A shiver of excitement rushed through Flora Saferight at the thought of their upcoming trip to Virginia. It had been at least two years since she’d seen her aunt and uncle, and even then they had traveled as a family by wagon. Now she and her younger sister would be making the trip by train.
“I think this is sensible for our journey.” Standing in Gilmer General Store, Irene held up a red shawl with a lining. Her blue eyes shone bright in the hope of Flora’s approval. Blond curls framed Irene’s heart-shaped face beneath her white bonnet. With a delicate nose and smooth skin heightened by a blush of enthusiasm, Irene was considered the beauty between them.
“Mother would prefer a sensible cloak,” Flora said. “Charlottesville can get awfully cold in the fall.”
Her sister bit her bottom lip and lowered her gaze in disappointment. A dramatic sigh slipped from her lips. Flora glanced around the general store and spied a rack of cloaks by the front counter.
“Why not try one of those?” She pointed beyond a table displaying hats and bonnets, hoping to lift Irene’s spirits. “Since we don’t have time to make a new cloak and thee has grown out of thy clothes from last winter, I’m sure Mother would approve.”
“True.” A bright smile lit Irene’s face as she sailed over to investigate. “Now that I’m taller than thee, I won’t be inheriting thy clothes.”
The shop door opened, ringing the tiny bell at the top.
“Good morning,” Mrs. Edwards, the store clerk, called from where she stood on a small step stool, stacking bolts of fabric on the wall shelves.
“Morning.” Bruce Millikan stepped inside wearing a white buttoned shirt, tucked into a pair of black trousers. His reddish blond hair lay against his neck beneath his tall black hat. Flora’s stomach shuddered at the thought of another confrontation with him. She took a deep breath, eager to escape before he noticed her.
Bruce glanced back to ensure that the door had closed properly. Flora gulped and turned, taking advantage of his momentary distraction to hurry behind a shelf of oil lanterns.
“Flora Saferight!” His deep voice flowed over her like bittersweet honey before she reached her destination. She waited for the sting of a familiar insult. Other girls may have enjoyed his teasing and attention growing up, but she hadn’t. She closed her eyes, cringing as his booted footsteps charged across the wooden floor.
She clenched her teeth and forced a smile as she squared her shoulders and prepared to greet him. Staring into his broad chest, Flora had to lean back to gaze into those amazing green eyes. Had he grown taller since she’d seen him eight months ago?
The freckles she remembered had faded beneath a ruddy complexion and a slight tan. A smile eased his lips, revealing straight teeth—too perfect, in her opinion. If only he would smile a little wider, then she’d have the satisfaction of seeing the gaping hole on the left side. Too bad a fall from a tree had been responsible, for she would have dearly loved to claim the honor—especially after he’d teased her about her two front teeth.
What was wrong with her? Guilt sliced through Flora. Her thoughts were much too bitter for a proper Quaker. They had been children. Still, all his barbed words had cut her to the core and continued to sting like a nasty bee buzzing around inside her soul. “Good morning, Bruce Millikan. I wasn’t aware thee was back in town.”
“I arrived home a fortnight ago.” He blinked and his smile waned. “For a moment, I thought thee might be trying to avoid me.”
Flora lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Do I look like I’m avoiding thee?” She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him with what she hoped was her best disapproving look. “Goodness, Bruce Millikan, thee acts as if I knew thee would walk right through that door. Since when has thee known me to back down from anything?”
His lips curled as two thin lines framed each side of his smile. He shook his head in slow motion. “No, Beaver Face, no one could ever accuse thee of ignoring a challenge.” He gave a reminiscing chuckle. “Thee is the most headstrong girl I’ve ever known—and foolhardy at times.” He folded his arms and stared down at her as if she were still a wayward child.
“Foolhardy? Beaver Face? Really, Bruce, one would hope thee would eventually grow up and leave the childhood namecalling behind.” Flora bristled, his words scalding her heart like a new flesh wound. “We may only be a year apart in age, but thee hasn’t changed one bit.”
“Come on, Flora, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s more of an endearment now.” He stepped closer, leaning forward. “The rest of thy teeth have grown in and are now perfect.” He glanced behind him as if to see if anyone else was listening. “I’m sorry. I wish I’d never called thee that. I’ve sure spent every day since paying for it.”
She stepped back, confused by his nearness and stunned by his apology. Flora swallowed, clearing her mind. The childhood taunts she could forgive, but the idea that he would insinuate she was foolish when she’d worked so hard to become a proper young lady of eighteen chafed her.
“Apparently, thee isn’t sorry. For thee just called me foolhardy. I’ll have thee know, there’s a good doctor in Virginia who thinks very highly of me. As a midwife, I will, he believes, complement his practice rather well.” Clint Roberts had only mentioned it once in a letter, but she chose to interpret his words to mean that. No need in letting Bruce know she exaggerated.
“What doctor?” The light left his green eyes and his lips dropped in a frown. “Is thee courting a doctor?” He shifted, placing his fists at his side.
Irene walked over with a dark purple cloak draped over her arm. The bell rang and a new customer walked in, greeting Mrs. Edwards.
“It’s true,” Irene said. “Flora met him two summers ago when we were visiting our aunt and uncle. They’ve been corresponding ever since.”
Thrilled that her sister would come to her aid, Flora beamed at Bruce. “See? Perhaps thee is the only one who harbors such an opinion of me.” She stepped around him and over to her sister’s side. “I’m content to live with the knowledge that I’ll always be an ugly Beaver Face girl to thee, and thee will always be a mean-spirited bully to me—a childhood nightmare I’m more than happy to forget.”
