Home Fires


A woman with too many secrets and a man with too many memories are brought together by two young boys and a love that could rescue them all.

Harper Monogram · isbn: 0-06-108305-4

If you held me down and forced me to pick a favorite of my books, this one would probably be it. There's a great deal of my family and home in this one. The town it's set in, an old, distinctly German settlement in the middle of the Minnesota River Valley, is near where both my parents grew up, and we visited there often. It's also where a particularly bloody conflict between settlers and the Dakota took place. The story isn't about that, though; it's set ten years later, and it's really about putting your life back together after the rough times, about finding the courage and faith to trust and love again.

The original title of the book was COME TO MY WINDOW, which refers to a particular courting custom, and two of my favorite scenes in the book are built around that. Not to mention that I listened the Melissa Etheridge song many times while I was writing it. I still wish they'd have let me keep that title.

I loved the characters so much that I couldn't resist spinning off two more books from this one: ONE LONELY NIGHT, about a character which shows up only twice (but quite memorably!) and THE MOST WANTED BACHELOR, which is about one of the young boys all grown up.

HOME FIRES is currently out-of-print, but has been sighted in many used bookstores. Know of any good used bookstores? Email me about them.

--Susan


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Prologue

A Westbound Train, 1873

Zero out of three isn't good.

Helga von Leigh considered herself an excellent judge of people. She was quite certain that the woman who'd settled into the seat across from her just before the train pulled out of Pittsburgh was a grieving widow, traveling with her young son, and on the verge of destitution.

She was wrong on all counts.

The long, harsh blast of the whistle startled the boy, and he turned to the woman with uncertainty in his blue eyes. She whispered to him softly, reassuring him. He nodded, tipped his head against her shoulder, and stared out the open window. Hot, humid summer air gusted through as the train slowly gathered speed, bringing with it the smell of coal and smoke.

Such a beautiful boy, Helga thought. Perhaps nine, just beginning to grow into his teeth and ears. He had gorgeous, thick dark curls and obscenely long lashes to go with his eyes. He'd be quite a looker someday. He must favor his father, she decided.

Not that the mother wasn't pleasant enough looking, in a quiet way. How good to see an Eastern woman who hadn't succumbed to the current fashion for thinness; this one looked nicely healthy, like a good deutches girl. Helga patted her own plump stomach.

It was going to be a long trip; no reason to spend it in silence. She leaned forward, speaking loudly to be heard over the steady clack of the wheels. "I hope you don't mind if I introduce myself. Old women like me don't have to stand on ceremony; one of the privileges of age. I'm Helga von Leigh."

For a while Helga wondered if the young woman was going to answer, then she took a deep breath. "I'm Amy Smith," she said, so low that Helga could barely catch it.

Such a shy thing. It was an affliction Helga had never suffered from. "And this is?" she prompted, smiling at the boy.

The woman hesitated again. "Daniel." She slipped her arm around the boy's shoulders and pulled him close. "My son."

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Daniel. You may call me Tante; all the children do -- except for my own grandchildren, of course. And perhaps later, if your mother agrees, you can try some of the sweets I brought along. It's a new recipe, and I'm not certain it is right. I could use an expert's opinion."

What a shame. No little boy should be that timid. He hardly dared meet her eyes until he checked with his mother for approval.

The bereavement must not have been too long ago, Helga decided. And very painful. It wasn't right that two such lovely people should be in such obvious distress.

Clearly, their fortunes had taken a downturn as well, for Amy's gray poplin traveling suit, while of good fabric, had a large stain on the underskirt and a neatly mended but still obvious tear across the left sleeve. She must not have been able to buy new clothes for a while, because it no longer fit her properly, too snug in the waist and the shoulders.

Helga's soft heart melted. "Is your loss recent?"

Amy went white and still, a striking study in grief. "Yes," she whispered.

It was not right, Helga thought again. Someone should do something for the poor dears. "It will not always be like this, you know," she said briskly. "I'm a widow myself. I had thirty lovely years with my Augustus, and I thought I should never be able to bear life without him. But the time will come when you realize that the richness he added to your life does not disappear with his."

Amy didn't answer, her fingers nervously working the strap to her handbag. Perhaps she was not yet ready to accept it. Still, it seemed a terrible waste if such a sweet family allowed grief to overtake their lives.

