Elaina Kade blinked twice and stared at Jed Clark as he ripped her heart free from its roots. It wavered and crashed in her chest with the same swift roar as a white pine in a violent wind, shredding into pieces, casting debris through every part of her -- body and soul.
He broke their engagement, right out here on her own front porch, with her family sitting inside, maybe hearing every word.
Jed's gaze fell away as he said it. "Maybe we'd just better call it quits. I can see now you're not the girl for me."
She gripped the arms of her mother's old rocker while Jed sat there on the porch rail, playing with his hat, either refusing, or too embarrassed to look her in the eye. "Is that what you think, Jed? I'm not fit to marry for you?"
He shook his head, but unconvincingly. "Well, considering..."
"Considering?" Her voice lifted. "What's that supposed to mean?"
His glance darted up and his eyes narrowed. "Considering you're not the easiest girl to get along with."
She flushed and sat up straighter in the rocker. "What do you mean? Just because I don't let you tell me what to do? The trouble with you, Jed, is that you expect a few strong words and a pat on the head now and then will keep me lined up to your liking. Well, I'm not a fence post you can steady with a few good whacks!"
"You don't ever listen to anybody, Lainey, especially me."
For a moment she gawked, certain what he said was untrue, unreasonable even. Tears welled, blurring her vision, and she despised them. "You think you're too good for me?"
"Course not, Lainey. That's not it at all--"
"Most men would tell a girl they weren't fit for her. They'd at least have the decency to say, 'I'm not the man for you.' Even Owen gave me that much. But not you." She stuck out her chin and spat the words. "You have the gall to tell me I'm the one with the problem. I'm not good enough or woman enough."
Jed's brow furrowed and his face reddened beneath his short dark beard and tanned skin. "No, no! Now don't go twisting my words around to mean something they don't! I'm only trying to say that I just don't think we're meant for each other."
"But we prayed, Jed!"
"Yeah, we were wrong, I guess."
"Wrong to pray?"
"No, course not. Just wrong in thinking we knew God's answer."
"Could we have been so wrong? Whatever happened to the mighty Jed Clark who was going to 'tame that little filly Lainey Kade'?" Her voice rose up another notch. She barely noticed the curtains twitch on the front room window. "What's the matter, Jed? Did you think I didn't know how you bragged all about how you were going to settle me down? Course I heard. My brothers heard and my cousins heard. Seems like everybody heard!" She jumped to her feet, flinging the creaky rocker backwards. Jed reached out to her but she backed away spouting the gossip back to him. "'That Lainey Kade, she's a shrew all right. Not ever going to marry, likely,' they said. But then you stepped up to the task." Lainey stuck her fists into her hips and mimicked Jed. 'Oh, you wait and see. I'll settle her down all right. I'll have that girl eating right out of my hand, just like a chickadee.' Yes, Jed, I heard all the talk. But I thought maybe you were worth it, so I didn't care. I see now how wrong I was!"
Jed grabbed her wrist and hung on, even as she squirmed to break free. His voice clamored for superiority. "Now you just wait a minute! I never said anything at all to make it sound like you were something to be won, like... like a trophy or something! It was only talk with the fellows, that's all."
"Ha! I guess that tells me how highly you think of me."
Jed released her arm and threw his hat down on the rocker. "That's not what I mean, Lainey, and you know it. Course I always thought you were something, like a real prize, but not like getting you was some kind of game I had to win or a mountain I had to conquer."
"I think that's what you thought of it the whole time. Just a game where Jed Clark could prove to the fellas he had the charm to win the unwinable Lainey Kade!"
Jed picked up his hat and slammed it on his head. "Trouble with you, Lainey, is you want me to be Bobby, and I'm not him. Bobby Braedon's dead, and he isn't coming back."
The blood drained straight down to her feet. She dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. "That's a lie, Jed."
Her heart pounded. "You've got no right to bring Bobby into this."
"Why not? You said you were gonna marry me. Doesn't that give me some kind of right to tell you I can't compete with ghosts?"
"Nobody's asking you to compete. I'm -- I'm not looking for anybody to be Bobby."
"Aren't you?" Jed harrumphed. "Then you've got me and Owen and everybody around here fooled." He thrust a finger at her. "I think that's exactly who you're looking for, but you'll just have to keep on looking, because no man I know wants to step into the shoes of a dead man in order to convince a woman to love him."
Humiliation gored her. Shallow gasps lifted her chest as she fought both tears and rage. "I don't know why I ever believed you when you said you loved me. Makes me wonder who was the bigger fool, you for pretending, or me for believing you!"
Jed's face twisted. He opened his mouth and closed it again."Oh, forget it, Lainey! Just forget it!" He stomped down the porch and tramped across the lawn to his buggy, flinging a few last words over his shoulder as he leapt up onto the seat and laid the reins hard across his horse's neck. "Forget everything about us!"
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