Bellowing black smoke in its wake, the train swayed as it crossed the Rappahannock River, the boisterous singing and chatter of the men inside muffling the creaking wood of the ancient cars. As Cal stumbled, a strong hand on his arm steadied him, and he smiled down at the man before flopping into the opposite seat. He held out a bottle. “Drink? It’s allegedly bourbon.”
A small smile lifted the man’s lips. “Sure.” He took the bottle and tipped it back. He tried to hide his grimace, but couldn’t quite. “I’ve never really liked the hard stuff.”
“Well, in defense of bourbon, this isn’t exactly Kentucky’s finest.” Cal peered out the window past the sleeping man beside him, who drooled against the streaked glass. The sun splashed orange across the horizon as it sank out of sight. “Hard to believe we’ll be in South Carolina in the morning. Assuming this dirty old pile of planks doesn’t disintegrate along the way.”
A pot-bellied stove in the middle of the train car belched, emitting only a small amount of heat in the January chill. Cal shivered against the competing drafts, wishing he’d brought a warmer jacket. But he supposed they’d all be trading their civvies for uniforms soon enough, and he’d yearn for the northern cold before too long.
“Let’s hope we’ll be shipping out in something a little sturdier,” the man said before passing the bottle to the recruit beside him, who stopped screeching an Irish sea shanty long enough to gulp down a quarter of the swill.
“I’m Cal, by the way.” Cal extended his hand. “Cal Cunningham.”
If Jim noticed how smooth Cal’s palm was in comparison to his own, he didn’t let on. His neatly combed hair was a blond that probably lightened in the sun, and there was a general wholesomeness about him that indicated he spent significant time outside. Faded freckles dusted Jim’s pale skin, and he wore a blue button-front shirt that couldn’t match the brilliance of his eyes.
As most of the men around them launched into a recitation of a limerick about a man from Nantucket, a fresh waft of burning coal drifted on the air. Cal chuckled ruefully. “I think this is the Marine Corps’ way of telling us not to expect many creature comforts where we’re going.” He reclaimed the bottle and took another swig. “Where do you hail from?” he asked Jim.
“Outside a little place called Tivoli, New York.”
“We must have been on the same train down to DC. I’m from Manhattan.” Cal thought he’d gotten a good look at everyone, but he’d definitely remember handsome Jim Bennett with the blue eyes. “How far is Tivoli from the city?”
“About three hours or so.”
“Hey, we’re practically neighbors.”
Jim smiled. “I suppose so. I’ve never been out of the Hudson Valley before today.”
Cal laughed before realizing Jim was serious. He ran a hand through his thick hair. “Uh, so what do you do? No, no, let me guess. Farming.”
“Of a sort. My family owns an apple orchard. You?”
“I guess you could say I’m in the family business too. Truth is I don’t do much of anything.” He put a cigarette between his lips and offered the pack to Jim, who shook his head. Cal opened his lighter and struck a flame.
A few kerosene lamps shone through the car, casting shadows and light over the faces of the recruits. In the flickering glow, Jim’s expression was placid. He seemed to be waiting for Cal to say more.
Exhaling a cloud of smoke, Cal leaned forward in his seat, talking quietly in the cacophony surrounding them. “After Princeton, my father just assumed I’d come work for him. Gave me an office and everything. Great view of the Statue of Liberty, but I’ve never had much to do. He doesn’t trust me with anything important.”
Jim took this in. “What’s the business?”
“You don’t mean…Cunningham Savings and Loan?”
“My father’s pride and joy. My grandfather came over from Scotland and built himself a little empire. I’m Calhoun Cunningham the third, so I guess one day it’ll all be mine.”
Shaking his head, Jim laughed incredulously. “Geez, couldn’t you have gotten a commission in the army or navy? How did you end up here?”
The wheels of the train shrieked as it rumbled south. Cal shrugged with a grin. “Couldn’t think of anything that would piss off the old man quite so much as enlisting in the Marines.”
