen nodded. Before she hurried away from her friend in the opposite direction of the man searching for her, Evie whispered frantically, “If you see Simon, don’t mention a word of this to him, all right? I have to tell him myself.”

Gretchen nodded as Evie took a few steps and dodged into a small shop. Evie looked through the window of the shop, setting both bags down on a bench by the door. Her heart was racing, her thoughts matching the pace. What could she do?

She turned and surveyed the room around her, an idea forming in her mind. A tall, lanky man came through a door in the back and stopped a few feet away from her, staring. 

“Are you lost, my dear?” he asked.

Evie scanned him, not recognizing him from any social events she’d been to in the last year. “You are Mr. Fontaine? The undertaker?”

Mr. Fontaine nodded. “That would be me. And you are?”

“I’m Evie Nell. I am married to Simon Nell. Do you know him?”

She was a little relieved when Mr. Fontaine shook his head. “I’m afraid not,” the tall man replied.

“I need your help.” 

Evie turned to look through the window again, spotting the sinister stranger approaching, his eyes still blank as he searched for her. Shame covered her. If she had not spent her years in England, once she was of age, acting as a courtesan, she would not be in this predicament, but Cornelius De Clare, a former client, was terribly in love with her and pursued her relentlessly for her hand in marriage. 

Evie did not want to marry Cornelius, even if he was a handsome 23-year-old, three years her junior. He was pompous and self-righteous, two traits she detested in a man. He felt he could treat her however he wanted because of what she did for a living.

She’d grown up poor. Acting as a courtesan had allowed her to purchase decent clothes and keep herself clean and healthy. She tried to eat well and now, thoroughly enjoyed taking care of her husband. 

She felt her future slipping out of her hands and was in mourning for it already when she turned back to the lanky undertaker.  The man was staring at her curiously, one eyebrow raised, making him look like a hawk. The thought made her giggle. It would be the last time she’d be amused for a long time. Of that, she was certain.

Chapter 1

Simon stared out over the horizon, his face taut with dismay. He was sitting on the porch of his farmhouse, staring at the sun as it set in the Western sky, casting beautiful colors through the blue, introducing the darkness that was to come. 

It was similar to the darkness he felt inside. 

He thought about his life with Evie. She’d been so beautiful, so slender and small, a petite woman he could wrap his arms all the way around. He’d spent years searching for a woman in Unrest, taking several women to dinner, festivals, picnics and the like, but he had never found the perfect woman for him.

Evie was easy to talk to. Her wit and charm came through in every word and look she gave him. Sometimes, on a cold night, they would sit in front of the fireplace and she would read to him from a book of poems she’d brought from her home in England. It was the only book she truly owned, given to her by her grandmother when she was a small child. 

The little redhead from England had a sweet voice and he thoroughly enjoyed her British accent. She’d caught his attention right away and after one short week, he proposed to her. He was stunned when she said yes. 

He brought his eyes closer to home, scanning his homestead, a compound that stretched out nearly thirty acres and included many grassy hills, fields of green, groups of trees, and a stream that wandered its way through his property. 

How happy their life had been for that year they were together.

Now, he sat alone, lonely and unhappy, without his precious Evie. 

It had been a month since she’d been taken from him. He remembered the day he’d been told as clearly as if it had been yesterday. In truth, a month wasn’t nearly long enough to be done with the grieving process. For all he knew, he would be grieving the rest of his life.

How could she have been taken from him after only a year? He’d been searching for so long, waiting for the right woman to come along, always unsure if he would ever find a woman he could love in Unrest.

It just didn’t seem fair at all. He was a good man, loved God and his American brethren. He tried to never harm anyone. All he wanted was to be happy and to make the woman he loved happy.

That had been Evie. He was sure she had been happy with him. 

As darkness pushed through the light of day, his memory took him back to the day he’d found out.

He was working the farm with his helper, Benjamin, to whom he affectionately referred to as “Benny”. Benjamin was just 19 years old, but one of the best workers he’d ever found.

