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In complete disregard of the conductor’s instructions, Verity Boone sprang from her seat before the train came to a full stop. The other passengers glanced at her with disapproval, but she paid no heed. As the locomotive slowed, Verity fluffed out her curls beneath her bonnet and smoothed her dress. If he was waiting on the platform, she wanted to make a perfect first impression. Then, satisfied she’d done her best after two days of travel across three states, she gazed out at the town of her birth—a place she hadn’t seen in fifteen years. She’d known she was leaving city life behind when she’d departed from Worcester, Massachusetts, but she hoped Catawissa wouldn’t be as rural as she feared.
The conductor opened the door, scowling at the young miss standing so boldly where she shouldn’t be. When her traveling companions, two widowed sisters from Worcester, had disembarked at the previous stop, they’d asked the conductor to watch over her until she reached her destination. Verity wasn’t sure whether she herself or the conductor was more relieved to see his responsibility for her come to an end.
She stepped onto wooden planks speckled with raindrops. The darkening sky suggested that more rain could be expected, and she glanced up and down the platform anxiously. In a matter of minutes the clouds would open and a deluge would fall, but with any luck she’d be under the roof of a carriage by then. Surely he would already be here to greet her. Verity hoped she’d recognize him, for it would be humiliating to bumble around from stranger to stranger.
Then she spied a figure at the end of the platform and sighed. She did recognize the man who’d come for her, although he wasn’t the one she’d been hoping for. She’d seen this man only twice in the last five years, but she knew him at once.
Ransloe Boone. Her father.
Of course her father had come to meet her train. Verity chastised herself for a moment’s disappointment. Their eyes met, and he looked startled. Verity knew she had changed more than he had in the years since their last meeting. A young woman of seventeen was quite different from a girl of . . . what had she been? . . . fourteen at his last visit?
Verity forced down any feeling of discontent. She should be happy her father had come for her. It was just that she’d thought Nate might be waiting at the station.
"Verity?" her father asked when he reached her side, as if he still weren’t sure.
"Hello, Father." She offered a smile in greeting, but he seemed too dumbfounded to return it, sweeping his gaze over her from bonnet to boot. She surveyed him more discreetly, noting his overlong hair, his patched coat, and the dingy shirt he wore open at the collar without a tie or cravat.
"Your trunks?" he inquired after an awkward moment of silence. Verity produced a ticket, and her father accepted it with relief, as if claiming the baggage were a more comfortable task than greeting a grown daughter he barely knew.
To Verity’s distress, her father had brought a farm wagon to fetch her from the station. She had a feeling it was all he owned, but—glancing apprehensively at the sky—she wished he had borrowed a covered conveyance.
He supervised the loading of her trunks, then climbed up onto the driver’s seat and took the reins. Only when the porter handed Verity up beside him did her father seem to realize he should have done that himself. He half rose from his seat, looking embarrassed, but Aunt Maryett had warned Verity not to mind his brusqueness. "He’s been alone too long," she’d said. "You’ll probably have to reteach him his manners. Go gently with him!" Verity smiled at her father and settled her skirts around her.
Ransloe Boone drove the wagon down the main street of town, away from the Susquehanna River, past square lots filled with businesses and houses. Verity was relieved to spot at least one store and a lovely town common, as well as a telegraph office, a hotel, and the business sign of a photographer hanging outside a well-kept home. Perhaps she hadn’t consigned herself to the wilderness after all, although she would miss Worcester’s sidewalks and gas streetlamps—and the only home she could remember.
Yesterday morning she’d awakened for the very last time in the bed she’d shared for years with her Gaines cousins. Polly had cried until her nose turned red. "Write us every week," her cousin and closest friend had implored her. "Tell me all about him, and whatever you do, try to make a good impression and show some tact!"
Mindful of this, Verity bottled up her thoughts for almost a quarter of a mile, but eventually she could not resist turning to her father and blurting out, "I thought Nate might come to the station."
Ransloe Boone looked at her with a furrowed brow. "Nate?"
"Nathaniel McClure," she said pointedly. Her father ought to know whom she meant; he’d agreed to their engagement.
"Why would he come?" her father grunted. He turned back to face the road and clucked at the horse. "You’ve never met him."
"Precisely why I thought he might come." "
It wouldn’t have been suitable for him to fetch you from the station," her father went on. "Besides, you’ll meet him on Friday."
Not until Friday? That was four days away! She managed to bite back her first thought and shared only her second. "Why on Friday?"
"The McClures expect us to attend a party." Her father said the word party as if it meant having a tooth pulled. "Fanny McClure wants to welcome you home. That’s Nathaniel’s mother," he added.
"Yes, I know," Verity replied. "He’s written me about his family." Over the course of the last five months, they’d exchanged letters regularly. There’d been gifts as well: hair ribbons, and then kid gloves, and most recently a book of poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"You’ll meet him then." Ransloe Boone glanced at her. "That’s soon enough, isn’t it?"
Verity smiled prettily, and her father took that as agreement.
The rain started falling before they’d left the town. Verity glared at the sky, offended that it should rain on her homecoming. Ransloe Boone reached under the seat and hauled out an umbrella, which he handed to his daughter. She made an attempt to cover both of them, but he waved it off and settled his hat more firmly on his head.
The country road passed verdant fields and hills, dairy farms, and orchards, interrupted by wooded areas of shrubs with long, folded leaves and bunches of white and pink flowers. She caught a hint of their sweet fragrance in the rain as they passed by. When the horse turned onto a narrow dirt road without a signal, Verity knew they must be nearly home.
The first dwelling on the road was a green farmhouse with white shutters, immaculately tended. Rosebushes flanked the porch, and an arbor led to a garden in the back.
"That’s the Thomas house," her father said.
Verity nodded. Her mother had grown up in this house, and her mother’s brother, John Thomas, now lived here with his family. Verity had no memory of the house or her uncle; she knew the Thomases only from their mention in letters. They were her father’s closest neighbors, although she saw this meant something different in the country than it did in the city.
The Boone house was entirely hidden from view until they had gone nearly a mile down the mountain road and around a wide turn. The sight of it did not particularly cheer her. Small and plain, it had been painted a stark and serviceable white. She could see no speck of color anywhere, and overall the property seemed as unprepossessing as her stiff and distant father.
A longing for Worcester and the family she’d left behind gripped her heart with startling intensity. She’d envisioned a happy—even romantic—arrival in Catawissa. Instead she was wet, bedraggled, and a stranger here.