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"You look very lovely today, Miss Matthews," said the voice in an accent that was as far from the usual drawl Sarah heard around her as Maine was from Texas. She stiffened, schooling herself to assume a polite expression as she looked up into the blue eyes of Dr. Nolan Walker.
A lady, she reminded herself sternly, did not make a scene in public, and most certainly not while standing in the receiving line at the wedding of her sister. Even if the speaker was a Yankee outsider who had no business being here.
"Thank you, sir," she replied in a carefully neutral voice, and did not quite meet his gaze. "May I present Lord Edward Brookfield, Viscount Greyshaw, the groom's eldest brother, come all the way from England?" She watched out of the corner of her eye as the Yankee doctor shook hands with the English nobleman next to her.
The men exchanged greetings.
"And may I also present" she began, intent on passing the Yankee on down the line away from her.
Nolan interrupted her. "Miss Matthews, I was wondering if we might sit together while enjoying the refreshments?" He nodded toward the punch bowl and the magnificent quadruple-tiered wedding cake that Sarah considered the crowning achievement of her baking career. "I
I'd really like to get to know you better." He had dropped the "g" on "wondering," while "together" and "better" came out "togethah" and "bettah," and yet his accent was wholly unlike a Southern drawl.
The utter effrontery of the man! Hadn't she already made it clear back in October, when he'd come to town to meet her that she Was Not Interested in being courted by a Yankee and a liar? He'd written her a handful of letters telling all about himself, except for the one fact that made him Unacceptablethat he was Yankee. She'd only found out when he'd come to meet her on Founders' Dayright before the Comanche attack.
"I'm afraid that's impossible," she said crisply. "I'll be busy helping to serve the cake and the punch.
"Perhaps a dance, then? I understand there'll be dancing later."
She glared at him. "Out of the question," she snapped. "Now, if I may be permitted to continue, you're acquainted with Miss Caroline Wallace, aren't you, the bride's best friend?" She gestured to the bridesmaid standing next to her.
She didn't miss the surprised look Lord Greyshaw gave her, nor the sympathetic one he bestowed on the Yankee. Perhaps there would be a chance later, after the wedding, to explain to Nick's eldest brother why a properly brought up young lady of the South did not encourage familiarity with pushy northern interlopers?
Mercifully, the doctor now allowed himself to be handed on down the line. The next person to approach was Mrs. Detwiler, an elderly widow, resplendent today in deep purple bombazine. Sarah hoped the woman had not heard what had passed between her and the Yankee doctor, for Mrs. Detwiler was sure to have an opinion on it, likely one contrary to Sarah's.
But luck was with Sarahthe older lady had indeed missed hearing the Yankee's words and Sarah's tart replies.
"You girls all looked lovely up at the altar," she proclaimed. "Was it dear Milly's idea to have her attendants decked out in different fall hues? She certainly picked colors that looked good on each of you."
Sarah smiled and glanced down at the gold Gros de Naples fabric she wore, knowing it complimented her blond coloring just as the mossy green cloth complimented Caroline Wallace's brunette hair and as the rust color played up Prissy Gilmore's strawberry-blond tresses. "Yes, and she sewed them all, too, as well as her bridal dress," Sarah said, gazing at Milly who was at this moment sharing a happy smile with Nicholas Brookfield, her English groom.
"My, her fingers must have been busy!"
Mrs. Detwiler didn't know the half of it, Sarah thought. Milly had not only had all that sewing to do, but had also determinedly learned how to cook under Sarah's tutelage. While she wasn't yet the confident cook and baker that her sister was, Sarah thought it wasn't likely Nick and the rest of the men would starve with Milly minding the ranch kitchen once Sarah moved in to town. Now that Milly was a bride, Sarah had wanted her sister to be free to manage her house, and she had wanted to try her own wings, too. So when Prissy had begged Sarah to teach her cooking and the other housewifely arts, Sarah found a way to kill one bird with two stones and had agreed to move in with her.
"I declare, it's the wedding of the decade for Simpson Creek," Mrs. Detwiler gushed.
Sarah nodded. At the very least, it was the first wedding since the war ended, as well as the first which had resulted from Milly's founding of the Society for the Promotion of Marriageor, as it was more commonly known, the Spinsters' Club. Milly deserved to be the very first bride, and the happiest, Sarah thought, growing misty-eyed with love and pride.
"Now it's your turn," the old woman announced, cupping Sarah's cheek affectionately.
Sarah cringed inwardly, hoping no one else had heard. "Oh, I don't think so, ma'am. Several others in the club have made matches and are engaged to marry, and I don't have a beau at the moment. But I'm in no hurry," she added in the most carefree tone she could manage. She wouldn't want Mrs. Detwiler to guess that her words had made Sarah remember Jesse, her fiancé who hadn't returned from the war.
"Pshaw," the older woman retorted. "A pretty girl like you? You should have beaux by the dozen. Why don't you see if you can catch the bouquet when your sister throws it, hmm?"
"II'll see what I can do," Sarah mumbled, feeling the crimson blush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks. "Um
may I present Viscount Greyshaw, the groom's eldest brother?"
Mrs. Detwiler allowed herself to be distracted, and gazed up at the Englishman. "I've never met a real lord before," she burbled. "Am I 'sposed to curtsy?"
Edward Brookfield smiled graciously. "We could just shake hands if you like."
Everywhere she went during the post-wedding festivities, Sarah felt Dr. Walker's gaze upon herwhen she helped Milly cut and serve the bridal cake, while she ladled out cups of punch, during her chats with other guests, such as Nicholas's visiting English brothers, the viscount and the vicar.
"So you're going to move into the cottage with Prissy when we come back?" Milly was asking. She and her groom were spending their wedding night in the hotel, then leaving in the morning for a week's honeymoon in Austin.
