Forbidden Love Tries to Survive Old World Expectations
Schoolteacher Leanna McKee plans on leaving the coal mining town of Castle Gate, Utah, and never looking back. Good riddance to coal dust, rugged men, and the fatal mine that took her husband’s life.
Until the widow meets a widower who awakens her heart...and she finds herself inexplicably falling for miner Alex Pappas which stirs up a whole heap of trouble.
Alex’s Greek parents have arranged a more traditional match for him. When the schoolteacher’s association with the Greek family begins to anger the American miners, they threaten Alex and his family. Leanna has received an offer to teach elsewhere and feels she has no choice but to leave Castle Gate. . .though she will be leaving her heart behind.
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Castle Gate, Utah, 1910
Leanna McKee pushed her hat by its brim, hiding her face as best she could. She would not let him see her. His large clumsy shadow had warned her as she approached the corner of the coffeehouse porch. She rushed to the other side of the road, so far over that her skirt skimmed the weeds. His gargling laugh tempted her to slip into the brush and weave through the scrubby trees, avoiding that Greek crook altogether.
"Pretty lady?" His thick accent tumbled across the afternoon air, and his shadow inched closer as she passed by. "I wonder where Meester McKee is, pretty lady?"
Leanna quickened her pace. No, she would not give this man any satisfaction in answering his question. If he had cared at all, he would have known what happened to Jack. The Greek man, with his slippery speech and beady eyes, could follow her home and beat down her door. She'd still not share one word.
"Excuse me, Meesus McKee ..." He called from behind her now.
Maybe he would follow her home.
Her stomach soured at the thought, even amid the delicious waft of savory smoke pouring from the nearby restaurant's outdoor oven. As she turned up the path to her neighborhood, she stole a glance over her shoulder.
Good. The sloppy man had returned to the porch, scratching his balding head and staring at his pocket watch.
Leanna was certain what must be done now.
It was her only choice, no matter the consequences that might arise. After all, she had not chosen any of this. Besides the greedy Greek man harassing her on the streets of Castle Gate, she was surrounded by the filth of coal dust and grumbling, uncivilized miners. Unfortunately, though, her husband had become one of them.
But he was gone now.
She hurried into her home and hung up her hat and coat. Jack's empty chair snagged her attention, taunting her as she pulled out parchment and ink. She would not grow angry again. Her temper had brought nothing but regret.
The pen drank up the ink and her hand shook as the nib hovered over the paper. Were her parents truly the only way to a future without hunger and want? Would they ever take back the debutante who'd thrown away all her inheritance for the love of a common workingman?
Perhaps they would. Under certain conditions. There was a time when she'd have considered her parents' stifling expectations even worse than her lowly teaching position or the mining company's grocery store with inflated prices and limited supplies.
Yet she did not belong here. The belly of Carbon County, Utah, was the very last place she'd wanted to live.
"Must I return to Boston, though?" she spoke aloud, resting the pen on the ink bottle's edge. The desperate question was answered by a forceful knock at the door. Leanna's heart plummeted to her stomach, her arm hair stood against her cotton sleeves. Dusk's dimming light bled through the threadbare curtains. Who was there at this hour? Had the nosy man truly followed her? He had appeared to be harmless, aggravating beyond words, but harmless just the same. She'd welcome him over the dreaded visitors that intruded her imagination during these lonely days.
Her nerves frenzied, just as they had each time she'd caught a gawking miner staring in her direction. Would they dare prey on a new widow? She was concerned most by immigrant miners whose wives were left behind in their homeland, thousands of miles away.
Another, less forceful, knock startled her to her feet. A small whimper slipped from her lips. "Lord, protect me." She snatched the iron poker beside her coal stove and crept across the kitchen.
This was exactly why she needed to leave this place. There was nothing left for her. Just trouble.
"Who is it?" She threw her demand toward the bolted door.
"It's Alex Pappas." The deep cordial voice rumbled like the sound of breaking rain on a thirsty garden. Relief washed over her tense muscles. Alex was the one man who'd tried to save her husband in the mine accident.
