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Snow fell, drifting silently over Wheatonburg. Through the thickening curtain of white, Abaigeal Sullivan peered out the front window of the company store, then turned away from the lovely, flawless illusion. The soot and coal dust still tarnished everything beneath the white powder. With a heart heavy from too many burdens, she turned back to her cleaning.
Minutes later the clock chimed four. "I imagine that's it for you today, Mrs. Sullivan," Mr. Prescott said.
Abby gritted her teeth at his disdainful tone. He was the manager of the company store and as overbearing a taskmaster with her as the fire bosses were with the miners. He resented her leaving on the last stroke of four, but felt no qualm docking her an entire hour's pay if the same clock had stopped chiming twelve when she arrived.
"I don't see Daniel, so I'd better hurry along," she replied as cheerfully as she could manage.
Mr. Prescott looked up at her and their eyes met over his spectacles. "Have you decided about that dimity? You have very little on credit. You certainly need a new dress."
Abby looked down at her skirt. She could afford the lovely material, but every penny she spent kept her and Daniel in Wheatonburg longer. A new dress wasn't worth it. "I've decided not. I have three dresses. A body hardly needs more than that. Good day to you," she said, tossing her cape about her shoulders as she closed the door behind herself.
She stomped down the steps. Oh, wasn't he being sweet today after making her work on the Lord's day! And him, trying to tempt her from her goal after accusing her son of stealing. Without a drop of proof!
Abby took a deep breath andlooked around, hoping the scene before her would bring her calm. Wheatonburg did look beautiful during a snowfall. Today no one would guess there was anything insidious here. Not the abject poverty of the possession houses. Not the underlying fear of armed guards at the mines or Harlan Wheaton's reason for putting them there.
At the town cemetery, Abby glanced toward the fresh graves. The deepening mantle of white hid the mud covering the resting place of the two miners who'd been killed for refusing to do the bidding of the AMU.
American Miners United had been born with the hope of forcing mining safety changes. It had sounded so promising but had quickly been co-opted by a group of thugs call Workmen who now held the whole coal region hostageowners and miners alike.
She walked on and soon climbed the steps to the train station's boardwalk. In the distance, she heard a train whistle. She looked inside the station house and saw the stationmaster, Mr. Dodd, at his seat behind his postal counter. "I haven't heard from Amber in weeks. Is there any mail?"
Charles Dodd shook his head. "No, but I expect you'll hear from my niece soon."
"Good. I worry about her. She hasn't been the same since losing her Joseph. Have you seen your pint-sized shadow?" Abby asked, surprised not to see her son with Mr. Dodd.
"End of the platform. Likes to be the first to see it."
As the stationmaster, Mr. Dodd saw a lot of Daniel. Her son had railroading dreams and that was fine with her, but recently the railroad had become another favorite target of the AMU. "I worry about him, too, with all the trouble," Abby confided. She shook her head sadly.
Mr. Dodd looked up, caution in his eyes. "The train isn't carrying anything the AMU would care about. Try not to worry, I keep an eye out for the boy." He hesitated then asked, "You aren't worried they might try using him to get at Wheaton, are you?"
"Harlan? Everyone knows he doesn't give a hoot in Hades about Daniel. All Harlan Wheaton cares about is his coal. It wouldn't gain anyone a thing to hurt Daniel. My worry is he'll be too close if they blow a train to kingdom come now that the owners refused to pay protection money. I do thank you for all the time you take for Daniel."
"Daniel's no trouble at all." He chuckled. "The little scamp keeps me company."
Daniel was a little scamp indeed. "He isn't a nuisance, then?"
"You've done a good job with him, Abby. He's a good boy with admirable hopes and dreams."
Abby smiled. "All he talks of is going west and getting involved in railroading out there."
Mr. Dodd wiped his spectacles. "I could help him if you stay in the east."
"By summer I'll have a nice nest egg saved from my cleaning and my brothers will have paid off our account to Wheaton Mining. We'll be headin' west. Daniel'll be much better off."
Mr. Dodd grimaced. "Neither of you will have to put up with snide remarks anymore."
"I don't let them bother me," Abby lied. She hated pity almost as much as nasty comments. "But my son will never live down the circumstances of his birth here. Now I'll just take myself along and find my railroading son. Perhaps I'll be one of the first to see the train today, too. Good day to you," she said, sketching a sassy curtsy.
