Life Lessons – a short story


Life Lessons

© Linda Broday

North Texas 1881

Sophie St. John used to think she was born under an auspicious moon that brought her good fortune and opportunity. Yet after twenty-four years of living, she’d discovered hard work had gotten her what she wanted.

Hard work and a lot of midnight oil.

The apricot sky that morning couldn’t have been more beautiful. The air, the sky, the satisfaction inside put a bounce in her step. An exciting new story occupied her mind as she dodged two riders on horseback, entered the mercantile, and asked for her mail.

This book would be a sure-fire winner. Even better than her last—Where the Rivers Meet.

The clerk stopped sorting the newly arrived parcels and reached into Sophie’s slot for an envelope. “This just came, Miss St. John. I hope it’s good news.”

“Thank you.” Sophie moved outside for privacy and tore open the letter from her publisher. She’d already declined her editor’s invitation to appear in person at the grand opening of Silver Valley’s first bookstore, the only one for five hundred miles, so she didn’t know what the correspondence could be about.

Her stomach clenched as her gaze flew to the lines in bold script at the bottom: We must insist you to appear at the opening of the Quill and Pen Bookstore. To refuse will result in your firing.

How could she go? Her throat tightened. The moment Peterson & Masters Publishing discovered R.J. Dalton was a woman, they’d publicly label her a fraud and make her return the advance money. The mayor would run her out of town. Her knees quivered like a bowl of jelly.

Life Lesson Number One: Never try to deceive.

Too late for that now. She was stuck in a lie. Sophie cast a desperate glance around. Her only way out of this was to find a man she could convince and trust to play R.J. Dalton. Someone with intellect, wit, and a face to match.

Her gaze lit on Cal Rush. No! He mumbled and had hair in his nose.

John Pettibone? His bald head was so slick a fly would break its neck landing on it. She moved on.

Baxter Murphy was a handsome man, Lord knew he was, but he couldn’t read one lick. Or write. She sighed. Maybe she could just disguise herself. Before that thought could take hold, life lesson number one popped up again. She hurried home to ponder her dilemma.

The opening was in ten days which left no time to waste. She ignored Hawkins, her imperious cat perched on the back of her favorite chair, went straight to her small library, and began to pace. The longer she marched back and forth, the more she fumed.

Fire her? Ridiculous! Not over failing to appear at a function.

Their reasoning wasn’t wrong, she admitted. Since she lived in Silver Valley anyway, it would be no imposition to attend the grand opening.

If she was who she claimed.

Sophie stopped and ran her fingers lovingly across the leather-bound spines of her three published works. The only thing to make it better would be to see her real name as the author. She’d achieved her dream and gotten zero recognition for it. No one knew who she was. No one.

When she began to tire, she dropped into the chair at her writing desk. Hawkins scowled and leaped into her lap. She absently petted the soft fur, wishing life was simple. “I am R.J. Dalton. No one else, Hawkins. And I can’t say a word.”

The calico blinked up at her and swished his tail, unconcerned.

Sophie’s thoughts drifted back to the start. From the time she learned to read, stories burned inside her. She wrote each one down and slowly honed her craft. Five years ago, she finished her first novel, only to discover the interested publishers specified male writers only. That’s when she lit upon the brilliant idea of a pen name. They accepted her story of being homebound due to a horrible infirmity, so the contract and all communication arrived by mail. Her editor had appeared a dedicated man who admired her work.

Now this. Maybe someone told Mr. Croftsley she’d pulled the wool over his eyes.

But no. No one knew her carefully guarded secret. Never once had she breathed a word.

This wasn’t fair. Tears stung the back of her eyes. Desperate for a plan, she jumped up so fast Hawkins landed on the floor. He arched his back, hissed, and raced from the room. Sophie paced back and forth in a fury.

The only solution she had was to find a man willing to keep her secret.

Persistent Life Lesson Number One popped in front of her eyes. She waved it away. “That deceit would be on the man, not me.” She was still paying for her first falsehood.

Life Lesson Two reared its head. Taking personal accountability allows control of your destiny.

