Keeping her wealthy heritage a secret was the only way to be accepted as his mail-order bride. Now that her identity and her haunting past demand to take her back, can he save his scarred wife?
Estelle is a caring young woman who forces herself to abandon an arranged marriage with a rich suitor. She becomes the mail-order bride of a young rancher in the West but she keeps her wealthy background a secret. Life on the ranch is extremely difficult and with a lot of chores. But Estelle, unexpectedly falls in love with her husband, and dedicates herself to his ranch. How can Estelle protect her new family, when her secret heritage threatens to steal away their happiness?
Michael is a successful self-made rancher and he has been through a lot. Not only did he lose his parents in a tragic fire, but he also had to build a second ranch from scratch. He is lonely though, and marrying out of convenience is the only solution to have someone else helping him around the ranch. When he meets sweet Estelle, his world is shaken. She might talk like she’s a rich girl, but she accustoms naturally to the Western lifestyle. She even makes his brother, Jacob, open up. But, when truth hits him in the face, how will he find the courage to forgive the woman who has taught him how to love again?
Estelle and Michael should trust in their strong will to be together. All the obstacles in the world, like the shadowy suitor who is looking for Estelle, should not keep them from safeguarding their new family. How can they realize that through their love comes their redemption?
Estelle Williams tiptoed away from her best friend. She knew the secret to hide and seek was to be as quiet as possible. Sounds would always betray you. It also helped that she had a plan and knew exactly where she was going to hide.
Megan was counting too fast, Estelle thought. Her heart raced. There was a tiny nook outside her father’s office and, if she could get there, she could curl up and hide inside. There was no way Megan could find her there. The question was, could she get there before Megan made it to ten?
Estelle inched up the stairs, light as a ballerina, wary of the steps that creaked. It was the house she had grown up in, so she had that advantage going for her. It also helped that she was still so small, even for an eleven-year-old.
She was almost there. The nook was just down the hall. She could do it. She held her breath and scurried her feet, making sure that each of her steps was perfectly silent.
The nook was right there. She climbed inside right as Megan said…
“…ten! Ready or not, I’m going to find you.”
Estelle took in light, shallow, quick breaths, none of them reaching the bottom of her lungs. She felt tense and scared, with heightened awareness of the sounds that Megan made downstairs.
Estelle could hear her walking into the den and could almost sense her looking around corners; then she heard the quick footsteps of Megan moving across the wooden floor to look somewhere else. So long as Megan stayed downstairs, Estelle was safe.
The office door opened and closed. Estelle put her ear to the wall and listened as her father walked in, talking to someone else.
“Take a seat,” he said. “Now, let’s go over this. What’s your proposal?”
It sounded like grown-up talk, the kind of thing that Estelle wouldn’t usually be interested in, but something about them not knowing she was listening made it exciting. This was grown-up talk that Estelle wasn’t supposed to hear.
“Richard, this is my son, Ethan.” That was a voice Estelle didn’t recognize.
“Pleasure to meet you, young man.”
“Likewise, sir.” That was the man’s son. He definitely didn’t sound like a child, but he didn’t quite sound like a grown-up, either. Estelle peeked through the thin spaces in the wood to try and get a look at him, but all she could see were the pants the men were wearing. She was too low to see any faces.
“Firm handshake, my lad. That’s the sign of a good man.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The other grown-up continued. “It is my understanding that you don’t have a son of your own to continue the family banking business.”
“No, just one beautiful daughter.”
“She takes after her mother.”
The other man laughed. “Of course, she does! Now, what I propose to you is my son, who has just recently finished his education at the University of Pennsylvania, studying business and economics… Son, tell him your grades.”
There was a pause.
“Go on, tell him.”
“All A’s, sir.”
“That’s mighty impressive,” Estelle’s father said. “Don’t be shy, that’s something to boast about.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The other adult continued. “I propose an arrangement whereby we agree that my son will marry your daughter, when she comes of age. In the meantime, you will act as Ethan’s mentor, with the eventual goal being to merge our two banks with him eventually, down the line, acting as successor to us both.”
Did Estelle hear them right? Was this her future husband in the other room? She imagined the weddings that she used to play out with her dolls when she was younger. Did she want to see him?
Estelle had just reached an age where the boys at school, once vile little things that the world would be better without, had become slightly interesting. A few years earlier, she would have felt sick at the idea that she would have to someday marry a boy, but now it didn’t seem so bad—depending on what he looked like.
