“Oh, Emma, you’ll make the prettiest bride Abilene’s ever seen!”
Emma Clark’s cheeks tingled as she watched Mrs. Rieckmann measure out yard after yard of frothy lace trim. “Thank you,” she said, “I’m glad Mercy Malloy offered to sew my gown, though, because her new machine makes fast work of these slippery silks and satins. Sewing just isn’t my talent.”
“I don’t imagine Billy notices that. He’s a fine catch,” the grandmotherly clerk affirmed, “and Lord a-mercy, I thought he’d never ask you! What took him so long?”
Fingering the delicate lace, Emma bit back a grin. “He’s been tucking away his pay from handling the horses there at the Triple M. Wanted to be sure he had enough laid by,” she hedged. “What with not really being the Malloys’ son, he doesn’t want Mike and Mercy putting themselves out on his account.”
No sense in letting this old biddy know that she had done the proposing: it’d be all over Abilene by sundown, and Billy would be embarrassed. As well he should be! Everyone knew they’d been sweethearts since they were ten, when Billy’s mama had abandoned him and the Malloys took him in. Her mother had always said some men needed a little extra time to catch fire. Emma thought of her proposal as lighting the cookstove: Billy made fine kindling, but he needed a flame like her to set things boiling!
Maude Reickmann was nodding, her weathered face creased in a hundred places. “Billy Bristol’s a giver, not a taker. Very responsible and hardworking, that young man is. Every girl in Dickinson county had her eye on that rusty hair and those blue, blue eyes.”
“But I caught him!” Emma crowed, “and just two months from now he’ll be all mine! Those other girls will just have to hunt for someone else.”
“Shall I put this on your daddy’s account then?” She folded the lace tenderly and fetched a spool of white thread from the notions rack behind her.
“Yes, please. And we need some flour and a case of tinned peaches.”
“And how’s your father doing? Always harder for a man to make his way after his wife dies,” the storekeeper mused. “Women deal with the loneliness and the day-to-day living better. They’re tougher than their men in many ways.”
Emma’s jaw clamped shut against an emotional outburst. Just when she thought she could have a conversation without someone mentioning her mother’s death—just when she could concentrate on her own happiness for a moment—this storekeeper reopened the gaping hole in her heart.
“Daddy’s all right, I guess. Doesn’t say much. Goes off to the barn and the fields each morning.” The lace on the counter blurred, so she looked away to compose herself. “Comes home to eat and sleep. Tells me how much he misses my mother’s cooking. Always finds a way to remind me how I come up short, compared to her.”
“That’s his grief talking, Emma. That second plague of grasshoppers last summer cost him a lot more than his crops.” Maude’s face and voice softened. “He’ll miss you, too, when you move into that new house with Billy. He just doesn’t know how to say so.”
Mrs. Reickmann finished the notation on her ledger, and smiled kindly at Emma. Then she walked back to the yard goods table and returned with a small bolt of trim.
“We just got this in yesterday, and the pale blue reminded me of your eyes, dear,” she said as she unfolded a length of tiny, shiny ribbon roses. “Sew these on something for your wedding day, or for your new home.”
“But Daddy’s already fussing about how much—”
“This a gift, Emma. I’d like you to have it.”
Nodding mutely, Emma swiped at her eyes. How she hated it that she cried as quickly when folks did her favors as when they brought up the subject of her mother. She was made of tougher stuff! She should be over this by now!
“Th-thank you,” she murmured miserably. “These are just the thing for the nightgown Mercy’s made for my wedding night. You’ve been very k-kind.”
A weathered hand squeezed hers, and then Maude cleared her throat briskly, to shoo away the gloom that had settled over their transaction. “Let’s not forget your mail—and you might as well take the Malloys’, too. I’m sure they’re busy with foaling and the spring plowing—and all those children! Mercy has her hands full!”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m stopping there on my way home.”
