STARING INTO MISS Alice's vanity mirror, I held absolutely still as Opal pinned up the last satin fold on the hem of my wedding gown. Mother was fluttering around the refreshment table outside, but Opal, Ruby Mae, Elizabeth, and Miss Alice had accompanied me to the cabin to get dressed for the ceremony.
In exactly three hours, I would marry Neil.
"Hold still, dear," Miss Alice murmured, tucking a stray curl back into place.
"I'm sorry." I tried to stop fidgeting, but I couldn't seem to help it. Ruby Mae giggled at my petulant tone.
"I was as nervous as a coon hidin' from a bloodhound afore I got marrit to Will," she told me, wandering over to inspect Miss Alice's handiwork. "That looks right purty. How'd you make all them little knots twist around like that?"
I ignored the conversation about my coiffure and instead looked down at Opal, who was now diligently stitching up the skirt another half-inch to prevent me from tripping. She cut a sly glance up at me, biting back a smile as if she could read my very thoughts; I felt my cheeks flush.
"Christy, I'm going ter check on Miz Iverson an' the other ladies in the kitchen. Ruby Mae, you come along with me." Opal rose to her feet, shaking out my skirt with an expression of pure satisfaction. "Be back in jest a minnit, Miz Alice."
Ruby Mae protested for a moment before meekly buckling under Opal's firm stare. Picking up the sewing basket, Elizabeth trailed after them without a word, leaving Miss Alice and I alone.
Without a moment's pause, Miss Alice lifted one last ringlet over my shoulder before clipping up the trailing wisps with the beautiful comb that Neil had given me as a wedding gift. It was a lovely ornament, much finer than my usual accoutrements: filigreed silver, with dainty seed pearls threaded throughout. It had been such a surprise to find it sitting on my pillow last evening with a brief note from Neil, suggesting that it might look well with my wedding dress. For such a stolid man, he could be surprisingly romantic when the impulse struck him.
"How art thee feeling, Christy?" Miss Alice asked softly, her hands light and comforting on my shoulders.
"Nervous and excited all at once." I smiled. "I can't believe I'm getting married today."
"Neither can I," she chuckled. "I'm very proud to have such a fine daughter." She tenderly cupped my chin with her hands as she kissed my forehead. "May your life with Neil overflow with blessings."
I blinked back tears. "Thank you." It was all I could say. How else could I express how much her love and approval meant? In many ways, she was a true mother to me, though I suspected that I should feel some pang of guilt at the ease in which the comparison came to me. I did not want to spend my wedding day filled with anger toward my actual mother.
"All done?" she asked, brushing a few fallen hairs from my shoulder. "You may join everyone else in the house if you'd like. You might as well sit down and rest; you have a very long day ahead of you."
"But Neil . . . " A lingering sense of superstition made me reluctant to chance an encounter with my groom before our appointed meeting at the altar.
"I have it on good authority that Mr. Spencer is keeping Neil sequestered in the schoolhouse. He will not see thee."
I smiled at her gratefully, and she helped me out onto the path, holding my short train very carefully above the grass while I hiked my skirt up past my ankles. We must have looked absurd, because I could hear the distinct sounds of Sam Houston's and Creed's laughter. I glanced up to find the two boys sitting on the porch with a few of the other children, still stringing wreaths of wildflowers through the slats. I waved, laughing along with them, and some of the littlest ones ran down the path to meet me.
Miss Alice tactfully kept small, dirty hands away from my white gown while I answered eager questions and praised the beautiful work they had done. My children had spared no effort to make the mission look festive: elaborate strings of flowers and berries were interspersed with paper hearts and even a few store-bought glass ornaments. I kissed their upturned faces one by one, unable to tell them how pleased and proud I was, and how much their efforts meant.
Isaak lingered behind the others, but he smiled and tipped his hat when I caught his eye. I smiled back, knowing that all was well between us again. Little Burl gave me a sprig of lavender to slip into my hair, assuring me that it was the very best flower on the entire mountain, and Mountie -- with a bit of assistance from Miss Alice -- tucked it carefully under the silver clip.
