Collision of the Heart
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
This was formerly published as The Professor’s Heart, and has since undergone author and editorial additions and improvements.
Mia Roper isn’t a typical nineteenth-century woman. Refusing to pass up the hard-won opportunity to prove herself as a journalist, she left Hillsdale, Michigan, hoping in vain that Ayden Goswell would follow her to Boston.
When the train bringing her back for her first major story crashes in a snowstorm outside town, Mia is stranded. Not even the survival of a fellow passenger , a toddler, can ease her heart’s sudden ache at seeing Ayden, now a history professor at the local college, courting someone else.
Ayden’s never gotten over the fact that the most fascinating woman he ever met chose her career over marriage . . . and he let her go. But marrying the department director’s daughter could at least guarantee him a permanent job. It’s a satisfactory arrangement, yet his kind, pretty bride-to-be has one simple flaw: she’s not Mia.
As soon as the trains are running, Mia will be leaving again, unless she and Ayden can reconcile ambition and love—and take a leap of faith together.
“Eakes seamlessly blends romance and intrigue, faith and history.” — Booklist
“Eakes will leave readers breathless.” — Louise M. Gouge, award-winning author of At the Captain’s Command
From Chapter One
February 8, 1856
In ten minutes, the westbound train would reach the town Euphemia Roper once vowed to never set foot in again.
Hillsdale, Michigan, was the town Euphemia—Mia to her friends—had called home longer than anywhere else in her twenty-six years and the town she had left with a broken heart. Only opportunity knocking too loudly to be ignored had drawn her back. For a week, she would research the story that would establish her as a professional lady of letters, while she avoided encounters with Ayden Benaiah Goswell.
She twisted in her train seat and rubbed frost from a patch of glass with her gloved fingers. The action accomplished little beyond making her hand damp through the knitted wool. The lights of Osseo had already dimmed beyond a veil of falling snow. The train gathered speed.
So did Euphemia’s heart.
Muscles twitching in her legs, Euphemia tucked her handbag under one arm and her writing portfolio under the other. Rustling pages, snapping locks, and a child asking if they were there yet rose like a wave before a high wind. Euphemia rose to get up the aisle and near the door before the train stopped so she could be one of the first passengers to disembark. Others preceded her, including a child barely old enough to walk. He paused to grasp the side of her seat.
“Are you lost?” Euphemia leaned toward the boy. Someone should be frantically searching for the little one.
“Nana?” His quivering lower lip protruded.
“Uh-oh. Don’t cry. I’ll find your mo—”
The train whistle blasted its mournful call into the night. Several women exclaimed. Mia jumped, and the child let out a howl loud enough to wake any passenger still asleep after the whistle blast.
“You poor baby.” Euphemia set her handbag and portfolio on her empty seat and crouched before the boy, her skirt billowing around her. “I’ll find your momma.” She raised her voice. “Is anyone here missing a—”
With the cacophony of a hundred metal sheets slamming together, the train shuddered to a halt. The car floor bucked. The baby, Euphemia, and luggage tumbled across the aisle. Passengers screamed.
“We’ve wrecked!” someone shouted.
The car rocked on its wheels. More cases fell. More passengers shrieked.
“We’re going to derail!”
“We’re going to die!”
No more than the usual tendrils of coal smoke filled the car, but passengers stampeded for the door. One wrist throbbing, Euphemia snatched up the child and dove back into her seat. The contents of her handbag crunched under her feet. Her writing case remained on the seat.
“Help me!” A woman’s cries rose above the hubbub of wailing, shouting, shoving passengers. “My leg. I can’t walk! I can’t move.”
“Stay here.” Euphemia laid the child on the seat. She picked up her writing case before she headed for the back of the car, toward the crying woman.
“Where are you?” Euphemia called.
Banging, wailing, and bellowing drowned out the woman’s reply—if the woman replied. She could have fainted—or worse.
Euphemia’s heart leaped into her throat, pulsing hard enough to choke her. She paused to take a deep, steadying breath. Calm would accomplish more than panic. Enough chaos reigned behind her. She didn’t need to add to it.