He was not a threat, as far as she could tell. He was Jack's friend.
Leanna leaned the fire poker against the wall, straightened her woolen skirt, then slid the bolt and opened the door.
Alex's chocolate eyes brightened with his kind smile, even in the dull afternoon. Before her gaze lingered too long, she noticed his nephew and niece, Teddy and Maria, waiting at the edge of the path.
"Good evening, Mrs. McKee," Alex said in perfect English. He pulled his hat off, releasing thick ebony curls across his brow. "I am sorry to bother you so late."
She straightened her spine trying to appear unaffected, even if she welcomed the friendly company. Perhaps loneliness had crippled her good sense. Jack's absence this past month was more detrimental than she'd thought. Before Castle Gate, she would have been lost without him. But now? After all she'd found out?
Leanna cleared her throat. "What can I do for you?"
"A favor, if you please." He gave a nervous chuckle then glanced at the children.
"Favor?" Leanna half whispered. Her eyes searched the neighbor's near-identical house to hers. What would anyone think of this Greek man asking an American woman for a favor? "Mr. Pappas, I don't know what you mean."
"Well, it is more of a business proposition than favor," he said, shifting his weight. "You see, my sister-in-law is expecting and she has taken a turn for the worse. Now, she is restricted from walking. My brother and I have to work early in the mines," his voice lowered while he fiddled with his hat. "Perhaps, we can leave the children in your care before school begins?"
A protest formed on the tip of her tongue, but she only stared at him with wide eyes.
He licked his lips and began to explain further. "My parents must tend to the restaurant, and the children's mother, Penelope, does not trust the children to walk themselves to school. She fears gypsies might steal them."
"Gypsies?" She'd never heard of such a thing.
"Ena, dio, tria ..." Maria and Teddy held hands and hopped across the path. The dark-haired boy fell to his knees and whimpered. His sister helped him up.
They were sweet children — for Greeks anyway. Of all her students, the Pappas children were at least the most tolerable, even if they forgot to use their English at times. They had women, the only two Greek women in their town, tending to them each day. Both children were always scrubbed free of lice and smelled of freshly washed clothes. The young boys who came over with their uncles and fathers were quite different. If they didn't take positions as water boys at the mine, they tumbled into school in a thick layer of filth.
"Mrs. McKee, we will pay you." Alex wrung his hat in his hands. Coal dust blackened the bed of his fingernails, just as it had Jack's. How often had she complained to her husband to scrub his nails better? He never ignored her, but it became a useless task. She scrunched her nose as the usual shame spread through her gut. Perhaps, she wasn't so different from her parents. Civility was ingrained in her breeding to a fault — an added bitterness those last days of marriage.
What kind of person would she become if she returned to life under her mother's scrutiny?
"Your offer is interesting to me." Leanna clasped her hands and brought them up to her chin. "How long will you need me?"
"Until Penelope has the baby. A few months, maybe?" Alex shrugged his shoulders. "Here. This is how much we'd like to offer you." He pulled out a piece of paper.
The number was fair enough. Actually, plenty to cover her train ticket and meals. But she'd hardly eat if her final destination was Boston.
Her thoughts swirled in a brew. "There's little for me in this coal town."
"I understand." Alex nodded, a crease between his eyebrows marked him with compassion. She nearly smiled in gratitude for his kindness. "Will you go to San Francisco? Jack said you were hoping to be there by summer."
"Jack told you that?" She bit her bottom lip. Her eyes ached with the effort to dam her emotion. "That has been my dream all along, before ..." Jack gambled it away. But she wouldn't share that with Alex. Her bitterness toward Jack while he was alive haunted her with remorse. She couldn't speak ill of him now in his death. Even if it were true that his vices had slashed her dream — and her heart.
Alex brought up a plan that had been smothered by her misery. But now? A grin appeared against her will.
