IF I LOVED YOU LESS
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure;
seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.
~ Jane Austen, Emma
Pecan Street & Congress Avenue Austin, Texas
February 1, 1882
“MY ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE one’s true love, and I say this in all humility, surely must be a gift.” Emmeline Travis stopped at the front of the new desk she’d insisted would fit perfectly in Noah’s office. She sat her open-top wicker basket next to the Noah Whitley, President, Whitley-Crawfield Savings & Trust nameplate, and then without taking care to remove her white gloves, she withdrew a handkerchief-covered china plate. Paused. Waited. She looked expectantly at the man across from her, sitting behind his desk, as handsome as ever in his ebony, high-buttoned coat.
Noah stopped reading what looked to be another dreadfully dull banking contract, although he didn’t put down the papers. His light brown brows rose to convey a silent finish what you came here to say.
Emmeline grinned. She adored how accommodating he was. “If you had asked—and I forgive you for not—I would have told you Anne Fairfax was unsuitable for you. Trust me, Noah. I know suitability.”
He leaned back in his chair, a slight indent along the left side of his mouth. He bore not the disposition of a man recently spurned by the love of his life. He appeared quite delighted. Amused, vaguely so, at her announcement. Nothing could be more suspicious. In Noah’s case, looks were deceiving at times because she knew him and knew what he thought. That seemingly amused look was really one of pray tell me why Anne Fairfax isn’t suited for me.
A myriad of reasons why rolled around in Emmeline’s mind.
The most obvious being—
“Her heart is too cold to love,” she said, still smiling because talk of Anne Fairfax would not ruin her high spirits. “And yours is... Well, for generations Whitley men have been known for their passionate devotion. Anne Fairfax has the emotional range of a block of ice. I know the most incomprehensible thing in the world to a man is a woman who rejects his offer of marriage”—he winced as she’d expected a man with a broken heart would do—“but you, my dear friend, are best to forget her.”
And forget giving her any more flowers, replacement violins, or bushels of beets because you heard she likes them.
Not wanting him to think she was jealous—and she wasn’t—Emmeline withheld those thoughts from the man she considered an older brother, though they shared no blood ties, only the fortune of having siblings wedded: his younger brother to her older sister. Theirs was the first of two true love matches brought about by Emmeline’s insight into marital bliss potential.
Noah’s lips parted and—
Emmeline added, “And do not say this insight of mine stems from the jealousy you think I have of Anne Fairfax, because it does not.”
Whatever he muttered under his breath, she could not decipher.
Nor did she wish to.
If something wasn’t worth saying aloud, it wasn’t worth being heard. Which was why she kept silent her grumbles about Anne Fairfax. Anyone with reason would agree that Austin Abbey’s instrumental music teacher was merely too cold of a person to like. And how could Emmeline like Anne Fairfax, considering they had not a single thing in common other than them being females with brown hair? That was not completely true, for Emmeline’s hair was more red than chestnut. Instead of Anne Fairfax for a wife, dear Noah deserved someone less...
Emmeline paused as she balanced the luncheon plate on her upturned palm and gave her thoughts a good dose of concentration.
Perhaps instead of someone less, he deserved someone more. Of course, more of what she wasn’t sure at the moment, and she may have to spend a day fasting to gain clarity. Doing so would not be the first time she sought the Lord on Noah’s behalf. Nor would it be the last, she suspected. Of what she was confident, was that if anyone were to know the best woman for Noah, she, Emmeline LeNoir Travis, his closest and truest female friend, would be that person.
Anne Fairfax was not suited to Noah Whitley.
Since Noah wasn’t adding anything to the conversation—not that Emmeline expected him to since he generally waited a good five minutes to speak after she began any conversation with him—she rested the luncheon plate in the only spot on his polished-to-a-shine desk free of banking papers. How he found anything, she would never know. She deftly removed the linen handkerchief, exposing the leftover food from the book club gathering last night at her home. Leftover because her father and Noah elected to have a lengthy dinner elsewhere. Without notifying her ahead of time.
Noah’s lips parted again, and he looked like he might speak.
“Well,” she prodded, “have your say. I am all ears.”
His left brow rose. Smugly.
