Man of the mountain, p.21




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  Slowly Jared nodded.

  Eden drew herself up. "Good."

  Without another word, she strode to the door, flung it open and walked out into the fall sunshine. She never looked back.

  * * *

  Jared stared at the door for a long time after Eden wet through it. Then he blinked and lifted the bottle of whiskey slowly to his thirsty lips.

  But, as luck would have it, just before he tipped back his head and drank, he had a vision.

  He saw Eden in a wedding dress. And he saw his father slipping a ring onto her slender hand and then gathering her into his gnarled old arms and pulling her close for a vow-sealing kiss.

  With a curse so foul it was a good thing no one else heard it, Jared threw the bottle across the room. It shattered, splattering whiskey all over the wall.

  * * *

  Chapter 20

  « ^ »

  "It's certainly a beautiful day for a wedding, Edie." Eden's mother, Julia, lowered the bridal veil over Eden's face and smoothed it on her shoulders so that it didn't bunch or gather.

  Eden smiled through the veil. Julia and Eden's stepfather had come from Bakersfield for the ceremony. And Eden's father and stepmother were here from Fresno. Also, two of her half brothers and three half sisters, one stepsister and two stepbrothers, plus a number of spouses and children had all seen fit to drive to Eden's new home on very short notice to watch her walk down the aisle.

  There was one motel in North Magdalene. It was full to capacity with the members of Eden's family. Some of them were also staying at the cabin and some with Laurie's parents. It did Eden's heart good to see them all. She had cried happy tears when so many of then called and said they wouldn't miss her wedding for the world. All her life, she had felt a little like an outsider in her own family. But now, on her wedding day, she knew she was loved and included by them all.

  "Yes, it is a good day for a wedding, Mom," Eden said. "And I'm glad you all came."

  They stood in a small room right off the narthex of the North Magdalene Community Church. Through the tall, double-hung window, the sky was clear blue. The flame-leaf maple right beyond the glass displayed the brilliant red fall leaves for which it was named.

  From the chapel, Eden could hear piano music. The sound was lovely, lyrical and tender, though Eden didn't know the name of the song. She'd spoken only briefly with Regina Black, who was the church's volunteer pianist. Eden had asked Regina to use her own judgment about the music, and she was glad she had.

  Julia went on, "And this is a charming little town. I can see why you'd want to make your life here."

  "Yes, I do love it."

  "And your fiancé is … quite a character."

  The catch in her mother's voice was not lost on Eden. "Yes. There's no one quite like him. Everyone in town says so."

  "Are you sure—" Julia coughed delicately into her hand "—that this is what you want, Edie?"

  Eden kept her smile. "Yes, Mom. I'm sure."

  "Because, you know, it isn't too late to—"

  "Mom. I know what I'm doing. I'm going to marry the man I love. Be happy for me, please?"

  "I will." Her mother smoothed the lace of Eden's sleeve. "But there hasn't been much time for us to talk. And I would never forgive myself if I didn't tell you what's in my heart."

  "Oh, Mom." Eden took Julia's hands. "I know. You think he's not right for me."

  Julia nodded. Eden saw there were tears in her eyes. "Yes. That's what I think."

  "Just trust me, Mom." Eden gave the hands she held a squeeze. "Everything will work out all right." Someone had thoughtfully set a box of tissues on a small credenza beneath the window. Eden took one and gave it to her mother.

  Julia delicately dabbed at her eyes. "Well. It's your life, of course."

  "Yes, Mom. It is."

  "And at least I've told you about my doubts."

  "Yes. And thank you. For being honest."

  "I just wish—"

  Eden raised a hand. "Please. No more."

  "Yes, of course. I understand."

  The door opened and Laurie, the maid of honor, came in. She wore the tea-length autumn-gold dress she and Eden had chosen together at the bridal shop in Grass Valley only a few days before. Her honey-brown hair had been swept up into a smooth French twist. Laurie's smile was determinedly bright. "All ready?"

