Last week we announced that Rachel Remington’s Four Seasons Of Romance is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Four Seasons Of Romance, you’re in for a treat!
by Rachel Remington
Four Seasons of Romance is the story of Catherine and Leo, a sweeping account of epic feelings, tough decisions, and unkept promises. Choices will be made, lives changed, and hearts broken; but will love triumph in the end?
“In the gentle spring of 1935, Leo Taylor first laid eyes on Catherine Woods and their journey began. Theirs was a love that coursed strong and dangerous, eternal and eternally unpredictable. It’s a story of love, but not a perfect love story; the good ones never are.
Neither Catherine nor Leo imagined the first spark igniting a fire that would burn for more than seventy years—a fire that neither the Connecticut River nor the Ammonoosuc River could wash away. A fire that went through the pouring rains to burn until Catherine and Leo took their last breaths. And while they are both gone, the flame that fueled their hearts is not extinguished. It burns on in each of us through this story—forever.”
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
They say every good town has a river running through it but that no river runs alone. That’s certainly the case in Woodsville. The Connecticut River runs straight through the heart of the town, calm and straight as a deep blue arrow, but just before the old covered bridge, it shoots off into the Ammonoosuc, frothy as a hem of fine lace. The rivers intertwine like two lovers holding hands, their fingers laced together, knuckles pure white with love, which is only fitting because what you’re about to hear is a love story.
If you walk a few paces to the east of the crossing, you find yourself staring at the Bath-Haverhill Bridge. It’s dusty, muted red—the color of a heart that’s seen a few good breakings— the oldest covered bridge in New Hampshire, the records state.
But if you grew up from youth in Woodsville, then you wouldn’t go for the history. You’d know the bridge as the perfect place to steal away with your sweetheart and a picnic basket on a sleepy summer day. There, surrounded by a pitcher of fresh lemonade and cucumber sandwiches, she might let you lay a hand on her freckled arm. And if you were feeling particularly lucky, emboldened by the water coursing strong beneath your feet, you just might hazard a quick peck on her creamy white cheek.
Life was good in Woodsville back in those days. The Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad brought enough commerce to keep the townspeople fed and informed. They were happy on an island of tranquility, floating along a slow-moving stream despite the cold winds of the Depression. The hard times gave the residents—all 750 of them—a reason to come together. Indeed, that time was chockfull of life-transforming stories… but none quite like the story of Catherine and Leo.
A good love story’s much like a river—it twists and bends, ebbs and flows. Frankly, sometimes, it’s a real mess. The rivers in Woodsville were lazy in the warmer months but violent during the rainy season. When a family lost a child to the river’s wrath, the Woodsville minister would press the Bible to his chest and preach from the pulpit on love’s redeeming power—a familiar theme for Catherine and Leo.
Like any veritable force of nature, the rivers could be downright tumultuous. Leo and Catherine were the spitting image of each other, passionate as a summer thunderstorm. Sometimes, things seemed warm and sunny, but for many years, trouble brewed in the depths.
Woodsville birthed its share of famous baseball players, prominent businessmen, and wholesome regular folk. One could tell a dozen yarns of decent people, fine tales of love and hope, attainment and transformation, but no story from Woodsville comes close to the one you’re about to hear.
In the gentle spring of 1935, Leopold Taylor first laid eyes on Catherine Woods and their journey began. Theirs was a love that coursed strong and dangerous, eternal and eternally unpredictable. It’s a story of love, but not a perfect love story; the good ones never are.
Neither Catherine nor Leo imagined the first spark igniting a fire that would burn for more than seventy years—a fire that neither the Connecticut River nor the Ammonoosuc River could wash away. A fire that went through the pouring rains to burn until Catherine and Leo took their last breaths. And while they are both gone, the flame that fueled their hearts is not extinguished. It burns on in each of us through this story—forever.
The sky was a flawless blue that warm April morning. Spring in Woodsville came quickly on the heels of winter, and that day was the warmest day of the year so far, though that wasn’t saying much. Through most of March, the schoolchildren wore thick wool long johns under their clothes and the little red schoolhouse was as cold and drafty as an attic and just as dusty.
When it came to schooling, the good citizens of Woodsville didn’t have many options. There were no fancy highbrow institutions, no boarding schools and prep academies like there are today. The town had two schools: one red brick elementary for the first through seventh grades, and one brown brick high school for eighth through twelfth.