They were laughing about something but Simon couldn’t remember what it was. All he remembered was the smile wiped from his face when he spotted a stranger riding onto his property. A solemn, black-suited tall man with a somber demeanor. 

Simon turned his horse to meet the stranger at the end of the road.

He lifted one hand in greeting. “Howdy, stranger. What can I do you for?”

“You are Simon Nell?” the man asked without lifting his hand in return. He sat in the saddle stock-straight. He stared at Simon with dark eyes.

Simon nodded. “Yes, that’s me. Can I help ya?”

The man nodded back. “I am John Fontaine. I work in Unrest as the undertaker. I have some sad news for you, sir.”

Simon was immediately fearful. The only person an undertaker would come see him about was his little wife. They had no children and Simon’s parents were deceased. He was an only child and had no sisters or brothers to worry about. 

“Please tell me why yer here,” Simon said in a low voice. 

“It’s your wife. Evangeline is your wife, is that right?”

Simon’s heart began to pound painfully in his chest. He nodded, unable to formulate any words. He anticipated what the undertaker was going to say and held his breath subconsciously. 

“She was hit by a runaway wagon late this afternoon. Trampled by the horses. I’m sorry, Mr. Nell, but she is deceased.”

An unpleasant chill ran through Simon. He had to look away from the undertaker. The shock was almost too much for him and he had to grip on to the saddle horn in front of him to keep steady. He didn’t want to slide off his horse.

Although if he did, maybe he would break his neck and be with his lovely wife again. It was a stupid notion but nonetheless, it crossed his mind. With his luck, he would break every limb and never be able to work his farm again.

“Sir, are you going to be all right?”

The undertaker had no real concern in his voice. Simon figured that was because in his line of work, it didn’t pay to be emotional. He probably had to tell people their loved ones were dead all the time. To him, this was standard procedure, just another part of his day.

But to Simon...to Simon, the world had suddenly imploded. His heart was shattered. He had to fight back the tears that so desperately wanted to fall from his eyes.

“Are…are ya sure it was her? Are ya sure?” Simon was certain he would feel it if something had happened to Evie. He loved her more than he could have ever imagined loving anyone in the world. He saw her beautiful green eyes gazing up at him as he danced with her, holding her close, humming the tune they moved to in a deep voice. 

“I am sure, sir.”

“I would like to see her.”

The undertaker shook his head. “No, Mr. Nell. You don’t want to see her. It is best if you remember her the way she was. Not trampled beyond recognition.”

Simon frowned, desperate to find a way to make this not be happening. Not to Evie, so young and beautiful. “If she is beyond recognition, how do you know it was her?”

Mr. Fontaine looked at him through narrow eyes. “She was seen walking across the street on a path that would lead her here. The horses ran wild. There was nothing anyone could do.”

Simon didn’t think he would be able to hold back the tears much longer. He clenched his jaw and swallowed hard, determined not to let them fall in front of this stranger, who probably saw people crying constantly after losing someone.

“I...I don’t know what to do now,” he said. “I…I don’t know how to live without her now.”

Mr. Fontaine nodded. “I understand, sir and you have my deepest condolences. My suggestion is that you choose a place to bury her. I have supplied a nice pine box, one of my prettier ones because she was such a lovely lady.”

It was the first human, compassionate thing the man had said, and it made Simon turn his eyes back to him. “But it would be remiss for me to let anyone see her in that condition. It is truly better if you just remember her the way she was when she was alive, vibrant and outgoing. She was from Britain, is that right?”

“Yeah,” Simon barely spoke the words. “She was.”

“Did she have any family there you should contact?”

Simon shook his head. “Her family is all deceased, including her first husband. She was a widow. She had no children with him. She was alone.”

“I see.” Mr. Fontaine moved his horse to return to Unrest by the road. “Please inform me where to take the coffin, sir. I will gladly deliver it for free. I will even have it lowered in the grave for you. You only need to tell me where and I will take care of the rest.”

