"I delighted in every turn of the story and when away from it found myself eager to return to Emerson Pass. I can't wait for the next book." —Kay Bratt, author of Wish Me Home
She's marrying him out of necessity. He's secretly hoping to sway her heart. Will their friendship deepen into happily ever after?
Colorado, 1924. Louisa Lind is a dutiful daughter to her adoptive parents. After the boy she loves marries someone else, she vows to assist her father and mother with church work and forget all about marriage. But when tragedy strikes, the suddenly penniless young woman reluctantly accepts a marriage proposal...from her dream man's twin brother.
Having completed his medical school studies, Theo Barnes has returned to Emerson Pass to apprentice under the town's doctor. Smitten since childhood with the pastor's adopted daughter, he gallantly offers to wed Louisa to save her from destitution even though he knows her to have been in love with his twin brother. Despite his family believing the marriage to be a mistake, Theo persistently holds out hope that all he needs is time to win Louisa's heart.
They both suffer from childhood wounds and began to see their connection as something much deeper.
Can the two damaged souls find a way to finally move on from their painful pasts and find love?
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Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical romantic women’s fiction with nearly forty published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on “Hometowns and Heartstrings.”
Chapter 1: Theo
On a summer day in 1924, I arrived home to Emerson Pass, Colorado, with no idea of the ways in which my life would be irrevocably altered in the months to come. Had I known what waited for me, I’d have run off the train instead of walking like the gentlemanly scholar I fancied myself.
All I knew that day was that I was glad to be home. I’d been away at medical school for over four years. I was now about to step off the train to begin a new season of my life as a small-town doctor.
For the second time in my life, my family stood on the platform anticipating my arrival. The first had been when my twin brother, Flynn, and I had returned from the war. His was the face I spotted from the window. We were alike in appearance but opposites in personalities. He looked rakish in a tan summer suit and straw hat. Next to him, the oldest of my siblings, Josephine, stood with baby Poppy in her arms. Her husband, Phillip, was next to her, clinging to the hand of their little girl, Quinn, named after our stepmother. She was the second child of my stepmother’s first students to be named Quinn. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday they named the school after her.
My second sister, Cymbeline, never one to wait patiently, ran toward the passenger car, waving frantically as her hat came unpinned from her piles of dark brown hair and caught flight. Our younger sister Fiona followed closely behind. Her quick hands, made for playing the piano and catching her sister’s lost items, snatched the hat from midair.
Cymbeline looked much the same as when I’d first left for school when she was sixteen. Fiona, however, had grown up during my time away. At seventeen, she was now more of a woman than a girl. No longer in short skirts and pinafores, she wore a rose-colored drop-waisted dress that hung loosely over her small frame. Both Cymbeline and Fiona were delicate beauties with alabaster skin and almost black hair. They’d always looked similar but, like Flynn and me, were not of similar dispositions.
Papa stood with his arm around my stepmother. Stoic in public, Papa was as soft inside as any man I’d ever known. Mama held a handkerchief to her mouth. Her weekly letters to me while I was away had been as consistent as the university’s chapel bell ringing on a Sunday morning. Whether she’d given birth to us or not, Mama was our mother. She’d come to us when Flynn and I were nine years old. He claimed to remember little from before that time, but I wasn’t sure that was true. Regardless, we loved her with all our hearts. She looked as young and pretty as she’d been when she first came to us, stepping onto this very same platform on a snowy winter’s day.
My smallest sisters, Addie and Delphia, twelve and eight respectively, stood close to Papa. I had to take them in for a moment too, changed as they were from the image in my mind of two small girls. As fair-haired as Cymbeline and Fiona were dark, they competed with the summer sun with their yellow hair and light blue eyes. My chest ached at the sight of them. Time didn’t ebb and flow but constantly charged forward with no pause with which one could catch up. I’d missed much while at school. But I was home now, I reminded myself. Where I belonged.
As soon as the doors opened, I grabbed my suitcase and headed down the steps to the platform. The first-class car had been empty since Denver, so I exited with ease. Cymbeline threw herself at me with such power that she nearly knocked us both to the ground. She was as strong as many men. A natural athlete. One frustrated by her lack of opportunities to compete.
“Theo, I’ve missed you so,” Cymbeline said, almost angrily.
I chuckled at her stormy expression. “I’ve missed you. Now, don’t be angry with me. I’m here now.”
She hugged me again, then stepped away to peer at me with dark eyes fringed with thick lashes. “You seem larger.”
“Do I? You’re prettier than ever,” I said.
“Don’t be silly. I have more important things to do than be pretty.” Regardless of Cymbeline’s retort, I could see in her brilliant smile that my compliment pleased her.
Flynn held out his hand before pulling me into a half embrace. “Brother, have you learned everything there is to know and are ready to stay put?”
“Not everything,” I said, grinning back at the face that looked so much like mine. “Now that you’re married, have you been tamed?”
“A little,” Flynn said. “I’m going to be a father soon.”
“What? How come I didn’t know?”
“We just told the folks last night. Or I did. Shannon’s feeling too sick to come out.”
“Nothing serious?” I asked.
“Mama says it’s morning sickness and completely normal,” Flynn said. Shannon was a beauty with dark curls and skin the color of milk. My brother had fallen for her shortly after we’d returned from the war. Although Flynn had been saying all his life that he was to remain a bachelor until the day he died, he’d been unable to resist Shannon. They’d married a few years back. I’d worried when Mama had written there were still no babies that there might be something wrong. Given this happy news, I needn’t have.
Fiona approached in her quiet manner, still holding Cymbeline’s hat. “Hello, Theo.” Her voice was as soft and sweet as it had always been. Listening to her speak, no one would guess at how powerful and crystal clear her singing voice was. She’d gotten enough musical talent for all seven of us.
