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You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Sandra Robbins and her husband live in the small college town in Tennessee where she grew up. They count their four children and five grandchildren as the greatest blessings in their lives. Her published books include stories in historical romance and romantic suspense. When not writing or spending time with her family, Sandra enjoys reading, collecting flow blue china, and playing the piano.
Visit the author’s website.
Rani Martin, Simon and Anna’s only daughter, is a beautiful and spirited young woman living deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. She has plenty of ideas about the man she’ll marry someday, but none of them could have prepared her for the return of Matthew Jackson.
Matthew left Cades Cove as a child after his father’s death. Now he’s come back to build a new life for himself, and it’s his dearest wish that Rani be a part of that life. But the people of the Cove won’t let him forget the sins of his father, and Matthew can’t forget the darkness of his own past.
Is there a place for Matthew in the Cove? And can the light of Rani’s love overcome his pain?
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers (March 1, 2013)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Cades Cove, Tennessee
Rani Martin stared through the cabin window at the Smoky
Mountains rising above the valley she loved. Usually the sight of the foggy mists curling around the hills made her happy. But try as she might, she couldn’t find anything to cheer her up today.
There had to be something that would take away the misery gnawing in the pit of her stomach. Poppa always told her she could do anything she set her mind to, but she didn’t know how she could be happy about losing the best friend any girl could ever have.
After today, there would be no reason for her to visit this cabin. Tomorrow Josie Ferguson and her husband, Ted, would load their belongings in their wagon, take their baby, and do what many of their friends and neighbors had already done—move out of Cades Cove. Josie, the one she’d shared secrets with all her life, would be gone, and Rani would be left behind with only memories of her best friend since childhood.
She didn’t understand what any of the folks who’d left the Cove were thinking. How could they leave the most beautiful place on God’s good earth?
It was springtime, the best time of year in the Cove. The winter snow had melted and the mountain laurel was in bloom. It wouldn’t be long before rhododendrons dotted the mountainsides and azaleas reappeared on Gregory’s Bald. This year, however, Josie wouldn’t be with her to share the wonder of the Cove coming back to life after a hard winter.
To Rani the prospect of living anywhere except the mountain valley where she’d been born scared her. She’d had an opportunity to see what existed in the outside world when she spent a year attending school while living with Uncle Charles in Maryville. It had been enough to convince her that life wasn’t nearly as good anywhere else as it was in the Cove. But others didn’t share her thoughts, and they’d left. And now Josie was going too.
With a sigh she turned back to the task she’d abandoned moments ago, helping pack up the kitchen utensils. Her throat constricted as she pulled the cake plate she and her mother had given Josie from the kitchen cupboard. She wrapped her fingers around the pierced handles and stared down at the hand-painted red and yellow roses on the delicate china dish. She’d thought it the most beautiful plate she’d ever seen when she first spied it at the store in Pigeon Forge.
Tears filled her eyes, and she loosened her grip with one hand so she could trace the gold band on the fluted rim. “I can’t believe it’s been three years since your wedding.”
Josie Ferguson bit down on her lip and nodded. “Ted’s always said this was his favorite of all our wedding gifts. It reminds him of the molasses cake your mother let him and his sister help make the day George was born.”
“I’ve heard Mama tell that story so many times. But she has one about every baby she’s helped deliver.”
“She’s been a blessing to the women she’s helped birth their babies. Everybody loves Anna Martin.” Josie’s eyes grew wide. “And of course your father too. I don’t think I can ever love another pastor like I do your pa. I’ve listened to him on Sundays ever since I can remember.”
“But you won’t be there anymore.” Rani set the plate down on the table and glanced at the baskets and tubs scattered across the kitchen floor. Pots, pans, and cooking utensils protruded above their sides. The tears she’d been holding back poured down her face, and she covered her eyes with her fingers. “First my brother decides to spend the summer at Uncle Robert’s farm in Strawberry Plains instead of coming home from school, then my cousin Annie gets married and moves to Townsend. Now you’re going too. What will I do with all of you gone? I’m going to feel so alone.”
“No, you won’t.”
Rani dug her fists into her eyes to stop the tears and gritted her teeth. “Why couldn’t Stephen have come home when school was out at Milligan College instead of spending the summer on Uncle Robert’s farm?”
Josie propped her hands on her hips and tilted her head to one side. “You know why.”
