Kissed By a Stranger by Cynthia Woolf
August 3, 1887 – New York City, New York
Laura was not looking forward to this meeting with Maude Fitzhugh. Since Maude’s son Frank’s death one year ago, Laura knew she’d been on borrowed time, knowing that her mother-in-law was chomping at the bit to get rid of her once and for all. The only reason she hadn’t was that throwing Laura out right after losing her husband would have looked bad and Maude’s friends would have looked down on her. Though if the truth be told, they looked at her that way anyway. But Laura didn’t care what Maude Fitzhugh’s friends thought. She only cared about doing her job well enough that Maude wouldn’t throw her out. But now that the year of mourning had passed, Maude sent for her.
The door to the library opened and Gordon, the butler, motioned for Laura to enter.
“Mrs. Fitzhugh is ready for your presence,” he said in that I’m-better-than-you are voice of his that she hated.
“Come in, Laura and have a seat.” Maude pointed at the straight back wooden chair in front of the magnificent mahogany desk. Her mother-in-law sat in a huge, leather chair that dwarfed her small statue. But if anyone thought her five foot height made her any the less formidable, they didn’t know Maude Fitzhugh.
That small woman ran her businesses and her family with an iron hand. Frank had always hated his mother, but agreed to run their family-owned hotel in New York City.
For the first year of their marriage Laura had helped Frank run the hotel. Then in their second year of marriage, Laura got pregnant and once she started showing, Maude had insisted that Laura not do anything but the bookkeeping. It wasn’t out of goodness of her heart, but the fact that she didn’t want anyone to know Laura was pregnant.
Then when Josie was born, Frank insisted they name the child after his mother, hoping to gain favor with her, so they named their daughter Maude Josephine Fitzhugh. It made no difference to the old bitty, she still hated Laura and was still disappointed in Frank. Laura refused to saddle their daughter with the name of her horrendous grandmother and called her Josie.
“Laura, do you know why I have summoned you today?”
“I’m turning over the running of the Fitzhugh Hotel to Richard, so your services are no longer required.”
Laura stood. “That’s it? You’re taking my source of income and my home from me and that’s all you can say?”
“No, that’s not all I have to say. You have one month to find another place for you and your brat to live. I only do this because the child happens to be related to me, though I will never claim her. Do you understand? After the month is up, I hope to never see or hear from you again.”
“And you won’t. I assure you this is the last time we will speak.”
Laura turned and left the room without another word.
* * *
Peter thought of Rosalind. His wife was the love of his life, though he hadn’t known that in the beginning. Rosalind could be quite the harridan and to begin with that was the only side of his mail-order bride that he saw.
Now, especially with the birth of their son, Peter Jr. on July 5, 1887, Rosalind had metamorphosed into a kind woman—most of the time. The baby was nearly a month old and Rosalind was turning out to be a wonderful mother. He never would have guessed it if he had based his knowledge on their first meeting. Peter opened the letter from his mother.
Dearest Peter, Rosalind and baby, Peter Jr.,
I hope this finds you all well and happy. I’m dashing off a short note to give you news of your poor cousin Laura. Her husband died a year ago. Together he and Laura were running the Fitzhugh family hotel in New York City. Well, since it’s been a year and Laura can come out of mourning, her mother-in-law has seen fit to throw her daughter-in-law and granddaughter out into the street. Laura has just a month to find a source of income and a new place to live.
I’ve written and told her she can always come live here, but that won’t solve the problem of her income. Isn’t there something that you can do? You own an entire town for goodness sakes. Surely there is an opening for Laura. Do you have a hotel? She would be perfect to manage it for you.
Much love to each of you,
Peter put the letter back into the envelope and thought about what his mother said. He’d just built a nice new boarding house for his managers and there were six rooms that were vacant as well as a suite for the manger of the boarding house.
Rosalind had been after him for some time to build a hotel. She was tired of having their guests always stay with them in their home.
What if he made the boarding house part hotel? That would solve a lot of problems. He could offer Laura the management job to include room and board with a very small salary. And when the next visitors to the mine or other business associates came to town there would be a place for them to stay.
He walked through the vestibule and opened the inner door, then called to his wife.
A tall, austere looking woman came out of the kitchen and smiled upon seeing her husband. The smile transformed her into the lovely woman he’d fallen in love with.
“I’ve gotten a letter from Mother.”
“How is your mother? Nothing wrong, I hope.”
Worry crossed Rosalind’s features.