The little bell above the door tinkled as she hurried out, determined to quit crying before anyone else saw her. Everyone meant well, but it only made her situation more difficult when people felt sorry for her. Eight months had passed since that hot August day when hordes of grasshoppers hit the ground like hail and ate everything in their path…including the green gingham dress her mother was wearing.
High time they all set their pity aside! She was tired of feeling like a charity case, when these weeks before the wedding should be the happiest of her life.
The Reickmann boy was hefting a crate of peaches beside the fifty-pound bag of flour already in the back of her buckboard. Feeling generous, she clutched her precious package of lace to take a nickel from her reticule.
He flashed her a gap-toothed grin, and then wove the fingers of both hands into a step-up for her. She whooped when he gave her an unexpected boost above the driver’s seat, making her skirts billow around her—which was exactly why he’d done it.
Emma settled herself on the wooden bench and raised an eyebrow at him. “Watch yourself,” she warned. “Your mother’ll tan your britches for sneaking a peak at mine. And I’m just the one to tell her!”
“She’ll hafta catch me first!” The kid darted off, his snicker trailing in the breeze behind him.
She clucked at the horse, suddenly too excited to be bothered by Stephen’s pranks. Two months from today, she would be Mrs. William Bristol! She and Billy could begin the life of her dreams in the frame house her father, Billy, and Michael Malloy were building at the corner where the two homesteads met. It wasn’t as big or as fancy as the house on the Triple M, but it looked out over the trees along the Smokey Hill River, and it had plate glass windows and plank floors, and it was all theirs. Their first home!
Smiling broadly, Emma waved at Pastor Larsen as she passed by the church. Once past the livery stable, she clucked to Bessie and gave the mare her head on the open road. Bride-to-be or not, she would always love the feel of speed that made her hair billow back in the breeze and painted roses on her cheeks. Soon enough she’d have babies and all the responsibilities of managing a home, and these rides by herself would be few and far between.
Holding the reins in one hand, she reached into the sack containing her lace and the mail. She’d noticed a few letters—reason enough to be curious—but a much larger envelope had caught her eye when Mrs. Reickmann took the Malloys’ mail from its slot behind the counter. Emma pulled it out, scowling at the three large wax stamps with an elaborate E in their centers.
They were pink.
When she flipped the envelope over to read the address, her eyes widened. It was addressed to Billy—in very elegant, feminine handwriting.
“Whoa, Bess,” she crooned. “Whoa, girl—easy now.”
She pulled off to the side of the road and wrapped the reins on their hook. Was it her imagination, or did she smell lavender? Perfume, perhaps? The return address—E. Massena, Richmond, Missouri—made her heart flutter because that was Billy’s home town, and E. Massena obviously wanted to get his attention, sending an oversized letter like this!
Emma blinked, her fingers itching. Should she?
She could always say the wax seals had been broken before she got it: mail that traveled by train got crammed so haphazardly into those leather bags, after all. And it wasn’t like she and Billy wouldn’t be sharing every dream and secret as man and wife.
Before her conscience could talk her out of it, her finger slipped beneath one pink seal, and then another. With a little gasp she popped the third one, glad the vellum envelope didn’t tear with her efforts. Who would possibly be contacting her Billy? He hadn’t lived in Missouri for more than ten years! The Bristols had lost their breeding stock to bandits and their home to a scalawag of a banker, so as far as she knew, Billy had nothing to go back for in—
She let out a low whistle. She’d pulled a small painting from the envelope, and it showed an impressive white house with pillars along the front porch. It sat back from the road, and the long driveway was lined on both sides with trees painted at the peak of their autumn glory. In the bottom corner, she made out “E. Massena” in the same perfect penmanship she’d seen on the envelope.
So this picture had been painted by the same young lady who wrote the note she pulled out next.
“Dear Billy,” Emma whispered….
It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen each other, I thought you might enjoy a memento of your home place, the way it looked before the war. I painted it from memory, from the times Mother would bring me to visit your mama and Christine. Sad to say, the house and stables are in a state of disrepair that would break your heart.
