The Bachelor's Homecoming

By: Karen Kirst

Chapter One

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

May 1884

“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.

“I—”

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 her—a proper kiss, not simply a buss on the cheek—and 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 overprotective 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—”

“No.”

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.

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