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"Don't die here," Mariah pleaded. But her motorcar threatened to do just that as it coughed and slowed to a crawl. She depressed the accelerator to the floor, and the car lurched forward a few feet before slowing again.
"Just one more block." She gripped the wheel and as an afterthought added, "Please."
Mariah Meeks, agent for the Orphaned Children's Society of New York, didn't ordinarily talk to automobiles, but she had to get to her brother's church before he left for the day, and she had to do so without anyone noticing she'd returned to Pearlman. That mission died along with her car in the worst possible placeat Simmons Motor Garage.
As the car rolled to an ignoble stop, her pulse rocketed. Had Hendrick seen her? Surely he had. She hazarded a glance at the gleaming whitewashed garage, but no one had come out yet. Maybe he was still angry at her. Her brother Gabe said Hendrick hadn't dated anyone since she left town two Octobers ago.
Her fingers curled around the wheel. Hendrick Simmons. Did he look the same? The same strong loping stride, the same warm brown eyes, the same lock of hair across his brow that she'd always wanted to push away? Her palms sweated. She couldn't breathe. Memories swirled like a summer cyclone.
She tugged at a lock of her dark, springy hair, resisting the urge to tuck it into her mouth. What a mess she'd made of things that October. Her brother Gabe's wedding was supposed to be a joyous time. But then she'd caught the bouquet by accident and saw the look on Hendrick's face. Hope. Desire. Love? But they could never be more than friends. She'd panicked, had left town the next day without telling him why she could never marry. Coward.
He must despise her.
He wouldn't want to fix her car. She tried and tried to restart it, but the engine simply wouldn't turn over. What would she do? She could walk to her brother's church, but she had to have a car to get to Montana. A child's future depended on her getting there soon, and the trains weren't running, thanks to the nationwide rail strike.
Why, God? She looked to the heavens, but He didn't answer.
Gabe would know what to do. Her brother would figure out a way to get her to Montana. She plopped the stifling rolled-brim hat on her head and gathered her handbag.
She jumped so high she crushed the crown of her hat on the roof.
"Peter," she gasped at the sight of the grinning teenage boy. "You've grown."
The orphan had always been a beanpole, but he must have shot up six inches in the two years since the Society placed him with the Simmons family.
"Yes'm, almost a foot," he said with obvious pride.
She squinted. What was that? A few straggling hairs on his upper lip? She rapidly calculated his age. Goodness, he must be nearly seventeen now.
"What brings you to town?" he asked. "I ain't seen you practically since I come to Pearlman."
She stifled the urge to correct his grammar. "I'm just here for a brief visit." She started to open her door, but Peter finished the job and helped her from the car. Clearly, Mrs. Simmons had taught him manners. Judging by his broad grin, he was happy, exactly what she hoped to ensure for all the children she placedespecially Luke, the foster boy her brother Gabe had taken in. That was why she had to talk to Gabe right now. That's why she needed to get to Montana.
She glanced again at the garage. Still no Hendrick. "Are you helping Mr. Simmons at the garage?"
"More'n that. Mr. Hendrick taught me everything about engines. I'm practically running the place now."
"Running it?" She frowned. "Just for the summer, correct? You still plan to finish high school."
"Yes'm, but Mr. Hendrick's so busy at the airfield that he lets me take over here."
The airfield. Of course. She breathed a sigh of relief. That explained why he hadn't come out to greet her. Hendrick had worked on Jack Hunter's aeroplanes from the moment Jack landed in Pearlman. According to Gabe, the two were collaborating to build bigger and better engines for a foolhardy attempt at flying to the North Pole.
"I'm sure he'd wanna see ya," Peter said. "He'll be back anytime now."
Then she must hurry. She darted a glance down the street in the direction of the airfield. No one in sight yet. "Thank you, Peter, but I need to see my brother. Will you look after my car? I think it's burnt a valve."
"I'll take good care of her, Miss Mariah." He tipped a finger to his grimy cap.
"Thank you, Peter. If you need to reach me, I'll be at the church for an hour or so and then at the parsonage."
He knew that, of course. In tiny Pearlman, everyone knew where everyone stayed, who their relations were and what they were doing. Everyone in town doubtless already knew she was here. Her reappearance would make tongues wag with speculation that the romance between Hendrick and her was back on.