Emmeline did her best not to growl. “Noah, do not look at me as if you know my thoughts, for I promise you do not.” She snatched three silver utensils from the basket. “Cucumber mint sandwiches, raisin scones, and strawberries.” She leaned over his desk to neatly set the silverware in their proper place settings. “Mrs. Collins shared her grandmother’s recipes. Hattie and I made everything with our very hands. The sandwiches and scones, that is. Not the strawberries. Father had them shipped in from Florida.” She straightened, smoothed the long-waist bodice of her emerald moiré gown, and waited for Noah to start on his meal.
A warm grin teetered on the edge of his lips.
If Noah wanted too, he could charm the rattle off a snake or, considering he was a bank president, Scrooge out of his last dime. Any female would thrill to have his finely sculpted elegance turned upon her. He was not angelically handsome like Garrison Churchill, but Noah’s looks combined with his height, rugged independence, kindness to all, and that deep-seated contentment in who he was, was enough to draw notice whenever he entered a room.
He merely continued to watch her.
Emmeline reached up to pat for stray curls (none). She checked the placement of her hat (pinned straight). Nothing askew in her appearance, which could only mean he was trying to rattle her.
“Would you please eat?” she pleaded, even though she knew he’d only eat—or talk—when he was good and ready. “I vowed to our concerned siblings that I’d ensure your recovery.”
“My recovery from what?” he finally spoke, his tone and face perfectly bland.
For a moment she could do nothing but stare. He wasn’t the type to drift away in his thoughts. “Did you pay attention to anything I said?”
He gave her a cheeky grin. “You think you know true love.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“No.” Emmeline couldn’t quite manage an offended tone in time to cover how clever she felt at adding, “I’ve never been a bird, yet I can recognize one.”
Noah burst out laughing.
Emmeline plowed on. “Food always heals a broken heart, or so Mrs. Collins often says. Yes, you would be correct to assume by my figure that I’ve never experienced a broken heart either. Still—I grieve for yours.”
He gave her a look to say my heart isn’t broken.
“You may deny all you wish,” she continued, “but your well-being speaks to me. And if you aren’t going to see to its care, then as your dearest friend and almost sister, I shall.”
He blinked several times.
Emmeline clasped her hands together before her. “I do not fault you for denying your inner pain. You, after all, aren’t the first man to have his attentions spurned by the block of ice named Anne. Like many, you may need more than a meal and a bottle of wine to forget your heartache.” She paused as the idea blossomed. Why hadn’t she realized this sooner? “What you need is—”
“Don’t,” he warned.
“—a party.” Emmeline’s heart fluttered over the brilliance of her idea. No one in Austin organized parties like she did. Of course, she would invite the most jovial and engaging people in town to ensure Noah was well cheered and heart healed . . . even if he boasted his dislike for parties. And dancing, which further emphasized his predilection toward dullness. “On that note,” she announced, “I received a letter from Mr. Garrison Churchill.”
Noah slapped the papers he held onto his desk. “A true knight in shining armor.”
Emmeline did her best not to glare at him. “I show compassion for your heartbreak and bring you lunch, yet you offer cynicism toward the very man who lost his precious mother the day I lost mine. Garrison and I share a bond.”
“So I’ve heard ad nauseam since you were twelve. You don’t need to remind me he is a loving and dutiful nephew either.” Noah frowned slightly as he turned the plate of food, the strawberries now in the twelve o’clock position and the triangular cucumber sandwiches at six. “Thank you for the lunch.”
He lifted a bread wedge to expose the thinly sliced cucumbers.
“You will eat it all,” she ordered. “Without complaint.”
“That may be impossible. What is the point of making these this small?”
“They were for ladies.”
He bit into the cucumber sandwich. His upper lip curled, yet he chewed then swallowed. “You too often assume attachments which don’t exist. That is a flaw, not a gift.”
“Oh Noah.” Emmeline walked around his desk. Considering her in heels height barely reached his shoulder when he was standing, that he still sat put them closer to eye-level. She rested her hands atop his immaculately combed light brown hair. She released a weary breath. “Ye of wee little faith.”
“This isn’t about faith. It’s about—”
“How you exasperate me!” she cut in. She paused for a dramatic moment. “I have been your closest friend since I can remember. My father should not be your sole confidante.”
“He’s a good listener,” he said promptly.
“Better than I am?”
His brow furrowed. “What do you know about anticipatory hedges?”
“Nothing,” she answered in all honesty, “and I prefer to keep it that way, but I do know last night you two did not discuss banking hedges all two hours of dinner. Papa told me this morning you were distraught about a recent proposal that did not end as you’d wished.”
“You immediately assumed that referred to Anne Fairfax.”
