Jane O'Malley's young heart broke in pieces when the man of her dreams left town after being rejected by her sister. Years later, Tom Leighton returns home and Jane's old feelings for him rush back as forceful as the Tennessee mountain springs.
Tom left Gatlinburg behind without a word to allow his hurt heart to heal. Now he's a man with a young niece to raise and amends to make in the town and to the people he abandoned–especially to Jane. The girl from his past has become a gorgeous, kind woman. Can he prove to her that she's the only woman he wants?
Smoky Mountain Matches: Dreams of home and family come true in the Smoky Mountains
About the Author
An East Tennessee native, Karen Kirst attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she received a B.A. in Speech Communication. She divides her time between being a wife, homeschooling mom, and romance writer. She and her husband, along with their three sons, recently said goodbye to military life and are thrilled to be back home in Tennessee. Her favorite pasttimes are reading, visiting tearooms, and watching romantic comedies.
Read an Excerpt
Do you, Jane O'Malley, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?"
Jane opened her mouth. Say no. Say you've made a mistake.
Family and friends had crowded into the quaint mountain church and were looking on with hushed expectation. Roy's fingers tightened around hers, gentle brown eyes offering silent support. He'd been nothing but kind throughout their courtship. A perfect gentleman, save for the one time he'd attempted to kiss hera proper kiss, not simply a buss on the cheekand she'd shied away. How patient he'd been. How understanding.
What was the matter with her? Here was a hardworking, responsible man who desired to marry her the too-quiet, too-shy, unexceptional O'Malley sister. She couldn't throw away this one chance at a normal life for a man who didn't want her, whose whereabouts and well-being were a mystery.
Moistening her lips, blood rushing in her ears, she struggled to push out those two simple words. Words that would change her life forever, bind her to a man she liked and admired but didn't love.
The lace at her throat scratched. The blooms in her hair enveloped her in their cloying scent, nearly gagging her. Surely her sisters had tied her corset too tightly. Her lungs clamored for air.
She closed her eyes, and Tom Leighton's face loomed in her consciousness. Though he'd been gone two years, his image was still crisp and clear. Like a photograph inscribed on her mind.
Dear Lord, give me the strength to follow through with this. Marrying Roy is the only way to purge Tom from my heart and soul.
"Jane?" Roy leaned in, his whisper threaded with anxiety. "You're not gonna swoon, are you?"
The church doors crashed open. Jane jumped. Everyone twisted in the pews, craning to see who dared interrupt the ceremony. Roy dropped her hands as a petite brunette hurtled down the aisle, thunderclouds scrunching her features.
"I object!" The unfamiliar young woman jabbed a finger in Roy's direction.
The groom audibly gasped as the color drained from his face. "Laura?"
Seated on the first pew, Jane's identical twin sister, Jessica, mouthed something she couldn't make out. Their mother fanned herself furiously. Her overprotec-tive cousins exchanged looks of foreboding.
The reverend leveled a stern stare at the intruder. "What is the nature of your objection, Miss "
"It's missus." Smirking at Jane, she planted her hands on her hips. "I'm Mrs. Laura Crowley. Roy's wife!"
Chaos erupted. Several of Jane's family members, including her cousins Caleb and Nathan, shot to their feet, forbidding features radiating anger. Her newest brother-in-law, Quinn, restrained them both and appeared to be urging them to stay calm. Her sisters shared matching expressions of dismay.
The reverend attempted to restore order. "Is this true, young man?"
"Y-yes. We were married at one time, but she deserted the marriage." He threw up his hands. "I thought you had it annulled, Laura."
"I didn't draw up any such papers."
"Why not?" he growled. A vein bulged in his neck. The telltale sign of rage in the otherwise even-tempered Roy gave Jane yet another shock. "You abandoned me. The least you could've done was set me free."
"You drove me to leave."
"That's a lie."
The reverend cleared his throat. "Ah, perhaps we should take this discussion to a more private setting."
"What's there to discuss?" Laura said. "Roy and I are husband and wife, which means there will be no wedding today."
Jane must've made a noise, because Roy turned to her, entreaty and a slight edge of panic in his eyes. "Hear me out, Jane. Please"
By now, the truth was sinking in that she'd nearly taken part in a crime. Unknowingly, of course, but the damage would've been done regardless. If she'd gone through with it, she would've been living with him without the protection of a valid marriage license. And if she'd had children with him.
