A simple trick designed to amuse her sister Emily had turned into something that was affecting her entire life. That wasn’t an exaggeration; she liked Jack. More than liked him. She really thought they might have had a chance together—
Then Hannah froze, suds running down her shocked face. It was worse….
He’d told her he wanted to marry someone like Jasmine Kelly, the friend she was supposedly house-sitting for. She’d told him there was no friend, that she was the one who lived in the apartment! Hannah moaned and turned off the water. He must think she was trying to pretend there was no Jasmine Kelly because she—Hannah—was interested in him. He must think she was so desperate, so shameless, so needy, that she’d make up anything, be anything, do anything, to impress a man. To impress Jack Gamble. He was running, all right. As far and as fast as he could. Wouldn’t she do the same if she was in his position?
Hannah stumbled back into the hall and into her bedroom. She heard Joan squawk and the phone trill again, but she ignored both. She flopped onto her bed and covered her face with the pillow.
And she’d thought things were bad before!
The phone rang a third time and Hannah still ignored it. If it was Emily, she didn’t want to talk to her; if it was Jack, she didn’t want to talk to him. She didn’t want to talk to anyone but Joan and maybe Mrs. Putty. Even Mr. Spitz had better stay out of her way today.
HANNAH SPENT the next two days working hard on the presentation she wanted to make at the Wednesday-evening open meeting in the municipal-council chambers. Once a month the town council held casual sessions where the public could speak on issues of interest without having to go on a formal agenda. Hannah intended to ask for a stay of proceedings against the order to move Seth Wilbee. She hoped the town would simply forget the whole issue, but barring that, she wanted them to let Seth stay until spring, when he could possibly find a new location. Or have the time to build another shack.
On Monday she packed up all the clothing and jewelry Emily had so thoughtfully collected for her and took it back to Calgary to dump on her doorstep. If Emily had been home, Hannah would have relented and pushed the doorbell to say hello. She missed her sister and usually talked to her at least once a week. Their parents were retired and always traveling; the latest letter Hannah had received had been postmarked somewhere in Africa. Namibia? Nigeria? But luckily she knew Emily was at work. Hannah had no desire to be grilled about Jack, and she knew Emily would do more than grill her. She’d roast her if she knew the latest!
Then Hannah drove to the Southcentre Mall to check out a teaching-supply store that her friend Ella Searle had recommended. She was looking for literacy material. Seth Wilbee was going to learn to read his own mail before the winter was through, or her name wasn’t Hannah Parrish.
“ELK, YOU SAY?” There was silence of nearly a minute as the old man in the hospital recliner chair considered Jack’s proposal. “You’ll want to check with the town, son. Maybe they’d put in a plug for you with the Ag Department. Venture like that takes money. Big money. I got some you can use.”
“Never mind, Uncle Ira. I’ve got money,” Jack said, patting his uncle’s liver-spotted hand. The old man looked so frail it was hard to imagine him farming all by himself these last years, out in all kinds of weather.
“How’s the dogs?”
“Fine. Angus Tump is keeping an eye on them. I told you that. He comes in around suppertime just to make sure everything’s okay.” Ira’s ragtag collection of no-good hounds was his pride and joy. Every time Jack visited, Ira asked about the dogs.
“Angus, eh? He’s a good man—he’ll take care of them all right,” the old man murmured. He glanced at the wall clock. Was it his suppertime? Was he anxious for Jack to leave already?
“How about you? What does the doc say?” Jack was trying to be cheerful. He was shocked at how much feebler Ira seemed, even in the week since he’d seen him.
“Elk, eh?” The old bachelor repeated, ignoring Jack’s query about his health. Ira definitely seemed taken with the notion of Jack’s raising elk or deer. The wild-boar idea had never been a serious one, despite what Jack had told Hannah. “They take real good care of me here, boy. I got company. Decent grub couple times a day served up. I was only—” his pale eyes wandered toward Jack’s “—I was only worried about the dogs, y’see?”
The man in the next bed had the television on, and Jack noticed that his uncle’s attention kept drifting to the screen. An infomercial—someone demonstrating a food dehydrator or something equally useful. Time to leave. He stood.
“Well, I’ll check in on you after I hear back from the fellow in Regina—”
“Eh?” His uncle’s gaze wandered to Jack again. He seemed suddenly agitated. He held out his hand.
“Listen. You get yourself married, y’hear? You get yourself a wife, now you got a farm and some prospects. Don’t…don’t make the mistake I did. Don’t delay—”
“What mistake, Uncle Ira?” This was the first Jack had heard about any woman in Ira Chesley’s life.
“I wanted to marry Gladys Petrie, my sister’s friend. Gladys was sweet on me, too. I had plans back then. Big plans. I went out to Alberta and got the farm going and one thing and another, and by the time I went back to fetch Gladys, back in Maple Creek, it was too late. She’d married someone else. She got tired of waiting.”
Jack didn’t know what to say. He was astounded at his uncle’s story. Poor old duff! Jack reached for his hand. “Well, don’t worry about me, Uncle Ira. I’ve got my eye on someone right now.”
“That’s the thinking. Don’t delay, son!” The old man squeezed his fingers. He still had considerable strength in his hands, despite the apparent frailty.
