Where the Heart Leads
Late May, 1904
A sharp elbow jabbed Thomas Ollenburger's ribs, his foster grandmother's all-too-familiar signal that he was doing something wrong. He stopped fiddling with the ribbon tie beneath his chin and lowered his arm to his side, but she jabbed him again, this time catching his forearm instead. He looked at her.
Although Nadine Steadman wore a smile, her eyes flashed disapproval. "Smile, Thomas. Make your guests feel welcome."
Thomas swallowed a grunt. He hadn't wanted these guests. Sure, he admitted feeling a sense of accomplishment in earning a college degree—something unique to his Mennonite upbringing— but the teachings of his sect discouraged self-pride. A party seemed too much like boasting. Nadine and he had argued when he'd stated he would rather avoid the fanfare and not attend the graduation ceremony at Boston Tech. He'd won that debate, but Nadine had insisted on throwing a celebratory party in honor of his educational achievement. So he had fanfare anyway.
Some devilishness made him whisper, "Ach fal me no ows mein yasacht dowt no shtien."
Nadine's smile quickly faded. "Thomas Ollenburger, you know I don't understand a word of that foreign speech." Her dark eyes dared him to leave her wondering what he'd said.
Leaning sideways to bring his head next to hers, he translated, "My face feels as if it's turned to stone." He contorted his mouth. "I've been smiling so much, my muscles are stiff."
She laughed softly and patted his arm with her gloved hand. "Thomas, you are a scamp."
Although the words could be construed as an insult, by her tone he knew he'd been forgiven. Nadine's approach was often crusty, but Thomas had learned she harbored a tender heart. Her willingness to take him in six years ago as he began high school, pay for his college education, and treat him as her own—even though he was only the stepson of her daughter-in-law rather than any blood kin—proved her generosity. He just wished she hadn't chosen a party as a way of expressing her pleasure in his accomplishment.
Dozens of guests milled through the parlor of the stately Steadman home—students, professors, church members, and neighbors. Many had entered the ornately carved oak doors as first-time visitors. But none looked as uncomfortable as Thomas had felt during his first weeks in Nadine's home.
Her three-story townhouse on prestigious Beacon Street, overlooking the Common, was so different from his simple clapboard home in Gaeddert, Kansas. His entire childhood home had less space than the parlor of Nadine's ridiculously large residence. Even now, after six years of living beneath her tiled roof, he sometimes still experienced a sense of displacement. He wished he could set the odd feeling aside, relax, and be as at ease as his friend Harry Severt seemed to be. Right now, beside the punch bowl on the opposite side of the room, Harry conversed with two young ladies. His posture and gestures conveyed a state of complete self-assurance.
Nadine caught Thomas's elbow and gave it a little squeeze. "I believe the last of the guests have arrived. You may now leave the welcoming post and mingle. Be certain to speak to each person in attendance—preferential treatment to one guest is considered impolite. Be certain to avoid any semblance of preferential treatment."
Thomas resisted growling in frustration. He'd received these instructions at least half a dozen times already—and he knew the reason. Nadine didn't want him spending all his time with Daphne Severt, Harry's younger sister who had accompanied Harry on several visits to Nadine's home. Nadine didn't seem to care for Daphne, and Thomas wasn't sure why. He admitted that when he'd first met Daphne, she'd seemed to be as pesky as his own little sisters. But lately ... well, she'd grown into the loveliest creature he'd ever seen.
"Go ahead now," Nadine prompted. Catching her skirt between thumb and fingers, she glided across the carpeted floor with her shoulders back and chin held high, nodding and smiling as she filled the role of the perfect hostess.
Thomas cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and edged his way around the periphery of the room. Although he did his best to appear as poised as Nadine desired him to be, his large size coupled with the crowded room made graceful movements impossible. He'd inherited his pa's height and breadth—and he never felt more monstrous than when standing beside the diminutive Daphne Severt.
Although Nadine often bemoaned the difficulty in locating suits to accommodate Thomas's frame, Daphne had once said his size made her feel protected. He scanned the room, seeking the young woman. He couldn't spend a lot of time talking to her—not with Nadine's eagle eyes observing his every move—but just a glance would satisfy him for the moment.
Daphne had arrived with Harry a half hour ago, looking beautiful in a shiny dress the same color as the ripe sand plums that grew wild on the prairie surrounding his Kansas home. Her long black hair had been pulled up into a ponytail as thick as his horse's tail, but instead of being straight, it hung in long coils that bounced when she walked. He looked for that bouncing tail of hair, and his heart jolted when he spotted it. As usual, she was the focus of attentive male gazes.
