SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Chapter One - Homecoming
Jarrod Barkley opened the door, picked up Molly, his bride of three months, and carried her over the threshold. He planted a generous kiss on her lips before shouting, "Mother! We're home!"
Victoria rushed down the stairs, but she was passed by her daughter Audra. Jarrod put Molly down, and she was enveloped in his sister's embrace. "Oh, we're so glad to see you!" Audra said. "How was France?"
Victoria hugged and kissed her son, then her daughter-in-law. "You both look well," she said. "Even glowing. Especially you, Molly." She hooked an arm through each of theirs and led them into the parlor. "Nick and Heath should be home for dinner soon. We're all so glad you're back. We've missed you both."
"I want to show Molly something before it gets dark, if you'll excuse us, Mother," Jarrod said.
Victoria smiled knowingly. "Of course. I'll have Silas put your things in your room."
Jarrod led Molly out into the garden. "What could you have to show me, Husband?" she asked. "We only just got home."
"This," Jarrod said, indicating a small cottage set amongst the trees.
"This wasn't here before," Molly said.
Jarrod opened the door. "I asked Heath and Nick to build it while we were gone. You're moving into a house full of people, Feather. I didn't want you to be the only one without a room to call your own." He flung open the curtains. "It's only one room, but it gets a good light. We didn't furnish it, we'll leave that to you. You can paint, or sew, or whatever you want to do here. It's your private space, love."
Molly wiped away a tear. "Thank you, Jarrod. That is so thoughtful." She gave him a kiss. "You are so husbandly."
Jarrod kissed her in return. "I just want you to be happy, my love. Whatever it takes. It's my pleasure."
"I am happy, Husband. I can't imagine being happier."
"Well, let's go get washed up and changed for dinner. It's been a long trip back. We'll make an early night - you look tired, love."
"A little," Molly said. "It was a wonderful honeymoon, but I'm glad to be home at last."
Nick and Heath greeted the newlyweds with great gusto. There was much back-slapping and hugging and kissing. Jarrod and Molly both were grinning from ear to ear.
Victoria took Molly's arm and led her to the head of the dinner table. "Here is your place, now, Molly," she said.
"No, it's not," Molly said.
"You're married to the head of the family," Victoria said. "You're now the lady of the house."
"I won't displace you, Mother. I'd sooner go eat in the parlor first," she said and fled the dining room.
Jarrod found her in the parlor crying into the fireplace. He offered her his handkerchief. "There's no need to get so emotional, Feather," he said. "It's just etiquette."
"You don't understand," Molly said. "I barely remember my own mother - I was only six when she died giving birth to Charlie. Victoria's the closest thing I've had to a mother since. I won't displace her in her own home."
Jarrod took her in his arms. "All right, then, Wife. We'll displace Nick instead and you can sit at my right hand. Will that suit you, dearest?"
Molly nodded and let Jarrod lead her into the dining room.
After dinner, Victoria took Molly by the arm and said, "It's a fine night for a walk in the garden. Let's enjoy it before summer fades, shall we?"
She led Molly down the path into the shrubbery. "Have you told Jarrod yet?" she asked.
"I won't pretend I don't know what you're talking about," Molly said, "but how did you know?"
"It's not like you to burst into tears over trivialities, Molly. I haven't had four children without knowing the signs."
"No, I haven't told him yet, because I wasn't sure. I had planned to go see Dr. Merar tomorrow to get it confirmed. I didn't want to raise false hopes."
Victoria hugged her. "I don't think they're false, dear. I'm so happy. This is my greatest wish."
"Ours, too, Mother," Molly said, weeping softly. "Ours, too."
Chapter Two - The Hammer Falls
Late the next morning, Victoria answered the thunderous pounding at the front door. She found Fred, the sheriff, on the doorstep, accompanied by his deputy, Barney, and a man she did not know.
"What's the trouble, Fred?" she asked.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Mrs. Barkley," Fred said, "but I need to see Jarrod and his wife. It's important."
Victoria opened the door wider and let them in. "They only got back from their honeymoon yesterday. They haven't come downstairs yet. Can't it wait?"
Audra came downstairs at the commotion. "Actually, if I'd been doing my duty," Fred said, "I'd have met them at the station yesterday."
"What are you talking about?" Victoria said.
"I have a warrant for Molly's arrest," he said.
Audra gasped. "There's some mistake. Not Molly!"
"I'm sorry," Fred said, "I really am. But there's no mistake."
"Audra," Victoria said, "would you go tell Jarrod and Molly to come downstairs? I'm sure they can clear all this up."
Jarrod came downstairs a few minutes later in casual trousers and a corduroy vest. Molly wore a riding skirt and shirt. Both were still somewhat tousled. Jarrod held Molly's hand as he asked, "What's this all about, Fred?"
Fred handed him the warrant which Jarrod unfolded and read. "This is a Colorado warrant," he said. "Have you wired Denver to see if it's valid?"
"Yes, Jarrod," Fred said. "It's genuine."
"Fraud. Forgery. Grand theft. These are serious charges. Do you know what's behind them?" Jarrod asked.
"Let him explain," Fred said, indicating the stranger.
"Mr. Barkley, I'm Sam Darius," the man said, "a private investigator out of Denver. I regret to be the one to inform you that you are not your wife's first husband."
"I know that," Jarrod said. "I'm her second. Just as she's my second wife."
"No, Mr. Barkley," Darius said, "by my reckoning you're at least her sixth husband. Miss Holt has quite a history of enticing wealthy men to marry her. I'm sorry I located her too late to prevent another victim."
Molly looked down at herself. "I'm no femme fatale," she said.
"No, she's not much to look at," Darius said, still addressing Jarrod, "but that's part of her modus operandus. She first presents herself as plainer than she really is, and becomes gradually prettier as she proceeds. What man doesn't like to see a woman blossom under his attentions? She has quite a damsel-in-distress routine, part quiet desperation, part spunk."
Jarrod looked grim. "Go on," he said.
"Oh, she takes her time to know her mark," Darius said. "She tailors her story to her victim - usually a man who's known a recent tragedy. She spins a sympathetic web, and all is sweetness and kindness until he comes home one day to find his bank account cleaned out and his valuables stolen. The worst of it is that it doesn't seem to be the money she's entirely interested in. She has to make them love her, too. Two of her victims have taken their own lives afterward."
Molly gasped. "That's vile," she said.
Darius continued to ignore her, focusing on Jarrod. "I'm sorry to have to be telling you this, but it's best you know the truth."
Jarrod reached into his pocket and took out his keys. He handed them to Molly. "Anything my wife wants," he said, "is hers. She doesn't have to steal anything. Everything I have is hers."
Darius shook his head sadly. "She is getting too old for this game. I don't doubt that she intended you to be the last. You're a lot younger and handsomer than her usual victim, not to mention being a Barkley. Too bad her sins have found her out."
"Get out," Jarrod said. "You've had your say, now get on your horse and ride out of here."
Darius bowed. "If you wish, Mr. Barkley. I'm sure I'll be seeing you, or at least Miss Holt, again in Denver." He turned and strode out the front door.
"I'm afraid I'll have to take Molly in, Jarrod," Fred said. Barney reached for his handcuffs. "Put those things away," Fred said angrily.
"We'll see Judge Parker," Jarrod said, "he'll set bail and schedule an extradition hearing."
"He's out of town until tomorrow," Fred said. "I'm afraid you're going to have to spend at least one night in jail, Mrs. Barkley. I'm sorry."
"Give us half an hour, Fred," Jarrod said. "Give us time for breakfast and to pack a bag."
"Of course, Jarrod," Fred said. "We'll wait for you outside."
"They'll run," Barney protested.
Fred frowned. "Of course they won't run, Barney. Don't be daft."
Jarrod turned to Molly as Fred and Barney left. "Better pack an overnight bag, Molly. Pack me an extra shirt and set of underclothes, as well."
"All right, Jarrod," Molly said quietly, and went upstairs.
Jarrod went into the study and opened the safe. Victoria and Audra followed him in. "Better tell Nick to go to the bank to make payroll," Jarrod said, emptying out the safe. "We may need all this and I probably won't be able to go myself."
"How bad is this, Jarrod?" Audra asked.
"Very bad, I'm afraid, Sis. These are extremely serious charges - Molly could go to prison for a long time if she's found guilty. I won't know how strong the case is until we get to Denver. I'll try to keep Molly in California as long as possible, but it's certain she'll be extradited. I wish Nick and Heath were home. I'd like to send one of them ahead to engage local counsel and find us a house. I don't think we should pile in with Aunt Eula."
