Chapter 1: A Wall of Lies

What’s happening: Linn Sparks has come face to face with her former love, Ed Ferguson, after an absence of seven years.

This time, she must speak up. She would not allow him to upset her. Before looking at him, she tightened her grip on the reins, then lifted her chin to face the man. “Please, Ed, don’t call me by that childish name. “I’m not Linnie Mae any longer. I’ve grown up now.”

“I’ll say you have.” He rubbed the back of his neck, and grinned again. But then, his grin turned stiff, almost cold. His eyes narrowed, their color darkening to gunmetal gray. Ed stepped back. “What am I supposed to call you?” he asked, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “Who are you now?” His unyielding gaze swept her from head to toe.

“Linn. Just Linn.” She turned her head away. Usually, she enjoyed being the center of attention— especially masculine attention— but she felt oddly uncomfortable with the way Ed now scrutinized her.

Like she was a stranger.

Like he knew nothing about her.

Like he no longer cared.

Of course, who could blame him if he hated her? She deserved it. She ran her fingers over the leather traces, worn and smooth from years of use. The motion calmed her. Her troubled thoughts faded.

Linn brought a practiced smile to her face and looked up again. “It’s been nice seeing you, but I really need to get out to the farm.”

She lifted the reins, prepared now to move on and prove to him once and for all that she no longer needed him, no longer wanted him, no longer felt even the slightest emotion being near him.

But the wall of lies crumbled around her when she saw Polly Washburn hurrying toward Ed. Linn cringed as the woman reached him and took hold of his arm.

“Sorry, I’m running a bit late this morning.” Her high-pitched voice grated on Linn’s already-frazzled nerves. Polly smiled at Ed, then turned to flash a brilliant smile toward the wagon and its tight-lipped occupant. She lifted a hand and waggled her fingers.

“Bye now, Linnie Mae.”

“Get up, there!” Linn squeezed her eyes shut and flicked the reins, giving the old mule its head. It didn’t matter where she went. She didn’t care how fast or how far. Any place would be better than the middle of Main Street watching Ed and Polly walking away… together.

Ed? With Polly? Her mind reeled at the thought.

One thing, at least, had changed in Brookfield. And Linn didn’t like it.

Her chin trembled, and her lips quivered. Tears threatened to fall. She was about to lose control. She could not allow that.

Get hold of yourself, Miss Sparks.

A sharp voice inside her head— a voice that sounded very much like the one that belonged to her manager, Clarence Gray— brought her up short. Clarence had a way of quickly snapping her back to attention whenever her mind wandered, a way of helping her re-focus her thoughts on things that really mattered.

Returning to her senses, Linn drew back on the reins. She stopped the wagon, then shook her head, resisting the urge to turn and look behind her.

“You didn’t need him then, and you most certainly don’t need him now.”

Chapter 1: Past Becomes Present

What’s happening: Stage star Linn Sparks continues on toward her parents home after quickly dismissing a former friend, Polly Washburn. 

Pleased at how deftly she’d handled the encounter with Polly, Linn eased up, letting the mule have its head.

“Whoa, boy, not too fast,” she warned when the wagon picked up speed. She tightened her hold on the reins once more, then jerked back— hard— when she caught sight of a man approaching, headed, no doubt, for Ledbetter’s Corner Cafe.

Hat in hand, he moved with slow, easy strides, his pace gentle, yet purposeful. The movements marked him as a man very much in control of himself— and the world around him. Her heartbeat quickened. Whenever she made a list of reasons why she didn’t want to come back to Brookfield, Ed Ferguson was always number one.

She should drive on, she knew, but Ed Ferguson was the sort of man who made women stop and take notice. It was a natural reaction, as instinctive as petting a hound dog when it wagged its tail, or stroking a kitten’s ears when it curled up in your lap and purred.

Her heart pounded. Sometimes when she stepped on stage, she felt flutters, but this was a thousand times more powerful… and a thousand times more dangerous. She could lose herself too easily to this man.

Fighting to regain her composure, Linn drew in a long, deep breath, just as she’d learned to do early in her career. She let the breath out slowly and dared to look.

He’d been handsome at eighteen. Now the boy she’d once loved had become a man, and Linn’s gaze raked shamelessly over his lean, hard body. Her next breath caught in her throat. Her hands yearned to reach out, to touch the strong, square jaw, and to run her fingers through his thick, dark hair as she’d done so many times before.

From where she sat high atop the driver’s bench, Linn could not see Ed’s eyes clearly, but she knew their pure, gray color. His eyes had always soothed her, had somehow possessed power enough to make her believe that everything in her world would be all right, so long as she could be with him, so long as he loved her.