Jim returned the smile. “I suppose that’s one reason for joining up.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fighting for my country and destroying the forces of evil. What about you?” He sat back, inhaling a lungful of sweet smoke and relaxing against the seat.
“After the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, I enlisted as soon as I could. My father’s not doing very well these days, but my wife will look after him.”
Disappointment flickered through Cal. Not that he expected clean-cut apple farmer Jim Bennett to be anything but a straight arrow. “Wife, huh? Did you get hitched before you left?”
“No, not long after high school. I took a few night classes at the local college and met Ann there. She worked at the café.” He opened his wallet and handed over a picture of a pretty brunette and a young girl. “My wife and my daughter, Sophie.”
“That’s a real nice family you’ve got. How old is she?” Cal pointed to the child.
“Two and a half. She was actually born on my twentieth birthday.” Jim gazed at the photo and smiled wistfully. “She’s my special girl.” He glanced around as another bawdy song began and tucked the picture away. “Are you married?”
Cal grinned. “Nope. In twenty-four years there hasn’t been a woman yet who’s been able to pin me down.” He didn’t add that there never would be.
The train shuddered alarmingly, wheels wailing as everyone held on. A recruit near the end of the car stood on his seat with arms out for balance. “All right, boys. We’d better all sing this train along or we won’t live to see boot camp, let alone the war!” He launched into “Chattanooga Choo Choo” with a voice that wasn’t half bad.
As they joined in the chorus, Cal and Jim shared a smile.
Cal’s throat felt drier than the dirt road as he steered his Cadillac past the painted sign reading Clover Grove Orchard in neat script above a faded red apple. Gravel pelted the undercarriage of the car, which had only ever driven down paved city boulevards. The laneway took a few gentle turns before ending at a two-story farmhouse. He pulled up next to a rusted gray pickup and killed the engine.
The white wooden house had a dark-blue door and a few small windows, and the shingled roof rose to a peak above the second floor. To Cal, it was exactly what he imagined a farmhouse should be. Simple and unadorned. Workmanlike yet homey. Off to the left was a small barn, its dark green paint peeling. A cow and two horses wandered a fenced-in area of brownish grass beside it, and a large storage shed stood nearby.
Beyond that the ground sloped down to the orchard, where row upon row of bare apple trees grew into the distance. Cal got out of the car and stretched, breathing the early spring air deeply. He caught movement at the top of the rise, and Jim walked over the crest of the gentle hill, his light hair gleaming in the sun. Breath caught, Cal forced his lungs to expand.
He should never have come.
Tall and lean, Jim had the body of a man who worked the land from sunup to sundown. The sleeves of his plaid shirt and light jacket were rolled to the elbows, and his dungarees fit his slim hips snugly. He walked with an even, measured stride—not too fast, not too slow. Steady as always. Or at least as he’d been when the war started, before…everything.
It was all Cal could do not to run to him. The longing burned his chest, and his heart thumped. In the past three years, Cal had almost convinced himself his feelings had faded. Almost.
A big shaggy brown dog bounded out of the orchard, barking loudly. Jim whistled and brought it to heel as he reached Cal. Smiling softly, Jim extended his hand. Cal tried to ignore the flare of excitement that skittered up his spine as their palms connected, keeping his smile relaxed.
They hugged briefly, slapping each other on the back. They were both just over six feet, with Jim a little taller, and Cal couldn’t help but think of how perfectly they fit together. Jim’s scent sparked a hundred memories that flitted through Cal’s mind like a newsreel.
Concentrating on an easy tone, he stepped back and let the dog smell his hand. “I see you’ve got quite a guard dog here.” After a cursory sniff, the animal licked Cal’s fingers and rubbed against his leg.
“Oh yeah. Finnigan’s a real killer. His bark is a heck of a lot worse than his bite, but he does keep the deer away from the trees.”
“Deer give you trouble? Wait—you don’t have any bears out here, do you?” Cal put on an exaggeratedly serious expression.
“Tons of bears. They love city slickers.”
“They are known for their refined palate.” Cal crouched down and scratched behind Finnigan’s floppy ears. “This guy keeps the deer from eating your crop?”