I set my satchel down to take her hands. “Hello, Fi.” Her hair curled at the nape of her delicate neck. She made me think of a newly budded pink rose. “What’s happened to you? You’re all grown up.”
“Not so much,” Fiona said, smiling. “I’m still your baby sister in here.” She tapped her chest before taking my hand to lead me over to the rest of my family.
“Theo, welcome home,” Papa said with a voice thick with emotion. He held out his hand for me to shake.
“Thanks, Papa.” Tears threatened to break through my natural reserve. I turned to my mother.
“I’m so very happy to see you.” Mama embraced me.
“I’m sure Lizzie can fatten me up in a few weeks,” I said.
Josephine, cradling her infant, held out her cheek for me to kiss. I did so before pulling back the blanket to see my niece, Poppy. She was too young to see who she resembled or even to open her eyes to greet me. “She’s precious, Jo.”
“We think so,” Josephine said with a glance up at her husband, Phillip.
I shook Phillip’s hand and knelt to say hello to little Quinn, who promptly hid herself behind her father.
“Quinn looks like her namesake,” I said. Although that was impossible, as they shared no blood. Still, odder things had come about in our family.
“Isn’t it strange?” Josephine asked as she and Mama exchanged a smile. “As sweet as her, too.”
My little sisters approached next. Addie reminded me very much of Josephine. They were both blonde and slight, although Addie was quieter and frailer than Jo had been at that age. Jo had been a little mother to all of us after our mother died and before Mama Quinn came to us. She’d had to grow up too fast.
“Hi, Theo,” Addie said shyly. “I made you this.” She thrust a card with a pressed orange poppy into my hand.
“Thank you.” I knelt on the platform to get a better look at her.
“Are poppies still your favorite?” Addie’s blue eyes were the same color as the sky above us and had this way of unsettling me with their purity.
“They are. This is very pretty. You did a wonderful job.”
“I thought you might’ve changed.” Addie’s bottom lip trembled. “Or forgotten me.”
I brushed her soft cheek with my thumb. “I could never forget you.”
“What about me? Did you forget me?” Delphia, her little body tense as if waiting for a fight, watched me with narrowed eyes.
“Hmm…what’s your name again? You look vaguely familiar.”
Delphia stomped her boot. “You’re lying. You remember me.” I laughed and picked her up and swirled her in a circle.
“Don’t be a goose. Of course I remember my baby sister.”
She laughed and hugged my neck with all the strength in her thin arms. “I knew it.”
I set her down. “In fact, I want you to tell me everything about everything.”
“All right. But not now. Mama said I’m not to dominate the conversation at lunch.”
“Maybe later you, Addie, and I can go out to the meadow and pick some flowers for the table and we can talk all about everything then.”
Delphia grinned and lifted her chin defiantly. “Yes. But I’ll do most of the talking. That’s how it is with Addie and me.”
“I remember,” I said, winking at Addie.
“Let’s get you home and settled,” Mama said. “Lizzie’s prepared a feast for lunch.”
“Fried chicken.” Delphia took my hand. “And strawberry ice cream for dessert.”
My mouth watered. “I can’t wait.”
Just like that, I was back in the thick of the Barnes family.
When we arrived, Jasper greeted us at the door as he always had. He and his wife, Lizzie, who ran our kitchen, had come with Papa from England years and years before. When Papa had decided to give up his lord title as firstborn son and come to America, Jasper had insisted on accompanying him.
“Theo, welcome home,” Jasper said. His British accent was as strong as it had ever been. I could not decide if he clung to his English ways out of spite or habit. “We have you in the guest room upstairs.”
“Fiona and Cymbeline share your old room now,” Mama said.
I followed Jasper upstairs to clean up and get unpacked. “Your mother had some new suits made for you.” Jasper went to the wardrobe and opened both the doors. “Nonetheless, there should be sufficient room for whatever’s in your luggage.”
Several new suit jackets and trousers were hung in a row along with crisp shirts.
“They’re made of fine material. Mr. Olofsson used his best.” Jasper nodded with obvious approval. “I made sure.”
“Thank you.” I turned away from the wardrobe to get a better look at him. He was as formal and tidy as always in his black suit with its vest and tie. “How’s Lizzie?”
“She’s well and would like to see you as soon as you’re able.”
“And Florence?” Their daughter was around the same age as Addie with a cheerful, outgoing personality like her mother.
At the sound of his daughter’s name, a slight smile lifted the corners of Jasper’s mouth, but only for an instant. “Florence is a little too American for my taste, but she’s a fine girl.” He returned to the business at hand, never one to deviate too far from his duties. “The water closet is ready for you if you’d like to freshen up.” He gestured toward the adjoining bathroom. “Dinner is at seven. They no longer dress for it in the summer, as they eat outside on the porch.” He imitated an American accent with the word porch. “Which has a screen around the perimeter.” He sniffed. I wasn’t sure why a screen was particularly offensive, but I didn’t ask.
“Your brother-in-law built this back porch specifically for outdoor eating,” Jasper said. “Lord Barnes is quite taken with the idea and insists that everyone remain in their day clothes.”
I nodded, fighting the urge to laugh. “He’s gone rogue on us, Jasper.”
“Yes, but what can you expect?”
I wasn’t entirely sure of the meaning of that question, so I simply thanked him. “I’ll be down shortly. I’m looking forward to one of Lizzie and Mrs. Wu’s wonderful meals.”
“Very good, Dr. Barnes.”
The pride in his voice made me smile. Being home was indeed very good.
After he left, I looked around the room, which hadn’t changed much since I’d last seen it. Lilies in a vase on the dresser gave off a lovely scent, one I remembered well from my childhood. Walnut furniture, a yellow-and-red braided rug, and the easy chair by the window were familiar and comforting to me. I’d lived lean during my university years, renting a room close to campus and eating meals at the cafeteria or the neighborhood diner. Because of the vigor with which I’d approached my schooling, I’d done little else but study.
