May 1906, Lake Manawa, Iowa
What had Levi dragged in now? Lilly rolled her eyes as she eased a large slice of peach pie onto one of the diner’s plates. She wiped her finger on her starched apron before she turned toward her son.
Swinging his arm in a wide arc, he thrust a monstrous,writhing snake toward her nose.
With a shriek, she leapt backward.
“Isn’t she pretty?” Levi ran his finger over the snake’s scaly head. “You wanna pet her?”
Inching backward until her shoulders lodged against the cold metal pie safe, Lilly fought the fear seizing her voice. The counter between her and that monster dangling from her six-year-old’s chubby fist hardly seemed an adequate barrier.
“N-no, I do not want to pet that thing.”
“Shhh. You’ll hurt her feelings.” He lifted the snake’s head to his cheek. “She won’t hurt you, Mama. See? She’s just agardener snake.”
“Get it away from your face! And, Levi, it’s a garter snake, not a gardener.”
“What’s the difference?”
She swallowed hard, vaguely aware of the roller coaster workers seated in the corner chuckling. She lowered her voice.
“A gardener works in a garden, and a garter—well, uh . . .holds up a lady’s . . .”
“A lady’s what?”
“Stockings,” she whispered, but more chuckles ensued from the men in the corner. She pointed at the front door.
“Why don’t you take your friend outside? I think she wants to go home.”
“Silly Mama. Snakes are like you and me. She ain’t got no home.”
“She doesn’t have a home.”
“That’s what I said.”
The snake twisted beneath Levi’s grasp, and Lilly scooted even further away. “Please, put your friend back where you found her.”
“Out front? Under the diner’s front stoop?”
Lilly’s heart squeezed. Lord, haven’t I been dealing with enough snakes lately? You had to put one where I have to walk every day?
A wooden chair grated against the floorboards, and seconds later one of the workers, the one the others called “Boss,” laid a hand on Levi’s shoulder. Lilly winced. Great. He must think her a simpering female. But when she lifted her gaze to his face, even his cobalt eyes seemed to smile.
“Hey, buddy, your snake’s a beauty. Must be a whole foot long. Why don’t we find a new home for your ‘gardener’ snake?” He grinned at Lilly, and his eyes twinkled. “Ma’am, do you mind if we men take care of this little creature?”
She did mind, because she should be the one helping her son. She was the parent. But given the fear nailing her feet to the floor, she didn’t expect that escorting Levi and the snake to a new home would happen anytime soon. Besides, the man seemed nice enough. She nodded, and Blue Eyes took
her son’s hand and led him through the door of Thorton’s Lunch Counter.
She picked up her dishrag and wiped down the counter.
What was she going to do with that boy? Six years old, afraid of nothing, and way too much like his father.
God rest his soul.
“Hey, where’s my pie?” one of the workers called, smoothing a hand over his rounded belly.
Like you need more pie. Lilly snagged the plate and skirted around the end of the counter. “Here you are, sir. Can I get you fine fellows anything else?”
The door banged open, and Lilly spun, expecting the triumphant return of her son. Instead, her breath caught.
“Lilly.” Claude Hart’s silver hair peeked from beneath a stylish bowler, and he leaned heavily on the ivory greyhound topping his cane.
Beside him, her former mother-in-law, Evangeline, stood ramrod straight with her lips turned downward in a nearly permanent frown. “May we speak to you—in private?” Lilly sighed. Would she ever be free of these people? Dear Lord, gentle my spirit, ’cause just seeing them makes me feel like a big ol’ grizzly.
She glanced around the almost-empty diner, wishing this was a month later. Once Lake Manawa Park officially opened, there wouldn’t be an empty table in the place, and she’d have a better excuse not to speak to her meddling in-laws.
“I think this corner is about as private as we’re going to get.” With a flick of her wrist, she indicated the empty table. Claude strode over, pulled out a chair, and held it for his wife. Evangeline scowled at the chipped paint on the chair. Pinching her lace-trimmed handkerchief between her thumb
and forefinger, she dusted the sunny yellow seat and finally lowered herself in place. Claude sat down opposite her. Lilly remained standing. She needed to use every inch of her small stature to her advantage. Claude and Evangeline Hart were used to getting whatever they wanted, but it wasn’t
happening this time. Not when the object they sought washer son.