Simon didn’t want to think of the various places he would deem suitable for the remains of his dear Evie. He didn’t want to have to do anything. He just could not believe that she was gone. 

It was too soon, he told himself. Of course he was in shock, who wouldn’t be? 

“I…I need time to think. I…I will come to your office in the morning.”

Mr. Fontaine nodded. Simon thought his eyes looked strange. They were compassionate, but there was something hidden behind them. The undertaker didn’t have to be a friend for Simon to read the look on his face. He was both sorrowful and crafty at the same time. Anyone would have seen that look and been confused by it.

“Come to my office tomorrow. If I were you, I wouldn’t mention this to anyone until you are certain where you want her buried. Then, invite whomever you like. I will take care of the funeral arrangements after you tell me where you want to put her.”

Simon’s brain went numb. How had he lost her so quickly? Why would God punish him so? What had he done to deserve it?

He watched as Fontaine rode away, his back still stiff and straight as he sat in the saddle. His black horse didn’t make his appearance any easier to bear. Simon thought it might be a good idea for the undertaker to get a horse that didn’t represent death to begin with. 

He shook his head. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be true.

“Mr. Nell? Simon?” He heard the sound of Benjamin’s inquiring voice and turned to his young friend. “Are ya all right?” 

Simon licked his lips and bit on them for a moment. He shook his head. One tear finally slipped out. “No, Benny. I’m not. I won’t be all right ever again.”

Thinking back on that day nearly a full month ago, Simon felt a fresh tear slide down his cheek. He missed her terribly. He wanted her back from the grave.

He’d buried her under a huge tree, alone at the top of a small hill, just beyond the house. He could have looked out at the tree, but often chose not to for fear he would not keep his sanity. It had taken nearly a day to dig out the grave, as the tree roots were thick in the ground surrounding the trunk. 

All over the hillside where her body was buried, daffodils and wildflowers of varying beautiful colors waved in the breeze. The scent they gave off was pleasant and drifted through the air whenever he visited the area. 

Now, he wouldn’t be able to visit the area. Not without bawling like a baby, anyway. His heart was broken forever. He would never love again, he was sure of it. In all his 30 years, he’d never seen anyone as lovely as Evie. She’d taken his breath away from the moment they’d met the year before. 

She’d been through a tough life, poor growing up on the outskirts of London in her country house and then marrying into wealth. It didn’t seem to him like her husband had been the wealthiest of men, but he’d apparently left her a sizable estate, seeing how upscale her clothes and appearance were.

He’d never asked her about her past life, not the details of it. And for her part, she’d not been forthcoming. She told him only the vaguest of clues to her childhood. Her father had been a kind man. She had learned to sketch while watching him work the field around their home. Her mother had been loving to her, stitching up her clothes when they ripped, bandaging scraped knees, giving big, long hugs. She had no sisters or brothers. She, like him, was an only child. It was one of the things he felt drew them together. They had no one but each other. 

No one else in the world.

Simon stood up and went back in his house, allowing the screen door on the outside to slam. He still hadn’t fixed that door. Evie had nagged him about it so often. And he’d never fixed it. The thought hurt him to the core. It was such a simple task, yet he’d neglected to follow through. Every day he told her he would get to it the next day.

Now, it was a source of agony for him. Every time the door slammed, he was reminded of her frustration with him for not fixing it. She never got angry with him. She just wanted the door fixed so it wouldn’t make her jump every time someone let it go. The loud bang frightened her.

Simon hung his head, vowing to get to the screen door in the morning.

Out of pure frustration, he chided himself silently and went to get the tools to fix it now by the light of the moon and the gas lamp on the table by the door.

Chapter 2

Even though a month had passed, Simon still felt uneasy about the circumstances surrounding Evie’s death. Her friend, Gretchen, the only one Simon knew spoke frequently with Evie, seemed completely shocked when he told her about it. He remembered telling Gretchen and how the woman had turned white. She nearly fainted into his arms but merely swooned, pressing one hand against her forehead.