Catherine and Leo first met at the little red schoolhouse. On that beautiful day, the wildflowers were slowly beginning to emerge—the lilies, the trillium, the violets, the milkweed, the columbine, and the black-eyed Susans. The snow was gone; the rivers were high; and the sun lingered long hours in the evening sky.
Because children came from many miles to learn reading and arithmetic in Woodsville, there were enough children for two fourth-grade classes that year; something the headmaster told them when the Taylors moved to Woodsville and went to enroll their young son Leo. So, there was a fifty-fifty chance that Leo would not wind up in the same classroom as Catherine, a fifty-fifty chance this love story would never have found its footing beneath blackboards and composition books. The odds, however, were in their favor that brisk April morning.
Catherine looked up from her book as the headmaster lumbered into the classroom. He was a strange-looking man with a beard like a wedge of watermelon on his chin. The children called him Master Melon behind his back. But Catherine didn’t notice the beard that morning, noticing the slender dark-haired boy at his side instead.
“Students,” Dr. Ayers drawled in his nasally voice, “we have a new student joining us this morning. I hope you’ll all be ambassadors of Woodsville Elementary in welcoming…” He checked the paper he was holding, “Leopold Ellis Taylor, Jr., recently moved from Littleton, New Hampshire.”
“Leo,” the boy said. “It’s just Leo.”
The headmaster scowled at Leo over his glasses, unhappy with the interruption. “Very well, Leo. You may take a seat.”
Leo shot like a dart toward the first open seat he could find, which happened to be the desk behind Miss Catherine herself. The headmaster stomped out of the room. No sooner had he left than Arthur Yarger tripped in with his satchel stuffed to the brim with books.
Now, Arthur might as well have had a “kick me” sign painted right in the middle of his forehead. He was a scrawny boy, permanently disabled from polio. An easy butt for the kids’ jokes, Arthur wore Coke-bottle glasses and spoke in a high-pitched voice.
That morning, as he stumbled into class, Catherine saw right away what was about to happen. To get to his desk, Arthur had to go right past Thomas McCaffrey and that was unfortunate for two reasons. The first was that Arthur’s book satchel was yawning wide open—he hadn’t strapped it very tightly. The second was that Tom was the biggest bully in the school.
“Arthur!” Catherine called, trying to warn him, but it was too late. Thomas casually stuck his foot into the aisle, and Arthur went flying. The boy and his avalanche of books thudded to the floor as Thomas and his cronies snickered.
Catherine was by Arthur’s side in seconds, taking his hand and helping him to his feet. His eyes were full of tears, and his chin was banged up from the fall as she dabbed at the scrape with her handkerchief.
“It’s okay,” she said softly, gathering his scattered books. “You’re a bigger man than he’ll ever be.” Gently, she helped Arthur to his desk.
She glared at Tom as she returned to her seat. Although Catherine was petite, she was a force to be dealt with when angry, her green eyes flashing, and her freckles standing out against her pale skin.
“You think you’re so clever, Thomas McCaffrey,” she hissed, “but you’re a coward through and through.” She plunked herself down at her desk just as the fourth-grade teacher appeared in the classroom doorway.
If Leo hadn’t noticed Catherine when he first sat, he noticed her now. He couldn’t take his eyes off her as Catherine felt his gaze boring into her back and straightened her posture in response. She already felt flushed from her confrontation with Thomas, and the attention from the new kid only made it worse, forcing her to sit so straight her spine felt like the yellow pencil lying in the groove on her desk.
The teacher welcomed Leo and picked up the lesson where he left off, but Leo was oblivious, busy sizing up the brave girl in front of him. Her long brown hair cascaded down her shoulders, glossy as the toffee Leo’s mother used to make, grace and strength infusing her every move. Something about her presence reminded him of the home he never had; he was in love before she ever turned around.
Leo knew her freckled face with those green eyes burning, the calm and level courage in her voice. And he knew he would spend this lifetime with her, God willing. Leopold Taylor was ten, but he knew exactly what he wanted.
Meanwhile, Catherine tried her darndest to pretend the boy in the seat behind her didn’t exist, not daring turn around once in her seat. She hadn’t meant to draw attention to herself that morning, but she had. Now, she felt like an object of the new boy’s curiosity, and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being curious back. Besides, she’d seen enough of his looks and demeanor to know he came from a different world, noting the dark curls that fell into his eyes and over his ears. She could hear her father now. “What kind of boy has hair that long? Certainly not a respectable one.”
