Hello! This is coming out a little early because I’m off to my local writers’ critique group soon. I am posting all of chapter 8. The first half you read last week. I was going to give you only part of the new section, but there wasn’t really a good place to break. I had absolutely no idea that Olivia had gotten a reputation for playing fast and loose with men. And Patia is a little bit of a snot. Who knew?
Anyway, I hope you enjoy!
Fourteen Months Later
Olivia shifted her sewing basket to a more comfortable position on her hip and waited for Red Wing and Nathan to finish their quick sweep of the Martins’ Trading Post before stepping into the store. Behind her were some of the other single women from the Plane Women’s House, but she paused in just inside to inhale the spicy scent of the Christmas potpourri Hannah Martin had sitting in bowls around the store. Olivia loved Christmas. She loved the little conspiracies of making gifts in secret to surprise her family, she loved baking and eating the Christmas goodies, and she loved having everyone she loved gathered all together in one place. Last year had been difficult, because her family hadn’t been with her. It was her first Christmas ever without her family. Her parents and brothers had stayed at the ranch, and although she loved her cousins and friends in Kearney, it hadn’t been the same. But this year everyone was coming to the den to celebrate. Christmas Day was only three weeks off, and her parents would be here on the 22nd.
“Do you mind?” groused her cousin Victoria from behind her.
Olivia stepped further into the store and to the side, to let the other women enter. Red Wing nodded and gave his daughter Kendra a sharp look. “You be good today.”
Seventeen-year-old Kendra sighed. “I’m always good, Dad.”
He smiled. “I know. Well, have fun sewing. We’ll bring the lunch at noon.”
Hannah Martin waved to them from behind the counter.
“Go on back to the workroom, ladies,” she called. “We’ll be getting started in a few minutes.”
Olivia led Vic, Nikki, Sammie, and Kendra through the store to the room in the back that had been made into a workplace where the Lisa & Hannah clothing line was created. The Lupa from the den and her daughter Patia were already there, along with Paisley, the daughter of Snake and Mel, and Angela, Quill and Ellie’s daughter. Lisa Madison, her daughter Emily, and her son Ray and her brother-in-law Marty were there too. Patia and Ray were standing close together, whispering to each other. Olivia stopped for a moment, wondering how they were getting away with it. She looked around quickly. None of Patia’s brothers were here, which explained it. Uncle Taye had –amazingly—given permission for Ray and Patia to court, but normally the boys would have forced them to maintain a chaste distance. Aunt Carla didn’t seem to notice that her daughter and her beau were practically leaning on each other.
Victoria cleared her throat. “Mart,” she purred, pushing past Olivia to saunter toward the mayor’s younger brother like a wolf stalking prey.
Marty smiled at her. “Good morning, Miss Victoria. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Call me Vic,” she invited. “All my friends do.”
Olivia walked over to a long work table and put the sewing basket down. Not only was the spicy scent of Christmas potpourri in the air, she reflected, but so was love. For everyone but her. Her earlier happy mood began to slip, and she doggedly grabbed hold of it to keep it from disappearing.
“Good morning,” said Mrs. Madison with a smile. “Thank you so much for coming to help us out.”
She smiled at back Mrs. Madison. “Good morning. I’ll do my best to help, but I’m not much of a seamstress.”
Mrs. Madison, wife of the mayor of Omaha and the Lisa half of Lisa & Hannah Originals, waved that off. “We have so many orders to get out for Christmas that we’re happy to take any help. If you can press a seam or sew on a button, you’ll be a godsend. Even someone to sweep the floor and collect pins will be needed.”
“I think I can manage that part.”
Olivia turned to survey the work room. There were four long tables, each with a sewing machine on one end and a padded pressing surface on the other. Dressmaker dummies in a variety of sizes stood along the walls in various stages of undress. Bolts of fabric leaned drunkenly in corners. It was completely foreign to Olivia. She could rope a calf and slap a brand on it, but sewing was not her forte.