“I won’t,” Jack said, mainly to placate him. “I’ll stop in and see you next week, all right?” Jack shrugged on his coat and smiled at a pretty nurse who came by to pick up his uncle’s chart. When he looked at the old man, he was surprised to see him wink.
“They’ve got nice scenery in here, eh?” He winked again and gave Jack a faint smile. “TV’s good, too. Lots of channels.” His uncle watched him go toward the door. He was already glancing back at the infomercial before Jack had left the room.
Get married. Check with the town. Buy groceries. Call Ira’s doctor. Hire a painter. Pay Angus Tump. Call Hannah again. Why wasn’t she answering her phone? Call the elk fellow in Regina. Check on the price of fencing. Get a haircut? Nope. Too soon.
Now why did that particular item keep jumping to the top of his list?
THE MUNICIPAL CHAMBERS were packed. Hannah was surprised, but when she spoke to a few people, she realized two pressing issues accounted for the turnout: the selection of a town animal—most favored the gopher, but a small contingent insisted on calling the creature Richardson’s ground squirrel, which infuriated the gopher supporters; and the theme for this year’s Main Street Christmas display. The aging angels and stars used for a decade had finally been retired, and the town planned to acquire new streetlight and banner decorations.
Seth Wilbee wasn’t there. He’d blanched when Hannah told him what she’d planned on his behalf and asked him to accompany her to the municipal hall. He didn’t care for crowds, he said; they made him sweat. Hannah didn’t press him. She hoped to be able to bring him good news after the meeting, and that would be the end of it.
She hadn’t heard from Jack. He’d left a dozen messages the first two days, when she wasn’t answering her phone or her door. But then today and yesterday, when she’d decided that she couldn’t hide anymore, that she had to face up to the consequences of her foolishness, no matter how humiliating, there’d been nothing. Was he out of town? There was always the possibility that he’d decided she was seriously unbalanced, pretending to be Jasmine Kelly. Maybe he was counting his lucky stars.
The meeting started at a ridiculous time, half-past four. It was getting dark early these days, and the first snowfall in Glory—the first to stay, at least—had made the sidewalks slippery and dusted the landscape with white. It was a lovely time of year, though, Hannah’s favorite: not too cold, yet brisk and dry. Perfect pre-Christmas weather. In the library the students were still enthusiastic about their projects, and she enjoyed helping them find what they were looking for, introducing them to the world of research and books.
Hannah walked to the municipal hall alone. She’d put a pot roast in a slow oven before she left the apartment and had fed Mr. Spitz and Joan early. She had no idea how long the meeting would go on, or if she’d even have a chance to speak. She wore her new snowboots with the zip-up fronts and her woolly tights, along with a corduroy skirt and a fleecy Icelandic sweater she’d knit several years before in one of her knitting phases. She’d knitted one for Emily, too, in blue and gray tones, and given it to her for Christmas that year. Over it all, she wore her navy wool pea coat and a red tam. The color in her hair had finally departed and she was back to her usual brown. Everything felt good about the change. Her only regret was that while she’d been playing the glamorous Hannah Parrish, she’d met a man she knew she could really care about—already did, impossible as it seemed—and had blown her opportunity by trying to deceive him further. All because she was scared to death he wouldn’t like her as she really was. Which, in a way was true, no matter what he said about the “friend” she was house-sitting for. After all, he’d been attracted to her—Hannah—precisely because she appeared to be a glitzy glamour girl, hadn’t he?
Hannah sighed. Life wasn’t fair. But then, she’d never really expected it to be. She stopped at Seth’s mailbox to pop in the beginner’s workbook she’d bought at the teaching-store in Calgary. The first task was learning the alphabet. When Seth had finished with that workbook, Hannah had a stack of others. She was looking forward to the project; it took her mind off her own problems a little. The trouble was, she had too much time on her hands. She supposed that once she got back to work next week, she’d be fine.
Hannah recognized a lot of Glory townfolk in the crowd. She waved to Myra Schultz, the postmistress, and Honor Gallant, who was there with her sister-in-law, Nan. Ben Longquist, Nan’s son, sat beside them, very handsome and grown-up these days. Hannah thought he must be in his early twenties now; he was attending university somewhere, she’d heard. She spotted a friend of Mrs. Putty’s and waved. Mrs. Vandenbroek was an elderly widow who’d come to the community from Holland after the war and had settled in a big house on Alder Street, where she rented her upstairs flat to tenants.
The clerk called the buzzing crowd to order. The first item regarded the selection of a town animal. The nearby town of Tamarack had recently chosen the mountain lion, to the chagrin of some Glory folk who felt a gopher would be too unimpressive in comparison. But the sentiment seemed to be generally in favor of the lively prairie rodent that had once populated bustling gopher “towns” of interlinked burrows in the prairie sod. These days, after decades of poisoning and trapping, the animal was rarely seen outside of such safe areas as the busy gopher settlement on the grounds of the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology at Drumheller. Glory had a long-established gopher population in the riverside park, thus the support for electing it town animal. Still, it was true: the actual name of what had always been called a gopher was Richardson’s ground squirrel.