"I'll go," Audra said. "I can do all that. I've been to Denver lots of times - I know the city."
Jarrod looked at her. "All right, Audra, I guess you can, at that. Look up Darren Smith, see if he's available. If not, have him recommend someone."
"Darren Smith," Audra said. "There's a train at three o'clock. I can pack and still make it." She kissed Jarrod. "I'll meet you at Aunt Eula's." She left to go pack.
"Jarrod," Victoria said. "I don't want to play devil's advocate here. . ."
"Then don't, Mother," Jarrod said. "Molly is innocent. You know she is."
"I just think you ought to prepare yourself for the possibility that she isn't."
"No, Mother, I won't. I won't lose faith in her, no matter how damning the evidence."
Victoria sighed. "Of course, what else could I expect?" She kissed Jarrod's cheek. "Good luck, Son. I'll be praying."
"Thank you, Mother. I have a feeling we're going to need it."
Molly came into the study. "The suitcase is in the hall," she said, hanging her head.
"I'll leave you two alone," Victoria said. She hugged Molly on her way out. Molly wiped away a tear.
Jarrod walked over to her and took her in his arms. "Don't cry, Feather," he said. "It will all come out right, I promise you."
"Oh, Jarrod," Molly said, sobbing. "You didn't believe any of that, did you?"
"Of course not, dearest. How could you think I would?"
Molly handed him back his keys. "You might need these," she said. She hid her face in his chest and sobbed her heart out.
Jarrod held her until she was done. "You need to eat something before we go, dearest," he said. "Jail food has little to recommend it."
Molly nodded. "Just some tea and toast, I think," she said. "I don't think I could handle anything else."
"Whatever you want, dear." He kept a protective arm around her as he led her to the kitchen, knowing it might well be their last meal at the ranch for a long, long time.
Chapter Three - Caged
Fred tipped his hat to Molly as he opened the jail cell door. "We'll try to make you comfortable until you can see the judge, ma'am. If you need anything, just give a holler."
"This ain't no hotel, Sheriff," Barney said. "Anyways, she ain't no better'n any other prisoner."
"You hush," Fred said.
Jarrod entered the cell with Molly. "Now, Jarrod," Fred said, "you know I can't allow that."
"I'm not leaving her, Fred," Jarrod said. "If you try to make me, then I'll hit you and you'll have to arrest me anyway, so you might as well save yourself a scuffle."
Fred glared at him for a long moment. "All right, Jarrod," he said at last. "Have it your way." He closed the cell door and locked it. "I have to get on over to the courthouse. Barney, you make sure Mrs. Barkley has anything she needs. I mean that." He sauntered out.
"Don't know why you should get any special treatment," Barney muttered.
"I don't really care what you think," Jarrod said. "Just leave us alone."
Barney went into the sheriff's office, muttering, and closed the door behind him.
Jarrod took Molly in his arms. "Are you all right, love?" he asked.
Molly nodded. "Yes, thanks for not leaving me. I don't think I could bear this alone."
"You won't have to. I'll be here, I promise."
Molly sighed. "Well, it's not the first night I've spent in jail."
Jarrod looked down at her. "Really? When was this?"
"The theater troupe got picked up for vagrancy in some little mining town north of here. What was the name of it? Paradise, I think. The judge threw out the charges the next morning, so it was nothing really. Just more rehearsal time, as far as we were concerned." Molly smiled at the memory.
"You make it sound almost pleasant." He sat down with her on the cot. "I'll see what I can do to make the time fly by for you this time, love." He kissed her.
"Not too much of that, Husband," Molly said. "I don't trust that deputy to not barge in here." She clutched at him. "Oh, Jarrod, I'm scared."
"Don't be, Feather. Have some faith in me to get you out of this."
"I do, Jarrod. I wouldn't be scared if it were just me, but I don't want our baby to be born in prison."
Jarrod tipped her head up and gazed into her eyes. "Feather!" he said. "Are you with child?"
Molly nodded. "I think so. I was going to go see Dr. Merar today, to make sure. Until all this happened."
Jarrod stood up. "Well, if you want Dr. Merar, you shall have Dr. Merar." He walked over to the cell door. "Deputy!" he shouted.
Barney stuck his head in the door. "What?" he asked, sullenly.
"My wife needs to see the doctor. Please send for Dr. Merar."
Barney walked over to the cell door and peered at Molly. "She don't look sick to me."
"I didn't say she was," Jarrod said, "but she still needs the doctor."
"Doctor's only for sick prisoners," Barney said, sneering.
Jarrod's arm shot out and grabbed Barney's shirt. "I've had just about enough of your insolence," he growled. He tossed the deputy away. "Now, go send for that doctor!"
"All right, all right," Barney said. "Ain't no call for getting riled." He straightened his shirt as he went into the office.
Jarrod sat on the cot and put his arm around Molly until the doctor arrived. "Jarrod," Dr. Merar said, surprised. "I didn't know you were back from your honeymoon yet."
"Just got back yesterday, Tom," Jarrod said as Barney opened the cell door and ushered Dr. Merar in.
Dr. Merar looked around. "So what happened?"
"It's a long story. Will you just see to Molly and not ask too many questions?"
Barney huffed and went out to the office again.
"Of course, if that's what you want, Jarrod," Dr. Merar said. "What seems to be the trouble?"
"I think I'm with child," Molly said.
"Ah," Dr. Merar said. "Of course, that would follow. Not the best of circumstances for an examination of this nature."
Jarrod took the blanket off the cot and held it up over the cell door. "Just get on with it," he said.
"All right. When was your last flux, Mrs. Barkley?"
"Is that right, Jarrod?" Dr. Merar asked.
"About then, I think. I can't say I was keeping track."
"Morning sickness?" Dr. Merar asked.
"I haven't actually been sick," Molly said, "but I have been nauseated. I haven't been able to stomach anything but tea and toast for breakfast for weeks."
"Jarrod?" Dr. Merar asked.
"Why are you asking me to confirm everything?" Jarrod asked irritably.
"He wonders if I'm shamming," Molly said.
"Forgive me, Molly," Dr. Merar said, "but it did occur to me that a sham pregnancy might be convenient under the circumstances."
"Whereas a real pregnancy would be most inconvenient," Molly said.
"I can confirm the light breakfasts," Jarrod said, "although we've been traveling for almost three weeks. That's what I thought it was then. But then there're the emotional outbursts, as well, if you want to know. She's been crying at the drop of a hat, even before today. And taking naps."
"All right, Molly, if you'll unbutton your shirt, please." Dr. Merar took out a stethoscope and placed it on Molly's chest. Molly winced. "Tender bosom?" Dr. Merar asked.
"Yes," Molly said, and placed her hand on her belly. "And I don't know how to describe it, but I just feel there's something there."
Dr. Merar moved the stethoscope down and listened carefully. "All right," he said, putting it away in his bag, "it's too early to hear anything, but yes, my opinion is that you're with child. About six weeks along, probably, which means you're due in April. I suppose congratulations are in order, even under the circumstances?"
Molly buttoned her shirt and Jarrod took down the blanket, rubbing his arms as he did so. "Yes, Tom," he said. "Thank you. Just send me the bill."
Dr. Merar shook his head. "Oh, no, I'll be sending this bill to the jail."
Jarrod smiled. "You're a good man, Tom. If you could write your opinion out for us and sign it, it might come in handy later on."
"All right, Jarrod," Dr. Merar said. He shook Jarrod's hand. "Congratulations." He called for the deputy to come let him out.
When they were alone, Jarrod scooped Molly up in his arms, sat down on the cot and kissed her, hard. He heard raised voices in the office, and the office door opening. "Just give us five minutes, damn you," he said, not raising his head.
He heard the keys jingle in the lock, the cell door creak open. "Go to the hotel, Jarrod," Fred said. He held out Dr. Merar's affidavit. "Give me your word neither of you will leave town, and that you'll be at the courthouse at nine tomorrow morning."
Jarrod stood up and set Molly on her feet. He took the affidavit. "Thank you, Fred," he said. "I owe you one. Of course you have my word."
Molly kissed Fred's cheek. "Thank you," she said.
Jarrod picked up their suitcase, took Molly by the hand and led her out into the sunshine.
"So that's it?" Barney said, watching them leave. "They get out because they're rich?"
"That's got nothing to do with it," Fred said. "You gotta be tough to be a law man, but sometimes you just gotta be a man. It's time you learned that."
Barney just shook his head. It was all too much for him.
Chapter Four - A Parley of Barkleys
“Why, it's still afternoon," Molly said. "It felt like I'd been locked up for days."
