Working as a governess for her brother’s best friend is her chance to escape. He promises to find her a suitable match but falls for the forbidden fruit. Will their love be meant to last forever?
When Mattie’s fiancé leaves her for another woman, she dives into sorrow. That is until her brother writes to his childhood friend and asks for his help. Going away is a chance to escape the town where everything reminds her of her broken heart. But when she feels love knocking on her door again, will she be able to let herself fall for another man?
Being a single father and a rancher is difficult enough for James. The opportunity to help his friend’s sister by hiring her as a governess and finding her a suitable match is too good to pass up. But Mattie is no longer the annoying little girl he remembers. Despite his friend’s warnings, James can’t resist his growing attraction to her. How can he stay true to his promise when he can’t keep his eyes away from her?
James must choose between his duty to his friend and his heart’s desire when a rival rancher threatens to come between them. Will they find a way to be together, or will their past and present circumstances keep them apart forever?
Bartlett, Mississippi – October 1874
Mattie Walsh ran her fingertips over the calico fabric of her gown. Her hands shook unsteadily as a bolt of excited energy rushed through her. She admired herself in the looking glass, nodding approvingly at the delicate print of the dress she’d chosen for the evening.
She knew she had to look her best if she was to be on the arm of Lewis Mooney, and the dress that she had picked out allowed her to do just that.
Just the thought of her fiancé brought a dreamy sigh to her lips. Spotting a stray lock of caramel-colored hair tumbling down her shoulder, she skillfully reached up and pinned it back with the rest of her hair at the nape of her neck. Her thoughts never once left Lewis while she fixed the rest of her appearance by pinching her cheeks and lips to flood them with color, giving contrast to her pale features.
When she was finally satisfied, she glanced at the clock. It was six fifty-five in the evening. Lewis was set to arrive within the next five minutes to whisk her away to Bartlett’s Town Hall for the dance that the town was hosting. She could see exactly how everything would go in her mind’s eye, swept away on visions of spending the evening with Lewis in their small town.
Smack dab in the middle of Mississippi, Bartlett had a quaint charm to it that spoke to something within Mattie. She loved the familiar wood and tin buildings, even if they were a little ramshackle. She had grown up toddling in and out of them with her parents in tow. She adored the small General Store where she now worked and got to talk to her fellow townsfolk each day, the dusty roads, sitting on the porch with her brother, listening to the sound of cicadas singing on summer nights among the white oak trees, and the damp, humid air.
Mattie loved the flat, rolling meadows that spanned as far as the eye could see, blending into sparse forests covered in marshland. And more than anything, more than the buildings or the land or the smiling people that she passed in the morning, Mattie loved what her life was becoming now that she was engaged to Lewis Mooney.
A girlish giggle pulled itself from her lips all over again at the thought of him. Mattie still found it hard to believe that this man had chosen her, and she often found herself having to pinch her arm to be reassured that she wasn’t trapped in some fanciful dream. Lewis was the most handsome man in Bartlett and had the eye of every woman in their town.
Just that morning, as Mattie had walked about the town square with Gilbert, her brother, she’d overheard some of the older biddies talking about Lewis and his fine features. Mattie had chuckled to herself as she’d walked past them, glad they’d be able to see her dancing the night away in his arms that very evening.
They had been engaged for going on six months, and she knew that soon it would be time to start preparing for their wedding, and she often lost herself in fantasies about what her wedding day would be like.
Mattie situated herself on the settee in their family room and tried as hard as she could not to watch the clock tick away the seconds as she anxiously awaited the knock on the door. She raised her hand, glancing with admiration at her engagement ring, turning it this way and that to watch the small gems inlaid in the band sparkle in the dim evening light.
She could hear her brother out on the porch, the tell-tale sound of his knife cutting through wood letting Mattie know that Gilbert was whittling. With a small smile, she looked toward the mantle beside the clock, where small wooden figurines decorated the space. She wondered if there would be a new one sitting with the intricately carved creatures by the time, she returned later that evening.