“There’s no need to get into a snit.”
“Em . . .” Noah released a loud sigh. He claimed her hand and cradled it between both of his, surprising her with his action. Other than when he’d assisted her in or out of a carriage or a streetcar, she couldn’t remember a single time he’d ever held her hand. That thought left an ache deep in her chest, which made her want to cry. Even her eyes felt warm and watery. Only she wasn’t the type to cry. Or flutter. Or faint. Or do any of those silly things that Hattie had done when she thought she was in love with Mr. Martinez and now as she loved Mr. Belton.
Love shouldn’t be dramatic.
Love should not make a person giggly or weepy or blind.
It should make a person feel . . .
Well, she had no idea. She supposed there had to be a hundred different ways to be in love, yet in all her twenty-three years, she’d never experienced deep passion, a distracting attraction, or even an unspoken tendre. It was sad, really. She’d like to know love once.
“Emmeline?” Noah squeezed her hand.
Blinking to regain her focus, she knew she’d needed to say something, yet her mind was blank. She looked at him, his familiar blue eyes intent on her. All air disappeared from her lungs, and she stood there feeling, seeing, and knowing with all certainty the thoughts in Noah’s mind.
He’d say, I am sorry I confided in your father instead of you.
Then she would respond with, Apology accepted. And all would be as it normally was between them.
“Some things,” Noah said, breaking the silence with that melodic voice of his that oddly couldn’t carry a tune, “are best left unsaid, even between friends. Thank you for caring enough to see to my welfare. I would not survive without you to feed me minty cucumbers.” He winked. “I may also not survive eating them.”
She tried not to smile. And failed. It was difficult not to in his presence. “Do you think being charming will sway me to forget how exasperating you are?”
“It always does.”
Emmeline responded with a pffft and a withdrawal of her hand from his. “You are insufferable.” He grinned, and Emmeline couldn’t believe Anne Fairfax had actually spurned his proposal. With his classic features, strong chin, and as-blue-as-her-dress eyes, Noah Whitley would give any woman beautiful babies. Just not Anne Fairfax.
“Would you like to hear about Garrison Churchill’s letter?” Emmeline blurted out to redirect the conversation. She couldn’t help grinning in delight over the news. Noah shifted in his chair, turning to where he could directly face her.
“What does Churchill have to say?”
“Seems his ailing adopted aunt, Mrs. Churchill, has agreed to allow him to attend Austen Abbey’s Saint Valentine’s Ball.”
“And on Monday, February thirteenth,” Noah replied in that patronizing older-brother tone of his, “Mrs. Churchill’s health will turn for the worse, and your beloved friend will have to cry off visiting Austin again.”
“Oh, no, he’ll be here this time. Any day, in fact.”
“People don’t change.”
“The depth of your cynicism truly astounds me.”
The corners of his mouth indented ever so slightly. “It is not cynical to call a duck a duck or to say a duck will return to the pond it calls home.”
Emmeline ignored his comment, letting her silence be all the response he’d get.
“The clever girl you are knows I’m right.”
Despite his smugness, she still said nothing. Unlike Noah who prided himself on his analytical abilities, she did not always feel so entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary’s wrong, but now was not the time to concede him the victory. Mr. Garrison Churchill would attend Austen Abbey’s Saint Valentine’s Ball, and when he did, she would be gracious to Noah and not gloat like he would over the victory.
Emmeline motioned toward the food she’d set out. “Eat, please.” Leaving him to attend to his meal, she stepped to the French doors leading to a small, two-person balcony. She drew open both doors, exposing the rich blue sky of winter, allowing in a pleasant afternoon breeze. The second-story view enabled her to see all the traffic, people, and businesses on the corner of Pecan and Congress. Directly across from Whitley-Crawfield Savings was the Imperial Restaurant where she, her father, and Noah enjoyed dinner every Monday night, instead of their usual meals at Papa’s hotel. Beyond the restaurant, she could see in the distance the empty Capitol Square where construction would begin soon on the new Capitol building. In the opposite direction was the beautiful Colorado River.
Was there anything she didn’t love about living in Austin?
Emmeline glanced up at the weather thermometer attached to the bank’s white limestone wall. Sixty-two degrees. In February! She breathed deep and smiled. Her favorite type of winter, indeed. There was nothing like staying at home for real comfort.