A stab of jealousy propelled him forward. "Excuse me," he muttered, weaving between clusters of guests. "Excuse me, please." He reached the group and stepped directly into Daphne's line of vision. Her face lifted to his, and her rosy lips curved into a smile of welcome. His heart began such a raucous pounding in his chest that it threatened to dislodge the buttons of his shirt. Maybe a party hadn't been such a bad idea after all.
"Mr. Ollenburger." She stretched a hand toward him.
Placing his palm beneath hers, he bowed over the white-gloved knuckles and delivered a light kiss on the middle one. Straightening, he caught her flutter of lashes, and despite his stiff cheeks, he felt the first genuine smile of the day form on his face. "Miss Severt."
aphne glanced at the group around her. "Please excuse me. I must speak with the guest of honor." Slipping her hand through the bend of his elbow, she turned her heart-shaped face upward. "I find myself quite parched, Mr. Ollenburger. Might you escort me to the refreshments table?"
Thomas couldn't argue with that idea. As they moved through the room together, he sensed people's gazes following them. The feeling of discomfiture grew, and he wished he could shrink at least three sizes to make himself less visible. By the time they reached the table bearing the bounty of food items, his hands were trembling, and when he tried to pour a glass of punch, he sloshed pale pink liquid over the edge of the glass's rim and spattered the linen tablecloth.
Heat burned the back of his neck, and he hunched his shoulders. "I'm so sorry."
Daphne moved closer, angling her head to meet his eyes. "Please don't apologize. And please don't let the stares of the other guests perturb you. I know what each of them is thinking."
Thomas risked a quick sideways glance, confirming a number of attentive faces aimed in their direction. "I know, too. 'What is that big clod doing with that beautiful girl?' "
She curled her fingers over his forearm. "Quite the contrary. They're thinking, 'How did that young lady manage to catch the most handsome man in the room?' "
He raised one eyebrow, silently communicating his doubt.
Her midnight eyes sparkled. "Or perhaps, 'What a perfect couple.'"
Thomas gulped. Heat crept from the back of his neck to the top of his head. He snatched up another glass, filled it with punch, and downed the cool, sweet liquid, grateful for the distraction. But unfortunately, the diversion lasted only a few seconds. When he looked once more into her face, the heat returned with an intensity that made his knees weak.
"Daphne Severt," he growled, "what you do to a man ..."
She batted her thick eyelashes. "Do tell."
He laughed, shaking his head. "Oh no. You have enough confidence already. I won't add to it."
Her flirtatious expression invited him to shower her with all the praises filling his heart and mind, but his father hadn't raised a foolish man. He wouldn't give voice to the feelings until he knew he could follow them with action. He'd be leaving soon, returning to Kansas. Now that his studies were completed, his family expected him. It felt good to be going home, but the thought of leaving Daphne filled him with regret.
Daphne lifted her cup to her lips and sipped daintily, her wide-eyed gaze never drifting from his face.
* * *
When Thomas's neck blotched with color, Daphne knew she'd accomplished her goal: Thomas was smitten with her.
The first time Harry had brought Thomas to their home, she'd been intrigued. She'd been only thirteen years old then, but she'd been mature enough to recognize the differences between this man and the boys who generally spent time with Harry. Just standing next to him had brought a rush of pleasure. Outside, in the sunshine, his shadow completely swallowed hers. He made her feel small and feminine and safe.
A servant passed by, carrying a carved wood tray. She put her half-empty glass on the tray and caught Thomas's elbow once more. "This room is so crowded. Could we step onto the veranda for a moment?"
Thomas sucked in his lips, seeming to give her question deep consideration. He frowned, and she feared a refusal would be forthcoming. She leaned forward slightly, pressing her arm against his. "Please, Thomas? I need some fresh air."
Although his expression didn't clear, he nodded. They moved side by side through the double French doors leading to the narrow veranda that faced out over the grassy Common. Thomas tempered his wide stride to match hers, and she smiled. Such a gentleman lurked beneath his burly frame.
Thomas crossed to the iron railing and curled both of his hands over the scrolled top. Daphne retained her hold on his elbow as she took a deep breath of the spring air. "Ahh. This is much better."
Thomas chuckled. "There's no fan out here to stir the air. It isn't any less stuffy."
"Oh, but out here we're alone." She peered up at him, offering her biggest smile. "Do you not agree that's much better?"