"Yes, Prissy's very excited about it," she said, seeing her friend laughing and talking across the room with some of the others from the Spinsters' Club. "Well, we'll see how it works out. You'll take me back if I don't like it, won't you?"
"Of course," Milly and Nick said at once, then Milly added, "The ranch will always be your home, toobut I think this will be good for you. Sarah, you will write down all your recipes as you promised before you go, won't you? You know them all by heart, but it's not so simple for me."
"You'll do fine," Sarah assured her. "And don't you worry about a thing while you're gone, you two," she said. "I'll keep Josh and the rest of the hands well fed and looked after, I promise you."
"I'd never doubt it," Milly said. "Sarah, who do you keep glaring at?" she said, following the direction of her sister's gaze.
that Yankee!" Sarah sputtered. "He keeps staring at me. He's got nerve, coming here just as if he belonged!"
"We did invite the entire town," Milly pointed out mildly, looking surprised and somewhat disappointed at her sister's outburst.
Sarah couldn't blame Milly for her reaction. Sarah had always been the meek one, the quiet one. She'd never exhibited such a dislike of anyone, so her open dislike of the doctor was bound to attract her sister's attention.
"And he is the new town doctor," Milly added.
Sarah sighed. If Dr. Harkey hadn't been one of the few casualties during the Comanche raid on Founder's Day, when everyone was gathered in town to celebrate, Nolan Walker might have ridden right back out of town after she refused to talk to him. But now it looked as if he was going to stay forever.
"He does rather look like a hungry lion who's spotted a lonely gazelle," Nick said with a grin, after glancing at the man. He turned back to Sarah. "Would you like me to go have a word with him?" he asked, assuming a fierce expression and clenching fists. "You're my sister now, and I won't have blackguards bothering you."
Sarah tried not to laugh at his mock-menacing features and failed. "No, thank you. I'll take care of it," she muttered, rising to her feet.
"Sarahbe nice, please," Milly said in a warning tone. "Just for today, at least."
"I won't challenge him to a duel, I promise," Sarah said, and stalked across the floor full of milling guests.
She saw him watching her advance, as he leaned negligently against the wall in his black frock coat and trousers, sipping a cup of punch.
"I won't have you staring at me," she announced. "Stop it immediately!"
A slow smile spread over Nolan Walker's angular, high-cheekboned face, making him even more handsome than he had been a moment ago, blast the man. "But you're the most beautiful woman in the room, Miss Matthews. You even outshine the bride. So why wouldn't any normal man want to look at you?"
She blinked in astonishment at his audacity, hating the flush that crept up her neck again. "In the South, we're taught staring is ungentlemanly and rude. So I'd like you to desistplease." She resented having to add that polite word.
"Tell me, Miss Matthews, just why do you dislike me so much? You hated me on sight."
Not on sight, she thought. On hearing. She'd been more than pleased with her first sight of him, happy and relieved that he had proven to be every bit as appealing in person as he had seemed in his letters. Then he'd spoken, dashing her hopes with the evidence of his deception. He was worse than just a Yankeehe was a Yankee who had almost tricked her into caring for him. And yet his outlandish accent was curling around her heart in such a dismaying way.
"I don't hate you," she argued. "It's wrong to hate. But it ought to be very obvious why you're not welcome here."
A spark flared in those blue eyes. "I'm not? Your sister invited me here today. The other single ladies speak to me. Townspeople with ailments and injuries have shown no hesitation to come to my office. The South is a hospitable region, I've always been told, and so I'm finding it here. Only you, Miss Matthews, have been openly hostile to me. Why? Or are you too cowardly to tell me?"
Sarah felt her fists clenching at her sides. She took a quick look around her, to make sure no one else was watching them, but the other conversations buzzed on, unabated. Even Milly's face was turned away from them, however Sarah suspected that to be a deliberate act on Milly's part rather than lack of curiosity.
Sarah drew herself up. "This is neither the time nor the place," Sarah said, falling back on her dignity.
"So you will tell me, some other time?" he challenged, his blue eyes dueling with hers, and finally, making her look away first.
"If it's so important to you."
"Oh, it is, I assure you, Miss Matthews, or we would not be having this conversation. But I have a suggestion to make to you."
"And that is?" she asked, wary. He was leading her into a trap.
"Why don't we make a truce, just for today, at this special occasion? Your sister's been giving us these worried little glances the whole time we've been talking."
Sarah jerked her head around, only to see that Milly was in deep conversation with Nick's middle brother, Richard. Was Dr. Walker lying about Milly, in an effort to make Sarah feel guilty?
"Why don't we agree to be civil, even pleasant, to one another today?" Dr. Walker went on. "We can go back to being best enemies tomorrow, if you like."
"'Best enemies?'" she repeated, and sternly smothered an impulse to laugh. "What an absurd man you are, Dr. Walker! Very well, just for today I'll pretend I don't wish you'd ride out of town and never come back."
She'd thought her last words would make him flinch, but he only grinned. "If you mean it, you have to agree to dance with me, Miss Matthews. Just one dance."
She opened her mouth to replyto refuse, Nolan was surebut she was interrupted by Prissy Gilmore, who dashed up to Sarah and tugged at her arm.
"Sarah, come on! Your sister's going to throw her bouquet!"
Sarah looked back at him, as if she still might toss off a refusal before joining the gathering group of women and girls in the far corner of the church social hall, but he spoke before she could.
"You won't catch it," he told her, as if it was an accomplished fact.
His words stopped her, made her go rigidjust as he expected.
"Oh? And why is that, Dr. Walker?" she inquired, giving each word chilly emphasis.
He gestured at the women. "Look at them. Lots of tall ladies there. Besides, you don't want it badly enough."
As he'd hoped, she responded to his words as if they had been a dare.