“Run along now, boys,” Lisa said sternly to her son and brother-in-law. “Marty, your mom needs you at home this morning. Her wood box is getting low. Ray, your dad is expecting you at the stables.”
“OK, Mom. We’ll be back for lunch,” Ray said agreeably. “We don’t want to miss the food Miz Renee is sending over.”
Lisa muttered, “Of course not.”
Marty gave Vic one last smile. Olivia didn’t think he was anywhere near as handsome as Ray, but she admitted that smile completely made up for it. She waited until the men had left and then gave Vic a raised brow.
“How serious are you about him?”
Victoria smirked like a cat in the cream. “More serious all the time.”
“Really? Do you think Uncle Shadow will approve?”
Vic swung out of her coat and hung it over the back of a chair. “Mom talked him into letting me come to Kearney for the winter to meet men. I’m only doing what I’m supposed to.” She made a face. “Besides, I’m twenty-six years old. How much longer do I need to wait to find a man my dad approves of? Much longer and my girl parts will forget what they’re for.”
Hannah came in then, and she and Lisa conferred briefly before assigning tasks to everyone. Kendra, the youngest of them, was the best at using a sewing machine, since she’d been working for Lisa and Hannah for two years. Olivia manned one of the irons while Victoria, Angela, and Paisley cut pattern pieces out of fabric at the same table.
Paisley slanted a glance at Victoria. “Are you really interested in Martin Madison? Or just playing?”
The shears sliced through fabric with a sound between a rasp and a crunch. Victoria arched both brows at her twenty-year-old cousin. “Why? Did you already stake a claim to him?”
“No.” Paisley made a face. “He’s too old for me.”
“Uh-huh. He’s all of what, twenty-six?” Victoria’s lips curved in amusement. “We were born in the same month in the same year. I remember meeting him a few times we were kids. Couldn’t stand him back then. But it’s been probably fifteen years, and he’s improved.”
From the table beside theirs, Patia said, “Ray is much better looking. He’s the handsomest man in Kearney.”
“Ray is good-looking,” Victoria admitted. “And he’s a good guy. But Marty’s the guy for me. I don’t know what it is about him, but I really like him. Some people might think he’s Kearney’s representative to the state assembly because he’s a son of the last mayor and the brother of the current mayor, but he’s a leader. He’s not an Alpha the way dad is Alpha. He’s quieter, gentler in his attitude, but he’s still an Alpha.”
Olivia laid a half constructed blouse over her ironing surface, and considered what she knew of Marty Madison. He spent a lot of time in Omaha, so she didn’t know him as well as she knew his nephew Ray. She thought Victoria was probably right. In his quiet, laid-back way, Marty was an Alpha. She handed pressed blouse back to Patia and smiled at Victoria. “And he has a killer smile.”
Victoria winked. “Yep, that smile doesn’t hurt his chances at landing me for a bride.” She looked across the table at Paisley. “So, if it’s not Marty that’s caught your eye, who has?”
Paisley had a fair complexion that showed her blush clearly. “I like Josh Gray,” she said softly.
Victoria whistled. “What does Uncle Snake think of that?”
“He says he likes Josh, but he’s too young to marry anyone yet.”
Olivia pictured Josh Gray in her mind. He was young, maybe twenty. He worked for his father Doug Gray in the power plant south of Kearney. The power generated by the collection of wind turbines, river water wheels, and the sun was what ran the lights, the iron, and the sewing machines in this workshop. It was an important job and guaranteed Josh a good living.
Angela said in a very small voice, “Lars Overdahl has invited me to join him and his family for Christmas dinner.”
“Well, you’re family.” Victoria smoothed the paper pattern over the blue wool fabric. “Your brothers are going too, right?”
Angela drew herself up to her full height, which was a foot less than Victoria’s. “My brother Connor is related to the Overdahls. My mother’s first husband was Mr. Overdahl’s brother. But I am not related to them. That’s not why I’m invited to Christmas dinner.”
All of them stared at Angela. Like her mother Ellie, she was petite and pretty, but her hair was like her father’s, golden brown curls cascading nearly to her waist. She lifted her chin and stared back at them.
