On a frosty morning in early December, the train I’d taken from the east rounded the last corner before Emerson Pass. I breathed a sigh of relief. This was the last stop on a long journey home. My stomach fluttered with excitement. I would see my family at last. Perhaps even Jack would be there to greet me. At the thought of Jack, I pulled my compact from my purse to check my lipstick. Bright red, as was the fashion, and none on my teeth. My hair looked as good as was possible after many days on the train. I stuck a pin through my derby hat to secure it better and then put my powder away.
The train shuddered to a stop. I rubbed my finger against the glass, making a circle with which to peer out to the platform. What I saw surprised me a great deal. Or should I say, what I didn’t see? No one was there. Not a single person stood on the platform. No bodies milled about inside where it was most likely warmer, either.
Where was my family? When one of our own returned from an adventure, the Barnes family came to welcome them home. I’d expected that all of my six siblings, their spouses, and my nieces and nephews would be there, waving and smiling, my mother crying with joy at seeing me. We were a large, messy clan that had weathered many trials and celebrated many joyous occasions. My coming home after four years at university was supposed to be one of the latter. Instead, the station seemed strangely still, as if it had been frozen in time, as in a fairy tale. The fir and pine trees were covered with a fresh layer of snow. Ice made the leafless aspens look like finely spun sugar. From the look of the white sky, snow would soon fall again.
A shiver of worry sped up my spine. Was something wrong?
There was no one else in the passenger car. Not many ventured all this far into the Rockies, and most had gotten off at the stop for Louisville, a bigger town at a much lower elevation than Emerson Pass.
I took my valise from under my seat and steadied myself. There was nothing wrong. They’d gotten the date and time mixed up. That was all. Perhaps they thought I was coming home tomorrow? Today, the seventh of December, was a Sunday. Had my mother been confused, thinking I would come Monday instead? She was not one to get details muddled, especially when the baby of the family returned back to the nest.
What if someone was sick in the family?
Please, God, don’t let it be Papa.
He was in his midsixties now, and although he was as robust and energetic as he’d always been, I worried. My mother was almost fifteen years his junior. The thought of either of them being without the other was impossible for me to even imagine. Their love story was one for the ages.
I glanced down at the gold watch my parents had given me for my graduation from Bryn Mawr last spring. I’d graduated with a degree in mathematics. Not typical for a woman, I’d heard more than once, but I didn’t care. I loved every minute of my studies and had tutored half a dozen of my girlfriends to help them pass their classes. The joy I felt in teaching, seeing the delight on their faces when they finally understood a concept, had inspired me to think about becoming a professor myself.
After graduation, I’d been offered a job as the assistant to a math professor at Harvard. After some time, in combination with a good recommendation I could go on to graduate school. I’d lasted six months with my pig of a boss before coming to my senses. Not only did he treat me like
secretary instead of a mathematician, but one day, as I leaned over his desk to retrieve a piece of paper he wanted, he’d put his hand up my skirt. I suspect it was my hard kick to his male region, one that left him writhing on the floor, that led to my immediate dismissal. I smiled, remembering his red his howls of pain as I stomped out of his office never to return.
Which now left me feeling like an accomplished young woman, home after graduating with honors. As much as I’d thought a life in academia was what I wanted, it was not to be.
Anyway, I wanted to be home with my family. I’d already missed four years of my nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays and graduations. In addition, my closest sister, Addie, had had her first novel based on our family published to great success. She’d taken the stories the others had told us growing up and put them into a novel about the five Carrow children. There were all sorts of scrapes and high jinks and family love. I’d cried my eyes out over every scene when I’d read the final edition. I’d been her very first reader from the very first draft, yet I couldn’t help but be drawn into the story as if I were reading it all for the first time. I filled with pride just thinking of it all now.
Despite her success, she’d remained humble and as sweet as she’d always been despite her success. James, who was now the principal at the high school, as well as teaching all the English courses, had been overjoyed at her triumph. He’d once been an editor in New York and knew a thing or two about books and writers. Without his encouragement, I don’t know if my sister would have had the courage to send her novel out to editors. All that was history now. She was now a successful author.
In addition to all that, there was a job waiting for me here. One I could excel in. I hoped I would, anyway. Papa had offered me a position in his company, working under my brother Flynn and brother-in-law Phillip. When I’d come home for Christmas last, they all tried to convince me to come home right after graduation; however, they’d understood I wanted to try my hand in academia instead. But if I wanted a job in the family business, then it would be here when I was ready. Well, the time had come. I was ready all right.
