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Authors: Renee Ryan

Heartland Wedding

BOOK: Heartland Wedding
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Pete Benjamin looked…
magnificent.

Dressed in his fancy clothes, Pete Benjamin looked big and masculine and so very,
very
handsome. A tower of strength encased in wool and crisp linen.

 

In that moment Rebecca knew that with Pete she would be safe. Safe from gossip. Safe from men like the Tully brothers. Safe. Always safe.

 

It wasn’t the same as love, or even affection, but she knew it could be worse. Much worse.

 

He sank to one knee.

 

Taking her free hand in his, Pete pressed a soft kiss to the knuckles. “Rebecca.” He looked up into her eyes. “Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

 

AFTER THE STORM: THE FOUNDING YEARS

A tornado can’t tear apart the fabric of faith and love in a frontier Kansas town.

 

High Plains Bride

Valerie Hansen, January 2010

Heartland Wedding

Renee Ryan, February 2010

Kansas Courtship

Victoria Bylin, March 2010

Books by Renee Ryan

Love Inspired Historical

*
The Marshal Takes a Bride

*
Hannah’s Beau

Heartland Wedding

RENEE RYAN

grew up in a small Florida beach town. To entertain herself during countless hours of “lying out” she read all the classics. It wasn’t until the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Florida State University that she read her first romance novel. Hooked from page one, she spent hours consuming one book after another while working on the best (and last!) tan of her life.

Two years later, armed with a degree in economics and religion, she explored various career opportunities, including stints at a Florida theme park, a modeling agency and a cosmetic conglomerate. She moved on to teach high school economics, American government and Latin while coaching award-winning cheerleading teams. Several years later, with an eclectic cast of characters swimming around in her head, she began seriously pursuing a writing career. She lives with her husband, two children and one ornery cat in Nebraska.

RENEE RYAN
Heartland Wedding

Special thanks and acknowledgment to Renee Ryan for her contribution to the AFTER THE STORM: THE FOUNDING YEARS miniseries.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.


Romans
8:28

To Valerie Hansen and Victoria Bylin, two of the hardest-working writers I know. Your talent inspires me and your kindness humbles me. God bless you both!

Prologue

High Plains, Kansas, June 1860

A
burst of wind whipped the doorknob from Rebecca Gundersen’s fingers. Hail pelted her face, leaving behind a nasty sting. The storm was coming in too fast. The town wasn’t prepared.
She
wasn’t prepared. But before Rebecca took cover, she had to find Edward and make sure he was safe.

She couldn’t lose her brother in this storm. Not so soon after her parents had died.

Forcing back her panic, she sprinted down the boardinghouse steps and ran straight into the growling wind. There was an oppressive stench of rotting earth and grass, an unmistakable warning that a deadly tornado loomed in the distance.

Rebecca shoved her hair back from her face. Too afraid of losing Edward to think of her own safety, she forced her feet to move faster. She knew her brother could take care of himself. He was a grown man. But knowing something wasn’t the same as believing it. She
had
to make sure he took cover.

Heart pounding in time with her steps, she cast a quick glance to her left. A shelf of ominous clouds cut a sharp line of black against the pale blue sky.

There was still time to find Edward. If she hurried.

She was not alone on the street, though the thought gave her no comfort. Caught in their own fear, people of all ages and sizes rushed past her, scrambling for home. Three horses galloped by, their high-pitched whinnies echoing the panic they held in their eyes.

Navigating the labyrinth of activity, Rebecca dashed around the mercantile. She cast another glance to the sky. The rapidly approaching clouds had taken on a sickly, greenish tint.

Oh, Lord, please, I beg You. Do not take Edward away from me. He’s all I have left.

As if to mock her prayer, black clouds swallowed the last patch of sunlight.

She broke into a run across the expanse of dirt and pebbles behind the mercantile building. Debris and sand stung her exposed skin while the raging wind pulled and pushed at her, tossing her around like a child’s doll. Thankfully, she had in sight the livery stable where her brother lived and worked.

Five more steps and she was there.

“Edward!” she shouted into the wind.

No answer.

She ran to the opposite end of the stable, only to discover the doors flung wide open. Not a man or horse in sight.

“Edward?” Panic made her Norwegian accent heavier than usual. “Are you in there?”

Still no answer.

Could he be in the blacksmith shop? She took a step
forward, but a gust of wind shoved her back. She missed her footing, twisted in midair and landed on her hands and knees.

“Edward,” she whimpered, loss of hope making her voice crack.

Gritting her teeth, she wobbled to a standing position. One step. Two. A hand clamped around her arm and pulled her backward,
away
from the stable.

“No.” She fought against the steely grip. “Please. I need to get to my brother.”

“You
need
to get below ground.”