I sat out on the porch with them for a long while, enjoying the innocent warmth of their affection while I still could. Things would not change immediately -- I would still teach at the school for now -- but if Neil and I had a child of our own, I would have to give up teaching. Expectant women were not allowed in the schoolroom.
Pushing those unhappy thoughts away, I told them that I would be very glad to have them visit at the cabin whenever they wanted; Miss Alice, bless her heart, was quick to interject that the doctor and I might wish for a few weeks to spend together before we were besieged with guests.
Too soon, Mother learned of my presence and hurried me away from the children, citing a need for my opinion on some dish or another. I followed her obediently through the house, enjoying the steady buzz of activity around us, but she didn't stop in the parlor. Instead she led me out to the little pantry, which was probably the only empty room in the mission.
"Christy, dear, you are a lovely bride," she said softly, holding me by the shoulders. "I just wanted to tell you so."
I felt ashamed of my pettiness. As soon as she opened her arms I rushed into them, holding her tightly. The weight of her disapproval was still there, and I didn't know that it would ever disappear completely, but at least I could begin to understand why. In her mind, she was losing me to the wilderness once and for all. I couldn't resent her fear.
"I love you," I said, feeling oddly sentimental.
"Be happy, dear," she replied, taking a step back to look at me. "That's all I want."
"I know." I moved to hug her again, but she pulled away, frowning as her gaze centered on the top of my head.
"What's that in your hair?" She reached out, clicking her tongue. "For goodness' sake, Christy Huddleston, have you been rolling around in the grass?"
I remembered the lavender just in time, dodging away from her hands. "Mountie put it in there for me. Leave it, please."
"Christy, it doesn't look good with your dress. It's not even the right color. Here, just let me . . ." "It's fine, Mother. It was Little Burl's wedding gift to me, and I want to wear it."
She let her hands drop, a momentary flash of exasperation crossing her face before she sighed ruefully. "Stubborn child. I'm going to go check on the progress in the kitchen; if you want to talk with your father for a little while, he's outside in the garden." She kissed my cheek once and shooed me away.
I spent the remaining hour with Father, sitting on the porch and looking out toward the mountains and longing for Fairlight. We didn't say much -- we didn't need to. It calmed me, scattered all my anxieties, as I remembered leisurely evenings spent in the study with my father, relaxing in silent companionship. The steady but unspoken weight of his acceptance meant more to me than I could express, so I didn't even attempt it. I knew he understood.
Giving my thoughts free reign, I marveled at how something as simple as a fifteen-minute ceremony could change my life so completely. I was going to be a wife, and perhaps a mother. The last thing I'd expected to find when I came to Cutter Gap all those years ago was a husband. It was ironic, in a sense, as I'd fled Asheville partly in fear of being married too soon.
For the first time in many weeks, I thought of David, and my buoyant heart was momentarily weighed down by the memories of unanswered questions.
I had yet to hear from him beyond that single letter, nor did I think it prudent to send him any message of my marriage -- it seemed too cruel on the heels of everything else. Perhaps someday, when we were settled and the rawness of everything had healed over, perhaps then we could see each other again without resentment.
I straightened my lace sleeves and closed my eyes, not attempting to banish the images: David walking with me along the moonlit path to the mission, his laughing eyes and teasing smile, and finally, his handsome face twisted in anger and jealousy. I let the memories run their course -- it wasn't strange that they should surface on this day of all days -- and then let go of them, maybe forever. I wouldn't forget David, and I would always pray for his happiness, but today wasn't a day to dwell on it.
The low chime of the schoolhouse bell ringing made me glance up, the nervous tremors running up and down my spine returning twofold. Father straightened his suit coat and stood, holding out his arm. "Well, Girlie," he said softly, "that's our signal."