“This cannot be, Mr. Nell. It cannot be! I had not heard of any such thing happening in Unrest. Surely news of this type would have gotten around.”

Simon shook his head. “There’s no way to tell, Miss Kauffman. It could have happened like the undertaker said. It was not in the middle of town, where people would have seen. It happened on a pathway to our house.”

Gretchen was the one who had sparked Simon’s questioning of the incident that took his wife. When he spoke to the sheriff, he was told the same story. When he asked how the sheriff was informed of the situation, Simon was told the information had come directly from Mr. Fontaine himself. As if the undertaker was the only one who saw the incident and reported it to the authorities. 

“He may have felt it more appropriate to keep in hushed from the town,” Sheriff Angler told Simon. “From what John said, the girl was…very…messed up, shall we say. She was no longer the pretty young woman you married. She was a mangled body. If my wife was in an accident like that, I’m not sure I would be able to stand seeing her like that. Do you really think you would?”

Simon shook his head in response, but without actually seeing her, he had no closure. It didn’t feel real to him. Not only had he not seen her body, he didn’t feel she was gone in his bones. It felt to him like she was still alive. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. He was going to get to the bottom of it if it killed him.

He jumped down from the seat of the plow to kneel down and pull clumps of grass from under the wheels, tossing them behind him. The ground was so wet, he hadn’t been having much success sowing the seeds. The wheels kept digging into the mud.

Simon was frustrated with the recent rains. It was almost like the skies were weeping for his Evie. The rain started only a few days after her death and continued on every other day for the past four weeks. The ground hadn’t had time to dry up. It was like slush in some places. 

It wasn’t looking good for harvest season.

He grumbled to himself, clearing the path so he could get his plow back to the barn. He was done for the day. If this was going to get done at all, he would have Benny do it. He surveyed the area around him and decided he wasn’t even going to try to get the plow to the barn. He was too frustrated and stressed.

Simon pulled the hat from his head and wiped his brow with the back of his shirt sleeve. He couldn’t get the thought that something was off about Evie’s death to leave his mind. He looked up and scanned the horizon, his eyes naturally landing on the tree over her grave. He stared at it for a moment.

His heart pounded as he contemplated digging up the coffin John Fontaine had so carefully laid in the ground with the help of his assistants. He shook his head, knowing he could never do that. Seeing her in the coffin, in the mangled condition Fontaine had described would haunt him for the rest of his life.

He decided then and there he would need to go to Fontaine himself with his questions. The man hadn’t been too forthcoming when he’d questioned him about it before. 

Maybe he would be this time, especially if Simon put on a little pressure. He didn’t want to intimidate Fontaine and he certainly didn’t want to shoot him down like a dog. Waving his gun in front of the man would surely give Fontaine the impression he intended to do just that. He would have to play it careful. He didn’t want to scare Fontaine. He just wanted the truth. 

Simon was sure he was hiding something. The further it got from Evie’s death, the more he felt it. Maybe Evie was shot by someone. Maybe Fontaine did something to her that caused her death. There were so many possibilities Simon didn’t even want to think of.

“I’m sorry, Evie.” Simon felt a strong urge to go to the gravesite. It wasn’t far away. He would easily get there on foot, without having to take his horse up there. The ground was wet, but his boots protected his feet even when they sunk into the wet earth. He trudged up the side of the hill, feeling forlorn. He couldn’t remember a single time he’d had reason to smile since she left his side. He reached the grave and took a knee beside it, pulling up a few weeds that had grown around the tombstone. He touched the letters inscribed on the grave.

“I hope you’re at peace where you are, Evie. I’m not feeling a lot of peace right now.” He turned and plopped down on the fresh grass. It was wet, too. But he didn’t care. He just wanted to be closer to Evie. 

“You know, since you left, I haven’t really been able to sleep. I see you in my dreams and you are so alive and happy. You make me happy in those dreams. And then I wake up and you’re gone.” He chuckled, sadly. 