Emma glanced at the painting again, even though it made her pulse pound painfully. The Bristol kids had obviously lived a very fine life before their wayward mother abandoned them on a stagecoach. No wonder Billy’s sister had run off! The log houses here, so dark and plain, must have been a painful comedown for these children of the upper crust.
And if this young woman had painted it from memory, with such detail in the trees’ leaves and sunny blue sky that Emma could feel the comfort of the shade on that front porch, Miss Massena had also enjoyed a privileged life. The only kind of paint they saw out here on the Kansas prairie was the kind used on the walls of houses and barns.
And she wasn’t much good at painting that way, much less able to create a fine picture like this one.
Emma read on, gripping the page so the breeze didn’t snatch it away. She suddenly had to read every line this E. Massena had written to Billy, and then fill in her own assumptions between them.
I thought you’d also like to know that I’ve seen your brother Wesley. He’s grown into a big fellow with the same ornery twinkle in his blue eyes he had when we were kids. Still doing his best to find trouble, it seems.
Which is why I’m writing you this letter.
“Oh, here it comes,” Emma muttered. She read on, as fast as her limited book learning allowed, until the words blurred before her eyes.
There are things I think you would want to know, Billy, so I’ve decided to come to Abilene this summer to visit with you. If you could send me back directions on how to find you—
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Emma muttered. But she kept reading.
—I’ll catch you up on all the local gossip in person. I know you’re probably still upset at how Daddy foreclosed on your home, but things are very different around here since he hanged himself in the barn five years ago. Mother still plays the organ for church and gives piano lessons, while I teach in the little school—
Impatient, Emma skipped to the very end. What did she care about this presumptuous Miss Massena and her mother?
—hope your mama is doing well, but it’s you I need to talk with, Billy. I have a very special favor to ask. I hope you’re as eager to see me and hear my news as I am to tell you about it. Fondly, Eve.
Fondly? Who did this Eve think she was, demanding a favor of Billy a decade after her daddy turned them out of their home? Her name alone conjured up images of that snake and the apple in the Garden of Eden.
Emma pressed her lips together hard as she reread the letter. Bad enough that this Eve could paint. She also wrote a pretty hand and probably lacked for none of the social graces Mama had tried in vain to teach her before she died last year.
Emma took a long breath, trying to control sudden tears and her runaway heart. Her life hadn’t been the same without her mother, and she’d invested every last one of her hopes in Billy Bristol. When she thought of forever keeping house for her father, wasting away as a spinster on the dusty plains, Emma Clark felt a deep, dark desperation wrap itself around her heart like a shroud.
Billy was all she had. She was crazy for him, yes—always had been. No other man had ever caught her fancy.
So without another thought, Emma ripped the letter in four pieces and watched them flutter away like drunken doves, dipping and whirling in the wind. No need for Billy to see this letter, or to encourage some pampered neighbor girl from his childhood, because by the time Eve got here, he’d be a married man. Her man.
That’s why God had brought him to Kansas, after all.
Emma took another long look at the painting and then ripped it in pieces, too. What purpose did it serve to dredge up the past? Or to resurrect the twin Billy and his mama had figured for dead, after all these years of not hearing anything about him? She could just see Virgilia Bristol hauling her boy back to Missouri, in search of the Wesley who’d been snatched by the Border Ruffians when they ransacked the family’s horse ranch.
Who knew when they’d be back? She would not postpone the wedding!
And who knew if Eve Massena wasn’t using Wesley as bait to lure them back for her own purposes? A banker’s daughter who’d been reduced to teaching school—not married yet—had to be pretty desperate, to write such a letter and send it to Abilene. How did she know Billy still lived here? It was a shot in the dark, at best.
Emma took up the reins and clucked to Bessie. A little voice inside her hinted that she’d been wrong to read Billy’s mail, much less tear it up.
