At eighteen, Amanda Riley got her first lesson in love when Jacob Henderson broke her heart. But then she made the biggest mistake of her life – she ran off and married his younger brother.
Ten years later, she’s divorced and moving back to her small hometown. She’s made a name for herself in the cutting horse industry. That should count for something… Right? But decade old mistakes won’t be easily forgotten by everyone in town.
Amanda Riley slammed out of the compact rental car, hit the lock button on her key and made a half-block mad dash to the church. The wedding march had already started. Canon in D floated like a soft breeze through the organ flues and out the rafters.
“Geez,” she muttered, taking the steps to the entrance of the old, Catholic Church two at time. She’d never hear the end of it. Her sheep’s wool couldn’t get any blacker with the last white hair plucked from her hide years ago. But all the same, she hated to give them cause.
It was the perfect country white church, really, the kind women dream of getting married in. It stood in the heart of the community as a symbol of the small farming town’s love for family, neighbor and God. The steeple peeked above the century-old trees that flanked both sides of the entrance to the church like guardian angels. Magnificent stained glass windows stood four feet tall and ran the length of the old building, each window inscribed in loving memory of a deceased member of the congregation.
The large double wood doors stood open to welcome all. Amanda hesitated there as if expecting lightening to strike. Pulling air deep into her lungs and then letting it out with controlled ease, she stepped just inside entrance. She flexed her hands, gave herself a mental shake and approached the back pew. She motioned with her hand to the silver-haired man sitting there, asking without words if she could sit beside him. He frowned, the lines cutting deeper around his pursed lips, but he slid down the glossy wood pew to accommodate her late arrival. Out of habit, she genuflected and then took her seat.
She shifted her focus to the front of the church where her little sister, Emily, dressed in a full southern belle white dress, stood beside her soon-to-be husband, Todd, decked out in a long-tailed black tux. Behind them, candles sparkled like diamonds and white orchids adorned every available space on the altar. The priest, with his long, silk green-and-white robe, made the sign of the cross over the couple and blessed them. The cloud of incense hung above the congregation like a spicy perfume applied with a generous hand.
Amanda’s sister had dreamt of and wished for this day since she’d been a little girl. What woman didn’t? If anyone deserved a day like this, Emily did. She’d done everything right. She’d gotten her nursing degree, worked for a year after graduation and dated the same guy through it all. It didn’t hurt that she’d picked the right guy.
Not that Amanda knew anything about that. She straightened the yellow gingham blouse she wore tucked into snug fitted Wranglers, along with her scuffed boots. Her clothes weren’t appropriate for a wedding, even in a backwoods town like Bedinford, Ohio. Her chin lifted a notch and she squared her shoulders. Let them talk. Let them speculate.
They couldn’t possibly say anything her father hadn’t already said about her. Amanda leaned out into the aisle. Peeking around the sea of bodies, she caught sight of her father’s head of dark hair, now sprinkled with gray. Daniel Riley’s tall, lean, muscled build had softened some over the years, but he remained unyielding, in more ways than one, for a man who would see sixty-five by the end of the year.
Thirty-some years ago, he’d been something of a town hero when he opened the only dentist office within miles of the community. Most people had given up going to the dentist altogether rather than drive thirty miles out of town. But her father had a way with people and his reputation for having a gentle touch spread like gossip. Now he had a loyal following, old and young alike. Even the opening of two other dentist offices over the last five years had done little to affect his bottom line.
Everyone loved him, Amanda thought, as she dropped to her knees along with the rest of the congregation. The traditions came back to her with ease even though she hadn’t attended mass in years. She stood when everyone stood, knelt when they knelt, however, when it came time to receive communion she did not partake. She caught glimpses of other family members as they filed out of their pews, took the host, then circled back to their seats.
Her brother, Matt, held his three-year-old daughter, Tabitha, who squirmed and pushed in an effort to get down. Her behavior drew looks of disapproval from the older generation who already believed their descendants didn’t have a clue how to discipline their children. Matt’s wife, Natalie, whose belly bulged like an overinflated beach ball with their second child, sent a stern look at the little girl. Tabitha responded with an equally stern look then buried her face in her daddy’s neck.
After communion, everyone sat in silent prayer. Amanda watched Tabitha pull and tug until she stood at the end of the pew, one foot strategically placed in the center aisle. She made faces at anyone willing to make eye contact. Several times she tried to step further into the aisle but Matt’s firm hand stopped her. Then, she spotted Amanda watching her and her squeal pierced the reverent silence. People jumped, startled from prayer, and heads turned in the direction of the commotion.
The outburst caught Matt off guard, giving Tabitha the chance to break free and tear down the aisle. The yellow and white ruffled dress she wore bounced around her chubby legs. “A’mda,” she squealed again. Everyone watched the little girl’s progress into Amanda’s open arms.