“Yeah,” Rani sighed. “He didn’t want to hear Poppa talk to him all summer about following in his footsteps. I don’t know why Poppa can’t see that Stephen doesn’t feel led to preach even though he agreed to that year at Milligan College. He wants to go to medical school. Of course that’s what Mama wants too. I’m glad they don’t have that problem with me. I don’t want to live anywhere but right here in Cades Cove…even if I am going to be alone.”
Josie rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Like I said, you won’t be alone. You’ll have your ma and pa, and Stephen will be here for a visit in July.” Josie wrapped her arms around Rani’s shoulders and hugged her close. “I’m the one who’s going to be alone. I won’t know anybody over at Townsend. You know Ted never has taken to farming, and there’s nothing else for him in the Cove. His new job pays real good. They’re going to furnish us a house too.”
Rani drew back in shock and gaped at Josie. “House? Have you seen what that high and mighty Little River Logging Company calls houses? I went with Poppa to Townsend last month, and I couldn’t believe what the workers were living in. They call them setoff houses because they bring them in on railroad cars and set them off on the hillsides or even right next to the railroad. They’re nothing more than one-room shacks with tar paper roofs. When the lumber company gets through cutting all the trees in one place, they load the houses onto a train and ship them to the next spot for their workers.”
Josie’s lip trembled, and her forehead wrinkled. “I know.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “But what can I do, Rani? Ted is my husband. We have to go where he can find work.”
Rani gazed past Josie to the cradle in the next room. “I can’t stand to think about you living in one of those things, especially now since you have a baby. Can’t you convince Ted to stay in Cades Cove? This is the only life you know.”
Josie pulled the corner of her apron up and wiped her eyes. She took a deep breath. “We’ll be fine. I’ll come back to visit, and you can come to Townsend to see me.”
Rani snorted and shook her head. “No thanks. I have no desire to share a one-room setoff house with you and your husband, not to mention your baby. I can’t believe Ted would be so disloyal to the Cove to go work for a company that’s trying to destroy our mountains.”
“Are you accusing my husband of turning his back on his friends?” Josie’s eyes flared and grew dark with anger.
Rani had seen that look before and realized she’d gone too far. She really needed to follow her mother’s advice and not be so outspoken about the company she thought was using the Smokies as a quick way to make money. Her opinion of Little River Lumber differed from that of many who’d left to work for the logging company. Now she had sounded like she believed Ted to be a traitor to his friends.
She reached out and grasped Josie’s arm. “I’m sorry, Josie. I didn’t mean to criticize Ted. It’s just that I’ve been so upset over what Little River’s doing to our mountains. Colonel Townsend has bought 86,000 acres of forest land all the way from Tuckaleechee to Clingman’s Dome. I don’t care if he does own the company, he’s a foolish man. They’re cutting every tree in their path. If somebody doesn’t stop them, the Smokies will end up as barren hillsides.”
Josie waved her hand in dismissal. “As usual, you’re being overly dramatic. That’s not going to happen. Like I said before, they pay well, and we need the money. End of discussion.”
Rani opened her mouth to respond, but the set of Josie’s jaw told her it would be useless. With a sigh, she picked up the cake plate from the table and handed it to Josie. “I hope you’ll think of me every time you use this.”
Josie took the plate and clasped it in her hands like she held a priceless treasure. For the first time Rani caught a glimpse of fear in Josie’s eyes, and the truth struck her. Josie didn’t want to leave Cades Cove, but she had no choice.
“I will,” Josie whispered. “I wanted this to be the last thing I packed. After all, you’re my best friend.”
Rani burst into tears and threw her arms around Josie. “We’re more than best friends. I think of you as the sister I never had. ”
“Me too.” Josie pulled back and wiped at the corner of her eyes. “But you know we could really be sisters.”
Josie’s words shattered the mood of moments ago and swept all the sadness from Rani’s mind. She took a step backward and wagged her finger in Josie’s direction. “Oh no. Don’t start that again.”
“Why not? George is crazy about you. All he talks about is how he wants to marry you, and you won’t give him any encouragement. If you married him, we’d be family. Sisters-in-law.”
Rani couldn’t believe they were having this conversation again. “I’ve told you at least a hundred times that George is a good friend, but I don’t love him. Even if I did, I don’t think I’d marry him.”
A skeptical expression crossed Josie’s face. “What’s the matter? Isn’t he good looking enough for you?”