She lowered her gaze, suddenly ashamed of the reckless, unabashed way she stared at him.

“Hello, Ed,” she said, when he drew near enough to hear. Thank goodness for her years of vocal training! Nothing in her tone belied her nervousness. But her hands trembled as she pushed a stray auburn curl away from her cheek.

Ed stopped mid-stride. He looked up, and his slate-colored eyes grew wide.

“Well, I’ll be go to hell,” he said in a quiet voice. Linn winced at the quaint midwestern colloquialism. Her ears had grown accustomed to more refined speech. For a moment, Ed said nothing more. He just stood staring at her as though trying to grasp the reality of her presence there on the dust-covered streets of Brookfield. At last, he grinned. The morning sunlight glinted on his neat, even, white teeth. The grin broadened.

“It sure is good to see you, Linnie Mae.”

She bristled and started to tell him she was no longer Linnie Mae, but his powerful gray-eyed gaze lingered upon her, making it impossible for her to speak. Heat rushed to her cheeks. Her face must be as red as her hair. And, good Lord! Why hadn’t she worn a hat? She must look a mess, and with that hot sun beating down, she’d sprout a whole new crop of freckles on her nose.

“I should probably go now,” she said. Looping the reins around her hands, she turned away.

“No, not yet.” Ed stepped up to the wagon. “Give me a minute to look at you, Linnie. It’s been a while.”

Chapter 1: On The Way Home

What’s happening: After a brief encounter with young Joe Trumbull, Linn rents a wagon to drive to her parents’ farm.

A short time later, she climbed aboard a rented wagon, lifted the reins in her hands, and slapped them over the mule’s broad back.

Nothing happened.

Had she forgotten how to handle a buckboard? She hadn’t driven one in years. In San Francisco, she paid a kindly older gentleman to transport her about town in a fine, open carriage.

“Go on, there! Get up!” Linn flicked the reins again, her frustration mounting. Silently, she willed the stubborn animal to pick up its feet and move. When the mule finally took a few steps, Linn let out a breath.

But the obstinate creature made it only a scant twenty yards before stopping once again.

“I swear…” Linn groaned and threw down the reins. If all else fails, Linnie, give the critter a piece of your mind. Recalling the advice her father had once given, she jumped from the wagon, landing with a slight thud on the dusty street. Glancing down to her calfskin boots, she frowned at the dirt and scuffs. She’d be an absolute wreck by the time she got away from this God-forsaken town. She marched around and grabbed hold of the mule’s halter and gave it a good tug.

“Now, listen, you stubborn old thing, I’ve got a notion to send you to the glue pits if you—”

“Why, Linnie Sparks! Is that really you?”

At the sound of the squealing voice, Linn let go of the mule and whirled around. As she’d done with Joe Trumbull, she quickly put her most professional smile upon her face. Always show a smile, she’d learned. It put people at ease, drew them in, and needless to say, it resulted in more ticket sales.

Only that was in San Francisco.

This was Brookfield.

No theater. No ticket sales. And no need for any superficial smiles.

She frowned at the mule again. “It’s Polly Washburn,” she muttered under her breath. Linn turned back as the young woman hurried across the street.

Like Brookfield itself, Polly had not changed an iota. Well, maybe she looked a trifle older, and maybe she’d added a few pounds to her skinny frame, but she still wore her mousy-brown hair in that loose bun at the back of her neck, and she still dressed in those simple shirt-waisted frocks.

Although she and Polly had once been the best of friends, with one look, Linn knew the two of them no longer had anything in common. No doubt Polly was married now, probably had a houseful of noisy children, and spent her days cooking, cleaning and tending to farm chores. Linn shuddered at the thought. Who was it Polly had mooned over back in high school? Billy McGregor? One of the Loonsfoot boys? It didn’t matter, and Linn didn’t care to waste any time finding out.

“Sorry, but I’m in a bit of a rush right now.” She gave Polly a little wave, waggling her fingers in that affected manner she’d adopted since being on stage. With a swish of her long skirts, Linn climbed aboard the wagon again.

Looking straight ahead, she took hold of the thick leather reins. The old mule must have sensed Linn’s desire to move on. The wagon lurched forward.

Chapter 1: The Harvest Festival

What’s happening: Linn Sparks has recruited 16-year-old Joe Trumbull to help with her luggage. The talkative young fellow is about the deliver the punch line of an old joke.

“Call me anything you want, just don’t forget to call me for dinner.” Joe rubbed his belly and chuckled. “I heard that from my pa.” 