"Tempus fugit," Jarrod said ironically. He took Molly's arm in his. "Come, love, let's make the best use of this time that we can." He led Molly to the hotel.
"Hello, Mr. Barkley," the desk clerk said. "I didn't know you were back in town yet."
"Just got back yesterday, Ernie. We need your best room for the night."
"Now, Mr. Barkley, you know all our rooms are the same."
Jarrod smiled. "We haven't had lunch yet - what does the cook have ready?"
"Beef stew, I think, Mr. Barkley."
Jarrod looked at Molly. "Beef stew all right with you, Wife?"
Molly nodded. "Yes, that's fine."
"All right, have some sent up to our room." He pulled out his wallet and threw a large bill on the desk. "Send up some champagne, too." He threw another one down. "And for dinner, have the Alhambra Club send over some lobsters, and more champagne."
"Yes, sir!" Ernie said. "Right away, Mr. Barkley."
Later, Molly lay with her head on Jarrod's chest. "More champagne?" he asked.
"No, thank you. A little is probably all right, but I can't think that getting intoxicated would be good for the baby."
Jarrod laid his hand on her belly. "We did it, Molly," he smiled.
"Well, it's not done yet. Not until April, and even then, we'll have about twenty years more work ahead of us." She snuggled close to him. "I still almost can’t believe it. Less than three months with you - I had almost three years with Henry, and never got with child."
"I had wondered, but didn't like to ask," Jarrod said.
"Which is why this one is so precious," Molly said. "It might be our only chance. Why is all this happening, Jarrod? Who would do this to us?"
"Well, that's what we have to find out, love."
"That man Darius was enjoying himself this morning."
"Was he?" Jarrod said. "Seemed he was attempting to be sympathetic to me."
"No, he wasn't. Remember, I used to be with the theater. I can tell when someone's acting. He's good, but not that good. So let's not overlook the obvious."
"All right, Feather, I shall trust your instincts. We'd be investigating our Mr. Darius anyhow."
"What am I going to tell Mrs. Gregson?" Molly said. "School starts next week, but I can't teach because I may be going to prison? How do I even begin to say something like that?"
"Why not let Mother handle it? She knows how to be diplomatic. You wouldn't be able to finish out the year, anyway."
"That seems so cowardly, but you may be right."
There was a rapping at the door.
"Who is it?" Jarrod asked.
"Nick and Heath."
"Ah, the cavalry," Jarrod said, sitting up and getting dressed. Molly began to pull her clothes on, as well. "Just a minute," Jarrod called out. "Shall we tell them everything, Feather, or would you prefer to wait awhile?"
"Tell them," she said. "Mother knows already."
Jarrod paused. "You didn't tell her before you told me?"
"Of course not. But you know how she is."
"Ah, yes, hard to keep anything from Mother."
Jarrod waited until Molly had finished dressing before opening the door to his brothers. "Jarrod," Heath said, "are you all right? Mother told us what happened. We went to the jail, but Fred said he'd sent you here."
"We're fine, at least for now," Jarrod said. "Thanks to Fred deciding to be merciful."
"Now why would he do that?" Nick said tersely.
"Because I'm going to have a baby," Molly said.
"Are you, now?" Nick said in the same tone.
"The proper word is 'congratulations,' Nick," Jarrod said.
"Well, now, I'm not so sure it is cause for congratulations," Nick said. He glanced over at the unmade bed and looked quickly away.
Jarrod lit a cigar. "You got something to say, Nick, say it out. Now."
"Not in front of her."
"Yes, in front of me," Molly said. "If you're thinking it, you may as well say it. Let's get it out where we can look at it."
"All right," Nick said, "If that's how you want it." He waved an arm in her direction. "How do you know it's not all true, Big Brother? Seems that story Mother told us just fits the way she landed you. And you don't wonder just the teeniest tiny bit?"
"No, Nick, I don't," Jarrod said. "I know Molly."
"Well, now, that's the point, ain't it? What do you really know about her, except what she's told you? And even that don't bear close examination."
"It's not all a blank slate, Nick," Jarrod said. "We know Bill and Stella."
"Actors," Nick said dismissively.
"We know Dick," Heath pointed out.
"Well, all right," Nick said, "I ain't saying she ain't never done a decent thing in her life, but that's just one little episode in forty years."
"And there's the Nagles," Jarrod said. "And the orphans. How much do you need, Nick?"
"So she's good with kids. Still don't mean she didn't con you. Isn't still conning you."
"Dr. Merar confirmed the pregnancy, if that's what you're getting at," Jarrod said.
"So did Mother, for that matter," Molly said. "She noticed last night, before all this happened."
Nick snorted. "She ain't your. . .well, never mind. But that just might make it all worse."
"Well, Nick, when Molly's exonerated, I'm going to expect you to go down on your knees and beg her forgiveness," Jarrod said.
"What do you think is going on, Jarrod?" Heath asked.
"I have enemies, you know that. If someone wanted to strike at my heart, I can't think of a better way. And the unsettledness of Molly's former life just makes her an easy target. Lots of people know how we met, what she was like then and now. It wouldn't be hard to put a convincing story together. And we've been engaged since January. Plenty of time to manufacture evidence."
"So you think she's being framed?" Heath asked.
"Yes, don't you?"
"I don't know what to think," Heath said. "Guess I'll just wait and see." He turned to Molly. "If you're proved innocent, I'll go down on my knees to you, too. Can't say I doubt as much as Nick, but I don't believe as much as Jarrod, either."
"I don't really care what either of you believe," Molly said, "as long as you're willing to help find out the truth."
"I am that," Nick said.
"And me," Heath said. "So what's the next step, Big Brother?"
"We'll see Judge Parker tomorrow and set an extradition hearing," Jarrod said. "Molly will almost certainly be sent to Denver to stand trial, but I'll try to delay that as long as possible."
"No, Jarrod," Molly said. "Can't we just go? No point in delaying the inevitable. And I want to fight this."
"It's your call, love."
"Then let's fight. I'm a Barkley now, and that's what Barkleys do."
Jarrod hugged her. "There's my brave Molly. Fight we shall. Tooth and nail, with everything we've got."
"Amen," Nick said. "The truth will out."
Chapter Five - Discovery
Audra hugged Molly first as she stepped out of the Barkleys' private railroad car at the Denver station. She hugged each of her brothers in turn, and handed Jarrod a sheaf of papers. "These came for you today," she said.
"Ah, yes," Jarrod looked them over. "It's the complaint against you, Feather. We'll go over it before the arraignment. Looks like that's scheduled for day after tomorrow. Which hotel are we booked at, Sis? We're only two days behind you, I know you can't have found a house already."
Audra dimpled. "Au contraire," she said. "I've found the perfect house. One of Darren's colleagues is in Europe on sabbatical and left his house to let. It's big enough for all of us, and even has a law office attached. So you'll have law books handy, Jarrod."
Jarrod kissed her forehead. "Good work, Honey, So, Darren, is it?" he teased.
Audra blushed. "Well, he is nice," she said. "He's been very helpful. Here's Aunt Eula's surrey. She's offered to lend it to us while we're in town."
The Barkleys all climbed in, and Nick took up the reins, while Audra gave directions. "I can't believe you've left the ranch, Nick," Audra said. "It's nice you've come and all, but it's not like you."
"McCall and Mother between them can handle things," Nick said. "Someone's got to watch Jarrod's back."
"What do you mean?" Audra asked.
"Let's just say that belief in Molly's innocence is not entirely unanimous," Nick said.
"Nick!" Audra looked around at her brothers. "Heath? You can't be serious. It's Molly. She's practically lived with us for almost a year. You have to know her better than that by now."
"Let's not go over all that again," Molly said. "We're all here to find out the truth. That's all that matters."
Audra reached back and gave Molly's hand a squeeze. "Well, I believe in you. You wouldn't hurt anyone, especially Jarrod. Anyone who thinks you don't love him is blind, that's all I have to say."
Molly squeezed back. "Thank you, Audra."
Jarrod wrapped an arm around his wife and smiled as Nick whipped up the horses.
Molly sat in the courtroom next to Jarrod as the complaint against her was read out. Jarrod had already explained it to her. Amidst all the legalese, the gist of the charges were that three years ago she was accused of marrying a man named Augustus Stratton, of Denver, in Reno. After six months of marriage, she had forged a power of attorney and stolen fifteen thousand dollars from his bank and valuables from his home.
When asked for her plea, Molly stood and declared calmly, "Not guilty."
