Home > Courting Fire

Courting Fire
Author: Tamara Hughes


Chapter One



Boston, September 1872

Mattie’s nerves tingled with anticipation as she glanced at the door yet again. Where was he?

“Are you listening to me?” her mother demanded, pulling Mattie’s attention back to the conversation at hand.

Mattie huffed out a breath. “I have no interest in attending a dinner party for the sole purpose of meeting the Cogswell’s nephew.” Mattie dusted the cans on the shelf while her mother swept the wooden floor of their family’s mercantile.

“After all the effort I expended talking Laura into arranging an invitation for you?” her mother grumbled. “You will attend.”

“Laura shouldn’t have gone to the trouble.” Her sister knew how much Mattie despised their mother’s insistence that she marry a man of means, as if wealth were the be-all and end-all in a relationship.

“You should be more grateful. She had to ask her mother-in-law for the favor of including you.”

Poor Laura. That had to have been a chore. Or, more likely, she’d had her husband make the request of his mother. Arthur Cogswell had been so mesmerized by Laura’s beauty he’d overlooked her humble origins and married her despite his family’s protests. Yet even after a year, his family still hadn’t accepted Laura and likely never would. After all, the Duncans had been considered working class until a handful of years ago. Even now Father only owned and ran this one store. While, yes, Laura had married well, was she happy?

Arthur’s cousin—the Cogswell’s nephew—supposedly had a pleasing appearance, a gentlemanly manner, and, of course, wealth. But even with all of those attributes, he could never compare to Jack. No one could hold a candle to Jack.

The front door opened, and Jack entered, carrying two stacked crates. A riot of flutters filled her chest as she took in the sight of him. Rainwater dripped from the brim of his hat, and as always, he dominated the room with his presence.

Her mother paused in her sweeping. “Hello, Jack.”

Jack nodded. “Mrs. Duncan.” His gaze swept over Mattie as he approached the back stockroom, the look in his crystal-blue eyes unreadable.

She gave him a welcoming smile. “Good to see you, Jack.”

“Likewise,” he responded as he passed by.

Occasionally, she’d swear she caught a glint of interest in his eyes. Most times, he remained aloof. If only they could go back to the way they’d been when they were children. She and Jack’s brother, Sam, used to play tricks on Jack to make him laugh. What she wouldn’t give to see him laugh like that again.

As he disappeared through the doorway to the backroom, she racked her brain for what she could say or do to coax out a glimmer of the carefree boy she remembered. She hurried to a shelf and snatched up an umbrella then tugged on her coat. When he returned empty-handed and strode toward the front of the mercantile, she rushed to catch up to him at the door. Stepping outside with him, she opened the umbrella and held it over his head. Cool rain droplets splashed onto the nape of her neck, but she paid them no heed.

He must not have initially realized she’d followed him, for he stopped and turned toward her, one brow crooked. In an instant, he moved the umbrella over her instead. “Go back inside before you catch a chill.”

She adjusted the umbrella to give him better coverage once more. “I’ll stay reasonably dry if you hurry,” she assured him, nodding toward the tarp-covered sacks and crates in the back of his wagon.

“Mattie,” he warned, then sighed.

Silly man. He knew her better than that—when she made up her mind, she was immovable.

A ghost of a smile twitching his lips, he rolled his eyes and unloaded two more crates from the wagon before heading into the store at a brisk pace. Jack deposited the goods in the storeroom and returned. A typical weekly delivery required one or two more trips, so she readied herself to go back out into the rain, but Jack stopped at the door.

“Mattie, I’m fine without the umbrella. Stay here.”

“No, I—”

“Leave him be,” her mother admonished. “He’s busy making deliveries.”

Jack turned away as if the discussion had ended. His mistake. She poked him in the side with the tip of the umbrella, making him flinch. “Jack isn’t just a deliveryman. He’s a friend.” She poked him again, and his smile returned.

“As such, he deserves to be treated to my ire when he rebuffs my attempts to be a friendly friend. How dare you, Jack.” She attempted to jab him one more time, but he grabbed the umbrella before it reached him.

Chuckling, he yanked it out of her hand only to give her a light swat on the arm with the umbrella. “A ‘friendly friend,’ you say? More like a pesky friend who won’t listen when I tell her I don’t need her help,” he insisted, swatting her again.

She jumped back, a grin on her face. “Enough of that now. If Sam were here, he wouldn’t let you bully me like this.”

Jack’s expression sobered, and he lowered the umbrella to his side.

Drat. Why had she mentioned Sam? In truth, the words had just popped out of her mouth unintentionally. After all, Sam had been her best friend for years, before … A lump formed in her throat, the playful mood gone.

“Enough of the horseplay,” her mother announced. “Mattie, you have work to do.”

Jack handed Mattie the umbrella. “Thank you for your help, but I’m fine. Listen to your mother.”

As Jack left the store, Mattie frowned at her mother and received a disapproving glare in return. Mattie set the umbrella out to dry, removed her coat, and picked up her cleaning rag. No doubt her mother had more to say, and would do so as soon as Jack finished with their delivery. Good thing she had a meeting to attend soon.

Jack came into the store one last time and left with barely a look in Mattie’s direction. He drove his wagon away from their storefront, and Mattie waited. One. Two. Three …

“I wish you’d stop mooning over Jack,” her mother finally said. “There are more advantageous suitors to be had. Take the Cogswell’s nephew for instance. He’s from a fine family, and I’ve heard he’s a kindly sort, not to mention that in the future he will inherit a sizable estate. If you settled down with him, you’d have a comfortable life.”

“Jack isn’t impoverished, Mother.”

“Perhaps not, but even with his two jobs, how much can he earn?”

True. Teamsters weren’t paid much, but firefighters were well compensated. Regardless, Jack was hardworking, responsible, and … well, Jack. “You’ve never so much as met the Cogswell’s nephew, this Mr. Whitman. Besides, some things are more important than money.”

At her mother’s skeptical stare, she added, “Such as shared history and mutual affection.”

“Mutual affection?” her mother scoffed, the sound of the broom an irritating scrape along the wooden planks. “Jack Taylor isn’t interested in you as anything more than a family friend.”

Her chest tightened, and she clenched her hands around the rag she held. “That’s not true.” They were closer than that, weren’t they? Even if they weren’t, that was merely because he hadn’t yet considered the possibility of something more.

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