If there's anyone in town stubborn enough to deal with Wade's cantankerous father, it's Abigail. It's just a business arrangementand a temporary one, at that. Her good opinion shouldn't matter a lick to Wade. Yet their different backgrounds belie a surprising kinship. Perhaps unexpected love will be their reward for the summer's inconvenient match.
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New Harmony, Iowa, 1901
One glance at the rogue across the way curled Abigail Wilson's gloved hands into a stranglehold on her skirts. She couldn't dispute that Wade Cummings was handsome, rugged
Her heart stuttered in her chest. And, a ladies' man who took pleasure in toying with a woman's affections.
Abigail should warn that bevy of giggling young females surrounding him, all vying for his attention. Not that they'd believe falling for the Cummings heir entailed a risk. No doubt each hoped he would bid on her box lunch and spend the afternoon, better yet, a lifetime, plastered to her side. Their plan for the futurea wedding ring.
She'd seen how well that worked out in the best of circumstances, but tied to a Cummings that would be a jail sentence without end.
She turned away from her nemesis and joined the throng pouring into the small park bordering Main Street. Inside the park's gazebo a table held dozens of gaily wrapped box lunches. She handed hers to Oscar Moore, the fundraiser's auctioneer.
Oscar doffed his straw hat. "Afternoon, Miss Abigail."
Donned in his usual garb of a plaid flannel shirt and bib overalls even on this warm Saturday in May, Oscar lined her box up with the others on display, a colorful mix of paper, silk flowers and ribbon.
"I'd give Leon a run for his money and bid on your lunch exceptin' I make it a point to never come between lovebirds."
Abigail bit back a grin. Lovebirds hardly described her and Leon.
A sudden grimace marred Oscar's placid plump face. "Land's sake, they're at it again."
Up ahead, young people circled a commotion. Abigail rose on her tiptoes. Why, inside that ring, two of her students hunched, clenched hands reared back, ready to strike a blow. Within seconds bystanders took sides, egging them on, as if they needed encouragement. Paul was a hothead, but Seth normally had a level head on his shoulders. What had happened?
Abigail strode toward the ruckus, using her collapsed parasol to clear a path, and pushed her way between the two glowering teenagers. Not wise considering each stood a head taller than her, and outweighed her by a good fifty pounds.
"She's mine, you hear!"
"Like you own her!"
"You two are behaving like tantrum-throwing toddlers," Abigail said. Chests heaving, eyes sparking, knuckles white, neither boy appeared to hear. "Seth! Paul! Unfold those fists!"
Looking slightly dazed, both boys lowered their arms and took a step back.
Seth Collier, his dark hair curling with perspiration, dropped a sheepish gaze to his feet.
Paul Roger's face was contorted in anger and as red as his hair, his icy-blue eyes shooting daggers. He reached around
Abigail and shoved a palm into Seth's shoulder. Seth staggered, almost losing his balance.
Abigail slapped her parasol against Paul's forearm. "Stop that!" Finally both boys turned toward her. "What's this about?"
"Seth's going to bid on Betty Jo's lunch. Everyone knows she's my girl."
"Then outbid him. The box social is about raising money."
Snarling, Paul took a threatening step toward Seth. "No one bids on Betty Jo's lunch but me."
"If sharing a meal with another boy will damage your friendship with Betty Jo, then face the truth, Paul, you don't mean much to her in the first place."
Betty Jo Weaver, the object of the boys' hostility, sashayed over, dainty hands planted on hips, lips flattened in a disapproving line. "I wouldn't share my lunch with either of you blockheads, not for all the tea in China!" She spun away, petticoats and blond curls flying.
"As you can see, gentlemen, the way to a lady's heart isn't through your fists."
"Now look what you've gone and done," Paul groused to Seth then took off at a run. "Betty Jo, wait up!"
With the fight over before it started, bystanders lost interest and dispersed.
Abigail took in Seth's familiar faded shirt, the elbow she'd patched one afternoon after school. Motherless with a father who drank, the boy didn't have an easy life.
"You need to watch what you say to Paul. You know his temper." She smiled to soften her words. "Plenty of other girls would like to share their lunch with you."
"Maybe," Seth said but didn't look convinced.
Did he really care about Betty Jo? If so, he was bound to get hurt. Betty Jo Weaver had bigger pickings in mind. Already she'd joined the circle of Wade Cummings's ardent admirers. Foolish girl.
Off to the side, face downcast, Paul stood watching. Young love hurt, she knew, but dismissed the thought and turned away from such silliness.
"Seth, the school board agreed to pay someone to stoke the schoolhouse stove this winter. Would you like the job?"
His eyes lit. "Yes, ma'am, I sure would."
"It'll mean getting up early."
