Stephanie Watson loved autumn, especially the warm and hazy butter-yellow days of Indian summer.
For what seemed the first time since her husband Chuck’s death last year, she took pleasure in the beauty of her surroundings as she walked along the street toward town. The leaves on the trees that lined the thoroughfare were turning yellow, gold, orange, and red, and flowerbeds wore a spectacular coat of riotous colors.
Why, she wondered, did nature’s palette seem more vibrant in autumn?
Next year, she would plant chrysanthemums along the front of her house. And asters. She was partial to asters. She hadn’t gardened this year. Last spring, the idea of watering and weeding all summer long seemed far more than she could manage. But next year? Yes, next year she would be ready.
Her widowed friends had told her things would get better, that even though she continued to miss her husband of fifty years, time would dull the pain. She hadn’t believed them at first. She hadn’t believed them for a long while. But it seemed they were right. The pain in her heart was less, and the memories in her mind were sweeter.
Stephanie was thankful to God for that.
Bells chimed overhead as she opened the door to Terri’s Tangles Beauty Salon. Terri Sampson glanced over her shoulder, her hands busy with blow-dryer and brush as she finished styling Till Hart’s silver-gray hair.
“Please tell me you’re early, Steph.” Terri’s gaze darted to the clock on the wall.
“I am. It’s such a beautiful day, I hated to stay indoors another minute. So I decided to walk over.” Stephanie met Till’s gaze in the mirror. “Good morning, Till. How are you?”
“I’m dandy, thanks. And you?”
“I’m good, too.”
Till and Stephanie had known each other since they were girls. Both of them had lived their entire lives in this sleepy little town on the plains of southern Idaho. The two women had many things in common, many of the same beliefs, likes and dislikes. But while Till, the granddaughter of the town’s founder, had never married, Stephanie had been married nearly all of her life.
Memories of Chuck flashed in her mind, and she felt a bittersweet warmth in her chest. How she missed him. Missed his wry sense of humor. Missed the gentle touch of his hand beneath her elbow as they crossed the street. Missed his grumpy complaints as he searched for his ever-misplaced eyeglasses.
Terri turned off the blow-dryer, bringing a sudden silence to the beauty shop.
After a moment, Till said, “Steph, you’ll never guess who’s returned to Hart’s Crossing to live.” She didn’t wait for an answer. “James Scott. Can you imagine? After all of these years, he’s decided to move back to Idaho.” Till looked at Terri. “You know the big blue house on Horizon Street?”
“The Patterson house?”
“That’s the one. Only the Pattersons didn’t own it. It’s belonged to the Scott family since it was built back in the late thirties. The Pattersons rented it for twenty years.”
Stephanie sat on one of the chairs attached to a hair dryer. “I didn’t know the Scotts still owned that house. I thought it was sold after Mrs. Scott went to live in Seattle with James and his wife.”
“No.” Till shook her head. “Betty Frazier has been managing it for them for at least a decade. She was chomping at the bit to sell it, too. It would have brought her realty firm a very nice commission. I can tell you, she never expected James to return to live in it. Who would? Not after fifty years.”
“Fifty-two years,” Stephanie corrected. “He was eighteen when he went into the army.”
Till leaned toward Terri and, in a stage whisper, said, “Steph and James were sweet on each other when they were kids. Everyone except his mother called him Jimmy back then. My, oh my. What a handsome fellow he was.”
Terri’s eyes widened with interest. “Is that right, Steph? You had a boyfriend before Mr. Watson? I can’t picture that.”
“After fifty years with Chuck, it’s hard for me to imagine it either.” Stephanie smiled. “But it’s true. Jimmy Scott was my first love.”
Terri sat on the second dryer chair. “Tell me more. You know there’s no keeping secrets in a hair salon.”
Stephanie allowed memories to drift through her mind—sweet, innocent, misty. Goodness, who was that girl she’d been and when had she become the white-haired woman she saw in the mirror today? It seemed only yesterday that Jimmy Scott kissed her outside the Apollo Movie Theater. But yesterday was actually sixty years ago.