Jarrod stood. "The defense moves that the defendant's name be corrected in the indictment from Mary Katherine Holt to Mary Holt Barkley, her legal name."
"Mr. Barkley," Judge Churchill said, "are you serving as your wife's counsel?"
"Just today, Your Honor. Mr. Darren Smith is our lead counsel, but he was unable to attend the arraignment."
"Very well. Does the prosecution have any objection to the name change?"
"With all due respect to counsel," Desmond Walters, District Attorney said, "but defendant's marriage to Mr. Barkley is not legally valid."
"That's one of the issues to be decided by this court," Jarrod said. "Until it is, the marriage is valid by law."
"I agree," Judge Churchill said. "The defendant's name is to be read as Mary Holt Barkley. I understand the prosecution has some further motions to place before the court."
"Yes, Your Honor. The prosecution moves that bail be reset to at least fifty thousand dollars."
Judge Churchill looked over some papers. "I see here that the defendant has already had a bail hearing in California and was released on her own recognizance."
"Yes, Your Honor, but the judge who made that ruling was a friend of her family's. Or her husband's family. Mr. Barkley is a very wealthy man and his wife has access to large sums of money. In light of the charges against her, the state deems her a flight risk."
"I don't agree," Judge Churchill said. "Defendant waived extradition and has appeared in court today of her own free will. Bail will stand. Any further motions?"
"Not at this time," Desmond said.
"All right," Judge Churchill said. "There only remains to set the date for the preliminary hearing. Is two weeks from today agreeable?”
"No, Your Honor," Jarrod said. "The defendant was only made aware of these charges a few days ago. Defense needs time to conduct its own investigation. Two months should be adequate - the prosecution has had considerably longer."
"Mr. Walters?" the judge asked.
"Defendant is entitled to a speedy trial," Desmond said, "but if the defense waives that privilege, the prosecution has no objection."
"Very well. Preliminary hearing is scheduled in this courtroom, nine a.m. November first. Counsel will proceed to Discovery. Hearing adjourned."
"What's discovery?" Molly asked as Jarrod gathered up his papers.
"It means the prosecution has to give us all the evidence they have against you."
"Really? I didn't know that. Do we have to do that, too?"
"No," Jarrod said. "That's a one way street."
The prosecutor made his way over to the defense table. "Jarrod," he said, "good to see you, although I certainly wish for better circumstances."
"Me, too, Des," Jarrod said, shaking his hand. "You'll understand if I don't stand around and chat." Jarrod took Molly's hand and walked her out of the courtroom.
"You know him?" Molly asked.
"I have tried cases in Denver before," Jarrod said. "Law is a small brotherhood - we all know each other."
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with you being friends with a man who's trying to send me to prison," Molly said.
"He's just doing his job," Jarrod said. "Nothing personal. Don't worry, Feather. We're going to prove your innocence."
"All right," Molly said. "If you say so, Husband."
Darren Smith carried the box of evidence into Jarrod's office. "Now, we're coming to it," Jarrod said. "Somewhere in here there must be a loose thread. All we have to do is find it and pull on it until it unravels."
"I hope so," Molly said.
"Well, I'll go along with this for now, Jarrod," Darren said, "but I still think we should plea bargain. With Mrs. Barkley's mitigating circumstances, we could at least make sure that baby isn't born in prison."
"We've already had this argument, Darren," Jarrod said. "Molly's innocent - we should be able to prove it. Only if the evidence is completely damning will we plea bargain."
Darren put the box on the table and threw up his hands. "It's your call," he said, "but it might be too late then."
"Well, let's see what we have first," Jarrod said, opening the box. Marriage certificates, five in all." He ruffled through them. "All in the name of Mary Holt. How short-sighted of you, Feather, using your real name every time." Molly shook her head, smiled ruefully. "Augustus Stratton's affidavit - signed and notarized."
"We'll want to go over that with a fine-toothed comb - it's the heart of the case. It would be so much easier if Mrs. Barkley had any kind of alibi," Darren said.
Jarrod handed the affidavit to Darren and continued emptying the box. "Newspaper clippings regarding a couple of suicides - Molly's alleged husbands? Prejudicial and irrelevant. We'll have to see those aren't admitted." He took out a battered journal and thumbed through it. "Allen Murphy. Husband number what? Molly, look through those certificates."
Darren took the journal and looked at it quizzically. "Something about this," he said.
"What?" Jarrod said.
"I prosecuted a forger once - not checks or documents, but rare books. Gutenberg bibles, Shakespeare folios, that kind of thing. I had to learn a lot about how to make something new look old. I'm no expert, but I think this has been artificially aged."
"But you know an expert?"
Darren nodded. "But he's in Chicago. We'll have to get it to him. And authentication takes time."
"Well, let's read it first," Jarrod said. "There has to be a reason it's in here. But I think we may have found our loose thread."
Molly looked through the certificates. "So many," she said. "The signatures are good - just different enough from each other to look real, but so like my own. Wait a minute," she held one up to the light. "This is my signature."
"What do you mean, Molly?" Jarrod asked.
"It's mine and Henry's certificate - I think the copy we filed at the courthouse. But it's been altered. The dates are changed and up here, where Henry's name is spelled out, the last name is 'Johansen,' but the signature says 'Johnson,' which is what it should be. It doesn't make sense, does it, Jarrod?"
"Henry being your actual first husband?" Darren asked.
"Yes," Jarrod said. "He was killed in the War. Do you have the original, Molly? The one you took home?"
"I left all that back at our house when I left. That was sixteen years ago, I have no idea what might have happened to it."
"We have Pinkerton's looking into Stratton's and Darius's backgrounds. Maybe we should have them check this, too," Jarrod said.
"Why not send Nick and Heath? I'm sure they'd rather be doing something than just sitting around. Nick especially - he's nearly bouncing off the walls."
"Good idea, Feather," Jarrod said. "Where was that, again?"
"Paducah," Molly said.
"All right, we'll send my brothers to Paducah. Let's pull on this thread and see what unravels." He lit a cigar and smiled.
Chapter Six - Paducah
"Well, that was a bust," Nick said, mounting his horse outside the courthouse.
"Jarrod said we probably wouldn't find anything there - so far, it just backs up Molly's story," Heath said.
"Yeah, well, the clerk said all the records from before the War are in disarray anyway, so it doesn't prove anything."
"No," Heath agreed. "Let's see what we find at the house."
"If it's still even standing."
They rode along the road out of town until they came to quiet fields and small farms. "Looks like someone lives there, now," Heath said, as they drew in sight of the house.
Fresh pale yellow paint with green trim gave the house a friendly look. Children were playing in the well-tended front garden: two boys threw a baseball to each other, two small girls twirled a jump-rope for a larger third. As Nick and Heath approached the gate, the smallest girl, who seemed to be about four years old, and had curly red hair, threw down her end of the jump rope and ran to the gate.
"Sissy!" the oldest girl called, frustrated. "Oh, she always does that," she mumbled.
"Hello, Misters," the little girl said as Nick and Heath dismounted. She stared up at them with big green eyes.
"Hello," Nick smiled at her. "Are your mother or father home? We'd like to talk to them, if we may."
"Sure," the girl said, opening the gate and taking a hand of each of them. "What's your name?" she asked.
"I'm Nick Barkley, and this is my brother, Heath Barkley. And what might your name be?"
"I'm Molly Holt," the girl said.
Both men stopped in their tracks. Molly tugged at their hands.
"We have another friend named Molly," Heath said.
"So do I," Molly said. "There's two more in my Sunday School class."
Nick and Heath exchanged stunned looks as they approached the front door. Molly opened the door and called, "Mommy! There's some gemmlemen here to see you."
The door was answered by a pretty red-haired woman, with eyes as blue as sapphires. She was large with child, as the men could not help noticing, but laugh lines marked her pleasant face and she was smiling as she greeted them.
"Yes?" she said. "How may I help you?"
Nick introduced himself and Heath. "Pardon me, ma'am, but we're trying to find out some information about the family who used to live here before the War. In particular, we need to ask about Molly Holt."
"And what's your interest in her?" the woman asked.
"She's our sister-in-law," Heath said.
The woman gasped, putting a hand to her mouth. "She's my sister-in-law," she said. Tears started running down her face. "Molly alive? After all these years? Oh, my Lord, it's a miracle!" She opened the door wider and allowed them in.
"Pardon us," Heath said, "but Molly told us all her family had died in the War."