I hung my few items of clothing in the wardrobe and placed the rest in the dresser. I bathed and shaved, happy to wash away the grime of my travels. I’d just finished dressing, having chosen a light blue linen suit, when there was a knock on the door. “Theo, it’s Fiona and Cymbeline. Are you available for a visit?”
“Yes, yes, come in,” I called out to them.
They came into the room, bringing the scent of their rosewater perfume, and sat on the end of my bed. Like two pretty bookends, they wore white dresses with dropped waists and had their hair pulled back in a way that made it seem as if they had cut their hair like so many of the girls did now. I was happy to see they’d kept their long tresses.
“You’re actually here,” Cymbeline said. “I thought you might never come home.”
“Why would you think such a thing?” I sat in the armchair. “I’d never planned on staying away forever.”
Cymbeline lifted one shoulder in a casual shrug. “I don’t know. We thought you might meet a lady and not want to leave her.”
“Did you meet any ladies?” Fiona asked.
“No, I was too busy for that,” I said.
“Thank goodness,” Fiona said. “We wouldn’t have liked you to choose someone without all of us having a good look at her first.”
I laughed. “Pity the poor woman who has to face all of you.”
“True enough.” Cymbeline rolled her eyes. “No one in this family can stay out of anyone else’s business.”
“But we’re lucky to have one another.” Fiona smiled sweetly. “Cym likes to pretend she doesn’t need us, but it’s not true.”
Cymbeline shot me a sassy grin. “Fiona always sees the good in people, even me.”
“You are good,” Fiona said. “Having opinions and wishing certain things about this world were different doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
“Do you see what I mean, Theo?” Cymbeline asked. “Fiona’s the good one.”
“She is pure of heart,” I said. “And we love you for it, Fiona.” Fiona beamed at us. “I love you both very much too. I’m glad we’re all back together.”
“Have you seen any of the old gang from school? I’ve exchanged a few letters with Isak, of course, but he’s not the best correspondent.”
Isak, Flynn, and I had all served together during the war. Like Flynn, he’d started a business upon his return to Emerson Pass. I hadn’t anticipated that he’d open a bakery. “I had no idea Isak wanted to be a baker.”
“He makes the most delicious breads and pies,” Fiona said. “Even Lizzie says so.”
“Is he courting anyone?” I asked. “I thought he’d be married by now.” Isak and his brother, Viktor, resembled Vikings from the storybooks we’d read as children—tall, wide-shouldered, and blond hair that looked red in certain light. If anyone wanted to make either of them mad, all you had to do was mention that their hair was red. Regardless of what they thought about their hair, they were popular with the young ladies.
“Not that we know of,” Fiona said.
“How’s Viktor?” I asked, cautiously. Viktor was a sore subject with Cymbeline. His adoration of my sister seemed to agitate her instead of the desired effect. He’d been enamored with her since we were young.
“He’s back in town,” Cymbeline said. “Not that I care.”
“He’s returned home with a degree in mathematics,” Fiona said. “He’s working at the bank.”
“Ah, yes, I think Isak mentioned that.”
“Mama’s terribly proud of him,” Fiona said.
“They gave him the money for college,” Cymbeline said. “Mama said he was always clever and should go to school if he wanted.”
“They’re thankful to him for saving Jo, you know,” Fiona said.
“I do know,” I said. Our family would be forever in Viktor’s debt for saving Josephine from sure death when she’d been taken by a bad man.
“Now he’s a banker.” Fiona wriggled her eyebrows at her sister. “Very fancy. Right, Cymbeline?”
“I told you I couldn’t care less,” Cymbeline said. “And wouldn’t you know, Theo, the big oaf still thinks he’s in love with me.”
I didn’t think there was much thinking involved. He knew for sure how he felt about her. He’d wanted my sister for as long as I could recall. She, however, detested him, mostly because she’d thought of him as competition during her school days. He was athletic and smart. In addition, and possibly the worst offense, he was a boy, which meant he had all the opportunities she wished she had.
“What else is happening in town?” I asked.
“There’s trouble brewing at the church,” Fiona said. “A few horrible ladies who are on the church board don’t like Pastor Lind.”
“We heard from a friend that there’s a group who want him out,” Cymbeline said. “Even Papa’s worried.”
“Can’t he help?” My skin prickled at the sound of the name Lind. I’d once thought I was in love with Louisa Lind. I’d embarrassed myself when I’d asked her if she’d write to me when I was away at the war. Unfortunately, it was Flynn she wished she could write. We’d only been sixteen when we lied our way into the army. I told myself I’d been young and stupid back then. I’d had no earthly idea how to tell that a girl loved my twin brother instead of me.
“No, the church has its own board, which includes awful Mrs. Poe,” Fiona said. “She doesn’t like Pastor Lind. I don’t understand why.”
“It’s because she’s a bluenose,” Cymbeline said, sounding disgusted. “She thinks Pastor Lind is too casual and encouraging.”
“She wants him to talk about hell more,” Fiona said. “But you know that’s not how Pastor Lind does things.”
“How do you two know all this?” I asked.
They exchanged a look. One I didn’t understand other than it told me however they’d come upon this information would not be shared with me.
“We know people who know things,” Cymbeline said.
“The Linds have no idea,” Fiona said. “They’re going to spring it on him.”
“Wouldn’t that mean they’d have no place to live?” If I remembered correctly, the Linds’ home, right next to the church, was actually owned by the congregation. Papa, years ago, had sold it all to the church. How that worked exactly as far as the deed to the house went, I wasn’t sure. Even so, I had a bad feeling that would be the case.