Instead of calming her, the sound of the gravelly voice, so strong and masculine and unmistakably
not
Edward, shot a wave of pure terror through her.

“I have to find my brother. He might not realize the danger. He—”

“There’s no time.”

She looked to the heavens. The swirling clouds were better organized now, twisting in a powerful circular motion. She clawed at the hand still holding her arm. “Let me go.”

“Rebecca, you’ll do Edward no good if you panic.”

The use of her name, rather than the words spoken, had her turning her head toward the insistent voice. Her gaze connected with the intense, deep brown eyes of Pete Benjamin. Her stomach folded inside itself. She’d never seen such raw emotion in the reserved blacksmith before. Fear, impatience—both were glaring back at her.

“Pete.” She had to shout over the wind. “Help me find him.”

“No time. We have to take cover.”

Without waiting for her to respond, he forced her away from the stable, step by step. Not roughly, but with firm, insistent movements.

As if to punctuate his urgency, the rain let loose. The wind turned deafening, the sound as loud as if they were standing in the path of an incoming freight train.

The door to the blacksmith shop flung open. The clank of tools slamming into the walls could be heard over the wind. Rationally, she knew she had to get out of the storm, but she couldn’t move.

“Hurry.” Pete readjusted his hold, practically lifting her off the ground as he took off toward the back of the livery. Rebecca half stumbled, half skipped beside him.

With each step, wind and horizontal rain spit in her face. She ducked her head, but tears leaked from her eyes, anyway.

Just as she turned her face to the sky again, Pete yanked her toward him. “Look out.”

One of his tools flew past her head, missing her by mere inches.

“Stay down.” Pete released her long enough to throw open the door to the storm cellar. Without his sturdy grip, Rebecca fell to her knees again.

He lifted her to her feet. “You first.”

“I—”

“Go.”

She went. In her haste, she tripped just as she reached the bottom of the steps, landing hard against the wall. She turned around, flattened her back against the unforgiving stone and tried to settle her ragged breathing. But like the bugs scurrying past her feet, thoughts chased around in Rebecca’s brain.

She shifted slightly to her left, batting away the cobwebs as she went. A few seconds later, Pete rushed into the cellar.

With a powerful jerk, he pulled the door shut behind him and threw the bolt. The gesture plunged the small room into pitch-black darkness.

“There’s a lantern on the middle shelf to your left,” he yelled down to her.

Hands shaking, Rebecca reached out and fumbled around until her palm curled around cool glass. “I’ve got it,” she shouted back.

“The matches are beside it, on your right.”

Hands shaking harder still, she found the box of matches. It took her three attempts to ignite one. Momentarily blinded by the miniature fire, she somehow managed to light the lantern, anyway.

Pete came down the first three steps and then stopped, his gaze never fully leaving the door. Loud, hissing air slipped through the slats, filling every crevice of the room, a brutal reminder of the terror sweeping across their small Kansas town.

Had Edward found cover in time?

Hail pounded against the cellar door like hammers to iron. And still, Pete stared, his face raised. What was he doing? Why wasn’t he joining her at the bottom of the steps?

Desperate for something to do besides
worry,
Rebecca took the opportunity to look around. The cellar was barely a third of the size of her room at Mrs. Jennings’s boardinghouse. Cobwebs had made use of every available corner, while the smell of earth and mold spoke of obvious neglect.

An entire wall was filled with shelves from floor to ceiling, but other than the lantern and matches there was nothing on them. She supposed Pete’s wife had once kept these shelves full with her canning efforts. But Rebecca couldn’t know for sure. Sarah Benjamin had died in childbirth before Rebecca had arrived in High Plains.

Poor Pete. To lose his wife so young. And without any
warning. Rebecca knew about that kind of sudden loss and the loneliness that followed.

Wanting to break the silence but not knowing what to say, she stared at Pete’s back while he continued to watch the cellar door rattle on its hinges. The unmistakable sound of farm tools and other items crashed against the door.

Would the wood hold? Was that why Pete continued staring up, as though his vigilance would keep the door intact?

Rebecca ran her gaze from end to end along his broad shoulders. He was a big, sturdy man, built of hard muscle and strong character, much like Edward.

At the thought of her brother, Rebecca’s breathing quickened to short, hard pants. What if he died in the storm? Tears pooled in her eyes.

As though sensing her anguish, Pete finally turned and captured her gaze with his. Even in the low light she could see his eyes, usually so sad and distant, softening in the same way they did when he was tending a horse in his livery stable. He probably didn’t realize that his expression also gave her a brief glimpse into his loneliness.

Such pain. It hurt to look at him. Without realizing what she was doing, she took a step forward.

He came down the stairs and placed a hand on her shoulder. His touch was completely impersonal. So was his gaze. “Don’t worry, Rebecca. Edward is a smart man, resourceful. He’s lived in this area long enough to know to take cover in a storm.”

