The Kissing Tree by Prudence Bice

This excerpt is taken from the Pure Romance Novel, The Kissing Tree

THE stagecoach slowed, turned the corner, and began descending the last low, rolling hill just as the mountains were beginning to cradle the summer sun. The town was awash in the sun's glowing warmth when Miss Georgiana McLaughlin caught her first, long-awaited glimpse. She felt that warmth now envelope her whole body as she recalled the happy memories she had left behind in the dry Colorado air five years ago, memories which now swirled around in her pretty head and turned up the corners of her perfect, heart-shaped lips. The closer the stage drew to town, the fuller her smile became, until finally her face was alight with a look of sheer joy.

She had been away so very long. Georgiana had expected the town to look different. But though she could see a few new additions to the familiar buildings that lined the old boardwalk, the place still looked like it held the same homey quality and feel you could only get from a small town—a town where everyone knows each other intimately, whether you want them to or not. Nonetheless, their knowing is a small price to pay for the acute sense of belonging.

Georgiana had been only thirteen years old when her mother had uprooted the family and moved them to live with her aunt in New York. Aunt Cecelia's house never held any warmth whatsoever, nor did it foster any sense of attachment.

Despite her distress at their move, Georgiana had never been angry with her mother. She understood her mother's need to escape the memories and constant reminders of the love she'd lost. Georgiana's father had been her mother's whole world, and though she possessed a genuine love for her children, she could not bring herself to get past her grief in order to see the hope and promises the future still offered.

Georgiana and her brothers harbored their own heartache concerning their father's death, in addition to missing their home and grandparents. Nevertheless, they had borne the incivility and abuse from Aunt Cecelia for their mother's sake. Georgiana had witnessed enough of her mother's tears during that first year after their father was taken to realize the move might be her mother's only hope of finding peace.

However, that which had bruised Georgiana's heart most of all was the loss of her two closest friends. She hadn't been able to say good-bye when at the last minute their traveling plans were altered. But because at the time Georgiana thought they were only vacationing with their aunt for a month, she hadn't brooded long at not bidding her friends a fond farewell. It was later, when their mother sat all three of them down and told them they would not be returning to Crystal Creek but would instead live with their aunt permanently that her heart had felt the sickening shock of it all.

At first, she questioned whether she had heard her mother's words correctly. Why couldn't she see what a terrible mistake it would be for them to continue at their aunt's home? There was nothing for them there … no admiration or favorable sentiment, and certainly no love. The ostentatious house was an empty shell. Staying would feel like they were being sentenced for some reprehensible crime and imprisoned in a dark, cold place that would slowly eat away their souls until they were as empty as the house itself.

For days Georgiana had cried and pled relentlessly to be allowed to return. Grandad and Nana needed her, and it wasn't fair to leave them alone. But alas, even the incessant begging from William and Aden, Georgiana's brothers, could not change their mother's mind. She was resolute in her decision. Besides her mother's need to be away from the memories haunting her, Aunt Cecelia had convinced their mother that she could offer them so much more if they stayed in New York. Georgiana and her brothers would attend the best schools and have many more opportunities than they would ever have living on a poorly managed and shabbily outfitted cattle ranch out west. This, Aunt Cecelia had proclaimed in front of Georgiana and her brothers, taking no thought or care as to their tender feelings concerning the matter.

Such harsh and unfounded insults had chafed sorely at Georgiana's pride in her grandparents’ livelihood and thus fueled her anger. She had scarcely been able to hide the dismay caused by her aunt's unjustifiable statements. Impertinent and caustic words in defense of her grandparents peppered her young tongue and fought to be set free. They were barely bridled. Georgiana's restraint was only maintained because she hoped she could change her mother's mind if she did not aggravate the situation further. She would yet attempt to make her mother see the disadvantages of such an arrangement.

Finally, after days and weeks of pleading, Georgiana had given up. Despairingly, she accepted her fate. She would one day return, she'd promised herself. She would find a way back to the place where her heart belonged.

The first year passed slowly. Her aunt was never overly generous, but her pride dictated she see her sister's children properly educated, outfitted, and introduced into society. The school they attended was definitely larger and more sophisticated than the one-room schoolhouse back in Crystal Creek, and so were the egos of the spoiled and overprivileged children who attended there. Georgiana chose to keep to herself, often fondly remembering bygone days when she was never lacking for the comfortable companionship of either of her two dearest friends.

