© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
4 December, 1880
St. Barbara’s Day Festival
She should have walked under a ladder.
She should have opened her parasol inside, spilled every salt shaker, and broken the silver hand
mirror her parents had given her for her birthday. She should’ve done it at the beginning of the year.
If she had, maybe her luck would have turned for the worse and she wouldn’t be standing (again) on
a stage in the back of a lantern-lit barn with holly woven through the blonde braids atop her head.
Lena Reinhardt snorted under her breath at the irony of her thoughts. How could she change something that wasn’t real?
Her hand wavered over the jar of water, fingers pinching the twig Mayor Murtagh had meticulously and reverently cut from the esteemed cherry tree in the park in the center of town. Someone else could have been chosen. Should have been. On St. Barbara’s Day, a virgin shall place the cherry twig in water had been the tradition for the last thirty years since immigrant families from Germany, Sweden, and Ireland bought nearby farmland and established the town. Instead, the task dutifully fell to her. For the fourth year in a row. Not because she was the prettiest girl in town or the most likeable (if she were, she’d already be married), but because—
1) she couldn’t tell people no,
2) fortune favored the lucky, and
3) everyone in the county believed she brought good fortune. To the town. When she placed a twig in water.
“I don’t believe in luck,” Lena murmured. “Good or bad.” Still, she did her duty and placed the seven-inch twig in the Mason jar.
A cheer erupted, rising to the rafters of Willey’s Wagon & Buggy Works.
Mayor Murtagh wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gave a little squeeze. He looked heavenward and prayed in his thick Irish brogue. “Oh God, give us honey and wax from flowers, dew from the heavens, grain and fruit from Thine earth, and of Thy mercy, grant us health and joy, amen!” His gaze settled on the almost-three-hundred people inside Mr. Willey's barn. “Let the feasting begin!”
Lena stood there as the mayor left the stage and the musicians—the beloved Niek Brothers—began setting up their instruments. The small table holding the official cherry tree twig in the holy blessed water would stay front and center throughout the evening, as if it were Prince Edward visiting from England. And as long as it bloomed by Christmas Day, all would be well in their community. The weather would be temperate. Rain abundant. Crops, produce, and newborns bountiful.
Because a twig blooming in water made it so.
With a roll of her eyes, Lena lifted the front of the robin’s egg blue dress her mother had made special for this day and dashed off the stage with none of the decorum fitting a twenty-one-year-old spinster in a bustle. Her duty done, she meant nothing more to the crowd. As long as their futures were fruitful, hers could lay dormant. The only person who seemed to mind she wasn’t married was her.
She had to escape this town.
“And all its ridiculous traditions,” she muttered as she maneuvered around hay bales and folding chairs to the partially constructed buggy resting on wooden blocks, to where her parents should be waiting for her but weren’t. Lena’s ivory shawl and her mother’s crimson one lay on the back of two chairs.
Gripping one of the barn’s support beams, she stepped up onto a hay bale brought into Mr. Willey’s shop solely for seating for the festival. She scanned the barn. The crowd surrounded the food tables. Her older siblings and their spouses and children were all in line too.
Lena rested her forehead against the knotty pine beam. She could leave town and no one would notice. Until they needed another cherry twig placed in holy water.
“Luck isn’t real.”
“In that, Miss Reinhardt, you are correct,” came the cynically British (Britishly cynical?) voice from somewhere behind her. “All things occur because God wills them. Rain, good and bad, et cetera et cetera.”
With an inner groan, Lena turned to face the barn wall where James Holly stood, coffee mug in right hand, flask in left, crooked grin on his handsome face. Strands of ash brown hair had loosened from his aristocratic queue. Fourth-in-line to a marquessate and a PhD in geology, not to mention a decade older than her, the fossil hunter oozed superiority and smugness—two character traits that no one else in the town seemed to mind but her.
The town’s beloved Englishman. She’d yet to hear a critical word about him. Well, save for those she uttered in her own mind.
He’d be mayor if he allowed the town to elect him.
Lena leaned back against the support beam. “Why aren’t you in the food line like everyone else?” she asked because she wasn’t about to debate theology with him again, even though she knew something in what he’d said was wrong. Somehow.
He slid the flask inside his tailored-to-perfection tweed coat. “That I am not with everyone else is for the same reason you are not with them.”
“And that is?”
He took a leisurely sip from his mug. His gaze shifted to the crowd standing on what would become the dance floor after the food tables were removed. The corner of his mouth twitched. “Mankind, my dear, is divided into two classes—those who are looking for food and those who are looking for an appetite.” His intense blue eyes settled on hers. “You and I are the latter.”