She took a step toward where she thought she heard the woman crying for help. The car tilted. A piece of luggage slammed into her legs. She grabbed for a seatback to steady herself, and pain blazed through her left wrist. She tucked her writing case beneath her left forearm in order to free her right hand. It was all right, strong, capable of groping in the near total darkness between the seats for the woman who had been sobbing and calling for help or for anyone else unable to ask for assistance. Three seats lay between Euphemia and the end of the railroad car. She checked on, between, and under each one.
“Ma’am?” Euphemia shouted above the ruckus of what seemed like more people than the car—or the entire train—could have carried. “Are you there?”
Behind her, a baby wailed. The one she’d found or someone else’s. Must get back to him, find his momma or nurse. First, the woman.
She reached the last row. Her questing fingers touched a shoulder between the seats and wedged against the rear exit.
A hand clasped hers. “You’ve got to help me.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Euphemia stooped to get her arm under the woman. “Can you lean on me?”
“I think my leg is broke.” The hand gripped Euphemia’s nearly hard enough to break bones. “I can’t walk. I need to get out of here.”
“We all do.” Euphemia freed her hand.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I must go to get help.” Euphemia took a step back, turned, and headed up the aisle, calling, “Any men here? There’s a woman here who needs to be carried.”
No response from inside the car. Outside, a few lights bobbed, perhaps a promise of rescue on its way.
She paused at her seat. The toddler still lay there. He no longer sobbed or so much as whimpered. Surely, such quietness wasn’t normal for a child.
“Anyone missing a baby?” She grimaced at how ridiculous the words sounded when shouted.
If a woman had mislaid her child, she would be doing the asking. Yet no cries of a frantic mother—or anyone else seeking a little boy—rose above the ruckus. That made two people to help, the woman and the baby
Euphemia patted the toddler. “I’ll be right back.”
She started up the aisle. “I need someone to carry a woman. Please.”
Someone grabbed her arm. “Can you help me, young lady?” The voice shook. The hand shook.
“Of course. Hold on to my arm.” Euphemia continued toward the exit.
“Can someone help me with these children?” A woman yelled, her voice breaking.
“I can’t find my cane.” The voice cracked from the throat of a man who sounded ancient.
“I’ll return to help you shortly,” Euphemia assured the supplicants.
She must get her current charge off the train, aid those she could, find assistance for those she couldn’t. She must work fast. Too much smoke filled the air now, and that stench of hot metal twisted her insides like one of those new pretzel rolls. Judging from the smell, the train was on fire.
“I said it would burn!” The voice rose to a shriek. “Out. We have to get out of here!”
Passengers began to push and shove. The hubbub grew deafening, no voice loud enough to rise above another.
“Quiet, all of you.” Deep and authoritative, a man’s voice penetrated the chaos. “We will get you off one at a time and faster if you stay calm.”
Euphemia’s knees buckled. Breath snagged in her throat. Spots danced before her eyes.
She knew that voice. Not so long ago, her ears strained to hear it calling her name, murmuring he loved her. Now the last thing she wanted was to push forward with the rest of the passengers and meet him face-to-face.
She freed her arm from the older woman’s hold and tapped the shoulder of a man in front of her. “Will you please help this lady? I need to assist others.”
If the man said anything, the noise inside the car drowned out his words, but he reached a hand behind him. Euphemia placed the elderly woman’s fingers in his and then slipped past her to the woman with the children.
“Stay here for a few more minutes,” she said. “It’s too crowded up there right now.”
“But the train’s on fire!” The woman sobbed as loudly as her offspring. “We’ll burn alive.”
“No, no. The fire is a long way off.” Euphemia smiled to make her assurance more convincing.
She did speak the truth. A dozen cars lay between the engine boiler and theirs. With the wetness of snow, the fire shouldn’t spread quickly. Wind might carry sparks, though, and then . . .
She tugged a woolly cap more snuggly around the younger child’s ears. “I’ll be back in a minute to help get your children up to the door. There . . . there’s a man there, helping people down.”
She swung away. Pulling on this boy’s cap reminded her of the toddler. She must look to his safety. The woman with the broken leg still needed aid.
The old man caught hold of her coat sleeve. “My cane. I can’t find my cane. You said you’d help me find my cane.”