Victoria flapped the hand that didn’t hold the scissors. “Seriously? You’re only nineteen! Uncle Quill won’t let anyone court you yet. No way.”
“Well, he is,” Angela said firmly. “I told him so.”
Victoria scowled around at all her young cousins and slapped her scissors into her other hand. “Why is every single father in the Clan more reasonable than mine?” she growled. She shot a glare at Olivia. “So who are you courting?”
Olivia froze. So did everyone else, including Victoria. The ghosts of the men she had flirted with since coming to Kearney a year and a half ago danced in the air between them. When each man had worked up the courage to ask Uncle Des for permission to call on her, she had told him to deny them. At the beginning of each courtship, she had thought she could love the man, but when it came right down to it, she knew she couldn’t. She plastered a smile onto her face.
“No one,” she said with false cheer. “You all have a clear field.”
Victoria growled out a curse. “That was awkward. Liv, I’m sorry.”
Paisley looked directly at Olivia. “Awkward,” she agreed. “But word is getting around that you’re a heart breaker. How many men have you turned down?”
Olivia wanted to shout that she hadn’t meant to hurt any of them. “Six,” she said defensively. “What? It just never worked out. And there hasn’t been anyone in months.”
“Maybe because everyone knows to steer clear of you now,” Paisley suggested.
That hurt. Olivia returned to pressing with fierce concentration until Victoria touched her shoulder lightly.
“Is it because of that damn cat who stole you?” she asked softly.
Of course it was because of Kit. She compared every man she flirted with to him. Every man who courted her was better than Kit in every way. They were civilized, with jobs, and manners, and decent morals, and comfortable homes. But somehow none of them was enough to banish him from her memory. She swallowed now. “Of course not. I just haven’t found the right man yet.”
Victoria raised a pale brow, but to Olivia’s relief, turned the subject. Talk turned to Christmas and what they were making for their fathers and their brothers. It helped Olivia relax, and the morning passed quickly. It didn’t seem like it could be noon when the door opened and the scent of Renee’s spaghetti and meatballs filled the air.
Red Wing and Hawk carried the insulated food boxes to the nearest table. Nathan carried a basket full of plates and flatware from the Eatery. “Renee says to eat it right away while it’s still hot,” Hawk called.
There was a flurry of activity while the fabric and clothing items were put away to keep them from collecting food stains, and the tables were covered by plain muslin. While that was going on, Ray and Marty came in, inhaling appreciatively.
“There are drinks in the store,” Mrs. Martin said. “Coffee, hot and cold cider, water, root beer. Help yourselves to whatever you like and bring it back here.”
Marty waited for Vic to join him, and Patia walked alongside Ray into the store. Olivia was right behind them. Pete was behind the counter ringing up a sale for a farmer from south of town. He was the only customer in the store. The rest of them spread through the one room store in search of beverages. Olivia was at the cold case with Marty and Vic on one side of her and Patia nd Ray on the other when the bell above the door jangled. She glanced away from the bottled drinks to see who the new customer was. So did Ray and Marty.
She frowned a little, not recognizing the newcomer. That was strange. By now she should be familiar with everyone in town. Her breath caught. No, he was familiar. The man was young, wearing a green knitted hat pulled over his forehead and a thick brown wool coat. Standing behind her, Uncle Hawk stiffened, inhaling deeply. He wheeled to take a step in front of her and fix a cold black stare on the newcomer. That wasn’t unusual; it was what happened anytime a strange man was in the vicinity of a woman of the Clan. Marty’s reaction was startling. His lip peeled back in a feral snarl and his eyes took on an odd green glow. He locked gazes with his nephew for one moment.
“Stranger cat,” he hissed.
The newcomer pulled off his hat, revealing golden brown hair that lay in neat waves along his head to a ponytail at his nape. He looked around the store and his green-gold eyes lit when they found her. He smiled in simple happiness and spoke the words that sealed his fate.
“My mate. At last I have found you.”