Even at nine, Catherine prided herself on understanding the ways of the world very clearly, and she had a good hunch that Leo didn’t come from a proper family, which meant a lot in a town like Woodsville.
“Hey,” Leo whispered. “Pssst. Hey, pretty girl!”
Catherine stretched her spine again, determined not to give in to the temptation to swivel around and tell him to please be quiet.
“I made you something,” he said. “Don’t you want to see it?”
I most certainly do not, she thought; though in truth, she was curious.
She made it through the rest of arithmetic class, having to wipe her sleeve across her writing tablet and starting from zero since her simple addition was a mess. Thanks to the new boy, she couldn’t focus on a thing.
Catherine made a point to ignore him at recess, playing with her friends on the monkey bars, eyeing him slyly ever so often as he sat on the schoolhouse steps where he had fashioned a piece of chalk out of an old rock. Several other children, including poor Arthur Yarger, gathered around and watched as he drew all manners of animals and castles on the sidewalk. Even from far away, she could tell that they were impressed with the new kid’s handiwork, but she kept a safe distance.
As the students lined up to go back inside after recess, Leo filed in line behind Catherine. “You should see the clay sculptures I made,” he said, Catherine pretending not to hear.
When she returned home that afternoon and unloaded the schoolbooks from her satchel she noticed a small piece of clay fall to the floor. Suspicious of what it might be, she pinched it between her thumb and forefinger as if it were a thing diseased.
It was a tiny clay figurine, hard to determine what form it conveyed—it had gotten a little smashed in her bag—but she guessed it was a black-eyed Susan. That boy must have stuck it in my bag when I wasn’t looking, Catherine reasoned, angered by the intimacy of the gesture.
She had to admit the flower was good though. No crude clump of clay, it showed the beginning of artistry, but as she knew from her father’s teaching, art was little more than a waste of time. Part of her was touched by the gesture, yet a boy who toyed with art couldn’t possibly be serious about his studies. How would he ever mature into the kind of man her father would want her to associate with? The kind of man she would want to be associated with?
Catherine crushed the clay in her palm and threw it in the wastebasket. To her surprise, it pained her a little, destroying that flower, but she convinced herself it was the right thing. Maybe he’ll stop all this nonsense by tomorrow, she thought.
But it wasn’t to be. Leo waited for her on the schoolhouse steps the next day.
“Hey there,” he said, extending his hand, “we haven’t been formally introduced. I’m Leo. Leo Taylor.”
Catherine nodded brusquely and tried to walk past him into the school, but he wouldn’t budge.
“Don’t you at least want to tell me your name?”
She glanced at him, unblinking.
“Actually, I did a little homework,” he continued. “Not the kind with books. I mean that I figured out your name. You’re Catherine Woods, the judge’s daughter.”
“That’s right.” She nodded toward the door. “May I go in, please?”
“Sure. I’ll let you inside.” As she walked through the door, he snatched her satchel off her shoulder. “But you gotta let me carry your books.”
Furious, Catherine stomped to her chair and plopped in it, then Leo placed her bag gently on the desk and grinned.
As the week went by, Leo grew more desperate to talk to Catherine, and she grew more desperate to ignore him. He tried to play with her on the playground or offer her his apple at lunch, but she only turned up her nose with a haughty air.
The more she ignored him, the angrier and more determined he became to get her attention. His gestures turned slightly more devious as he did everything to draw attention to him—he tapped his pencil loudly on his desk, gave ridiculous answers when the teacher called on him, and drew increasingly elaborate chalk drawings at recess. Once he got so exasperated, he tugged on Catherine’s hair, the teacher catching him midtug, and that day, Leo spent lunchtime alone in the corner wearing the dunce cap.
Catherine was resolute in her campaign of aloofness, full of smiles for the other children—for Arthur, who treated her like a princess, and for her girlfriends who hovered around her like worker bees around their queen, but she had no smiles or kind words to spare for Leo. And the more she ignored him, the more he wanted her to look.
So, they began. Leo was in love, but Catherine wanted nothing to do with him. Every ridiculous gesture and every clay figurine he gave her confirmed what she already knew—Leo Taylor was unlike her, someone from a different kind of family, hence a different world.
And she was right. Catherine’s father was Josiah Woods, a prominent circuit court judge and a direct descendant of one of Woodsville’s founding fathers. Puritan to the core, he descended from a long line of lawyers. Josiah ruled his household much as he ruled his counties—with a heavy gavel and an iron fist.