Heat leapt into Amanda’s cheeks as she latched onto her niece and lifted her with shaky arms, like a shield against the stares aimed in their direction. She glanced up to apologize for the interruption and her eyes collided with those of Jacob Henderson.
A bolt of lightening couldn’t have delivered a more jarring effect on her heart. She swallowed past the sudden dryness in her throat and tore her eyes free from the disturbing blue of his. Holy moly! From the look Jacob had just given her, one would think she was the devil herself, caught in the act of snatching souls right from under his nose.
The priest stood, cleared his throat to gain everyone’s attention, and then continued with the wedding mass.
Amanda let out the breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. “Thanks a lot,” she whispered to Tabitha and then kissed her ruby little cheek.
“Oooh, necklace.” Tabitha’s round, tiny fingers touched the silver cross, then wrapped around the thin chain latched around Amanda’s neck. With her niece distracted, Amanda’s eyes drifted back to Jacob.
He looked good. Tall and solid with his dress shirt pulled snug over the breadth of his squared shoulders. Working the land his entire life kept him fit and strong. At six-foot-two, he was an impressive sight. His thick, almost black hair hadn’t lost its natural wave despite the close cut he maintained.
She closed her eyes and, for a moment, remembered his smile. The way his full lips tipped shyly at an angle, softening the hard angles of his face. How his eyes sparkled like the sun reflecting off of water when his smile reached his eyes. She remembered the feel of his mouth against hers, the mix of soft and hard, the taste. Oh God, how she remembered the taste of him.
Her eyes flew open as she jerked back from her thoughts and memories. Her ex-brother-in-law wouldn’t appreciate her keen observation of his fine looks or the memory of his kiss. If anything, he’d find it offensive that the thoughts even entered her mind. After all, they sat in the house of the Lord and she’d been married to his younger brother.
Shame on me.
Tabitha gave a sturdy yank on the necklace pulling Amanda’s attention back. She crossed her eyes at her niece, getting the expected giggle, and distracting her long enough to rescue the chain from tiny fingers. God, she’d changed so much in a short amount of time.
Amanda’s last visit home had been four months ago, but it felt like an eternity. It always did. She belonged here. She knew that when she left ten years ago, had known it all her life. And today was no exception as she sat in the very church where she’d been baptized, taken first communion, and had hoped to one day get married. Everything she’d known and everything she’d ever wanted resided in Bedinford.
It was time to come home.
The priest pronounced the couple husband and wife. “You may kiss the bride.” He then turned them to face the congregation. “Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Mr. and Mrs. Todd Meham.”
The happy couple made their way down the aisle. Emily spotted Amanda and their smiles widened and they high-fived each other as Emily passed. Amanda laughed even as emotion swamped her and her eyes filled with tears.
The parents of the bride and groom followed with immediate family members close on their heels. Matt tugged Amanda and Tabitha into the aisle to exit with him and Natalie. He draped his arm comfortably around her shoulders as they stepped into the bright, sunny April afternoon. Spring was in the air, giving promise to new beginnings.
Tabitha squirmed until Amanda set her on her feet, but she didn’t get far before Natalie grabbed hold of her. “You stay with me,” she said, then flashed a smile at Amanda. “And this is with no sugar. I wish I had her energy.”
“We saved you a seat. Did you miss much?” Matt asked.
Ah and there it was; the hint of disapproval that always showed up soon after her arrival in town. Coming from Matt was a bit of a surprise, but then showing up late for her sister’s wedding was pretty offensive, even for her. But it wasn’t completely her fault. “I missed the wedding march by seconds.”
They descended the steps to where her parents waited. The bride and groom had been whisked away to enter the church from a side hall where they would set up for pictures.
“Hi, Mom.” Amanda hugged the small woman, the rock of their family.
“I’m glad you called to let us know about the delay.” Adeline patted Amanda’s cheek and smiled.
Amanda stepped back. “Hi, Dad.” Her jaws clenched and she ignored the flicker of pain in her chest.
“Late for your own sister’s wedding.” Daniel shook his head. “Couldn’t you have at least put on a dress, for Christ’s sake?”
She resisted the urge to run a hand over her blouse to smooth the wrinkles. “I can’t control the airlines, Dad. Or the fact that they lost my luggage.”
“Maybe you should have come in a day early.”
“Oh, what, you wanted me around an extra day? I don’t think so.”
“Stop it, right now,” Adeline whispered. She grabbed Daniel’s arm to stop the words ready to tumble from his mouth. Her eyes flashed a warning. “I’ll not tolerate this today.”
Once upon a time, Amanda had been his pride and joy, but he couldn’t get beyond the mistakes she’d made to see her accomplishments. Success in the cutting horse industry as a nationally known horse trainer hadn’t erased the mistakes. Even claiming the coveted National Cutting Horse Championship couldn’t make him forget.
Check back each Monday in July for another glimpse into Two Brothers. And I'd love for you leave a comment and let me know what you think so far.