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Gatlinburg, Tennessee September 1880
Josh O'Malley's life was about to change. Standing on the boardwalk in front of Clawson's Mercantile, a bouquet of wildflowers in his hand, he watched intently as the carriage rolled to a stop. The team of midnight-black horses snuffed and tossed their heads, their massive chests quivering with exertion. The driver, dripping sweat and wearing an inch-thick coating of dust, remained seated while a second, well-dressed man climbed down with haste and swept open the door as if royalty waited inside.
Time stood still. The sounds of the townsnatches of conversations, the bell above the mercantile's entrance, wagons lumbering pastall faded as he waited for a glimpse of his fiancée, Francesca Morgan. Six long months had passed since he'd last seen her.
Anticipation swelled within him like the Little Pigeon River after a heavy downpour. His fingers tightened on the stems. Would she like it here? Not for the first time, doubts flickered in his mind. How would this oil heiress from New York City adjust to his small town, tucked deep in the Smoky Mountains?
He shoved such thoughts aside. Together they would deal with any hurdles.
Then she was there, in the doorway, placing her gloved hand in the man's and floating down the steps in a cloud of seafoam green. All he could see was the top of her fancy hat. This was the first day of their lives together.
Her head whipped up, and he found himself staring into a stranger's face.
"Pardon me, Miss." Josh retreated a step. He glanced around her to find the carriage interior empty. Confused, he looked at her once more. "Excuse me, I was under the impression this was the Morgan carriage."
The young lady's eyes flared wide as if she recognized him. But that was impossible.
With a slight incline of her head, she dismissed the man at her side. "Thank you, Mr. Crandall." Her eyes held a mix of compassion and apprehension.
"Mr. Joshua O'Malley?"
His gut clenched. She couldn't know his name unless "Yes, that's me."
"My name is Katerina Morgan. I'm Francesca's younger sister."
Sister? Surely not. This lady and his fiancée looked nothing alike.
Francesca was tall, lithe and graceful, her peaches-and-cream complexion the perfect foil for her corn-silk hair and baby-blue eyes. The young lady standing before him was altogether different. Petite and fine-boned, yet in possession of captivating curves, the top of her head barely grazed his chin.
Katerina was a delicate lady like a doll come to life. Her face was a perfect oval, with rounded cheekbones and dainty chin. Her almond-shaped eyes shone the same hue as her pale green dress, and her pouty, pink lips could've been sculpted by an artist. Her hair was the color of decadent chocolate and arranged in elaborate twists and curls.
"Where is Francesca? Has something happened?"
"Pleaseis there somewhere we can speak in private?"
Curious townsfolk had stopped to watch their exchange. Gatlinburg was a small town, and most knew his fiancée was arriving today.
They would be out of sight behind the mercantile. Taking gentle hold of her arm, he helped her across the grass and caught a whiff of her perfume, a subtle scent with notes of citrus. Like her elegant outfit, it was most likely the latest fashion from Paris. And worth more money than he'd see in a lifetime.
"What lush beauty." Her steps faltered. "Why, I doubt I've ever seen its equal. You are fortunate, Mr. O'Malley, to wake up to this day after day."
He followed her uplifted gaze to the rounded mountain peaks on all sides, the clear blue sky a perfect backdrop against the autumn foliage visible even at the higher elevations. He understood her reaction. Most newcomers agreed this part of East Tennessee was a tiny slice of paradise.
"I can't imagine living anywhere else," he murmured.
The hushed hum of rushing water met his ears as they neared the bank's edge. Releasing her arm, he warned, "Mind your step. There's a steep drop-off." About ten feet below, the water's surface reflected the trees' changing colorsdusky green with patches of red and orange. "It's lovely," she breathed.
Enough small talk. "Why isn't Francesca here?" Instead of you?
She faced him, shoulders squared and hands clasped at her slim waist. "I'm afraid I have unse°ttling news." She paused, clearly uneasy. "Francesca has married another man."
Married? "That's impossible." Josh struggled to make sense of her words. "She promised to marry me." The date was set. Saturday next, they were to stand before Pastor Monroe and exchange vows. Friends and family had already been invited.
Her lips compressed in lines of regret. "I am truly sorry."
"I don't understand."
What about all those letters? Had she only pretended to be excited about starting a new life with him?
"Who is he?" he ground out.
"Someone she knew before she met you," she said gently. "They had a falling-out a few days before she left for her visit with the Meades."
He'd met the lovely heiress at the Meades' home in Sevierville, had gone to deliver a pair of rocking chairs and nearly run her over in the doorway of the grand mansion. Nothing in her behavior had hinted of another attachment. Surely he would've seen the signs!
"I realize this is difficult news"
"How long ago did she go back to him?" he demanded. "And why did she send you to do her dirty work?"
She blanched. "They were married two weeks ago.
And she did not send me. Despite my insistence that you should be told in person, she refused to come."
Whirling away from her, Josh battled conflicting emotions. Anger. Outrage. Disbelief. If the marriage had taken place two weeks ago, then they'd reconciled some time before.