The blotching in his neck returned immediately.
"Thomas, must you truly return to Kansas?" She sighed dramatically.
He frowned down at her. "My family is expecting me."
"But Kansas is so far from Boston."
Thomas shifted his gaze across the Common, his expression pensive. "Yes. I know."
Determined to draw him back, she released her hold on his arm and slipped away a few feet, peering at him over her shoulder. "Will you miss me?"
"Will you miss me?"
That wasn't the response she'd anticipated. She jerked her gaze forward, folded her arms over her chest, and refused to answer. Besotted or not, she wouldn't allow him to control her. Suddenly large hands cupped her shoulders and turned her around. She had to tip her head back to look into his serious face.
"Don't play games with me, Daphne." Thomas's deep, throaty voice sounded tense. "If you'll miss me, just say so."
Daphne placed her palms against the front of Thomas's jacket. It was a brazen gesture, but he didn't shrink away. "I shall miss you dreadfully." She whispered the words, waiting for him to respond in kind.
"I'll leave you my address. You can write to me."
Had he made a request or a demand? Daphne scowled, pursing her lips into the pout she often practiced in front of the mirror in her private sleeping chamber. "It isn't the same."
"But it will have to do," he pointed out in a calm tone that stirred her ire.
She grasped the lapels of his coat. "You are coming back, aren't you, Thomas? Harry depends on your assistance in the presidential election. He said you promised to help. You are a man of your word, aren't you?"
The blotching rose from his neck to his smooth-shaven cheeks, but this time Daphne suspected it had less to do with discomfort than with anger. How would this big man express his temper? Explode like Father, or withdraw like Harry?
Thomas drew in a deep breath, held it for several seconds, then let it out in little bursts through his nose. With each burst, the color in his face diminished. When he spoke, it was with an even, unflustered tone. "I gave my word. I'll be back."
She leaned closer.
"To assist in the campaign."
She released his lapels and pranced away, presenting her back. "Thomas Ollenburger, I—"
She didn't have the opportunity to finish, because someone threw open the French doors. Daphne spun, expecting Harry, but Mrs. Steadman stood in the opening.
"Thomas, a few of your guests are preparing to leave." The woman shot Daphne a disapproving frown before looking back at Thomas. "You should be there to tell them a proper good-bye and thank-you."
"Of course, Nadine. We were just returning. Weren't we, Miss Severt?"
Daphne nodded and forced a pleasant expression. She glided past Thomas, giving him a brief glance. "Thank you for showing me the veranda, Mr. Ollenburger. Have a safe journey to Kansas."
She returned to the parlor and sought Harry. She would fake a headache and ask him to escort her home. If Thomas were to regret the lost opportunity for a lengthy good-bye, then she couldn't tarry.
Harry was in the midst of some intense discussion with three other young men, but she captured his arm and tugged him away from the group. His fierce glower would have silenced most people, but Daphne was used to dealing with her brother. "Harry, my head is pounding. I wish to go home."
"But I haven't even had a chance to talk to Tom."
She made a great pretense of wilting, carrying one trembling hand to her forehead. "I fear I shall simply collapse if I'm not able to rest immediately."
Harry blew out a breath of frustration. "Oh, very well." He turned to the others. "I need to leave, fellows. But—"
One of the others—a student Daphne had seen before but to whom she'd never been formally introduced—stepped forward. "Harry, why don't you stay? You know Tom better than I do, anyway. I'll escort your sister home in my landau."
Harry clapped the man's shoulder. "Thank you, Wilfred. I appreciate that."
Daphne gaped at Harry. Would he truly pass her off to some skinny, pock-faced stranger?
Harry put his hand on Daphne's spine. "Daphne, you'll be in safe company with Wilfred Taylor." He pressed her forward, ignoring her angry glare. "I'll check in on you when I return."
Wilfred licked his lips and stuck out his bony elbow in invitation. "Come along, Miss Severt."
Daphne had no choice but to place her hand in the curve of his arm. It felt like kindling compared to Thomas's broad limbs. But as she and Wilfred made their departure, she observed Thomas's clenched jaw and narrowed gaze, and satisfaction welled upward. Perhaps she possessed the victory after all.
Early June, 1904
The closer the rattling passenger car carried Thomas to Hillsboro, the more he shifted on the wooden seat. Sweat drenched his back, making him want to remove his suit coat and roll up the sleeves of his linen shirt. But remembering Nadine's admonition when he'd boarded in Boston—"You're a college graduate now, Thomas. You must look the part"—he felt certain she would ask his stepmother how he'd been dressed when he arrived in Hillsboro. He'd tangled with Nadine before; he had no desire to do it again.
