Authors: S. Dionne Moore
Copyright Â© 2010 by S. Dionne Moore. All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the permission of Truly Yours, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., PO Box 721, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.
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South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, Lake Conemaugh, Pennsylvania, May 10, 1889
Jack Kelly stood cloaked in the shadow of a large tree. From this vantage point, his view of the woman he hoped to make his wife remained quite clear.
Alongside the lake, surrounded by veils of white dogwood blooms, the three Hensley children flocked around the skirts of Alaina Morrison's day dress. Her beatific smile beamed down on their heads. Alaina's close friend, Mary, off to the side of the group, laughed at the spectacle created as Alaina held the candy in her hand high above the shorter heads of their charges. Her voice carried to his hiding place. “Not until after supper. I promised your mother.”
Jack drank in the scene. As one child, taller than the rest, made a jump for the candy, Alaina leaned into him with her free hand and offered a tickle to his ribs.
Mary calmed the growing frenzy of laughter with a clap of her hands. “We need to be heading home.” Mary tapped the heads of two blond twins and an older girl and motioned. “Let's go before supper is declared too cold to eat.”
“Do we have to go?” Little Lily Hensley whined to Alaina as she stood, grubby hands full of the pebbles prevalent at the lakeside retreat.
“We got here later than usual.” She touched the tip of Lily's nose. “I'll allow five more minutes of playtime. How does that sound?”
Reinvigorated by the news, Lily clapped Alaina around the knees and the two went tumbling into a patch of spring green grass. Alaina sat up and started a tickle attack.
Jack crossed his arms, entranced by the vision before him. Alaina's yellow day dress did not flaunt the latest style. Plain but crisp, the material flattered her dark hair and eyes. The ease with which she laughed and smiled, accepted disappointments, and shared in fun swelled his heart, just as it had since he'd first talked to her at the store where her mother stitched clothing.
He'd seen her before that afternoon, but only at a distance. When she'd dropped three bolts of material at his feet and he'd helped to pick them up, her smile had made his heart pound and his palms sweat. He'd made the trip to the store across the river every spare moment for the past year and a half. At least until it had dawned on him that he loved her. But marriage meant he would need money.
He pushed the thought away as Alaina spread her arms wide. The smallest child of the prominent Hensley family toddled into her arms. She made a great show of allowing the little boy to help her to her feet, so much so that the two older children, Lily and Mark, pitched in to help.
With the light breeze from the lake at his back, and the promise of summer before him, Jack could no longer discount his feelings. For days he had reviewed his proposal, hesitant to say the words out loud, then unsure why he hesitated at all in asking Alaina to be his wife. But hesitate he did, and he hated himself at the end of every day he waited.
Today would be the day.
Alaina guided her small flock up the walkway toward Moorhead cottage, a large home that held little in common with its name. Built on the edge of Lake Conemaugh, the huge Queen Anneâstyle home, with its rounded end tower, was the summer retreat for any family rich enough to afford the rental price; a privilege Jack hoped to provide for Alaina someday. Of course, they would need to be members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club first. But he held little doubt that as soon as he completed his invention, he would make that dream come true, too.
Jack turned his head and relished the bright sunshine that cast diamonds on the lake. Several boathouses squatted along the shore, waiting for the influx of summer club members to open their creaking doors and indulge in a little boating. Again, the sting of his inability to afford such luxuries stoked his determination.
Pushing his thoughts aside, Jack squinted toward the end of Lake Conemaugh, where a wide road crossed the breast of a tall dam. The view from the dam into the valley was breathtaking, one of Alaina's favorite spots. Satisfied with the location he had chosen, he inhaled to steady his nerves and returned his attention to the dark-haired beauty.
Alaina's steps brought her closer to him. Lily held her left hand, the three-year-old boy her right. Behind her trailed the twelve-year-old, trying to appear aloof from his siblings and “nanny.”
Jack grinned. At twelve he would have done the same thing. He stepped out from beneath the tree and into the waning sunlight.
