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BelongingWhere the heart lives
By Robin Lee Hatcher
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 RobinSong, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBoise, Idaho, 1897
The journey by train from eastern Wyoming to western Idaho hadn't been a long one. Only a single night and a part of two days. Nonetheless, Felicia Brennan Kristoffersen felt bone weary by the time she stepped from the passenger car onto the platform, where a hot August breeze tugged at the skirt of her black dress. She longed for a cool drink of water. But first she had to find Mr. Swanson, the president of the Frenchman's Bluff school board. He'd stated in his letter that he would be at the depot to meet her.
Whatever would she do if she couldn't find him, if he hadn't come for her after all? Her heart fluttered at the thought, but she quickly pushed the rising fear away. She wouldn't give in to it. Not even for a moment. She'd allowed too much fear into her heart through the years. Never more so than in recent months. But no more. God had not given her a spirit of fear.
Tightening her grip on the valise, she walked toward the doors leading into the station. Just as her hand reached to open it, she heard someone speak her name.
Relieved, she turned to face a short, squat man with generous white muttonchops and a friendly smile. "Yes, that's me. Are you Mr. Swanson?"
"Indeed I am. Have you been waiting long?"
"No. I disembarked only a few moments ago."
"Good. Good. And your luggage? I assume there's more than what you carry."
"Yes. I have a trunk." One trunk that held everything she owned in this world, although there was no need to tell him that.
"Why don't I take you to the wagon, and then I'll get it for you."
She nodded. "That's very kind."
Wordlessly, he held out his hand for her valise. She gave it to him and then followed him to the end of the platform, down a few steps, and around the side of the depot, where a buckboard pulled by two black horses awaited. Once there, Mr. Swanson dropped her valise into the wagon bed before helping her up to the seat.
"Be back directly, miss."
After Mr. Swanson disappeared inside the station, Felicia felt herself relax. Her journey was almost at an end. No catastrophe had befallen her. Soon she would be settled in a home of her own and could begin making a new life for herself. All would be well.
She sat a little straighter on the wagon seat and looked about. The terrain was similar to the area in Wyoming where she'd spent the past sixteen years—sagebrush and sand-colored earth in abundance — except Boise City had come to life along a river at the base of a pine-topped mountain range. That river now watered farms throughout the valley via a system of canals and creeks, bringing a lush green to land that was otherwise baked brown by the late summer sun.
"Right over there."
She turned to see Mr. Swanson walking toward the buckboard. Behind him was a porter pushing a cart that held her trunk. Thank goodness, for the heat was becoming unbearable, especially in her black gown and bonnet. She prayed it wasn't a long journey to Frenchman's Bluff.
Within minutes, Mr. Swanson had joined her on the wagon seat and the horses were turned away from the depot. They traveled east, leaving the city of Boise behind them. The road they followed was filled with ruts, and more than once Felicia wondered if her bones would be jarred from their sockets before they reached their destination.
"Folks are mighty excited that we'll have ourselves a schoolteacher again," Mr. Swanson said after a long period of silence.
Not for the first time, Felicia wondered how many other teachers had applied for the position before it was awarded to her. The salary was small, to be sure. It couldn't possibly support a man with a family. Which meant most, if not all, applicants would have been unmarried women like herself. Why the school board had chosen Felicia was nothing short of a miracle. An answer to prayer, surely.
But what did it matter why they'd offered her the position? She had employment, and she was out on her own. She'd even been promised a house to live in rather than having to board with a different family each month. Such a luxury. She would no longer be dependent on the whims of others. She wouldn't be responsible to anyone but herself and her God. And more important, she wouldn't have to deal with another member of the Kristoffersen family ever again.
"Like I told you in my letter," Mr. Swanson continued, drawing her thoughts back to the present, "we've been without a teacher since Miss Lucas moved away. Some of our womenfolk took over the instruction of the children as best they could to finish out the session, but the school needs a trained teacher. Right glad we found you when we did."
She offered the man a smile and a nod, but inside, turmoil erupted, as it often had since receiving the letter from Mr. Swanson offering her the position. What if she failed as a teacher? It had been years since she'd completed her training. How would she support herself if she didn't succeed? For years she'd longed to leave the Kristoffersen homestead on the eastern plains of Wyoming, to experience a little bit of the world, but obligation had held her there. Now she had what she'd wanted, and she found herself scared half to death.
But could anything be worse than what I left behind?
She pictured Gunnar Kristoffersen, his face flushed. She heard his angry accusations and harsh demands. A shudder raced through her. No, it couldn't be worse. Whatever lay ahead of her had to be better than what she'd left behind.