She looked over her shoulder. Noah sat on the edge of his desk, facing her. He held his plate, ate a strawberry without using a single utensil, and looked completely uncaring that all could walk by his open office door and see their distinguished bank president behaving like his eight-year-old cousin. Emmeline tensed.
The very cousin who wasn’t anywhere in Noah’s office.
The very cousin who Noah should be keeping an eye on.
The very cousin who couldn’t attend school due to his ailing stomach and who Emmeline was to take home and attend to his “illness.” This wasn’t good. Not good at all.
“Where’s Hank?” she said, her heart beginning to race.
Noah’s gaze shifted to the wall clock. He finished another strawberry. “At this moment, he’s in Austen Abbey’s dining hall.”
“He’s supposed to be ill.”
“He was hungry, and Miss Fairfax’s music lessons begin a quarter past noon.”
“Austen Abbey is a finishing school for young ladies, Noah. Ladies.”
“To be polished and shined to perfection,” he muttered as if it were something she said ad nauseam, and she knew quite well she did not. He tossed the strawberry’s leafy top onto the plate. “I sent him over to the Abbey early so he would have time to eat first.”
“Why? He is not a student nor taking lessons.”
“I didn’t know you were bringing food.” Emmeline gave him a pointed look. “Noah.”
“I do not care for your patronizing tone. You did not answer my question.”
He ate a cucumber sandwich in response.
Emmeline let out an irritated exhale. “Let us set aside the fact Hank is supposed to be ill, and yet clearly isn’t. The last time he was at the Abbey he tormented—”
“Hank has seen the errors of his ways.”
She doubted that. “People don’t change—you said that yourself.”
“People don’t.” He bit into the last strawberry. With the side of his hand, Noah wiped the juice off his bottom lip. “Children will, with the right and firmly placed motivation.”
“Did you check his pockets for crickets, ferrets, or toads? Did he have his slingshot with him?”
Noah shrugged. “He’ll be fine. I sent a note with him to give to Mrs. Collins.” At her he-will-not-be-fine look, he added, “Hank knows better than to incite the headmistress’s wrath a second time. I told him you’ll meet him at the Abbey in an hour to take him home.” He took another bite of the cucumber sandwich and grimaced before swallowing. “Music calms Hank. There’s no harm in him sitting in on a music lesson this one time. Besides, he’s in love with Miss Branch.”
“Miss Branch!” Emmeline closed the distance between them, which wasn’t much because the balcony was barely six feet behind his desk. “Miss Eliza Branch? The very girl who sat next to me last night during the book club gathering and had an opinion on everything? That Miss Branch?”
Noah finished his sandwich then grabbed another. “She’s a lovely young woman,” he said between bites.
“Yes, but . . .” Emmeline hesitated. Noah Whitley was the last person she would ever accuse of being a romantic. “Eliza Branch?”
“She plays the lyre,” he said in a tone conveying this was enough of a reason for his young cousin to be in love.
“The lyre?” she repeated even though she knew full well what instrument Eliza played, which was probably too generous of a word. Eliza definitely showed more enthusiasm than skill, yet she played out of love for music, and this Emmeline found quite admirable.
Noah picked up the last of his sandwiches. “Hank needs a woman who knows a lyre from a harp. I say he chose wisely.” He resumed eating.
Noah pointed the triangular sandwich at her. “But he won’t stay eight forever, my dear. One day he’s going to find a woman who will make him want to charge the castle, slay the dragon, and leap across parapets. I’d rather he learn now the difference between a Maid Marion and a Jezebel. Eliza Branch is a lady of the finest character.”
Emmeline blinked repeatedly. “Eliza is ten years older than Hank. Ten!”
He shrugged again.
“Hank’s parents entrusted you with his safe-keeping until they return from their tour of the Mediterranean,” she said without pausing for a breath. “You’re foolish to encourage a relationship which will come to naught but heartache for a child who yearns for nothing more than to be loved by his parents.”
His gaze bored into hers. “Age should never come between true love. I would have thought with your gift, you’d know that.” Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
“This isn’t about Hank and Eliza. It’s about putting me in my place.”
“Only because you need it.”
Emmeline opened her mouth and shut it as quickly. In one look he could win an argument. A trait she admired in him—when the look wasn’t cast upon her.
The silence between them deepened, intensified.
Noah lifted a scone to take a bite, only to return it to the plate. “Would you rather I give you flattery or honesty?”
Emmeline stiffened. She wanted neither when he was being so disagreeable. “You did not believe me when I insisted Hank was pretending to be ill in order to skip school. Therefore, whatever ill befalls us today because of Hank is your fault.”