The room tilted dizzily. Perspiration dotted her brow.
Looking out over the rows, she realized every single person in attendance was staring straight at her. Some with pity. Some with suspicion. And some with anticipation, as if taking pleasure in this spectacle.
"I can't do this," she said, more to herself than anyone else.
Scooping up her voluminous skirts, she fled.
Through the narrow door of Reverend Monroe's office she ducked, slamming it behind her. Raised voices reverberated through the barrier. She banged her hip against the desk corner in a desperate bid for escape. Rubbing the sore spot, she tumbled through the door that opened into the graveyard. The heat and humidity of a cloudless spring day closed in on her, suffocating and relentless.
She couldn't face anyone just yet, not even her twin. She needed solitude. Privacy. A moment's peace to process the destruction of her hopes. Not the hopes one would expect a prospective bride to have, nor the ones the attendees likely thought the arrival of Laura Crow-ley had crushed.
The loss of Roy wasn't the cause of her devastation.
It was the loss of what marriage to Roy might've finally accomplished rooting Tom out of her heart once and for all.
Tom Leighton was almost home. After nothing but rolling plains and endless wheat fields these past years, the verdant, forested mountains were a feast for the eyes. Patches of brilliant purple phlox peeked out between soaring sugar maples, yellow buckeyes, white ash and basswood trees. Like an open-air cathedral, the thick canopy high above was a bird-filled roof, allowing only slivers of sunlight in. Cool air scented with moist earth and magnolia blossoms evoked lifelong memories and an overwhelming sense of relief. They'd made it.
Glancing over his shoulder at the slumbering child curled up between crates in the tightly packed wagon bed, he offered up a prayer of thanksgiving. Traveling alone with a five-year-old girl across four states had presented a myriad of dilemmas. By the grace of God, he'd dealt with each challenge and was now a couple of miles from the Leighton farm and the cabin he'd grown up in.
Coming home to Gatlinburg hadn't been the easiest decision. Folks would not have forgotten the reason he'd impulsively sold his barbershop and skipped town. Still, moving back here among friends that were like family had made the most sense now that he was officially Clara's guardian.
The familiar disappointment and anger knotting in his chest, thoughts of the difficult past year crowding in, he almost didn't see the woman weaving through the dense trees to his right. A vision in pure white, waist-length hair flowing free, she walked with her head bent, oblivious to her surroundings.
Guiding his team to a halt on the edge of the lane, Tom set the brake and simply watched her. Who was she? Why was she alone? Unwilling to leave without offering his assistance, he disembarked. He checked to make sure Clara hadn't stirred before rounding the wagon and, not wanting to spook the stranger, took halting steps into the forest.
The sun's rays slanted through the leaves, and her hair came alive, a deep, glistening red. The air left his lungs. He knew of only two women in this town with hair that color. He'd been particularly fond of one of them.
Intrigued and a little hopeful, Tom moved to intercept her. "Hello there."
Startled, she pulled up short, one hand flying up to clutch her throat. Her sweet countenance was the same and yet different. More mature. Womanly. Her cheekbones were more pronounced, her rosy mouth fuller. Her moss-green eyes reflected wisdom that hadn't been present when he'd left.
Grinning, he closed the distance between them. She'd grown several inches, the top of her head coming even with his nose, and her gangly form had blossomed into that of a young womantall and graceful in her elegant, beaded white dress.
Hold on was that a wedding dress?
Her cheeks, he noticed belatedly, were wet with tears, and her already pale countenance went whiter still. She swayed on her feet.
He caught her against his chest, hands instinctively curving about her waist. Too late to worry about his gloves soiling the pristine material.
The faint scent of lilac hit him. "Jane? What's wrong?
Are you ill?"
Clutching his biceps, she blinked up at him. "I must be dreaming."
The smooth voice like rich, warm cream belonged to Tom. And those vivid green eyes shining like stars against tanned skin? Tom's.
But it couldn't be him. There was nothing left for him here. He'd sold his barbershop. His mother was dead. And the woman he'd adoredher older sister, Meganwas happily married to another man.
"What's happened?" He brought his face closer, a frown pulling his brows together.
She studied that face, muscles locking up as she struggled to absorb the truth of what she was seeing Tom Leighton not a figment of her imagination real flesh and bone.