“But Pastor Lind’s been there since we were young,” I said. “They can’t just get rid of him, can they? What would it mean to his wife and daughter?”
“Last Sunday, Pastor Lind looked awful, right, Fi?” Cymbeline asked. “Pale and kind of sickly.”
“Yes. Mama noticed too.” Fiona’s cheeks flushed. “I think it’s that terrible woman causing all the trouble that’s making him sick. I can’t stand it when people are unkind.”
“She’s been extremely vocal about her discontent,” Cymbeline said. “Horrible woman.”
“How’s Louisa?” I asked, keeping my voice casual. “You don’t think she suspects? Doesn’t she run around with the same group of friends as you two?”
My sisters exchanged a look. They knew of my ill-fated attempt with Louisa.
“Don’t look like that,” I said. “I’m asking as an old friend of hers. I’d think her father being in trouble would bother her.”
“She doesn’t socialize with the old crowd any longer,” Cymbeline said. “She’s gotten strange.”
“Strange?” Louisa had been adopted by the Linds after her father had been killed in a shootout. She’d always been quiet. I suspected the first nine years of her life had been traumatizing but didn’t know the details.
“All closed up,” Fiona said.
“Pinched like—in the face.” Cymbeline scrunched her brows together. “Like she always has a lot on her mind.”
“That’s a shame. Is she stepping out with anyone?” I was pleased with myself that I could ask the question and not care about the answer. My misplaced feelings for her were nothing but a boyhood infatuation. I’d hardly thought of her in the time I’d been away.
“No.” Cymbeline shook her head. “She doesn’t do much but church duties and taking care of the Linds. They’re not young, after all.”
I left it at that, not wanting to delve any further into the Linds when it was my sisters I was interested in hearing about. “What about you two? Do I need to chase any suitors away?”
“Not a one,” Cymbeline said. “We like it that way.”
“And why is that?” I asked.
“Because we’re busy,” Fiona said. “Me with my music. Cymbeline helps Poppy with her veterinarian calls almost every day.”
“Really? That’s great, Cym.” My middle sister had always loved animals. She loved being outside as well.
“Papa says it keeps me out of trouble,” Cymbeline said.
“Which apparently is important because of my attitude.” All three of us burst into laughter.
The entire family had lunch on the newly built screened porch at the back of the house. Perhaps it was because I was home, but everything shone with a special luster. I couldn’t remember the lawn ever being as green. Rhododendrons bloomed in bright pink and red at the edges of the fenced yard.
Everyone talked at once between bites of Lizzie’s juicy fried chicken pieces.
“Mama, can we be excused to play croquet?” Delphia asked.
“Yes, but you have to let Quinn play too,” Mama said, gesturing toward my niece, who sat in her father’s lap. “Please be careful to keep her out of harm’s way.”
“We will,” Fiona said before lifting Quinn into her arms. “Do you want to be my partner?”
Quinn nodded and answered with a slight lisp. “Yeth, please.”
“Are you coming?” Delphia asked Cymbeline.
Cymbeline looked torn for a moment, but her love of sport won out over wanting to stay with the adults. “Why not?”
Except for Josephine, all my sisters exited the porch and spilled out onto the lawn. If I were a painter, I would have wanted to capture the beauty of the girls in their light summer dresses.
“Aren’t they something?” Papa asked me.
“They are. I’ve missed you all more than I can say.” I exchanged a smile with Josephine.
Talk turned to Josephine’s library and how they’d had to allocate money for more children’s books. “We’ve had quite the population growth,” Papa said. “There are a lot of new babies, not just here at our table.”
“A large batch of christenings over the last few years,” Mama said.
Flynn glanced at his pocket watch for the sixth time in as many minutes. “Flynn, do you need to be somewhere?” Papa asked, indulgently.
“Are you worried about Shannon?” Mama asked.
“A little,” Flynn said. “She was feeling pretty sick earlier.”
“Go home,” Josephine said. “It’ll ease your mind.”
“I hate to leave,” Flynn said. “But I should check on her. She wasn’t doing too well when I left.”
“Do go,” I said. “We have plenty of days to visit now that I’m home.”
Flynn stood, looking relieved. He clapped me on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’re home. I’ll see you soon.”
We all said our goodbyes before he practically ran down the steps of the porch and around the corner of the house.
“What do you think of the new porch?” Josephine asked me. “Phillip designed and built the whole thing.”
“I like it very much,” I said. “What a great way to spend the afternoon.”
“And it keeps the bugs out in the evening,” Mama said. “Thanks to clever Phillip.”
Josephine beamed at her husband. “He is clever.”
Phillip brushed aside the compliment. “Nothing to it, really.”
“I saw Dr. Neal at the Johnsons’ store yesterday,” Papa said. “He looked as if he might collapse on the spot.”
“The poor man,” Mama said. “He’s been counting the days until you arrived, Theo.”
Papa nodded. “He lost a baby in delivery last month and feels haunted by it. He’ll want you to take over that part of things, I expect.”
Josephine had baby Poppy cradled in one arm as she poked her fork into one last bite of chicken. “Martha said he hasn’t slept well since.”
“Sadly, losing babies happens,” I said. “I’m certain he’s blameless.”
The talk moved to the opening of the new schoolhouse. My attention waned. Hearing about Dr. Neal’s troubles worried me. The life of a small-town doctor would encompass a myriad of responsibilities. Losing babies was inevitable. I must harden myself to a certain extent.
“Do you ever miss teaching, Mama?” I asked, forcing myself back into the conversation.
She glanced over at Papa. “Once in a while I have a twinge of remorse, but you kids have kept me so busy over the years that it was like I had a full classroom.”
Josephine laughed. “Seven of us is like a classroom.”
“And now we have the grand-babies.” Papa’s eyes twinkled. “Never a dull moment.”