Abby stepped onto the platform as the train whistle sounded again, closer, louder. She could even hear the chugging of the steam engine. "Daniel!" Abby called when she didn't see him on the platform.
Daniel popped up from behind a crate and ran to her. "Come watch the train come in, Ma!" He grabbed her hand, tugged her along the platform, and around the corner of the station house. "Here she comes!" Daniel shouted, pointing down the tracks as the clicking wheels and the puffing engine drew closer.
"I guess you'll want to stay till it pulls out, as well?" Abby shouted over the din.
"Oh, Ma, could I?" Daniel's eyes were bright. She loved seeing him like this. Happy and carefree. Not shadowed by the taunts of unkind children or the whispered condemnations of disdainful adults.
"If you promise to sweep after dinner."
Daniel shouted joyfully and ran off back down the platform. As Abby rounded the corner again, she saw he'd met up with Mr. Dodd. They consulted with each other then Daniel turned, pointing toward her. Abby waved and nodded her agreement to remaining behind, then she remembered her canvas shopping bag. Daniel and Mr. Dodd were gone when she came back around the corner again.
Abby heard a high-pitched feminine giggle as a sandy-haired man jumped off a passenger car, then swung a young woman off the stairs to the platform. They laughed as another man followed sedately. Judging from their expensive clothes, the three were guests of Harlan Wheaton. Four rough-looking men disembarked next. Though they stood a distance away, they still seemed to be a part of the wealthy group.
The younger man turned toward her and Abby's head swam. Her heart thundered as she reached out to steady herself. He'd grown taller and broader but there stood Joshua Wheaton.
He looked around, then turned back to the blond woman, who took a step toward him and put her hand on his forearm. Abby felt as if a knife had thrust through her chest. Then the young woman whispered in his ear and twisted the knife.
Abby wrapped her arms around her middle and gasped for breath. She didn't know what she should do. Run? Cry? Fly at him with her fists and demand to know why he'd abandoned her and how he could have ignored her last and final plea written on the day she delivered their son?
How could you condemn our son to a life of scorn?
She stepped back behind the cover of the stacked crates. She'd make him explain. But first, she had to get herself under control. First, she had to come to grips with a truth of her own. Why, after all Joshua Wheaton had done to her, after all the pain he'd caused her and their son, did it still hurt so much to see him come home with another woman on his arm?
"Surely your father sent a carriage, Joshua," Franklin Gowery said, his displeasure at being stranded evident on his face. Joshua shrugged. "I doubt it. I was unsure when I'd arrive."
I wasn't sure I wouldn't get right back on the train. I still might.
"He knew. Why do you think we took the morning train?" Helena replied.
Joshua bristled. Had meeting Helena Conwell and her guardian been some sort of planned ruse? "I was under the impression our meeting was happenstance. It was, wasn't it?" Joshua demanded.
Gowery shot Helena a black look. "Of course it was. Isn't that right, Helena?"
Helena laid her hand on Joshua's sleeve but didn't look him in the eye. "Yes, Uncle Franklin."
Joshua let his mind wander. The town looked the same. Only he had changed. Emotions he couldn't analyze raced through him, making his heart lurch painfully. Memories of Abby rushed at him. Why, Abby? his heart cried. How could you forget us? How could you marry Sullivan?
Taking a deep breath, Joshua tried to relax, remembering how he'd hoped his anxiety would be lessened by arriving with a pretty young woman on his arm. He forced a smile just before Helena stepped away.
"He could have at least sent a carriage for us. He knew we'd be on this train," Helena groused.
"It must have slipped his mind. Apparently he hasn't been well since his injury. I'll find someone to send up to the house."
Joshua saw a boy dancing after Mr. Dodd. "Son, how would you like to earn a penny?" he shouted.
The boy turned, his blue eyes bright and intelligent. "Sure, mister, as long as it's not something against the law. My ma'd skin me alive if I got into trouble."
"Maybe you ought to head on home," Mr. Dodd interrupted.
Joshua chuckled. "I just want him to go up to Wheaton Manor and tell someone to send the carriage, Mr. Dodd."
The boy grew visibly tense, his eyes shifting to the station-master then back. "Make it a nickel," the boy demanded.