“No, they’re fine. They are asking if there is a position for my cousin Laura in Homestead Canyon.”
Rosalind frowned. “Peter, darling you know I love you, but I can’t deal with guests right now.”
Peter chuckled. She was trying so hard to remain calm and not become bitchy.
“Don’t worry, my love. I’m not proposing she come live with us, exactly. What I thought I would do is turn part of the new manager’s boarding house into a hotel. She has experience running a hotel and she and her daughter could live there. I would offer them room and board and a very, very small salary, since this is not a profit making position. What do you think?”
Rosalind ran to her husband and wrapped her arms around his neck, then kissed him thoroughly.
She pulled back but didn’t unwrap her arms.
“That would be wonderful. Now I’m looking forward to meeting your cousin…what’s her name?”
“Laura. Laura Fitzhugh and her daughter is Josie, I think. Six or seven by now.”
“Wonderful. You’ll enjoy having family near won’t you?”
“I will. I just wasn’t too sure how you would feel about it.”
“Now that I know she won’t be living with us, I’m thrilled.”
She kissed him again and then let him go when a small cry sounded from the cradle in the parlor.
“My son awakes,” said Peter.
Rosalind turned away opening her blouse as she walked to the baby.
“He’s hungry. He’s always hungry when he wakes up. Then he gets changed and then we talk a little bit and then he goes back to sleep. It’s very tiring to be a baby.” She chuckled.
Peter laughed. He still couldn’t believe this was his Rosalind. The same Rosalind who nearly drove him to drink when they first married.
“I’ll write to Laura and see if she’s willing to take on the hotel and come to Homestead Canyon.”
“Good. Tell her I look forward to meeting her.”
Peter went to his study and wrote the letter to Laura, in care of his mother.
My dear Cousin Laura,
I’m very sorry that you lost your position at Fitzhugh but their loss is my gain if you would consider coming to Homestead Canyon and working for me. I’m opening a small hotel/boarding house and need someone to manage it. You would have room and board and a small monthly salary. Two of my managers live there currently and there may be more in the future. They would be your boarders. With the exception of your suite of rooms, the remaining rooms comprise the hotel.
Your suite of rooms includes a bedroom and a parlor. In your case you may want to make the parlor into a bedroom for Josie, unless she sleeps with you. Let me know as soon as possible.
My wife, Rosalind, said to tell you she looks forward to meeting you. And we have a new baby, born July 1st, Peter Van Dyke, Jr.
Peter Van Dyke
* * *
Laura had Peter’s letter with her. They hadn’t seen each other since they were children and she wanted to be able to prove she was who she said she was. The trip to Homestead Canyon was not for the faint of heart. First the train from New York to Hanover had several train changes, once in Chicago, once in Denver, and once in Cheyenne. That wouldn’t have been so difficult if she didn’t have all of her possessions with her. Though not a lot by most standards, she nonetheless had three trunks for herself and Josie.
When they arrived in Hanover, Josie had been a ball of pent up energy. She got off of the train running. She ran up and down the platform. Suddenly Laura saw her fall and ran to her.
A gentleman was already there, picking Josie up and dusting her off.
“There you are little one. You’re fine. No harm done.”
“Thank you, mister.” Her eyes filled with tears, she wrapped her arms around the man’s neck and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
The gentleman reddened, patted her on the back.
“You shouldn’t go around kissing strangers, young lady.”
He said with mock anger, though Laura saw his small smile.
“You’re not a stranger. You saved me.”
“I just picked you up and dusted you off. Anyone could have done that.”
“But no one else did. You saved me.”
Laura watched Josie interact with the stranger. She was definitely taken with the man who’d helped her. She didn’t just go around kissing strange men. This man was special to Josie, maybe because he had stopped and picked her up when she was hurt.
“Thank you for helping my daughter.”
The man was tall, over six feet, with black hair, just a little too long so it curled at his collar. His clear green eyes were warm when he looked at Josie and turned to vibrant emerald green when he looked at Laura. There was no warmth for her as there had been for her daughter.
A well-groomed mustache over full lips that frowned when he spoke to Laura. “You should keep a closer eye on her. She could get hurt running around the train like that.”
Anger loosed her tongue. “We’ve been on a train for more than a week. She has a lot of energy stored up that she needs to get rid of. Running around on the platform is infinitely safer than letting her run in the streets, wouldn’t you agree?”
Frowning the man tipped his worn Stetson and turned to Josie.