They could talk all they wanted. Romance was out of the question. In fact, she didn't even need to see Hendrick. She'd ask Gabe to talk to him about fixing her car. Hendrick wouldn't be able to refuse his pastor.
She squared her shoulders, quite pleased with her solution, and hurried toward her brother's church, intent on defusing a much more pressing crisis.
The heavy twinengine plane landed without a hitch and lumbered down the runway.
"Sounds good," Hendrick Simmons said with relief. He'd never understand why Jack Hunter, the plane's owner, allowed his wife to fly test flights. Hendrick would never let his wife face that kind of danger. If he ever got a wife, which hardly seemed likely after Mariah made it clear they could never be more than friends. For now, he was married to his work. He'd developed the high horsepower, air-cooled engines Hunter needed for his new plane.
"Your engines sound better than good." The suave aviator followed the plane's progress down the graded runway. "They'll take Darcy and me to the North Pole."
Hendrick scowled. "You're taking Darcy? After what happened on your transatlantic attempt, I'd think you'd want to stick with the flight school."
Jack Hunter didn't look fazed by the reminder of the failed flight. "Darcy wouldn't have it any other way. You know her."
Hendrick did know Jack's wife, Darcy. They'd been friends since childhood. "I wouldn't want my wife doing something that dangerous."
Jack laughed. "Wait until you meet the right woman. She'll change your mind. You'll do anything to make her happy."
"Even risk her life?" Hendrick shook his head. "No woman is going to change my mind. I'm looking for someone nice and quiet. The headstrong ones are too much trouble."
"That they are, but worth every minute. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Darcy."
"Do you ever miss being a test pilot for Curtiss Aeroplane and living the bachelor life?"
Hunter shook his head. "Not for one second. And after this flight, we're going to start a family." He looked wistfully toward the plane's cockpit, where his wife sat.
Hendrick swallowed hard. Darcy was his age, Jack only a little older. "I'd sure like that someday."
Hunter clapped Hendrick on the shoulder. "Keep the faith, pal. There's someone out there for you."
Mariah. Only, she didn't want him. And he couldn't see marrying anyone else in Pearlman. Hendrick squinted into the afternoon sun. "Lately I've been thinking I need to get away from Pearlman, try my hand at something else."
"Is that so?" Hunter patted the pockets of his leather jacket. "Then I might have just the opportunity for you." He pulled out a letter, folded and refolded until the seams had worn thin. "Remember Dick Burrows from Curtiss Aeroplane?"
How could he forget? Burrows used to be Jack's mechanic out East, and he'd inspected every repair Hendrick had made to Jack's plane two years ago. The arrogant aeronautical engineer thought he knew everything there was to know about engines, but he couldn't find a single thing wrong with Hendrick's work.
"He's still with Curtiss," Jack said. "A while back he wrote asking if I knew anyone working on air-cooled engines. It looks like Wright Aeronautical might get Law-rance's air-cooled radial motor, and Curtiss wants to build something to rival them, something like your engine."
"My engine?" Excitement bolted through Hendrick. A big-time aviation company wanted his invention to battle their rivals at Wright Aeronautical. They wanted him. He wouldn't be a lowly mechanic anymore. He'd be an aeronautical engineer. He swallowed and tried to sound calm. "What're they offering?"
Jack shrugged. "You'll have to talk to them. I can cable Burrows to set up an appointment. You'll need to bring some sketches of your engine to Garden City and explain how it works."
"Garden City's in New York?" Hendrick vaguely recalled Jack came from there.
"Yep. Long Island."
Long Island, New York. Hendrick had never left Pearlman. He'd never had that chance. After Pa's death, he'd supported his mother and kid sister and come to the conclusion that dreams belonged to other men. He'd put his on hold. Maybe now he could dare to try something new. His sister was out of high school, and he'd earn enough at Curtiss to support the family. Real wages, not the ups and downs of running a small-town business.
Hunter was grinning. "Pretty near someone you know."
Mariah. Hendrick's gut knotted up. Like Burrows, it was clear that she thought he was beneath her. Oh, she'd picnicked with him and joined him at church suppers, but when it came to anything serious, he wasn't good enough. She didn't say it right out, but that had to be the reason she'd snubbed him. She was wealthy and college-educated. He was just a mechanic. Well, he'd show her he was much more than that. His engine would bring fame and fortune, enough to impress anyone, even Mariah Meeks. He'd show her exactly what she'd missed out on.
