Smoke River Bride(9)

By: Lynna Banning

Two large bouquets of red camellias banked the altar. Flowers? In November? Mother would say that was a lucky omen.

The minister disappeared through a small doorway, then returned a moment later draped in his black clerical robe. A smiling young woman followed him to the altar.

“This is Mrs. Halliday,” Reverend Pollock announced. “Mrs. Halliday grows lavender on her farm. She will serve as your witness.”

Leah stole a glance at the slim, dark-haired woman, relieved to find her smiling. She moved forward and lifted Leah’s hands into hers.

“Welcome. You must be Thad’s bride. From San Francisco, n’est ce pas?”

“I come from China, Mrs. Hal—”

“Oh, please call me Jeanne.”

“My name is Leah Cam—”

“Leah MacAllister,” Thad interjected firmly.

Jeanne laughed. “Mrs. MacAllister, then. Your wedding garments are very beautiful,” she whispered.

“They were my mother’s,” Leah murmured. “I brought them from China.”

The minister cleared his throat. “We’d better get on with it, folks. The church is beginning to fill up for the morning service.” He waited a half second, cleared his throat once more and opened his Bible.

“Dearly beloved…”

Leah sensed people entering the sanctuary and seating themselves on the pews behind them. She also heard their gasps of surprise and the sudden silence that followed.

The ceremony passed in a blur. “Do you, Thaddeus MacAllister, take this woman…?”

Thad’s low “I do” rumbled close to her ear, and she realized he had bent his head down to her level to speak his vows.

“And do you, Leah Cameron, take this man…?”

While the minister waited for Leah’s response, a woman’s shrill voice cut through the quiet. “God save us, she’s a Celestial!”

Jeanne Halliday reached out and quietly touched Leah’s arm. Reverend Pollock looked up from his Bible with a frown and repeated the question. “Do you, Leah, take Thaddeus for your lawful wedded husband?”

“I—” Her throat clogged. “I do,” Leah choked out.

Reverend Pollock cleared his own throat. “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” In finishing, he raised his voice to cover the whispers from the congregation behind them. “May God bless you both and keep you safe in the shelter of His love. You may kiss the bride,” he added in a lower tone.

Leah waited in an agony of nerves for Thad to touch her. Instead, he suddenly dug in his vest pocket and produced a wide gold band. “Forgot the ring,” he murmured. He slid it onto her finger. “This was my grandmother MacAllister’s.”

Then he placed his hands on Leah’s shoulders and turned her to face him. She could feel his fingers tremble.

He drew her toward him, and for some reason tears flooded into her eyes. She wasn’t frightened. Or unhappy. She was moved by something deep inside that she could not explain. She blinked hard and then Thad’s mouth settled gently over hers, his lips warm and firm. It lasted but an instant, but Leah’s breath knotted beneath her breastbone. She opened her eyes and smiled into his face.

He looked surprised, but she was too giddy to wonder at it. Jeanne Halliday hugged her, and Reverend Pollock shook Thad’s hand, then Leah’s, then Thad’s again, and turned them around to face the swelling congregation.

It was over. Thad’s still-shaking hand held hers just tight enough to keep her feet anchored to the earth. If she skipped down the aisle, as she felt like doing, she would float away.

Together they started toward the church door, and only then did Leah become aware of the heavy, disapproving silence that greeted them. She kept her head up and tried to smile at the sea of stony faces. Not one person would meet her eyes.

A shard of disquiet knifed into her belly. They disliked her, but why? Because she was Chinese? Because Thad’s son, Teddy, sat outside on the church steps, sulking in obvious displeasure? Because some other woman had wanted to be Thad MacAllister’s wife?

She began to count the steps to the last pew. The women glared at her with animosity, and some of the men ogled her with undisguised interest. Only when she was safely outside the church could she regain her equilibrium. At least she would try.

They emerged into the crisp midmorning sunshine to find Teddy still slumped on the bottom step, a sullen scowl on his face. A dark, cold shadow spread over Leah’s entire being, carrying with it an odd sense of foreboding. She had never expected to feel such disapproval on her wedding day.

Thad kept her hand in his, and with the other he ruffled Teddy’s hair and grasped his shoulder. “Come on, son. Let’s go home.”

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