Authors: Jillian Hart,Victoria Bylin
She shook her head, realizing she had drifted off in thought. Her cousins were watching her with delight. The children on the cushions beside her were curious as to why they had stopped.
“If I were you, I would want to know what that note says.” Aiden nodded toward the shanty.
“Note?” She had to ease off the seat in order to see what her cousins were smiling about. She spied the spray of lilacs tied with a ribbon on her top doorstep, anchoring a blue piece of parchment.
“Yes, perhaps I’ll get off here. Thank you for the ride to church.” Woodenly she turned around, angling her hoops between the seats, and dropped too hard to the ground. Dazed, that’s what she was, remembering the intimate warning of Sam’s tone.
Maybe another evening.
She had not expected an invitation so soon.
The surrey jostled away, and she hardly noticed the dust rising up around her. Every step took her closer to the note. Closer to the wonderful, maybe terrible truth. Her right toe bumped into a rock. She stumbled, unable to take her gaze from the flowers, exactly like the bunch Sam had cut for her, exactly like the bouquet left on her step before.
Please, Lord, let him be in love with me.
The prayer lifted from her with all the hope she had left. She knelt on the bottom step, her hands trembling.
This was it, what she had been dreading and hoping for. Sam’s image filled her mind, his capable shoulders, his gentle hands, the closeness she’d felt in his presence. Ribbons of affection curled within her as she gathered the lilacs into her arms and shook open the note.
Come dine with me tonight.
Happiness lifted her off the doorstep. She felt as airy as those pure puffy clouds sailing across the crystal blue sky. Maybe this was what it felt like when the most disappointed hopes were on the verge of coming true, when impossible prayers were about to be answered.
am. The moment she saw him rising from the front porch, where shadows dappled the fresh-cut lawn, her affections took flight like a butterfly. Never had she known such a yearning to see a man. To wait with anticipation for his smile to brush his lips. To be eager for the gentle caring in his voice, in his eyes, in his touch.
She drew Ruth to a halt and didn’t wait for Sam to come help her. She practically floated to the ground. Her skirts swished around her ankles and she wobbled, finding her balance. Fine, she may be excited but she was nervous, too. This was the start of a dream come true—maybe.
Please let this be my dream.
She hoped and prayed, waiting while he closed the thick volume he’d been reading and set it on the bench.
Delight tasted like sugar on her tongue. How good it was to see him. She’d missed the low rumble of his voice, his easygoing humor, his dependable honor. As
he came toward her, her soul seemed to lean toward him, as if a sign that they were meant to be together. That true love was already blossoming between them. She wanted nothing more.
“Good evening.” Sam strode toward her, appearing rather informal for a dinner date. He did look striking in a white muslin shirt and denims. “This is a surprise.”
“A surprise?” No, that couldn’t be right. “You’re joking again.”
“Uh, no. If you’ve come to see the girls, they were in the house a while ago charming apple crisp from Kathleen.” His smile dazzled her. When he gazed upon her, he made her feel as lovely as a princess and twice as precious.
Was she blushing? She pressed her gloved fingertips to her cheeks. Yes, she was definitely overly anxious. Being courted was no easier the second time around. She drew in a calming breath. “I didn’t know the girls would be dining with us as well, but you know that’s fine with me.”
“Dining?” His brow furrowed. “I didn’t know you were coming to supper. No one said anything to me.”
“No, that can’t be right.” She couldn’t have heard him correctly. Then again, she hadn’t imagined the note. She had re-read it a dozen times since she’d come home from church. “You invited me to have dinner with you. You left the flowers.”
“The flowers?” He rubbed at his forehead. Why did he look so confused?
“The lilacs on my doorstep.”
“I didn’t leave anything on your doorstep. I gave
you lilacs when you were here yesterday, but—” The confusion slid from his face. He shook his head once, scattering his thick dark hair. “You have a suitor.”
A suitor? Wasn’t it him? No, she realized, her mind spinning. He would have remembered leaving the note and flowers.
“No, I think I have no one interested in me.” The first strike of disappointment hit. She set her chin and fisted her hands, but that didn’t stop the hurt. He hadn’t left anything for her. He had not been courting her. He was not courting her now.
The second beat of disappointment hit harder than the first, but she kept her head up. Tried with all her might to keep the pain from showing. “I was mistaken about supper. Please tell the girls hello for me. I’ll head home.”
Her vision kept blurring regardless of how fast she blinked. She spun on her heels, focusing on the brown blur that was Ruth and the cart and kept going. His footsteps padded behind her, but she ignored them. How could she turn to him now? She had been wrong. Desperately wrong. Sam wasn’t falling in love with her. He hadn’t even been beauing her. He had no notion how deeply she cared about him—
No, she didn’t simply care about him. She loved him. That’s why when the third blow hit, it hurt enough to have cleaved her soul in two. To leave her in pieces forever. She tripped over her shoe, and Sam’s hand curled around her elbow, keeping her up, holding her in place.