“Yep, he patrols the orchard. I built him a little house out there, and he does a real fine job. Comes and sees us every so often throughout the day, but always does his rounds. Best employee I’ve ever had.”
“You’re my competition, huh, Finnigan?” The dog eagerly flopped on his back and Cal rubbed his tummy. “Which breed is he?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. He showed up one day a few years ago, limping and awfully thin. We couldn’t turn him away.”
“And now you’ve got another stray at your doorstep.” Cal stood, grinning.
Jim grinned back. “I guess I do. Did you find the place all right?”
“Yep. It looks great, Jim.” Cal waved his arm around to indicate the orchard. “This is all yours?”
“All sixty acres. It’s not much, but it’s home. I’m sure it’s awfully…basic compared to what you’re used to in the city.”
“Hey, in case you’ve forgotten our jaunt through the Pacific already, I’ve roughed it with the best of them.”
Jim chuckled. “True enough. Look, it’s not the jungle, but are you sure you’re up for this? Not that I don’t appreciate your help, but I could find someone local. I don’t want to put you out.”
Cal clapped a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “After being cooped up in New York and London, I’m ready for a little fresh air and hard work. Point me to the nearest shovel. Or whatever I need to take care of apple trees.”
Jim’s eyes twinkled. “Let me show you around first.”
They fell into a comfortable stride as if no time had passed at all. Jim led the way into the barn past a small coop where several chickens clucked. The dim, hay-strewn interior of the building revealed farming equipment, several stalls for animals, and a well-worn ladder leading to a small loft.
It smelled of musky earth with the hint of manure, but wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, Cal’s blood stirred as Jim leaned close to point out how the chickens’ eggs were collected. It had only been minutes and simply being near Jim set him off. How was Cal going to spend hours a day with him and not humiliate himself?
“I know it needs a good cleaning. It’s just been at the bottom of the list.”
Cal realized he was frowning, and quickly smiled. “No, no, it’s great. So the cow and horses live in here?”
As Jim explained the daily schedule for milking the cow, Mabel, and caring for the horses and chickens, Cal nodded and tried to pay attention. But his belly flip-flopped, and he felt like a schoolgirl going to her first dance. He truly had been a fool to think time and distance could change anything.
He followed along into the house through the kitchen door. Pale yellow curtains fluttered in the breeze over the sink, and a round wooden table fit neatly in the corner by the pantry. A gas stove stood in the other corner with a pot of something that smelled like oniony beef stew simmering on top.
Cal inhaled loudly. “Are you telling me you could’ve been whipping up gourmet delights all those years we were starving in the jungle?”
Jim feigned offense. “No one unwrapped a D-ration bar quite like I did. But I can’t take credit for this.” He motioned toward the pot. “Courtesy of Mrs. O’Brien. She helps out with Adam during the day and cooks dinner. She’ll be meeting Sophie off the school bus now before she heads home. There’s frozen applesauce too. You’ll be sick of apples soon enough, but I thought you’d like it tonight. Tastes almost like ice cream.”
“Sounds great.” Dessert was swell, but at the mention of Sophie and Adam, Cal’s stomach knotted. He hadn’t spent more than five consecutive minutes with children since he’d been one himself. He hoped they wouldn’t be too…complicated.
By the stove stood a starkly white refrigerator. Cal smiled. “Look at this. First electricity and now a refrigerator. Next you’ll tell me you’re getting a phone.”
Jim’s forehead furrowed. “Who would I talk to out here?”
“The rest of the world? People who might want to buy your apples?”
“I already have people to buy my apples. Wilson’s grocery stores buy all the apples I can grow. I don’t need the rest of the world. Besides, I had a shower head put in last year. Things are plenty modern around here.”
“Very true. Although you could have talked to me on the phone.”
“I wrote you letters, Cal. It’s not my fault you’re a terrible correspondent.”
“Moi? I take offense at that insult to my fine, upstanding character.”