The fabric of the custom-tailored black worsted suit bore wrinkles and sweat stains, and he wondered how he could look more like a college graduate in bedraggled attire than in a pair of trousers and a chambray shirt from his bag. But respect for Nadine kept him in the suit, regardless of how much he wanted to change.
The suit wasn't the only thing making him uncomfortable. Scattered emotions—eagerness to see his family, regret at not being able to say a proper farewell to Daphne, and uncertainty about what to do with the degree he'd spent three years earning—combined to make fresh perspiration moisten his forehead. Ach, how much longer to Hillsboro?
He snatched off his hat and dragged a wilted handkerchief over his face. The hot wind streaming through the open window peppered him with grit and coal dust. Instead of replacing his hat, he dropped it onto the seat beside him and looked out at the passing countryside.
Kansas, his boyhood home. Pasture land of gently rolling hills dotted with yucca bearing fat buds that would soon blossom. Occasional splashes of color from wildflowers. Wheat fields, the golden tips waving in the sun. Stands of wind-pruned trees, their branches full and green. It was all so familiar ... and yet also foreign after his long time away.
Scowling, he turned from the window. He bent forward, rested his elbows on his widespread knees, and lowered his head. Dia Gott enn de Himmel—just like his father and his father's father before him, he lapsed into German when he prayed—I do not know where I belong now. Pa wants me home in Kansas, and a part of me wants that, too, but I have been gone for so long ... Where am I meant to call "home"? Help me know, Lord.
For long moments he remained in his bent-low position, his head bobbing with the motion of the train, waiting for an answer. But when the screeching of the brakes signaled the train's approach to Hillsboro, he'd received no more answers than the last time he'd prayed. Maybe when he was home, in his familiar bedroom with the sounds of the prairie soothing his troubled soul, things would become clear.
Putting one arm forward, he braced himself on the back of the seat in front of him and gritted his teeth against the vibration coming through the floorboards. He held his breath until the rapid, screeching deceleration turned into a slow chug-chug-chug, and then let it out in one big whew of relief that accompanied the train's release of steam. He glanced out the window. A small cluster of people waited on the boardwalk for the few passengers who would disembark, and his heart leaped when he recognized his father's shaggy, wheat-colored hair—his head always inches above anyone else in a crowd.
Pa! To his surprise, tears pooled in Thomas's eyes. He plopped his hat over his own wheat-colored mop, grabbed up his bag, and raced to the door at the end of the car. He didn't bother with the metal stairs, but took a single leap that brought him flat-footed on hard-packed earth. The shock of the landing gave him momentary pause, but then he stumbled forward on tingling feet. "Pa! Pa! And Summer!"
Although Summer had been his stepmother for nine years— nearly half of his life—he still hesitated at calling her Ma. Back when she'd married Pa, he hadn't wanted to be a replacement for her deceased sons, Vincent and Tod. But now, as he called her given name, he experienced a pang of regret.
His family separated from the crowd and rushed forward, with his sisters outpacing Pa and Summer. The littlest one, three-yearold Lena, tripped and fell face first in the dirt and began to wail. Pa paused to scoop her into his arms, and stairsteps Abby and Gussie—so similar in size and appearance they could pass for twins—barreled into Thomas. He laughed at their enthusiastic welcome. They'd only been two and one years of age when he'd first left for high school and college in the East, and his visits home had been few and brief, yet each time he came home, they swarmed him like bees on a honeysuckle vine.
He lifted them off the ground simultaneously, one in each arm, and swung in a circle that made their matching yellow braids stick straight out. They clung to his shoulders and squealed, their childish voices loud in his ears. He set them down and reached for Summer. Wrapping his arms around her slender frame, he was transported back to the first time he'd dared hug her. He'd had to lift his arms to her then. This time she reached up to capture his face with her hands and give him a bold kiss on the cheek.
"Oh, Thomas, it's so good to have you home again."
The word home reverberated right through Thomas's heart. He swallowed hard, his arms tightening around her back. "It's good to be here."
When Thomas released Summer, Pa stepped forward with little Lena balanced on his arm. Plump tears quivered on the child's thick eyelashes, and she sucked the two middle fingers of her left hand. Thomas held out his arms to Lena, but she buried her face against Pa's neck. Her action made it impossible for him to give either her or his father a hug.
