Heartland Holidays

Chapter 1

 

Could she do it?

Candace lifted her chin and stared at her target.

Jefferson Connelly, the third oldest brother in the Connelly family. He stood in a group with his brothers, his arms crossed across his chest, the only one who wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t talking at all.

That was the main reason she picked him. He seemed serious, driven, and a part of the group, but not necessarily a part of the conversation.

He didn’t seem like the kind of man who got hung up on emotions or matters of the heart. He’d be reasonable. Analytical. He’d see the reason in her proposition and be able to tell that she was offering him something valuable and worth the small sacrifice he’d need to make.

She could also probably pull him away without anyone noticing.

If she had the nerve to go through with the plan that she cooked up two months ago as her sister Esther planned her wedding to Jefferson’s brother Monroe.

Her baby shifted, and Candace put an automatic hand over her stomach.

Just three more months until her due date.

She was running out of time.

Once the baby was here, rather than being able to help her sisters on the farm, she would be a liability. Someone her sisters would have to help. Someone who needed things, instead of someone who was able to give things.

But the plan she’d come up with would enable her to give her sisters a lifelong gift.

If Jefferson agreed.

“You better not let Esther see that look on your face. She’s not going to think you’re happy about her marriage if she does.” Her sister Meg spoke next to her ear, low enough that no one else would hear.

They were standing outside the small Sunday school room in the basement of the church, waiting for Catherine, Esther’s future sister-in-law, to get done fixing her hair.

Candace had stepped out of the room, hoping to catch Jefferson, whom she decided was her best bet after looking the brothers over last night at the rehearsal dinner.

Unfortunately, Meg had decided to step out with her.

She hadn’t yet figured out how to get rid of her sister so she could go and make a proposition that had the potential to completely change her life.

Her stomach churned, and she was grateful she hadn’t eaten any breakfast.

“Are you okay?” Meg asked, tilting her head and looking at her with eyes that saw far too much.

“I am. I think it was the hair chemicals that were making me a little queasy. Would you mind going back in so Esther isn’t by herself?”

That wasn’t a total lie. The smell of the hair products really had been bothering her. But she really hated that she had overexaggerated how much they were affecting her, leaving her sister alone on her wedding day.

“Are you going to be okay?” Meg asked, concern written all over her face.

Candace nodded, feeling grateful and guilty, as those emotions warred in her chest. Grateful because both of her sisters had been nothing but supportive after finding out that she was expecting. They had respected her nonanswers and hadn’t pried, not too hard anyway, when she’d refused to talk about the father.

The thought of the father of her baby sent more waves of apprehension through her. That was another one of her wild schemes that had gone miserably awry.

Not that she was known for wild schemes.

The one that she was hoping to embark on today was only the second one she’d tried in her entire adult life.

Currently she was zero for one.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, knowing her words came too late.

Meg’s lips pressed together firmly and her eyes narrowed, but then the group of men in the middle of the large, open church basement broke into laughter, and her eyes went to them before she glanced back at the closed door.

“I’d probably better check on Esther.” She bit her lip, obviously not wanting to leave.

“I’ll be right in. I think I might just walk outside and grab a few quick, deep breaths to clear my head.”

Meg nodded, her gaze thoughtful. But she didn’t question Candace again, walking down the hall and slipping into the Sunday school room, keeping the door closed as much as possible.

It wouldn’t do for the groom to see his bride. Monroe stood over with his brothers and seemed to be the butt of most of their jokes.

The circle had shifted, and Jefferson now stood slightly back and behind everyone else. He hadn’t laughed with that last outburst, and he had his hands shoved in his pockets, leaning a shoulder against the metal supporting beam that broke up the middle of the room.

Lifting her chin and straightening her shoulders, Candace walked toward him, hoping she would be able to speak to him without being noticed. She didn’t want to have to answer a bunch of questions, and she didn’t want him teased, or worse, she didn’t want anyone telling her sisters that she’d pulled him aside.

Especially if he said no to her proposition.

As had been her lot in life, lately anyway, the entire room grew quiet and all eyes fastened on her as she stopped beside Jefferson.

Two of the brothers, at the prompting of the guys who were standing facing her, even turned halfway around. The better to see her, she supposed.

Well, this wasn’t working out the way she had planned, but she wasn’t going to abandon her course of action just because everything wasn’t going her way.

The group had gotten so quiet she was pretty sure they could all hear her heart thumping in her chest.

Her breath sounded loud to her ears too.

Regardless, sometimes a person just had to fake it till they made it. This seemed like one of those times, so she kept her face serious, her bearing confident, and cleared her throat before she said as boldly as she could, “Jefferson? If you have a few minutes, I’d like to step outside with you. I have a question I need to ask you.”

She almost didn’t add that last explanation, but while most of the ladies she knew would be mature enough not to titter at her asking a man to step outside with her, she didn’t have as much confidence in men. In her experience, some of them never matured past junior high level.

Jefferson, who had looked up as she’d gotten within three paces of him, didn’t blink, but his eyebrows raised. His face, never losing that serious look, didn’t even twitch with the idea of a smile.

She would not allow that to bother her, holding his eyes with hers, allowing her face to give away nothing of her inner turmoil and the fact that she was scared to death that he was going to refuse her, not just dashing her very last hope but embarrassing her in front of the entire group of men who stood and stared.

He never did say anything, but he jerked his chin, and his brow twitched, and then he turned and strode toward the door.

She would not hurry after him but walked, as confidently as she could, behind him.

To his credit, when he reached the door, he held it open for her, allowing her to walk out first.

She did so without looking at him, walking straight ahead, away from the church into where the cars were parked in the parking lot, hoping for some privacy. She didn’t turn until she’d passed three, then she cut in between an old farm truck and a new, sporty car. Something that looked expensive, although she didn’t know enough about cars to know what kind.

She barely noticed the sweet blue sky, the gentle April breeze, the fresh, spring scent. Normally this was her favorite time of year. A time of new beginnings and fresh starts. A time of planting and hoping for an expected harvest in the fall. A time of busyness and work she loved.

This year had been busy with all the normal things. Planting and working in their family’s hog barns, but there were too many unknowns about the future for Candace to enjoy it much.

Maybe this conversation would settle some of them.

But it would dig up more.

She ignored that very logical statement in her head and focused on the cowboy in front of her. Tall and loose, he projected a relaxed confidence that she envied. Especially now. She felt like she was wound tight and hard and her fixed exterior could crack at any moment.

Maybe that’s why she blurted out the first sentence the way she did.

“Would you marry me?”