* * *
From the doorway of the small cottage, Colin Murphy watched as his daughter, Charity, placed the vase of roses in the center of the kitchen table. She turned it this way and that, her mouth pursed and her eyes squinting, then adjusted it again and again.
Just like her mother used to do.
His heart pinched at the memory. And it hurt even more knowing that Charity hadn't learned it from her mother. His daughter had been only three when Margaret Murphy passed away. There'd been no time for her to learn the fine art of floral displays or her mother's mannerisms.
"Do you think the teacher'll like them, Papa?"
"Of course she will," he answered, moving a few steps into the kitchen. "All women seem to like roses."
His daughter turned her large brown eyes on him. "I hope she'll want to stay. Do you think Miss Kristoffersen will like it here? Enough to stay and keep teaching?"
He recognized her questions. It seemed his little girl had been eavesdropping on adult conversations again, something she'd been scolded for in the past. But Colin decided to let it go this time. He didn't want to spoil her excitement. He just wished he felt a degree of the same enthusiasm.
Colin checked his pocket watch. If the train had arrived on time, Walter Swanson should show up with the new schoolmarm any moment now. "Come on, Charity. I need to get back to the store."
His daughter was quick to obey, rushing on ahead of him while he closed the door of the cottage. Before she disappeared around the corner of the mercantile, she called back to him, "I'm gonna wait on the porch."
Colin shook his head. Charity never did anything by halves. She was prepared to love Miss Kristoffersen, sight unseen, and she would be devastated if the teacher didn't return those feelings.
He'd been against hiring another single female, especially one without actual teaching experience. Yes, she'd completed her teacher preparedness education at the State Normal School in Laramie, Wyoming, almost a decade earlier. Yes, she had all the appropriate credentials. But she'd never been employed as a teacher.
What if she wasn't capable? What if the children suffered because of her inabilities? What if Charity suffered because of her inabilities? And more important, what if she didn't last any longer than Miss Lucas or her predecessor? Just because Felicia Kristoffersen was willing to teach for the smaller fixed salary they'd offered didn't mean they should have given her the position.
Hadn't the board learned anything from their last two choices? As far as Colin could tell, all female teachers were more interested in gaining husbands than they were in the welfare of the children. A schoolmaster might have cost the town two or three hundred dollars more per year, but it would have saved them a world of grief in the end.
Now he could only hope the parents of Frenchman's Bluff wouldn't come to regret the board's choice once again. With luck, Miss Kristoffersen would surprise him for the better. He would welcome a pleasant surprise.
He gave his head another slow shake as he walked through the storeroom of the mercantile, his gaze taking in the shelves on both sides of him, noting which ones were full and which ones needed to be restocked.
It had been a good year for Murphy's Mercantile. The previous winter had been mild, and the weather this summer had been perfect. Just enough rain, just enough sun. Barring any natural disasters—God forbid—the ranchers and farmers in the area surrounding Frenchman's Bluff would enjoy good profits. And when the ranchers and farmers did well, Colin's business did well too.
When he entered the store a few moments later, Jimmy Bryant, his clerk, was adding the cost of several purchases for Kathleen Summerville. The young man glanced up, nodded, then went right back to his calculations. Kathleen, on the other hand, turned her full attention in Colin's direction.
"Good day, Mr. Murphy."
"Mrs. Summerville. How are you?"
"Very well, thank you. But my girls are anxious to meet their new teacher. They're on your home's front porch, watching for Mr. Swanson's wagon to appear around the bend. I saw Charity join them a few moments ago."
With a nod, Colin moved toward the large window at the front of the mercantile.
Kathleen came to stand beside him, holding her basket of supplies against her chest. "Things will be different this time. I just know they will."
Colin decided to keep his reservations to himself. Kathleen Summerville must have heard what they were anyway.
"You know,"—her right hand alighted on the back of his wrist—"I'll miss helping with the children's instruction."
He kept his eyes focused on the view outside the window, knowing full well Kathleen wanted him to look at her, wanted him to acknowledge her as something more than a customer in his store. He couldn't do it. While there was much to admire about this widowed mother of two daughters, that didn't make him want to marry again.
Thankfully, Walter Swanson drove his buckboard into view just then, giving Colin an excuse to step away, out from under her touch. "Here they are." He opened the front door, then waited for Kathleen to move outside before him.
"Hellooo!" Walter reined in the team of horses in front of the mercantile. "I said I would bring her back safely, and so I did."
"So you did." Colin shaded his eyes against the sun that rode low in the western sky, trying to see the new schoolmarm's face. He couldn't. Not yet.
Walter hopped down from the seat and hurried around to the other side, where he offered a hand to his passenger. Dressed all in black, from her hat to her shoes and stockings—which Colin glimpsed as she stepped onto the hub of the wheel—she was slender but with pleasing feminine curves.