"I can manage."
"I know you can. Now have a good time today. And no fighting."
"Yes, ma'am," he said then trotted off.
Seth was a good kid. A bright kid. And weighted down with responsibility. With a father who saw any act of kindness toward him and his son as interference. The best way to help Seth was to get him out from under his father's influence and into college next year.
"This box social reminds me of a meal we once shared."
At the sound of his voice and the implication in that tone, the hair on the back of Abigail's neck rose. She whirled to face the speaker, tripping on her skirts, and stared into the eyes of Wade Cummings.
He steadied her, his touch firm and warm through her sleeve. A lazy grin rode his chiseled features, as if he found her reaction amusing. When he knew perfectly well she wouldn't share a meal with him if he were the last person on earth.
She jutted her chin. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Are you saying you've forgotten the school picnic? I'll never forget the strawberry pie you brought."
A flash of memory of Wade capturing a speck of filling with his tongue, then declaring the pie the best he'd ever eaten as her stomach had roiled. Not from the dessert, but that he'd spoken to her at all, considering the trouble between their families. Worse when he'd asked to join her on the blanket, she'd nodded, unable to refuse the allure of those deep-set indigo eyes. That afternoon they'd strolled through the park, talked for hours. For weeks they'd spent every minute together they could. Not easy when her family adamantly refused to let Wade come calling.
That had been a long time ago. Before Wade dumped her like a sack of rotten potatoes. Before Pa died. Before she fully grasped the Cummings family treachery and suffered the consequences. She dealt with them still.
As she pivoted on her heel to avoid him and the heartache those memories awakened, Wade stopped her with a gentle hand on hers. "Did you make strawberry pie for today's lunch?"
"No." She shook off his touch, grateful she spoke the truth, but if she had prepared his favorite dessert, she'd never admit as much to Wade. "Leave me alone."
Oscar Moore's brother Cecil, self-proclaimed mayor of New Harmony, sidled up beside her. Long-faced and tall, the exact opposite of his rotund brother, Cecil lifted a brow. "From the looks of it you two could use a referee. My rheumatism's been acting up but I ain't too feeble to handle the job."
"No need, Cecil. Mr. Cummings was just leaving," Abigail said with a finality Wade couldn't miss. And from the stubborn set of his jaw, he hadn't.
"Well, in that case I'll mosey on back to my post." Cecil shook his head. "Too bad you two mix about like oil and water. Cause you look right well together. Better'n Pastor Ted's matched team of Percherons."
With a jaunty wave, he hobbled off, leaving Abigail with flushed cheeks.
Wade chuckled. "Hope you don't mind being compared to a horse. In Cecil's view there's no higher compliment."
"He's mistaken. Nothing about us matches."
"Sometimes an unlikely pair works well as one." Wade's gaze drilled into her. "I noticed how you stood up to those young troublemakers looking for a fight. I'd like to discuss"
"We have nothing to say to each other."
"Please, hear me out."
"Why should I? Hasn't your family done enough damage?"
Wade gave Abby a long lingering look, letting his eyes roam her blond hair, the color of honey, worn in a pouf around her face in what he'd heard called the Gibson Girl look. Her dewy peaches-and-cream complexion, flawless except for a pale birthmark near her left ear, flushed with anger. At his perusal she lowered her gaze, the sweep of her dark lashes leaving shadows on her cheeks.
For a short time that face had occupied his dreams.
Truth be told, he'd never managed to purge her from his mind. "Can we get past the trouble between our families even for a moment?"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Under slim brows, her arresting eyes, a luminous blue, blazed with antagonism, no doubt the same look that had halted those hot-tempered adolescents in their tracks.
Abby had spunk.
Clearly, she despised him.
What difference did it make? Wade didn't seek a relationship with Abigail Wilson. Or anyone for that matter. But after witnessing the feisty schoolmarm rebuke Seth and the Rogers' kid, even whack Paul with her parasol, Wade knew he'd found the perfect candidate for the job. If he could get her to listen to anything he said.
Well, he wouldn't create a scene by insisting, not with everyone gawking. He tipped his hat. "You look mighty pretty in blue."
Though her eyes narrowed, her hand sought her hair, fiddling with a strand near her ear. Whether she'd admit it or not, he affected her.
As he sauntered off, those within earshot put their heads together, no doubt wondering why a Wilson and a Cum-mings had exchanged words.
How could he make his offer if she wouldn't talk to him?
The solution came. A solution so simple he wondered why he hadn't thought of it sooner.
A soft chuckle rumbled inside him. He wasn't a schoolboy she could intimidate. She didn't know it yet, but Miss Abigail Wilson had met her match.