“What’s wrong, Molly?” His tender tone cut her to the core. “Please tell me why you’re crying.”
“It’s nothing.” There were no truer words. She sniffled, remembering she’d left her reticule in the cart. Great. She had no handkerchief to dry her tears. Her stupid, revealing tears.
His grip felt like iron on her arm, holding her in place. Any moment he was going to put the pieces together and know how foolish she’d been. How romantic and foolish, wishing for a man’s love, a man who did not love her in return. Humiliated, she swiped at her eyes.
“Here. Let me.” Could his voice be any more caring?
She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn’t see him drying her tears. She felt the soft cotton dab against her skin, drying her cheeks, catching each tear as it fell. It was not sweetness she felt, really. Nor did she feel an iota of tenderness. This wasn’t a loving gesture on his behalf. This was one neighbor being kind to another. Friendliness, nothing more.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asked, his voice raw and wounded.
His kindness felt like torture. She broke away, wiped her remaining tears with her sleeve and tried to take a step.
“It was the girls, wasn’t it?” His words were roughly spoken, heavy with regret. “They made you think I was courting you, didn’t they?”
She nodded. The temperate winds stirred around her, swirling her skirt ruffles, tangling the curls around her face, perfuming the air with flowers and sunshine. How
could she be breaking and the world be so perfect and whole? She couldn’t speak. She didn’t trust her voice. She fought back her last tear.
“I see it now. The proposal. The disappearances. They mysteriously prune half the garden. Their list. They keep a list with all their qualifications for a new mother. You meet every one.”
A dagger to her already wounded heart. The girls. She would never be their stepmother now. Loss crashed through her, taking her last drop of hope with it. She’d had too many losses already. “Goodbye, Sam.”
“No, Molly, wait.” He stood between her and her cart, barring her escape. “Everything the girls did, the flowers, inviting you here, trying to bring us together, that was wrong. But I can’t say I’m sorry. I care for you. More than I think is safe.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Maybe you should stay.” He rubbed the pad of his thumb on her cheek, but no more tears fell. “Let’s see what’s for supper. It’s my suspicion Mrs. Finley is aware of this plan and perhaps has aided and abetted. There might be a very good meal waiting for us.”
“Oh Sam, I’ve been in this exact position before, mistaking caring for love.” Sheer pain twisted her features. “I can’t stay.”
“Not even if I ask you to?” He hated every single tear she had shed. He despised that she was hurting. Molly, gentle-mannered, caring Molly did not deserve this. The valiant tilt of her chin, the steel of her spine, the dignity she struggled to keep broke him apart. Tenderness drowned him, and helpless, he took her hand.
“The girls haven’t done anything I haven’t thought to do myself.” Honesty, opening himself up to rejection, took the last of his pride. He felt like he’d jumped off nearby Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the territory, and was tumbling to certain death. But he kept going. Her hand felt fragile within his own, trembling with broken disappointment and needs. He could feel every one of them. She needed to be cared for. She needed to care for others. She had deep love to give with no one to give it to. She would make a very fine wife.
Just do it, Sam. Head pounding, throat tight and achy, fear beating at him, he got down on one knee, watching her gasp in realization. Yep, that was just about how he felt, too. Surprised and scared and afraid of another marriage hurting more than it helped. But this time, it would be different. He would make sure of it.
“Molly, I’m hoping you would do me the honor—”
“Oh, Sam, please don’t ask me this.” Her bottom lip was trembling, and she looked suddenly too young and vulnerable. He had never seen her so clearly. Her goodness, her love, her wounds. She tore her hand from his and dashed around him, skirts swaying.
He didn’t remember hopping to his feet or following her. Only that he was by her side. “Please don’t go until you hear me out. Until you know what you mean to me.”
“Oh, I can see it.” She looked angry now.
Even he could tell that was only a mask. She was hurting beneath. He was, too, feeling the strike of her rejection. “You won’t marry me?”
“I can’t marry you.” She looked ready to break apart. “You are thinking about your daughters. That’s why you are proposing to me. You think I’m useful. That I’ll be a solution to your problems.”
“I’m thinking about my girls, yes—” He caught her in his arms. She was so tiny, for the great power she had over him. He would climb mountains for her, swim the ocean, leap to the moon if that’s what she wanted. Affection filled him up like a wellspring, refreshing and overflowing. Heaven help him. It could not be love in his heart. This was a convenient proposal, nothing more. “Penny and Prudy are getting older. They will be young ladies in a matter of years. They will be putting up their hair and letting down their hemlines. What good will I be to them, then? They love you, Molly. You love them. I’ve seen it. Go ahead and deny it.”