That calm, confident declaration did nothing to soothe her fears. In fact, she trembled harder. Intelligence and good sense had nothing to do with surviving unpredictable weather. Her own parents had died in an ice storm six months ago.

Awful memories threatened to consume her. She gripped her throat and looked frantically around her. Was the cellar getting smaller? She fisted a clump of hair in her hand. White-hot waves of anxiety slipped along her spine, giving her a chill. No longer willing to stay underground, she rushed toward the stairs.

Pete barred her way. “No. Rebecca, you have to be patient.” He placed his finger under her chin and urged her to look at him. “Listen to me.” His gaze was no longer impersonal, but earnest. “We must wait until the storm has passed.”

He might have spoken softly, calmly even, but she knew he would not allow her to leave. He’d become her jailer.

She tried not to resent him for his new role as he urged her toward a small bench running along the opposite wall of the shelving.

“Sit.” He handed her a threadbare blanket. “Wrap this around you.”

She did as he commanded. She had no choice.

Watching her carefully, Pete sat on the steps and rested his elbows on his knees. For a long moment, he stared at her without speaking. She studied his face in turn. The hard, chiseled features were at odds with the sad eyes, eyes still mourning the loss of a loved one.

Rebecca swallowed. She had no idea what to say to this stranger who employed her older brother as a farrier in his livery stable. No words would bring back Pete’s wife. No words would bring her parents back, either.

“Would you pray with me?” he asked in a stilted voice.

Pray? Why hadn’t she thought of that herself? Where was her faith? Why hadn’t she put her hope in the Lord like always?
“Ja. Yes,”
she corrected. “That would be a good idea.”

Pete lowered his chin toward his chest. Rebecca stared at his bowed head for only a moment before closing her eyes.

“Heavenly Father,” he began, “Your Word tells us You determine our days and months in this life. You give and You take away…” His voice hitched and his words trailed off.

When the silence continued, Rebecca opened her eyes.

Head still bent, Pete swallowed once. Twice. Then he cleared his throat and began again. “Scripture also tells us that You give strength to Your people. Lord, we pray You give Edward Your strength as he battles this storm. Keep him and all the citizens of High Plains safe. May they all have found cover in time.” He paused again. “In Jesus’ name, we pray, amen.”

“Amen.”

After a moment of silence, Pete shifted a few steps higher. Gazing at her from his perch, he spoke softly, using the tone he might adopt for one of his spooked horses. “Are you warm enough?”

She hugged the blanket around her shoulders and nodded.

“There’s nothing to fear down here.”

“I…know.”

“The storm will pass, eventually.”

She drew in a shuddering sigh and nodded again. Clearly, he was being careful with her, drawing her into conversation slowly. She found herself admiring him all the more for his consideration. It would be easy to build dreams around such a man. But Rebecca knew Pete wasn’t for her and she wasn’t for him. Aside from the fact that they hardly knew each other, his heart still belonged to the wife and child he’d lost.

He continued talking. Before long, she responded in more than nods and short phrases. When he asked about
her childhood in Norway, she told him of the poverty and the never-ending workload. Then she revealed the loneliness she’d suffered when Edward had left for America and her parents had banded tighter together, leaving her feeling alone and left out.

“I’ve never told anyone that before,” she admitted, wiggling a hand free from the blanket to shove at her hair.

Pete smiled at her, just a little. “Are you happy in High Plains?”

She answered without hesitation. “Oh,
ja.
Mrs. Jennings has been very kind. Cooking for her and the other boarders is a wonderful job.” She swallowed. “But, Pete, I have to know. Why wasn’t Edward at the livery today?”

“He was, earlier, but then he headed out to the wagon train for a final check on the horses’ shoes.”

The wagon train. Of course. Edward would want to make sure all the horses were ready for the trek across country. She herself had fed an extra twenty people this morning at the boardinghouse. “I—”

The wind stopped,
suddenly.
Pete raised his gaze to the heavens. “Praise God, it’s over.”

Rebecca released her own sigh of relief.

Without looking at her again, Pete ascended the stairs, unlatched the bolt and shoved open the door. His shocked gasp alerted Rebecca to what she would find.

After snuffing out the lantern’s flame, she wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders, then slowly picked her way up the stairs.

The sky had turned bright with sunshine, momentarily blinding her as effectively as the match’s fire had done earlier. When her vision cleared, the view that met her gaze stole her breath away. There was too much devasta
tion to take in at once. Boards blown off houses, everyday household items lying in pieces, trees torn from the earth by their roots, a wagon on a rooftop.

Rebecca took a tentative step forward. And then another.

The scent of smoke filled the air, but she couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Somewhere close.

BOOK: Heartland Wedding
13.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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