“What can I get you?” Tilting her head toward the chalkboard on the wall, she mustered a smile. “I pulled the peach pie out of the oven less than an hour ago.”
“You know we don’t want the food here.” Evangeline said the word here as if the snake had crawled back in and waslying coiled beneath her chair.
“Please have a seat, Lilly.” Claude laid his hand on the back of the chair beside him.
“I think I’ll stand.”
“You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever known. I don’tknow what my Benjamin saw in you.” Evangeline touched her handkerchief to her eye as if the thought of her dearly departed son brought tears to her eyes.
Lilly’s heart softened, although she suspected Evangeline was using her grief to get her way this time. Still, no matter how difficult Evangeline was, Lilly couldn’t discount that the woman hurt over the loss of her son. Lilly understood.
“If you two came to get me to reconsider moving back into your house, you might as well not waste your breath. Levi and I are doing fine.”
Claude scowled. “You’re working in a Midway diner, serving food to common workers. You call that fine? What would Benjamin think if he could see you now?”
Lilly’s heart splintered at the mention of his name. Why did it sound different coming from someone else’s lips? He’d always be her Ben.
She swallowed the hard lump in her throat. “He’d be proud I’m rearing our son the way we planned.”
“In a tent? On the lake?” Evangeline’s voice quaked. “My son didn’t plan that.”
Lilly heard the bell on the door jingle but didn’t turn. If it was Levi, he wouldn’t come running over. Her in-laws frowned on public displays of affection, so he would avoid his grandparents.
Claude’s gaze met Lilly’s. “You had a home with us.”
“I had a room.” Lilly glared back. “You made sure I understood it was your house. Then you insisted I send my son away.”
Evangeline tugged at her cape. “We simply want him to have the best.”
“What’s best about sending a little boy halfway across the country to a boarding school?”
“Surely you, of all people”—Evangeline wrinkled her nose—“should understand what our grandson is going to
need to compensate for—”
“For what? For being my son? The son of a lowly household servant?” Lilly’s voice rose.
“This is ridiculous.” Claude stood. “The boy belongs with us. Levi, come here. You’re going home with your grandmother and me.”
Lilly whirled to find Levi standing beside Blue Eyes. She stepped beside him and grabbed her son’s hand. “He is not going anywhere.”
Claude took a step forward.
“You heard the lady.” The words fell like a stone in a pond and rippled across the room. Blue Eyes crossed his arms over his broad chest. “The boy is staying here.”
Gripping his cane, Claude pointed the ivory greyhound toward Lilly. “This isn’t over. I didn’t want to take legal measures, but I will. No grandson of mine is going to shiver in the cold in a tent. He belongs with us.”
Guilt tugged at Lilly’s heart. The temperatures had dipped last night. Had Levi been cold? No. They’d piled on blankets, and besides, living with her former in-laws was another kind of cold—a cold touching the soul, much harder to stave off.
“No sir.” She squared her shoulders. “Levi is my son. He belongs with me.”
Claude turned to Evangeline. “Come, darling, we’ll return when Lilly is ready to be sensible.”
Fighting the urge to retort, Lilly clamped her mouth shut.
They were still Ben’s parents and, as such, deserved every morsel of respect she could bestow on them. She nudged Levi forward. “Say goodbye to your grandparents.”
“Please don’t take me away, Grandpa.” Levi hid behind Lilly’s skirt.
“See what you’ve done?” Evangeline glowered at Lilly.
“You’ve made him fearful of his own grandparents.”
“You did that all by yourself.”
Evangeline’s mouth dropped, but she snapped it shut.
“Please be reasonable. He’s all we have left of our Benjamin, and it’s our duty to do what’s best for him. We have the means, and you’ll certainly never be able to give him all he deserves.”
“Even you must admit Levi deserves a home.” Claude let the words hang.
Lilly squeezed Levi’s shoulder. “I agree, and as his mother, I’ll do whatever it takes to get him one.”