Chapter 2: Louisa
The problem with trouble? One never sees it coming until it’s too late. In the years since I’d been with the Linds, I’d been lulled into a false sense of safety. Then, out of nowhere, I was faced with complete uncertainty. Would I be returned to a life of near starvation and homelessness?
I’d gone to Isak Olofsson’s bakery thinking all was well. I lived a quiet life with the Linds, taking care of them as they began to show the signs of age, cooking, shopping, and cleaning for them. In addition, I taught Sunday school and helped with whatever other church duties they needed. My existence wasn’t exciting, but it was steady and safe. That’s all I needed.
“Louisa, I wondered if you had a minute?” From behind the counter, Isak wiped his hands on the front of his apron.
“Yes, what is it?”
He looked around his empty shop as if he were worried there were others eavesdropping before speaking. “I heard a few of the old biddies from church talking this morning. They must have thought I couldn’t hear or maybe that I wouldn’t care, but they were talking about Pastor Lind.”
I clenched my teeth together. Knowing what he would say, I waited. Mrs. Poe hadn’t been discreet in her dislike of Father. No doubt she’d decided to start another church in town. What did I care, anyway? There were enough sinners in town for two churches.
Isak placed both of his large hands palm down on the wooden counter. A powder of flour dust coated the reddish hairs on his forearms. “Mrs. Poe said the church board has voted and they’re getting rid of your father.”
My stomach dropped. Black dots danced before my eyes. “That’s impossible.”
“I asked Flynn about this,” Isak said. “He said the board is elected by the members to represent their wishes. Apparently, Mrs. Poe has been on a secret campaign to lure people over to her side.”
I thought I might pass out as I gripped the edge of the counter. “I had no idea.”
“She’s very persuasive, I guess. I’m sorry, Louisa. I wanted you to know in case there’s something to be done.”
“Thank you.” I picked up my loaf of bread and left the shop in a daze. Blindly, I walked the few blocks home. How was this happening? Where would we go? The house belonged to the church. Did Father and Mother have savings? Would we be able to find somewhere to live?
Yes, I told myself. Of course they had savings. They’d sent me away to finishing school, after all. That wasn’t the act of poor people.
Yet there was also the fact of my mother’s surgery the previous year. My mother hadn’t wanted anyone to know that she’d suffered through a serious health condition. It had started with a chronic wet cough and shortness of breath. I’d insisted, finally, that she go see Dr. Neal. He’d done a few tests and sent her to an expert in Denver. The team there had suspected lung cancer and had immediately taken her in for surgery where they removed part of her lung. The doctor said the masses were definitely cancerous but assured us that his expert skills had gotten all of the bad cells. I wasn’t so sure. Regardless, we’d told no one. Mother was proud that way. She considered her stout strength her greatest asset as a preacher’s wife.
There was another fact that had me worried. A small-town preacher relied upon donations from his congregation to pay his salary. For whatever reasons, we were never as successful filling the donation bowl as we hoped. Father always said the Lord would provide. I wasn’t so sure about that, either.
When I came in through the back door, Mother was at the small table near the kitchen window. Sunshine streamed through the spotless glass. In the bright light, the wrinkles that etched her face were more evident. For a second, I saw her as an old woman instead of Mother. She’d aged right before my eyes but without me truly seeing.
Even though I’d been with them since I was nine years old and I was now in my early twenties, I still felt as though I’d only just arrived. The three of us had needed one another with an urgency unlike other families. Mother had yearned for a child that never came. Father wanted nothing but to make her happy. I’d needed them for all things: shelter, food, and mostly love. No one could have been more patient or caring. I came to them broken open to the very core. They stitched me up day by day until much of my past, if not forgotten, faded enough for me to feel close to a normal girl.
I had only to let my mind drift back to the years with my real father to shudder. The games he played with me were too horrid to revisit. Yet when I’d first come here, Mother had encouraged me to talk about them if I needed to. Now that I was gown, I could imagine how awful it must have been for her to hear the atrocities of my childhood. At the time, I was grateful to let them out.
However, I’d kept one horrible thing to myself. As much as I’d shared with the Linds, I couldn’t tell them about the other thing. The thing my father did that made it impossible for me to love a man. I put all that aside for now. How could I tell Mother and Father what I’d heard?
Mother smiled at me as I set the loaf of bread on the table. Even if I’d been able to contemplate marriage, leaving my parents wasn’t an option. They needed me to cook and clean and take care of most everything. I couldn’t leave them. Not that I wanted to. They’d given me a chance for a good life. The least I could do was repay them with the same kindness.
I leaned down to kiss Mother’s soft cheek. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Right as rain.”
“Good. Would you like me to make coffee?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Would you, dear?”
“Isak had just pulled the sourdough loaves out of his ovens this morning. I bought one to go with our eggs.” I’d walked out to the Cassidys’ farm the day before to buy a dozen eggs from Nora. The youngest of the Cassidy girls had taken over the farm after her father died. She’d added a few milk cows and invested in layer chickens to supplement their cattle. She now kept many of us in town with fresh milk and eggs.
“How was Nora?” Mother asked. “She wasn’t at church last Sunday.”
“She was well but said one of her cows had a baby in the middle of Saturday night and she was too tired to make it to church.”
“That girl works too hard.”
It was true. Their father had died right after the war, leaving his wife and three daughters with a barely profitable small cattle ranch. The oldest of the Cassidy sisters, Alma, had gone off to nursing school and had fallen in love with a gentleman from Chicago and not returned to Emerson Pass. Shannon had married rich Flynn Barnes. Nora, like me, hadn’t felt she could leave her mother, and did the work of a man to keep the place going. I hoped for her sake that she’d have the chance to have a husband and family of her own.