"Send the cable," he said. "Let Burrows know I'm interested."
"Will do." Jack grinned as his wife climbed out of the cockpit. "Gotta run, pal."
Hendrick nodded and watched Hunter hurry across the airfield. Darcy raced toward him, arms opened wide. Their embrace and the way he swung her in a circle tore Hendrick to pieces. Everyone his age was getting married and having children. He wanted a family so bad it hurt.
He couldn't stand to watch any longer so he hopped on his motorbike and tore toward town in a cloud of dust. The wind against his face made him feel free. No responsibilities. No worries. No business to run or family to support. And most of all, for one moment, he could forget the aching emptiness.
Then he saw it: a green-and-black automobile parked beside his garage. He pulled his motorbike to a stop alongside the Overland. That knot in his gut wrenched tighter. It couldn't be. But even before he saw her gloves on the front seat, he knew the car was hers.
Mariah was back.
News travels fast in small towns. Gabe met Mariah before she reached the church. Her little brother looked the same, perhaps a bit filled out in the midsection, but his dark curls still flopped wildly and he still disdained a suit jacket in the summer. Neither the ministry nor marriage had changed him one bit.
"Sis." He enveloped her in a big hug. "Heard you were in town. What brings you here?"
She squeezed tightly, relishing this last moment before she broke the bad news. "I missed you, little brother."
"Then you shouldn't have stayed away so long." He stepped away and assessed her. "You should have let us know you were coming. Felicity will blame me for not telling her in time to set up the guestroom."
"I'm sorry for being so thoughtless." Mariah brushed the dirt from her duster. "I don't want to put you out, especially with Felicity so close to her due date. I'll stay at Terchie's."
Naturally he refused to let her stay in a boardinghouse. "We have five extra rooms. You're staying with us. Did you leave your car there?"
She crossed her arms, pretending to be vexed at his assumption. "How do you know I drove?"
He shook his head. "Even if the trains were running, you'd drive that car of yours." He glanced up and down the street. "Where is it?"
"At the garage," she admitted.
"The garage?" he snorted, unable to hide his mirth.
"I didn't see him. Peter looked happy, though. He's grown so tall, and I think I saw the beginnings of a mustache."
Gabe chuckled. "Luke asks every day when his will start to grow. They're good friends, you see. I have to give Peter credit for letting a ten-year-old hang around him so much."
Mariah's heart ached at Gabe's words. Two years ago Mariah had facilitated the placement of five Society orphans in Pearlman. Peter and Luke had been the last chosen and had apparently formed a deep bond from that day forward. Normally that would be good, but it would also make any separation that much harder. She sucked in a shuddering breath.
Gabe's brow creased. "You still haven't told me why you're here. Mom is coming in two weeks. You could have joined her if you wanted to be here when the baby's born." He drew a sharp breath. "It's business, isn't it? I didn't think the Society sent agents on follow-up anymore, especially when the reports are all good."
She swallowed hard. "It is Society business, in a way." But she couldn't say more because one Pearlman matron after another stopped to greet her. This was not the place to tell him the bad news. When she had a moment's break from the greetings, she asked if they might talk in private.
He nodded. "Let's go to the church. Florabelle will be gone by now."
Mariah was relieved to hear that. The church secretary was notorious for her gossiping, and this was the sort of news that Florabelle would love to spread.
Gabe extended an arm, always the gentleman, but she preferred to walk on her own. He set an easy pace. They were of a similar middling height, their strides equal. It wasn't like walking with Hendrick. He'd always had to slow down to match her shorter stride.
After a dozen more greetings, they were alone again on the sidewalk. Gabe buried his hands in his pockets, brow furrowed, looking very much like a little boy. She wished she could reassure him, but her news would only bring more worry.
"Lovely day," she said to break the tension.
He mumbled a reply but didn't look up until they reached the church, its solid oaken door darkened from all the hands that had touched it through the years. She reached for the handle, but Gabe stopped her hand.
"Is this about Luke?" he whispered.
She couldn't answer. Not yet. "Let's go inside."
He nodded and pulled open the door. "Whatever it is, God will see us through."
She wished she had that much confidence. Until now, she thought she'd placed total reliance on the Lord, but this news had shaken her. It would devastate Gabe.
Once they'd settled into their respective chairs, Gabe behind his desk and Mariah taking the seat opposite him, he waited expectantly, hands clenched, as if clinging to his new family.