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Chapter 2

Big Springs, Kansas, 1929

“Come on, Katie,” Jeannie wailed as she twisted and adjusted her dress. “Stop pouting and come help me. It’s my special day and you’re going to ruin it if you don’t come and help me.”

Without turning to look at her, Katherine nodded from her perch in the window seat. She was watching her father prepare the car that would take them to the church for the wedding. He was dressed in his best suit, hair slicked down, although she noticed, with a small smile, the cowlick at the back of his graying head obstinately standing up. He was cleaning out the inside of the family car, brushing away any dust and dirt that might get on Jeannie’s wedding dress. Katherine knew that her father, like the rest of the family, didn’t understand why Jeannie had set her sights on Clyde. But they had all realized that she had and accepted—as did Clyde himself—that marriage, especially in light of the pregnancy, was the only option.

As if sensing her gaze, her father looked up at the window and met her eyes. They gazed at each other for several seconds before he raised and lowered his hand. He looked tired, she thought as she returned the wave.

“Katie.” Jeannie’s voice again cut into her thoughts. “I need your help.”

Katherine sighed, cast a final look at her father, and turned her attention to her sister.

“You don’t really need my help,” she said. “You just want me to pay attention to you.”

“You should pay attention to me,” Jeannie said. “It’s my wedding day. Everybody should pay attention to a girl on her wedding day.”

Katherine snorted.

“Just because you’re jealous—” Jeannie began.

“Jealous because you intentionally got yourself pregnant so you could force a man who doesn’t love you into marrying you?” Katherine said. “Not likely.”

“That’s not how it happened,” Jeannie said.

“Um.” Katherine went to stand behind Jeannie and work on inserting the delicate cloth-covered buttons into the eyelets.

At seventeen, she was already taller and more willowy than her sister. She paused in her buttoning and looked over Jeannie’s shoulder at their reflections in the mirror. They looked nothing alike. Jeannie looked like their older sister, Wilma. Small and plump, both Jeannie and Wilma had their mother’s wavy blonde hair and rounded face. Katherine was tall—almost too tall, she thought—with curly dark hair and an angular face. The only trait all three sisters shared were their somewhat slanted green eyes—cat’s eyes, her father said fondly.

Katherine knew she was plain in comparison to her sisters. Their looks were what women aspired for—rounded and feminine with soft complexions. In comparison, Katherine looked gangly and dark. Her dress hung loosely from her almost bony frame.

“You’re too thin,” her mother always said. “You need to stop spending all your time reading those books and more time eating. Who’s going to want to marry a skinny thing like you?”

“I guess it’s a good thing, then, that I don’t want to get married,” she would answer. It was her stock response.

“You’re young,” her mother would always retort. “That’ll change.”

Katherine knew her mother believed that. But in her heart, she knew it wasn’t true. She had no desire to remain in Big Springs or to marry Albert Russell or to become a farm wife. She wanted to move to Kansas City or Chicago to work in a store or a factory. She wanted to see people from different places. She wanted to live.

“Done?”

Again, Jeannie’s voice broke into her thoughts. Katherine jerked to attention and fastened the last few buttons. When finished, she stepped backward.

“How do I look?” Jeannie asked.

Something about the way she spoke the words made Katherine raise her gaze to meet Jeannie’s eyes in the mirror. Her cheeks were flushed, her green eyes were wide. Despite her claims of happiness, Katherine thought she looked young and scared.

“You look great,” she said, surprised at her kind impulse. “You look beautiful. Really.”

Jeannie smiled brightly and then her face sobered. “Do you think Wilma minds?”

“No,” Katherine said, softly. “Probably not.”

“I guess I just wonder . . . Do you think she’s watching us from heaven?” Jeannie asked.

Katherine shrugged and, noticing her sister’s worried expression, smiled. “I’m sure she is. And I’m sure she’s happy you’re taking care of Clyde.”

“I do love him,” Jeannie said with a happy smile. “I’ve always loved him. And now he loves me. Only me.”

Katherine patted Jeannie’s shoulder. “That’s great, Jeannie.” She glanced down at her watch. “We should probably be heading downstairs. Daddy has the car ready, and the sooner we get to the church, the sooner you can become Mrs. Clyde Spencer.”