"I'm sure she thinks so. We all thought so, until five or six months after she disappeared, when Charlie, that's my husband, suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Excuse me, I'm Jenny Holt. I'm so flustered." She looked down at her daughter. "Molly, honey, run out back and find your father." Jenny led Nick and Heath into a tidy little front room. "Please, sit down. Would you like some refreshment?"
"That won't be necessary, ma'am," Heath said.
"Please call me Jenny," she said. "We're practically family. So what brings you out here? And where is Molly? So many questions, I don’t know where to begin."
"All right, Jenny," Heath said. "We're here because Molly is in trouble, and we thought there might be some legal documents here that might help her."
"All of Molly's old things are in the attic," Jenny said. "I wouldn't let Charlie throw anything out. You're certainly welcome to anything that might help her. Please, tell me about Molly. She's married to your brother? How long? Do they have any children? Where does she live? When can I see her?"
"Hold on," Heath smiled. "Yes, she's married to our brother Jarrod. He's a lawyer in Stockton - that's in California. They married in June, and yes, they have a child on the way."
Jenny laid a hand on her own swelling belly. "Only since June?" she said. "What's she been doing all these years?"
"Well, now, that's the question," Nick said.
"Let it rest, Nick," Heath said. "Now's not the time. Molly's led a rather unsettled life, Jenny. She only came into our lives a little over a year ago. What can you tell us about her? Seems like you know her."
"Oh, yes," Jenny smiled. "I certainly loved Molly. So bright, so loving, so much fun. She wasn't like other girls, maybe because she had so many brothers. She was always so interested in everything - she was the only girl I ever knew who had a telescope. She was seven years older than me, which seems ancient when you're a child. She always seemed so grown up, even as a girl. I quite worshipped her."
The back door opened and Jenny's husband came in. Dark wiry hair, like Molly's, soft green eyes, like Molly's. "Charlie," Jenny said, "these gentlemen here know your sister. They know Molly." She introduced Nick and Heath.
Charlie shook hands with them. "Molly? How is she? Where is she?"
"She seems to be in some sort of trouble that Nick and Heath here are too delicate to tell me about,” Jenny said. "They want to look through Molly's papers. Will you take them up to the attic? I can't go myself."
"Certainly, dear," Charlie said, giving her a kiss. "If you'll follow me."
The attic was, as most attics are, a jumble of clutter. "Now just what exactly are you looking for? And why?" Charlie asked.
"We need to find Molly's marriage certificate to her first husband," Heath said.
"Her first husband? So she has a second one now?"
"At least," Nick mumbled.
"Nick," Heath said. "Yes, Mr. Holt, or may I call you Charlie? Molly's married to our brother Jarrod."
"It'd be better to tell him the whole story," Nick said. "It's his sister, he has as much right to know as anyone."
"All right, but let me tell it." So as they searched the attic, Heath told Charlie all about Molly, how they met her and what trouble she was in.
"That doesn't sound like Molly," Charlie said. "I know it's been a lot of years, but she'd have to be a completely different person to do what she's charged with."
Nick opened a box. "Ah ha! I think I've found it." He pulled out a stack of papers and began thumbing through them. "Death certificate, George Holt. . ."
"Father," Charlie said.
"Telegrams from the Army." Nick grew somber. "So many deaths."
"We knew that, Nick," Heath said. "Molly told us."
"Yeah. I guess I'd just stopped believing anything she'd said. Here's the one telling her you were dead, Charlie."
"Yes. Imagine how I felt coming home and finding that. Finding Molly gone, never knowing where she was. She was the only family I had left. She practically raised me - she was more like a mother to me than a sister."
"And here it is," Nick said. "What we came for, although I'm not sure how it helps." He folded the certificate and put it inside his shirt.
"Jarrod will know," Heath said.
The men came down from the attic. "Did you find what you were looking for?" Jenny asked.
"Yes, thank you," Nick said. He took Jenny's hand and kissed it. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Jenny. Once this mess is all cleared up, I hope we can pay you another visit, with Molly."
"So do I," Jenny said. "Charlie," she turned to her husband, "you have to go with them."
Charlie looked startled. "I can't do that, Jenny. The baby could come any day - I can't leave you."
"Mama's here, and both my sisters. I'll be fine. After five babies, I should know what I'm doing. You have to go. It's Molly. You haven't seen her in eighteen years. She needs her family right now."
Charlie sighed. "All right, Conscience, I'll go. You know I always do what you tell me."
Jenny smiled. "Give my love to Molly and tell her to come as soon as she's able."
Charlie kissed his wife tenderly, as Nick and Heath smiled and looked away.
"Molly!" Heath called as he and Nick came in through the front door of the Denver house. Molly and Audra came to the top of the stairs and looked over the railing. "You're back!" Molly said.
Jarrod and Darren came out of the office. "We have a surprise for you, Molly," Heath said. He flung open the front door to reveal Charlie.
"Why, who is that?" Molly said.
"Don't you know him?" Heath asked.
Charlie looked up at the women on the stairs. "That's not Molly," he said. "That's not my sister."
Chapter Seven - Jarrod's Choice
Molly stormed down the stairs. "Of course I'm not your sister. My brothers are all dead!" She clenched her fists and shook with fury.
Jarrod put a calming hand on her arm. "What's this all about, Heath?" he asked.
"We found Molly's brother in Paducah, Jarrod. Molly, this is Charlie, don't you recognize him?"
"It's not Charlie," she cried. "I raised Charlie from a baby. Don't you think I'd know my own brother!"
"Of course I'm Charlie," Charlie said, "but I don't know who you are!"
"Heath, Molly, come into the office," Jarrod said. "Darren, would you and Nick take Mr. - Holt, is it? - into the drawing room?" He ushered Molly into the office, followed by Heath, who closed the door behind him. "Sit down. Now Heath, tell us why you thought that man was Molly's brother."
Heath related his tale, gently, but in detail. As he proceeded, Molly hid her face in her hands and wept. When he was done, Jarrod said, "All right, Heath. Leave us alone for a while."
Heath left and Jarrod sat on the sofa. "They named their daughter Molly," Molly said. "How could they?"
Jarrod slumped over, looking half his self, deflated like a balloon. "Stop it," he said, covering his face with his hands. "Who are you, really?"
Molly looked up, stricken. "Jarrod."
"Who am I supposed to believe?" he said. "The person who's been living the life, or the one who hasn't? That man is Charlie Holt, and you both agree that he's not your brother. So what does that make you?"
"I'm Molly, Jarrod. Your Molly. Your Feather."
"You're an intelligent woman. You should be smart enough to know when to give it up. So I ask you again, who are you?"
"Mary. Katherine. Holt. Johnson. Barkley." She gritted her teeth. "All the names I'm legally entitled to." Her voice broke. "I've never lied to you, Jarrod. A complete stranger comes in here telling the biggest lie I can imagine, and you believe him instead of me." She stood and walked to the door. "I'll pack my things, if I have anything you didn't give me."
"Where will you go?" Jarrod asked.
"I have no idea. To prison, eventually, because if you don't believe me no one else will." She opened the door, but Jarrod stood and reached over her shoulder, pushing it closed.
"You can't go like this," he said.
"I can't stay like this," she said.
They stood that way as long seconds ticked by, neither one able to move, so close they could hear each other breathing. "Is it the baby?" Molly asked. "Because I'll give it to you. I don't want to raise it in prison. It can be a Barkley, even if I can't."
"Molly, don't," Jarrod said.
"What do you want, Jarrod?"
"I want - I want it to be the way it was, before that man showed up with his warrant and his filthy little story. When we were happy."
"Even though you believe that was a fool's paradise?"
"It was some kind of paradise," Jarrod said.
"Well, every time I go to Paradise, I seem to end up in jail."
"Don't joke, Molly. Not at a time like this."
"What else can I do? You won't let go of the door."
"Just tell me the truth, Molly. That's all I ask."
"I have. I am. I can't make you believe me."
"I'm a lawyer, Molly," Jarrod said. "I look at the evidence, that's what I do."
"Then let go of the damned door."
"I can't. My heart won't let me."
"So if your head tells you I'm monstrous, what does your heart tell you?"
"That you're my Molly. My Feather. That you've never lied to me. That you love me."
"Then you have to choose, Jarrod. Lawyer or lover."
Jarrod paused a long, long moment, then let go of the door.
Molly started to pull it open, but Jarrod took her arm and turned her around. Tears had dripped down her face and stained her bodice. Jarrod looked into her eyes, questioning, examining, challenging. She met his gaze steadfastly, and at last he took her face between his hands and dried her tears.
For the second time since the nightmare had begun, Molly hid her face in Jarrod's chest and sobbed her heart out.