Linn tried, but couldn’t manage even the slightest smile. If she were onstage, performing at the Crown Theater, it would come easily. She could display a wide range of emotions as she acted, and when she sang, as well. Emotions, she’d learned, were the heart and soul of art. Tabitha Ann had first taught her that lesson, and Clarence, her mentor and manager, had trained her to project feelings enough to fill the theater’s huge auditorium. 

The feelings, of course, weren’t real. 

“Listen, Joe, you look like a strong fellow. Why don’t you carry my bags to the livery for me, and then you can go on to…” Linn had to stop and swallow before she could get the name out. “To Loonsfoot’s.” 

How was James Loonsfoot doing these days? Her mother never mentioned him in her letters. The man no longer ran his seed and feed business himself, Linn knew. He’d turned that responsibility over to his sons years before, right after the accident. 

“Sure thing, Miss Sparks. Glad to oblige, and I could use whatever you pay me.” The chunky fellow hefted two bulging suitcases up from the ground, then grabbed for a couple hatboxes.

 Worried about damage to the contents, Linn picked up the two remaining hatboxes. They weren’t heavy. She could manage. 

“Do you know about the harvest festival?” Joe asked as he huffed and puffed along at her side. “It’s coming up at the end of summer.” 

“I won’t be staying that long,” she said, her words clipped and curt. 

Feed Store rs“Oh, well, no, of course not. I just wondered if you knew about it, that’s all. Cause that’s why I’m going to Loonsfoot’s, you see. There’s this vegetable contest. For the festival.” He caught his breath. “I’m growing squash. I got to get some fertilizer. It can really make your squash grow, but you got to be awful careful with that shit—” He stopped and his face turned several shades of red. “Well, that’s what it is, you know, but I didn’t mean to say it in front of you, Miss Sparks.” 

“Don’t worry, Joe. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that word.” 

The livery’s office door wasn’t much farther now. Thank goodness! Linn quickened her pace. 

Joe’s feet sped up. So did his mouth. Like an anxious coonhound, he yapped as he trotted at her heels. 

“Nellie Young’s entered in the contest too. Thinks she can grow a bigger squash than me. I can’t let some girl beat me, Miss Sparks. That’s why I need to get that shi—uh, fertilizer, I mean, so I really appreciate you offering to pay me, and it’s too bad you won’t be here for the festival.” 

He rattled on and if Linn hadn’t been holding two hatboxes, she would have clamped her hands over her ears to shut out the boy’s incessant chatter. 

“And then there’s Founder’s Day, you know. That’s coming up next month, and this year there’s going to be—” 

Linn all but raced to the door of the livery. She sagged against it and dropped her hatboxes. “Just put everything there, Joe, and thank you.” 

“My pleasure, Miss Sparks.” 

Where Linn might have been a bit stingy with the motor coach driver, she made up for it now with a generous tip for young Trumbull. It would be worth it not to have to listen to him any longer. 

 “Thanks. I mean it, really.” His brown eyes grew bigger and rounder. “If you need anything else, just holler at me.” 

Linn grinned. “Buy some good shit, Joe,” she called out as he headed in the direction of the seed and feed store. “And good luck with the squash.” 

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Chapter 1: Joe Trumbull

What’s happening: Linn Sparks has arrived in Brookfield, only to have the driver leave her standing alone, gaping at the luggage she’s brought with her.

 

“Wait! Come back! You’re supposed to help me—”

Heedless of Linn’s shouts and gestures, the driver turned the motor coach around. It chugged along the narrow dirt roadway, back in the direction from which it had come.

She screwed up her mouth and poked at one of the valises with the toe of a soft-skinned boot. How was she supposed to manage on her own? She shouldn’t have given that driver a cent until he’d finished the job she’d hired him to do.

Joe TrumbullLooking around, Linn caught sight of a chubby boy in denim overalls heading in her direction. He’d obviously not missed too many meals, she thought, rolling her eyes.

“Hey there! You!” she called, waving both hands in the air. “Watch my things for a few minutes, will you? I’ve just arrived, and I have to hire a wagon.”

The plump fellow waddled toward her. “Well, ma’am, I was just fixing to go to Loonsfoot’s.” He spoke as slowly as he walked. “I was going to—”

Linn wasn’t interested in what he was about to do. “I’ll pay you,” she said. “I won’t be gone long.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and hurried toward the street.

“Wait!” The boy came after her. In a surprising show of swiftness, he darted around to block her path. “I know you! I know who you are!”

At once, a smile rose to Linn’s lips. This was the part she most enjoyed about being a celebrity. She made a slight curtsy. “Why, yes, I am—”

“Linnie Mae Sparks! You’re Dick and Beulah’s daughter. Welcome home, Linnie.” A pudgy, dirt-covered hand grabbed hers and pumped up and down. “Reckon you don’t remember me, do you? I’m Joe Trumbull. Course I was just a kid when you went away. I’m sixteen now.” He beamed.