Part of her wanted to see her future husband. Would he be tall and handsome? Or maybe he would have dirty blond hair and a smile that could make her heart flutter.
“Gotcha!” Megan tagged Estelle, giggling.
Estelle turned toward Megan, putting an index finger to her lips. “Shh!”
“What is it?” Megan whispered. “What’s going on?”
Estelle pointed to the slit between the wood. “In there, it’s the man I’m going to marry.”
“Well, then,” Megan replied, pulling Estelle up, “we have to meet him.”
“What? No, Megan!”
Megan pulled her out of the nook and tugged her down the hall. Estelle wasn’t ready to make that decision on her own, but Megan dragged her into it.
Through the doorway, Estelle saw the man. He was tall and certainly older than a child, maybe in his 20s, with thick locks of golden blond hair and a very slim build.
He was an utter disappointment.
And he was shaking her father’s hand.
“I believe we have a deal, young man,” her father said.
This was her Prince Charming? This was the man she was going to make babies with? Maybe someone else would find him attractive—indeed, he was attractive, in a boyish sort of way, but that’s not what Estelle wanted in a husband.
She wanted to one day marry a man who was strong and could take care of her. This man just looked like a grown-up brat.
Seven years later
By her 18th birthday, Estelle had all but forgotten about the blond man. Her father had never mentioned him to her, so she thought perhaps she had only imagined it. She had been known for her wild imagination as a child, so it would stand to reason that maybe she’d just made the whole thing up. His face seemed so specific, though, more like a real person she had met than a fuzzy picture of someone that her imagination would come up with.
The blond man wasn’t on Estelle’s mind at all when her father told her that somebody would be joining them for dinner and he would very much like her to meet him. The guest was a man that her father had been working with for a long time at the bank, and so he wanted her to be on her best behavior.
“My lord, father,” Estelle said. “I’m an adult now. You don’t need to talk to me like a child.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I just want to be very clear that you need to be using your pleases and thank yous and demonstrating proper manners. This is a very important evening for both of us.”
Estelle assumed this would be an older gentleman who was interested in some sort of business deal that only affected her tangentially.
He was not an older gentleman, however, and when he arrived and removed his hat, she recognized him by his eyebrows and the odd way his nose seemed to turn up toward her.
“Hello, Miss Williams,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
She backed away from him, frightened. It was as though he was a monster from her childhood, hidden in the shadows of her bedroom, who had suddenly returned to her as an adult. She had dismissed what she had seen with her own two eyes as the delusions of a child, but now realized she should have trusted her instinct all along.
“She’s quite shy,” her father said, “but once she becomes accustomed to you, I’m sure that will go away.”
Her father turned toward her. “This is Ethan Fitzgerald, darling. He’s been my protégé for some time now. He’s an upstanding young gentleman, if I may say so myself.”
Estelle had no response to that. Her tongue remained frozen in her mouth, unable to make any sounds—certainly none that were appropriate, given the setting. Thoughts raced through her head as her heartbeat quickened and she felt dizzy as though she were about to faint.
“I think I need to sit down,” she said.
“Perhaps you’re just hungry,” Ethan said. “I understand that you have a wonderful dinner planned for us tonight?”
Estelle’s father nodded. “Yes, we do. May I take your coat?”
He took them into the kitchen, where Estelle sat down next to her father at the far end of the table and across from Ethan.
“You know, Father,” Estelle said, “I don’t have much of an appetite this evening. May I be excused?”
“What’s come over you, Estelle?” her father asked.
“Perhaps it’s the heat?” Ethan suggested.
“Yes,” Estelle said, “that must be it. The heat. I think it’s best if I lie down.”
Her father flashed her a disapproving look.
“We can discuss business, Mr. Williams, it’s fine,” Ethan said.
Her father considered the idea, but clearly did not want to make a scene in front of the guest. “Go along, then,” he said.
Estelle got up from the table and, as quickly as she could, left the room and ascended the staircase to her room. She laid down on her bed and took as deep a breath as her corset would allow, then bit her lip to keep herself from crying.
By the time her father came to check on her, she had already fallen asleep.
The following day was sunny and bright, with temperate weather that would have been a tragedy to waste. Estelle went next door to ask Megan, still her friend after all these years, if she’d like to join her on a picnic at the park.