Thomas cupped the back of his sister's head of dark, tangled curls with one hand and clamped the other over his father's shoulder. A huge lump filled his throat. All of his life, he'd wanted to please this man. How would Pa feel if Thomas left Kansas for good? Forcing his voice past the lump of emotion, he managed a one-word salutation. "Pa."
Pa nodded, seeming to understand the great meaning behind the simple greeting. He responded in kind: "Son." For long moments they stood silently under the sun, with Summer, Abby, and Gussie looking on, until suddenly Lena released her father's neck and flung herself at Thomas.
"Oomph!" Thomas took a step backward when her weight hit him. The child's moist fingers dug into the back of his neck. He crossed his arms over her narrow back, holding her in place. Lena pressed her face against his collar. He heard her whisper, "You my bruvver, Thomaff."
Both Abby and Gussie beamed, clapping their hands. Obviously they'd been coaching Lena in preparation for his homecoming. Lena's valiant attempt at speaking his name brought a smile to his face and he said, "That's right." He bounced her a couple of times on his arm, making her giggle. Her fingers slid back into her rosy little mouth, and she reached for Pa. Thomas experienced a sense of loss as he relinquished her. But then Gussie and Abby danced forward, each taking one of his hands.
Pa, with Lena in one arm, picked up Thomas's bag and heaved his great shoulders in a slow shrug. "Well, now that our Thomas is here, we can go home."
Thomas fell into step between Pa and Summer, and the two little girls skipped along in front of him, getting in his way. He watched his step as he spoke. "I'm eager to get to the homestead—to say hello to Daisy and maybe take a ride before it gets dark. Are the strawflowers blooming? I'd like to take a bouquet to Grossmutter's grave tomorrow—if that's all right."
A wave of sorrow accompanied his last comment. Although his dear great-grandmother had been gone more than three years now—passing away peacefully in her sleep midway through Summer's last pregnancy—Thomas still missed her with a fierce ache. He hadn't even been able to attend her funeral, caught in studies halfway across the United States. But during every summer trip to Kansas, he'd spent considerable time at the tiny gravesite where Grossmutter rested near Summer's first husband and their four children, all of whom had died of typhoid fever as they traveled through Kansas.
Although the baby boy Summer had borne during the first year she was Thomas's new mother was also buried there, Thomas rarely sat at that grave. The infant hadn't lived more than a few minutes and hadn't even been given a name. Baby Boy Ollenburger, as his tombstone read, didn't seem real to Thomas somehow.
"Ja, if you want to visit Grossmutter's grave, we can make that work." Pa's solemn tone reflected Thomas's thoughts.
"Thank you, Pa."
They reached the end of the boardwalk, where two wagons waited, both with horses lazing within the confines of their leather rigging. Pairs of plodding, dependable oxen had pulled his father's wagon for as long as Thomas could remember. He looked around in confusion. "Where are Arndt and Bruno?"
Summer and Pa exchanged a look that made Thomas's stomach pinch.
"Son," Pa said, his head low, "some changes we have made since last time you were home."
Why would Pa get rid of the oxen? He needed the beasts to turn the gristmill's large paddles to face the wind; horses weren't strong enough. The twinge in Thomas's middle increased. "Changes?" He looked from one parent to the other while Gussie and Abby blinked up at him.
"Ja." Pa took a deep breath, as if preparing to share something of importance, but Summer touched his sleeve.
"Let's wait until we're at the house to visit with Thomas, shall we? It's warm here in the sun, and Little Lena is ready for her afternoon nap."
Pa let out his breath in a way that indicated great relief. His gaze flicked between Thomas and Summer, and he nodded his head, gently patting Lena's back as she drowsed on his shoulder. "That is sound thinking. Come."
But instead of leading Thomas to a wagon, Pa headed straight through town. Pa's brown boots thudded against the raised walkway, matching the thumping of Thomas's heart. They made two turns to reach a residential area. There, he followed Pa into a small two-story house. When he saw the familiar furnishings from the homestead— Grossmutter's and Summer's chairs, Pa's homemade bench draped with the worn patchwork quilt, and the handmade table and chairs where he had eaten many meals with his father, great-grandmother, and Summer—he couldn't remain silent. "You live in Hillsboro? Why didn't you tell me you left the homestead?"
Pa shook his head, frowning when Lena stirred on his shoulder. Instead of addressing Thomas, he turned to Gussie and Abby. "Girls, up to your room and play for a little bit. Stay quiet, though, while your sister sleeps. When she wakes, your mother will fix a snack for you."