Rani’s mouth gaped open at the ridiculous suggestion. “Oh, Josie, you know I would never think that. The truth is George is the youngest child in his family, and he’s spoiled rotten. If he doesn’t get his way, he sulks for days. I wouldn’t want a husband that I have to coddle and give in to all the time.”
Josie dropped her gaze to the cake plate she held and wrapped a burlap sack around it before she tucked it in the side of one of the baskets. “I have to admit you’re right. As a matter of fact, Ted told me George had an awful argument with his pa the other night. It seems he’s upset because he’s going to be left behind in the Cove after we leave.”
Rani held up her hands in exasperation. “You see what I mean. George can only see what he wants. He doesn’t realize what a great opportunity he has to work with his father on one of the best farms in the Cove.”
“But, Rani, you know he’s in love with you. That ought to be enough to make him a good husband.”
“Maybe it would be for somebody else, but not for me. I’m just eighteen years old. I have plenty of time to think about getting married. When I do, it’s going to be because I love a man so much my heart aches when I’m away from him.”
Josie turned to Rani and propped her hands on her hips. “Yeah, you’ve always had those romantic ideas. I think it must come from all those stories about how hard it was for your pa to get your mother to marry him.” She leaned closer to Rani. “Well, for those of us who don’t have a great love like that happen in our lives, we have to settle for the next best thing. It’s not like there’s a lot of men to choose from in the Cove. Being married to George is better than ending up an old maid.”
Rani flinched at Josie’s words. She remembered how Josie had cried four years ago when Charlie Simmons left the Cove, bound for California. At the time she’d thought it was because he was Ted’s friend. Now she wasn’t so sure. “Is that what you did, Josie? You settled for the next best thing?”
Josie’s face drained of color, and she put her hand to her throat. “Rani, I didn’t mean…”
“What’s goin’ on in here?”
At the sound of her husband’s voice at the back door Josie’s body stiffened, and she glanced over her shoulder. Rani’s heart lurched at the lack of expression on Josie’s face. She might very well have been looking at a stranger who’d come to her door instead of her husband. “I need to check on the baby,” she said, and hurried from the kitchen.
Ted Ferguson frowned and gazed after his wife as she hurried into the next room. His eyes darkened, and the look in his eyes told Rani he longed for something he would never have from Josie. After a moment he took a deep breath and smiled at her. “You two havin’ another one of your friendly arguments?”
Rani forced a laugh from her throat and wiped her eyes. “No argument. We’re just a little emotional over the two of you leaving the Cove. It seems all my friends are taking off for different places. My family may be the only one left before long.”
Ted shook his head. “Naw, you won’t be. They’ll have to drag my pa out of the Cove to get him to leave. He says he intends to be buried at the church he’s gone to all his life.”
“That’s what my pa says too.” Rani picked up the empty basket sitting on the table. “I left you some fried chicken and a fresh loaf of bread that Mama sent. She thought you might get hungry on your way to Townsend tomorrow.”
“She always thinks about other folks. Tell her I’m mighty obliged, and I hope I see her soon.”
Ted followed Rani into the next room where Josie was holding her son. No one spoke for a moment, then Josie swallowed and handed the baby to Ted. “Take care of Jimmy a minute while I walk Rani out.”
As Rani stepped onto the front porch, she glanced down at her dog lying next to the door. She snapped her fingers, and he jumped to his feet. He shook his shaggy body, wagged his tail, and awaited her command. It was so easy to communicate with animals. Give them love, feed them well, and reward them for good behavior, and they’d do anything you asked. Too bad people weren’t like that.
Josie had a husband who did all that for her, but today Rani had discovered the secret Josie had kept so well hidden—she would never be able to return Ted’s love. Rani didn’t want to end up like that.
With a sigh, she reached down and stroked her dog’s head. “Good boy, Scout. You did what I said. Now let’s go home.”
With Scout at her heels, she and Josie walked to the road that ran in front of the cabin. As they neared the edge of the yard, Rani turned to Josie. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you too. We’re leaving early in the morning. So I guess I won’t see you again. I hope you will come visit me in Townsend. We’ll make room.”
Rani nodded. “We’ll see. You take care of yourself. And Ted and little Jimmy too.”
Josie smiled, but Rani could see the tears she was fighting to control. “Goodbye, Rani.”