Taking a calming breath, I hooked my arm through my father's and began the slow walk that would lead me to Neil.
I ALWAYS THOUGHT that my wedding day would be a permanent memory, every second imprinted on my mind.
Instead it was simply surreal, a patchwork of scattered thoughts and sensations and emotions. I couldn't have provided an account of the ceremony even if I was asked to; my impressions were composed of little more than fragments pieced together haphazardly to create the whole: Zady's shy smile as she dropped petals down the makeshift aisle; Miss Alice's proud voice; my father's suspiciously damp eyes as he gave me away . . . and Neil. Neil, looking tall and handsome, taking my hand and solemnly promising to love me in sickness and health, til death do us part.
And then we were spilling out into the sunshine, church doors flung wide. I was kissed and hugged and petted, surrounded by joyful friends and my children. The thick, sweet scent of mountain laurel was heavy in the air.
I don't quite know what I said, who I kissed and thanked, but I was aware of Neil's hand still clasped around mine, as if he didn't dare let go in the fear that I might float away.
There was dancing out in the field. Neil was finally pulled away from me for some sort of manly camaraderie -- and then I was abruptly awake again, the fog clearing away from my eyes.
"Congrat'lashuns, Missus MacNeill," Opal was saying, beaming as she held me at arm's length.
I blinked at her. "I'm married now, aren't I?"
She laughed. "Yes, ye are! Poor gal, you look downright befuzzled! Here, sit yerself down fer a minnit and git yer brains back together."
"Neil . . .?"
"He's been dragged off by the menfolk. Don't ye worry. They can't git into too much mischief with yer pa and brother with 'im."
Ignoring the chair she held out for me, I flopped down into the grass, watching the dancers and the lively movements of Jeb's bow as it seesawed across his old fiddle.
Without a thought for her own dress -- the only store-bought one she owned, I noticed absently -- Opal sat down next to me.
"I really am married," I whispered after a long moment.
Her smile was unexpectedly gentle. "Aye."
And suddenly the sunshine seemed all that much brighter.
WE DIDN'T RETURN to our cabin until long after the moon was hanging full and ripe over our heads, but I didn't mind the lateness of the hour. If our actual wedding was a blur, I didn't think I would ever forget the feeling of dancing with my husband under the stars, twirling until the sky was streaked with light.
I was curled against Neil's back, wrapped in a quilt despite the warmth of the night. We didn't say a word as Charlie plodded patiently along the familiar trail home. It was peaceful, just what we required after so much commotion and noise.
By some miracle, Jeb had engineered an escape before the men could give us the usual wedding-night treatment. I was grateful to him -- tradition was tradition, but Neil and I had done nothing but break tradition in Cutter Gap, so it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise to anyone.
I rested my cheek against his back, feeling the strong press of muscle beneath his suit, and tried not to think too much about what was going to happen when we finally arrived at the cabin -- our cabin. I'd had quite enough contemplation about all things conjugal; my mother had seen to that, with her last minute "advice" before Neil and I fled our party.
When I felt brave enough, I was certainly going to thank Opal for her instructions, because I was fairly sure that otherwise Mother's little talk would have been far too disturbing. Perhaps I would be able to laugh about it in the future, but for right now, I just wanted to forget.
I shivered a little in automatic response, and Neil must have felt the motion.
"Are you cold, lass?"
The pet name never failed to draw a smile out of me. "Lass? Shouldn't it be 'Mrs. MacNeill' instead?"
"I suppose it should. Mrs. MacNeill." There was something low and . . . dare I say it? . . . wicked in his voice, and I shuddered for another reason entirely.
MY NERVES WERE strung tight as I changed into my nightgown. I could hear Neil moving around downstairs, and it occurred to me that I could simply lock the door and hide up here until morning.
You are a coward, I berated myself. Neil's waiting for you. You love him, remember?
