“Preacher’s a-comin’!” Asa sang out.
“Joel, dang it, you gotta quit chasin’ them chickens!”
The barking of the two dogs as they ran to meet Reverend Larsen’s wagon inspired a wild, high wailing that could only belong to Lily—who in turn toddled over to pester little Solace, asleep in her basket.
As the baby then began to cry, Christine Bristol looked out the window of her upstairs room, shaking her head at the scene below. Asa, the old hired man, was hailing the preacher while her younger brother Billy made a valiant attempt to keep three-year-old Joel out of the muddy corrals.
“Christine’s gonna tan your hide if you get these new weddin’ clothes dirty, boy!” he warned.
The feisty child ducked and ran the other way.
“Can’t catch me! Can’t catch me!” Joel taunted over his shoulder. And if the two border collies hadn’t dashed over to knock him down, he’d have shot out in front of the approaching wagon.
As it was, the preacher’s horse spooked, and Reverend Larsen, a slender, bookish fellow, struggled to rein it in so the pump organ wouldn’t roll off the back of his buckboard.
“My Lord, it’s a three-ring circus out there,” Christine remarked. “I’d better go down and—”
“Let the men handle things for a few minutes more, while we put on my veil. Please?”
Christine turned to behold Mercedes Monroe—soon to be Mercy Malloy—arrayed in an ivory gown she herself had designed. While the silk dress, made with a lace overlay and trimmed in satin ribbon, was the most elegant piece she’d ever created, it was the woman wearing it who made the whole room glow. Radiant didn’t do justice to this homesteading widow about to take her wedding vows again.
“How do you do it?” Christine whispered. “You lost Judd last year, and nearly lost your mind before Solace was born. Then you had two other children dropped in your lap—and you look utterly unruffled today. Like you’re the happiest woman in the world.”
“I am.” Mercy took Christine’s hand and approached the window. “You see that man out there? The dashingly handsome one in the new suit, who just snatched his son up from the dust?”
Christine nodded. She and Mike Malloy had shared some strained moments, but she had to admit he was a fine catch.
“Well, when Michael smiles at me, I’m seventeen again,” Mercy continued in a lovestruck whisper. “And when he kisses me, I’m thankful to be twenty-nine. Woman enough to appreciate him.”
As though he’d heard her, Malloy looked up at them. Holding a squirming, kicking Joel against one hip, the sandy-haired man blew them a kiss.
“Lovely day for a wedding, ladies!” he called up. He looked a little rakish with that mustachioed grin. “I love you, Mercy!”
“I love you, too!” she called, returning his kiss.
Christine yanked her away from the window. “It’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride—”
“Only if you believe such superstitions.” Mercy smiled serenely at her, still holding her hand.
“The fact that I’ve survived to see this happy day is proof that I’m a very blessed woman. Watched over by the angels all around me,” she continued quietly. “There’s a man downstairs—and a Man Upstairs—who thinks I’m really somebody. So I don’t argue with that. I hope you’ll find this same happiness someday, Christine.”
“Nicely said, Mercedes. And aren’t you just the loveliest bride on the face of this earth?”
They smiled at Agatha Vanderbilt, who studied them from the doorway. She, too, wore a new gown Christine had created from shimmering fuchsia faille. With its beaded neckline adding sparkle to her cheeks and a nosegay of ribbon roses tucked into her upswept hair, she could’ve passed as royalty.
“And you, Miss Bristol,” the little headmistress went on, “have come such a long way—have developed your extraordinary talent for design to such a level—that I stand in awe of you as well, my dear. It’s a proud day for us all.”
Christine basked in this woman’s praise. It was no small favor that Mercy’s Aunt Agatha had accepted her at the Academy for Young Ladies, and introduced her to the upper crust of St. Louis, and then to the esteemed seamstress she would work with after Christmas. Much as she missed her own mother, she realized such opportunities would never have come her way, had she still lived in Missouri.
Mercy’s voice brought her out of her daydreaming.
“Christine, I can’t thank you enough for making this gorgeous dress. And thank you, Aunt Agatha, for providing its beautiful fabrics.”
As the bride turned in front of the mirror to admire her wedding gown, Christine scrutinized it a final time. More than a gift of gratitude to the woman who’d taken her in, this confection of silk, satin, and lace had won her an apprenticeship with Madame Devereaux, the most exclusive couturiere in St. Louis.
“Since this is Michael’s first marriage–and since you so graciously agreed to let Christine keep the dress–nothing but the finest ivory silk and Brussels lace would do,” Miss Vanderbilt replied proudly. “Its fitted bodice becomes you, Mercedes. You look even lovelier than the day you married Judd.”