# # #

The ceremony had taken forever, Katherine thought as the wedding party stood in the hot afternoon sunlight waiting for the photographer to take the picture. She hated having her picture taken anyway—not that it happened all that often. She sighed and scowled as she watched Jeannie preen and flounce and coo over Clyde.

Katherine felt sorry for her brother-in-law. He was, as far as she could tell, a nice man. He had loved her sister, Wilma, for as long as Katherine could remember and had been devastated when she had died. They had all been surprised when he started spending so much time with Jeannie. Or, she amended, Jeannie had started spending so much time with him.

Katherine cocked her head. The bright afternoon sunlight made her head hurt—as did the constant hum of people laughing and joking with the bride and groom as the pictures were being taken. It seemed like the entire community gathered for the event. Albert Russell caught her eye and smiled. Katherine knew he would want to claim her attention as soon as the picture-taking was over.

“Look over here,” the sallow-faced photographer said. “Everyone look over here and smile.”

Katherine looked in his direction. Beside her, Jeannie gave her a pinch.

“Smile,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “Don’t ruin this for me, Katie.”

Katherine squinted into the sun and forced her mouth into the semblance of a smile. It was going to be a very long day.

# # #

“So, you want to go for a ride?” Albert asked Katherine and Evelyn as they stood in the shade of one of the towering oaks that bordered the edge of the church property. He gestured toward Howard Lewis, who was leaning against the car owned by Albert’s father, the town’s wealthiest resident. “Me and Howie were thinking about going for a ride.”

“I can’t,” Katherine said and gestured toward Jeannie. “Maid of honor and all that. I have to stay.”

Albert grinned good-naturedly. “How ’bout I come over after.”

Katherine ignored Evelyn, who looked down at her shoes and smiled. It was common knowledge that Albert was in love with Katherine and that his attempts at courtship were not going as smoothly as he would have liked.

“Can’t,” Katherine said. “I have to help get her things packed and moved over to Clyde’s.”

Albert’s grin faded slightly. “What about one night this week? We could take a walk . . . or go to Lawrence.”

“Maybe,” Katherine said.

Albert sighed and leaned forward. “Katie, why are you doing this?”

“You know why,” Katherine said.

Albert frowned, but said nothing. She had explained to him many times that she wasn’t playing hard to get. She simply didn’t want to give him the wrong impression. He wanted to propose, and she wanted to leave Big Springs and move to a large city as soon as she was eighteen. Those plans didn’t include a husband.

Evelyn had once asked her why she seemed so uninterested in Albert. “He’s nice and funny and handsome. And he’s rich.”

“He is,” Katherine agreed. “He’s all those things. And if I were interested in settling down and staying in Big Springs all my life, I’d probably pay him more mind. But, Evie, that’s not what I want.”

“Albert or Big Springs?” Evelyn had a soft, open face that made her thoughts and emotions entirely readable. Her expression showed that she was genuinely puzzled by Katherine’s words.

“Neither,” Katherine said.

Evelyn wrinkled her brow.

“Is that bad? To want more than this?” She swept out her hand. “I want to see and do things.”

“But how would you get by without a husband?” Evelyn asked. “What would you do?”

“Get a job,” Katherine said simply.

Evelyn looked stricken. “Where would you live?”

“I would take a room with a family, I suppose,” Katherine said.

“But why? When you could marry Albert and have a family?” Evelyn leaned forward and touched Katherine’s arm. “Wouldn’t you be lonely?”

“I can always do those things,” Katherine said.

“I’m sure Albert would take you to the city if you asked him.” Evelyn grabbed Katherine’s arm. “Maybe on your honeymoon. You two could go to Kansas City. Or Chicago.”

Her eyes were bright with excitement.

“Evie, I don’t want to just visit,” Katherine said. “I want to live there. I want to walk down the streets and see people.”

Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t know why.” She paused thoughtfully. “But you better be careful or Albert will find somebody else.”

As Katherine lay in bed that night, Jeannie ensconced at Clyde’s, she wondered what was wrong with her that she wanted nothing to do with marriage or children. She thought about Evelyn’s reaction. She had been perplexed. Why would someone like Katherine—someone who had the option of getting married to a man like Albert—want to go off by herself to a large city and work at a job?

It was a good question—and one Katherine had asked herself more than once with always the same answer. She simply wanted to have a life different than the one she was expected to have.