Father came in the back door. I knew the moment I saw the gray tinge to his complexion that something was wrong. He didn’t greet us but instead sat heavily on one of the chairs at the table.
“Louisa brought bread from the bakery,” Mother said.
“I’m fixing eggs, too. Would you like coffee?”
“No, thank you,” Father said. “I have to talk to you both.”
“What is it, Simon?” Mother asked. “Are you unwell?”
He looked pale and exhausted, with puffy bags under his eyes. “I’ve had a shock.”
I sat with them at the table and clasped my hands together.
“The board voted. They want us out,” Father said.
“How can this be?” Mother clutched the cross that hung from her neck. “Where will we go?”
“We have to be out by the end of the month,” Father said.
My mind couldn’t grasp any of this. I looked around our small, tidy kitchen. It was all I’d known since I’d moved in with the Linds when I was nine years old. We would be homeless.
“But why would they do this?” I asked out loud.
“From what I can gather, Mrs. Poe would like more fire and brimstone,” Father said. “And less encouragement about how the love of Jesus can save any sinner.”
“Isn’t that the main message of Jesus?” I asked, flabbergasted. Before I’d come to live with the Linds, I hadn’t known much about being a Christian. We hadn’t even had a Bible in our ramshackle house. But they’d quickly rectified that, teaching me of the ways of the Lord. I’d come to understand how daily talks with God could change a battered heart.
“What will we do?” I asked.
Mother sighed. “Do what we’ve always done, move on.”
“To another church?” I couldn’t believe my ears. This was our home. “Can’t you simply retire? We could find another house here in Emerson Pass.” Father was in his mid-sixties. He’d been working hard all his life, always there for his flock.
Father took off his wire-rimmed glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief. “My salary was barely enough to live on and with your mother’s operation last year, we’re out of money. There’s nothing left. I don’t know what we can do, other than find another church. There are small towns sprouting up all over the country. Surely I can find another position. We always have before.”
The idea of leaving Emerson Pass seemed inconceivable. We belonged here. All our friends were here. Frustration made me tremble. What had been the point of sending me to school? “Why, in heaven’s name, did you send me to finishing school? I should have stayed here and worked.”
“We wanted you to find a wealthy young man who could take care of you,” Father said. “I thought it was your best chance of meeting the right sort of people.”
“Right sort of people? You’re my people. I didn’t want to get married and leave either of you or Emerson Pass. This is my home.”
He put his glasses back on, tucking the flexible temples around the backs of his ears in a gesture I knew very well. “Louisa, you have to think about yourself. We’re not going to live much longer. A husband is your only opportunity.”
“Opportunity? For what?”
I stared at him as tears of anger dampened my cheeks. “Father, why didn’t you send me to school for something practical? I could have become a teacher or a nurse.”
“Neither of those professions is something you can do and have a family. Do you want to be an old maid?” Mother asked.
I was astounded by their reaction. Had I not known how much they wanted me to marry? Neither had ever expressed it in such a blunt fashion. Perhaps they should have. I’d thought they were content to have me stay with them forever. That idea had been shortsighted. I could see that now. However, the idea of either of them dying on me was so heartbreaking, I couldn’t even think about it.
“I thought you wanted me to stay with you,” I said. “I’ve been useful to you, haven’t I?”
Mother’s eyes filled with tears. “Louisa, I told you from the beginning that we weren’t adopting you because we couldn’t afford a housekeeper. You’re our daughter, not our maid.”
“Is that what you’ve thought?” Father asked. “That we needed you?”
“Well, don’t you?” I asked. “I’m young and strong. And a good cook.” I mumbled the last part.
“Do you not want to marry because of us?” Mother asked.
“Because that’s not a good reason.”
“I don’t want to marry because, well, I just don’t want to.”
“As much as we love you, we want you to have a life of your own,” Mother said. “A family of your own.”
“We thought finishing school would bring exactly that,” Father said. “Didn’t you wonder why we were sending you in the first place?”
“I…I guess I didn’t,” I said. “I thought you wanted to refine me so that I would be more of an asset at the church. Anyway, how was I supposed to meet a young man at a girls’ school?”
“By becoming friends with your classmates who would then introduce you to brothers and cousins,” Father said with obvious irritation in his voice. “Louisa, I don’t understand you.”
That much was clear.
“But what about Flynn?” Father asked. “You liked him.”
“He didn’t reciprocate those feelings,” I said. “Shannon was the one he wanted. Anyway, he was just a crush I had. All of the other girls in town had one on him.”
My parents exchanged a glance.
“Theo cared for you, though,” Mother said. “He made no secret of it.”
“Mother, no. Not Theo.” How could I explain that Theo would be the absolute last man on earth I’d ever marry? Even if he wanted me still, which I felt certain he wouldn’t. He’d gone off to medical school and would be returning to Emerson Pass to be Dr. Neal’s partner. Most likely, he’d met someone and would bring her here to marry.
“What’s wrong with Theo?” Father asked. “He was an excellent Sunday school student.”
“Yes, he always knew his verses. Flynn did not.” Mother seemed to have forgotten our dire situation, because she actually smiled. She’d always been fond of all the Barnes children. Like everyone else in town.
“Theo’s not for me.” I left it at that mostly because I couldn’t articulate what it was about him that I didn’t like. He was too much like me, perhaps. I could see the pain of his past in his eyes. Sensitive, all-seeing eyes. When he looked at me, I imagined that he could see into the deepest parts of me. The parts I wanted to keep hidden from the world. With someone like him, I’d never be able to stay separate. He’d insist on knowing me. I didn’t want to be known. Not even to my parents.
If they knew what my father had done, they might understand that the idea of a man’s touch terrified me. I should tell them, I thought. My secret that I’d kept hidden all these years. The words wouldn’t come. Instead, a darkness seeped into my very core. I was bad and damaged. No decent man would want me.