I started toward the door, only to catch a glimpse of myself in the vanity mirror. The beautiful nightdress had seemed so innocent and modest when I'd seen it folded in my trunk, but curved around my body, it was anything but modest. Blushing, I folded my arms over my breasts and forced myself to look away from the mirror.
I had no idea when he would come up, and my courage failed me. I darted under the covers, pulling them up to my chin, and waited.
Neil didn't keep me long; it took him maybe ten minutes more before he tapped on the door. "Christy? May I come in?"
I squeaked some sort of agreement, and when he came in and saw me peeking out from the quilt, he very distinctly bit back a smile.
He was fully dressed, thank heavens, which settled me down a little bit -- maybe Neil wouldn't mind if I turned down the lamp? I wanted to ask but suspected that he might laugh at me; he really did have a very inconvenient sense of humor, and right now, I didn't think I could bear to look any more foolish.
I felt the mattress dip as he crawled into bed next to me, moving as quietly as possible. His fingers brushed against my cheek and I turned to look at him and summoned up a bright smile.
"You look like you're about to faint."
"Well, aren't you a gentleman?" I grumped.
He chuckled but didn't move his hand away -- the motion was rather soothing. "You know I'm not a gentleman, Mrs. MacNeill, but you married me anyway."
He had a point. "'Mrs. MacNeill'," I repeated, still testing out the sound. "Christy MacNeill. I like it -- it's a nice, sturdy name, don't you think?"
"Aye. I'm glad you like it, though it's too late now to take it back."
I knew he was teasing, but I thought immediately of Margaret. She had taken it back. "I would never want to take it back," I told him seriously. "Never."
That tenderness was in his face again, and I felt my tense body begin to relax, leaning more heavily against his. "I'll hold you to that promise, lass." He nuzzled my hair before dropping his lips to my forehead, my cheek, my nose, my chin -- and finally my lips. My courage returned as we fell together under the blankets, and I gave myself up to Neil's kiss.
MUCH LATER, I rested in my husband's arms, sated and deliciously weary. His warm weight pressed against me reassuringly, lulling me to sleep -- but I wasn't ready to put an end to this amazing night. I wanted to savor every minute.
Tomorrow would be a new day, a new start in a new life, but for now, I wanted to cling on to what we were.
Neil was idly playing with my hair, carding the strands between his fingers and smiling a soft, secret smile. I shifted a little until my cheek was pressed just inside the curve of his shoulder and basked in the attention.
"What are you thinking?" he whispered.
I considered the question, wondering how best to put into words what I was feeling. "I was thinking that I love you more than I can say."
His lips curved up appreciatively. "I'm mighty glad to hear that."
"And I was thinking that Opal's peach pie is the best in the entire country."
Neil's laughter rumbled up from deep in his chest, and his arms tightened around me. "You always manage to surprise me."
"A good wife has to keep her husband on his toes," I said wisely. "And what about you? What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about blessings," he said. "I thank God for you."
Infuriating, stubborn, taciturn Neil MacNeill had a regular knack for catching me unawares with the sweetest, kindest compliments, and I found myself pushing back tears for the hundredth time in twenty-four hours.
I kissed him once, and we lapsed into easy silence, watching the moon crest over the mountains from our bedroom window and waiting for dawn.
There was really nothing more that needed to be said.
A/N: Oh my god, this is the end! The story is finished at long (long) last!
A thousand apologies for the lateness of this update, and a thousand thank-yous to those of you who read, reviewed, and PMed all the way through this monster. I can't tell you how encouraging your support was, or how much I appreciated it.
The input on an epilogue was overwhelmingly in favor, but when I finished this chapter, nothing I wrote after it felt right, so there won't be an epilogue. I guess it's sort of fitting that this story should end on an open note just like the novel. There were some loose ends (ie: David, Bird's-Eye, teaching after being marriage, etc) but life doesn't always tie everything up in a neat package, so I hope you'll forgive me for that too.
Again, thanks so much to everyone for the support and encouragement. I had a lot of fun playing with Catherine Marshall's characters.