“You take care and mind your mama. And remember what I said about kissing strangers.”
He patted her on the head and walked down the boardwalk with another man that Laura recognized from the train.”
Well that was an odd conversation.
Laura looked down at her precious daughter. Josie was watching the man walk away.
“You should marry him, Mama.”
Taken by surprise Laura was at a loss as to how to respond to that.
“We don’t even know that man’s name. Besides he didn’t seem to like me at all. Just you, poppet.”
Josie had taken all the train changes with ease…much better than Laura did. Josie treated everything like a new adventure and she’d never met a stranger in her short life. Everyone loved Josie.
The last two days of the trip were in Mr. Sam Bowman’s wagon. He carried their belongings, as well as mail and supplies for Homestead Canyon and surrounding areas. Mr. Bowman was an interesting man. He was average height, fit, with shoulder length brown hair. He wore a duster and kept his hat low. He didn’t appear to be hiding from anyone, so Laura concluded it was to avoid conversation with other people.
The first day of the journey from Hanover was interesting. She’d been right. Mr. Bowman was definitely not a talker. He’d barely said his name and hello when he picked her up at the train station. Josie, however, refused to let him alone. She talked and asked questions and talked some more. Laura should have known that she wouldn’t have to worry about her own shyness. Josie filled the quiet with her lovely voice.
They spent the night in a one-room wayfarer cabin. Mr. Bowman did all the preparing of the fire and hauled the water.
Laura made the beds. There were two sets of bunk beds in the cabin…one on either side of the room. She and Josie took one set, with Josie in the top bunk. Mr. Bowman took the bottom bunk of the second set.
Laura bought food at the mercantile in Hanover and set it out for their supper. It wasn’t much - a loaf of bread, cheese, and apples.
Mr. Bowman came in looked at the food and grumbled about women not eating enough to keep a bird alive. Then he’d gone back outside to the wagon and brought in bacon and canned beans, which he cooked up over the fire.
The smell of the bacon was heavenly. She and Josie hadn’t had a decent meal since they’d left Peter’s parents. The food at the train stations was atrocious. They’d gotten a couple of box lunches at one station, which were better. They usually included a sandwich or two, cheese and a cookie. Never any fruit because that was too hard to come by or too expensive.
When she’d seen the apples in the store in Hanover she nearly jumped for joy. She missed having access to good food. She bought every apple they had and shared them with Mr. Bowman on their journey.
Mr. Bowman broke the silence brought about when Josie napped.
“Homestead Canyon is coming up. You’ll be able to see it when we crest this next little hill. Then Homestead Canyon is just over the bridge on the river.”
Josie awoke and rubbed her eyes. “Do you live here, too, Mr. Sam? Mama and me are gonna live here. Our cousin is Peter Van Dyke and he says we can stay here. You gonna stay here, too?”
“No, Josie. I don’t live here. I guess I don’t really live anywhere. I’m on the road most of the time. Nope, guess I don’t really live anywhere.”
“That doesn’t seem right, Mr. Sam.”
“It’s Mr. Bowman, Josie.” Laura corrected the child.
“It’s all right Mrs. Fitzhugh. She can call me Mr. Sam. I kind of like it.”
Laura smiled. Another conquest for her daughter.
“You should come live with us, Mr. Sam. My mama—”
“Josie! Mr. Sam cannot come live with us. That’s enough of that.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Bowman. She doesn’t understand that people don’t just live together.”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Fitzhugh. No harm done.”
“Thank you for understanding, Mr. Bowman. Will you be taking us to Peter’s? It probably would be best to drop our trunks at the new boarding house and hotel. That’s what I’m here for,” added Laura. “Managing the hotel and boarding house.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Mr. Bowman. “I’ll take the trunks to the hotel. Mrs. Van Dyke’s been after Peter to build a hotel for a long time. You coming is fortuitous.”
“What is fortuitous?” asked Josie.
“It means fortunate,” said Laura. “Lucky that we came here when we did.”
“Oh. Is Cousin Peter rich? Does he own everything?”
“Yes, I guess you’d say he’s rich,” said Laura. “But money isn’t everything.” As I well know. “Just being with family makes us rich.”
“Good. I like being with family. Do you think I can play with their baby?”
“No. He’s not a toy. He’s only a month old. Far too young for you to do anything but look at him.”
Mr. Bowman pointed ahead.
“That’s it. That’s Homestead Canyon.”