Sophie frowned. That would result in losing everything she’d worked for. The point was finding a solution that would let her keep writing her stories. She sighed and reached for her shawl. Nothing could be solved by hiding and she needed a few things from the mercantile. Hawkins gave her a baleful glare as she closed the door and stepped into the sunshine.

The short walk renewed her optimism. An excited crowd stood in front of a handbill tacked to the storefront, arousing her curiosity. “What’s going on?”

A smiling young woman turned. “The author R.J. Dalton will attend the opening of the Quill and Pen. I’ve yearned to meet him ever since reading Where the Rivers Meet. I couldn’t put that book down. It made me look at things differently.”

“It’s that good?” Sophie beamed.

“Indeed!” A dreamy expression crossed her face. “I heard he’s a bachelor and in the market for a wife.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Where did people get such crazy ideas? Sophie almost laughed aloud. When the woman walked off, she moved closer. The handbill stated that Mr. Dalton would give a talk and be on hand to autograph copies of his books. Nausea gripped her.

What was she going to do except not show up? Her future had looked so promising.

Her legs shook as she took a circuitous route down the street. She’d go past the bookstore before going home to write her resignation. That was the only choice left.

Patrons packed The Quill and Pen Bookstore and excitement filled the air. Sophie had strolled by during construction but not since. What harm would it do to go inside to see her books sitting on the shelf? One glance wouldn’t hurt, and it would be a memory to savor after she’d been exposed.

She pushed through the door and inhaled the fragrant scent of paper and ink that wafted through the store. The moment was both immensely satisfying—and scary.

The large display directly in front brought tears to her eyes. Goosebumps raised on her arms to see her novels on the table and shelves. People had gathered three deep around them, everyone talking at once. They seemed to think she was someone important, someone with great storytelling skill, someone with something worth saying.

Would they be surprised to know her stories came from her heart? Would their opinion of the books change to know R.J. Dalton was a woman?

One twenty-something lady approached, gripping a copy of All the Rivers of My Dreams. “If you haven’t read this, ma’am, you really ought to get it. I’ve loved R.J. Dalton since buying his second book. I know he wrote Moonlight on the Water especially for me. His words rang true and gave me hope in fixing the problems in my life.”

Stunned by the reader, Sophie murmured, “He must be very talented.”

“Yes ma’am, he is. You should give him a try.” The patron moved on to let the clerk ring up her purchases.

Snippets of conversation drifting around her revealed much of the same thing. Like someone in a trance, Sophie left the establishment. She’d never imagined for one moment that she could change lives with her words. Penning her stories had given herself great pleasure, but she hadn’t considered what they’d brought others.

She’d write that letter to Croftsley—only instead of quitting, perhaps confess to the ruse and let the gamble play out. However, she didn’t know if she had that much grit.

The sudden horrendous screech of the iron wheels of Number 258 of the Texas and Pacific Railroad announced its arrival, yet Sophie barely noticed. The jostling crowd that began to gather and impede her progress did, however, draw her attention.

She stopped a woman holding a little boy’s hand. “What’s happening?”

“R.J. Dalton is on this train. I have to get his autograph, or I’ll just die.”

The jolt set Sophie back on her heels. “Are you sure?”

“Yes ma’am, the conductor telegraphed from down the line to have a room ready for him at the hotel. Isn’t this exciting?”

“Indeed.” Curious, Sophie weaved through the throng of greeters and found herself staring into the face of R.J. Dalton as he stepped from the train. She gasped and clutched a rail to steady herself.

Was it possible she’d stolen the name of a real writer? What if he sued her?

The moment the tall cowboy wearing a Stetson and dark coat swung onto the platform, the mayor hurried forward to grasp his hand.

Hmmm, she hadn’t pictured R.J. as a cowboy. In her mind, he’d been a more of a distinguished businessman, smoking a pipe and carrying a leather satchel. She pressed forward.

The portly mayor cleared his throat. “We welcome you to our fair city, Mr. Dalton, and hope you find your stay most gratifying. It’s an honor to have you visit.”

Enthusiastic applause erupted and Dalton raised a hand to silence the crowd. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten such a friendly welcome before. This is certainly one to remember. Thank you all.”