Thomas, the toddler, saw him first. He tugged Alaina's hand, pointing and drawing her attention to where Jack stood.
When she met his gaze, her expression softened, and she gave him a shy smile.
Jack laughed as Lily barreled into his legs. Her small face tilted back. “You bring me candy, Jack?”
“Lillian!” Alaina frowned. “Didn't I just say no more candy?”
“But Robert brings me candy.” Lillian pouted.
Alaina's eyes flicked to his. She flinched, then glanced back to Lillian and held out her hand. “And you know how many times I've told Robert not to do that.”
Jack tensed as he watched the flush creep up Alaina's neck. Robert. Again. The man's presence drove a thorn into Jack's side. They had worked together for the last year, a silent rivalry that extended from the workplace the moment Robert discovered his relationship with Alaina. He knew Alaina loved him, but sometimes Robert's persistence wore on him, and niggling doubts caused him to wonder if Alaina's gentle spirit somehow encouraged the man. His words came slowly. “Robert's daddy must be very rich to have so much candy.”
Lily shook her head. “He doesn't have a daddy.”
“Everyone has a daddy, silly,” Alaina said.
“Big people don't.” Lily's wide eyes beamed up at Jack.
Jack hesitated, the face of his rival flashed in his mind. He squatted down to look Lily in the eyes. “Robert is a big person, huh? How often does he come see you, Lils?” His voice directed the question at Lily, but his eyes flicked to Alaina.
She looked away.
“Lots.” Lily tugged his hand. “Do you have a daddy?”
Jack felt the grip of that question as he stood. He shoved his hands into his pockets and forced a smile. “Miss Morrison is right. Everyone has a father.”
Mark, the eldest Hensley boy, shot out from behind them and took the steps, two at a time, up to the porch. “We're gonna be late,” he shouted from the top step.
Alaina placed Thomas's hand into Lily's and sent them up the steps. “I'll be along shortly. Make sure you wash your hands. Lily, you help Thomas.”
The girl mumbled something and tugged her little brother along. On the third step, she paused and twisted around. “I don't have a father. I have a daddy.”
“Come on,” Mark yelled from the front door.
Jack cocked a brow. “Inquisitive, isn't she?”
He waited for Alaina to look at him. She appeared weary, and he knew the subject of Robert, in her mind, was a closed one. “Robert's been pestering you again? Why didn't you tell me?”
“There's nothing to tell.” She held his gaze. “He's been here twice, and I always send him away. He does it to antagonize you, you know.”
Jack nodded. “I'll say something to him.”
She raised a hand. “Don't.”
Jack felt the first stab of irritation. “Why not?”
“Because I don't want to feed your animosity. You used to be great friends, remember?”
“Before you and I started seeing each other. A lot of things can change in a year.” He saw the silent plea in her eyes and slid his hands into his pockets. If only he could afford a ring to slip onto her finger when he proposed. After he made good on his plans. “What I do, I do for us.”
“Then let's put this subject aside for now and enjoy our time together.” She lifted the front of her skirts and took the first step in the long flight to Hensley cottage, speaking over her shoulder. “I've got to get the children settled, and I'll be back.”
The edge of his anger cooled as Jack watched her ascent.
She stopped halfway up and faced him. “You know, I've never heard you speak of your father before. Maybeâ”
“Another subject to set aside.” He cleared his throat to dispel the gruffness of his tone and forced a note of lightness into his voice. “Hurry back. I have a surprise for you.”
Her eyes sparkled. “I'll hurry.” She made short work of the remaining steps and waggled her fingers at him before the door closed and blocked her from view.
Jack settled in for the wait. Mrs. Hensley's maid would take care of the children for the evening, but it was up to Alaina to get them settled for their supper before her duties were done. Ten minutes and she would be his.
His heart rate rose with anticipation. He rehearsed the speech he would make before the proposal. Should he kneel? Would she laugh? He patted his breast pocket to be sure he had a handkerchief in case she cried.
He straightened when the front door opened again and Alaina stepped onto the porch. At the top of the steps, she tilted her face toward the sun as if drinking in its energy. Jack's heart slammed against his ribs. He barreled up the steps.