“I did, yes.” Her movements awkward with her left forearm pressing her writing case to her chest, Euphemia sank to her knees and began to grope around on the floor for the cane. She found it amid a pile of small parcels wedged beneath a seat across the aisle, yanked it free, and handed it to the gentleman. “Will you be all right from here? I have a baby to look after and a woman with a broken leg.”
She didn’t wait for the man to answer. The toddler had begun to wail. She reached him and started to lift him. Her toe struck something on the floor, and she remembered her spilled handbag. She must gather what she could of her possessions, her purse at the least. She needed money to pay for her lodging at the boardinghouse and meals. She needed her return train ticket.
She settled for patting his back. “I’m here, baby. We’ll find your mother. She’s got to be here somewhere. Or someone had you with them.”
Once again, she felt around on the dirty and rather wet floor, gathering up what objects she encountered and shoving them into her handbag. If they proved not to be hers, she would seek to locate the owners later.
“All right, then.” She shoved a bottle of scent, miraculously unbroken, into the bag. “Off to find your momma.”
“Nana.” The baby snuffled.
“Nana.” Euphemia tried to lift the boy. She couldn’t do it with one arm, but she couldn’t leave her writing case.
She set it down and picked up the toddler. Her left wrist protested. Hissing a gasp of pain through her teeth, she gathered her case and headed for the front of the car, calling over her shoulder, “I’m going for help now, ma’am.”
No one answered. That wasn’t a good sign. The woman must have lost consciousness, which meant she was seriously hurt.
Euphemia quickened her steps. In front of her, the crowd surged forward.
“One at a time.” Ayden’s voice boomed above the other voices, more like a preacher’s than a professor’s, as full and rich as summer cream.
Euphemia shut her eyes. If only her ears could close, she could pretend he wasn’t there, not a dozen feet away, their encounter inevitable.
“Just jump, ma’am. I’ll catch you, and if I don’t, the snow’s as soft as a featherbed.” He laughed as though this were some new game.
His light tone worked. The passengers calmed. They stopped shoving one another and lined up for their turns like obedient schoolchildren. Consequently, the line moved more quickly. Four seats, three seats, then only two seats were between Euphemia and the doorway. With each step, her stomach knotted more tightly. Her heart beat as though threatening to pound its way out of her ribs. She should have prayed to avoid Ayden. She should have dyed her hair and pretended to be someone else. She should have—
“Next?” Ayden directed.
Euphemia opened her eyes. She was next, or rather, the child was next.
She hastened to the doorway. “Take this child. I’ll return.” She spoke in breathless accents.
“You need to stay with your child, ma’am,” Ayden said.
He didn’t recognize her—yet.
She leaned down. “Take him. He’s heavy.”
“Ma’am, you can’t—”
Squirming now, the toddler slipped from Euphemia’s one-armed hold. Ayden caught him and shot an annoyed glance Euphemia’s way. Light from a lantern hanging from the side of the car shone on his face, etching every strong, chiseled bone like a sculptor’s tool. A knitted hat covered most of his thick, dark hair. His deep-blue eyes widened. His mouth gaped.
“Mia?” He barely whispered his pet name for her.
“Mia, mi amore” was what he had dubbed her throughout their courtship.
A lump rose in her throat. The lantern light blurred, and she spun on her heel. “Others. I need help with others. There’s a woman in here with a broken leg.”
“Whose baby is this?” he shouted after her.
“I don’t know.” She choked on the tightness in her throat.
The baby’s wails drowned out anything else he might have said to her. The crying grew fainter. He must be moving away from the train. Good. She could help the woman with the children. But she couldn’t help the woman with the injured leg on her own.
She reached the mother and took the hand of one of the children. “I can help you outside now.”
She led the child to the doorway. “Stay there. I’ll lift you down.”
She glanced at the ground. Without steps or platform, the floor of the car looked half a story high. Without assistance, she was going to fall flat on her face.
“Mia, wait.” Ayden sprinted across the snow-laden ground as though it were flat, dry pavement. “I’ll catch you.”
She’d rather fall flat on her face or stay in the train than have him anywhere near her, but to her right, the front of the train blazed like a bonfire. Heat reached back on every gust of wind.
Ayden caught her around the waist and held her suspended above the snow. “You’re too thin.”