He'd been duped.
His head pounding by this time, he strode to the edge of the embankment and hurled the bouquet, the kaleidoscope of colors cascading to the water's surface and swirling downstream. He needed to be alone, needed to think through this upheaval in his plans.
"I appreciate your coming here, Miss Morgan. Now I must go." He gave her a half bow. "Good day."
Kate's gaze lingered on the tender petals being crushed by the current before skittering to his retreating back. Collecting her skirts, she hurried after him.
When he stopped and glanced back, the tortured look in his eyes nearly took her breath away. "Yes?"
Kate stared at the man Francesca was to have married, unable to utter a word.
She'd looked at his picture when no one else was around, memorizing each feature. Intelligent brows, patrician nose, square jaw. His was a photogenic face.
On paper, he was merely a handsome stranger. The flesh-and-bone man was another matter entirely. In a word, he was intoxicating.
His dusky-gray, pin-striped suit, with its simple lines and understated elegance, molded to his broad shoulders and lean torso. His tan skin glowed with health and vibrancy, and his honey-brown hair was short, the ends bleached blond by the sun.
The neatly trimmed mustache and goatee covering his chin were new. Not usually taken by facial hair, Kate found his fascinating. He looked mysterious. A bit untamed.
"Did you need something?" he prompted.
He dwarfed her by at least a foot. That wasn't unusual. Most men did. "Can you direct me to Charlotte Matthews's house?"
A muscle in his jaw jumped. "You know Mrs. Matthews and her son?"
"She was my governess for many years. I haven't met Tyler, but she mentions him quite often in her letters."
"I see." His eyes were an intriguing color, the shimmering, metallic blue of a blue morpho butterfly's wings, pale around the pupil with a deeper ring of blue around the edges. So beautiful it made her wish for color photographs.
"Their farm is a mile or so outside of town. What time is your driver planning to leave?"
"As soon as I get settled at Charlotte's."
"You're staying here tonight?"
"Actually, I'm planning to be here for at least a month, perhaps longer."
His brows slashed down. "That long? May I ask why?"
"I'm here to take photographs of the mountains. I'm considering publishing a book about this area."
"A book," he repeated, clearly displeased. "You're a photographer?"
Was he one of those men who disapproved of female professionals? "I am."
His brilliant blue gaze assessed her. No doubt he was comparing her to her sister. She inwardly winced. She'd learned long ago that she didn't measure up, would forever be in Fran's shadow.
Men adored Fran. Women wanted to be her. Even their parents favored hertheir mother especially.
Patrick and Georgia Morgan had wanted only one child. Francescathe epitome of grace and lovelinessfulfilled their every dream of what a proper daughter should be. So when dark-haired, demanding Katerina arrived unexpectedly, Georgia had been less than thrilled.
A lengthy bout of colic made matters worse. For months, Georgia refused to visit the nursery, leaving Kate in the care of nannies. Perhaps that rough beginning had cast a pall over their relationship. Whatever the case, the distance between them seemed to grow wider with time.
Kate had given up trying to earn her mother's love.
"If you'd rather not help me," she said after a lengthy silence, "I'm sure I can find someone else."
He blew out a breath. "It's too far to walk. Mind if we take your rig?"
"Not at all." They fell into step, as he matched his stride to hers. "I appreciate this."
He merely nodded, his mouth set in grim lines. Once he'd given directions to her driver and tethered his horse to the rear of the carriage, he settled his tall frame in the seat across from her. Holding his hat in his hands, he took in the sumptuous mahogany fabric that covered every square inch of the carriage interior. What was he thinking?
His letters, which Fran had read aloud in the drawing room during afternoon tea, had been filled with descriptions of his family's home and the town of Gatlinburg. Fran had laughed, calling him provincial. Kate disagreed. Josh's letters had revealed a charming, thoughtful man who dearly loved his family and hometown.
Glancing out the window, she caught sight of Claw-son's Mercantile, the post office and a quaint white church framed by the mountains.
"Everything looks just as I'd imagined it," she said without thinking. "Your description of Main Street makes me feel as though I've been here before."
His voice dripped icicles. "You read my letters?"
"I. We." she sputtered. "Well, y-yes. Fran read them aloud." Mortified at her slip, Kate pretended an exaggerated interest in the tips of her tan leather ankle boots.
"Those were my private thoughts, intended for no one but Francesca."
Silence settled heavy and oppressive between them.
"I am truly sorry," she murmured. "I've hurt you"
"No. Your sister did that all on her own." He turned his head to glare out the window. "It's becoming quite clear she did not hold me in the same regard as I did her."
What could she say? That Fran was interested only in social standing and wealth? Why she'd ever accepted Josh O'Malley's proposal was beyond Kate. Perhaps to make Percy jealous, so he'd come crawling back to her? If that was the case, the ploy had worked.
The man across from her looked lost. Adrift in a vast ocean with no rescue in sight. Fran had done this to him, but Kate had delivered the news. Did he despise her for listening to his letters? Did he consider her the enemyguilty by association?