"Hmm." Helga narrowed her gaze speculatively. "Where are you going to on this trip? To visit family?"

"No." Amy gave Daniel a light squeeze. "We're going home."

"Home? Where is that?"

Her smile was tentative, as if she were unused to smiling, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

"We don't know yet."

 

Chapter 1

Dear God, please let me be doing the right thing.

The prayer had beaten, over and over again, in her head and her heart since that mad dash from New York. It thrummed in her now, as Amanda Sellington clutched Daniel's hand and stepped from the 4:00 train from Mankato.

New Ulm, Minnesota. She'd never heard of the place before, until Helga had spoken of it on the train. She'd decided to come here on no more solid reason than that Daniel, who was usually so reserved around adults, had taken a liking to Mrs. von Leigh. That, and because Edward hated the Germans almost as he hated the Irish, and it would give her a perverse satisfaction to raise his son here.

"Mama," Daniel said, "you're squishing my fingers."

"Sorry." She forced herself to relax her grip and she smiled down at him as they took the last, large step to the platform. Mama. Of all the lies, that one was the one that came the easiest. To both of them.

She took a deep breath, trying to calm the panicked knocking of her heart. Every instinct she had told her to keep running, as far and fast as she could. But Daniel needed a home, a place to grow up in stability. She'd taken him away from his birthright; she couldn't force him to live constantly on the run, no matter how much she wanted to keep running.

She set her case down on the wooden platform. On either side of her, the town was tucked neatly into the river valley. Trim brick buildings, widely spaced, stepped up toward the rim of the lushly wooded valley, so different from the empty plains the train had passed through.

The air was thick with summer. Beneath the tinge of smoke from the train, there was earth and growing things, the scent of water from the river, herbs from carefully tended kitchen gardens, and wildly blooming summer flowers.

So different from New York, she thought again. There, no matter how carefully she'd been shut away, no matter how many expensive blossoms perfumed her rooms, the odors of concrete and smoke and too many unwashed bodies still lurked.

She gulped another, steadying breath, and smelled freedom.

"You like it, ja?" Helga came up beside her, the warm August sun gilding the tight knot of her brilliant, improbably red hair that looked so strangely right against her plump, wrinkled face. "It is very different from Pittsburgh."

"Yes, it's very different." She couldn't afford to get in a discussion of Pittsburgh. Though when Helga asked, Amanda had named it as their hometown, they'd only been there a day on their way through.

Daniel's small hand was still tightly in hers, and he was quiet by her side, but his eyes were bright with curiosity, an expression she'd seen there all too seldom.

"And yes, I do believe we like it." The town was large enough that a new person wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb, and it would give her plenty of business. It was also small enough that she could feel a part of the community, small enough to feel snug and safe, hidden away from the world. And from Edward, please God.

"Now then," Amanda said briskly, determined to get on with it, now that the decision was made. "If you could recommend a hotel --"

"Well, look who is here," Helga said, her voice too bright. "Jakob, you did not have to come and fetch me."

"You knew I would." As the strange man came up, Daniel huddled closer to Amanda's side, and she automatically slipped a protective arm around his shoulder.

"I had a shipment to get off on a barge, in any case," the man went on. He was of near average height, perhaps a bit taller, and too powerfully built for her peace of mind. Too stocky for his elegant gray suit, his shoulders pushing against the seams of the vest and his starched linen shirt.

"And where is this one bound?" Helga asked.

"To Indiana. South Bend." His voice was deep and smooth, his accent not nearly as pronounced as Helga's, just a slight brogue that gave flavor to his words.

"So far!" Helga beamed approvingly. "Amy, Jakob's brewing is known all over the Midwest. He is sending his beer all the way to Indiana this time!"

Jakob gave Helga a puzzled frown. "Helga, why are you making such a fuss? We've been shipping there for six years, I think."

"I am always impressed, Jakob. You have managed so much." She clapped her hands together in front of her large chest. "Now, I shall introduce you to my new friends, and you will be kind to them, Jakob."

"Helga," he said warningly.

"Oh, hush."

It was the first time the man had really noticed her presence, Amanda realized when he turned to her, a frown drawing his eyebrows together, and she rather wished she'd remained invisible, for there was no welcome in his manner or eyes.

Oh, he was handsome enough. The short cropping of his dark hair couldn't disguise its rich curl, and the gold-framed spectacles he wore couldn't hide the strong, even bones of his features.

