In Every Heartbeat

CHAPTER ONE

Chambers, Missouri

September 1914

Don’t you dare cry.

Libby Conley snapped the wardrobe door shut on her scanty belongings and spun to face her mentor and friend. “Well, I guess this is it.” Her throat tightened, making her words come out an octave higher than normal. How she would miss Maelle!

She forced her lips into a quavering smile. “Thanks so much for bringing the boys and me to college. It was wonderful to have your company on the train. But . . .” She flipped her hands outward and angled her chin high. “I guess you’re rid of me now.”

Maelle Harders stepped away from her husband and wrapped Libby in a tight hug. Libby closed her eyes and accepted the hug without contributing to it. If she took hold of Maelle, she might never let go.

“Rid of you? Oh, bosh.” Maelle’s husky voice carried a hint of humor. “I think we’ll be seeing you again.” She released her hold and gave Libby’s chin a light pinch, an affectionate gesture left over from Libby’s childhood. “After all, you, Pete, and Bennett will be coming back to Shay’s Ford for Mattie’s wedding in less than six weeks. Mattie will need all of his groomsmen in attendance.”

Libby nodded. Knowing she would soon return to the orphans’ school that had been her home for the past eight years had helped Libby say good-bye to the school’s directors, Aaron and Isabelle Rowley, yesterday. Libby could bear temporary good-byes, but she never said the word when she thought the separation might be permanent. She didn’t plan to say it to Maelle, her favorite person in the whole world, even if she knew it would be a short separation. She hated the word good-bye.

“I’ll be there for sure. I’m excited about the dance after your brother’s wedding.” Libby caught hold of her brand-new skirt and quickstepped a jig, making the brown worsted swirl above the tops of her patent leather boots. She planned to dance with Bennett, and with Petey, too, even if he was a little clumsy on his peg leg.

“It’ll be a grand time.” Maelle’s tawny brown eyes crinkled with her smile. She slipped her hand through Jackson’s elbow and beamed up at him. “As much fun as our after-wedding party was.”

Libby admired the toes of her new shoes as the gaze passing between Maelle and Jackson heated. Although they were far from newlyweds—having married immediately upon Jackson’s return from serving in the Missouri legislature five years ago—the pair had eyes only for each other. Libby admitted to some jealousy when Jackson had returned to Shay’s Ford. Until he’d shown up, she’d had Maelle’s attention to herself. Closing her eyes, she allowed a familiar daydream to surface.

“So you’re really going to be my ma?” The happiness exploding through Libby’s middle erupted in a joyous giggle.

Maelle smoothed Libby’s tangled hair from her face. “Why, of course. I’ve always wanted a daughter, and I can’t imagine a better one than you, Libby.”

Libby threw herself into Maelle’s arms. “Oh, I’m so happy you’re adopting me! Thank you!”

“No, let me thank you, dear one.” Maelle’s cheek rested on the top of Libby’s head, the contact warm and comforting. “You’ve made me the happiest mother on earth. . . .”

The sound of a clearing throat chased the fanciful musing away. Libby looked up to find both Maelle and Jackson grinning at her. Jackson said, “My apologies, Libby.” He tucked his arm around Maelle’s waist. “Sometimes I get lost in my beautiful wife’s beguiling eyes and forget anyone else exists.”

Maelle shook her head, her tumbling auburn locks swaying with the motion. “Goodness, the things you say . . .” But the tender look she gave Jackson contradicted her gentle reproach.

Libby clamped her lips tight as her anger swelled. Why hadn’t Maelle and Jackson adopted her? When Libby was ten, she’d asked Maelle to be her mother, and Maelle had lovingly explained she wanted Libby to have the privilege of both a mother and a father. But then Jackson had returned and he and Maelle had married, and even then they hadn’t adopted Libby. Now it was too late. No one had wanted Libby at the age of ten; why would anyone—even Maelle, who professed to love her dearly—adopt an eighteen-year-old? She’d never have the joy of calling Maelle Ma, the way her heart longed to.

Maelle shifted to face Libby. “Should we go find the boys? I imagine Bennett is hungry by now.”

Jackson held his hand toward the door, and Libby scurried past him. As