I stepped into the frigid air. The tip of my nose went cold as I scanned the platform. Silence met me. Even the ticket master was missing and the window of his booth closed.
Clutching my valise, I walked toward the inside of the station. If no one had come for me, it would be best to wait inside where it was warm. I’d no sooner walked through the door and inhaled a breath of warm air than I saw Jack Depaul sprinting toward the front doors.
My pulse quickened at the sight of him. He wore a pair of denim jeans, a plaid shirt, and a cowboy hat perched on top of his perfect head, hiding his thick dark hair. I knew that head of hair like the back of my fingertips. I blushed, remembering how I’d run my fingers through his hair all those years ago after our graduation from high school and then kissed him right on the mouth and then told him, “I’ve been wanting to do that for so long.” He’d stared at me with wide eyes, obviously discombobulated by my brazen advances. The next day, I’d blamed it on the clandestine spiked punch one of my girlfriends had given me at the bonfire. That devil juice had made me bold. I’d never in my life done something like it and never had again. Jack was the only boy I’d ever kissed. To this day, the memory was still fresh four and a half years later. As was the desire to do it again.
We’d laughed it off at the time, blaming that silly punch. We were best friends, nothing more, he’d said. “Best not to get any notions in our heads, what with you leaving at the end of the summer.” I cringed even now thinking about how humiliated I’d been. He clearly had not felt what I had.
Since then, I’d seen Jack on holidays, more from afar than up close. Busy helping his father run their horse farm, he had little time for entertainment. By the time I came back for the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, he had a girlfriend. Helen. Flaxen-haired Helen from Denver, who wore fashionable clothes and sparkly jewelry. The daughter of a horse trader. What could be more perfect for Jack? My sister Fiona said they’d met during an auction. She must be something, I’d thought at the time, to snatch up Jack Depaul. When I’d seen her with my own eyes, I’d understood only too well her appeal to the rougher sex.
So that was that, I’d told myself. What did I expect? That he would wait around for me while I finished school when he hadn’t wanted me in the first place? I’d been the only one of us to feel a stirring so deep that it competed with the idea of college. If he’d said he felt the same way, I might not have gone to school. A terrible mistake that would have been, I reminded myself now as I took in the pure masculinity of the man as he strode through the doors of the station, yanking his hat from his head.
Regardless, growing up and even now, he was a person I greatly admired. He was kind but also smart. Strong as an ox, the man could work harder and longer than anyone I’d ever witnessed. He and his brother, Henry, had been working on their father’s horse farm since they could walk. As far as I could tell, he loved his horses and that land more than he’d ever love a woman. I supposed I should pity Helen. What a trial it would be to marry a man like Jack. One would always be second to the horses.
That said, as far as I knew they weren’t yet engaged. Maybe she’d given up on him? Otherwise, why hadn’t they married yet? I didn’t want to ask Addie or Mama about him for fear I’d give myself away. Like many things in life, I knew what I could have and what I couldn’t. Jack Depaul was as hard to tame as one of his young horses, and apparently I wasn’t the one to do so. Lucky Helen, I thought, as I gazed into his deep blue eyes.
He held his hat in front of him, looking much too good. No man should be this virile and handsome. It was enough to unsteady the steadiest of women, namely me. “Delphia Barnes. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes. You look as beautiful as ever. Welcome home.”
“It’s nice to see you too. Where’s everyone else?”
He looked at me blankly, as if he hadn’t heard my question correctly. “I’m sorry it’s just me here to fetch you, but considering everything, no one wanted to leave the house.”
I clutched the handle of my valise so hard my fingers hurt. “Did something happen to my father?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” He ran a hand through his thick hair and looked up at the ceiling. “You haven’t heard the news. Obviously, you haven’t.”
“The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor early this morning. They blew up the Arizona and the Shaw.”
“Those are navy ships, stationed at Pearl Harbor. We lost thousands of men on the Arizona. Thousands.” His voice sounded as dull as his eyes looked. “Everyone’s home listening to the radio, hoping for more news. We’ll join the war.
We have no choice after this.” I nodded. For months now the debate about whether we should join the Allies had occupied much of the American consciousness. People had views on either side. I’d hoped we could stay out of it. I had seen close up what the first war had done to my brother Theo. He and Flynn had fought in the Great War, and he’d come home haunted by what he’d seen and done. Why did there have to be another one? Now we would be in it, no question.