“I dreamed just a few nights ago that I came out on the front porch of the house and you were standing there with a big smile on your face. You bought me a new wagon and you were so proud of it. You know how dreams are, the wagon was gone very quickly but it was okay. Because you ran to me and threw your arms around me. You were so warm, so happy and vibrant. You kissed me over and over and I…”

Simon stopped, dropping his chin to his chest. His eyes squeezed shut. He wasn’t going to cry. He couldn’t let it happen. He had to bottle it up. He had to hold it in. He turned his head and looked at the tombstone. 

“Evie, are you really here? Are you here in spirit? Is your body even here?” He shook his head. “I don’t trust Fontaine. There’s something he’s not telling me. I wish you…I wish you could come to me in my dreams and tell me what to do. I don’t know what I’ll do if I find out Fontaine has been lying.”

He plucked a stray weed from the ground and tossed it to the side. 

“What would you do, Evie? You were so smart and resolute. Such great survival skills. Yer pa taught ya real good.” 

He fiddled with the hat in his hand, looking away from the tombstone into the distance. 

“I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been sittin’ on this feelin’ for weeks now and…” He looked back at the tombstone again. “I just don’t think you’re here, Evie. I don’t think you’re dead. I can think of so many ways you could have died but…I just don’t think any of them happened. We have a special bond.”

He pushed himself up to his feet. He looked down at the grave, plopping his hat back on his head. 

“I don’t think you’re really here. And I’m gonna find out what really happened to you.” He turned and took a few steps away before glancing back. “But if you are here…Gretchen says hi.”

John Fontaine was not in his office when Simon came to speak to him. He left in frustration, stomping down the stairs and across the street to the hotel. Gretchen worked at the hotel behind the front counter. 

He didn’t know if she would be there either, as the day was growing late and most people who worked during the day had already left for their homes. He didn’t know where Gretchen lived. If she lived alone, it wouldn’t look right for him to go and find her by himself.

He stepped up onto the deck, his spurs clinking on his boots. He took off his hat when he went in the building. Evie had always enjoyed the tinkling bells the business owners of Unrest used for their front doors. She told him it reminded her of a baby giggling. He didn’t get the resemblance, but thought it was sweet that Evie thought that way.

Gretchen wasn’t at the front desk. It was another girl. Her name was Nancy. Simon knew her through her father, who had been a friend of Simon’s father before his death. 

Nancy looked up at him with a wide smile. “Mr. Nell!”

Simon smiled. “Simon, please. Nancy, I’ve known ya since you were a child.”

She giggled. “And that’s why I call you Mr. Nell.”

“Well you’re a grown woman now. What are you 20?”

“Nineteen.”

“That’s old enough for you to be calling me Simon.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.” Nancy flushed. “I’m so used to calling you Mr. Nell.”

“Well, give it a try and see if you like it.”

“Okay…Simon.” Her grin reached her eyes and made them crinkle with delight. “What can I do for you…Simon?”

“I’m looking for Gretchen. She was a friend of Evie’s. I need to talk to her.”

“You’re in luck. She’s here!”

Simon lifted his eyebrows. “She is? Is she working late?”

Nancy giggled again. Simon had always known the girl to be a giggler. It made him smile. She was a pleasant girl. 

“No, she lives here. She’s single, you know, and she didn’t want to let a whole house just for herself. She doesn’t make a lot of money and is trying to save so she can visit her homeland.”

“That’s wonderful. But I can’t go to her room. It wouldn’t look right. Evie’s only been gone a month and I wouldn’t want to compromise Gretchen’s reputation. I’m sure she’d like to get married and have children one day.”

“Oh, I don’t think she has to worry about that. She’s a sweetheart. We all love her. And you…well, you’re a perfect gentleman. You wouldn’t have to worry about it. I can give you her room number.”

Simon gripped his hat in both hands by the brim, shaking his head. “I’d be much obliged if you’d go to her room and ask her to come down and meet me in the lobby. Maybe she would be willing to go for a walk through town.”