Chuckling, Jim led him through a dining area and sitting room off the main hall. The walls were covered with faded floral wallpaper—small bouquets of pink, white and yellow. A fine layer of dust covered the figurines displayed in a hutch by the dark sofa. Cal suspected the furnishings were Jim’s mother’s choices when the house was built after World War I.
Upstairs were three bedrooms. The first at the front of the house contained two small beds, with an open toy chest beneath the window. Several dolls spilled out, and Jim tidied them up as if embarrassed by the clutter.
Next was the neat and spare guest room. A double bed filled the center of the room, with a little table on one side. The oak dresser rested against pale blue wallpaper.
“Hope this’ll be okay for you.”
Cal smiled. “Of course. It’s perfect. Nice big window and everything.”
Next was the bathroom, and then the main bedroom at the back of the house. Jim’s headboard was simple dark wood, and Cal breathed deeply as he took in the bed. Jim would be sleeping here every night. So close but so incredibly far away.
A cheval glass stood in the corner by the window, and two dressers of matching dark wood filled the rest of the room. The closest was Jim’s, with a simple comb resting on top, alongside—
Cal’s heart skipped a beat. Beside the comb was the gold watch. He swallowed hard. “You know you’re supposed to wear that. It tells time and everything. That’s why I gave it to you.”
Jim’s lips twitched. “Yes, I heard a rumor. But I don’t want to get it scratched up out in the orchard. It’s for special occasions.”
“Guess you use the position of the sun to tell time, huh? Like Davy Crockett?”
Jim smiled. “Something like that.”
Beside the watch sat Jim’s battered dog tags, coiled neatly. Cal brushed them with his fingertips. In London he’d come close one night to throwing his tags into the Thames, but in the end he’d locked them away in a safe deposit box with his personal papers and Jim’s letters.
Cal’s eyes were inexorably drawn to the other dresser. Atop it sat several items on a yellowing lace doily. A velvet jewellery box that had probably never held anything like the diamonds and gold Cal’s mother wore. A gilded brush and comb set, neatly arranged side by side. A small bottle of perfume that Cal guessed smelled of some sort of sweet bloom. A pot of face cream.
The remnants of a life.
Cal turned to Jim, who wore the stoic expression Cal had etched in his memory since boot camp—only his eyes betraying a weary sadness. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back for the funeral.”
“You were working in London. I understand.” Jim tried to smile, but didn’t quite make it. He reached for the other item resting on the dresser, a silver-framed wedding photo.
Ann held a small bouquet and wore a simple calf-length floral dress and a lacy hat over her dark hair. She smiled widely on Jim’s arm, her eyes crinkling. Jim stood ramrod straight in his suit, posing seriously.
Jim straightened the frame’s position a fraction of an inch before stepping back. “I’m sorry you never got the chance to come out and meet her.”
“So am I.”
Cal’s gut burned with shame. Standing in the woman’s bedroom six months after her death, deep down he still prickled with jealousy and resentment. She’d had what Cal never would. Never could. Part of him still hated her for that, as unfair as it was.
As much as he’d shared with Jim in those three and a half years of the war, it could never be this. The truth was that Cal had hoped he wouldn’t have to ever meet Ann, and had used every excuse in the book to avoid it. He’d often wondered what they’d make of each other. Now he’d never know.
He should tell Jim he’d made a mistake. Make his excuses and speed away from Clover Grove. Never, ever looking back. It would be best for both of them in the end. Cal would only mess everything up if he stayed, and Jim would understand if Cal left now. Jim always understood.
Squaring his shoulders, Cal took a deep breath. No. He wouldn’t run. He’d stayed away this long for his own sake. Now he had to put Jim first. Even if they couldn’t be together in the way Cal wanted, it would be enough. He hadn’t been here when Jim needed him, and Cal wouldn’t let him down this time.
“It’s a beautiful home you’ve got here, Jim.”
Jim exhaled. “Thanks.” The door slammed downstairs, and footsteps echoed. Jim’s solemn expression melted away, and his face lit up in a way Cal hadn’t seen in a very long time.
“Come meet the kids.”
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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