“I can try to get a job,” I said. “Maybe somewhere in town?”
“Doing what?” Father asked, not unkindly but with utter hopelessness.
“Maybe I could get a job as a maid?” I clamped my lips together to keep them from trembling before continuing. “Quinn might need another maid. Or I could assist Lizzie in the kitchen.”
“Even if you were able to get work, we have no place to live.” Father put both his hands over his knees and took in a shuddering breath. “I’m not feeling well. I need to lie down for a while.”
I’d go see the Barnes family as soon as I could. Quinn wouldn’t turn me away. She would surely have some variety of work for me. Or maybe Mrs. Johnson needed someone to help her at her store.
“I’ll think of something,” I said. “I know I will.”
Mother only nodded, then rose to her feet and followed Father into the bedroom.
Chapter 3: Theo
The first morning assisting Dr. Neal, I drove into town feeling robust and excited. I was home where I belonged and about to begin the work I’d studied long and hard to learn. Wildflowers decorated the meadows and scented the air with sweet perfume. The sun had already risen in the east and cast rays of morning light onto the landscape. The first part of June and too early for dust, potholes still held puddles of brown water. Mama had told me a sudden rainstorm had come just days before I arrived. Today, the sky was cloudless and a shade of deep blue I’d not seen in my travels.
My stomach fluttered at the first sign of the brick buildings of town. Dr. Neal’s office was just a block off Barnes Avenue, named after my father. He’d addressed me as Dr. Barnes when he’d called the house last night and asked me to come in first thing in the morning. Dr. Barnes? It still seemed like a title for someone else, not me. I parked near Papa’s office and straightened my tie, studying myself in the mirror for a quick moment. My thick, wavy hair had been tamed with a light pomade my sister Cymbeline had suggested. I ran a few fingers along my chin, feeling for any spots of shaving soap that might linger. All these newfangled soaps and lotions were all the rage. I had to admit they smelled nice.
I smiled slightly remembering how proud Mama and my sisters had looked when I went downstairs in one of my new suits. I opened the car door and placed my feet onto the ground. One foot after the other, as I’d done for the last four years. Papa’s dream had been a thriving community when he’d first come here as a young man. He’d accomplished that, I thought, as I walked down the main street of town. We were nestled in the valley between two mountains and isolated from much of the world. Ice that covered the pond all winter had melted and reflected the blue sky. The Johnsons’ dry goods store had its doors open to allow the fresh air in while Mrs. Johnson hustled behind the long counter waiting on customers. I waved to her as I passed by, and she called out to me. “Good luck on your first day.”
“Thank you,” I called back. Dr. Neal was her son-in-law, having married Martha Johnson. Like many of the other young couples in town, they had a gaggle of children and another one on the way. Which was why we needed another doctor.
Through the window of the tailor’s shop, I spotted Mr. Olofsson bent over a piece of fabric. His shoulders had a permanent slump from leaning over his work for so many years. His wife was at the counter wrapping a package in brown paper for a customer.
I passed by the bank. Viktor Olofsson was inside, looking very official as he wrote into a leather ledger. He didn’t raise his head from his work. Although neither of Olofsson boys had followed in their father’s footsteps, they’d inherited his work ethic.
The boardinghouse had been sold recently, and the new owners had given it a fresh look with a fresh coat of paint and a porch swing and pots filled with colorful flowers.
I was just rounding the corner to head to the doctor’s office when I ran into Louisa Kellam. Or Louisa Lind, as she was known now, having been adopted by the pastor and his wife. The atrocities of her childhood before then had only been imagined by my siblings and me. Mama had always been tight-lipped about the whole affair, saying only that Louisa had suffered greatly before being adopted.
“Theo Barnes, is that you?” Her eyes widened from under the brim of her hat.
I smiled, taking her in as she held out her hand to me. “It most certainly is.” I lightly brushed my lips over her gloved hand. “I start work with Dr. Neal this morning.”
“A doctor. Your parents must be proud.”
“I believe they are, yes.” Her golden hair was tucked under a light straw hat with a blue ribbon that matched her dress. She was no longer the malnourished little girl she’d once been; a slight flush in her cheeks and her curves told me she was in good health.
“Poor Martha says she never sees her husband,” Louisa said. “They’re anxious for your help.”
“I’m delighted to be of service.” I touched the front brim of my hat.
She looked down at the tips of her shoes. “You’re looking well. Medical school agreed with you.”
“As are you.” In fact, she was more beautiful than ever. I felt a tinge of my old crush coming back to life. Never mind, I told myself. She would never be interested in me. I’d certainly learned that with my ill-fated request to write to her during the war. What an idiot I must have seemed to her. I’d certainly felt like one. Despite the embarrassment the memory brought, it all seemed like another lifetime now. I’d gone to school and forgotten her. My infatuation was simply a young man’s fanciful imagination. Not true love.
She caught her bottom lip with the top one before speaking. “I’ve always meant to say how sorry I was about how I acted that day when you asked if I’d write to you.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.”
“I was a stupid child.”
“And I, the wrong twin,” I said with a laugh.
“Oh, Theo. Don’t say that.”
I waved a hand dismissively, smiling down at her. “I’m only teasing. I was simply scared and needed something to cling to.”
She briefly touched the sleeve of my jacket. “Of course you were scared. Going off to fight a war that had nothing to do with us. And not yet seventeen. I couldn’t believe my ears when you told me you and Flynn had enlisted. You were too young to have to face such a horrible war.”
“We were but didn’t know it.”
She glanced upward before smiling. “When Flynn started courting Shannon, I didn’t want to show my face in town. I think the whole town knew I liked him. I was such a lost little lamb—thinking I was in love when I knew nothing about what that really meant.”
I laughed again. “That describes me as well. How about we agree to never think of it again?”