The three of them fell silent, recalling the handsome, loving man Mercy had lost in an Indian attack.
“Well!” Christine remarked cheerfully. “I’ll need a few hair pins to secure your veil. The guests will be arriving any minute now!”
“Check in my vanity, dear. They should be in the top drawer.”
Christine descended the stairs with a smile of triumph: she’d designed her own gown of mint green taffeta, too, delighting in the high style that set her above these neighbor ladies in their calico. No one was happier than she to be leaving these dark log walls behind, when the family moved to the white frame house Michael had built. High time Mercy had something besides a calico curtain separating her bedroom from the parlor!
She yanked open the center drawer of the vanity, rummaged for the hairpins, and then checked the drawers down the sides. Mercy had worn her chestnut hair tied back for so long, she’d had little use for the hairpins most women considered a necessary—
Christine gaped. Over the years, Mercy had stashed her keepsakes in this bottom drawer, but these letters were addressed to her—Miss Christine Bristol! At the academy! The bold, looping penmanship made her heart skip into triple-time: only Tucker Trudeau wrote this way!
“Of all the lying, two-faced—”
She ripped the ribbon from the bundle. Why, there must be half a dozen letters here! And the top one had been opened! For the past three years, she’d assumed the handsome photographer from Atchison had lost track of Mama—or lost interest in her.
Ma chère Christine, she read with ravenous eyes, A pleasure it is, to hear from you again! And you are enrolled in a fine school! A bright, pretty girl like yourself should make the most of her talents.
She ran to the back door, scanning the yard for her brother. “Billy! Billy, you come upstairs now!” she hollered. Then she hurried up the steps as fast as her crinolines allowed.
Her chest felt so tight she couldn’t breathe. She burst through the doorway, where Mercy and Miss Vanderbilt were attaching orange blossoms to the headpiece of her veil.
“What is the meaning of—these letters are addressed to me! And I never got them!” she cried. “Tucker was my last contact with Mama—my only hope of finding her! But now I’ve discovered what a liar and a traitor you are, Mercy! And you, Miss Vanderbilt, saw them first!”
Mercy’s face paled to the shade of her wedding dress, and the headmistress pressed her lips into a thin line. Guilty! One glance at the letters, and they shrank into a strained silence. As well they should!
“You were only thirteen when those letters came,” Miss Vanderbilt began. “It wasn’t proper for a man of Mr. Trudeau’s age to correspond with—”
“Proper?” she demanded, rattling the pages at them. “How proper was it for Richard Wyndham to sweet-talk my mother into running off with him? You all called him a shyster, but what did you do to rescue Mama from his clutches?”
Her voice rang shrilly in the little room as she advanced toward the two women. All the humiliation and heartache of being abandoned returned in a rush, making her pulse thunder so loudly she couldn’t think. If it weren’t for Billy’s rapid footsteps on the stairs, she’d be strangling these two conspirators rather than talking to them.
“What’s all the dang yellin’ about?” he rasped. “I thought the house must be afire, the way you—”
“We’ve got a fire, all right,” Christine muttered, “and it’s straight out of hell! Did you know your sweet, loving Mercy Monroe was hiding these letters? And that your buddy Miss Vanderbilt was in on it?”
Her brother’s confused expression told her he’d never seen them. “They’re from Mama?” he breathed.
“No! But you know Tucker Trudeau gave me that photograph of her and Mr. Wyndham, when I met him Atchison,” she snapped. “And now I find out he did not stop writing to me!”
“You were very upset,” Mercy hastened to explain. “We were afraid you’d run off again, and find more trouble than you could handle. If the Indians hadn’t grabbed you, the wolves would’ve—”
“You could’ve at least opened them! You knew Tucker had seen Mama—”
Billy’s low whistle silenced them. He’d opened one of the thicker envelopes, and his eyes went wet as he turned the page toward her. “Looks like you ain’t the only one who has that likeness of Mama and Mr. Wyndham.”
Christine gasped. The page Billy held was a Wanted poster.
“Hitch up the wagon,” she breathed. “We’re going to Atchison.”
“But Mike and Mercy’re gettin’ married in—”
“How can you care about these people?” she cried. “They’ve betrayed you, too, Billy! I’ve got to talk to the only man I can trust—and any son who loved his mother would come along! Now move!”
Her brother tugged at the collar of his new shirt, glancing nervously from Mercy to Miss Vanderbilt. “But how do you know—what if Tucker ain’t—”
“Are you such a traitor you can’t at least drive me to the train station?”
Billy swallowed hard. “All right, then. Let’s go.”