Leo’s father, Ellis Taylor, was the stark opposite, a manual laborer with a drinking problem who had worked as an auto mechanic in Littleton until he was accused of stealing from his employer. After that, he and his family were forced out of town. Ellis had managed to find work at Acer Lumber, one of Woodsville’s two large lumber mills, prompting the Taylors’ move.
Catherine didn’t know any of this yet, but she could tell from the way Leo talked and the easy, carefree, almost indecent way he carried himself that he came from an uneducated family. For the elitist Woods clan, education was paramount—Catherine’s mother, Elaine, was an English teacher at the brown brick high school. Both Elaine and Josiah were esteemed in the community, and they had what was widely considered an enviable marriage. Strangely, young Catherine could not remember a single time she had seen her parents hold hands or kiss. She thought perhaps this is what enviable meant—the absence of all physical affection.
Over the weeks that followed, she watched Leo from afar with one-part revulsion and one-part envy. Catherine realized they came from distinct and opposite social classes—she from the privileged elite and he from the working class. Deborah, Leo’s mother, worked part-time as a housemaid, and the Taylors lived in a simple wood-plank home on Central Street, the wrong side of town. The Woods, by contrast, lived in an elegant three-story Victorian mansion on 147 N. Eagle Drive, high atop the bluff across the Connecticut River.
Yet Catherine couldn’t help noticing that, despite his hair that was a bit too long and his pants that were a bit too short, Leo was deliciously carefree in a way foreign to her. She felt as if the whole town was always watching her, and they probably were—she was, after all, the judge’s daughter. Leo, on the other hand, was free to do as he pleased and took full advantage of it even if it meant turning his freedom into teasing and, eventually, into trouble.
That first spring, Leo played many practical jokes on Catherine at school, just to attract her, but it never got him the kind of attention he wanted. As he was only ten and desperately in love, Leo decided to up the ante. Before he left for school that day, his mother found a dead mouse floating in the milk pitcher.
“Mamma mia!” she exclaimed. Deborah was the daughter of an Italian immigrant, and she often burst into spontaneous Italian when frightened or angry.
“What is it, Mama?” Leo asked.
“A rat.” She fished it out and dumped it in the trash bin.
More of a mouse, Leo thought, as he fished it out of the bin the moment she wasn’t looking, wrapped it in newspaper and slipped the parcel into his book bag.
By the time he got to school, Catherine sat at the desk in her impeccably prim uniform. He loved it—the way she sat pencil-straight mere inches from him, her hair like a shiny brown waterfall down her back—and she wouldn’t give him the time of day, but today was the day that would change, or so Leo thought.
He waited patiently until recess, though his fingers itched to take out the parcel. As soon as the teacher dismissed them, Catherine bounded out of her desk and joined her friends in the hall. Leo waited until all the students had left the classroom, then he unwrapped the parcel and thrust the little wet body into the hollow of Catherine’s desk.
She kept her desk tidy—every pencil, notepad, and eraser was in its place, so, when she came back from recess, reached for her writing tablet and pulled out a dead mouse instead, it was a shock she had never experienced. Her scream could have curdled the milk left in that pitcher; it was so shrill.
“What? What is it?” The teacher rushed over. “Catherine, are you all right?”
Tears streamed down Catherine’s face. “No! I’m not all right.” She pointed at the dead mouse, now lying on the floor. “That was in my desk!”
The horrified teacher clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, my dear sweet Lord,” she exclaimed, and for a moment, the students thought she might faint. Instead, she took Catherine by the arm (careful not to touch the tainted area) and handed her a bar of soap and a water pail.
“Miss Woods, I want you to march straight to the pump and fill the pail. Then, you wash your hands for a good four minutes!”
A sobbing Catherine nodded.
“Teacher?” Leo’s hand shot up. “I’ll carry the pail.”
The teacher was too overwhelmed by the crisis to argue. “Very well.”
When they were outside, Leo dropped the pail and looked at Catherine, trying like hell to make the words come out but he didn’t say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, he said, “I thought it would be funny.”
She glared at him through her tears. “You did this?”
They were the first three words she had spoken to him in weeks, and they were full of anger, hurt, and betrayal.
Leo looked as awful as he felt; from the moment Catherine had started to cry, he’d felt like the sorriest boy on Earth.
“I did,” he said. “I thought it would be a good joke. I didn’t mean to… I just wanted you to…” He trailed off, unable to express his affection.