Nancy raised her eyebrows. “I thought you were trying to protect her reputation.” She lifted one hand and waved it at him, laughing, when she saw his flushed cheeks. “Oh, Mr…I mean, Simon. I’m teasing you. Everyone knows how close Evie and Gretchen were. It only makes sense for you to want to see her best friend and share memories.”

Simon nodded. “Yes. That’s just what I’d like to do.” He paused before asking. “Tell me, Nancy, did you ever hear anything about what happened to Evie?”

“I heard she was run down by horses who’d gone wild. Isn’t that what happened?”

“That’s what I was told, but I’m wondering why no one ever reported any damage from them. No damage was done anywhere between here and my farm? No horse tracks for me to examine? I didn’t even get to see her one last time.”

Nancy looked sadly at him. “Oh, Simon, I’m so sorry. I understand how you feel. It’s probably feels like she just up and disappeared on you.”

He nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“It’s too late to look for horse tracks. They’ve been washed away in the rain by now.”

“But no one reported any kind of stampede or anything? No damage at all? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Nancy nodded, coming around the counter and taking a few steps toward the stairs that would take her up to the rooms on the second level. “I know it can be very hard to accept the death of a loved one. I remember when my brother was twelve…he was older than me at the time…and he ate some wild berries that poisoned him.”

“We did get to see him, at least my papa and I did. We found him. But Papa wouldn’t let Mama see him. He was blue and…well, it was not a pretty sight. My papa didn’t want Mama seeing that. I suppose that’s what Mr. Fontaine was thinking when he used a closed coffin for Evie. I’m really sorry, Mr…I mean, Simon.”

Simon nodded, keeping his eyes on the floor. He was determined to find out what was going on. He could only hope Gretchen might have some insight into it. Surely she’d seen Evie that day? Surely she knew something useful?

Chapter 3

Simon waited patiently until he heard Gretchen and Nancy’s voices at the top of the stairs. They were talking low and he couldn’t hear the words. Gretchen’s sounded inquisitive. Nancy’s was more confident. 

It seemed to Simon Nancy was reassuring Gretchen that he was a trustworthy man. Simon hadn’t had too many encounters with Gretchen. She’d been Evie’s good friend, but the women generally did their own things while he was working. The farm kept him very busy.

He stepped to the bottom of the stairs and looked up as they descended. 

Gretchen’s face was friendly and she was smiling, but her eyes told Simon how curious she was. She held out her hand when she was close enough and he shook it. 

“It’s good to see you, Simon. I must say you’ve been on my mind this past month. I know how devastated you must be. I’m sorry we have only spoken a few times since then. I really thought you might just want to be alone for a while.”

Nancy left the two without a word or a glance over her shoulder. Simon was grateful. It was a sign of respect that Nancy did not want to eavesdrop.

“Come, would you like to take a walk through town?”

Gretchen nodded. “That would be fine.”

“We can get something to eat if you’d like. Not at the saloon. Please don’t think I’d take you there.”

Gretchen chuckled. “I do not think you would take me there, nor would I go there on my own. I’m not a drinking woman, Mr. Nell.”

“Please call me Simon.”

“If you wish.”

He held out his elbow to her and she grinned, sliding her hand through it.

“So tell me, Simon, I know you didn’t come to town to court me. You have questions about Evie, don’t you?”

Simon nodded. “I do. I have many questions that remain unanswered.”

“Have you been eating lately?”

The unexpected question took Simon aback and he gave Gretchen a funny look. “Have I been eating?”

“Yes. I do believe you have lost some weight, sir, and if you keep that up, you won’t be able to work. You haven’t been eating properly, have you? Don’t you fib to me either because I’m a woman and we can tell when men need to be fed.”

Simon had to chuckle. “I haven’t been eating right, Gretchen. No, I haven’t. I can’t help it. I have no appetite. I don’t even want to do the work on my farm anymore. I miss her so much. I just…just miss her and love her so much.”