Upon arriving there, the two of them spread out on a blanket just as the sun hid behind a cloud, diffusing the light across the sky and softening their features.
They began with pleasantries, but Estelle quickly moved into telling her friend about Ethan.
“You’ll never believe who my father brought home last night,” Estelle said, trying to phrase it as a happy thought and not something that had been burrowing in her mind since the day before.
“Do you remember the funny man we met as a child? In my house? The one my father said would be my husband?”
Megan looked at Estelle as though she was speaking another language. “I don’t, no.”
“You’d think you’d remember something like that.”
Megan shrugged. “I’m sorry, Estelle, I don’t.”
Estelle hoped she might be able to trigger Megan’s memory. “We couldn’t have been much older than 11 or so. We were playing hide and seek in the house and there was a blond man and I told you he was going to be my husband.”
“Is he handsome?”
“In his own way,” Estelle said, cautiously.
“I expect I’d remember him if he was handsome.”
Estelle was struggling to find the words. He wasn’t particularly unattractive, but that wasn’t the part that bothered her. There was another element to him that simply rubbed her the wrong way. She didn’t have the words, and the ones she did have made her seem silly. Maybe it was the way he looked at her. When his eyes fixed on her, they didn’t blink. The stare was so intense that she felt as though it might never leave.
He frightened her. He sent a chill down her spine just being in the same room as her. She hadn’t been lying to her father when she’d told him she wasn’t feeling well. Her stomach was, indeed, turning.
But that sounded melodramatic. She’d have to say something simpler.
“He’s pleasant enough to look at, but is it too much to want to be wooed by a man rather than just assigned to him?”
“Perhaps he will try to woo you if you’d only give him a chance.”
“Or, perhaps I don’t wish to be wooed by him.”
Megan nodded. “This, I understand.” She reached inside of her picnic basket and pulled out a large pamphlet, which she handed to Estelle. “I think I may have a solution for you.”
Estelle looked at the pamphlet, unsure of how it could possibly help her.
“What is this?”
“Are you familiar with the concept of a mail-order bride?” Megan asked.
A mail-order bride? “Is that what it sounds like?”
“A man corresponds with you via post, then, if you reach an agreement, he sends to have you shipped to him and you marry.”
The very notion of marrying a man sight unseen sounded wrong to Estelle. It felt elicit, like a game of chance. Her cheeks burned. She was both aghast and, secretly, intrigued.
“This is something you’re thinking of doing?” Estelle asked.
“I’m considering it. It never hurts to see what options are available. These are men from all over the country just looking for wives. They’ll pay for transportation and provide room and board—all in exchange for marrying them.”
Estelle couldn’t deny her interest in the subject. Part of it sounded so romantic, to marry a man based only on correspondence, but she had to admit that she was a woman who cared about appearance, as well.
“How do I know what they look like?”
“Here,” Megan said, pointing to one of the entries. “They describe themselves sometimes. Brown hair and moustache, 35 years old, 6 feet 2 inches tall.”
Estelle laughed. “They can say whatever they want. How am I to know they’re telling the truth?”
“I suppose, but why would they lie? If they’re paying for you to go all the way across the country, I imagine they don’t want you to be disappointed when you arrive.”
“Fine, let’s see what we have here.” Estelle perused the long list of descriptions. “60-year-old gentleman widower seeking a good cook between the age of 20 and 25 in Louisville, Kentucky. I suppose at sixty, he wouldn’t be here much longer, either.”
“I agree, they’re not all diamonds, but there are some men in here who genuinely sound good.” She took the pamphlet from Estelle. “Like this one, 25-year-old eligible well-kempt bachelor seeking spouse in San Francisco, California. He doesn’t sound so bad, does he?”
“I just wonder, if he’s so eligible, why must he put an advertisement in a paper like this? Why can’t he find himself a wife on his own? Particularly in such a big place like San Francisco.”
“If you don’t like the man, perhaps settle for the lifestyle. 24-year-old rancher in Grafton Town, Utah. Spend the days tending cattle and the evenings around the firepit, looking at stars. Humble, quiet home with horses and dogs. Looking for spouse who enjoys the outdoors and adventure.”
Estelle felt a tiny ember in her heart. She imagined herself on the back of a horse, riding through the mountains, wrangling up cattle, alongside a man with a light tan and a Stetson hat. She couldn’t quite make out his face, though it also didn’t matter to her. What mattered was the sun on her face and the feel of clothes that weren’t so tight. More than anything, she found herself excited by the sense of freedom that the brief mental image evoked in her. Was it really her on the horse? It was her face, but with a genuine smile, the likes of which she hadn’t felt for years.