Lena stared at him. What was that supposed to mean? She’d wager her favorite pair of shoes he enjoyed speaking enigmatically to her for the sole purpose of making her feel stupid. Contrary to what he thought, they weren’t alike. They had nothing in common. For heaven’s sake, he studied rocks. He dug through mud and dirt because he wanted to. He treasured a trunk full of fossils. He’d lived on three continents. She’d never traveled more than five miles out of town. He called every female my dear, and she called no one that.
No doubt about it, they weren’t anything alike.
She offered a gracious smile. “As always, Mr. Holly, it’s been a delight chatting with you. My head is aching and I believe I shall retire for the night. Enjoy the festival.”
Lena gripped the support beam with one hand and lifted the hem of her skirt with the other. Before she could step down, he set his mug on a wooden chair and closed the distance between them. She opened her mouth to question him, but when he placed his hands on her waist, lifting her down to the packed-dirt floor, her lips snapped shut. It was a simple gesture, one any gentleman would do for a lady in need. Surly Mr. Holly had gallantly aided numerous women without a thought to how his action made them feel, made her feel. Noticed. A little cherished even.
A faint smile touched his mouth.
Her spine tingled. His hands . . . where they’d held her . . . Oh dear, even though she wore three layers of cloth, her skin felt scorched.
He inclined his head to the left, toward the back of the barn. “There’s another door over there that leads to the alley. If you . . .”
The rest of his words went in one ear and out the other, for all she could hear was the pounding against her chest. He smelled of coffee and whiskey, a vile combination, and yet . . .
Good gracious, he’d never stood this close. He’d never touched her before. Not even an accidental brush of an arm against her in passing, or a bump in the hall during any of the eight times her parents had put him up in her brother’s old room. For James Fitzsimmons (plus two other names she couldn’t remember) Holly to cause the air in her lungs to flee—
What was wrong with her? She couldn’t be attracted to James Holly. She didn’t even like him.
Why wasn’t he stepping back? Why wasn’t she?
A hot blush crept up her neck. The barn was warm. Full of people. That’s why she was perspiring. Her nephew had been ill three weeks ago. Perhaps she was coming down with what had made him ill. Yes, that was it. She was in haze brought on by an elevated body temperature as a result of a sudden malady.
Mr. Holly gave her a strange look. “I cannot tell if you are feverish or blushing,” he said in a husky voice that caused a prickle to march up her spine.
She stepped back, right into the hay bale.
He grabbed one of her hands while his other arm snaked around her waist, holding her upright. Something flickered in his vivid blue eyes before his gaze lowered to her lips as if he were considering kissing her. Lena’s heart lurched. Mortified at the thought as much as her response to him, she jerked free and stepped to the side, out of his close reach. Mr. Holly bore no intimate feelings for her. The surly man thought her an imbecile.
She certainly was an imbecile for responding to him as she was.
She fisted her palms and glared. “Yes, it is,” she said briskly, “but if I go that way, I will have to walk around everything Mr. Willey emptied from his shop in order for us to have the festival in here. Leaving through the front of the barn—”
“Would mean them seeing you,” he cut in.
“I don’t care who sees me leave,” she retorted.
He scowled at her. “Why can’t you let me help you?” His voice rose in volume and intensity. “The them to whom I’m referring are people whom you would care if they saw you leave.”
“There’s no one in this town who—” Lena felt the warmth leave her face.
Clause brought her here tonight.
For one of the most important festivals of the year.
She wiped the moisture off her clammy forehead. For a town of German, Irish, and Swedish immigrants initially separated by language yet joined together by folklore, no one ever went against tradition, a very important one being—if the twig bloomed by Christmas Day, then the girl who placed it in the water was certain to marry the following year. Young ladies always volunteered for the St. Barbara’s Day Festival because weddings always occurred the year following a twig bloom.
She’d neither married the first year it’d bloomed nor the second or the third. Even though she’d had a suitor! Three years of being courted by Clause Jenson and, when he finally decided to marry, he eloped with “this captivating girl” he’d met at the five-day state fair in Des Moines that past September.
What hurt Lena the most wasn’t that Clause ended his relationship with her through a letter; it was that he never loved her enough to marry her regardless of the consequences.
Clause, though, loved Nella Bicholsom enough to risk censure from her parents and his, not to mention from the town, by eloping. Couples only eloped when they had secrets to hide, or so she’d been told. Clause loved Nella Bicholsom enough to endure whatever the grapevine telegraph spread about them.
Clause simply loved Nella Bicholsom enough . . . and Lena not enough.
She had to leave this town.