Smoke River Bride(8)

By: Lynna Banning

She gestured gracefully at her valise and the wool coat draped over the bedstead. Thad opened his mouth, then closed it and nodded. Carrying the coat and luggage, he followed her down the stairs.

Leah stepped slowly down the stairs to the hotel desk and returned the room key. The lobby was jammed with people—ranchers, visitors, even a circuit judge; the jangle of voices died as suddenly as if someone had puffed out a candle. No one uttered a word.

People stared at the slim woman in red. She held her head high, but her face had gone white. Thad took her elbow, swept her out of the hotel and over to the wagon, where Teddy waited.

The vision in red silk looked up at his son and smiled. Teddy’s eyes popped wide open. He made a strangled sound in his throat and scooted across the bench as far away from Miss Cameron as he could get.

Preoccupied, Thad handed her up, strode around to the driver’s side and swung himself onto the bench.

“Teddy, here’s the surprise I promised.”

Teddy just stared at Leah. Finally he cleared his throat. “I thought it was gonna be a horse, Pa.”

“Well, it isn’t a horse. It’s a woman. Her name is Leah Cameron and we’re going to the church to get married.”

“You’re already married,” Teddy shouted. “You’re married to Momma!”

Thad lifted the reins and clicked his tongue at the mare. “Your mother is dead,” he said in a gruff voice. “Now you’re gonna have a new—”

“Friend,” Leah quickly interjected. She turned to Thad’s son. “No one can ever replace your mother.”

“How would you know?” Teddy muttered.

Leah settled herself carefully on the bench and folded her hands in her lap. “I know because my own mother died just a month ago. No one can ever take her place in my heart.”

The boy glared at her slantwise, but said nothing. When they pulled up in front of the Smoke River Community Church, he bolted off the bench, stumbled over Leah’s legs and dropped to the ground.

“I ain’t goin’ into the church,” he announced.

Thad wound the reins around the iron brake handle with short, jerky motions. “Nothing you say or do is gonna stop what I’m set on doing, son. We need help on the farm and you need a…well, a mother.”

The boy’s face went stony. “I don’t neither.”

Leah laid her hand on Thad’s arm. “Don’t force him,” she said quietly. “It will only make it worse.”

“Yeah, guess you’re right.” He helped her down from the wagon, folded her hand over his forearm and started up the steps of the small whitewashed church.

“You comin’?” he called to Teddy.

“No. I’m not gonna ever speak to her. She’ll never be my momma. Never!”

Thad stopped in front of his son. “Nevertheless, Teddy, this lady is going to be my wife.”

“I hate her!” the boy screamed.

“But,” Thad said quietly, “I don’t. I like her. I think she will be good for both of us.”

Leah looked up sharply at the big man at her side. He liked her? A thousand doubts vanished at his words. But his son…

She tightened her fingers on Thad’s forearm. First things first. First she must be a good wife to this man. Later, perhaps, she would learn how to be a mother to his son.

The congregation had not yet arrived for the Sunday service, but Reverend Pollock took one look at them and frowned. “There won’t be enough time for a wedding before my flock arrives for church this morning.”

Thad’s return stare could scorch. “There’s plenty of time. Unless you want us living in sin, Reverend, I suggest you marry us right quick.” His voice was like cold steel.

“Ah.” A shaky smile lit the minister’s shiny face. “I believe you might be correct, Thad.”

He led them to the altar and lifted his Bible. But he did not open it. Instead, he gave Leah a long, penetrating look.

“Are you a Christian?”

“I am. My father was a minister, like you, only it was in China and he was a Presbyterian.”

Reverend Pollock blinked and studied her face. “China,” he echoed. “Of course.” He frowned again. “Well, then, shall we begin?”

Chapter Four

Leah had never seen a prettier church. The Protestant mission churches in China were drab structures of weathered gray wood or stone, and she gazed in admiration at the lovely interior before her. Four tall windows punctuated the white-painted walls, two on each side. Sunshine poured through the glass into the sanctuary, spilling warm golden light over the wood floor. She smelled furniture polish and something lightly lemon-scented.

Also By Lynna Banning

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