Rani started to speak, but the words froze in her throat. She pressed her lips together and hugged her friend before she turned and started the long walk home. Scout trotted along beside her, and she didn’t look back. She wanted to, but she didn’t think she could stand the sight of Josie watching her walk away.
She glanced down at the dog and smiled. “Well, Scout, it’s a two-mile walk home. Do you think you can make it?”
The dog stared up at her and yelped a reply without breaking his stride.
“I think I can too.”
She didn’t mind walking. It had always been her way of getting around the Cove, and it gave her time to think. Today she had a lot to mull over. Her discovery about Josie’s feelings that she had settled for the next best thing still bothered her. She’d never imagined that Josie might have been in love with someone else.
Now that she thought back to four years ago, she remembered Josie seeming happy all summer. At the time, all she would say was that she’d had her first kiss and was in love. Rani thought it had to be Ted because he had been in love with Josie for years. But it must have been Charlie Simmons, and things hadn’t worked out. And soon after Charlie’s departure from the Cove, Josie had agreed to marry Ted after putting him off for so long.
Today she had learned the truth. Josie had settled for something—someone—she didn’t want. How could she have done that? She must have thought she was doing the right thing, but she’d been wrong. And she was wrong about something else. Being an old maid wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a woman. To Rani’s way of thinking, being married to someone you didn’t love was far worse.
She squared her shoulders, clenched her fists at her side, and looked down at Scout. “I promise you, Scout, I will never settle for second best, even if it means I never get married.”
From the moment he rode into Cades Cove a peace like he hadn’t experienced in years came over Matthew Jackson. He pulled his horse to a stop and breathed in the sweet scent of mountain laurel drifting on the air. It smelled like home. He was back where his heart had remained.
Had it really been twenty years since he left the Cove? He closed his eyes and tried to recall every memory of the days following the death of his drunkard father. Even now the thought of the life he, his mother, and his little brother had endured made the old anger he’d tried to bury resurface. With his father drunk most of the time, survival had been hard. But his mother had seen to it that there was always food on the table. Then their lives had taken a turn for the worse when a tavern brawl had ended with his father lying dead of a gunshot wound.
Matthew had been almost ten years old at the time, but overnight he became the man of the family. He’d turned to a newcomer in the Cove, Anna Prentiss. Of course she was Anna Martin now. But to him she’d always be the angel who’d found a place for his family to live and had seen they were taken care of.
He even remembered the last words he’d spoken to her the day they left the Cove. She stood beside the wagon loaded with his family’s few belongings, and he’d said, “I’ll be back here someday.” And now, thanks to the money he’d saved working for the Little River Company, he had returned with the deed to his old homestead in his pocket.
But would the people of the Cove welcome the return of Luke Jackson’s son? His father had been a troublemaker and a bully, not to mention an abuser of his wife and children. The sturdy mountain folks didn’t have time for a man who didn’t take care of his family. As his mother used to say, people have long memories, and he was sure they could recall every one of his father’s misdeeds. Now he was about to see if those memories had labeled him a ne’er-do-well like his father.
He could count on one hand the folks who would welcome him back. Simon and Anna Martin. Granny Lawson. They were the ones who made his childhood bearable, and he could hardly wait to see them. But first things first. He had to go to the place where he was born and fulfill a promise he’d made to his dying mother fifteen years ago.
He’d leaned close to her frail, fever-ridden body to catch her last words spoken in that familiar mountain twang: “When you git back to the Cove, see if ’n my mountain laurel bush is still there, the one yore pa planted for me when we was first married.”
After all the heartache his father had put her through, she still held to the memory of the early days of her marriage when she’d been so happy. Even now the thought of how her eyes had sparkled for a moment, reliving a happier time, made him feel as if a hammer had crushed his heart. His mother and little Eli, his brother. Gone too soon.
He cleared his throat and swiped at his eyes. No need to think about those things now. This was homecoming day, but it was different from what he’d dreamed about when he was a boy. He’d come back alone.
Straightening in the saddle, he spurred the horse forward and concentrated on the road twisting through the valley he loved. All around him were the sights and sounds he’d longed for, but he focused on getting home and seeing the place he’d left twenty years ago.
When he pulled the horse to a halt at what had once been the cabin where he’d lived, his heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. It was worse than he’d expected. The skeleton of a cabin sat near the tulip poplar tree he’d climbed as a boy—bigger now than he remembered. The house’s roof had long ago succumbed to the forces of nature and had caved in. A few timbers marked the spot where it had once been. Weeds grew across what had once been a yard.