Sometime later, sitting on the sofa, Molly asked, "So what do we do now?"
"How brave are you, Feather?" Jarrod asked, caressing her cheek.
"Brave enough, I hope. Why?"
"Because I think we need to pull this thread until we get to the end of it. It's a dark and dangerous road - it might be the road back to paradise, or it might lead us to utter ruin."
"As long as you believe in me, I think I can bear anything. What is it you want to do?"
"I want to make Charlie testify."
Molly sucked in breath. "You think you can break him?"
"I don't know. As I said, it's a dangerous tactic. He might crack, or he might send you to prison for sure. You have to decide."
"Do it," Molly said.
Audra was sitting on the stairs when they came out of the office. She lifted her tear-stained face, but smiled when she saw Jarrod's arm around Molly's waist. She stood and put her arm around her brother, and the three of them walked into the drawing room.
"Where's Charlie?" Jarrod asked.
Nick glared at Molly. "How does she do that?" he said. "You have proof - proof!- that she's a liar, and here you are wrapped around her finger again. When are you going to face facts, Brother?"
"I have faced facts, Nick, and found them wanting. I'm looking for a deeper truth, now," Jarrod said. "So where's Charlie?"
"Said he was going to the hotel," Heath said. "Wants to take the first train back to Paducah, which ain't until Monday, so he'll probably miss the birth of his child. Wish we'd never brought him."
"Darren," Jarrod said, "I want you to get a warrant to hold him as a material witness."
"What!" Darren said. "Are you trying to send your wife to prison? Do the plea bargain, Jarrod. It's your only hope now.”
"It's what we want," Molly said. "Please do what Jarrod asks."
Darren threw up his hands. "You're the client, but I think you're both fools." He walked out of the drawing room, and out of the house.
Nick narrowed his eyes. "What are you up to, Big Brother? Don't think you can shake his story, because we were there, and we can tell you right now that this woman," he gestured at Molly, "is not who you think she is."
"I think you're wrong, Nick," Heath said.
"You have something, Heath?" Jarrod said eagerly.
"I been thinking," Heath said, "and something Jenny said - might not mean much, but then it might." He looked at Molly. "Jenny said that when Molly was a girl, she had something no other girl she knew had."
"A telescope," Jarrod said.
"I know you gave her one for her birthday," Nick said, "but that's just coincidence."
"No, it's not," Jarrod said, snapping his fingers. "Be right back."
Jarrod came back carrying a small bundle of letters tied with ribbon. "You carry those around with you?" Molly asked.
"Of course, Feather. Don't you?"
"No, but I'll start," Molly smiled.
Jarrod pulled out a letter. "I want you to note, Nick, that it's postmarked October 6th of last year." He opened it and perused it, said, "Third paragraph," then handed it to Nick, who read,
"This is the second time I have received a telescope for my birthday - my father gave me one when I was a girl of twelve. Not only have you given me a splendid gift, you have restored a pleasant memory. All the love and kindness you and your family have given me has not only brightened my future, it has returned to me my past - all those memories which had been buried in pain and loss are now treasures to be cherished."
"So what does this prove?" Nick said.
"Unless you're saying she's clairvoyant, I'd say it proves an awful lot," Jarrod said.
"So maybe she knew Molly Holt," Nick said. "Knew enough about her to fake it."
"Maybe that man knew Charlie Holt," Jarrod said. "Knew enough to fake it. Especially since all the real Holts had died or disappeared."
Nick started to protest, then stopped. He gazed thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "Martin Guerre."
"Who's Martin Guerre?" Jarrod asked.
"It was in a book I read," Nick said, "by Dumas, the Three Musketeers guy. About true crimes. There was a man who came back from a war and settled into another man's life. Even lived with the wife, and no one guessed. Until the real Martin Guerre came home."
"Heath," Molly said. "You said Jenny has red hair? Does she also have very dark blue eyes and a heart-shaped face?"
"I'd say that's a very good description," Heath said.
"Jenny Farmer," Molly said. "She was Charlie's childhood sweetheart."
"Would she know you, Molly?" Jarrod said.
"I would think so. She used to follow me around all the time. And I was an adult when I left, not like Charlie who was only sixteen. But I can't go to her - I can't leave Denver - and she can't come to me from what Heath said."
"No," Jarrod said, "but we can get a photograph taken." He looked at his brothers. "Which one of you wants to go back?"
"I'll go," Audra said. "I think this calls for a woman's touch."
Chapter Eight - A Woman's Touch
Audra reined in her horse before the Holt gate. All was quiet, to her disappointment. She opened the gate and walked up to the porch, knocked on the door.
It was answered by an auburn-haired woman, about Victoria's age. "Yes?" she said.
"Hello, I'm Audra Barkley. My brothers were here a few days ago. I was wondering if I could see Jenny - Mrs. Holt?"
"Is it about Charlie?'" the woman asked.
"In a way," Audra said.
"I'll see if she'll see you. Wait here." The woman closed the door, but returned a few minutes later. "She'd like to talk to you. Please come in."
Jenny was on the sofa in the front room, dressed in a robe and holding her baby. Her mother sat down and took up some knitting. "Miss Barkley," Jenny said. "Can you tell me what's happening? We had a wire from Charlie saying he had to stay in Denver, but he didn't say why."
Audra reached into her pocket and pulled out a photograph. "Before I do, could you do me a favor? Could you tell me who the woman in this photograph is?"
Jenny took the photo. "It's Molly. Why do you ask?"
"You're sure?" Audra said. "Look carefully - don't just assume it is because it's me giving it to you."
Jenny looked at it again. "Yes, I'm sure. She's older than I remember, but I'd know those eyes and that smile. Who's the man? Your brother?"
"Yes, it's Jarrod."
"He has kind eyes," Jenny said. "But he looks. . .haunted."
Audra blinked back tears. "His heart is breaking. If we can't prove Molly innocent, I hate to think what will happen to him."
"So why did you need to come all this way to show me this? Didn't Charlie know her?"
Audra hung her head. "I don't know how to tell you."
"Please, you're scaring me. Just tell me what's happening."
Audra looked in Jenny's eyes. "Charlie says that's not Molly. Molly says he isn't Charlie. I'm sorry."
Jenny looked down at her baby, stroked it's head. "I don't. . .understand." she said.
"I believe you do," her mother said.
Jenny covered her eyes and wept. Her mother took the baby out of her arms and Jenny buried her face in the arm of the sofa and sobbed. Audra placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, but could think of nothing to say. Finally Jenny's sobs ebbed and she sat up. Audra gave her a handkerchief and she dried her eyes.
"Well, what do I do now?" she said. "My husband is not my husband."
"If you had listened to me at the beginning. . ." her mother said.
"You had doubts, Mama," Jenny said. "You didn't know for sure."
"Could you tell me what happened?" Audra asked. "Would it hurt too much?"
"Not much to tell," Jenny said. "I'd loved Charlie since we were practically infants - it broke my heart when I heard he'd been killed. Then he walks back into town one day, alive and well - it was a miracle."
"Except it wasn't Charlie," her mother said.
"He was so like him," Jenny said, "and the differences, well, the War and the years would account for that, wouldn't it? I couldn't believe it wasn't Charlie."
"And why do you believe it now?" Audra asked. "I'm not sure I would, if I were you."
"Because I've had doubts, too," Jenny said. "Little creeping ones, over the years. Little things Charlie should know, and didn't. I kept trying to overlook them, but now I can't anymore. And if Molly says that's not Charlie, then it's not. She would know him better than anyone."
Audra moved over to the sofa and put an arm around Jenny. "I'm so sorry, Jenny. When I came, none of us had thought how this would hurt you. We should have - we've just been so torn up about Molly, it's hard to think of anyone else. I don't know how you could ever forgive us."
"All you did was bring me the truth," Jenny said. "Why is Molly in trouble? You haven't told me yet."
So Audra did. "No wonder your brother looks haunted," Jenny said. "How heartbreaking."
"When Charlie denounced her," Audra said, "I thought it was all over. He's decided to stand by her, but if she's found guilty - I think he'll die inside." Audra wiped her own tear. "That's why I had to come. For Jarrod. For Molly. I have to try to save them. I have to."
Jenny put her arm around Audra's shoulder. "Yes, I can see that. I love Molly, too - I have my whole life." She looked thoughtfully at Audra. "I have to come with you."
"You can't," her mother said.
"Mama, I have to. I think I'm the only one who can straighten this out." She turned to Audra. "I do love my husband - he's been so good to me, and he loves me, I know, and our children. I can get him to tell the truth - I know he will if I ask him to."
