Read an Excerpt
One month after the tornado ripped through High Plains, Rebecca made her way down Main Street. She still had plenty of time to buy her supplies at the mercantile before the lunch crowd arrived at the boardinghouse.
With that in mind, she let the sun rest on her face as she walked along the slatted sidewalk. She couldn't help but marvel at the intense July heat. Summer in Kansas was far hotter than in Norway, which was why she chose not to wear gloves or a bonnet like the American women. It was just too hot for her thick Norwegian blood.
No one else seemed to mind the dreadful heat. The street bustled with an excess of sights and sounds. Hammers hitting nails mingled with mothers shouting after their laughing children. Two young boys chased a dog with a stick in his mouth. A horse hitched to a work wagon rolled by at a leisurely pace.
Breathing in the scent of sawdust and fresh paint, Rebecca focused her attention on the town itself. Buildings at various stages of construction lined the street, firmly declaring that the rebuilding of the town was coming along.
"Good morning, Rebecca," a jaunty voice called out to her.
"Oh, hello." Rebecca waved at her friend, Cassandra Garrison, as she rode by in her calash-covered buggy. The town lawyer, Percival Walker, sat beside her, reins in his elegant hands. Despite the heat, the two were impeccably dressed. They were clearly courting, if their smiles were anything to go by.
Rebecca dropped her hand and sighed, shocked at the jolt of sadness that whipped through her at the sight of all that happiness. Rebecca wanted what Cassandra seemed to have. Love. Companionship. A man of her own.
Another equally depressed sigh came from a slouching cowboy standing just outside the mercantile. Rebecca didn't know the lanky man well, but she recognized him. Clint Fuller had eaten at the boardinghouse a few times in the past month. She opened her mouth to speak to him, but he was intently watching the happy couple ride by in Cassandra's little buggy.
Rebecca recognized the scowl on the cowboy's face. Unrequited love. She understood the emotion. And sympathized. Ever since she'd taken refuge from the storm with Pete in his cellar, she couldn't get the reserved blacksmith out of her head.
She recalled the events of that day often. Pete's concern as he pulled her to safety. His kindness as he calmed her panic. His help as she searched for her brother. For one brief afternoon, someone had put her needs above his own. And she now understood God's design for marriage. It was unfortunate that the one man who had caught her attention was completely out of reach.
Pete's loss of his wife and subsequent year-long grief was legendary in High Plains. Rebecca had spent too many years fighting for her own parents' affection to set her sights on a man still in love with his dead wife.
Shaking her head at her unproductive thoughts, she smiled at Clint—who did not smile back in return—and hurried into the mercantile.
The smell of spices and burlap filled her nose, followed by the raw scent of buffalo hides and licorice. Her mind was too full of Pete Benjamin, unrequited love and poor Clint Fuller for her to take note of the vast range of improvements that had been made to the store since the storm.
Rebecca swept her gaze across barrels of dry goods, past sacks of flour and shelves filled with kitchen utensils and canned goods. Mrs. Johnson was standing alone at the back counter with bolts of material in various styles and colors lining the shelves behind her.
Rebecca shuddered as she locked gazes with the woman.
Why was the proprietress staring at her with such censure? It was true, Mrs. Johnson didn't like her much, nor did the woman's daughter, Abigail, but they usually kept their dislike hidden behind false smiles.
Not today. Today, Mrs. Johnson had a positively mean look in her eyes. And her lips were pressed into a hard, flat line.
Confused, Rebecca took slow, careful steps toward the back of the store. She would simply conduct her business and be on her way.
"Good morning, Mrs. Johnson, I'd like to purchase a—"
"Miss Gundersen." The woman's narrowed gaze swept over Rebecca with lightning speed. "I have just one question for you."
Unsure what to make of the woman's mood, Rebecca cocked her head. "You… you do?"
"I would like to know where you took cover during the storm." The haughty demand took Rebecca by surprise.
What did it matter where she took cover? And why would Mrs. Johnson care about that? "I don't think I understand what you're asking."
"Come now, girl. Don't play coy." The woman sniffed indelicately. "Just this morning, I heard Mrs. Morrow telling the pastor that she saw you and Pete Benjamin walking through town together after the storm."
Rebecca blinked. "Yes, we were together. Pete was helping me locate my brother." Praise God, Edward had survived the storm unscathed, but Rebecca didn't think that was what the woman was asking.