Almost of their own accord, her eyes darted once more to the clock, and Mattie noted that it was now past seven. Lewis had assured her that he would be there by no later than the top of the hour to retrieve her to walk to the Town Hall. A small spool of dread began to unfurl in her belly and the thought that perhaps something had happened to him filled her mind.
Visions began to dance in her mind of an overturned buggy, like the one that had claimed her parent’s lives, or perhaps a fire. There were any number of things, each one more terrifying than the last, that could be the cause for Lewis’ delay. Her palms began to sweat, and she wiped them on the fabric of her skirts as she pulled in a deep, steadying breath. Mattie quickly shook that thought away, not allowing herself to stew on such negativity.
But, as the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes turned into half an hour, she could no longer fight against the worry that filled her. Pushing herself up off the sofa, she stalked through the house and pushed open the heavy screen door that led to the front porch where her brother sat in his rocking chair, whittling in the fading evening light.
She cleared her throat as she approached Gilbert, and his eyes flicked to hers with surprise. Sometimes it caught Mattie off guard just how similar their looks were. He may have been six years older, but their fair complexion, bright green eyes, and shiny light brown hair were mirror images of each other. Gilbert blinked in confusion, looking out at the setting sun before turning back to her.
“Gettin’ a bit late,” he surmised in his gruff, deep tenor.
“Lewis said he’d be here by seven,” Mattie answered, fighting to keep her voice from shaking with worry. “Do you think something has happened?”
Gilbert grunted his dissent. Mattie loved her brother, and usually he was bursting with words and jokes. But when it was anything to do with Lewis, Mattie had learned that her brother did not have much to say.
Seven years ago, when their parents had died, she had only been fifteen, and he had been so young, barely twenty-one. But he had taken her in anyway, and he had done his best to raise her and help her through her terribly moody teenage years. Gilbert was the only family that she had left. And she knew it would remain that way until Mattie created one with Lewis.
“We’ll walk to the hall and check there, see if maybe he arrived there first and got caught up with somethin’,” Gilbert offered, pushing himself off of the wooden chair and standing to brush some of the dust off his pants. “You know that family of his, any opportunity to show off their prized pony.”
Mattie had to fight from rolling her eyes at her brother as he sauntered down the front steps with her in tow. Gilbert wasn’t overjoyed about her engagement to Lewis. He thought her future husband was nothing more than a pretty face. The Mooney family was the richest in town and had been for generations. Lewis was the sole heir, and as such, Gilbert hadn’t really been in a place to reject the match when Lewis approached him to ask permission to marry Mattie.
But when Gilbert and Mattie were alone, he didn’t hold his tongue on his thoughts about the man. He had made it clear to Mattie from the beginning that the only reason he was agreeing was because he knew she fancied Lewis and he could provide her with a life of comfort. However, he would have preferred her to fancy almost anyone else in Bartlett.
They walked swiftly through town, with Mattie trotting to keep up with Gilbert’s long, assured strides. She tried as hard as she could to keep her focus on the streets and the comings and goings of the people around her, hoping that it would help to keep her thoughts from wandering to the doom and gloom of what might have happened to Lewis.
Before they had even rounded the corner for the Town Hall, the music that welled inside of it and the sound of the revelers within its walls rushed out to greet them. The large doors to the massive wooden building were thrown open, and a few people stood on the stairs to air themselves off in the breeze of the Mississippi autumn.
Through the gap in the door, she could see couples twirling across the dance floor, and she had no trouble imagining the chaos inside those four wooden walls.
She followed Gilbert up the steps, and he tipped his head in acknowledgement of the few people he passed that said hello. Mattie, however, kept her eyes peeled for any glimpse of Lewis or someone in the Mooney family. She stepped into the space, the sticky heat of so many bodies pressed in together greeting her just as surely as the strum of the fiddle. It was an eruption of color and sound, and it took her a moment to get her bearings.
