The last thing Widow Emma Garrett needed was another guest at Hill House.
Not at ten o'clock at night. Not with guests already occupying every one of the seven bedrooms upstairs, as well as the two front parlors on the first floor.
The dim light of the oil lamp near the front door illuminated the center hall. The carpet runner muffled her steps as she hurried past the parlors on either side of the hallway, where closed pocket doors provided the sleeping guests with privacy. Exhausted to the bone and yearning for the comfort of her own bed, she took a few final steps to get to the door, pulled back the lace curtain on one of the glass panels on either side of it, and peered outside. She had not bothered to light the lantern in the overthrow above the gateway, so the world beyond Hill House remained cloaked by darkness. The relentless downpour—which had canceled the fireworks display and sent hundreds of visitors in Candlewood for the weeklong Founders' Day celebrations scurrying back to their lodgings—continued to pelt the roof on the wraparound porch. Judging by the sound of the wind and the rain lashing at the house, it would probably be morning before the storm finally abated.
No one, however, was standing on the porch seeking shelter for the night.
Emma smiled and locked the door. She must have been mistaken; no one had been knocking on the door after all. She let the curtain drop back into place, turned around, and paused in front of the massive black oak hat rack where the oil lamp rested on a small center shelf below a mirror. Bending down, she checked the linens that had been placed on the floor to catch water dripping from the hats and bonnets hanging from pegs. The linens were barely damp. The umbrellas, by contrast, were bone dry, since no one had thought to take an umbrella to the fireworks display. Pleased, she straightened up again and hoped that by morning the hats and bonnets might be dry, too.
Anxious for bed, she doused the oil lamp and continued taking one last turn about the boardinghouse to make sure it was secure. She was just as ready to put Founders' Day behind her, since none of her children or grandchildren had been able to come home to see her or to participate in the ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the town her grandparents had helped to found.
She paused at the entrance to the dining room, which had been hastily converted for the night into a drying room, and wrinkled her nose. The musty odor was nearly as distressing as the sight of the wet garments hanging on the clotheslines crisscrossing the room. There was nothing to be done about the smell until the rain stopped and the windows could be opened again, and she could only hope the clothing would be close to dry by morning.
Sighing, she carefully made her way to the sideboard. Once she doused the oil lamp sitting on top, she continued through the room to the kitchen. Mercy Garrett, her mother-in-law, claimed that room at Hill House as her domain, just as she had done since coming to live with Emma many years ago when she had owned and operated the General Store.
As usual, all was in order. The new cookstove was clean again after Mother Garrett had made the guests some goodies to warm them, although the subtle aroma of coffee and cocoa yet lingered. The fire they had lit in the fireplace to chase away the dampness was almost out. The dishes had all been washed and put away, and the pitchers were lined up and ready for hot water so guests could wash up in the morning.
Almost as importantly, the snack Mother Garrett had made for Emma, buttered bread and a pot of tea, was sitting on the kitchen table waiting for her. She sat down, took a bite of bread, and savored the sweet taste of butter coating the dense, chewy bread. Instinctively, she reached into her apron pocket to finger her keepsakes and let the memories they inspired fill the aching void in her heart.
To anyone else, the tiny scraps of cloth she had sewn together at one corner would be just that—scraps of cloth. But to Emma, they were her keepsakes, each piece of cloth a tangible link to each of her three sons and seven grandchildren, as well as mementos of her married life, of her late husband, Jonas.
A piece of heavy, stiff denim. A square of smooth chintz. A bit of cozy, soft flannel. She knew them by touch, each one of her keepsakes marking a special event in her life or the lives of her loved ones. She found one of the keepsakes that belonged to Jonas, a swatch of heavy canvas from one of his work aprons, and held it tight. Her deep, wrenching grief at losing him had softened in the eight years since his passing to become tender memories of the sweet and gentle man who had been her helpmate and companion. With all her sons now married and living far away, that deep sense of loneliness—so vivid in the early years of her widowhood—had returned to haunt her. Despite the endless work at Hill House, when the day was spent and the household quiet, she missed the companionship and comfort of a loving spouse.
A sharp rap at the outside kitchen door startled her, however, and set her heart racing.
Another rap sent her scrambling to her feet.
There was no mistake this time. Someone was definitely knocking at her door, but except for deliveries, no one ever came to the back kitchen door. Arriving guests usually used the side door to her office or, occasionally, the front door.
But never the kitchen door.
More curious than afraid, she was on her way to the door when the caller rapped again. "Just a moment," she cried and quickly unlocked the door. Before she unlatched it, however, she glanced around and grabbed a rolling pin. There was a time when she would have answered the door in the middle of the night without a second thought, but that was long before the Candlewood Canal had brought so many strangers to the area.
She held the rolling pin firmly with one hand and tucked it within the folds of her skirt. With her other hand, she opened the door. Shivering against the damp night air, she took one look at the tiny slip of a woman standing ramrod straight on the threshold beneath a small overhang and blinked hard. The woman's cape was plastered against what little flesh she carried on her bones, and the brim of her soggy bonnet sagged low and nearly obscured her face. Water dripped in a steady stream from the small travel bag she gripped with both hands.
Although Emma had not seen this woman for a good number of years, she thought she recognized her. "W-widow Leonard?" she managed, completely flustered and unable to fathom why this eighty-something widow, a lifelong resident who lived some miles from town, would be at her door at this hour in such a state.
"Yes, it's me. I need your help, Emma dear. May I come in?"
"Come in? Of course. Please excuse me. Come in, come in," Emma urged and quickly stepped out of the way to give the woman entry into the kitchen. Once she had stepped inside, Emma secured the door again and slipped the rolling pin onto a nearby table.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you overly much. I tried knocking at the front door, but no one answered, even though the light was still on in the hallway. I was going to sit on the porch until morning, but then I decided to walk around and see if anyone was in the kitchen. If not, I was going to wait under the overhang instead of walking all the way back to the front porch in this rain. I can't tell you how relieved I am that you're still up," the elderly woman said as she stood with her back to the door.
Emma furrowed her brow. "I'm so sorry. I thought I heard someone knocking at the front door, but there wasn't anyone there by the time I got there. Heavens, you're soaked!"
"I got pretty wet just getting here. Are you sure I'm not troubling you?"
"Not at all," Emma insisted. "I was just hoping to have a bit of a snack before bed. Is there something wrong? How can I help you?"
"I ... I know how crowded you must be, but I need a place to—"
"I'll make room," she quickly reassured her, struck by the memory of several years ago when not one woman but two had sought shelter here on a rainy night just like this one. Although she had yet to open Hill House at the time, she had offered them both a place to stay. Tonight, even though the only bed she had to offer was her own, Emma would take this woman in, as well. "Please don't worry. I have a place for you for the night."
"Actually, I don't need a room just for the night," Widow Leonard countered, squaring her narrow shoulders. "I need a place to live, Emma. I've run away from home."