Heart-pounding memories tore through Abigail. Memories of Wade sitting beside her in Sunday school, walking her home from class, always parting before they reached Cummings State Bank and the Wilson apartment overhead. One day he'd given her a pink hair ribbon, a memento of his affection, he'd said.
Why had she believed him?
Refusing to give the scoundrel another thought, Abigail moved through the park, pulling into her lungs a faint whiff of smoke. The acrid odor sparked memories of the fire that had swept through New Harmony two weeks earlier, leaving behind destruction and suffering.
As she recalled the unbearable heat, the thick smoke, the terror of that night, her stomach knotted. But then the underlying scent of fresh lumber reached her nostrils and its promise of new beginnings eased the tension inside of her.
Thank you, God, no one lost their life or would be permanently disabled.
A miracle or so it seemed to Abigail.
With a thankful heart, she greeted friends and neighbors in the crowd milling around the gazebo. An amazingly festive crowd considering the town had gathered to raise money for her sister's family and five other households who'd lost everything in that fire.
Mother Nature smiled upon today's festivities, bestowing glorious sunshine, puffy clouds and a gentle breeze, belying her earlier tiradethe lightning strike that turned a thunderstorm into a one-block inferno.
Up ahead, Rachel Fisher waved, a straw boater tilted at a coquettish angle on her raven hair.
Rachel reached Abigail's side and slid an arm through hers. "Papa said if no one bids on my lunch, he would." Her brow puckered. "I'll die of mortification."
"Wearing that pretty dress and hatwhy, you'll have loads of admirers clamoring to share your lunch."
"You say the sweetest things. No wonder you're my best friend in the world." Rachel leaned closer. "Speaking of admirers, did you see the girls fawning over Wade Cummings earlier?"
Against her better judgment, Abigail turned toward her foe. He met her gaze, and then had the audacity to tip his hat, but not her world. Five years ago, the gesture would've quivered in her stomach. No more. She was done with that man.
"With all the eager contenders for the position, why isn't he courting anyone? Do you suppose he feels too good for us?"
"Yes, I do."
"Too bad." Rachel sighed. "Wade's handsome and rich and"
"A Cummings," Abigail said, hoping to put an end to where the conversation led.
Abigail's hand sought the slender chain around her neck that held the tiny gold ring Pa had bought the day she was born. He'd called her his baby girl until everything changed. Pa most of all.
Rachel rose on her tiptoes and searched the park. "Is Leon at the bank?"
"He'll be here before the bidding starts."
"Guaranteeing your lunch will be snapped up," Rachel moaned. "I've got to find Papa before he humiliates me." She gave Abigail a hug then scurried off in search of her father.
Mr. Fisher adored his daughter. Rachel didn't appreciate what she had. But then, Abigail hadn't either until she'd lost it.
Oscar Moore motioned her over to the gazebo. "What triggered that scrap between the Roger and Collier boys?"
"Betty Jo Weaver."
"Should'a known." His face crinkled in a grin. "You gotta be grateful school's out and you're free as a bird."
In reality, Abigail had eight mouths to feed. The fire made her search for a job difficult, as those who'd lost everything scrambled for additional income, all vying for the few available openings. "This bird is looking for a summer cage. If you hear of a job, let me know."
"Reckon something'll turn up iffen you pray about it."
She'd prayed about it, but wouldn't sit idly by when God had given her a good brain and the education to help herself.
"Well, time to get this here show on the road." Oscar lumbered up the gazebo steps, slipped two fingers in his mouth, releasing a shrill whistle that quieted the crowd. "Reckon you all know why we're here," he called out. "Let's plan on going home with full bellies and empty wallets. Show those folks, who lost everything, that we not only care, we share." He pumped a pudgy fist. "Are you ready?"
A cheer rose from the throng. A huge grin spread across Oscar's plump face, swallowing up his eyes.
The community had pitched in to help, exactly as Abigail would expect. Single women put up their box lunches to the highest bidder while married ladies handled the bake sale, offering pies, cakes and cookies, along with iced tea and lemonade, at tables already lined with buyers.
After explaining the rules, the auction began. Oscar accepted a bid made by the blushing box owner's beaming suitor who opened his wallet and withdrew bills. "The best money I ever spent," he said, handing the cash to Oscar.
At his side, his young love giggled. "I'm a terrible cook."
"When I can feast my eyes on you, Lora Lee, I don't care what I eat," he vowed, taking the box and offering his arm.
"You'll change your mind about that, sonny, when your belly meets your backbone," someone quipped.
Those within hearing distance chuckled. The suitor merely gave a goofy grin. Abigail couldn't remember seeing such adoration in anyone's eyes. Not that she wanted what they appeared to have. Her teaching contract forbade her to marry. Fine with herespecially now. She desperately needed that job.