This could be the answer to a prayer.

As he strode toward Sophie in his worn boots that just might have cow manure on them, she sucked in a breath and stepped into his path. “Excuse me, Mr. Dalton, but can I have a quick word?” When he hesitated, she added, “It’s important.”

“I reckon I’m all yours.” His wide smile was the kind to steal a girl’s thoughts and make her wish she’d taken more pains with her appearance. “I never turn down a pretty lady.”

“Thank you, sir.” She took the plunge. “I’ll bet you can use a cup of coffee.”

He grinned. “You read my mind.” He offered his elbow, she put her hand through it, and they went into the nearby café.

After making proper introductions and ordering, Sophie got right to the point. “Do you know what all the fuss is about?”

“No, ma’am, not rightly.” He let out a long breath. “Frankly, I’m a bit confused.”

“They think you’re the famous writer, R.J. Dalton, who’s set to officially open our bookstore in ten days, and everyone is beside themselves.”

“I’m afraid folks are going to be mighty disappointed, Miss Sophie. I’m a rancher. I don’t write — not books anyway. I have had this poem about a lost calf on my mind though.”

“Mr. Dalton, the thing is, I am a writer, and I’m in sort of a pickle.” Sophie wrestled with her conscience. Maybe this once she could ask him to be her. She wasn’t above begging. But would that be right? Over the next hour, Sophie shared her dilemma, including the possible solutions. “Would you possibly be willing to play the part?”

A long silence followed. Finally, he spoke. “I don’t think I’d be convincing.”

At least it wasn’t a no. “Accept an invitation for dinner and we’ll talk further.”

Dalton took her hand. “The lonely meal I’d planned holds no appeal. Yes, I’ll come.”

Sophie gave him the address then hurried home to get out her pots and pans. The cowboy was punctual, and she couldn’t get over how easy he was to talk to.

After looking at each of her books, he set them back on the shelf and met her gaze. “I was curious about the writer who has my name and came to see what he was like. I’ve read two of these and they’re outstanding. You know how to make me feel I’m right there with the characters. If you want me to stand in for you, I will, but I think you know what you need to do.”

Sophie nodded. “I’m ready to take back what’s mine and if it results in me and my publisher parting ways, so be it. It’s time to let the hide go with the tallow.”

“I just may stick around for this, ma’am.” Dalton’s gray eyes sparkled.

* * *

The day of the event couldn’t have been more beautiful. Croftsley arrived in full attack mode, smoking the largest cigar Sophie had ever seen. He strode into the store and straight to where Dalton was talking with customers.

Doom settled in Sophie’s gut. She edged closer to R.J, seeking a little of his strength.

Croftsley made a beeline for them and barked, “I guess you realized your career rested on this.”

Dalton glanced up slowly. “You must be that sour editor I’ve been hearing about.”

The editor’s face mottled as he struggled to control his anger. “Are you stupid? We’ve corresponded for years.”

“Not with me.”

It was time. No more delay. Sophie found her voice. “I’m R.J. Dalton.”

Croftsley narrowed his eyes. “What are you trying to pull? You’re a woman.”

“I wrote Where the Rivers Meet and all the others. Me. Under a pen name. I misled you and I apologize.”

The surly editor stuck a finger in her face. “You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me, I quit!” Sophie felt lighter than she had in years. Everything was in the open and she could put Sophie Taggart on the cover of her books when she found a new publisher. With recognition and her following, maybe it wouldn’t take too long.

She stood on a chair and made the announcement to wild clapping.

“Are you sure you want to let her go, Croftsley? Take a good look around.” Dalton waved an arm toward the cash register where patrons held multiple copies of her books and the empty table where stacks had been. “Think of the money you’ll lose. Sophie is all the rage, a regular gold mine. Readers love her books, me included.”

The two haggled back and forth until Sophie stepped between them. “This is my fight, R.J.” She eyed Croftsley. “I still quit.”

“Hmmm…I may have been just a bit hasty. Perhaps I can change your mind.” Croftsley pulled her aside.

Lesson Number Three: Every wall has a door. You just have to have courage to find and open it.

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