Furiously, she picked up the pail he had dropped. “Go back inside,” she said through gritted teeth. “I don’t need your help, and I certainly don’t want it.” She whirled around and left him standing there.
Leo felt rotten for the rest of the day; he did get her attention but it wasn’t the kind he wanted and embarrassed her in front of the class in the process. So, he did the only thing he knew how to do—make a clay sculpture.
After school let out and all evidence of the mouse had been cleared away and after Leo’d fessed up to his crime and volunteered to clean the teacher’s chalkboard erasers for the rest of the month as punishment, he ran after Catherine as she headed for the door and handed her a clay sculpture he’d been working on.
“I want you to have it.”
She stared at him, then at the sculpture, then back at him, not attempting to take it.
“Please,” he said. “At least look at it.”
Catherine was more stubborn than she was curious. She turned around to leave.
Desperate, Leo tossed the sculpture, and it fell with a soft thump on the green grass at her feet when, to Leo’s surprise, she bent and picked it up. For a moment, she stared at it in silence.
“It’s ugly.” She finally said, her voice devoid of emotion.
Of course, it wasn’t ugly. But Catherine recognized herself immediately in the dark clay, despite Leo’s avant-garde style—the long, brown hair, the wide eyes, the pronounced nape. She meant that she felt the sculpture made her look ugly. Leo’s art was impressionistic, even at that young age, but she was unimpressed.
“I don’t want it,” she said, and those words crushed Leo worse than her judgment of his art. Yet, instead of throwing the sculpture, she set it gently down on the ground, and he retrieved it moments later.
In a last-ditch attempt, he leaped forward and tucked it in her satchel in one swift movement. She bristled, her shoulders tensing but didn’t stop to remove it, walking toward her home on the bluff instead.
Leo stayed to bang erasers into each other, so angry with himself for what he’d done that the violent banging suited him just fine.
Once she was safe in her lavish bedroom, Catherine pulled out the sculpture and examined it more closely. Even if she didn’t like the style, she couldn’t deny that the likeness was remarkable. He had captured her lips, eyes, and cheekbones startlingly well—a remarkable feat, considering he was working with a fist-sized lump of hard clay from the creek bed. But the sculpture’s resemblance to Catherine only made her hate it more. Is this how she looked? She felt like an ugly dark blob.
Still, something inside her wouldn’t let her throw it away, so, she stuffed it in the back of the drawer and heaped piles of clothes on top of it. The sting of the mouse prank was still sharp, the sculpture did little to diminish it, and Catherine swore to herself she would never look at it again.
By the end of the fourth-grade school year, Catherine’s dislike of Leo had grown into contempt. She was not one to hate people; her mother had taught her never to use that word and Catherine was a sensible girl. She had known Leo Taylor for only two months, and most of that time, she hadn’t said a word to him, yet, she had an inkling that this was what it felt like to loathe someone.
On the last day of school in June of 1935, Leo made one last attempt to win Catherine’s affections. This time, he would do nothing that might scare her; he would commit a gesture that could only be interpreted as a token of his true feelings, at least, this is what he hoped.
He rose early and took the long path to school, stopping to pick a bouquet of black-eyed Susans along the way. He arrived at the schoolhouse before his other classmates, giving him enough time to work on his invention. He pulled the ball of twine from his back pocket and the ruler from his school desk and began to fashion a kind of bouquet. He tied the stems to the ruler so the flowers extended a good few inches beyond it, giving him the extra length he needed to reach his love.
By the time Catherine arrived a few minutes later and flashed him her usual cool stare, he had completed his project. The other students trickled in, and both Catherine and Leo waited in silence for the school day to begin.
The teacher embarked on a lesson in geography, and when she got to the part about the Seven Wonders of the World, Leo took it as his cue. He pulled the bouquet from his desk and slid it slowly forward until the wood edge of the ruler was resting on Catherine’s shoulder and the flowers were nestled against her ear.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. The unexpected feeling of petals on her cheek took her by surprise, and she jumped, knocking the flowers and the ruler to the ground with a clatter. The teacher looked up abruptly from the old globe and focused on Catherine, who looked flustered. Her eyes followed the students’ gaze to the clump of yellow flowers on the floor.
“Picking posies are we, Miss Woods?” the teacher asked. “And when you ought to be focused on your studies. Not what I would expect from one of our best students. What would your father say?”
A flush rose instantly to Catherine’s cheeks. She nodded meekly.