As Mattie gazed around, her heart beating wildly, she wasn’t sure if she felt disappointment or relief when there was no sight of Lewis in the crowd around them. Taking a few more steps into the building, the crowd surrounding the dance floor parted, creating a clear view of the couple that everyone stood around watching. And as Mattie’s eyes zeroed in on them, her heart that had been pounding so ferociously just a second before, now seemed to stop entirely.
She must have gasped, or stumbled forward, or done something to draw Gilbert’s attention, because he was immediately at her side. Her brother gripped the top of her arm, keeping her steady, but she shook him off. Mattie wasn’t sure how to feel as she marched through the crowd.
A few of the townsfolk that she walked past shot her quick, sympathetic glances, while others avoided looking at her entirely, making Mattie sure that what she was looking at was real and not a figment of her tired, worried imagination. She pushed people to the side as she made her path toward Lewis and the beautiful, raven-haired girl that he expertly swung about in the center of the dance floor.
She didn’t make a sound as she stood at the edge of the crowd, her chest heaving wildly from rapid her breaths as her palms began to sweat. Instead, rage and hurt thundered in her ears and Mattie began to shake, as her fiancé wrapped himself in the arms of another woman.
“You don’t need to see this,” came her brother’s voice beside her.
She felt his hand clasp around her arm once again, and she felt the pressure of him trying to lead her away, but she resisted. Mattie planted her feet firmly on the wooden floor, locking all of her joints against the pressure Gilbert was applying, determined to take in the reality of what was unfolding before her. The truth of why Lewis had not shown up to get her crashing into her like a wave.
“I think I do,” Mattie answered, and she hated how hollow her voice sounded but she did not know how to fix it.
She could feel the tension rolling off of Gilbert as he stood beside her, but she was thankful when he didn’t try to pull her away again. Mattie was unsure of how much time had passed, it could have been seconds, it could have been hours, she would not have known the difference. But eventually, Lewis pulled his eyes away from the beauty he’d been dancing with and looked out at the crowd. When his eyes landed on her, his expression paled for only a moment before he schooled his features into one of casual disinterest.
She watched with abject horror as Lewis stopped dancing and leaned into the woman he held in his arms, much closer than Mattie would have liked, and whispered in her ear. The woman followed his gaze to where Mattie stood, a quick, sympathetic smile tugging at the corner of her lips as if it was Lewis who was the one who was being hurt by this encounter. It stoked Mattie’s rage anew, and as the other woman gave Lewis a nod of understanding, Mattie wanted to begin screaming. She watched as he released the woman’s small, trim waste and stalked toward Mattie.
She knew that they were drawing the eyes of the crowd, and she fought to keep her chin held high and to swallow past the lump that had formed in her throat.
“Mattie,” Lewis said as he approached her, his velvet voice washing over her like honey. “I see you made it safely.”
“No thanks to you,” Gilbert cut in with anger and accusation dripping from every syllable, and Mattie was thankful for him.
Lewis nodded thoughtfully while she shot a pointed glance to the woman who was now retreating across the dance floor before her gaze landed back on Lewis.
“A word outside, if you will?” Lewis asked, waving his arm before him in an invitation for Mattie to lead the way.
There was a small part of her that wanted to argue, to say that she’d rather he said whatever he intended to say, right there, in front of all of those people. Perhaps if there were witnesses, he would be kind to her. Perhaps if there were witnesses, he would not leave her.
Because that is what she sensed was coming, and although she was currently seething with a bubbling, boiling rage, she also did not think she could bear the shame of him calling off their engagement. But she also knew better.
Lewis’ pride and the weight that he put into his reputation would not allow him to talk to her now. If Mattie refused to go outside, he would insist, and then they would cause even more of a scene than they already were. And even though she knew that the ending of her engagement and the feelings of rejection that it brought with it might break her, she would rather try to walk away from this interaction with some of her dignity intact if she could.