  Eden nodded. "How long until we start?"


  The door opened once more and Nellie Anderson, Delilah's friend and the church secretary, appeared. Nellie had a rather pinched face, but she was doing her best, like everyone else, to keep a smile on it.

  "The pastor has asked me to find out when you'd like to sign the license," Nellie said.

  "Would after the ceremony be all right?"

  "It's your wedding," Nellie said, in much the tone one might say, It's your funeral. And then she seemed to realize that her attitude was slipping. She hastened to add in a too-solicitous voice, "And I believe that signing the papers after the ceremony is traditional, now I think of it. A wise decision."

  "Great, then, we'll sign them after," Eden said.

  "Fine." Nellie resolutely kept smiling. "I'll be back in a few moments to give you the signal to start."

  "Thank you," Eden said. And then Nellie was gone.

  Laurie came close. "Oh, Eden. Are you sure that you—"

  Eden didn't let her finish. "Shh. Not a word. This is exactly what I want." She lifted her veil and gave her friend a reassuring peck on the cheek.

  Laurie looked as if she might burst into tears any moment.

  To distract her friend, Eden asked brightly, "How many people came?"

  "The church is packed," Laurie answered. "There are as many folks out there as when Sam and Delilah got married."

  Eden was surprised. Since the word had gotten out about the wedding, she'd had nothing but dire warnings. Everyone she talked to begged her to change her mind. She'd felt sure the people in town would demonstrate their concern by failing to attend.

  "I wonder why the crowd," she mused.

  Laurie had found the box of tissues and was making use of it. She blew her nose. "Nobody's happy about this, Eden. But no one would miss it for the world, either. You haven't lived here long enough to understand that yet, but someday you will."

  Eden just shook her head.

  Julia handed Eden her bouquet. Then for a few moments, the three women stood silently, sharing an occasional reassuring smile or a quick squeeze of a hand.

  And then Nellie stuck her head into the room. "All right. Mrs. Lumley," she said to Julia, "it's time for Brendan to escort you to your seat. And Laurie, you'll follow on Sam's arm shortly after. The bride—" Nellie nodded at Eden "—will wait here until her father comes for her."

  Within seconds, Eden found herself alone in the room. The lovely, unknown music ended. The wedding march began.

  Eden clutched her bouquet and stared out at the burning brilliance of the flame-leaf maple. As she stared, her lips moved in a litany, a chant so softly spoken, that she couldn't even hear the words herself. "It will be all right. It will be fine. I'm doing the right thing. It's not too late. He could still come. He will come. I know it. I believe it. He will…"


  Eden turned and forced a wide smile for her father.

  "You look beautiful, Edie."

  "Oh, Dad. Thanks."

  "It's time. Are you ready?"

  Eden nodded. He backed out of the doorway and she walked toward him, into the narthex. The wedding march seemed to swell in her ears as she moved closer to the sound. Her father held out his arm. Eden took it. They stood in the inner door to the chapel. Eden saw how full the small church was. There was not a single empty space in any of the pews. People sat in folding chairs along the sides and at the front. They stood by the windows, too.

  Regina Black caught sight of the bride. She played even louder. Heads turned and everyone gaped. No one liked it, but no one wanted to miss it, either. It was a mome
nt that would be whispered about in the lore of North Magdalene for years and years to come, the moment Eden Parker walked down the aisle to marry the father of the man she loved.

  Reverend Johnson was at the altar. The maid of honor and the best man stood to the side. The groom, propped up on his crutches and dressed in an ill-fitting outdated suit, waited, grinning slyly, for his young bride.

  Eden and her father began the long walk up the aisle. With every step, Eden felt her heart breaking, shattering like her hope.

  But she didn't falter. She maintained her smile. And in her mind, she didn't give up. She kept up the chant.

  He will come. He does love me. This will work out. It will…

  Eden reached Oggie's side. Her father stepped away.