Setting her hands on her hips, Mrs. Johnson lifted her chin at a proud angle. "How in the world did you end up in Pete Benjamin's company that afternoon?"
Rebecca bit her bottom lip, concerned that her answer would only increase the woman's condemnation. She had nothing to hide, but that truth didn't give her much relief. Matilda Johnson wasn't always one to focus on the truth if she thought she could twist it into gossip instead. Nevertheless, Rebecca would not lie. "We took cover in his storm cellar."
"Just the two of you? Alone?"
Rebecca didn't understand why the woman was looking at her with that odd mix of suspicion and glee. "Well, yes," she explained. "When the storm blew in, I went in search of my brother at the livery, but he wasn't there."
She could still feel the fear. Losing Edward would have been beyond what she could endure, especially so close to the death of her parents. In her panicked state, she'd been far too upset to think beyond Edward's safety and had nearly died because of it. Thanks to Pete, Rebecca had survived the storm. Perhaps that explained why he'd filled her thoughts so often since. He'd saved her life.
"Pete pulled me to safety," she said aloud. "I wouldn't listen to him at first, but, eventually, I went with him below ground to ride out the storm."
Unseemly? Rebecca puzzled over the English word, unsure if she had the definition right in her mind. Surely Mrs. Johnson didn't think that Rebecca and Pete had… that they would… that they…
Rebecca gasped and quickly covered her mouth with her hand.
Much to her chagrin, Mrs. Johnson read the gesture with a nasty mind rather than a grace-filled heart and seemed to take it as an admission of guilt. "I'm shocked at you, Miss Gundersen, luring that poor man in his storm cellar like that."
Stunned by the woman's mean accusation, Rebecca looked around her, thankful there were no other customers in the store to witness her humiliation. "But, Mrs. Johnson, I assure you. We did nothing wrong. Pete saved my—"
"Nothing, indeed." The woman smirked at her. She actually smirked, as though she was enjoying Rebecca's discomfort.
"Why are you intentionally misunderstanding me?" Confusion and shock sounded in her voice.
"How dare you question me." The woman sneered. "Under the circumstances, you can have no further business to conduct in my store. I must ask you to leave."
"Leave?" Rebecca sucked in a breath of air. "But I still have purchases to make."
"We don't serve your kind." Muttering something about immigrants and their lack of morals, Mrs. Johnson turned on her heel and showed her back to Rebecca.
Choking down a sob, Rebecca blinked in stunned disbelief. The sound of the front door swinging open spurred her to action. Head down, she rushed past the two newcomers, women she'd seen in church but had never met. In the six months since Rebecca had arrived in High Plains, neither woman had acknowledged her, no matter how often she smiled at them. Well, she would not cry in front of these ladies. Not today. Not ever.
She made it two full blocks before she careened into a hard, unyielding wall of pure muscle.
"I. Oh." She pressed her hands against the broad chest and looked straight into… Pete Benjamin's eyes.
Could her day get any worse?
"Steady, now." Pete's voice held a hint of amusement, while his hands wrapped around her shoulders with a strong yet gentle grip. "You're certainly in a hurry this morning."
Rebecca lowered her head further still, afraid he would see her anger, her shame, if he looked hard enough.
"Rebecca. What's wrong?" Pete stepped back and lifted her chin with his index finger. "What's happened?"
Before she could censure herself, words spilled out of her mouth. "Mrs. Johnson said… She said… I mean, she implied that I…" Realizing who stood before her and too humiliated to finish, she let her words trail off.
What would he think if he knew that Mrs. Johnson had just accused her of luring him into his storm cellar? Would he think ill of her? Would he think she wanted the accusation to be true?
Glory. What a dreadful thought.
Pete's face scrunched into a frown. "Did Matilda Johnson hurt you?"
Yes. "No." Rebecca forced down a sob. There were some things better left unsaid, especially to this man. "I…have to go."
Hoping Pete didn't see the tears welling in her eyes, she quickly whirled around and hurried toward the boardinghouse.
She didn't dare look back, not even when he called out her name.
When Rebecca didn't turn around, Pete stared after her in silence. From what little he could glean, Matilda Johnson had caused the pretty Norwegian a great deal of distress.
The thought sent a hot surge of emotion through him. He wasn't sure why, but seeing Rebecca Gundersen hurting like that tied his gut into a tight knot of tension.