She nodded at Lewis and then turned on her heel, stalking through the crowded hall. She felt the gaze of the other townsfolk on her with every step that she took. As Mattie approached the door, she caught sight of Gilbert standing by the threshold. He had waited on her, and the thought sent a flitter of appreciation through her for her ridiculous, often joking but currently grim and protective brother. But she pushed it down. She had no energy to think of anything right now, except for the conversation that was to come.
When they stepped through the doors, a slight breeze stirred the bottoms of her skirts, but Mattie hardly noticed. Lewis pushed past her, stalking a few feet away from those milling about on the steps, and then stopping. He shot an expectant look at Mattie, who approached with a hammering heart.
“What is happening, Lewis?” Mattie asked as she approached him, her brow furrowing in consternation. “Who was that woman? Why did you not come and retrieve me like you said?”
“I would have thought you’d have figured that out by now,” Lewis said, studying his hands and refusing to meet Mattie’s eyes. His tone sounded bored, but the rigid set of his shoulders and the grinding of his jaw in between sentences advised Mattie that he may not be as aloof about the matter as he seemed.
It was that more than anything, that cut Mattie straight to the bone. Lewis could see that he was hurting her, enough so that he was made uncomfortable by it. He knew about Mattie’s past, about the feelings of inadequacy that she often struggled with, and as such, Lewis would be well aware of exactly how what was about to happen next would hurt her. And yet, it was not enough to stop him.
“Our engagement is off,” Lewis continued, his voice hesitant, as if bracing himself for the blow he knew he was about to deliver. “To be fair, I should have waited longer to ask for your hand in the first place. You are kind and you are beautiful, but your family is not particularly wealthy, and it may seem cruel, but it is true that we both know you were aiming above your station.”
His words hit Mattie like a fist, and she was suddenly finding it very hard to breathe. An uncomfortable look darted across Lewis’ face as if he did not want to have to say these things to her, but knew that she deserved the truth, and so he would deliver it no matter how brutal.
“The woman you saw inside is the daughter of a very wealthy family from Chatham, the next town over. As you are well aware, my family has high expectations of me. Expectations that I have been recently made aware that you do not meet. Jane, however? Well, you have clearly seen her, and unfortunately, we are much more adequately matched.”
Mattie looked down at her boots, his words falling between them. She did not want to meet his gaze as tears began dancing along the bottom of her lashes.
“There, there,” Lewis said, his voice uncomfortable with the emotions that were threatening to overwhelm her. “Do not make a fuss, it will be easier for the both of us.”
“Yes, it is so very important for me that I try to make things easier for you,” Mattie hurled the words at him angrily, hoping that they would cut him, hoping that he would feel even a semblance of the hurt and pain that was roaring through her at that very moment. But Lewis did not flinch, did not blink, did not react to her words in the slightest. And his non-reaction caused Mattie’s own anger to deflate, leaving her feeling hollow and defeated.
There was a brief pause in which he studied her, eyes roving over her from top to bottom, making Mattie feel like she was being looked at beneath a magnifying glass. She wanted to shy away from the scrutiny, but she did not want to give him any additional satisfaction knowing just how much he was affecting to her.
Finally, Lewis clicked his tongue at her, and then said nothing else as he turned on his heel and strode back into the building. When he disappeared fully into the crowd, and she could no longer see even a glimpse of his shirt, the oxygen left Mattie entirely. The corset under the fabric of her gown was too tight, and her breaths came in short, shallow gasps as the emptiness inside of her opened wide, a chasm that she feared wanted to swallow her whole. Her fingers clawed at her chest, working free the collar that now threatened to strangle her. Tears spilled over, rushing down her cheeks.
Gilbert’s low, steady voice cut through the din of her panic. She glanced up, her green eyes meeting their mirror. Her brother approached her with outstretched arms, and she didn’t hesitate as she launched herself into them. She no longer cared that she was causing a scene, no longer cared about much at all. All that Mattie Walsh cared about now, was the fact that her world had crumbled around her.
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