Instinctively, I clutched his arm. “I don’t want us to fight. Can’t we just leave it be?”
“Not after they went after our people. I expect Roosevelt will make an announcement soon.”
“But we’ve already gone through the Depression. Wasn’t that bad enough?” So many had suffered since the crash. Would we have more suffering? Hadn’t our generations seen enough hardship?
“Yes, but we can’t let them get away with killing Americans. There were civilians killed, too. We have to fight.”
I quickly ran through how many young men in our family were of the age to fight. My nephews Bleu and Beaumont were my age. They’d been adopted by Fiona and Li when they were eight. Ironically, they’d brought them over from France. Were they fated to return? Only this time in American uniforms? Louisa and Theo’s son Simon wouldn’t be quite old enough yet but next year he would be. And what about Jack?
My knees weakened at the thought of those sweet young men sent to a war that should have nothing to do with us.
He smiled down at me. “What a way to greet you. Once again, welcome home.”
“How come you came to get me?” I’m of average height, but next to this large man I felt demure and petite.
“I brought a colt over for your dad this morning. We heard the news together and were unable to tear ourselves away from the reports. I offered to come get you so they could stay to hear whatever comes next.”
“That was nice of you.” I realized I was still holding on to his arm. Self-conscious, I let go while continuing to look up at him. “You look good. As always.”
“Thanks. Hard work keeps a man fit.” He grinned that devilish grin of his. Did the man get better-looking every year? “I’m honored to be the one to welcome you back home. I still can’t believe you’re here. I thought I’d never see you again once you started your career in academia.”
“It wasn’t for me, actually.”
“Your father mentioned something about the man you were working for and his ungentlemanly behavior. I hope you hurt him good.” His blue eyes twinkled. Such long, thick lashes for a man. It must be his French heritage. His father had immigrated from France with his parents and little sister, Poppy.
“Yes, it was quite satisfying,” I said. “But somewhat career-ending.”
“Their loss is our gain. Is this your only bag?” Jack asked, indicating my suitcase.
I looked down at my bag. “Yes, I sent the rest through the post.”
“Are you really home for good?” His eyes searched my face. Was there a weight to his question?
“I am. The boys want me to run the nightclub. They’re tired of it. Or their wives are, anyway.” My oldest sister, Josephine, was married to Phillip. He helped my brother Flynn run the lodge and nightclub, as well as designed and built furniture on the side. Jo said he was too busy all the time and worn out from all his duties. “And Mama approves now that booze is legal again.”
“It’s been for a while now,” Jack said, chuckling.
“I know, much to my mother’s dismay.”
He gestured toward the parking lot. “May I carry your bag for you?”
“Like you used to in school?” When we were in high school together, he used to pick me up for school in his dad’s old truck and insist on carrying my books into the building.
“Those were fun days, weren’t they?” His tone bordered on wistful. “I’ve missed them. And you.”
“Really?” I had such fond memories of those days, bouncing around in the cab of his truck talking about horses and music and whatever else came to mind. We’d been such good friends back then. Until I ruined it for myself by falling for him. Never again, though. He was taken, and it was best I remember that.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Jack asked. “You were my best friend when we were kids. That doesn’t change just because you’re a fancy city girl now.”
“I’m not a city girl. Take it back.” I smacked his chest.
He laughed and caught my hand, holding it against his chest for a moment. “We missed you around here, Delphia Barnes. It’s been a little less interesting around here without you. Quite a bit less interesting.”
“Well, here I am. About to make things interesting.”
He let go of my hand but not before saying, “Of that I have no doubt.”
I stole a glance at his hand as he picked up my suitcase. No ring. I would have heard if he’d gotten married. Maybe they were still engaged? Or had they broken up? I would ask him, I decided, once we were in the car.
To my delight, he was driving his old truck. He tossed my bag in the back and then opened the passenger door for me. “You remember this old pile of metal?” Jack asked, reaching for my hand to help me jump up and into the interior.
“Sure. I loved this old girl. She’s holding up fine.”
“Some girls get better with age.” He grinned before shutting the door. I watched as he sprinted around the front of the truck. How was he out in this weather without an overcoat? Not that I minded. I enjoyed the way his flannel shirt clung to his muscular chest. I’d felt those muscles when he’d twirled me around the dance floor back in high school. Although we’d never been a couple, he’d always been the one to take me to dances. He was the best dancer in our class. I always felt like a princess in his arms.