He blinked and drew in a quick breath, annoyed at the direction his thoughts had taken.
"Thank you, Mr. Swanson," the teacher said as one foot alighted on the ground.
Walter drew her toward the boardwalk. "This here's Mr. Murphy. Owns the little house you'll be livin' in. It's right behind the mercantile. Looks out on First Street. And this here's Mrs. Summerville."
Felicia Kristoffersen's gaze turned to Colin. And a lovely gaze it was. He could see that now, the sun no longer intruding on his view. She had large eyes, the color of the bluebells that grew wild in the high country of Idaho. And she was attractive—one might even say striking—though not in the conventional way; her face had too many sharp angles for that. Her complexion was pale, as if she'd been shut up in a dark room for quite some time, a look exacerbated by the uninterrupted black of her attire.
There'd been a death in her family. Colin remembered something about it in her application. Her parents? That's what he seemed to recall.
It was Kathleen who broke the momentary silence. "Welcome to Frenchman's Bluff, Miss Kristoffersen. We're so glad you've come to teach the children."
"Mrs. Summerville. Mr. Murphy." Felicia Kristoffersen had a soft, melodic voice. It fit her somehow. "The pleasure is mine. I'm glad to be here at last."
Having left the front porch, the three girls arrived on the boardwalk in front of the mercantile, giggling and smiling, eager and shy at the same time. Charity joined Colin, slipping her small hand into his, tugging on him.
"Miss Kristoffersen, this is my daughter, Charity. One of your students."
"How do you do, Charity?" Felicia smiled, and the weariness he'd seen earlier vanished.
Kathleen drew her own daughters forward. "These are my girls, Suzanne and Phoebe."
Felicia nodded, still smiling. "Are you looking forward to the start of school?"
"Yes, ma'am," Suzanne answered with enthusiasm.
"I am too." Felicia's gaze returned to Colin, and the smile faded, replaced once again by an expression of fatigue. "If you might be so kind as to show me to my living quarters."
"Of course." He glanced at Walter.
"You go on ahead," the man said. "I'll bring her trunk around in the wagon."
Colin nodded, then motioned with his head. "Just follow me, miss."
Charity released his hand and fell back to walk beside the new schoolmistress while he led the way around the east side of the mercantile. "We got new readers for the school," his daughter said. "They came this summer. Did Mr. Swanson tell you that?"
"No, he didn't mention it."
"Well, we did. A big box of new McGuffey's. We didn't use to have enough for everybody, but now we do."
"How wonderful. Every student should have their own reader."
"I like the stories in 'em, but I think reading's hard."
Colin tensed. His daughter's struggle with reading was a sore point—perhaps because he was unable to help her as he wished he could—but also because of Miss Lucas's harsh assessment of Charity's learning abilities.
"It can be," Felicia answered. "But we can find ways to make it easier for you."
He released a breath he hadn't known he held, and the tension eased from his shoulders.
"I like history best," Charity continued.
"Do you? That's good. It's very important to know history. It helps us understand the present better if we know and understand the past."
"Ask me something, Miss Kristoffersen. See if I know it. Go on, ask me."
"Charity," Colin warned softly.
He heard his daughter sigh.
They arrived at the cottage, and he opened the door, then stepped back to allow the schoolteacher and his daughter to enter first. But it wasn't merely because he was acting the gentleman, doing the polite thing. The truth was, he always needed an extra moment to steel himself before he passed through this doorway. The small house held bittersweet memories for him.
He'd built the home for Margaret. His wife hadn't wanted to continue residing in the other half of the mercantile building. So he'd built this cottage for her, exactly as she'd wanted, with the parlor and the larger bedroom facing First Street, giving a view of the mountains to the north, and a porch that wrapped around from the front to one side where another door opened into the kitchen. He'd hoped it would bring her some happiness, hoped it would bring them closer together. Only she'd died before they could move into it.
"This is where I'm to live?"
Felicia's question pulled Colin's attention to the present.
"I hadn't anticipated anything so lovely as this," she said, looking at him.
The new schoolteacher was past the age at which most members of the fair sex married. In fact, his late wife had given birth once and miscarried three times before she was as old as Miss Kristoffersen. Colin had buried Margaret on her twenty-sixth birthday, which, according to the information the school board received, was the present age of the new teacher. Some would call Miss Kristoffersen an old maid, but that would be an unjust description of someone with such a smile. A smile that would draw single men to her as surely as bees are drawn to honey.
Excerpted from Belonging by Robin Lee Hatcher Copyright © 2011 by RobinSong, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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