"San Francisco is a fine idea," she said. Just speaking the name of the city out loud seemed to brighten the dreary valley all around her. Her heart quickened. Just a few weeks of helping the Pappas family and she might save enough to make the trip. All on her own. She'd owe nothing to her parents, and she could still teach — in a finer school than Castle Gate could provide — under her cousin in California.
Alex narrowed his eyes and hooked his thumb on his suspender. "I am glad to spark your memory," he said. "And that smile." He offered a dazzling smile of his own. A rush of heat met Leanna's cheeks. She was trapped by his gaze, gold flecks dancing in his umber eyes. Only a high-pitched squeal from the children released his hold. The six-year- old, Teddy, sprinted to a cluster of trees.
Alex took long strides down the knoll. "What did you find?" Leanna followed, careful to stay a decent distance from the Greek man. Once again, she looked around for any onlookers.
"Ghata!" Teddy scrambled into the shrubs then stood up cradling the Coffey's tabby cat.
"Say cat, Teddy," she said, trying to make the visit more about teaching than the moment that had just passed between her and Alex.
Teddy copied her English, and Alex tousled his hair.
"We must return home before dark," Alex said. "Will you accept my offer?"
"I will, Mr. Pappas." She held out her hand, and they shook. Leanna prayed that the butterflies in her stomach had everything to do with San Francisco and nothing to do with his firm embrace of her fingers. "I will meet you at the corner by your parents' restaurant in the morning." Leanna silently scolded her girlish reactions to Mr. Pappas. He was Greek, after all.
"Good evening, Mrs. McKee," her neighbor, Mr. Coffey, called out from his porch. "What's he doing here?" His sharp stare pointed at Alex.
"Ah, Mr. Coffey. He is the uncle of two of my students." She cut through the sparse grass. "I believe Teddy has found your cat." She reached out to the boy and gently pushed him toward Mr. Coffey. He was reluctant to hand the cat over, but her neighbor plucked the cat from his arms by the scruff of its neck.
"Is that what brings them to these parts?" He referred to them as if they were already gone, not standing a few feet away. She bristled. He was rude and arrogant, no matter if it was an acceptable attitude around here. "My cat doesn't go as far as Greek Town." He glared at Alex.
Alex's face was cold as stone, and he barely moved his lips as he spoke. "We were not here for your cat —"
"They were here because I am their teacher." Leanna wanted to end this ridiculous interrogation. "I have arranged to care for the children before and after school." She held her head high, then turned to Alex. He confirmed what she'd said with a nod.
Mr. Coffey grunted and flung the cat onto his front porch. The cat screeched, landing on its feet and arching its back.
"Ghata!" Teddy cried out. Leanna grabbed him before he ran out of reach.
"Cat, Teddy," she snapped then spun on her heel still holding on to him. "Be sure you two are ready by eight o'clock tomorrow." She reached her hand out to Maria, and the ten-year-old girl took it.
The scowling man retreated to his door.
"Good night, Mr. Coffey," Leanna called out as she walked away with a child on each side of her.
Alex's darkly dressed eyes glinted with admiration. Her overactive cheeks began to heat again. She begged them to remain a cool shade of ivory. No man should have such an effect on her. Especially a Greek man who treaded dangerously close to hostile territory by her neighbor's obvious calculations.
Alex ran a hand through his black curls then put his hat on. He spoke Greek softly to the children. With a tip of his hat in her direction, he led the children toward town. "Thank you, Mrs. McKee."
Leanna rushed inside, eager to discard the letter to her parents and revive an old dream — teaching in San Francisco. Who would have thought such a chance would appear when life was at its lowest?
Gratitude filled her heart. She peeked out her window just as the tall, handsome Greek disappeared down her walk. One day soon she'd leave, never to return. Thanks to Alex Pappas, she'd finally found a way out of Castle Gate after all.
Alex arrived at the mine the next morning, trailing behind Leanna's neighbor. Besides the sour memory of Turks threatening life in his homeland eight years ago, Mr. Coffey was a pesky weed in his family's effort to grow American roots.