“I know you do, Simon. Trust me, I know you do. And she loved you, too. She wouldn’t be happy knowing you are mourning her so much. She’d want you to be happy.”

Simon shook his head. “It’s not that I’m still in mourning. I mean, of course I’m still grieving but…”

They were approaching the restaurant and suddenly Simon stopped. Not expecting him to make an abrupt halt like that, Gretchen took a step forward and swung back on his arm unintentionally.

“Didn’t mean to make you dance, Gretchen,” Simon said apologetically. “It’s just…I want to confide in you. Can I do that?”

“Of course you can, Simon. What is it?” She turned to face him, letting go of his arm.

Simon looked around him. There were only a few people on the street and the men in the saloon were making loud sounds, laughing and talking while the piano played. Simon took Gretchen’s elbow and directed her to a small alley between the restaurant building and the dress shop next to it. 

They stood facing each other just inside the alley. They could be easily seen by anyone who went by, which is what Simon wanted for two reasons. He didn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea and he could see if anyone was about to pass and hear his words.

“My goodness, Simon, you’re being so suspicious. What is it you’re thinking?”

“I’m going to talk to Fontaine…John Fontaine, you know the undertaker…” He continued when she nodded. “I’m going to ask him for more information about the wagon that was attached to the horses that broke free and ran Evie down. I want him to…to show me some paperwork. Surely, he keeps track of those things. And what about the costs for the burial and funeral? Someone had to pay for those. It certainly wasn’t me.”

Gretchen screwed up her face in confusion. “You didn’t pay for anything?”

“No. Not a dime.”

“Why was Evie a special case? Why would he donate a coffin and all those expenses? Do you…do you think he was in love with Evie?”

Simon snorted. He couldn’t imagine the stiff, lanky man being in love with anyone. And if he was, his advances were likely to be shot down. “I don’t mean to sound rude,” he said. “But even if he was, Evie was my wife and she loved me.”

Gretchen nodded. “There can be no doubt of that. She really did love you. Sometimes, I got sick of hearing her talk about you. Oh, Simon made the best chicken dinner last night with all the fixin’s…oh, Simon planted my favorite veggies for harvest season. Simon this, Simon that. Frankly, I’m a little tired of hearing your name.” She laughed again. “I am teasing you again, Simon. I never got tired of her talking about you. Her love was written all over her face.”

It warmed his heart that Evie was remembered specifically for her love for him. He was head over heels in love with her. 

“I don’t think she’s dead,” he blurted out abruptly.

Gretchen’s eyes widened. “You don’t think she’s dead? How can she not be dead? She has to be. Why would John Fontaine lie about such a thing?”

Simon shook his head. “I have no idea. I’m not sure I want to know. It could be so many things. But Nancy didn’t see a stampede of horses come through Unrest. Did you?”

Gretchen shook her head, frowning. “No, I don’t think so. I know that was a month ago, but a horse stampede is something I wouldn’t forget.”

This time Simon nodded. “I wouldn’t either. And I haven’t heard a thing about it since it supposedly happened. I’m wondering…” he hesitated. “I’m wondering if maybe Fontaine did something to her.”

Gretchen’s breath caught in her throat and her eyes widened. “Simon, what are you suggesting? Do you really believe Mr. Fontaine would have tried to hurt her, that maybe he did hurt her and covered his tracks?”

“It’s a possibility,” Simon said. 

Gretchen shook her head again, her frown deepening. “I just can’t believe that.” She leaned back against the outer wall behind her, placing her hands behind her to protect her dress from the dirt. “He has always been a very stiff and unemotional man, but I can’t imagine he’s dangerous.”

“Do you know him well?”

Gretchen lifted her eyebrows. “I suppose I know him well enough. I sit near him in church and we have small chats before and after the services. He actually seems quite pleasant to me.”

“Do you think if you came and talked to him with me, he might loosen up a little?”

Gretchen looked thoughtful, tilting her head to the side. “I suppose I could try. I certainly wouldn’t mind. Have you checked his office? I don’t think he’s gone home yet. He’s usually there late.”