When he got in, he started the truck, which roared to life with a rumble and a shake. Gasoline wafted into the cabin. “Sorry about the smell,” Jack said, with a grimace.
“I like it,” I said. He laughed.
“Reminds me of you.” Why had I said that? I wanted to clap my hand over my mouth. What a ninny.
The corners of his mouth lifted in a slow smile. He draped his forearm over the steering wheel and turned to look at me. “Darned if you don’t look good sitting in my truck. Like you belong right there.”
My stomach fluttered. Warmth spread through my limbs. I knew the temperatures were below freezing, but right now I could have melted butter with the touch of my hand. “I spent enough time here— there’s probably an indent where I used to sit.”
With his arm still draped over the steering wheel, he shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe it was me. “I didn’t think it was possible.”
“What’s that? Me coming home?” Hadn’t we already covered that?
“No, that you grew prettier since the last time I saw you. How do you do that?”
“I was thinking the same thing about you.”
“I do have a pretty face,” Jack said, laughing. “Everyone says so.”
That was the truth. “All the girls in high school were in love with you.”
“Nah, I’m too ornery and wild for most of the women in this town. You were the only one who could ever put up with me for long.”
“That’s not true.” What about Helen? I was itching to ask but decided to wait. I didn’t want to be that obvious. Not when I’d only just gotten home. A girl should be subtle in matters of the heart.
The moment was over too soon. Turning toward the front window, Jack put the truck in gear and pulled out of the lot. Soon, we were headed down the country road toward town. “Fresh snow?” I asked.
“Last night. First big one of the season. Just for you.”
I warmed again. Was he flirting with me? I never knew these things. At college, the girls had teased me that I never knew when a man was interested in me. Not that I cared. I didn’t want any of those soft, weak young men. No one could compare to Jack. “How are your folks?”
“Over the moon. Henry and Lillian had a baby. A boy— named Jack after me. They call him Jay, though.”
“My mother told me about the baby.” Everyone was married and having babies. All but me. I should keep it that way if I wanted to have a career in the family business. The minute I had a baby or even a husband, everyone would expect me to stay home and behave myself.
“I never thought Henry would settle down without so much as a fight,” Jack said, sounding slightly disgusted. “That woman owns his soul.”
“God forbid one of the Depaul men is tamed.” Both the Depaul boys had been sweet as ice cream, but Henry was more playful and carefree. Jack had always had an intensity about him. One he channeled into his father’s farm. Or, at least that was his plan back when we were in high school. He’d been a good student but had no interest in going to college. “My place is here,” he’d said to me on our gradation night. “With my family and our horses.”
“Yeah, you’d hardly recognize him. Enamored with his wife and baby— everything is about them. As it should be, of course. But it’s still a little strange for me. Everything changes, I guess.”
“I know all about that— my siblings have all fallen, one by one, until there’s only one left.”
“You want it that way forever?” He glanced over at me and raised an eyebrow. “Are you still determined to conquer the world?”
“I’m not sure. The world wasn’t quite how I thought it would be.”
“The world’s loss is my gain— I mean our gain. The town collectively.”
My chest warmed. He’d missed me. “I don’t want a man telling me what to do. I know that.”
He shook his head, chuckling. “I pity the man who tries.” He turned off the main highway to the road out to my parents’ estate.
I drank in the beauty of the frozen, leafless branches of the aspens. I’d missed them. And the fields and the smell of woodsmoke in the air. “I’ve missed home more than you can imagine.”
“Not having left, I can’t really.”
“What about you and Helen?” I asked, wanting to know and not wanting to at the same time. “Are you getting married soon?”
“Helen, no.” His voice thickened. “She moved back home six months ago.”
“She did?” I sat up straighter, just as we bounced through a pothole in the road. My teeth clanked together. I held on to the seat with both hands tucked under my legs. Why hadn’t any of my sisters told me that? It was a deliberate omission, I felt sure. They were up to something.
“Yeah, she broke it off— said I loved my horses more than her. It was all very dramatic.”
I sucked in my cheeks to keep from smiling. He was free. Or was there someone else? A man like Jack Depaul didn’t stay unattached for long. “You have another girl then?”
“Nah. I decided after Helen I’d rather wait.”
“For what?” I peered at him, taking in the strength of his profile with that square jaw and high cheekbones.
He turned slowly toward me. “For you to come home. There’s no one else who can compete with you, Miss Barnes. There never was and never will be. Helen had it wrong. It’s not the horses I put ahead of her, it was you.”