Yanni rushed toward Alex with their helmets tucked beneath his arms. "I see I am too late to help with the children."
"Yes, Brother. Don't worry," Alex said. "How is Penelope?"
"She's the same, resting with her feet up. Did Mrs. McKee arrive this morning?"
"Yes, the children are on their way to school now," Alex said quietly, even though they spoke Greek. Mr. Coffey had looked their way more than once since Yanni arrived. "That Coffey was not happy to see me in his neighborhood."
"He had a whole team of men hollering the other day." His brother shook his head. "Don't understand their words."
"Perhaps you should learn English alongside your children, Brother?" Alex had harassed him about this since he joined him in America. The Pappas family was here to stay, unlike the many Greeks who leeched off the land of opportunity. "Now that I understand their language, men like Coffey are more careful around me, even if they still hate us."
"Perhaps." Yanni rolled his deep brown eyes then handed Alex a helmet. "But we have to deal with Anthis now." He nodded toward the Greek labor agent who was gabbing at the water station with a new arrival. He patted his pocket then the man's shoulder.
"Quick, let's get to work before he sees us," Alex whispered, but the large man was already plodding toward them.
"Ah, just who I was looking for, the Pappas brothers." With arms wide, Anthis met up with them.
Alex shoved past the labor agent. "We can't talk now, Anthis. It's time to work."
"It's a funny thing, that." Anthis wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "On one hand, you mustn't neglect the mine, but on the other, you won't have a mine to work if your fees are tardy." He rubbed his thick fingers together.
"Now?" Alex gritted his teeth. He had been wrong about Coffey and the Turks being his only nuisances. This man was just as much of a weed, and a stubborn one at that. "You come for fees now?"
"You should thank me. I save you a trip to Salt Lake City, eh?" Anthis said.
Alex motioned to Yanni to continue gathering their equipment. He then faced the agent, nose nearly touching nose, only to get a whiff of soured feta on his breath.
"I don't carry my wages in my pocket like a fool," Alex sneered. He was a fool, though. He'd listened to Anthis eight years ago and left his wife in Greece. All for fortune.
"Perhaps you know where that Scotsman is off to?" Anthis picked his tooth with his pinky nail. "He owes me a wager. If he pays up, perhaps it will give you some time." He chuckled, surveying the area. "Where is he? His wife is a mute, it seems."
"Mrs. McKee?" Alex blurted. Had Anthis pressured her to pay up for Jack?
"Neh, neh." He nodded then snorted. "She is not a happy woman."
"Jack McKee is dead, Anthis."
"Oh, really?" He scratched his jaw. "Well, no wonder she wouldn't speak." He burst with a roaring chuckle. Wiping his eyes, he said from the corner of his mouth, "End of the month, Alex, no later."
Of course. Had he once skipped payment to this man? Many meals he skipped before Momma and Papa had come over and set up the restaurant. But, no, he had never denied Anthis the ridiculous amount of money that he demanded for Greeks to keep their jobs.
Anthis was almost as much to blame for Helena as —
Alex glared at the colorless sky above then sighed and ran to catch up to his brother.
"Jack was a good man." Yanni shook his head. "It's a shame that Anthis had suckered him into his money-making schemes."
Not only had the fat slime taken money from his own people all these years, but now it seemed he was finding ways to cripple Jack's widow, also. What did Mrs. McKee think of his people with a man like Anthis trying to settle her dead husband's gambling debt?
Alex shouldn't care what she thought — although she was mysterious to him. He'd seen pain and hope and kindness dance across her face yesterday. They shared more in common than this mountainous town. If only Mrs. McKee knew that he had walked the same valley of loss that she was walking now.
Alex was glad that he'd helped her find some hope. He knew how important that was at such a time. Second best to having a comforter and a friend. But Alex Pappas could not be anything of the sort to Leanna McKee. What a dangerous notion that would prove to be.
Excerpted from "My Heart Belongs in Castle Gate, Utah"
Copyright © 2017 Angie Dicken.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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