Neil watched Christy from the other side of the Morrisons' crowded cabin. So she had returned. He hadn't doubted her, not really. He hadn't doubted her since he'd heard about the ribbons on the McHone baby's dress. And yet he hadn't seen her since he'd chased her out of the school house. A part of him had feared she'd be tempted by the comforts of home, by the pleas of her family who surely begged her to stay, and that she would never return to challenge him with fire in her eyes and demand he do more for their people.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the presence of these witnesses to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony . . . "
David's deep voice led Ruth Mae and Will through the wedding ceremony, but Neil continued to watch Christy. He could read the troubled thoughts in her blue eyes and hoped she had forgiven him enough to give him a lecture about not putting an end to this child bride business. Well, he wished he could. He would give a lot not to have to deliver another baby to a fourteen year old girl.
Neil didn't have a chance to talk to Christy until they were eating. She congratulated Ruby Mae, comforted Opal, and chatted with Fairlight. He could almost believe she was avoiding him, so when he finally he approached her, he asked, "Still mad at me, Christy?"
And she looked at him so swiftly and innocently that he knew she had completely moved on from their argument. Perhaps didn't even blame him for Tom's death anymore. Had he been brooding about that then? Because all of sudden, it was easier to take a deep breath and smile. It was a moment of pure happiness, one of moments Alice would call a gift. Perhaps it was that thought that made him tease Christy about the ceremonies to follow. He knew she wouldn't be able to keep from asking questions. Bless her innocent heart, she must have seized on the ritual that seemed the safest topic of conversation.
"I've heard of riding the rail, but I never quite saw the point," she said. "It always seemed like children playing horse."
"No riding the rail side-saddle for the bride allowed," he explained, watching her face closely. "Strictly astride."
Christy's face flamed and her eyes widened and, because Neil wasn't an innocent nineteen year old girl, he knew it was only natural that his mind flickered for an instant to an image of the two of them together.
The music started and Neil was paying enough attention to her that he noticed the second her toes began tapping. He took her hand in his and drew her in the dance circle that had quickly formed.
"It's easy enough," he whispered, when doubt filled Christy's eyes. "Listen to Uncle Bogg and follow my lead."
And she circled left and right with him and then Uncle Bogg's voice called out, "Pick up your partner" and he drew her into his arms for the very first time. His breath caught at the rightness of it. She was so warm and solid under his hands. Their faces drew close together again and again. Christy had no idea what those blue eyes of her revealed. No idea of the power they had.
He knew David had asked her to marry him and he knew she hadn't answered. When he asked Alice what she thought about it, she asked him why it was important to him. He wasn't a stupid man. He knew what she was getting at.
Those first few times he'd seen Christy, he'd been caught by her resemblance to Margaret. But it wasn't long before Christy became no one but Christy. Margaret had been drawn to him instantly. Christy thought he was failing in his duty as a doctor and as a mountain man. She questioned everything and thought she could save the world, or at least their corner of it.
He twirled her again, letting his fingers linger on her waist. Her face was alight with laughter and joy. When the dance ended, he was afraid she would dart away or remember that he was the evil doctor who refused to guide the mountain people out of their backwards ways.
But she collapsed against the wall and smiled at him. If only she thought just a tiny bit better of him, didn't assume she always had the right answer, would listen every once in a while . . . Jeb kept playing and Neil started singing along to the familiar words:
Cheeks as red as a bloomin' rose,
Eyes of the deepest brown,
You are the darlin' of my heart,
Stay till the sun goes down
But her eyes were blue, Neil thought, looking into them.
Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove, my dear,
Shady Grove, my little love,
I'm goin' to leave you here
He should have known Alice was right. She always was. Christy turned from him and he saw her look toward David, but David could not dance here, and it was easy enough to draw Christy back onto the dance floor. She danced well--they danced well together. He swung her around and around and he could see all worries about Ruby Mae fly from her head. But Neil's mind whirled. He could hear the shrieks of laughter from upstairs and he wanted to clutch Christy even closer to him, feel her wholly flush against his body.
The music died down and he twirled Christy around one last time. They came to a stop and he leaned forward and let his lips touch her forehead.
Her eyes were awash with confusion and wonder. They sat down and he found himself delivering a lecture on sex to her. She couldn't quite meet his eyes and he was enjoying watching her blush when David interrupted and Christy took her chance to escape. If he could just say the right thing, maybe she would stay and--
But she was already following David out of the cabin. Neil pulled his pipe out of his pocket and let the noise of the crowd wash over him.
It was months before he fully accepted what he'd learned that night.