There was power, tangible and terrifying, in this man. And that was enough to make her breath shorten and her heart pound, enough to make her ready to grab Daniel and bolt back to the train, ready to run again.

It didn't matter where they went. As long as it was somewhere, anywhere, away from powerful men.

But if she gave in to the fear now, she knew she would never stop running. And damned if she would let Edward do that to her, even now. So she stiffened her spine and forced herself to keep her gaze from the ground.

"Jakob, this is Amy Smith and her son, Daniel," Helga said cheerfully. "Amy, this is Jakob Hall. I am his housekeeper, you know; I work for him out at the house."

"You do? I don't remember ever hiring you." He nodded at Amanda curtly, just enough for politeness' sake, and turned abruptly away. "Are you ready to go?"

"Jakob!" Helga scolded. "There is no need to be in such a hurry."

"Work to do."

"You always have work to do. It would be better for you to slow down. It is not so good for you to be in such a rush all the time."

Jakob sighed and gave in. There was no use arguing with Helga, and she seemed set on his standing here on the platform and being polite to her new acquaintance. "Hello, Mrs. Smith. Daniel." From the corner of his eye, he watched the trunks being taken off the train, wishing they'd hurry up and unload Helga's so he could get back to the brewery. "Are you visiting someone in town?"

"No." The woman's voice was so soft he had to strain to catch her words. "We're staying."

"You're moving here?"

She hesitated and then gave a slight nod.

"Why?" He hadn't meant it to come out like that, so brusque and short. Hadn't meant to make her drop her gaze to her toes, either. But he'd never really learned the niceties of small talk and of putting people at their ease. He'd never had the time. "I mean . . . there are so many other places to choose." Not that he'd ever had the chance to see them. "Usually people who come here do so because they already have family here."

Damn it. She looked ready to bolt.

"We just --" She paused again, then lifted her head. The sunlight struck her, shining off her soft brown hair, sparking gold into her hazel eyes. She had skin like whipped cream, fine-textured, smooth, pale. "We needed a new home. Here seemed as good as any."

The softness of her voice snared a listener, Jakob thought. Made him pay even more attention than he would otherwise, drew him in like she was whispering to him alone. So quiet, as if she were afraid to disturb the air.

"It is that." She still looked unsure, one hand fluttering by her side, the other still latched onto the boy.

The boy. Jakob registered his presence for the first time. He couldn't be more than a year or two younger than Nicolaus. Daniel looked pale, his clothes too clean, and he was quieter than any boy in Jakob's experience. Too quiet, like his mother.

Jakob knelt down, so he could look into Daniel's downcast eyes. "Hello, Daniel," he said softly. "Welcome to New Ulm. And I bet you were lured here with some of Tante Helga's sweets, weren't you?"

"Yes, sir," he said politely without looking up. Jakob crouched there a moment, trying to think of something to draw the bashful boy out. He was the exact opposite of Jakob's impetuous nephew. Perhaps each of them would balance the other a bit.

"Nic, come on over here and meet --" Jakob glanced around and bit off a curse. Nicolaus had managed to make himself scarce again. Jakob stood up and bellowed, "Nicolaus!"

Nicolaus barreled around the corner of the train station, his limp brown hair dangling over one eye, his dirt-streaked shirt pulled out of his trousers and flopping around his hips, and wearing a grin as wide as the Minnesota River. His bare feet pounded across the wooden platform, and he threw his arms around Helga in a quick, exuberant hug before grabbing her arm and towing her off in the direction he came from.

"I found kittens, Helga! Four of them. Come and see."

"Nicolaus," Jakob said sharply. "You disappeared without telling me again."

"Oh, sorry. Come on, Jakob. You can come see them, too. Only don't frown. You'll scare them."

"No manners at all," Jakob grumbled before snagging Nicolaus and dragging him back.

The boy was spoiled rotten; there were no two ways around it. It was the whole town's fault. All of them, and Jakob worst of all, had done everything they could to make it up to the baby who'd lost both his parents and grandparents in one swoop, leaving him with no one to care for him but an inept 17-year-old uncle who'd also been saddled with the brewery that was the town's biggest employer.