“And you’re rude. Now set me down.” She pushed at his chest with her portfolio.
He set her down. “Straight ahead. Pa’s just arrived with the sleigh. We’ll take these people home.”
“I thought you might.”
“You can come, too, you know.”
She shook her head. “Not a good idea. I’m staying at the boardinghouse.”
“I expect it’s already full.” He moved past her to lift down the children and their mother.
Euphemia didn’t move. “I have a reservation.”
“Did you intend to stop here, ma’am?” Ayden asked the mother.
“We were going to my parents in Chicago.” She sobbed as hard as her two children. “I don’t know nobody here.”
“That’s all right. You can stay with us. Mia, will you take one of the children and show this lady to our sleigh? It’s about a hundred feet straight ahead, with the two lamps on it.” He started toward another car.
“Wait,” Euphemia called. “There’s another woman in there. She’s injured. She says she can’t walk.”
“I’ll get her.” Ayden hoisted himself inside the car.
Euphemia gave the mother and her children a reassuring smile. “I’ll help you all get through this snow to the Goswell sleigh. You’ll be safe there.”
“I don’t know, ma’am.” The woman clutched her children to her skirts. “They’re strangers.”
“You can trust them.” She grimaced. “Not that you have any reason to trust me.”
Somehow, that remark seemed to reassure the woman. She released her hold on the taller of the two children, a girl inadequately clothed for the weather. “Can you help her? I never seen such snow.”
“I have. It’s like walking through a bag of flour,” Euphemia said.
“Cold flour,” the girl added through her snuffles.
Euphemia took her hand. “Really cold flour. I hope you can walk. You’re too grown up for me to carry you.”
“Really grown up.” Euphemia clutched the child’s mittened fingers and started toward the twin carriage lamps suspended from a sleigh, no doubt the one she had taken dozens of rides in over the years, tucked up between Ayden and his younger sister or his mother or cuddled just with him . . .
She slammed the door on those memories and trudged forward. Newly fallen, the snow lay in fluffy drifts atop a layer of hard-packed snow from another storm. She sank up to her knees in places. The child struggled beside her. Her mother carried the boy. Each step proved an effort. There was no way Euphemia could walk into town. But surely someone would give her a ride, someone other than the Goswells.
Except she couldn’t go into town yet. She must get these children and their mother to the Goswell sleigh. She had to find that toddler’s people. Once she accomplished those tasks, she could find transportation into Hillsdale to stop her.
Plan made, she continued to tramp through the snow. Her feet felt like the packed-down stuff, heavy, solid, immovable. She didn’t want to see Mr. Goswell any more than she wanted to see Ayden again. He had been a father to her, more so than her own parent, who had disappeared in pursuit of nameless dreams only to return when those dreams faded or grew dull, until he disappeared permanently. Her father’s last words to her had been “I’ll be back.” Mr. Goswell’s last words had been “I’m so disappointed in the two of you that it hurts.”
Her response was nothing she was proud to recall, and a fresh wave of guilt stabbed her as he loomed before her. Unlike Ayden’s hair, Mr. Goswell’s hair was gray rather than mahogany brown, but his eyes were still as blue and his smile as warm as his son’s. “Euphemia Roper, what a sight for sore eyes. I knew you’d be back.”
“I’m not returning. This is a brief stop for business purposes.” She kept her tone neutral. “Right now, Ayden sent me over with this family.”
Mr. Goswell squeezed her shoulder. “Good. You’ll stay with us.”
“I have that little one tucked up until we find his people. And whom do we have here?”
“Some passengers who don’t have a place to stay in Hillsdale.”
“Yes, they do—with us.” Mr. Goswell crouched to be eye-to-eye with the children. “Would you like to come to our house for soup and biscuits?”
The children stood in silence, turning into little snowmen beneath the tumbling flakes.
“I . . . I don’t have much money,” the mother protested.
“They won’t want money.” Euphemia touched the woman’s arm. “I know the Goswells. They have lots of room and will feed you until you cry for mercy.”
Kind, generous, godly—all words to describe the Goswell family. She should want to stay with them. She shouldn’t have left them behind. She hadn’t wanted to leave them behind, not permanently. She and Ayden were supposed to return to Hillsdale for holidays, but Ayden chose to stay instead of choosing to love her.