“Teacher,” Leo said, raising his hand. He was determined to take responsibility for his action, even if it meant an afternoon in the dunce cap.
“Not a word, Mr. Taylor,” the teacher said, and something in her tone made Leo fall silent.
The damage was done. Leo’s playful gesture had made Catherine look a fool.
That day at recess, there were whispers on the playground that something was about to happen. Catherine played with her usual flock of girls, and the other children milled about, each hoping for something exciting, and they were not disappointed. Leo approached Catherine, his head hung in shame.
“Hey,” he said. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
Catherine, who had been laughing and smiling a moment before, became cold, then turned to face him as a hush fell over the playground.
“You,” she said, her voice dripping with poison. “You have been nothing but a nuisance since you moved here. You’ve done nothing but make me miserable.” Her voice was building in volume and intensity as the other fourth graders watched, mesmerized. “I want nothing to do with you. Leave me alone, Leo Taylor. I wish you were dead!”
Those words plowed deep into Leo’s heart like a revolver bullet.
To Leo’s disappointment, Catherine and he were in separate classrooms during fifth and sixth grades, at opposite ends of the hall in the little red schoolhouse. Sometimes, Leo wondered whether Catherine had asked her father to pull a few strings with the school board and arrange it that way intentionally. At the same time, they were still in the same school and hardly strangers to each other.
During those years, Leo cultivated a taste for adventure, earning a reputation as a daredevil, taking about any dare other students threw his way. He started it to get Catherine’s attention, but before long, he was doing it purely for the thrill, the adrenaline pumping through his body, the taste of his mouth gone dry with danger.
Leo’s newfound hobby didn’t come without a cost. In fifth grade, he jumped off the school roof, breaking an ankle, which didn’t keep him down for long. The bone had barely mended when he pedaled a bicycle over a makeshift ramp, jumping over two barrels. When he came home with scrapes and cuts, his mother was rarely there, and even when she was, Deborah usually had other things to do.
Leo hadn’t seen his parents happy together in ages; they hardly talked anymore. Rumors spread that Deborah Taylor had been seen with various other men around town, but Leo refused to believe them, and when the other kids tried to spread this malicious gossip, he shut them up with a fist to the face.
Meanwhile, Catherine devoted herself to her studies. Ever the model student, she earned top grades and showed skill at both mathematics and writing. Josiah was proud of his daughter; whom he wanted to get the best education money could buy, yet he wanted Catherine to make a good wife for a proper man. Elaine displayed every report card on the dining-room table and, as far as Catherine was concerned, made far too much fuss.
During those years, Leo kept an eye on Catherine even though her words that day on the schoolyard stayed with him. Because he cared for her, Leo honored the request to keep his distance, but he was never far away. He knew the time wasn’t right to kindle a friendship but also knew he’d never forgive himself if something happened to her.
Then, one afternoon in 1937, it nearly did. On their walks home from school, Leo often followed several yards behind Catherine, splitting their ways eventually—she’d turn right to climb the hill to the Woods estate; he’d turn left to cross the railroad tracks. But by keeping in step behind her most of the way, he knew he had her back should anything go wrong.
It was a warm spring day toward the end of their sixth-grade year, the kind of day when the air smells like clover honey, and the wind bends the newborn grass. Leo saw Catherine through the clearing, her brown hair tied in two long braids (the way she’d been wearing it lately). She was about to turn right when Leo saw a flash of color as someone else had appeared from behind the trees.
“Hey there, Heidi. Nice braids.”
Leo knew the voice instantly: Thomas McCaffrey. Unfortunately, for the students of Woodsville Elementary, Tom hadn’t become less a bully in the two years since he’d humiliated Arthur Yarger.
“I said, nice braids,” Tom sneered.
“I heard you,” Catherine said. “Why don’t you go pick on someone your size?”
Thomas had put on a bit of weight, so this was easier said than done.
“Is little Catherine Woods a goat herder now?” Tom teased. “Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?”
“Can it, Thomas,” Catherine said. “If you want to sing nursery rhymes, go find some first graders to play with.”
He blocked her path. “You calling me stupid?”
She stared him straight in the eye. “Boys who pick on others are usually the most stupid kind.”
Leo marveled at her tenacity: just as she’d done two years before, she had no problem telling off Tom. But Tom did have a problem; angrily, he pushed Catherine to the ground.
Leo rushed forward. In one swift motion, he pounced on Thomas and pummeled him with all his strength.
“Leo!” Catherine shouted. “Stop!”