Keeping his hands on Nic's shoulders to hold the fidgety boy still, Jakob introduced him to Amy and Daniel. He had to remind him to shake Amy's proffered hand -- her shyness, it seemed, didn't extend to males under the age of twelve -- and then Nic quickly invited Daniel to see the new kittens.

"Mama?" Daniel asked. "Do you think I should go?"

An odd way for the child to phrase it. Not "can I" or "may I," but "should I?" At least he'd asked, which was more than Nic was prone to do.

"Daniel, I . . . I don't think, I --" She stopped, clearly torn.

"It'll be safe enough," Jakob assured her. The whole town watched out for Nic; Daniel would be well looked after, by extension.

"But --" The rest of her body was utterly still, but her hands seemed in constant motion, brushing back a strand of her son's hair, smoothing his collar, as if she couldn't stop touching him. "We need to get our things and find a place to stay."

Helga spoke up. "You should get settled, and then come and collect him. The boy has been shut up in that train long enough." When she gave orders in that tone, Jakob followed them without stopping to think about it. It seemed to have the same effect on Amy.

"All right, then," she agreed.

Amanda had to force herself not to call Daniel back as he, with one last uncertain look at her, trailed Nicolaus around the back of the building. She was simply going to have to get used to letting him out of her sight. She wanted him to have a normal life, and a normal life for a boy of his age was not having a mother who hovered over him constantly. It was good he'd found a friend already.

"Ah, they finally have everything unloaded." Jakob spun and strode over to the pile of crates and luggage stacked haphazardly at one end of the platform.

Helga patted Amanda's shoulder. "Jakob does not mean to be rude, dismissing you as he did. Though I try my best, I have never gotten the boy to slow down and be sociable."

"It's fine." The last thing she wanted was a man to be sociable. Especially one who managed to throw a crate over his shoulder and pick up two bulging valises in one large hand as though they weighed nothing. She was accustomed to being overlooked. Better that than the alternative.

She had better fetch her own things, too, and she moved to do just that, even though what she really wanted to do was slip around the corner and check on Daniel.

Jakob had already loaded the wagon with Helga's luggage by the time Amanda dragged her case over to the pile and located her other two trunks. She started to remove the heavy wooden crate that was stacked on top of one of her trunks when it was plucked right out of her hands.

"Let me do that." Jakob set it easily aside.

She hadn't flinched. Even though this powerful man had reached over her shoulder and taken the crate right out of her hands. She was proud of herself for that small victory. Perhaps she was stronger already.

"You needn't help me," she murmured. "I'm sure a porter will be along soon."

"There are no porters." The barest trace of amusement softened his deep voice. "This isn't the East, Mrs. Smith."

"Every woman for herself?" she said, astonishing herself. She'd even managed to dredge up a light remark.

"Not exactly. Usually families and neighbors help out each other. But you haven't been here long enough to collect those yet."

"Which is why you have us," Helga said, her wide smile creasing her round cheeks. "Jakob, load her things into the wagon, please."

"Yes, ma'am."

"No, really," Amanda protested, but it was too late. She winced as he tossed a trunk into the back of what was apparently his wagon, parked along the right side of the station. She hoped the straps she'd used to secure the trunks would hold. If they burst and the contents came spilling out, it would be difficult to explain why they were stuffed only with old rags, crumpled newspapers, and a few rocks for weight.

She'd bought them in a hurry, in Pittsburgh, just after they'd arrived, figuring that a widow and her son looking for a new home would look rather suspicious if they didn't have a few trunks of mementos with them.

They had nothing, of course. When the chance to leave had presented itself, she'd snatched it, having time to take nothing.

Or almost nothing. She pressed a palm against the lump in her corset, where it bit into her side, a painful reminder of what she had taken with her.

She needed no reminders. She was going to do her best to get rid of as many of the memories as possible, both for herself and Daniel.

The wagon was all loaded, and Jakob was looking at her expectantly. "Where to?"

Even that was new for her. To be asked where she wanted to go, instead of to be told. Choices. They were heady things, wonderful and more than a little frightening.

"I'm not certain. Perhaps you could recommend a hotel."

"There are three," he said, a trace of pride in his town showing through. "The Dakotah, perhaps. The food is quite good, and --"

"Don't be ridiculous," Helga broke in, a fiercely determined look on her gentle, homey features. "A hotel is no place for a young boy. You will be moving in with us, of course."

 

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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