When her fourteenth birthday arrived, she had been greatly relieved to quit her aunt's home and move into the Harriet Wilmington's School for Proper Young Ladies as was expected. The school became a haven, a place to be herself and to be free from her aunt's constant nagging and belittling. She'd enjoyed her three years under the security and refined tutelage of Ms. Wilmington's well-regarded institution. The normal length of attendance was two years, but Georgiana had been gloriously offered a position to stay on an extra term. A tutor was needed to attend to some of the more challenged students. She had eagerly accepted. It was during that year, having more free time to herself, she had discovered her love and talent for painting.

Georgiana's fingers twitched as she gazed once more at the beautiful sunset now layering strands of yellow and gold along the rooftops, reflecting a warmth that made the town seem even more inviting. Would that she could stop time this very moment so she could take out her easel and capture this day of coming home on canvas. For surely, this town was the only place that had ever felt like home.

A sudden thought caused a tear to escape and gently trail down her soft cheek. She had not forgotten the reason she had been allowed to return to this place. The warm and loving visage of her Nana McLaughlin passed before her mind—soft gray hair wound loosely into a bun at the back of her neck and a faraway look in her warm, dove-gray eyes as she retold tale after tale of her life back in Ireland. Georgiana, even after these many years, could still remember the sweet, pleasant sound of her grandmother's voice and the music in her laughter.

Taking a deep breath, Georgiana sighed sorrowfully. Her grandmother was gone now. Georgiana had always thought she and her family would return. She had hoped beyond measure even for a short visit. But year after year, they had remained, and now she would never see her dear grandmother alive again on this earth.

Nana, Georgiana thought, choking back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her, I am sorry, so very sorry I didn't come home in time. Pulling a handkerchief from a small, delicately beaded handbag, she dabbed at her wet cheeks.

When her grandfather had written her mother asking if Georgiana could come and live with him at the ranch until he could find more permanent help, her aunt had been furious, ordering her mother to send a note of refusal immediately. Georgiana had been seeing a young man quite seriously for some time, and though she had already decided she could not commit her heart to him as yet, her aunt was pushing for a speedy engagement.

Mr. Dawson Alexander was in line to inherit a great fortune and was indeed a most suitable choice in her aunt's eyes. Georgiana had to admit Dawson was a good man, and she liked him very much. Not only was he considerate and benevolent toward others, he bore no semblance to the other haughty, spoiled aristocrats who shared the selfsame elevated status. He was but one year older than she was, and they had many things in common. In the short time she had known him, she had come to care for not only him, but also the rest of his family. Their generosity and loving nature bestowed so freely upon her attested to the reason Dawson was such a gallant and amicable man.

Much to her dismay and frustration, Georgiana always had a feeling lingering in the depths of her heart and mind that kept her from loving him fully. He was most dear to her, being such the man he was, but she invariably held back. Whatever was causing her to forestall any real commitment to a formal relationship with him stemmed from this feeling … this terribly inconvenient feeling hidden deep within her.

Georgiana had endeavored to discover and absolve that which troubled her heart and gave her cause to postpone Dawson's repeated attempts at courting her, but she had failed. The only thing she knew for sure was it somehow connected to the pain and loss she had suffered in her tender childhood years. So often she had longed for the home she had once known, for her grandparents she missed so deeply, for the friendships she had been torn from. She had never, in five years, truly become accustomed to living in New York. And though she had learned and experienced many wonderful things, a feeling of contentment and belonging had always eluded her. By returning to Colorado, the only place she'd ever really considered home, she hoped she would finally make peace with all she had lost and free her heart so she could marry Dawson.

After she had overheard her aunt's blatant and insistent demands concerning the matter of her returning, Georgiana had gone to her mother privately and pled her own cause. This time her mother did not deny her. Sensing her deep unrest, her mother knew Georgiana owned an intense emotional need to return to Crystal Creek, quite possibly as strong a need to return as her mother had to escape so many years before. Georgiana also suspected her mother harbored profound guilt for tearing her children away from their grandparents and friends. So, to Georgiana's delight and satisfaction, her mother had given her explicit permission to return and give aid to her grandfather.

Oh, her aunt had ranted and raved and threatened to send them all away. How could Georgiana, after living in the marrow of high society, be subjected to such deplorable living conditions as a ranch house in Colorado with a bunch of uncouth, uncivilized men no less? It was highly improper. And what of poor Mr. Alexander? Was he expected to just wait for her to return?

In the end, her mother had won, insisting it was only a visit and would not be permanent. Besides, her mother pointed out, it was her family's responsibility, as well as Christian duty, to come to her father-in-law's assistance during his time of mourning and need. What was the purpose of teaching responsibility and good breeding if, at the first test of character, Georgiana was not encouraged to take the higher road?

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