“But I did it for you, Billy,” she whispered fiercely, urging the horse up to speed. What was that verse in the Bible about letting the dead bury the dead? Even Mike and Mercy Malloy would agree that Miss Massena was up to no good.
Not that she’d mention the letter to them. Or to anyone else.
Two months later, in June.
“A man might as well fasten a noose around his neck as button one of these dang shirt collars,” Billy muttered. Try as he might, his calloused fingers wouldn’t work the button through its stiff new hole. He was sweating already. Still had to put on his suit jacket, before stepping into the sanctuary, in front of everyone he knew.
The organist began to play. It didn’t help one bit that Gabe Getty, his best man and best friend, watched him with the smug look of a fellow whose skinny neck never gave him such problems.
“Here, let me try it.” Gabe’s dark curls quivered with the effort of not laughing. “We’d better show ourselves out front before Emma throws a hissy-fit, thinking you’ve backed out—”
“Now there’s a thought!” Billy grimaced when Gabe stuck a finger between his neck and the starched collar. “We could slip out the back way, and I could head to St. Louis with you on the train. You could start your apprenticeship with that lawyer while I—”
“Sounds like you’ve got a major case of cold feet.” With a grunt, Gabe finally forced the button through the hole, and then stepped back to study Billy’s expression. “You’ve had awhile to think about this wedding, and we both know what Emma will be like as a wife. I haven’t seen you this skittish about anything since the day we slit our arms with that big knife and became blood brothers.”
Billy considered this, wishing he had a clear, decisive response to Gabe’s insinuation. “It’s just…I dunno, a big step. Sure, we’ve got the house almost finished, and it’s not like I’ve got anybody else in mind to marry, but—”
“Emma has to be the boss. She’ll make you toe her line every day of your life, Billy. And you knew that when you asked her.”
Billy tugged at the collar to give himself more swallowing space. He could not tell his best friend that Emma had popped the question, and that he’d been so flummoxed—with no real reason to turn her down—that he’d gone along with it. He was pretty sure she’d be disappointed with the plain gold band he’d picked out, too, after flat-out telling him she wanted a ruby or an emerald.
But he was a ranch manager, not a Romeo or a rich man. He’d bought most of the materials for building their house, believing that was a more practical investment.
Would Emma think it was good enough? Would she think he was good enough, after the excitement of this wedding day wore off?
“Come on, Billy. No use in standing back here, chewing your lip off,” Gabe said with a good-natured chuckle. “If we wait any longer, they’ll send Joel back here to be sure you haven’t ducked out of town.”
“Yeah, it’s now or never. It’ll all work out.” He shrugged into the suit coat Gabe held for him, shaking his head. “Sure is a dang sight easier, handlin’ horses all day, than tryin’ to do everything just right so she won’t cry.”
“Well, you’re the most decent, steady fellow I know, William Henry,” Gabe said, slapping his shoulder. “If Emma can’t be happy with you, she doesn’t stand a chance with anybody.”
Not that it’s much consolation, Billy thought. Forcing a grin, he locked hands with the kid he’d loved and trusted since they both came to Kansas ten years ago, fresh from their own separate misfortunes.
“Blood brothers—through thick and thin,” he whispered fiercely, because it would sound girlish to say how much he’d miss Gabe when he left for St. Louis tomorrow.
“Blood brothers through thick and thin,” the slender scholar echoed. “Still out to right the wrongs of this world, no matter what!”
Billy sighed. He’d been vowing vengeance against the Border Ruffians who killed his father before burning his family’s barns, while Gabe wanted justice for his family, killed in an Indian attack. Those were big promises they’d made as little kids.
So why did promising to love, honor and cherish Emma suddenly seem so much more difficult than their boyhood vows?
And once Gabe opened the small door leading into the sanctuary, there was no backing out. People he knew—lots of people from around town—were filling in the back of the church. The folks who mattered most in his life sat right there in the front pews, watching him.