"His whole life, your whole life, is a lie," her mother said. "Why do you think he'll tell you the truth now?"
"I have to try," Jenny said.
"Your sisters will watch the kids, but you can't take this baby on a two day ride in a crowded, dank railcar. It'd kill him."
Audra dimpled. "Mrs. - Farmer, is it? - I can assure you that you have nothing to worry about."
Molly and Jarrod met the train. Jenny hugged Molly fervently, and both women wept openly. "Oh, Molly," Jenny said, "I can hardly believe it's you, after all these years. You must be Jarrod," she offered him her hand.
Jarrod bent down and kissed her cheek. "Thank you for coming, Jenny. I don't know how to thank you. Or how to ask your forgiveness for what we're putting you through."
"It's not your fault," Jenny said. "It should have come out long before now. When can I see him?"
"Our lawyer will bring him to the house this afternoon. Let's get you and the baby settled first. Did you travel well?"
"Yes, thank you. I never knew it was possible to travel in such luxury. I almost didn't want to get off."
Molly put her arm around Jenny. "Come along home, dear Jenny. We have so much to catch up on."
Later that afternoon, Jarrod and Molly ushered Jenny into the office. "I'd like to have my brothers and sister here when we talk to him, for personal reasons, and our lawyer for legal ones," Jarrod said. "Is that too many people?"
"I'm doing this almost as much for Molly as for myself," Jenny said, "so it's fine with me." She looked down at her baby and sighed. "Not long now, little one."
Jarrod opened the door and motioned his brothers and Audra in. They heard the street door open and in a moment, Darren led Charlie into the room.
"Hello, Jenny," Charlie said. "I wish you hadn't come all this way."
"I had to come," Jenny said. She handed him the baby. "Meet your new son."
Charlie sat down and gazed at the baby, his eyes brimming over. Jenny knelt down beside him. "Charlie, please, you have to tell us the truth. This is Molly, and the reason you don't know her is because you're not really Charlie, isn't it?"
"You know I love you, don't you?" he said. "I never meant any of this to happen this way."
"Why don't you just tell us what happened," Jarrod said gently.
Charlie sighed, and wiped his eyes. "All right - you're right, I'm not Charlie Holt. We were in the same regiment, and we looked enough alike that people were always mistaking us - it got to be quite a joke. He was my best friend." He turned to Molly. "He was always talking about you - I think he was ever so homesick. I felt like I knew you myself. I'm sorry - I never meant to harm you. I had got so used to being Charlie, that it never occurred to me that you wouldn't think I was. When you didn't recognize me, I just panicked. I felt like I was about to lose everything."
Jenny clasped his hand. "So who are you? What's our real name?"
"So why did you decide to take Charlie's place?" Jarrod asked.
"I didn't really decide. I had promised Charlie that if anything happened to him, I would go see his sister and take her his things. But when I got to Paducah, all these people kept calling me Charlie and patting me on the back, and hugging me. I grew up on the streets - I never knew what it was to be wanted like that. And then I met Jenny, and she told me she loved me right off, and I couldn't tell her I wasn't who she thought. She was the most beautiful girl I ever met. And Charlie was gone, and Molly was gone, and it didn't seem wrong, somehow. Like it didn't hurt anyone. Until now.”
"Did anyone approach you about Molly before now? Anyone want you to identify her, or discredit her?” Jarrod asked.
"No, Mr. Barkley. The first I even knew Molly was alive was when your brothers showed up at the house."
Molly looked at Jarrod. "I believe him."
Jarrod looked thoughtful. "Yes, so do I."
Jenny put her arms around Johnny. "So are we even married?"
"Unless Johnny has another wife stashed away somewhere, yes you are," Jarrod said. "You'll probably want to get your marriage license changed, and your children's birth certificates. I can refer you to a lawyer in Kentucky to help you with the legal problems. I presume you don't want to have him arrested for fraud."
"No," Jenny said. "But we've got some rebuilding to do. The house. Molly, it's your house - we don't have any right to it."
"Don't worry about the house," Molly said. "I don't want it. I'll deed it over to you."
Johnny looked up at her. "You're just like Charlie said you were. He loved you so much. I can't tell you how sorry I am."
Molly wiped away a tear. "I forgive you."
Jarrod took Molly's hand. "Let's leave them alone for awhile, shall we?"
They all filed into the drawing room. As Molly sat down, Nick knelt in front of her and said, "Forgive me, too, Molly."
"I haven't been cleared yet, Nick," she said.
"I know." He took her hand and kissed it. "But you will be. I'm sorry I doubted you. Said all those mean things to you. Please say you forgive me."
Molly held his head and kissed him. "Of course, I do, Brother Nick. Thank you."
"And me?" Heath said, going down on one knee.
"Yes," Molly laughed. "I forgive everyone today." She kissed Heath as well.
Darren turned to Jarrod. "You realize that legally, this puts us right back where we were. Molly's identity had no bearing on the case."
"No, but think how this all happened," Jarrod said. "If it weren't for the doctored marriage certificate, we never would have gone to Paducah and never have known any of this. It's as though it were a trap all set for us to fall into."
"But can we prove that? It's awfully nebulous."
"We'll need to have an expert corroborate the doctoring, and that the other certificates are forged. Have you heard from Pinkerton's about Stratton and Darius, yet? It's too early to have heard about the journal, isn't it?"
"I'll get in touch with Pinkerton's and see what they've come up with. It'll probably be a couple of weeks at least before I hear from Chicago. But it's more than a month before the prelim. Plenty of time."
"I'd rather this not go to trial," Jarrod said. "I'd rather she not have to go through any more than she already has."
"I won't suggest the plea bargain, again. I think she's innocent, too. I'd like to be able to prove it."
"Thanks, Darren." Jarrod shook his hand. "Let me know when you have anything."
"I will," Darren said, and left.
Jenny and Johnny came into the drawing room, hand in hand. "Am I free to go now, Mr. Barkley?" Johnny said.
"Yes, Mr. Miller," Jarrod said. "We may need to ask you to come back and testify about finding the marriage certificate, but that's all we would need you for. I hope we won't, but I'll let you know if we do." He offered Johnny his hand. "Good luck," he said.
"Molly," Jenny said. "I know I'm not really your sister-in-law, but I'd still like you to consider us family. Please come see us - come meet your namesake."
Molly hugged her. "I'd like that. I'll come when I can. Thank you, Jenny. I owe you so much."
Jenny hugged Molly back, and looked down at her baby. "We're naming him Johnny, after his father. We already have a Charlie - this is going to be tough to explain to the children."
"As long as they know you love them, I'm sure they'll adjust." Molly said. "But please don't go yet - you only just got here."
"We'll stay the night, but in the hotel," Jenny said. "We want to get back to the children as soon as we can."
"We'll arrange for you to have the railcar," Audra said. "The railroad can send it back when you're done. You'll still need it for little Johnny, after all.”
Jenny and Johnny left, and Jarrod took Molly by the hand and kissed her. "Excuse me," he said to his brothers and sister, "but I need to be alone with my wife for awhile." He led her to their bedroom and closed the door. "Forgive me, too, Feather, for ever doubting you."
"Your heart never did, dearest," Molly said, "and that's all that really matters." She took his face between her hands and kissed him, long and hard and ardently.
Chapter Nine - The Unraveling
Nearly two weeks later, Molly found Jarrod in the office. "This was just delivered by messenger," she said, handing him a letter. "What does it mean?"
Jarrod read it. "Des wants to see you in his office at your convenience."
"More charges?" she asked. "Another husband? Another brother?"
"It's not a formal summons, love, just a letter. Seems it's more likely to be good news."
"I'm afraid I'm not very hopeful," Molly said.
"We'll collect Darren on the way," Jarrod said. "I think I'm inclined to hope, myself."
"Please have a seat, Mrs. Barkley," Desmond Walters said, ushering Molly, Jarrod and Darren into his office.
"What's this all about, Des?" Jarrod asked.
"I'm pleased to tell you that the charges have been dropped," Desmond smiled.
Molly gasped. "Just like that? What happened?"
"Better you see for yourself," Desmond said, handing her a letter.
"You read it, Jarrod," she said. "My hands are shaking too badly."
Jarrod looked at the letter. "It's postmarked Jalisco. It's from Stratton." He read excitedly,
"I cannot keep this up any longer. I never saw Mary Holt Barkley before her arraignment. We were never married, she has never harmed me in any way. My poor conscience, such as it is, will not allow me to continue to persecute an innocent woman.
