About 15 years ago, I wrote a book called Train Station Bride and self-published it in 2012. It was then, and remains, one of my most popular titles, and is about a young woman, Julia Crawford, desperate to leave her wealthy Boston home. She corresponds with an aging shopkeeper in South Dakota and plans to travel there to marry him. (She doesn’t marry the shopkeeper but that’s a topic for another post!) Julia has always felt inadequate beside her slim, beautiful, but cold older sister, Jolene, and she was often the subject of her mother’s cruelty. The reader is introduced to a younger sister, Jennifer, as well.
I have have heard from many folks who would love to read a sequel to Train Station Bride, especially Jennifer’s story. I decided to reread it this past summer and although Jennifer is a sweet, unassuming young woman, on the surface at least, and certainly entitled to her own happily-ever-after, she was not the character that stuck in my head. Jolene was. And she proved to be a writing challenge – how do I make an unpleasant character likable, redeemable, and empathetic? Jolene’s story, Contract to Wed, is complex, in that it deals with a manipulating, callous mother, and the very real outcomes of devastating grief. Jolene has many layers, as most of us do, and Contract to Wed tells the story of her personal redemption aided by a stalwart, confident man, Maximillian Shelby.
Contract to Wed opens at the graveside service for Jolene’s husband:
Boston, October 1891
Jolene Crawford Crenshaw sat on one of two chairs just feet from the burial plot. Graveyard attendants held the ropes suspending the casket above a deep hole in the ground and began to let loose their ends, inches at a time. Jolene watched the casket disappear as it was slowly lowered into the ground. Her husband’s mother shuddered when the box was no longer visible above the grass, then lurched forward, and sobbed aloud.
Jolene sat back in her chair and stared straight ahead while her brother-in-law knelt on the ground to embrace and comfort his mother. Jolene listened to the drone of the minister’s final words. The netting on her hat whipped against her face as mourners moved away and the wind was free to chill her.
“Come, Jolene,” her sister Jennifer said. “Turner’s brother will attend Mrs. Crenshaw. Come away, dear.”
Jolene looked up at her younger sister, giving direction to her, and very nearly corrected Jennifer aloud. But that would not do. No one must think her as anything but a grieving widow. She nodded at Jennifer, stood, and allowed her father, William Crawford, to wrap one arm about her and hold her other arm, as if she were going to crumble at any moment. They were stopped, almost immediately, by Evelyn Prentiss. She clutched Jolene’s hand.
“My dear, I am so terribly sorry about this, especially considering . . . well, I’m just terribly sorry.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Prentiss,” Jolene said. “We are bearing up as best we can.”
“Of course you are,” she said and looked away for a brief moment. “Where is Jane? Where is your mother today?”
“Not feeling well, I’m afraid,” her father said. “We didn’t think this chilly weather would be good for her. She is, of course, devastated that she was unable to attend.”
Evelyn Prentiss nodded. “I will wait a few days and call on her then.”
“She will be happy for the diversion, Mrs. Prentiss,” Jennifer said.
Her father turned to the waiting carriage and handed her and her sister inside. Jolene leaned her head back against the tufted leather seat and closed her eyes. How long until she was in her own rooms and able to shed this façade?
“Will you be checking in on Mother before you go home to Landonmore?” Jennifer asked. “She has letters and telegrams that have arrived for you.”
“I won’t have time to visit with Mother,” she said. “I’ll be accepting visitors this afternoon and imagine there will be a significant number of them.”
“There will be, I’m sorry to say,” her father said. “Even with Turner’s sometimes curious behavior as of late, his Boston connections are sterling. There will be some from Washington, as well.”
“What time should I arrive, Jolene? I’m going to stop in to see Mother and then will make myself available to you. Are you coming, Father?” Jennifer asked.
“If Jolene wants me there, I will,” he said and faced her. “What would you prefer?”
She would prefer that she was far, far away from the questions. That she was somewhere no one knew her. She could not take the pity, she thought, with some anger. She could not! Jolene took deep breaths to calm her racing heart and looked at her sister.
“You’ve no need to trouble yourself, Jennifer. Certainly there is something you would prefer to be doing other than holding my hand, and making dreadfully repetitive small talk.”
Jennifer stared at her incredulously. “Jolene,” she said softly. “You are my sister, and your husband has just died. A young man, no less, a tragedy. I will stay with you while you make your greetings to Turner’s friends. Julia would as well if she were able to be here.”
Julia! Their sister Julia would as likely poison her wine as comfort her or share the burden of greeting guests. “Highly unlikely, Jennifer. Julia would pay me no kindnesses, as you well know.”
Jennifer shook her head. “That is not true.” She looked to their father for affirmation, but he was determinedly staring out the window of the carriage.
The coach was silent until Jolene heard Jennifer sniffle, and she watched her sister wipe her eyes. “Turner is with little William now, and of that, I am glad,” Jennifer said.
There was a buzz in Jolene’s ear so loud that she could not think for a moment. Did not remember that she was to be the grieving widow. She leaned forward, the muscles in her face tight and pinched, and she was uncertain if she would be able to speak. But she found her voice, albeit strident and cruel, even by her own standards.
“Do not mention my son’s name in the same sentence as my husband’s ever again. In fact, do not ever say my son’s name again, you silly, ugly girl. Such sentimental drivel is, no doubt, why you are still unmarried.”
Jennifer blinked furiously, and her lip trembled. She looked away, and Jolene settled back in her seat. She was surprised when Jennifer spoke again.
“You may push away anyone that loves you, Jolene, for as long as you want. I love you, you see, and so does Julia. And I loved little William with all my heart. I will mourn him, choose to think of him, and speak about him when I wish. I was not his mother and could not imagine the pain you were, and are in, but grief is not a thing to guard jealously, as if you are the only one to feel it.”
The carriage rolled to a stop, and Jolene barely waited for the servant to help her step down. Her hands shook and her stomach rolled over as she entered the marbled foyer of Landonmore. She yanked the black satin ribbons of her bonnet and dropped it as she climbed the stairs. She entered her sitting room, dismissed her maid, locked the door to her apartments, and tore at her black jacket till buttons flew and it was off. Jolene dropped to her knees and struggled for breath.
She pictured her son William, at three, running and laughing, his chubby little legs churning. She could still feel when he climbed onto her lap, when they were alone and held her face still with his hands. He would say, “Mother! Look at me. Mother!” And Jolene would pretend to look elsewhere until they both dissolved into giggles.
Jolene crawled to a trunk near her reading chair and pulled a key on a ribbon from within the folds of her dress. With shaking hands, she unlocked the trunk and pulled a worn blanket from inside. She buried her face in William’s blanket and breathed deep. Jolene rocked back and forth on her haunches and held the tattered wool to her nose.
Contract to Wed is available for pre-order at Amazon and will be released on 2/5/15.
If you are in the northeast, NYT best-selling author Megan Hart and I will be hosting the Lancaster PA Lady Jane’s Salon quarterly. Our first Salon will be Sunday, February 15th. Geri Krotow, Grace Burrowes, Megan, and I will all be reading from our newest works. We are very excited!