His pleasant, boyish features had thinned out, grown leaner, tougher, the angles of his face more pronounced and cheeks hollowed. His wavy, rich brown hair spilled onto his forehead and curled over his shirt collar. Longer and messier than before.
Reaching up, she explored the scruff on his jaw with her fingertips. "You're really here. I'd thought."
His Adam's apple bobbed. "What are you doing out here all by yourself? Does your family know where you are?"
Disappointment set in, followed by outrage. This was how he greeted her after all this time? No I'm sorry for worrying you, Jane. No you're all grown-up and I can't believe I ever left without saying goodbye.
She pushed out of his arms.
"I'm not a little girl anymore. I don't need a keeper."
He frowned. "That's not what I meant."
"You've been gone two years, Tom. Two years without a word. No letters. No telegrams. Would it have killed you to tell me you were leaving?"
A sigh gusted out of him. "I'm sorry about that."
"Didn't they have paper and pencils where you were?"
"I should've written. I see that now"
"You have no idea how many unfortunate scenarios I've entertained. Not knowing whether you were alive or dead."
An active imagination was both a blessing and a curse. Oftentimes the endless scenarios playing out in her head didn't have happy endings. Countless nights she'd tossed in her bed, unable to sleep for worrying about him.
Turning away, she swiped at the moisture on her cheeks and fought a fresh onslaught of emotion. She pulled at the dress's itchy collar. Had her sister Nicole not known how uncomfortable this confection would be when she'd designed it? One last remaining purple blossom fell from her hair. She crushed the fragile petals beneath her heel. His inadequate words did nothing to ease her deep-seated hurt.
For so long, she'd struggled to accept that she'd likely never see him again, never hear his warm laughter or gaze into those shining eyes. Tom represented all the heroes she'd ever read about. And while she knew he hadn't viewed her as anything more than a little sister, she'd missed his friendship in the most dreadful way.
His casual apology was more of an insult than anything.
Tom touched the spot between her shoulder blades. Gentle. Imploring. "I truly regret causing you worry, Jane. I was in a bad place when I left."
He didn't have to remind her. Her older sister Megan had rejected his proposal and chosen to marry Lucian Beaumont, a wealthy aristocrat from New Orleans who'd come to town for a brief visit and wound up falling for her. Megan's choice had effectively ended her and Tom's long-standing friendship.
In their small mountain town, there'd been no escaping the gossip. His dreams had been crushed, his pride wounded. Crazily enough, Jane had hurt for him. She'd hurt because she knew how it felt to care and have no hope of those feelings being returned.
"I suppose the main reason I didn't contact anyone was because it was easier to sever all ties. I realize now how selfish that was."
When she didn't comment, he audibly exhaled. "Have you come from a party?"
"A wedding, actually."
Silence. Then a stunned, "You're married?"
"Ah, no," she murmured. "Turns out my intended groom already has a wife."
"What?" Tom encircled her wrist and turned her to face him, manner unyielding. "You'd better start at the beginning."
Amid the birds' intermittent chirping came a soft cry. She tensed. "What was that?"
Releasing her, Tom strode in the direction of the lane. Jane picked up her skirts and tripped after him, dense carpet of ferns catching on the delicate lace. "Sounded like a child. Do you think someone's lost?"
Intensely focused on the wagon that came into view, he went directly to the rear and held out his arms. Jane's steps slowed when she caught sight of a blur of pink calico and bouncing brown curls rushing into his hug.
"It's okay, Clara. I'm right here."
Planting a quick kiss on the little girl's head, he eased away and jerked his chin in Jane's direction. "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
Her frock wrinkled and creases from her blanket lining one cheek, the girl lifted a shy gaze to Jane. Her green eyes matched Tom's exactly.
Jane pressed a trembling hand to her middle. He had a child? Mind racing, she tried to calculate the girl's age. Four, maybe five years old? It didn't add up. Unless, like Roy, he'd been harboring a terrible secret before he left.
No, she couldn't let Roy's perfidy influence her outlook. Tom had been desperately in love with her sister.
Besides, he was an honorable man who patterned his life after the Bible's teachings.
"Who is she, Tom?"
Countenance solemn, he said, "In the eyes of the law, you might say she's my daughter."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is so sweet! Very clean, God centered, a good read!