She tugged free from his sweaty grasp, stared down at the dirt streaked across the backs of her hands, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Joe. I don’t remember you. Now, please wait here with my luggage until I get back.”

“Sure thing, Linnie Mae.”

“My name is not Linnie Mae.” She kept the smile pasted on her face but fixed him with a sharp look.

“Of course it is. I remember—”

“What I mean, Joe, is that I no longer go by that name. Onstage, I’m known as Miss Linn Sparks. I’d prefer you address me as such.” She drew herself up in a gracious pose.

“Well, sure, if that’s what you want.” He shrugged. “Don’t see that it makes a whole lot of difference. Like my ma, she still calls me Joe-Joe, same as she did when I was a little kid. Unless she’s mad at me,” he added. “Then she calls me Joseph Alphonse Trumbull, you know. And Pa just calls me Joe. Don’t matter what they call me, though. I’m still the same.”

“But what would you like to be called? Don’t you have a preference?”

He laughed. “Nah. You know what they say.” He shrugged again.

Linn frowned. She could scarcely believe she’d allowed herself to be drawn into a meaningless conversation with a sixteen-year-old boy, but curiosity got the best of her. She took the bait. “No, what do they say?”

Chapter 1: Linn Arrives in Brookfield

Chapter One

Brookfield, Kansas 1914

Three days. Not a moment longer. She would attend to business first thing Monday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon she would be on her way back home to San Francisco.

Back home where she belonged.

Linn Sparks shuddered as she looked around her. She’d been gone from Brookfield for seven years, and in all that time, nothing in this sorry excuse for a town had changed. Farm wagons still clattered down Main Street—the only street in town deemed worthy of a name—and the hooves of the mules and horses still kicked up the same thick red dust. Familiar storefronts on either side of the rutted road looked as weary and woe-begone as the day she’d left.

How had she endured growing up here? Brookfield lacked anything that even faintly resembled civilized society.

No couture dressmakers’ establishments with their luxurious bolts of fabrics and thrilling counters filled with lace, ribbons, and fancy appliques. Only Mary Ann Clement’s tired little shop at the back of her drab little house.

No elegant restaurants serving fine cuisine. Just Ledbetter’s Corner Café. The broken sign at the entrance still dangled precariously, threatening to cause severe bodily harm to some unlucky patron. Elmer always swore someday he’d get around to fixing it. Apparently, he’d not yet found the time.

No delightful candy shops offering sweet chocolates and delicious bon-bons. Linn could buy penny candies at the mercantile, but those hard, sugary candies couldn’t begin to compare with the rich, sumptuous taste of Ghirardelli’s dark chocolates melting in her mouth.

Worst of all, Brookfield lacked art and culture…unless one counted Miss Tabitha Ann Collier. Was the crotchety old bitch still alive? Instinctively, Linn whirled around to gaze at the neat little house surrounded by its lovely white picket fence. Memories stirred, bringing a wistful smile to Linn’s face. She loved Tabitha Ann. She hated Tabitha Ann. Linn owed everything good in her life to the woman.

winton-six-model-22a-seven-passenger-touring-131850263-6“That’s all of it now, Miss Sparks.” The driver she’d hired in Wichita gestured toward the leather-trimmed valises and the stiff hatboxes he’d unloaded from the rear of the motor coach—a fancy Winton Six model touring car. With his dapper gray uniform and neat starched cap, the fellow added an air of importance to her arrival. Linn liked attention. She enjoyed impressing people.

Grinning at her, the fellow held out a hand. “You sure brought a lot with you. Must be planning to stay a while, I suppose.”

Her spine stiffened. By pointing out how much effort he’d expended on her behalf, he meant to encourage a sizable tip, but how dare he suggest she would even think of staying a while in a wretched place like Brookfield, Kansas?

She opened her leather handbag and took out a few pennies. He’d get no more from her.

“Somebody coming to meet you?” The driver glanced around.

As she’d instructed him to do, he’d deposited her—and her belongings—across the street from the livery. Even at this early hour of the morning, the smell of horse sweat, axle grease, and manure hung thick and heavy in the sultry summer air. Linn coughed. She opened her handbag again, jerked out a lace-edged handkerchief, and pressed it to her nose.

“No, I’ll be fine. I can make it home—” Linn bit back the word. Brookfield was not her home. “My parents have a farm close by. I’ll hire a wagon at the livery.”

“All right, then.” The driver doffed his cap, muttered something under his breath, and walked away, returning to the automobile without another word.

Linn gaped at the valises and hatboxes the driver had left stacked at her feet.