What was it about her that tugged at him? Even now, weeks after the tornado, the image of her rushing around the livery stable in search of her brother still haunted him. There'd been such love in her actions, such fear for her only living relative.
Up to that moment, Pete had spent the previous year locked in his own grief. Missing Sarah—and all that might have been had she survived—he'd merely existed, blindly walking though the motions of life. He hadn't concerned himself with others or their pain. But when he'd seen Rebecca's desperation to find her brother, even at the risk of her own safety, Pete had resolved to do whatever it took to save her life.
No, it hadn't been resolve. He'd been driven by something stronger than that. He'd needed to save her life. He'd failed one woman. He'd vowed not to fail another.
In that instant, Rebecca had sparked a protective instinct in him. One he'd thought long dead, one that apparently still burned today. Which probably explained why the fact that Mrs. Johnson had just made her cry angered him so much.
Fueled by the surprisingly strong emotion, he turned in the direction of the mercantile. He knew he needed to handle the situation with the Lord guiding him, but Pete wasn't feeling very charitable toward Mrs. Johnson at the moment. She'd hurt Rebecca, one of the kindest women in town.
He that refraineth his lips is wise…
Pete kept the proverb in mind. It would do Rebecca no good if he acted out of raw emotion. He would gather the facts first. Then he would know how to act.
So focused on his task, he nearly slammed into Will Logan, one of the town's founders and Pete's childhood friend.
"Whoa." Will shifted directly into his path, forcing Pete to halt his pursuit. "Where's the fire?"
"I'm about to quench it."
Will eyed him thoughtfully, then shot a quick glance at the mercantile. "Let me guess. Matilda Johnson is up to her old antics, and from the look on your face I'm assuming you're at the center of her latest gossip."
"Not even close."
"Well, whatever has you in such a mood, my suggestion would be to simmer down before you confront that gossiping old biddy." Will lowered his voice. "But don't tell my wife I called Mrs. Johnson that. Emmeline would be so disappointed in me."
"Step aside, Will. My fight isn't with you."
When his friend held his ground, Pete took a calming breath. And then stepped to his left.
Will moved in the same direction.
"Get out of my way."
"Pete, think this through. We're talking about Matilda Johnson here. Whatever she's said, there's a good chance it's not based in fact."
"It's not what she said. It's what she did. She made Rebecca Gundersen cry." Pete practically growled out the words.
Hearing the anger in his own voice, he realized he wasn't furious with Matilda Johnson alone. After six months of cooking at the boardinghouse, many in High Plains still considered Rebecca an outsider. All because she was a foreigner. Some shunned her. Others treated her as if she was tainted. Very few actually accepted her.
That ended today, starting with Matilda Johnson.
"Rebecca deserves better than this town has given her since she's arrived in High Plains," he said, speaking his thoughts aloud.
He couldn't explain this strange need to protect the young woman. Perhaps it had to do with his failure to save Sarah and their baby. Perhaps this was some sort of self-imposed penance. Perhaps it was just the right thing to do.
Whatever was driving him, he didn't have time to discuss the particulars with Will Logan.
He shoved forward.
Will stopped him with a hand on his arm. "If I'm hearing you correctly, you think Rebecca deserves to be treated decently by everyone in this town, including Matilda Johnson?"
"I don't think." Pete glanced in the direction of Mrs. Jennings's boardinghouse, where Rebecca was the live-in cook. "I know."
"Well, then." Will cuffed him on the shoulder. "Let me be the first to welcome you back from the dead."
Genuine confusion had Pete blinking at his friend. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, nothing." Will waved him past. "Go on. Set Mrs. Johnson straight. I won't stop you."
Focused once more on his task, Pete stepped around his friend. Will turned on his heel and matched him step for step along the slatted sidewalk.
Pete stopped walking. "I don't need a nursemaid."
"Pete. My friend." Will spoke in the slow cadence he usually reserved for small children. "Aside from the fact that I wouldn't miss this confrontation for the world, I've known you since we were boys back East in Belville."
"Yeah? No kidding. Thanks for reminding me." He didn't bother hiding his sarcasm. It was no secret that Will was the most level-headed man among their group of friends. Even when they were kids, he had prevented more than a few fights in their small Massachusetts community.
Pete usually appreciated Will's ability to remain calm and think through any situation. But not today. Not with Rebecca's tears still fresh in his mind.