But Leo didn’t stop, emotions pumping through him, the pent-up frustrations of his unrequited love unwinding through violence.
Using all her might, Catherine succeeded in pulling Leo off a whimpering Thomas, McCaffrey’s left eye already swelled, his nose smeared in blood. He wiped his lip on his sleeve and staggered off as Catherine stared at Leo and shook her head.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” she said.
Leo’s hand was stung “How about ‘thank you,’ for starters?”
“Look, I appreciate your looking out for me, but there was no need for violence. I could have handled it.”
They watched as Thomas retreated, limping and wiping the blood off his nose. One punch or even a threat might have done the job—then, Leo was not one for moderation.
“Poor kid,” Catherine said, her voice full of sympathy for the boy who had pushed her down only moments before. “You really went to town on him. It’ll take weeks for his face to heal.” She turned and started to walk up the hill to her house.
“May I walk with you?” Leo asked.
Catherine appraised him for a moment. “If I say no, are you going to beat me up too?”
“I don’t hit girls,” he said.
She sighed. “Fine then. Come along.”
Leo walked Catherine home for the first time that afternoon. For a long while, they trudged in silence. Leo was the first to speak. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I went overboard with Tom, but I was just trying to help you.”
She was silent. High on the hill, she could see the peak of her house. “I’ll go the rest of the way alone,” she said, turning to face him and pointed at his bruised knuckles. “You’ll want to put some ice on that, I imagine. So it doesn’t swell.”
Without another word, she continued up the hill as Leo watched her go. At that moment, his heart was swelling far more than his knuckles. It was still too soon for a friendship and far too soon for anything more, but in that single statement, Leo glimpsed something he’d barely dared to dream: Catherine cared.
By the spring of 1938, Leo’s parents were no longer together, a small-town scandal, seeing as it was the first recorded divorce in Woodsville since 1929. Ellis moved out, and Leo stayed with his mother, who left him to his devices. She was lenient and neglectful, though Leo never saw it that way. It was everything Catherine had predicted when she first laid eyes on him that day in fourth grade—that his family wasn’t “respectable,” that he came from a broken home.
But things were changing in the way Catherine viewed the world and Leo in particular. She was finishing the seventh grade, and the next year, she and Leo would matriculate to the brown-brick high school down the road.
Their bodies were changing rapidly as Leo became a tall, lanky youth with broad shoulders and muscular arms. As for Catherine, she often startled herself when she passed a mirror. A little girl no more, she bloomed with charm and elegance. Her clothes fit her differently, and her mother had even bought her a cotton bra with the newly introduced “cup size.” It was foreign to Catherine who felt nostalgic for the days when she could simply throw on a blouse.
Bodily changes brought emotional ones. Like all teenagers, Catherine started to see the opposite sex differently, and that’s when she began to desire Leo’s attention. He noticed that she was looking his way much more often than she used to. Soon, she called a truce to her longstanding dislike of Leo. Not sure of the reasons for the internal change, Catherine began to seek his company.
Leo was delighted with Catherine’s transformation. The summer before their eighth-grade year, they spent hours together playing in the rivers and hiking the hills on the north side of town, Leo digging pounds of clay from the riverbanks and fashioning her different trinkets, paperweights, dolls, and figurines. During those long, lazy afternoons, they noticed that both of them were good at making each other laugh.
Catherine was a spoiled and demanding princess, but Leo loved her enough to let her get away with it. Once, he even made her a laurel of flowers twisted together with strips of clay.
“What’s this?” she asked.
He set it gently on her head. “If you’re going to act like a queen, you need a crown.”
She gave him a playful shove but wore it for the rest of the day.
Leo showed her how fun it was to do things only boys were supposed to do, like skipping rocks and climbing trees. In the warm summer rains, they scampered through the forest together, playing in the mud. After the storms passed, Catherine always showed up on her back porch, breathless and covered in sludge from head to toe. Her mother chastised her thoroughly, but Catherine had never felt better.
No one ever waited at home for Leo. Though he was only thirteen, he never had to be back at a specific time, and he certainly didn’t need to keep his clothes clean. Leo enjoyed his independence, though, and that summer, for the first time, he made Catherine long for the same thing.
Nothing like Catherine’s parents or their cloistered friends, Leo was like a character in the novels she adored: brave, if a little reckless, adventurous, and unpretentious. In short, Catherine found him irresistible.