"To tell you my reasons for accusing her in the first place would incriminate me, so I decline to do so. Accept my assertion that the rest of the evidence against her has been manufactured, although I cannot convey my reasons for saying so. Please relay to her my sincerest apology for the pain and distress I have caused her and her family.
"With deepest shame,
"So that's it?" Molly said. "I'm free?"
"Completely acquitted," Desmond said.
"Sounds like he was being blackmailed," Jarrod said.
"Who by?" Molly asked. "Are we never to know who was behind this?"
"We will investigate, Mrs. Barkley," Desmond said. "I can't make you any promises, but we will certainly relay to you anything we find out. Please be assured that we take the crime that has been committed against you very seriously. And, please, accept our apology as well."
Jarrod turned to Darren. "We'll turn over what we have." Darren nodded.
"I don't know what to say in a situation like this," Molly said.
Jarrod stood and took Molly's hand. "Come, love, we're done here. I hope you never have to see the inside of a courthouse again." He shook Desmond's hand. "Thank you, Des."
He escorted Molly out of the office, and turned to Darren, "Come to the house for dinner tonight. We need to celebrate."
"I'd be happy to," Darren said. "This is the strangest case I've ever been party to. It's good to see its end, no matter how we arrived there."
"See you tonight, Darren," Jarrod said. He turned to Molly. "Well, love, how about we have a little celebration of our own? It's almost lunchtime - lobsters and champagne? Although I don't know if we can get lobsters in Denver."
"Lunch, anyway," Molly said. "I'm starving. Although I don't really feel like celebrating - I feel like I'm waiting for something else to happen. It can't just end like this."
They found a small café, where they were delighted to discover that the chef was French. They feasted on delicacies and reminisced about their honeymoon.
Afterward, as they were walking down the street, Jarrod found his arm taken by a tall, beautiful red-haired woman. He looked down at her. "Barbara?" he said in surprise.
"Hello, Jarrod." She said his name like a caress. "Fancy meeting you here. Oh, I do so want to congratulate you on your marriage." She waggled her fingers at Molly. "Such a lovely wedding," she sighed. "I loved your dress. Such beautiful flowers. So creative."
"Jarrod," Molly said. "Who is this woman?"
"This is a former client of mine. Barbara, sometimes known as Barbary Red," Jarrod said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "You were at our wedding? I didn't see you there."
"No, you wouldn't have," she chirped. To Molly, "Such nice friends you have. So open. So forthcoming."
"Is this the one who tried to shanghai Nick?" Molly asked.
"Allegedly," Barbara said. "I was so sad to read about your recent troubles in the papers. It was in the headlines from here to San Francisco." She sighed. "How you must have suffered. But I'm sure Jarrod has never had any doubt at all about your innocence. What a canker that would be on your marriage."
"She's been acquitted," Jarrod said.
"How wonderful!" Barbara said. "Too bad that news probably won't make the headlines. It's so unfair, isn't it? Bad news makes headlines, good news gets buried on page six."
"What are you doing in Denver, Barbara?" Jarrod asked.
"Just looking up a dear old friend," Barbara said.
Jarrod pulled Barbara into a nearby alley. Molly followed. "All right, Barbara," he said, grasping her arm, "you've been dancing all around it. Just what did you have to do with this?"
"Why, nothing, Jarrod," Barbara said. "Why do anything when it's so much easier to use other people? You taught me that."
"I always tried to do right by you, Barbara," Jarrod said. "I even offered to defend you when you crimped my brother."
"I'd have never been arrested in the first place if you hadn't used me."
"It was my brother, Barbara. What else could I do?"
Molly said, "Why did you have to involve Jenny and Johnny? Do you have any idea how many people you've hurt? How did you even know about them anyway?"
"Jenny and - Johnny, is it? I can't say that I have any idea who they are," Barbara said, "but a very smart man once told me that he could find out anything by asking the right questions of the right people."
"I ought to have you arrested," Jarrod said.
"What for, Counselor?" Barbara purred. "I haven't done anything."
"There's conspiracy," Jarrod said.
"Who would I have conspired with?" Barbara said. "There's nothing you can prove, Counselor. Not a single thing."
Jarrod flung Barbara's arm away. "I have nothing more to say to you."
"Well, I have," Molly said. She drew back her fist and gave Barbara a solid punch to the jaw. Barbara fell to the dirt with a satisfying thud.
"Molly!" Jarrod said, shocked. "I didn't know you could do that."
Molly shook her hand out. "Ow, I'd forgotten how much that could hurt."
"Nick would be so proud of you." Jarrod bent down and felt Barbara's pulse. "She's out cold. Where did you learn to do that?"
"I've been on my own for almost twenty years, Jarrod. How did you think I'd handled Fred Nagle?"
"Point taken." His eyes grew somber. "Do you think she's right? Did my doubt of you leave a canker that will eat away at our marriage?"
Molly entwined her fingers with his. "No, love. When things were darkest, you still stood by me, even though you doubted. So I know that no matter what, I can trust you, and that you'll never doubt me again. We're stronger now, not weaker."
Jarrod kissed her. "There are so many reasons why I love you, Feather."
Molly looked down. "She's still out, Jarrod." She knelt down. "I think we should get her a doctor."
Jarrod took off his jacket and placed it gently under Barbara's head. "I think you're right. I'm not sure where a doctor is around here - I may be awhile finding one. Will you be all right? Ah. Of course, you will." He kissed Molly's bruised knuckles. "I'll be back as soon as I'm able."
Molly sat in the dirt and watched Barbara for long minutes, until she began to stir. Barbara blinked her eyes and tried to sit up, but Molly put a restraining hand on her shoulder. "You hit me," Barbara said.
"Yes, I did."
Barbara rubbed her jaw. "You knocked me out."
"Yes, I did. Don't get up. You've been out about fifteen minutes."
"Why are you still here, then?" Barbara asked.
"I couldn't just leave you lying in the street," Molly said.
"I would have." Barbara threw off Molly's hand and sat up, leaning against the wall. She draped Jarrod's jacket over herself like a blanket. "Where's Jarrod?"
"He went to fetch a doctor."
Barbara shook her head, then held it, grimacing in pain. "I don't understand either one of you."
"No, I don't suppose you do."
Barbara crossed her arms on her knees, rested her head on her arms. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You've spent all this time and energy making someone miserable - imagine what you could have accomplished if you'd spent it making someone happy. Even if it were only yourself."
Barbara shrugged. "So, how did you snare Him?"
"No snares involved," Molly said.
"But you're so plain. And so old."
Molly rolled her eyes. "Do you think beauty is the only thing you can offer a man?"
"What else is there for a woman?"
"Mind. Heart. Laughter. Tears, even. Anything two people can share."
"Don't do that," Barbara said.
"Try and make me see a better world. That's what He did. Then He pulled the rug out from under me.”
"Because you refused to enter that better world."
Barbara shrugged again. "Nothing better for me. I've been on my own since I was seventeen. Had to make my living any way I could - so what if I did a few things He thinks are bad? What else could a woman alone in the world do?"
Molly frowned. "If you've looked into my past, you'll know that's not an argument I have any sympathy with. I've been alone, too. I've had hard knocks, too. I never did anything dishonorable. You made your own choices, Barbara. You're still making them. And tomorrow you'll make some more. Try and make some better ones this time."
"'Go and sin no more,' is that it?" Barbara said mockingly.
"If you like."
Barbara covered her head with Jarrod's jacket, and the two women sat in silence until Jarrod came with the doctor. Jarrod took Molly by the hand, and as they made to leave, Barbara looked at Molly and said, "All right. I'll try." She handed Jarrod his jacket as the doctor began to treat her.
"Try what?" Jarrod asked Molly as they walked away.
Molly smiled. "I think that should be between her and me."
"All right," Jarrod said. "But I have to tell Des about this. There may be nothing he can do to her, but there's still a chance."
"Would you not tell him if I ask you not to?"
"Why would you ask, after all she's put you through?"
Molly shrugged. "Call it a second chance. I don't know if it will do her any good, but maybe a little mercy is what's needed here."
Jarrod just stood and looked at her. "You amaze me, Feather."
"Don't be too amazed," Molly said, holding up her bruised knuckles. "I did just punch a woman out in an alley."
Jarrod laughed. "Let's go home, Feather. We're done with Denver - let's go back to Stockton."
"Can we go to Paducah first? I promised Jenny, and I do want to meet my namesake."
"Anything, dearest, as long as we go together." Jarrod took her in his arms and kissed her, scandalously, out on the street. Molly put her head on his shoulder and sighed.