“Nothing will befall us,” he said with that swoon-inciting (according to Mrs. Collins) smile of his.
Emmeline rolled her eyes. Oh, she was aware of his charms. Not that Noah was a flirt, at least not that she’d ever seen. What she had seen was the way he looked at a woman with undivided interest, even when she was speaking of fashion, afternoon tea, or the latest thing she’d read. He listened and encouraged, never judged. No one was better than him at changing the conversation when it verged upon gossip. If his contentedness with his bachelorhood wasn’t so well-known throughout Austin, women would be clamoring over one another to garner his attention.
Noah shifted on his desk, and the toes of his boots brushed against her skirt. Despite the layers of silk and muslin, she didn’t merely feel his boot. She felt him. And she wanted to move. Or not move. Or perhaps rest against his shoulder. He would say all would be well with Hank. He would say he was sorry for being critical of her. He would say love was the most wonderful feeling in the world and that someday she would know grand passion.
Or maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe she had the autumn doldrums.
Only, she didn’t feel melancholy.
She felt . . . She wanted . . .
Emmeline released a ragged breath. Well, she really had no idea what this was or what she was feeling or wanted or why or how. Later . . . tonight . . .when she was alone, she’d sort it all out and decide it was nervous expectation over the upcoming Saint Valentine’s Ball and Mr. Garrison Churchill’s arrival. Yes, that had to be it.
“Something is bothering you,” Noah said.
She met his concerned gaze. “I was thinking of the Saint Valentine’s Ball. You are coming, whether you wish to or not.”
At the wail in her protégé Hattie’s voice, Emmeline looked past Noah, who was also looking over his shoulder at his open office door. Standing at the threshold, with her blond curls springing erratically from her chignon, Hattie held her hand to the bodice of her favorite calico dress as her chest rose and fell. Her bonnet dangled down her back, held on by the haphazard knot at her neck. A month of personal instruction on decorum by Emmeline gone in a moment’s outburst. Sophistication clearly didn’t come as naturally to Hattie as being pretty did. While Hattie chose to continue wearing Mrs. Collins’s cast-off calicos despite the elegant dresses Emmeline had bought her (which Hattie insisted on saving for special occasions), Hattie also had a teachable spirit and extraordinary ability to be dedicated to those she bonded with. In summation, Hattie’s strengths were far superior to her minor flaws, which Emmeline found quite admirable.
“Good afternoon, Miss Smith.” Noah spoke politely as he always did.
Miss Smith finally looked to Noah. Her hazel eyes widened. She blushed then immediately curtsied as if he were a British aristocrat instead of a man who spent his day denying and approving loans. “Mr. Whitley,” she said, her tone heavy with surprise, “I didn’t realize you would be here. The receptionist said I could find Miss Travis in the navy and gold office at the end of the stairs. I’ve never seen such a magnificent room except at Miss Travis’s hotel.”
Noah put the luncheon plate down on his desk, right next to his nameplate. “The odds of finding me in here are rather high. Why do you think that could be?”
Emmeline pinched his thigh. He didn’t flinch.
Hattie’s gaze shifted to the nameplate. “Oh.” She cringed. “It’s your office.”
“Hattie, why are you at the bank already?” asked Emmeline in concern. “You’re supposed to be delivering the remaining book club food to Miss Gates and her mother.”
Hattie twisted her hands together. Her gaze nervously shifted to Noah then back to Emmeline. “Mr. Belton”—her voice caught—“has returned.”
Emmeline released a sigh in both delight over the news and in relief it wasn’t as dreadful as she’d first thought. While the good headmaster’s attentions toward Hattie had diminished prior to his departing for San Antonio, with his return two weeks sooner than expected, absence clearly made the heart grow fonder. By Saint Valentine’s Day, Hattie would be engaged to a respectable, God-fearing man. Emmeline would see to it. Just as she would see to it that Noah married any woman besides Anne Fairfax.
She moved around Noah to reclaim her basket; he grabbed the back of her gown just above her bustle, stopping her. She glared at him. His attention never wavered from Hattie.
Emmeline returned her gaze to her protégé. “What wonderful news!”
“It’s dreadful,” Hattie countered.
Emmeline’s smile fell. “Why?”
“He returned . . ." Her shrilly voice increased in volume, drawing the attention of what looked to be every person on the second floor of the bank. “With a wife!”