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Pennsylvania, April 1869
Sunny Adams heard the harsh whisper across the nearly empty general store, knowing she was meant to hear it. Her heart clenched so tightly that she thought she might pass out. Two women at the door looked at her, lifted their noses, then turned and left the store, rudely jangling the little bell above.
She bowed her head, praying that she wouldn't reveal the waves of shame coursing through her. Though she wore the plain clothing of the Quakers, a simple unruffled gray dress and bonnet, she hadn't fooled anyone. They all saw through her mask.
A man cleared his throat. The storekeeper wanted her out. Could she blame him? While she shopped here, no "decent" woman would enter. She set down the bolt of blue calico she'd been admiring, hiding the trembling of her hands.
Feeling as if she were slogging through a cold, rushing flood, she moved toward the storekeeper. "I think that will be
all." She opened her purse, paid for the items Mrs. Gabriel had sent her into town to purchase. Outwardly, she kept her head lowered. Inwardly, she dragged up her composure like a shield around her. Trying to avoid further slights, she hurried across the muddy street to the wagon. Approaching hooves sounded behind her but she didn't look over her shoulder.
Just as she reached the wagon, a man stepped out of the shadows. "Let me help you up," he said.
She backed away. This wasn't the first time he'd approached her, and she had no trouble in identifying what he really wanted from her. "I don't need your help." She made her voice hard and firm. "Please do not accost me like this. I will tell Adam Gabriel"
"He's a Quaker," the man sneered. "Won't do anything to me. Just tell me to seek God or something."
And with that, he managed to touch her inappropriately.
She stifled a scream. Because who would come to her aid if she called for help? A prostituteeven a reformed onehad no protectors.
"I'm a Quaker," a man said from behind Sunny, "but I'll do more than tell thee to seek God."
Sunny spun around to see Noah Whitmore getting off his horse. Though she'd seen him at the Quaker meeting house earlier this year, she'd never spoken to him.
The man who'd accosted her took a step back. "I thought when you came back from the war, you repented and got all 'turn the other cheek' again."
Noah folded his arms. "Thee ever hear the story about Samson using the jawbone of a jackass to slaughter Philistines?" Noah's expression announced that he was in the mood to follow Samson's example here and now.
Sunny's heart pounded. Should she speak or remain silent?
The rude man began backing away. "She isn't the first doxy the Gabriel family's taken in to help." The last two words taunted her. "Where's the father of her brat? She's not foolin' anybody. She can dress up like a Quaker but she isn't one. And we all know it."
Noah took a menacing step forward and the man turned and bolted between stores toward the alley. Noah removed his hat politely. "I'm sorry," he said simply.
"You have nothing to apologize for," she whispered. "Thank you."
His pant legs were spattered with mud. He looked as if he had just now gotten back from the journey that had taken him away for the past few months. She'd noticed his absenceafter all, it was a small church.
But honesty prompted her to admit that Noah had always caught her attention, right from the beginning.
Noah wasn't handsome in the way of a charming gambler in a fancy vest. He was good-looking in a real way, and something about the bleak look in his eyes, the grim set of his face, always tugged at her, made her want to go to him and touch his cheek.
A foolish thing I could never do.
"Is thee happy here?" Noah asked her. The unexpected question startled her. She struggled to find a polite reply.
He waved a hand as if wiping the question off a chalkboard.
She was relieved. Happy was a word she rarely thought of in connection with her life.
She forced down the emotions bubbling up, churning inside her. She knew that Mrs. Gabriel sent her to town as a little change in the everyday routine of the farm, a boon, not an ordeal. I should tell her how it always is for me in town.
But Sunny hadn't been able to bring herself to speak of the insults, snubs and liberties she faced during each trip to townnot to the sweet unsullied Quaker woman, Constance Gabriel. The woman who'd taken her in just before Christmas last year and treated her like a daughter.
Sunny then realized that Noah was waiting to help her up into the wagon and that she hadn't answered his question. She hastily offered him her hand. "Yes, the Gabriels have been very good to me."