  Pastor Johnson intoned, "If the bride and the groom will please join hands, we will begin."

  Oggie grunted a little as he readjusted himself on his crutches so he could stick out a hand. Eden took it.

  "Dearly beloved," Reverend Johnson began. And all hell broke loose.

  The big doors at the back of the church were suddenly flung wide.

  The guests begun murmuring.

  "What the—"

  "Who is it?"

  "It can't be—"

  "It is!"

  Eden turned, hope, fear and finally blazing joy searing their way through every inch of her body.

  Oggie tossed back his head and crowed with glee, then announced, "You had me a little worried there, boy!"

  But Jared didn't hear him. He was looking at Eden. He marched up the aisle and stepped between the bride and groom.

  With slow, careful fingers, he lifted Eden's veil. She saw that his eyes were clear. His breath was sweet on her upturned face.

  "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life," he said softly. "And I spent way too much money on this damn suit."

  She glanced down and saw that he was, indeed, dressed like a man might dress on his wedding day. She opened her mouth to tell him she thought it was a fine suit and that he looked splendid in it. But somehow, no sound would come out.

  It was okay, though, because he had more to say.

  "I thought about what you told me, when you found me at my uncle's cabin. And I decided every last word was true." His voice was grim, but his gray eyes were shining. "You're the woman I've been looking for all my life. And if you're so damned sure it's not too late for us, then who am I to say different? I love you. And I suppose I'll have to marry you, to save you from my dad."

  Eden opened her mouth again. But for once in her life, she found she really was totally speechless. She stared up at him, still not fully daring to believe that he had really come, that he was truly here.

  She had known it would happen. She had not allowed herself to even imagine that he would not come for her. But still, it overwhelmed her, that he was actually here. That he was smiling at her with all the love she'd always known was in him gleaming in his silver eyes.

  Jared looked worried. "Honey? Are you okay?"

  She nodded.

  "And will you marry me?"

  She nodded once more.

  He glanced at his father. "Step aside, old man."

  "You betcha." Oggie braced his crutches up under him and stomped to the first row on the groom's side, where Patrick got up and gave him his seat.

  Jared turned to Pastor Johnson. "Okay, Reverend, get on with it."

  Pastor Johnson coughed and clutched his bible against his chest. "Er, Mr. Jones, this is highly irregular."

  "Do it anyway, Reverend!" Rocky Collins shouted from a middle pew.

  "Yeah, for Pete's sake, yer worship," someone else said, "don't mess things up now."

  The ripple of agreement rolled over the packed church.

  "Yeah, marry them!"

  "It's how it's supposed to be!"

  "Do it!"

  "Yeah, do it now!"

  The reverend cast a nervous glance around the room and came to the decision that a volatile crowd like this should probably be appeased.

  He opened his bible.

  A prayerful hush swept the chapel into instant silence. Jared tenderly smoothed down Eden's veil and took her hand in his. They turned to the minister and the ceremony began.

  At the end, Eden barely managed to whisper, "I do."

  Jared's voice, however, was firm and clear as he promised to love, honor and cherish Eden Parker for the rest of their lives.

  * * *


  « ^

  It was remarked in later years that there was never a man so changed as Jared Jones, after the day he stole Eden Parker from his own father. From that day, Jared went through life with a smile on his rugged face and a good word for everyone on his lips.

  Oggie Jones smiled a lot, too. He'd gone to great lengths to see Jared hooked up with Eden. After all, for a man to point a 30-30 at his own foot and pull the trigger on purpose takes more than a little grit. Not to mention the fact that he'd nearly had to marry Jared's bride himself.

  But even though Oggie's old flesh healed slowly and there were some in town who smirked that he'd been jilted at the altar, Oggie was content. At last, he could retire. And he knew that in heaven, his beautiful Bathsheba was smiling.

  Hell, the real truth was, he'd do it all again in a New York minute if it meant another one of his children would find true love at last.

  * * * *



  Christine Rimmer, MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN



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