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All Roads Lead Home

By Christine Johnson

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Pearlman, Michigan
July 1922

Don't die here," Mariah pleaded. But her motorcar threatened to do just that as it coughed and slowed to a crawl. She depressed the accelerator to the floor, and the car lurched forward a few feet before slowing again.

"Just one more block." She gripped the wheel and as an afterthought added, "Please."

Mariah Meeks, agent for the Orphaned Children's Society of New York, didn't ordinarily talk to automobiles, but she had to get to her brother's church before he left for the day, and she had to do so without anyone noticing she'd returned to Pearlman. That mission died along with her car in the worst possible place—at Simmons Motor Garage.

As the car rolled to an ignoble stop, her pulse rocketed. Had Hendrick seen her? Surely he had. She hazarded a glance at the gleaming whitewashed garage, but no one had come out yet. Maybe he was still angry at her. Her brother Gabe said Hendrick hadn't dated anyone since she left town two Octobers ago.

Her fingers curled around the wheel. Hendrick Simmons. Did he look the same? The same strong loping stride, the same warm brown eyes, the same lock of hair across his brow that she'd always wanted to push away? Her palms sweated. She couldn't breathe. Memories swirled like a summer cyclone.

She tugged at a lock of her dark, springy hair, resisting the urge to tuck it into her mouth. What a mess she'd made of things that October. Her brother Gabe's wedding was supposed to be a joyous time. But then she'd caught the bouquet by accident and saw the look on Hendrick's face. Hope. Desire. Love? But they could never be more than friends. She'd panicked, had left town the next day without telling him why she could never marry. Coward.

He must despise her.

He wouldn't want to fix her car. She tried and tried to restart it, but the engine simply wouldn't turn over. What would she do? She could walk to her brother's church, but she had to have a car to get to Montana. A child's future depended on her getting there soon, and the trains weren't running, thanks to the nationwide rail strike.

Why, God? She looked to the heavens, but He didn't answer.

Gabe would know what to do. Her brother would figure out a way to get her to Montana. She plopped the stifling rolled-brim hat on her head and gathered her handbag.

"Miss Mariah?"

She jumped so high she crushed the crown of her hat on the roof.

"Peter," she gasped at the sight of the grinning teenage boy. "You've grown."

The orphan had always been a beanpole, but he must have shot up six inches in the two years since the Society placed him with the Simmons family.

"Yes'm, almost a foot," he said with obvious pride.

She squinted. What was that? A few straggling hairs on his upper lip? She rapidly calculated his age. Goodness, he must be nearly seventeen now.

"What brings you to town?" he asked. "I ain't seen you practically since I come to Pearlman."

She stifled the urge to correct his grammar. "I'm just here for a brief visit." She started to open her door, but Peter finished the job and helped her from the car. Clearly, Mrs. Simmons had taught him manners. Judging by his broad grin, he was happy, exactly what she hoped to ensure for all the children she placed—especially Luke, the foster boy her brother Gabe had taken in. That was why she had to talk to Gabe right now. That's why she needed to get to Montana.

She glanced again at the garage. Still no Hendrick. "Are you helping Mr. Simmons at the garage?"

"More'n that. Mr. Hendrick taught me everything about engines. I'm practically running the place now."

"Running it?" She frowned. "Just for the summer, correct? You still plan to finish high school."

"Yes'm, but Mr. Hendrick's so busy at the airfield that he lets me take over here."

The airfield. Of course. She breathed a sigh of relief. That explained why he hadn't come out to greet her. Hendrick had worked on Jack Hunter's aeroplanes from the moment Jack landed in Pearlman. According to Gabe, the two were collaborating to build bigger and better engines for a foolhardy attempt at flying to the North Pole.

"I'm sure he'd wanna see ya," Peter said. "He'll be back anytime now."

Then she must hurry. She darted a glance down the street in the direction of the airfield. No one in sight yet. "Thank you, Peter, but I need to see my brother. Will you look after my car? I think it's burnt a valve."

"I'll take good care of her, Miss Mariah." He tipped a finger to his grimy cap.

"Thank you, Peter. If you need to reach me, I'll be at the church for an hour or so and then at the parsonage."

He knew that, of course. In tiny Pearlman, everyone knew where everyone stayed, who their relations were and what they were doing. Everyone in town doubtless already knew she was here. Her reappearance would make tongues wag with speculation that the romance between Hendrick and her was back on.

They could talk all they wanted. Romance was out of the question. In fact, she didn't even need to see Hendrick. She'd ask Gabe to talk to him about fixing her car. Hendrick wouldn't be able to refuse his pastor.

She squared her shoulders, quite pleased with her solution, and hurried toward her brother's church, intent on defusing a much more pressing crisis.

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