Mama flashed him a smile, gripping her lace handkerchief. She looked pretty in a suit the color of summer leaves, seated beside Carlton Harte, her second husband. He wore his usual benign look to cover whatever little dramas he’d endured on the way to the church.
They seemed happy, though. Billy was just relieved that after months of the neighbors’ clucking over their living together, his mother had finally married the Pinkerton operative who rescued her from a postwar hustler. They had a home in Topeka now, a few hours away. He was sorry the space beside them was empty, but his sister Christine was in the family way again and couldn’t make the trip from San Francisco.
The faces beaming at him from across the aisle made him smile in spite of his nerves. The Malloy kids were dressed in their finery and polished to a shine: hard to believe Lily was now eight, all a-sparkle in pink with ribbons in her long, blonde hair. He clearly recalled the Easter morning they’d found her in a basket on Mercy’s doorstep—and today she was singing for them, so grown up his heart clutched a little.
Beside her, Solace fidgeted with the collar of her deep green dress—he knew that feeling! The wedding excited her, but she’d much rather be working the horses with him, dressed in her denim pants. With her dark curls and snapping brown eyes, Solace Monroe was the image of her deceased daddy, Judd—Billy’s special girl, because he’d birthed her during a blizzard, when Mercy had no other help but him and Malloy and Asa.
And Asa, bless his old darkie heart, sat between Solace and Joel to keep them quiet. He looked older these days, and thinner. But those coffee-colored eyes held all the wisdom of Solomon and the love of the Lord as he gazed proudly up at him and Gabe in their new suits.
Joel was gawking around the church, looking for a way to escape. At eleven, the kid had a restless spirit and he flitted from one interest to the next like a bird darting at worms. He wasn’t happy about wearing a shirt with a buttoned collar, either, and Billy suspected Joel would either sneak away—maybe crawl under the pews!—or cause enough ruckus that Michael would usher him down the side aisle for a sermon all his own.
Next to Joel sat Temple Gates, the children’s teacher and the Malloys’ household helper. Serene and lovely in her gown the color of butterscotch, she kept a watchful eye on her flock—and kept a firm, brown hand at the ready to grab Joel. She was indispensable to Mercy during meals and at bedtime; a model of faith and strength who’d bonded these patchwork children into a family after Mike and Mercy took her in.
The white-haired headmistress beside Temple regarded him regally: Mercy’s Aunt Agatha ran the prestigious Academy for Young Ladies that had surely saved Christine from ruination. Her wealth and sense of decorum set her above the humble homesteaders hereabouts, but Miss Vanderbilt believed anyone could better himself—which was why she’d so generously offered Gabe Getty a room in her home while he studied with a St. Louis lawyer she knew.
She’d advised Emma about wedding etiquette, too…and graciously held her tongue when his bride-to-be turned up her nose. Aunt Agatha and Mercy had always been his staunch supporters, however, and Billy knew he’d be asking their help and opinions often in the coming months.
And Mercy—how she beamed at him, with such love in her eyes! Because she’d helped Emma with the wedding preparations—and didn’t want the bride’s side of the church to be empty—she’d insisted their family would sit across the aisle. Just as she’d insisted from the beginning that he was part of their family. Strands of silver now accented her chestnut hair, but she sat tall in her new yellow dress, her hand wrapped in Michael’s as she smiled at him.
Billy shifted nervously, wondering if this organ song would ever end. Everyone in the church was looking at him, waiting for the bride to make her appearance.
But it was Michael Malloy’s gaze that gave him pause. This man who’d assumed the role of father for Mercy’s kids considered Billy his son, too—and Billy had been the most concerned about how Michael would react when he and Emma became engaged last fall. He owed Mike Malloy more than he could possibly repay, for the solid foundation he’d provided an abandoned boy who’d been little for his age, and so badly in need of a home and a purpose.