“Not tonight.” Simon leaned out from the alleyway and looked from one side to the other. There was no one on the street. It was getting late. “But tomorrow, I’d like to go. He’s not in his office and I don’t know where he lives.”

“I know where he lives.” 

Simon looked at her. “Do you think we should bother him this late at night?”

“It’s not that late, Simon,” Gretchen said, amused. “It’s the middle of the week and most people are not out and about when there is work to be done at home and then again in the morning.”

Simon looked doubtful. “Are you sure he wouldn’t mind?”

Gretchen appeared to think about it for a moment. “I suppose we could go in the morning, but I haven’t had dinner yet. Do you want to get a bite to eat?”

It was the first time a woman had asked him such a question. He chuckled. “I reckon so if ya don’t think anyone will get upset about it.”

She scrunched her face up. “Upset? No. Who would get upset? Evie is…dead.”

“So we’ve been told. But you don’t think the townsfolk will think it’s too soon for me to be seen with another woman?”

Gretchen shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I know they won’t. You worked very hard on your farm. While you were working, Evie and I spent a lot of time together in town, going to sewing circle and church functions and the like. They all know I was a good friend to her.”

“You were a good friend, Gretchen. Thank you for that.”

“Believe me, it was my pleasure. Evie is a wonderful girl. Or…was…is…I think I am confused now.”

They both chuckled. 

“If you think your reputation can stand being seen with me so soon after Evie…left, then I will take you at your word. Ya want to go to the saloon?” He asked the question with a smile.

“No, I think not. The restaurant will be just fine.”

“So…” Simon continued as they went out into the street and turned in the direction of the restaurant. “You know Fontaine, do you? Can you tell me anything about him?”

Gretchen walked along beside him. “There’s really not a lot to tell. When we’ve spoken, it was brief but pleasant. He seems intelligent. Very book smart. He’s a stiff character, though. I knew a man like him when I lived in Germany. He was a friend to my papa. On the surface, he seemed like a hard-nosed and hard-working man, but inside, he was gentle and kind. I wouldn’t have known it if he didn’t come around to help my father work.”

“Do you really think Fontaine is like that man? The friend to your father?”

“Yes. He does seem like the type to me. He’s also hard-working, and he’s smart and seems very cold to people who don’t know him, but I’ve seen him laugh. Yes, that’s right, I’ve seen him laugh.”

Simon knew why she’d repeated the last phrase. His reaction to her statement was one of complete surprise. He couldn’t imagine the unemotional John Fontaine actually laughing.

“How on earth did you get him to laugh?” Simon asked, as he pushed open the door to the restaurant. 

“It wasn’t as hard as you think. I believe he was talking about his business being bad or something of that nature. I might have mentioned that if I went on a killing spree, he would have more business. He laughed at that.”

“You didn’t really say that, did ya?” 

The two of them walked to a table nearby and slid into the seats, facing each other. She leaned over the top and whispered, “I certainly did.”

Simon chuckled, shaking his head. “You are a card, Miss Gretchen. I wish we had spent more time together when Evie was with us. I do think the two of ya would have had me laughing the whole time.”

“I’m not always so funny,” Gretchen replied. “It comes out in spurts. It is Evie who has the great sense of humor.”

Simon set his eyes on the menu, which was placed under glass on the surface of the table. He didn’t really read the words, he was thinking about what Gretchen said. Finally, he looked up to see her scanning the menu. “I like the way you keep saying Evie is, like she is alive. That comforts me. It makes me feel less like a crazy person to keep believing something is off kilter about this.”

Gretchen looked up, smiling. “I think you might be onto something, Simon. It does seem strange that there were no reports of any damage done by a stampede of horses or even a couple horses getting loose from a wagon. Isn’t that what John Fontaine said? That the horses broke free from the wagon and trampled Evie.”

“That’s what he said.”

“Well, we’ll go see him tomorrow and ask about that, shall we? Say about nine?”

Simon nodded.

Chapter 4

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