The Widow’s Rancher – 17

EXCUSE me, Preacher Michael.”

Nadia froze as Diggory rose from the pew mere seconds after the final prayer.

Sandwiched between him and his sons for the whole service, she had been conscious of the eyes of the churchgoers fixed their way the whole time.

Faint whispers rose from the rows behind, but none clear enough for her to make out the words. Mutterings over her presence in the Rorke family pew, and barely six months after her husband’s death, no doubt.

Now, though, the whispers and tittering ceased and the congregation grew quiet, waiting for Diggory to state his reason for calling out to the preacher.

“Diggory?” The preacher smiled, though confusion furrowed his brow. “Can I help you this morning?”

Diggory slipped his thumbs beneath his leather gun belt and contemplated the other man’s question.

“Yes, you can, preacher. I’d like to take a minute of everyone’s time to announce my engagement.”

The silent crowd found their voices and the murmurs changed to loud utterings. Nadia wriggled on the wooden seat, debating if anyone would notice if she slid slowly down towards the floor and curled into a ball.

“Engagement?” Preacher Michael repeated. His eyes scanned the pews as though the crowd of worshippers held enlightenment. “I had no idea you were courting. Do we know the woman?”

Perhaps the Lord had answered her prayer and made her invisible. Why else would the preacher ask such a ridiculous question? Surely he didn’t imagine one of Diggory’s sons showed interest in a woman her age.

“Well, I am,” Diggory said, his deep voice clear and loud.

He glanced down at Nadia with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“Mrs Nadia Bennett and I are to be married.”

The excited twitter all around them stopped and returned to silence, only this time the heavy sense of disbelief filled the air. Nadia preferred the mumbling to the quiet. That way she didn’t notice the hard, deep thumping of her heart or the sweat dampening her palms.

How dare the man stand up and declare their engagement with no warning or sign? Had she agreed to marry him? No. She had repeatedly refused him. But did he listen? Of course not, because Diggory Rorke did what he wanted and steam-rollering a woman into marriage was nothing to a man who created the largest cattle ranch in the whole county if not this part of the country.

“You and Widow Bennett?” the preacher repeated.

Diggory nodded.

“That’s what I’m hoping.”

“I suppose you’ll want me to marry you?”

“Yes, sir. That’s exactly what I want. No way am I going to let the sweetest woman for miles skip out of my reach. Not after I’ve finally talked her into taking me for a husband.”

Diggory ignored the curious amused glances coming from his sons and his men.

Instead, he reached out a hand.

“Shall we, Nadia?”

She ignored his hand and his question and continued to stare straight ahead.

Sunlight through the window showed dust particles drifting in the air. She wanted none of this. Not the humiliation of everyone watching, or Diggory’s declaration of an arrangement between them. Something she had never agreed to.

She wanted her homestead, Sissy and her horse and goat for company. She wasn’t a greedy woman. She definitely did not want a man with seven sons and a huge ranch.

She swallowed hard.

“Nadia?” he repeated anxiously.

Her instinct told her to climb over his sons’ legs and scuttle for the doors. Did he think she wouldn’t turn him down in front of all their neighbours? Serve him right if she did. But in her heart she accepted she would never do such a thing to him.

As much as she found the man infuriating and far too arrogant, she refused to shame him. Anything but that. She had suffered the hurt and embarrassment of having everyone laugh and snigger behind her back and no-one deserved to be treated in such a way. Especially not Diggory.

He’d rescued her in town when no other man came to help. A woman left alone to cope, simply because she didn’t fit in with others’ idea of how a woman should be.

He’d also never made an indecent suggestion. He had gone out of his way to be courteous. Plus, she feared if she did refuse him and rush home, he’d race after her and bring her back here.

She stared at the palm still held out. He said the other day he wanted her. Hadn’t she really come here today to test him? To see whether he kept his word or lied the same as every other man.

He had done exactly what he’d sworn to do on the hill and declared his intention in front of the whole town to marry her.

With a sigh, she gave in and slipped her hand into his, startled by the tingle that flowed through her arm as their palms connected. Man and woman joined in touch and purpose.

“Fine,” she whispered to him as she rose to stand. “Serves you right when I make your life hell.”

He smiled and squeezed her fingers.

“I’d expect nothing else.”

He turned his attention to the man at the front of the church.

“Hey, preacher, thinking on it, why don’t we have the wedding now?”

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!