“Well?” Terri prompted.
“I was his best friend when we were in elementary school, and when I was nine, I decided I was going to marry him. That was the night he gave me my first kiss.” She laughed softly. “We dated all through high school, and by then everyone else expected us to get married, too.”
“So what happened? Why didn’t you marry him?”
“For one thing, he never asked me. He meant to, I think, but he never did. After he went into the army, we corresponded, but then I met Chuck and he stole my heart.”
“And you had to write Mr. Scott a Dear John letter?” Terri looked from Stephanie to Till and back again. “How awful for him.”
Stephanie shook her head. “Actually, he’d met someone, too. It all turned out for the best. If he hadn’t gone away, I might not have married Chuck, and James might not have married Martha. They were together almost as many years as Chuck and I.”
“James lost his wife about three years ago,” Till told Terri as she rose from the styling chair, patting her hair with her right hand. “To cancer. I heard she was ill for a long time before passing. Must have been terribly hard on him and their children, losing her that way.”
As difficult as losing Chuck was for Stephanie, she was thankful her husband hadn’t suffered. He’d enjoyed good health right up to the end. On the day he died, he’d played a round of golf, come home, sat in his easy chair, and slipped into the presence of Jesus.
Till stepped toward the cash register. “What’s the damage, Terri?”
“Fifteen today, Miss Hart.”
“You need to raise your prices, young lady.” Till placed two bills on the counter, a twenty and a five. “A worker is worthy of her wage, you know.” She gave a farewell wave to Stephanie, then left the salon.
“Just give me a minute to sweep up, Steph, and then we’ll get you started.”
“No hurry. Take your time.”
Time was one thing Stephanie had plenty of these days.
James Scott stood in the living room of his boyhood home, wondering if he was as crazy as his children thought. Why would a man in his right mind leave the city where he’d lived and worked for more than forty-five years to return to a small town like Hart’s Crossing? That’s what his son and eldest daughter had asked several times over the past few weeks. James had a hard time giving Kurt or Jenna an answer, mainly because he wasn’t sure himself.
James and his wife, Martha, had loved living in Washington State. They’d owned a lovely home in Bremerton, purchased long before Seattle area housing prices shot through the roof. All three of their children—Kurt, Jenna, and Paula—had been raised in that four-bedroom home, and it was there Martha had breathed her last one windy March morning more than three years before.
Maybe if his kids and grandkids lived in the Pacific Northwest, James would have remained in Bremerton. But Kurt and his family had settled in Pennsylvania after a series of job-related moves; Jenna lived in England with her husband of five years; and Paula, a divorced mom of two, had a home in Florida. Visits to Washington were few and far between for all of them. James understood. They had busy lives of their own.
“But Hart’s Crossing, Dad?” Jenna had made it sound like the end of the world. “You haven’t been back there since Grandma Scott moved in with you and Mom. I was still a teenager, for Pete’s sake. Why not move into a nice retirement community? There’s got to be some good ones in your area. That way you can still be near your friends.”
“I have a few friends in Idaho, too,” he’d answered her. “Besides, the cost of living is less there, and I own that house free and clear.”
“Dad, you’re not having money problems, are you?”
That comment had irritated him. Did she think he was in his dotage? “No, Jenna. I’m not. But thanks for asking.”
His daughter might live halfway around the globe, but James had been able to imagine the exasperated expression on her face at the end of that phone call.
Well, it was done now. His kids would have to accept his decision, like it or not.
The doorbell rang. James was glad for the interruption. He needed to stop woolgathering and resume his unpacking. He pulled open the door and discovered a woman on the stoop. “Yes?”
“Jimmy Scott, it really is you. I heard you were back, but I needed to come see for myself.”
No one had called him Jimmy in decades.
“Have I changed so much?” she asked, a twinkle appearing in her faded blue eyes.
James pushed open the screen door, peering more closely at the woman. About his age, she had a cap of curly white hair and a pleasantly round face with plenty of lines etched around her eyes and mouth. She looked familiar but he couldn’t quite . . .