As the owner of the Triple M Ranch, Malloy stood head and shoulders above most of the other locals financially, but his shrewd, progressive thinking—and solid knowledge of horses—had gotten him there. Nobody had given Michael any breaks or handed him this life on a silver platter: Malloy was the most decent, hardworking man Billy knew, and he was grateful he could remain here as his manager, where the work—and the company of these fine people—sustained him. It was Michael who’d offered to build them a house, and Michael who’d drawn the plans for it and directed most of the building, all while doing his own wheat farming and raising the finest Morgan horses in Kansas.
Billy swallowed, fingering his collar again as the organ wheezed into a higher registration. Malloy’s gaze didn’t waver: it fixed on his eyes, as though asking him Billy, is this what you really want?
And once again Billy was face-to-face with the questions that had niggled at him since September, when Emma caught him unawares with her proposal. He had some doubts, sure, but didn’t every new husband?
He worried because last year’s invasion of grasshoppers had wiped out the wheat and corn crops, and their gardens, for the second year in a row. If they’d laid eggs—and surely they had–folks might have to face a third such devastating event this summer. How would he and Emma have food to put up? She and her daddy had barely scraped by this winter.
And Emma Clark wasn’t as stalwart as she used to be. Watching her mother go berserk and run to the river, while those hoppers ate away her dress, still haunted Emma. And why wouldn’t it? Rachel Clark had fallen and hit her head before rushing into the water to kill the horrid creatures crawling all over her. Emma and her father had called to her, running as fast as they could, but their cries were muffled by the racket of those grasshoppers devouring everything in their path. By the time they’d pulled Rachel from the river, she was too far gone to save.
Billy shifted again. He’d prayed on it often, but still didn’t have an answer for why God had allowed those bugs to descend like a cloud of death and destruction. He’d asked himself plenty of times if he could be the steadying hand Emma needed, in case those eggs from last year’s invasion hatched into a repeat performance this summer.
But who could say?
And who could guarantee them the happiness Michael and Mercy had found together? And what would he do if Emma had dreams he couldn’t make come true? Her head was full of female notions these days, and even before her mother’s death she’d changed from the solid, sturdy tomboy he’d met ten years ago. She was a woman now, every bit as temperamental as his sister Christine. And that scared him.
A rustling in the congregation made him look up. Beside him, Gabe straightened, gazing down the center aisle at his cousin, arrayed in a gown of flowing white, peering coyly from beneath her veil.
Emma. A bride—his bride.
And when she gazed at him, her hand in her daddy’s bent elbow, Billy got a quivery feeling in his gut. Was it love, or was the chicken he ate for dinner about to fly back up his throat? Mrs. Reid, the organist, brought everyone to their feet with the thundering chords of a wedding march.
Little Grace Malloy stepped and paused with the calculated poise Mercy’s Aunt Agatha had taught her, strewing petals of roses and orange blossoms from her white basket. Her pixie face was alight with glee at being part of the ceremony, and Billy had to grin at her. She was six now; born on the day his sister Christine had married and moved to California. Gracie was a pretty little thing, with Mercy’s large, doelike eyes and Michael’s sandy hair and unruffled disposition.
Before they knew it, she would be a bride—but first Billy had to get through today’s ceremony. Preferably without tripping over the hem of Emma’s wedding gown or doing anything else he’d live to regret.
After a moment of letting her gaze flutter over all the people admiring her, Emma Clark started down the aisle at a stiff, determined gait. Her father looked flummoxed, as though the warm summer day and the financial drain of this wedding were working on his nerves.
Billy knew the feeling. To keep from yanking the starched collar off his shirt, he gripped his fist…took a deep breath…prayed this was the right thing—the way God wanted him to go.
Next thing he knew, Emma was taking his arm, and Reverend Larsen was making his introductory remarks. Then Lily, the princess in pink, was stepping up beside the organ to sing her first song.
Billy nipped his lip. He had a fleeting thought about slipping away to toss up the knot that rolled in his stomach—
But it was too late for that, wasn’t it?