Smoke River Bride(7)

By: Lynna Banning

Miss Cameron wasn’t at all what he’d expected. The fact that she was part Chinese had come as a shock, but what had really knocked him off his pins was how young and how damned pretty she was. She had shiny black hair, like a waterfall of satin, and large gray-green eyes that shone when she was pleased. For some reason, she made him nervous.

She hadn’t been pleased when he’d suggested she come home with him tonight. He’d meant no disrespect, just wanted to be practical. Hell, he’d never accost a woman, especially one under his care. In the morning he’d make it all proper at the church, and then she’d be here permanently. He’d show her the ranch and the wheat, the experimental crop he was trying to grow on the back three acres, and the springhouse he was building, and…

Teddy turned away with a sigh and tramped to the pocked wooden table in the far corner of the kitchen. “You want me to set out the plates, Pa?”

Again lost in his thoughts, Thad did not answer. With a shrug his son lifted two china plates from the painted wood shelf along the wall and plopped them down on the table.

Thad spoke abruptly from the stove. “You go to school today?”

“Nah. It’s Saturday, remember?”

No, he didn’t remember. How could he forget what day of the week it was? Especially Saturday. Hattie had died on a Saturday. He gazed out the window over the sink, suddenly unable to see. She’d wanted that window so she could look at her pink roses sprawling along the back fence. Two summers had come and gone since then; the roses looked awful straggly.

He blinked away the stinging in his eyes and focused on his reflection in the glass. Who was he now that Hattie was gone?

“Pa? Pa?”

“What, Teddy?”

“You’re gettin’ that funny look again.”

Thad drew in a long breath. “Sorry, son. Guess I was thinkin’ about—” Hell, he didn’t really know what he’d been thinking about except that it was about Hattie. It usually was.

“You hungry, son? Beans are ’bout ready and my biscuits must be near done.”

Teddy nodded and settled onto one of the two ladder-back chairs drawn up at the table, then leaped up to retrieve two forks from the cutlery drawer next to the sink. His father laid a basket of hot biscuits in front of him and ladled beans onto his plate.

“What did you say you learned in school today, son?”

Teddy stared at his father, pinching his lips together. Ever since his mama died, Pa hardly even noticed him. Without a word, he turned sideways and pressed his face down on his folded arm.

The wagon rattled to a stop in front of the Smoke River Hotel. Thad looped the reins around the brake handle and climbed down from the driver’s bench. Morning had dawned with clear blue skies and bright sunshine, though the air was cold enough to freeze ice cream. Kinda odd weather for November, but he didn’t fancy getting married on a rainy, gray day like the one when Hattie…

Hell, he couldn’t think about that today.

His son sat beside him, his face shiny from a morning bath and his red-brown hair neatly combed. “Wait here,” Thad ordered.

The boy fidgeted but obeyed, wondering what the promised “surprise” would be. Seemed like a hotel was a funny place to buy a horse, but lately Teddy had been surprised by a lot of things his father did. Getting all spiffed up this morning, for instance. Sure, it was Sunday, but Pa never attended church. Besides, a man didn’t need to dress all fancy just to buy a horse. Didn’t need to take a bath, either.

Inside the hotel, Thad tapped on Miss Cameron’s door. When it swung open, all his breath whooshed out. She was a sight, all right. Like something out of a dream. He knew his jaw was gaping open, but at the moment he couldn’t remember how to close it.

From head to foot she was enveloped in a pajamalike outfit of scarlet silk that clung to her gently curving body like a second skin. On her head she wore a shimmery gold crown made of what looked like foreign coins that tinkled softly when she moved. Hell, she looked like an exotic princess from his son’s fairy-tale book.

“I am ready,” she announced.

Thad snapped his jaw shut. But maybe I’m not. What was he going to do with this fragile-looking creature on his hardscrabble ranch?

“This is my wedding-day dress. It belonged to my mother and to her mother before that. Do you like it?”

Yeah, he liked it. All of it. He couldn’t take his eyes off her shiny, shoulder-length black hair or the flawless ivory skin or the faint pink blush of her cheeks. All at once what was happening seemed so unreal he felt dizzy.

He had come to escort her to the church to be married, but now that he stood before this delicate creature his mouth was so dry he couldn’t utter a word. But he’d offered her marriage in exchange for her presence in his house and his son’s life, and come hell or high water, Thad MacAllister always kept his word.

Also By Lynna Banning

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