Two women halted on the boardwalk and stared at the two of them with searing intensity and disapproval. Sunny felt herself blush. "I'd better go. Mrs. Gabriel will be wondering where I am," Sunny said.
Noah frowned but then courteously helped her up onto the wagon seat. "If thee doesn't mind, since I'm going thy way, I'll ride alongside thee."
What could she say? He wasn't a child. He must know what associating with her would cost him socially. She slapped the reins and the wagon started forward. Noah swung up into his saddle and caught up to her.
Behind them both women made loud huffing sounds of disapproval.
"Don't let them bother thee," Noah said, leaning so she could hear his low voice. "People around here don't think much of Quakers. We're misfits."
Sunny wondered if he might be partially right. Though she was sure the women were judging her, maybe they were judging him, too. Certainly Quakers dressed, talked and believed differently than any people she'd ever met before. She recalled now what she'd heard before, that Noah had gone to war. For some reason this had grieved his family and his church.
"You went to war," slipped out before she could stop herself.
His mouth became a hard line. "Yes, I went to war." She'd said the wrong thing. "But you're home now." Noah didn't respond.
She didn't know what to say so she fell silent, as well.
Twice wagons passed hers as she rode beside a pensive Noah Whitmore on the main road. The people in the wagons gawked at seeing the two of them together. Several times along the way she thought Noah was going to say more to her, but he didn't. He looked troubled, too. She wanted to ask him what was bothering him, but she didn't feel comfortable speaking to him like a friend. Except for the Gabriels, she had no friends here.
Finally when she could stand the silence no longer, she said, "You've been away recently." He could take that as a question or a comment and treat it any way he wanted.
"I've been searching for a place of my own. I plan to homestead in Wisconsin."
His reply unsettled her further. Why, she couldn't say. "I see."
"Has thee ever thought about leaving here?"
"Where would I go?" she said without waiting to think about how she should reply. She hadn't learned to hold her quick tongueunfortunately.
He nodded. "That's what I thought."
And what would I do? She had no way to support herselfexcept to go back to the saloon. Sudden revulsion gagged her.
Did those women in town think she'd chosen to be a prostitute? Did they think her mother had chosen to be one? A saloon was where a woman went when she had nowhere else to go. It wasn't a choice; it was a life sentence.
As they reached the lane to the Whitmore family's farm, Noah pulled at the brim of his hat. "Sunny, I'll leave thee here. Thanks for thy company. After weeks alone it was nice to speak to thee."
We didn't say muchor rather, you didn't. But Sunny smiled and nodded, her tongue tied by his kindness. He'd actually been polite to her in public. At the saloon, men were often polite but only inside. Outside they didn't even look at her, the lowest of the low.
With a nod, Noah rode down the lane.
Sunny drove on in turmoil. A mile from home she stopped the wagon and bent her head, praying for self-control as she often did on her return trip from town. If she appeared upset, she would have to explain the cause of her distress to Constance Gabriel. And she didn't want to do that. She owed the Gabriel family much. She'd met Mercy Gabriel, M.D., the eldest Gabriel daughter, in Idaho Territory. Dr. Mercy had delivered Sunny's baby last year and then made the arrangements for Sunny to come here to her parents, Constance and Adam, and try for a new start.
But she couldn't stay in this town for the rest of her life, no matter how kind the Gabriels had been.
"I have to get away from here. Start fresh." Without warning the words she'd long held back were spoken aloud into the quiet daylight. But she had no plan. No place to go. No way to earn a livingexcept the way she had in the past.
She choked back a sob, not for herself but for her daughter. What if the type of public humiliation she'd suffered today happened a few years from now when her baby girl could understand what was being said about her mother?
Noah's questions came back to her, and she felt a stab of envy that the man was free to simply pick up and start again somewhere new on his own. Sunny did not have that luxury. What am I going to do?
Noah slowly led his horse up the familiar lane, to the place he called home, but which really wasn't home anymore. Sunny's face lingered in his mindso pretty and somehow still graced with a tinge of innocence.
Ahead, he saw his father and two of his brothers. His brothers stopped unloading the wagon and headed toward him. Not his father. He stared at Noah and then turned his back and stalked to the barn.