She startled, a delicate hand at her throat. “You're crazy.”
“Crazy in love.”
She shook her head at him and stroked her hand down his cheek. “What am I going to do with you?”
It was on the tip of his tongue to say the words, but he bit them back. He didn't want her memory of his proposal to be the front step of the Hensley rental.
In another burst of exuberance, Jack spanned her waist with his hands and lifted her down to the step even with him. She gasped at his action. When her feet were on solid ground again, he pulled her close.
She tilted her head back and jammed an elbow against his chest. “Really, Jack, I don't know what's gotten into you.” Her gaze darted back to the house. “We need to be aware of who might be watching. You know the club doesn't like trespassers.”
“You're not a trespasser. You work for them,” Jack pointed out, but he gave her some room and satisfied himself with holding her hand.
“True. Neither of us are members, though, and that's what matters most to the owners.”
“I'll be a member soon enough.” He swelled his chest and winked. “When I get this promotion, I'll be well on my way to the presidency. Then we'll come up here as often as we please.”
Jack tugged on her hand and allowed her to precede him down the stairs. As soon as he could, he twined his fingers with hers. He imagined himself a rich magnate and member of the exclusive club out strolling with his beautiful wife. His normal steps became a rolling strut.
She followed his pantomime and pretended to carry a parasol, head tilted at a lofty angle, her steps small but hurried.
At the end of the boardwalk, Jack could contain his laughter no longer.
Alaina's eyes sparkled as she, too, gave vent to the giggles stirred by their outrageous act. “If anyone should see us, they might think we're mocking.”
“Oh, my lady, never us,” he drawled. “We have lofty goals to attain such status ourselves.”
Though her smile stayed, something died in Alaina's eyes. She bent to retrieve a handful of pebbles and tossed them into the mirrorlike surface at the edge of the lake.
Her silence sent gravel churning in his stomach. “Did I say something?” He touched her elbow. “Alaina?”
When she lifted her face, he could see the strain in her expression. “It's nothing, really. I think we've agreed to put aside unpleasant subjects. I don't want to spoil the evening.”
Jack studied her profile a moment and then shrugged away his concern by changing the subject. “I brought a wagon from South Fork. I thought we might have our supper there this evening.” His suggestion still did not rekindle the light in her eyes. Taking a deep breath, he braced himself and broached the subject he suspected caused her distress. “It's not you I don't trust, Alaina. It's Robert.”
She gave him a wan smile. “Yes, but that doesn't end the strain between you two. Is this promotion really worth your friendship, Jack? Is money?”
How many times would he be forced to remind her? “I'm doing it for us.”
He saw in her expression the moment she decided to let the argument alone. “Yes. I know.”
Jack exhaled long and slow. Good. Still, shades of doubt niggled at his mind. The joy of his surprise seemed to have lessened considerably, and the weight of that made the moment flawed somehow.
As they neared Jack's rented wagon, she paused to fling more rocks into the lake. He took advantage of the opportunity to absorb her carefree attitude. Most young women wouldn't think about flinging dirty rocks, much less picking one up. Alaina had an easy way about her that soothed Jack, and her way with children never failed to delight him. He wanted children. Lots of children.
He aided her ascent into the buggy and climbed in beside her, still unsure of what to do.
He followed her line of vision to see a heron rise from the lake. Another stood at the water's edge and craned its neck in their direction.
“Regal,” he said and directed the wagon onto the road that crossed the dam. “We're coming up on the view.”
The horse tugged the wagon along the road, harness jangling. Jack stopped the animal in the dead center of the road and went around to the other side of the wagon to help Alaina down.
Mottled green marked the stretching, yawning new leaves that peppered the trees in the narrow valley. Birds swooped and spun in dizzying patterns.
Jack refocused his attention on Alaina.
Her gentle smile lifted his spirits. Her eyes danced. “It's so beautiful.”
For only a moment, he allowed the voice of caution to have sway.
I could ask her tomorrow night.