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By Charlotte Hubbard
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Charlotte Hubbard
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo 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 callused 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 his effort not to laugh. "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 a while to think about this wedding, and weboth 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'd both come 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 his friend 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?
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 filing into 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'd 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, blond 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 heart, sat between Solace and Joel to keep them quiet. He looked older these days, and thinner. But that wrinked, coffee-colored face 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 a 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 children 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 at the Triple M 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 was 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 had 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 the insects had 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; even before her mother's death, she'd changed from the solid, sturdy tomboy he'd met ten years earlier. 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 the congregation to its feet with the thundering chords of the 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?
Excerpted from Angel's Embrace by Charlotte Hubbard Copyright © 2007 by Charlotte Hubbard. Excerpted by permission.
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