This galled Noah, but he pushed it down. Then he recalled how that man on Main Street had touched Sunny without any fear. It galled him to his core, too. She had no one to protect her. The man had been right; the Gabriels would not fight for her. The idea that had played through his mind over the past few months pushed forward again.
His eldest brother reached him first. "You came back." He gripped Noah's hand.
"I'm home." For now. His other brothers shook his hand in welcome, none of them asking about his trip, afraid of what he'd say, no doubt.
"Don't take it personally," his eldest brother said, apologizing for their father's lack of welcome with a nod toward the barn.
"It is meant personally," Noah replied. "He will never forgive me for disagreeing with him and going to war." Noah held up his hand. "Don't make excuses for him. He's not going to change."
His brothers shifted uncomfortably on their feet, not willing to agree or disagree. They were caught in the middle.
But not for long. Meeting Sunny in town exactly when he'd come home and seeing her shamed in public had solidified his purpose. She needed his protection and he could provide it. But would she accept him?
Feeling like a counterfeit, Sunny perched on the backless bench in the quiet Quaker meeting for another Sunday morning of worship she didn't understand. She sat near the back on the women's side beside Constance Gabriel, who had taught Sunny to be still here and let the Inner Light lead her.
But how did that feel? Was she supposed to be feeling something besides bone-aching hopelessness?
Little Dawn stirred in her arms and Sunny patted her six-month-old daughter, soothing her to be quiet. I've brought this shame upon my daughter as surely as my mother brought it onto me. She pushed the tormenting thought back, rocking slightly on the hard bench not just to comfort Dawn, but herself, as well.
The door behind her opened, the sound magnified by the silence within. Even the devout turned their heads to glimpse who'd broken their peace.
He came. Awareness whispered through Sunny as Noah Whitmore stalked to the men's side and sat down near, but still a bit apart from, his father and five older brothers. Today he was wearing his Sunday best like everyone else. His expression was stormy, determined.
Dawn woke in her arms and yawned. She was a sweet-tempered child, and as pretty as anything with reddish-blond hair and big blue eyes. As Sunny smiled down at her, an old, heartbreaking thought stung her. I don't even know who your father is. Sunny closed her eyes and absorbed the full weight of her wretchedness, thankful no one could hear what was in her mind.
Noah Whitmore rose. This was not uncommonthe Quaker worship consisted of people rising to recite, discuss or quote scripture. However, in her time here, Noah had never risen. The stillness around Sunny became alert, sharp. Everyone looked at him. Unaccountably reluctant to meet his gaze, she lowered her eyes.
"You all know that I've been away," Noah said, his voice growing firmer with each word. The congregation palpably absorbed this unexpected, unconventional announcement. In any other church, whispering might have broken out. Here, though, only shuttered glances and even keener concentration followed.
Sunny looked up and found that Noah Whitmore was looking straight at her. His intent gaze electrified her and she had to look away again.
"I'm making this announcement because I've staked a homestead claim in Wisconsin but must accumulate what's necessary and return there while there is still time to put in a crop." Still focusing on her, he paused and his jaw worked. "And I have chosen a woman who I hope will become a wife."
A wife? Sunny sensed the conspicuous yet silent reaction Noah's announcement was garnering. And since Noah was staring at her, everyone was now studying her, too. He couldn't
"Adam Gabriel," Noah said, his voice suddenly gruffer, "I want to ask for thy foster daughter Sunny's hand in marriage. And I want us to be married now, here, today."
Ice shot through Sunny. She heard herself gasp. And she was not the only one. She couldn't think straight. Noah wanted to marry her?
I couldn't have heard that right.
Adam Gabriel and Noah's father, Boaz, surged to their feet, both looking shocked, upset. A few other men rose and turned toward Noah.
White-haired Solomon Love, the most elderly and respected man at the gathering, stood. He raised his gnarled hands and gestured for the two fathers and the others to retake their seats. Adam sat first and then, grudgingly, Noah's father.
Sunny could do nothing but stare at the floor, frozen in shock as Noah's impossible words rang in her head.