She shook off the hurt like snow accumulating on her coat and held out her hand to draw the woman forward. “Is Mrs. Goswell in the kitchen already?”
“The minute we heard the wreck.” Mr. Goswell returned his attention to the children. “Would you like a sleigh ride?”
The children nodded. Their mother made protesting noises in her throat.
Mr. Goswell glanced up at Euphemia. “Will, uh, you stay to help me with these little ones?”
“I need to look for the baby’s mother or whoever should have been in charge of him.” Euphemia stepped back. Her foot sank into a pile of soft snow, and the crystallized wetness tumbled over the top of her boot to soak her stocking and freeze her foot. “Perhaps this lady can help.”
Mr. Goswell rested his hand on Euphemia’s shoulder. “She already has her own two, and you shouldn’t be charging off on your own through this crowd at night. It’s not safe.”
“I’ve been in worse,” Euphemia said.
“I’m happy to see to the little one to pay my way,” the woman said.
“There’s no need,” Mr. Goswell began.
“That’s an excellent idea.” Euphemia recognized the woman’s need to contribute to spare her pride. “If you go to the Goswells’ house, I’ll know where to find you when I find the baby’s people.” Without further ado, she yanked her foot from the snowdrift and headed toward the train, the worst of the crowd and the blazing fire creeping back from the engine.
“I’ll be back to fetch you,” Mr. Goswell shouted after her, but she continued without glancing behind her.
The going grew rougher with each step. Snow clung to her skirt and petticoats, weighing them down. More snow filled her boots. She should have gone into town with Mr. Goswell. His wife would have all the fires going and hot coffee on the stove. But duty called.
Euphemia approached a group of women huddled together. “Are any of you missing a child about a year and a half old?”
The women stared at her, their faces blank with shock in the flickering light of the burning train.
“No,” one finally answered.
“If you hear of anyone, send them to the Goswell house.” Euphemia turned away.
She went around, asking another group and then another. The answer remained the same—no one had heard of anyone seeking a baby like the one she described. Plenty of people sought loved ones. They wandered through the snow and stench of burning coal like sheep without their shepherd despite the dozens of townspeople who moved through them, talking, soothing, gathering the stranded passengers to transport them into town. Every conversation focused on the train—or more specifically, the trains. Off their schedules, the eastbound and westbound locomotives had crashed.
“The eastbound didn’t have no headlight,” one man said again and again. “It didn’t have no headlight.”
Frozen to her bones, Euphemia paused on snow packed as hard as ice from scores of feet and the heat of the fire. Mere yards away, the trains blazed, some of their cars broken free of their couplings and toppled over. Others leaned at a precarious angle, and the cars farther back, like the one she’d ridden in, appeared undamaged.
“What a mess.” She took in each detail, committing it to memory.
If only she owned a camera and knew how to take photographs, this incident would do more for her journalism career at the Ladies’ Monthly Fashion than any of the stories she wrote. She should take notes, write down snatches of conversations. The conflagration provided enough light for her to see a page in her portfolio.
Careful of her throbbing wrist, she opened her writing case and extracted a pencil and paper. Stray toddler. Woman broken leg. Old woman . . .
“What are you doing?” Ayden snatched the pencil from her gloved fingers.
“I’m taking notes so I don’t forget any of my impressions.” She held out her hand. “Please give me back my pencil.”
He did so. “You always were taking notes on something.” He smiled. A dimple flashed in his left cheek, and her heart performed a somersault inside her ribs.
No, no, no. She would not succumb to the charm of that smile, that boyish dent in his cheek, his deep, resonant voice.
She took a step away from him. “I should get into town, I suppose. I heard something about the churches opening up to help stranded passengers. Perhaps I can find that boy’s people there. Did you get that woman help? I suppose Dr. Clark is run off his feet help—”
“Hush.” Ayden laid a gloved finger across her lips. “You don’t need to be nervous around me, Mia.”
She laughed. “Why would you think I’m nervous around you?”
“Because you’re talking too much.” His smile faded. “And to answer your question, no, I did not help that woman. She wasn’t there. The car was empty of people.”