One early morning in the summer, Leo was tossing pebbles up at Catherine’s window. They had agreed on a system—he threw pebbles from a safe distance to get her attention, so she could slip outside without her parents knowing.
Catherine woke to the familiar sound of rocks against the windowpane and dressed quickly, grabbing two apples on the way out the door.
“I got us breakfast.”
“Perfect.” Leo pocketed the apples. “We’ll need it. Ready for an adventure?”
She nodded, her cheeks pink with promise.
He took her deep into the river valley, over the rolling hills outside town where they had gone scavenging together many times, but never ventured far before.
“Where are we going?” Catherine asked.
“Today, we’re searching for crystals and arrowheads,” he said.
They stopped to munch on the apples, then began to poke around, picking up rocks and sticks and looking for Native American artifacts.
The sun was high in the sky when Leo found it, a perfectly preserved arrowhead left by the Abenaki Indians decades ago. Leo ran his fingers across the blade, still sharp. The arrow had been chiseled out of bright-white stone.
“What’d you find?” she asked, coming up behind him.
He opened his fist and presented the arrowhead with pride.
“Beautiful,” she said, reaching out to touch it.
“It’s yours,” he whispered.
At the time, it seemed an odd gift for a girl. She usually wanted hair ribbons or rock candy, but it was different and that was something she could appreciate.
That night, she dug deep in her drawer and found the first sculpture Leo had given her, a brittle lump of clay, barely holding together. She wrapped it lovingly with the arrowhead in a swatch of pink silk. If Cupid struck, Catherine liked to think this was the first of his arrows.
Despite their differences, Leo and Catherine grew close, starting eighth grade that September buoyed by the simple, sweet joy of the summer they’d whiled away together. They were thirteen, and for the first time in their acquaintance, they were friends, their differences molded into strengths.
Catherine was a good student—practical, intelligent, and persevering. Leo was an artist and a dreamer, preferring to sculpt with clay or play sports rather than study. Leo brought out the child in Catherine—the opposite of what her parents expected of her. She, in turn, grounded Leo and helped him focus while encouraging his natural talent for sculpting. Thanks to her tutelage, he passed his classes. The more time they spent together, the more temperance Leo showed, reining in his urges for the daring and extreme.
One Sunday afternoon during their tenth-grade year, they shared a picnic at the Bath-Haverhill Bridge. Leo ached to swing from the bottom of the bridge and jump into the river below.
“Absolutely not!” Catherine admonished. “You’re not breaking your neck on my watch.”
“C’mon, Cat—I’m not gonna break my neck. I’m dying for a cheap thrill.”
“And die, you might! Boys,” she said, with an exasperated sigh that made her sound much older than her thirteen years. “Why can’t you be happy just sitting right here?”
“I am happy sitting here with you.”
She blushed. “Well, I’ll never understand why you can’t be satisfied with simple things. Take me, for example. I want to sit here enjoying this picnic without the risk of your breaking a limb. I want a nice house like my parents’ house—maybe just down the street. I want a bunch of kids to squeeze and love on.” She watched him closely, gauging his reaction. “That’s not what you want at all, is it?”
Leo shrugged, tore off a piece of his sandwich crust and tossed it in the river below. “You know what I want. I want to travel to Paris and Rome and Budapest. I want to design incredible sculptures and race cars. Maybe win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Or the Monaco Grand Prix.”
She beaned him in the head with a grape, breaking him out of his reverie. “The Grand Prix, huh? If it weren’t for me, you would’ve failed French!”
“If it weren’t for you, I’d have gone for a swim by now,” He said with a sly grin, moving toward the side of the bridge as if he were about to leap.
“Don’t!” she cried, jumping to her feet and grabbing his arm. “Please don’t.”
He looked at her long white fingers on his arm: his arms were growing into the tan and lithe arms of a young man who spent his time working outdoors; her hands were growing into the hands of a proper young woman who spent her time studying and attending social galas. In that simple gesture, Catherine had unknowingly magnified the difference between them, but he’d never loved her more.
“Catherine…” he began.
“Shhh,” she said, holding her finger to his lips. Her green eyes shone brightly, and he lost himself in their spell. Leo leaned down, cupped her chin in his hand, and kissed her lightly on the lips, the shiver coursing across their skin was like a current, starting somewhere deep inside and bounding them like an electric charge.
Catherine pulled away first as they stared at each other for a moment, speechless. She touched her lips as if there might be traces of magic there.
“What was that?” she whispered, a little breathless.
“That,” he said, “was our first kiss.”