Then she smiled.
“In the flesh.”
He motioned her inside. “How are you?”
“I’m well, James. And you?”
“Good. I’m good.” He went to the sofa and cleared away some of the clutter to make room for her. “Have a seat. I’d offer you a cup of coffee, but the coffeemaker isn’t unpacked yet. How ’bout a glass of water?”
“I don’t need a thing, thanks. I’m fine.” She settled onto the couch. “I can’t stay but a moment anyway.”
James moved a box off his recliner and sat, too.
“I should apologize for barging in this way. But when Till told me this morning that you’d moved back to Hart’s Crossing after all these years, I just had to stop by to say hello. It’s such a surprise. Such a nice surprise.”
“My kids think I’ve lost my mind. Moving back to a rural town in Idaho when I could live anywhere else in the country.”
She laughed. “Most adult children would think that insane. Tell me about them. Your children and grandchildren.”
James was happy to oblige. “My oldest, Kurt, lives in Pennsylvania. He and his wife have three kids, a boy and two girls. Kurt’s in the computer business, but don’t ask me what he does. I know just enough to send and receive email and surf the Internet a bit.”
He didn’t add that his son was always sending him new software to try out and that his failure to use them was a great disappointment for Kurt.
“My middle daughter, Jenna, and her husband live overseas. In England. He works for the U.S. government over there. They’ve been married about five years. No children yet, but they’re still hoping it will happen.”
Hope was a mild word for what his daughter felt. Jenna ached for a baby. But at forty-one, she heard her biological clock like the bong of Big Ben, and her childlessness had left her angry at God.
“My youngest, Paula, got divorced last year. She’s a school teacher living in Florida with her two daughters.”
James wasn’t sorry his philandering ex-son-in-law was out of the picture, but his heart broke whenever he spoke to Paula and heard the lingering sadness in her voice. He wished he could make it better.
Stephanie put her hands together in front of her chin, almost a clap but not quite. “Five grandchildren. How wonderful for you.”
“What about your family?” he replied.
“My daughter, Miranda, has made me a grandmother of two, Isabella and Foster. They live right here in Hart’s Crossing, so I’m quite spoiled.” Her smile was gentle as she added, “It must be hard for you, having your family living so far away. Is that one of the reasons you came back to Hart’s Crossing?”
“Mostly. Or maybe I’m trying to recapture a bit of my youth.” He shrugged. “But I think there were just too many memories in Bremerton to stay.”
Stephanie’s smile faded. “I know what you mean.”
James saw the sorrow that mirrored his own. “Of course you do. I heard about Chuck’s passing. I’m sorry for your loss. The few times I met him, he seemed like a real nice guy.”
“He was. Salt of the earth.” She rose from the sofa, the sparkle gone from her eyes. “I’ve taken up enough of your time. I should be getting on home.”
“I’m glad you stopped by.” He followed her to the door. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
She smiled. A bit halfhearted but still a smile. “In a town this size, I can guarantee it.”
James watched her descend the porch steps, then closed the door and returned to work. At the rate he was going, he wouldn’t find that coffeepot for another week.
“You set eternity in our hearts, Lord,” Stephanie said softly as she walked toward home. “So no matter how long people live, no matter how old they are, it always feels wrong when death comes to someone we love.”
She thought of James, leaving his home in Washington after all these years because there were too many memories of his departed wife. Would she do the same if her daughter and family weren’t here in Hart’s Crossing? Would she run away if she could?
And yet, James hadn’t looked like a man who was running away. Yes, there had been a note of sadness in his voice when he’d mentioned the memories, but there had also been a strength of purpose in his gaze. He hadn’t doubted his decision to return to Hart’s Crossing. Not a bit.
But wasn’t that always true of James? Even as a teenager, he’d seemed to know with unshakable assurance where he was to go and what he was to do. It was that certainty that had taken him away from Hart’s Crossing, changing the course of both their lives.
Stephanie wondered what would be changed, now that he’d returned.