Smoke River Family

Excerpt from Smoke River Family
by Lynna Banning
Harlequin, November 2015

Zane lay back on the warm sand and laid his arm over his face. He didn't want to watch her come out of the river. She'd be wet, and the too-small swimming suit would hide nothing. He couldn't help smiling at the picture he imagined, but he wouldn't embarrass her by actually looking.

As a doctor he'd seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of women's bodies, but this woman was different. For one thing, she was his dead wife's sister.

But God, how he wanted to see her!

After half an hour she splashed out of the water with a triumphant cry. "I did it! I can swim!"

Zane kept his eyes closed.

"Did you see me? I was really swimming, wasn't I?"

"You were really swimming, Winifred. Congratulations."

Droplets of cool water hit his chest and still he didn't open his eyes. "Better get out of that wet suit," he ordered.

He prayed she would do just that. The temptation to open his eyes was overpowering.

He managed another sixty seconds, then caught a fleeting glimpse of her as she ducked behind the huckleberry bush. He groaned, got to his feet and dove into the water again for twelve more laps. When he emerged, Winifred sat on the bank, the skirt of her blue dimity dress hiked up to her calves, her bare toes digging into the sand. She looked like a happy child.

A lump as big as an orange lodged in his throat. He had never seen Celeste look that young and unguarded. Never.

He propelled himself out of the river and strode past her to yank on his trousers and shirt. He was still short of breath, but this time he knew it had nothing to do with swimming laps. On the drive back to town, Zane held onto the traces so tight his knuckles ached but said nothing. His breath came in short gusts, his brain swirled with a thousand thoughts. Outrageous thoughts.

His dead wife's sister! He was attracted to his sister-in-law!

* * *

At eleven o'clock the following searingly hot morning, Zane drove Winifred to catch the train. Neither spoke. At the station he helped her down and carried her valise into the station house while she purchased her ticket.

He watched her fold the ticket into her reticule and felt his gut clench. He was torn about her leaving. He would miss seeing her across the table at breakfast, miss watching her rocking his baby daughter to sleep, watching her thrash across the swimming hole learning to swim.

Oh, hell, he'd just miss her.

Yes, he was still grieving for Celeste. Yes, he was lonely. He'd thought he was so numb with grief he was dead inside. But he'd miss Winifred.

On the other hand, he couldn't be around her. Shouldn't be around her. He was glad she was leaving.

The train was late and every minute they waited was awkward. Zane walked the length of the platform, stopped where Winifred stood waiting, her valise beside her, then walked another length. When he returned to her side she did not look at him.

Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. "Winifred?"

She looked up at his voice. "Yes, Zane?"

"I'm glad you came. I dreaded it. Dreaded meeting you, at first, but . . . "

"But you're glad I am leaving." She gave him a wobbly smile.

"Yes. And no."

She held up her hand. "Don't explain. Please don't."

He nodded. He couldn't explain even if he wanted to.

Suddenly she pivoted away from him. "There's the train. I hear the whistle." She moved toward the tracks. He grabbed up her valise and followed.

The locomotive engine whooshed past, slowing to position the passenger car in front of the loading platform. Winifred kept her back to him until she reached the iron boarding step, then turned to face him. With one hand she reached for the valise he carried, and with the other she reached for him.

He enveloped her hand in both of his, opened his mouth to say goodbye and found he had no voice.

She smiled at him again. "You don't have to say anything, Zane."

He cleared his throat. "Come back," he managed. She pressed her lips together and inclined her head. Tears shone in her eyes.

* * * * * *