She linked arms with her sister and turned, leading Irene to the front counter. “For that, dear sister, thee may have a purple cloak. Thee deserves something a little less . . . plain today,” Flora whispered in her ear.
“Flora, thee has an imagination to feed a pack of werewolves,” Bruce called from behind. “Thee is twisting my words. It isn’t like that.”
“Indeed,” she mumbled loud enough for only Irene to hear. “Over the years it has been much worse.”
* * *
It took three trips, but Bruce finally hauled all the supplies he’d purchased to the wagon parked out front. He dropped the last twenty-pound bag of flour in the bed and rubbed the dust from his hands.
An image of Flora Saferight came to mind. She wasn’t as plain as she thought. In fact, she had grown into a beautiful woman, but he couldn’t give her the satisfaction of knowing he thought so. Flora possessed blue-gray eyes that could captivate a man until he lost his senses. Her coffee-colored hair matched her spirited personality—vibrant and alive.
Why had he called her foolhardy? He touched the palm of his hand to his forehead in disbelief. Now she had another grievance to hold against him in addition to his long list of past sins. While some of her decisions were impulsive, and she needed more time to mature, he didn’t think of her as a child, either. Flora was an enigma, with the cunning ability to challenge and frustrate him. Yet, in spite of being an annoyance, she intrigued him.
Wagons and carriages rolled by, crunching pebbles and dirt in the road. Two women stopped to converse on the corner in front of the barber shop. He strained to see if they were Flora and Irene, but when they turned, he realized it was a mother and daughter.
Disappointment fueled a fire his chest. He wanted to find out more about the doctor in Virginia. Was she serious about this man? Bruce strolled around the wagon and prepared to pull himself up into the seat.
“Good day, Bruce Millikan,” a familiar voice called from behind.
Bruce turned to see Pastor John Allred striding toward him from across the street. He had to dodge a rider before he reached Bruce. They shook hands in a firm grip, greeting each other with smiles.
“Glad to see thee back. When did thee arrive in town?” John asked.
“Almost a fortnight ago. I’m sorry I missed meeting last week, but I plan to be there this Sunday. It was a long trip to Indiana. I’ve been trying to catch up on some chores around the farm.”
“No need to explain.” John shook his head and waved his hand to dismiss the issue. “Thee is doing important work for the Lord. That’s the main thing. Was the mission successful?”
“Yes, but I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again and catching up on all the news. I just ran into Flora and Irene Saferight.”
“I heard they’re about to leave on the train to Virginia.” John rubbed the back of his neck. “Speaking of which, there’s something I’d like to discuss with thee. Would thee be willing to come over for supper tonight?”
Bruce rubbed his chin. What would Flora’s trip to Virginia have to do with him? Curious, he nodded. “I’ll tell Mother not to expect me for supper when I return. Flora mentioned a doctor she met up there two summers ago. Does thee know when they’ll be leaving?” Bruce hoped his voice sounded casual. “I thought she was planning on being a midwife around here.”
“I don’t reckon her plans have changed.” John shook his head, his brown eyes lit up, and a smooth grin spread across his face. “In fact, she helped Hazel Miller birth her latest child. I think Flora will prove to be one of our community’s best assets.”
Not if she moves away to Virginia. The sudden thought made Bruce’s stomach churn. She was too young. What was she thinking? He’d only been gone eight months. How could things change so fast?
“Well, Pastor John, I’d better get these things home and put away so I can make it over to your place in time for supper.”
“Good idea, Bruce.” John slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll see thee in a little while.”
Bruce gave him a nod and climbed into the wagon. He took the reins, unset the brake, and guided the horse down the street.
* * *
Flora didn’t slow until the post office was in sight. Her sister breathed heavily from their brisk pace, hauling her new cloak over her arm.
“I still don’t see why thee wouldn’t let me stop long enough to put my cloak in the wagon. Besides, I thought we had more shopping to do.” Irene glared at Flora while they waited for a buggy to pass before crossing the street.
“I promise. We’ll go back and finish our shopping after I’m sure Bruce Millikan is gone.” Flora charged into the street and stomped across the dirt road.
“Thee cannot avoid him forever. Forgive him for the past and let it go. He’s right. It was a long time ago.”
“It’s true that Beaver Face was a long time ago, but his calling me foolhardy this morning isn’t.” Flora blew out a puff of air. If it were possible for a human being to explode, she’d be in a million pieces right now.
She swung open the post office door and an elderly woman stumbled out.
“Oh! Pardon me.” Flora reached for the woman’s elbow to steady her.
“Goodness!” The gray-haired woman righted herself and smoothed her skirts. She lifted her chin and glanced up at Flora and then Irene with brown eyes of stone. “You young people need not be in such haste. I daresay, this post office won’t grow legs and walk, you know.”
“We’re sorry.” Flora pressed her lips together to keep from laughing.
Inside, Flora blinked, adjusting her eyes to the darkness. She strode toward the open window, where Joseph Miller, the clerk, greeted her with a genuine smile.
“Howdy, Miss Saferight and Miss Saferight.” He nodded to Irene standing by Flora. “Hazel and the baby are doing very well. You did a fine job delivering my baby girl.” He rubbed the top of his bald head, which sported a thin layer of brown hair stretched from ear to ear.
“I’m glad to hear it. I hope to stop by for a visit before we leave on our trip to Virginia,” Flora said.
“Hazel would like that. I think the confinement is starting to bother her.”
“It won’t be long before she’ll be able to go out into society again.” Flora pulled out a folded letter addressed to her aunt. “I need to send this to Charlottesville, Virginia.”