Josh arched an eyebrow. "A nickel? That's rather steep."
"Won't go there for no penny."
"It can't be that bad going up to the manor."
The boy's face was set. "For most folks, maybe. A nickel or walk, mister."
"Two cents," Josh offered
"Three and that's my final offer."
"Who do I say is waitin'?" the boy wanted to know.
"Say Mr. Gowery and his ward are here and Mr. Joshua Wheaton and all his worldly goods are here, as well, so they'll need to send a wagon along, too."
The boy's face hardened. "Is that you?" he asked, his cupid's bow lip curling at the corner.
Joshua had grown unused to the hatred the name Wheaton evoked here. "Yes, but I'm not my father, son, and things will change now that I'm back."
"I'm not your son. I'll never be your son," the boy snarled, then pivoted and ran away.
Joshua stood staring after the retreating figure, wondering what he'd said and what it was about the boy that seemed so familiar. Probably the son of a boyhood friend and that stung all the more.
"Little beast!" Helena gasped.
"The boy has his reasons," Dodd grumbled and after shooting Joshua a sharp look, he turned and shuffled toward the station-house door.
Franklin Gowery spoke into the silence left by Dodd's remark. "These children grow up fast and hard, my dear. In a way, they're more dangerous than wild animals. They appear human till they turn on you."
Joshua turned away from the sight of the fleeing boy. His gaze fell on Helena. Her eyes seemed to blaze with fire as she stared at her guardian. Perhaps he'd found a kindred spirit. "It's hardly necessary to teach social niceties to children doomed to poverty if they manage to live into adulthood."
Gowery shook his head. "Still a dreamer, are you? I'd have thought working in Wales would have cured your idealism."
"I worked for a company more progressive than even the strict mining regulations Great Britain has adopted. We made a handsome profit while managing to treat the miners like human beings with hopes and dreams."
Helena stepped toward Joshua and smiled up at him. "That sounds promising. You must tell me more of your reform ideas."
The clatter and jingle of harnessed horses and wagons distracted him. "Ah. We don't need a messenger after all," he told his companions. "If you'll both excuse me, that looks like Henry."
Joshua moved toward the wagon hoping it was his father's retainer. As he walked down the steps, he saw a flash of color near the side of the station and froze. There, scurrying along, her auburn hair radiant against the backdrop of white, was Abby. His Abby. Who belonged to another. Who'd married a few short months after he'd left for Germany. He wondered what she'd done with the travel money he'd sent so she could join him. Probably used it to set up a home with a man Josh despised. Sorrow for all he'd lost burned in his chest.
How would he face her?
How would he live in the same town with her and Liam Sullivan?
* * *
Abby observed her family that night as she stitched a patch on the knee of Daniel's pants. Her oldest brother, Brendan, his expression grim, sat across the room playing dominoes with Daniel. Thomas, her younger brother, sat carving a delicate bird. Her father, Michael, watched them all like the benevolent patriarch he was.
Her eyes drifted back to Daniel. When he'd come in late for dinner, she'd known he'd been crying. He knew his father was in town. She was sure he did. He'd been so solicitous of her since coming home, despite his own pain, it made her heart ache even more.
"Daniel, it's past your bedtime," she said. "Come give us a kiss and run on up. I'll be up soon to tuck you in."
Daniel's face went rigid. "You work too hard. You should rest. Uncle Thomas can come up, can't you, Uncle Tom?"
"Daniel Sullivan! As if Thomas has a life of leisure!"
Thomas stood without hesitation. "No bother at all. Can't think of anyone I'd rather spend my time with." Thomas swung Daniel onto his shoulders, his jade-colored eyes soft with an innate kindness that was so much part of his gentle nature. Abby smiled, then let her head fall back against the rocker. She closed her eyes against a rush of tears. She couldn't ask for better fathers for her son than her brothers.
Except for Joshua, taunted a traitorous voice inside her. Then a vision of his face drifted before her mind's eye. At fifteen her mother had called him a golden boy. But then manhood had beckoned and his jaw squared and his shoulders broadened. His hair went from the color of corn silk to a rich tawny gold. That same golden color had spread across his chest and his playful teasing gave way to seductive glances. Friendly shoves turned into stolen kisses. Yet two things had never changedhis sky-blue eyes or her love for him.