Abby caught Gussie's hand, and the pair scampered up an enclosed staircase that divided the little house in two. Pa started after them, but he paused at the base of the stairs, peering back at Thomas with sad eyes. "Summer will show you where you sleep. I will put Lena in her bed, and then we will talk."
Thomas clamped his jaw against all the questions that burned on his tongue. He picked up the bag Pa had left lying inside the front door, and trailed Summer through the kitchen to a lean-to at the back of the house. The ceiling sloped downward at a sharp pitch, forcing Thomas to duck to keep from hitting his head on the rafters. His old rope bed filled almost half of the room, the head and foot fitting snugly between opposite walls. Next to the head of the bed stood his chest of drawers, with a shelf above it holding many of his boyhood belongings.
For a moment, a picture of the spacious room he had occupied in Nadine's home flashed through his mind, and he grimaced. But then he noticed the neatly made bed, the colorful quilt stretched smoothly over the mattress, and the arrangement of his favorite books and childish toys on the shelf. Someone had tried to make this little room welcoming. He kept silent the disparaging thoughts. Dropping his bag, he sat heavily on the quilt. The groan of the ropes echoed the groan of his heart.
Summer linked her fingers together and stood quietly in the doorway of the lean-to. The same sadness he'd seen in Pa's eyes lingered in Summer's dark-eyed gaze.
Thomas clamped his hands over his knees. "Summer, why are you living in Hillsboro? What happened to the homestead? Who's manning the mill?"
Summer's lips trembled for a moment. "The gristmill is closed."
"Closed!" Thomas jolted to his feet, remembering too late the low height of the ceiling. His head collided with an overhead rafter, and he plunked back down. Summer rushed to him and ran searching fingers over his scalp. He gently pushed her hands aside. "I'm fine." Truthfully, his head throbbed, but that pain was minimal compared to the ache in his chest. "Why didn't Pa tell me?"
Summer sank down beside him. "He didn't want to worry you. He feared that if you knew, you would rush home before you'd finished your education."
Yes, that would be like Pa—thinking of Thomas instead of himself. But Thomas could have helped ... somehow. "But it was operating when I was here last summer."
Summer looked to the side. "He did what he could the last two harvests, for those who brought him their wheat."
Thomas thought back, recalling how the grinding seemed to take much less time last summer than in prior years. Pa had joked that they were getting efficient, finishing early, but now he realized fewer people must have come to Pa. He drew a hand down his face. "So he sold the homestead and mill?"
Summer's expression turned sad. "No. So many people from Gaeddert have moved to nearby towns, no one was interested in purchasing the homestead. It sits empty." She paused, her throat convulsing. "It makes your father very sad."
Tears stung behind Thomas's nose as he considered how difficult it must have been for Pa to leave the house and buildings he'd constructed with his own hands. So many dreams were poured into that land, dreams carried from across the ocean and planted with high hopes. Now those dreams had been swept away like dust in a Kansas windstorm.
Summer put a hand on Thomas's knee. "Your father has a job at the steam-powered mill here in town."
Pa, who expressed pride in the three-generations-long line of self-supporting Ollenburger millers, now spent his days toiling for someone else instead of earning his way with his own mill? Thomas's chin quivered. "It's not right, Summer."
"Right or wrong," Summer said, "many of Gaeddert's residents are starting over in other communities. The town was so small, Thomas. With no more wagon trains coming through, and the difficulty in raising crops over the past few years, Gaeddert couldn't support itself any longer. Had the people allowed the railroad to come through the town, it might have survived, but ... there was no opportunity for growth."
A shadow fell across the room, and Thomas looked up to find Pa filling the doorway. His eyes—lined at the edges, topped by thick yellow brows now streaked with gray—met Thomas's. It looked like his father had deliberately relaxed his face into an expression of complacency.
"Change is not always for bad." Pa spoke as though he'd been a part of the entire conversation, and Thomas wondered how long he'd been listening. "And here in Hillsboro, we have many familiar faces to make us feel not so lonely for our town, Gaeddert."
Summer patted Thomas's knee, sitting up straight with a smile lighting her face. "Why, yes, and one in particular will be pleased to know you're home. She asks about you often."
Thomas waited in silence.
Pa nodded. "Belinda will know soon enough you are here. The Schmidt widow and her daughters reside right there across the alley."
Thomas's mouth went dry. Belinda ...