“Agreed. I’m glad you haven’t held a grudge. It’s nice to see you.”
“You too. Are your parents well?” I asked.
She touched a slender finger to the brim of her hat. “Not entirely well. Father has been fired from the church.”
“No, really?” Fired from the church? Was that even possible? “Papa wouldn’t let that happen.” He’d found Pastor Lind himself.
“Things have changed. The town and church have gotten bigger. Your father isn’t able to protect everyone like he used to. The congregation decided they wanted a board to run the finances and staff. They didn’t like Father, and now they’ve pushed him out.”
I didn’t know what to say. How could they not like kind Pastor Lind? He was jolly and encouraging, especially to the youngsters. “Your father was a great pastor. I can’t comprehend what they didn’t like.”
“They’re more the fire-and-brimstone types. Father’s style isn’t that way.”
“I do recall your father’s message to be uplifting rather than threatening.” Pastor Lind and his wife suggested we carry on conversations with the Lord, as if he were an intimate friend.
She sighed and clutched her package against her chest. “Since Prohibition, a war has developed.”
“Between those who believe Prohibition saves souls and those who don’t.”
“Right, yes. That seems to be everywhere in our country,” I said. “Dividing communities and even families.” Flynn and my father thought the government shouldn’t be involved in business, let alone ban alcohol. Flynn and Phillip were running a secret bar in the basement of the ski lodge. The sheriff looked the other way. When I’d asked Mama what she thought, she’d merely pursed her lips and given a little shake of her head. Phillip and my brother were upstanding businessmen in this town. Did running an illegal bar make them less so? I didn’t think so, but I knew there were many who would disagree. Would those same women who were forcing out Pastor Lind convince the sheriff to shut down the bar? Were my brother and brother-in-law setting themselves up for trouble? For that matter, who was making the booze in the first place?
“We’re going to have to move out of the house,” Louisa said, pulling me from my thoughts.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
Her gaze flickered toward a man walking by us. She seemed to wait until he was out of earshot before turning back to me. “I’ve no idea. Father thinks he’ll find another position in a different town but, Theo, he’s old. This whole ordeal has defeated him. I’m not sure he’s well. He looks terrible.” She paused, shaking her head. “I want him to retire and take it easy.”
“That isn’t an option? I mean, if you could find a new place to live here in Emerson Pass?” Already my mind had moved forward, thinking through how we could help them.
“There’s nothing left. Mother needed an operation last year, which wiped out his savings. The rest of it he’d wasted on sending me to finishing school. We’re in terrible trouble.” She tilted her head and peered up at me from under her lashes. I fell backward into the past, as she looked much more like the frightened child she’d been than the moment before. She must be feeling the way she had when she was young, unsure where her next meal would come from or where she would sleep.
“I had no idea.” I felt certain my parents hadn’t, either.
“As a matter of fact, I wondered if your mother had any positions open?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know.” A job at the estate? Not Louisa. She was clever and educated. “What sort of position do you have in mind?”
“Anything.” Her shoulders heaved as she let out a sharp, quick breath. “I have to find a way to take care of my parents. I owe them my life. If they hadn’t taken me in, who knows what would have happened to me.” She looked sideways as if she wondered if someone watched her before answering. “I’m grateful to Father, but I wish I’d learned something more useful than how to walk with a book atop my head. I didn’t know we were in trouble or I would have done something useful and gotten a teaching certificate.”
A woman carrying the load of a household seemed unfathomable to me. However, the world was changing. Since the war, women seemed to have different expectations for their lives. They’d carried on at home while the men were at war.
“My father has been on the same side as Flynn,” Louisa said. “As have all the early settlers. The newcomers are of a different ilk.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have predicted your father to be of that mindset.”
She gave me a tight smile. “He’s a Scotchman, after all. His stance on Prohibition is another reason why the church board wants him out. He and your brother haven’t exactly kept their opinions to themselves.”
“I worry about my brother and brother-in-law, if you want to know the truth.”
She fluttered her fingers toward the street. “The whole affair makes me sad. I never thought this town would be in such conflict.”
“Me either.” I hadn’t realized all this was going on while I’d been away at school. My stomach churned at the thought of my father’s peaceful town having two sides of a debate. In the past, we’d prided ourselves on our tight-knit community. However, I knew the spirits of the early citizens. They’d come from other countries where poverty and oppression had made it impossible for them to live satisfying and prosperous lives. Here in the wilds of the Rockies, they’d had the chance to live lives exactly as they wished. With new people coming in, had the original spirit of our community been stifled?
“Father’s soul’s broken,” Louisa said. “The trouble with the congregation and my lack of marriage.”
Why hadn’t she married? I couldn’t imagine she wasn’t sought after wherever she went. “I have to admit, I thought you’d be married by now.” That would be the obvious solution for her. She needed a husband with the financial means to take care of her and her parents. “Is there no one?”
“No. My father thought I’d meet someone rich and powerful to take care of me. That’s why he sent me away to school. Sadly, I didn’t realize that’s what he wanted.”
“It’s not too late. You’re young and beautiful.”
“Thank you, Theo, but marriage isn’t an option. Now go. I don’t want to make you late for your first day.”
“Yes, I should.” I glanced downward, thinking for a moment. “You know, I think you should go out and visit my mother this morning. I’m not sure she’ll have a position for you, but I know she’ll have some ideas about where you might move to. She and Papa own a lot of these buildings in town. Surely there’s a place for you to go. Papa’s not going to leave his oldest friend without a home.”
“You’re a good person, Theo Barnes,” Louisa said. “Some things don’t change.” With that, she turned away and made her way toward the church.
I watched her for a few more seconds before heading the other direction toward the doctor’s office. We’d been going opposite directions since the beginning. That, too, hadn’t changed.
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