“But you don’t love me.”
I don’t want to love you. How could he say the words that would hurt her? That would drive her away forever? “What I’m offering you is security. You’ll have a comfortable life here.”
“Security and comfort? That’s wonderful, but a marriage has to be more.” Her voice broke. “I need it to be more.”
“I’ll respect you. I’ll treat you right. I’ll do my best by you, Molly, if only you would honor me—”
“No.” She shook her head slowly, sadly. “That’s not what I want.”
“I care very much. That has to be enough.”
“It’s not even close.” She choked on a sob, waiting for her words to sink in. Realization swept across his
face and he released his hold on her. Freed, she stumbled, unable to orient herself. Even though she was standing upright, she felt as if she were falling down. Maybe it was because of the pain of loss and longing she’d seen in his eyes. She still felt it as she turned from him.
“Doc!” A man’s voice broke the silence between them like a gunshot. A horse and rider galloped into the yard, the horse lathered, the rider panicked. “You’ve got to come quick. It’s Mr. Gornecke. He’s taken with scarlet fever now and it’s real bad. Hurry.”
“All right, Jerry.” Sam hung his head, his frustration palpable. “Molly, I want to talk about this some more.”
“No, I can’t bear it. Your heart isn’t going to change. It’s over, Sam.” Aware of the stranger watching, she ducked her head, heading in the direction of her cart. His voice haunted her.
What I’m offering you is security. You’ll have a comfortable life here.
She was walking away from a real chance for a family. To be a mother again. Part of her wanted to go back. She hated such weakness, that she would consider his offer, even secretly, even against her better judgment.
But what about accepting his proposal? No. She did not want to live the rest of her days watching and counting all the ways Sam did not love her. Because she loved him. She had the shards of her foolish heart to prove it.
Ruth nickered in comfort. Molly patted her old friend’s neck before climbing onto the seat. She felt drained, hollow. As if the emptiness that had shadowed
her for years had become permanent. She gathered up the reins and cast one last look at the man she loved, the man she feared she would always love. He stood with his shoulders straight, his hands empty, the apology plain on his face.
It had been her mistake, nothing more. She snapped the reins and let Ruth carry her home.
It was near midnight when Sam locked the kitchen door behind him and dropped his bag on the bench. At least Mrs. Gornecke was improving, and he had hope for her husband. A rustle in the darkness told him he wasn’t alone. A second rustle told him the twins had tried to wait for him and had fallen asleep on the window seat.
Ignoring his pounding head, he paced to the table. Every muscle he owned ached something fierce. Probably from having his heart broken. Worse, he had not faced the truth. He had stayed on the sensible path instead of telling Molly that he was in love with her.
Not that he could do anything about it now. She would be asleep, and he didn’t know if she would still want him. He didn’t want to build a marriage and a life on a flimsy foundation. Yet the love he felt for Molly was stronger than steel. But was it strong enough?
Maybe the real issue was his fear. He was afraid to let her close. He was afraid to trust in any woman’s love, even hers.
“Pa?” Penelope sounded sleepy.
“What are you girls doing out of bed?”
“We tossed and tossed.”
“We couldn’t get to sleep.”
“I’m not surprised.” He felt hot, so he shucked off his jacket. “Where did you two go off to when Molly came?”
“So you could fall in love.”
Love. There was that word again. He groped around on the shelf for the tin. When he struck a match, the flame cast a dancing glow on the table set for two with the good dishes and the crystal candlesticks.
Another piece of the puzzle revealed. He lit one of the candles, listening to the drag of the girls’ stockinged feet as they came to face him.
“You girls know what you did was wrong.” His voice croaked, sounding harsher than he intended.
“We know, Pa.” They chorused mournfully. “When we came back and Mrs. Finley said you had a house call—”
“—we figured it was ruined.” Prudence sighed, a sorrowful sound if there ever was one.
“Could we have Miss Molly for supper tomorrow?”
“Mrs. Finley could serve the pot roast again.”
His head pounded. Sweat broke out on his forehead. He’d never felt so terrible. Maybe because he had lost more today than he’d had in many, many years. Maybe because he was more in love with Molly than he cared to admit even now, when he had hurt her terribly. When he feared he had destroyed any faith in him she had.
A droplet of sweat hit the table as he poured his tea. His hand wasn’t steady. Something was wrong. A sore throat. Possible fever. Headache. He set the pot on the table and unbuttoned his sleeve cuff. He only had to roll
the fabric once to see the tiny red bumps on the inside of his arms. No, it couldn’t be.