Even in its best days the cabin hadn’t been much, but it could have been if his father had concentrated on making a life for his family instead of spending his time in a drunken stupor. The old hatred welled up in his heart, and he whispered the plea he’d prayed every day since he could remember. “God, don’t let me be like him. Make me a better man.”
The promise he’d made his mother flashed into his mind, and he climbed down from the horse and tied the reins to a sapling. Taking a deep breath to slow his racing heart, he headed around the side of the house. Had the mountain laurel plant survived the years?
His gaze drifted to his feet, and a warning flickered in his head. The weeds along what used to be a path had been trampled. Someone else had passed this way not long ago.
With hesitant steps, he inched forward. The knee-high weeds swished against his legs. He caught sight of his mother’s plant that now towered higher than his head, and he stopped in amazement. It wasn’t the bloom-covered bush that made his breath catch in his throat. It was a young woman who appeared unaware of his presence. With her arms outstretched and her face turned up to the sun, she whirled in circles in front of the mountain laurel bush while saying something in a language he didn’t understand.
Her bare feet hammered the hardened earth around the plant in a pounding rhythm. Pink blooms from the mountain laurel bush ringed the top of her head and several more protruded from the mass of black hair that reached below her shoulders.
She moved with the grace and elegance of a queen, and he thought he had never seen anyone more beautiful. He tried to speak, to alert her she wasn’t alone, but he felt as if he had come under her spell and had been forbidden to move.
Suddenly the air crackled with frantic barking, and a dog emerged from the other side of the bush. His hackles raised, he positioned himself between Matthew and the girl. She jerked to a stop and stared at him, wide-eyed. The dog snarled and inched forward.
Her dark eyes narrowed, and with one snap of her fingers she quieted the dog. She didn’t move, and her arched eyebrow told him his company wasn’t welcomed. “Stay back, mister, or I’ll sic my dog on you.”
He glanced down at the dog, whose body still bristled as if he was ready to attack. “I don’t mean you any harm, miss.”
“Then why did you sneak up on me?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t. I stopped when I heard your voice. What were you saying?”
“Just some words I learned from a Cherokee woman.” She frowned and glanced past him. “Are you alone?”
“I am. I just rode into the Cove from Townsend.”
Her body stiffened, and her lips curled into a sneer. “Townsend? Are you with the Little River Company?”
“I have been.”
“It figures.” She spit the words at him as if they were distasteful. “We get a lot of Little River workers checking out the Cove. You people are always searching for another stand of timber to cut down, aren’t you?” She bent down, grabbed her discarded shoes, and slipped them on her feet. Then with her arms rigid at her sides and her fists clenched, she took a step toward him. “Well, you can go back and tell your bosses we don’t sell our land and our trees to outsiders who want to clear cut their way through the Smokies.”
The defiant look in her eyes shot daggers at him, and they felt as if they poked deep holes in his heart. This girl’s words echoed the fierce pride shared by all the Cove residents for this valley, his valley, the place he called home. He wanted to tell her he agreed with her, that all he wanted was to live again among the people he remembered. Instead, other words emerged from his lips. “I worked for their railroad, not the logging company.”
She shook her head, and one of the blooms tumbled to the ground. Her eyes widened, and she glanced up as if she’d forgotten she wore a crown of flowers. A flush covered her cheeks, and she yanked the blossoms from her thick hair. “They’re the same to me. Maybe you didn’t cut our trees, but you carried them away.”
Matthew swallowed hard. There was something so familiar about this girl. Her brown eyes, dark complexion, and the high cheekbones reminded him of someone. It wasn’t possible he could have met her before. She probably hadn’t even been born when he had left the Cove. But still, there was something. He took a step closer, and the dog growled. With a smile he stopped and held up his hands. “I’m not coming closer.”
“Good.” She sniffed and snapped her fingers again. “Let’s go, Scout. It’s time we got home.”
He didn’t move as she strode past him, her head held high and her dog at her side. He turned and watched her disappear around the side of what had once been his home. Her straight back and determined stride reminded him of the spirited mountain women he’d known. They attacked the harsh life in the Cove and planted the seed of unyielding loyalty to the land in their children. Just like his mother had done with him.
Someone had instilled that same devotion in this girl. He hoped he’d get to meet the person who had done that, for he had just encountered the fierce mountain pride that had ruled his life. And it thrived in the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
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