“Let me see that,” Estelle said.
She read through the advertisement again.
“It seems that one piqued your interest.”
“What do I do?” Estelle asked.
“You write him a letter asking for more information. Ask him to tell you more about himself. Maybe ask him to include a photograph, if he has one.”
“You’ll help me write it?”
“Of course,” Megan promised.
To Mr. Michael Holden:
I am responding to the ad you posted in the Weekly Matrimonial. My name is Estelle Williams and I am…
“Do I tell him the truth?” Estelle asked.
“That you’re a spoiled rich girl running away from a comfortable lifestyle to wrangle cattle? I would think not.”
…an orphan. My parents died when I was very young and even being in the city of Philadelphia reminds me too much of them to bear it any longer. I wish to move away from the city to enjoy a calmer, simpler life.
I am 18 years old and quite fair, with auburn hair and beautiful hazel eyes.
“Do I sound conceited?”
Megan shrugged. “A little. Maybe state it as though someone else has said it to you.”
I am 18 years old and quite fair, with auburn hair and what I am told are beautiful, piercing hazel eyes.
“He’s probably not going to respond anyway,” Estelle said, “so I may as well go all out.”
“That’s the spirit!”
I only request that you tell me a bit more about day-to-day life on your ranch. I can cook quite well and also keep things tidy, but I would prefer helping with the outdoor work.
I eagerly await your reply.
“Maybe not eagerly,” Megan said. “We don’t want to sound too forward.”
I await your reply.
— Estelle Williams
“That looks good to me. Let’s rewrite it fresh and send it off,” Megan suggested. “And, of course, we’ll include a photograph.”
The photograph made Estelle more nervous than anything else.
Estelle enclosed the best wallet-sized photo of herself she could find, then dropped the letter off at the post office—hopeful, but also fearful that time was running out. Her father had tried to introduce her to her arranged husband just the night before. If he was to go forward with the wedding, as she feared he would do, he would become more and more insistent and it would be harder and harder to escape.
Her father confronted her that evening.
“You were very rude to our guest last night,” he said.
She was standing across from him in his office, the very place where she had first seen Ethan seven years earlier.
“I apologize, but I wasn’t feeling well.”
“I wonder if perhaps there’s more to it than that.”
Her father had adopted a harsh tone, sending goosebumps up all over Estelle’s arm. She knew the tone well, though it had been a while since she’d heard it. It was the tone he adopted when she’d misbehaved. It was strange to hear it as an adult.
“No, Father,” Estelle said. “I felt ill.” But her voice betrayed her and, though she knew what she said was the truth, it came out as a lie.
“No matter,” he said, “I will invite him over again, and perhaps several times after that. It is in your best interest to get to know him.”
“And why is that?”
The question left her lips before she realized what she’d said.
Her father raised his voice, ever so slightly, and spoke faster as his emotions began to take hold. This was the way he got when he was not to be questioned.
“Because I am your father and I don’t need to explain myself to you. He’s a very important person to me and it is equally important that he likes you. I’m disappointed in the first impression you made on him and would like for you to apologize and make it up to him. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Father.” It came out as a squeak, only audible because of the pure silence that followed her father asserting his dominance. She felt powerless.
She went to bed that night staring out the window at the moon shining over the city. If her father had his say, she would be marrying Ethan. At the moment, it seemed that Michael was her only chance of escape. She felt as if she could see all of Philadelphia, with people walking up and down on cobblestone streets, lampposts lighting up the sky with their gaseous glow and rendering the stars invisible. It was all so confining to her, just like her corset. She longed to look out the window at an open range, hearing the sounds of the wilderness. There would be a constant murmur of crickets chirping, with the occasional coyote howling in the distance and perhaps a barnyard owl hooting. That could be her life.
Estelle told herself to banish such silly thoughts from her head. The letter was in the mail, and all she could do at this point was pray that he’d respond. There was no reason to expect anything from him in the next few days or even weeks. It may take a minimum of a month to hear back and, during that time, her father was going to become more and more insistent that she and Ethan begin the wedding proceedings. Maybe by the time she received a response, it would be too late.
Or maybe she would never hear from him at all.
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