With a frustrated sigh, Katherine rolled onto her side and stared at the shadows of trees cast on her wall by the light of the moon. She had never been like the rest of her friends and family. They wanted the safety of their uncomplicated lives and she wanted . . . What? Travel? Adventure?

“It’s not healthy,” her mother often said. “This obsession with books and far-off places just makes you want what you can’t have. You need to be out with your friends, not filling your head with places you’re never gonna see. You’re eighteen. You’re going to be graduated soon. You should be thinking about settling down with Albert and giving me some grandchildren—not going to Egypt or Paris or wherever it is you think you need to go.”

“Mama, please,” Katherine had said in exasperation. “I don’t want to get married straight off. You know that.”

“A woman can’t wait too long,” her mother had responded, giving her the once-over. “You’re young now, and pretty enough, but that’ll fade. Wait too long and all the good ones’ll be taken.”

Jeannie hadn’t waited, she thought as she fingered the lace trim on her pillowcase. She had pursued Clyde with the same relentless determination she used for anything she wanted.

“She’s ruthless,” Katherine had confided to Albert one day after Jeannie had announced that she was pregnant and going to marry Clyde. “I feel sorry for him. The poor guy didn’t stand a chance.”

They had been walking down the long drive that led to her parent’s house, but had stopped to take advantage of the shade provided by a thatch of trees. Albert sat on the top rung of the wooden fence that ran along the gravel drive. Katherine leaned against one of the solid wooden posts. Despite it only being late afternoon, an industrious bullfrog croaked in the distance.

“She may be ruthless, but she loves him,” Albert said with a subtle wistfulness in his voice. “She wants to marry him—to start a life with him. You can’t blame her for that. It’s only natural.”

He’d grinned, and Katherine had felt a strange heaviness in her chest because she knew what he was subtly trying to tell her. She looked down at the toes of her shoes. They were dusty, and she had the sudden desire to wipe them clean.

“Just think,” he continued. “Once she’s married, it’s your turn.”

“I can’t imagine I’ll get married anytime soon,” she said. “I want to—”

“Go to the city and experience things. I know. But, Katie, think about it. Is that really what you think will happen—that you’re going to go off to the big city? How are you going to get the money? How will you survive?” He shook his head and grinned down at her. His tone was dismissive. “Nah, you’re gonna marry me. And we’ll have lots of kids.” He paused at her expression and quickly added, “But we’ll go to Chicago if you want—just so you can see it.”

Katherine felt her stomach contract.

Albert jumped down from the top of the fence and landed lightly in front of her. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to expose smooth, muscular forearms which he crossed over his chest. “Come on. Say the word and I’ll propose. You know how much I want to marry you. Hell, everybody does.”

“Albert.” She paused. His wide, anxious face began its all-too-familiar transition from optimism to angry resignation. “Can’t we just wait to have this discussion? I’m still not graduated from school yet. Neither are you.”

“I know what I want. But you want something that’s not yours to have.” He shook his head angrily. “There’s something wrong with you, Katie. Most girls—”

“I’m not most girls,” she interrupted.

Albert scowled and turned away from her. “I know, dammit. Maybe that’s why I love you.

“Can’t this wait?” Katherine asked. “Can’t we just focus on school and spending time together? We have the rest of our lives to get married and all the rest.”

Albert kicked at a tuft of grass but didn’t answer. Finally, he sighed and nodded. “I suppose.” He stared out over the field at the trees that ran along the distant creek bank.

A hawk wheeled overhead.

“I’m not saying ‘never,’” she said finally. “I’m just saying ‘not now.’”

Albert jerked his head up, the pleasure and hope so clearly written on his face that Katherine felt guilty as soon as she uttered the words. It was true, she reasoned. She wasn’t saying “never.” But in her heart, she knew that the sentiment was empty—that she was simply hedging her bet.

“Well, that’s something,” Albert said, once again happy. “What say we go into Lawrence and see what’s going on in the big city?”

She smiled, though she knew it wasn’t genuine, and nodded.

“It’s all gonna be okay, Katie,” he said as he led her back to her parent’s house. “You’ll see. I’m not giving up.” He grinned broadly. “One day you’re gonna marry me and I’ll be the happiest man alive.”