“Well, then, here goes. What’s eatin’ at Pa? I never seen him so, well, disgrunted. That’s a new word I learned in school.”
“Disgruntled, you mean?”
“Yeah, that. What’s wrong with him? Is he mad at us?”
Leah sighed. If she knew, she would do anything to fix it. Teddy was right; lately Thad had been growing more moody. Just this morning at breakfast he had seemed so distracted he’d left his toast unbuttered on his plate, and he forgot to drink his second cup of coffee. Then he’d agreed to go fishing with Teddy, but forgotten to dig any worms for bait.
This afternoon she had left him silent and frowning, pacing back and forth on the front porch. Something was definitely wrong.
“I think your father is preoccupied, maybe because of the drought we’re having this summer. He worries about his wheat crop.”
“Gosh, it’s only one little field. He’s got corn and alfalfa and—”
“Teddy, try to understand. To your father, his wheat field is more than just a field. Like Red, here. To you, he’s more than just a horse, is he not?”
“Gosh, yeah. Red’s my bestest friend.”
Teddy’s vigorous nod did not allay her uneasy feelings about Thad. His wheat field was more than just a field to him, but what more? Thad was as impenetrable as the thick honeysuckle vine that was almost smothering the privy.
Did he regret marrying her? Did he wish he had married someone else—Verena Forester, perhaps? Or one of the other townswomen?
Or was it something else? Something about her?
Each night when he came to bed he briefly touched her shoulder, kissed her cheek and rolled away from her. Night after night her heart shriveled a bit, and she fell asleep aching for him. Now, as she and Teddy walked their horses down Smoke River’s main street to the bakery, she tried not to think about it.
Uncle Charlie, wrapped in his white baker’s apron, stood in the open doorway waving an oversize Chinese fan.
“Uncle, whatever are you doing?”
“Ah, Niece Leah. I send good cookie smell out to customers,” he announced happily. “Also to dressmaking ladies upstairs. Teddy, you sweep floor and I pay you four cookies, okay?”
Teddy scrambled off his colt and Leah tied both horses to the hitching rail. “How is business, Uncle?”
“Some good. Sell big cake to Missus Rose at boardinghouse. Some bad. Mercantile boss make threat.”
Leah’s heart clenched. “What kind of threat?”
“He say ‘Go away from town or something bad happen.’”
“He would not dare! This is a free country.”
A rare frown crossed Uncle Charlie’s round face. “Country itself not free, Niece Leah. Country is just land. ‘Free’ depend on people in country.”
Disheartened, she climbed the stairs to Verena’s apartment, thinking over Uncle Charlie’s words. If it was people that made a country free, was that not true here in Smoke River?
“Leah!” Ellie Johnson rose from her chair and grasped her hands. “You are wearing a new shirtwaist!”
“Saints preserve us,” Verena screeched. “It’s bright red! Ladies never wear red.”
Leah slid onto the chair next to Ellie. “Why not wear red? Red is a very lucky color.”
“Lucky for who?” Verena pressed. “For a Celestial, maybe. Not for an American.”
“But I am an—”
“Don’t be a goose, Leah,” Darla injected. “It’s not just that it’s red. That style is just plain old-fashioned. For one thing, the sleeves are too full.”
Verena smirked. “And the ruffle at the neck is all wrong.”
“I like it,” Noralee Ness whispered, just loud enough for Leah to hear over the clatter of the tea tray Verena set down. “I think red is pretty.”
“Red,” Darla interjected, “is in very bad taste.”
Heat crawled up Leah’s neck. She opened her mouth to reply, then thought better of it. There were more important issues in Smoke River than the color of her new shirtwaist.
The mouthwatering scent of freshly baked cookies drifted on the warm air. “Mmm,” Darla hummed. “Verena, your cookies smell enticing.”
Verena’s long, narrow face flushed. “I didn’t bake today. I was up late working on Cleora Rose’s wedding dress.”
“Wedding dress! But Cleora is…well, she is twenty-nine!”
“So what if she is?” Ellie challenged. “I was the same age when I married Matt. At twenty-nine a woman can still be young and alive.”
Noralee lifted her nose and sniffed. “What smells so good?”