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A Destined Marriage for their Broken Hearts

Once, they were inseparable, two peas in a pod. Years later, they find each other again through a mail-order bride ad. Can their newfound love beat their well-known enemies before it’s too late?

Nettie used to be a happy child with a soft spot for her best friend, Jimmy. When pestilence sweeps away her family though, she is forced to stay with her aunt, away from the place and the people she has loved. Becoming a mail-order bride for none other than Jimmy is unexpected and unwanted. Yet, her heart beats faster when she sees him again. How can she find the key to his heart when he has buried it deep inside?

Jimmy’s life turns upside down the moment his father dies. Not only that but his school sweetheart is taken away. Years later, he has no other choice but to place a mail-order bride ad for a marriage of convenience. When he sees again the same fiery hair and wild eyes though, his heart skips a beat. It’s her, his best friend, Nettie! How can he accept fate’s plan when loving her takes more than just his soul away?

There is no love like the first one, and Jimmy and Nettie can’t go against their destiny. How will they face their common enemies as one body and soul when they struggle to overcome the fact that they are not the same anymore?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Turmoil, Louisiana, 1866

Wooo-ooooooo! Woooot-woot-woot!

The sharp, hollow burst of a steam whistle made Jimmy McLeod raise his tousled head and glance downriver. He was a tall, lean boy of about eight with straight, shining brown hair, smooth, tanned skin, and brown eyes. He grinned with a sharp flash of white teeth.

“There she comes!”

The long, tattered skeins of Spanish moss hanging from the oaks around him partially blocked the moonlit river from his view. Yet, there was no mistaking the deep thrum of an approaching paddle wheeler or the golden glow of a steamboat with all its lights burning. The lights flickered in and out, screened by the shadowy row of oaks lining the river, but they became steadily closer and brighter.

Jimmy turned to his little sweetheart, the delicate redheaded girl sitting in the grass beside him. Though she was his age, she looked younger due to her small stature. She wore a pretty pink calico gown with a white collar trimmed in pink rickrack, but the dainty feet sticking out from underneath her skirts were bare and dusty.

“Steamboat’s coming, Nettie!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “Let’s go down to the dock and meet it!”

The little girl twirled a flower above a kitten’s head, but she stopped playing with it to reply in a worried tone, “Our folks are gonna tan us for staying out so late, Jimmy. It’s dark. Ma told me that if I stayed out past dark again, she was gonna make me go get a switch.”

“Aw, your ma never switches you, Nettie,” he countered gently, with his eyes on the golden lights out on the river. “She just says that to make you mind. Don’t you know that by now?” He gazed at his little girlfriend in affection. He always managed to coax Nettie out with him, even at night and even if she was worried about it, because he was her beau, and they would get married one day.

At least, that was his plan.

The little redheaded beauty toyed with the flower, then looked at him. “Well…”

Jimmy grabbed her hand. “Allons, Nettie. Let’s go down and wait for the boat. Silverus George always brings me caramels.” He smiled down at her. “If I get some, I’ll split ‘em with you.”

Nettie stood, her hand still in his. “I’m scared of Silverus George, Jimmy,” she objected but allowed him to drag her out onto the moonlit river road and down its dusty track toward the dock. “He’s got a pointy beard like a goat. His front teeth are yellow.”

“Aw, he’s a nice old man,” Jimmy reassured her as they walked. “And his front teeth ain’t yellow; they’re gold. Want to know how he got those gold teeth? He told me that one night he met the Rougarou in the swamp,” he said in a breathless voice. “The monster charged him, and he had to fight for his life!”

As Nettie rolled terrified eyes to his, Jimmy added in a thrilling undertone, “he said that he fought it all night and finally got his hands around its hairy neck. The Rougarou begged him to let it go before the sun came up, but he said he’d only let it go if it gave him two gold coins. So the monster told him where to dig for ‘em. Silverus said he had his teeth made out of them gold coins.”

Nettie stopped dead in the road. “I’m not going to talk to anybody who fought the Rougarou!” she objected, but Jimmy only planted his hands on his hips.

“Can’t think of anybody safer to be around than somebody who fit the Rougarou and won,” he countered. “Got gold out of him, what’s more! Come on, Nettie.”

To Jimmy’s relief, his companion took his hand. He led her down the road in the fading light. The paddle-wheeler was aligned with them on the river, a massive shadow in the blue dusk with every window blazing gold. The pilot hit another long blast on the whistle, and the calliope broke into a full-throated chorus of “Camptown Races” as the steamboat approached the crowded dock.

Nettie skipped and sang along in a high, clear voice, and Jimmy joined in as they hurried along.

“De Camptown ladies sing dis song,

Doo-dah! Doo-dah!

De Camptown racetrack five miles long,

Oh, doo-dah day!

Gwine to run all night!

Gwine to run all day!

I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag,

Somebody bet on de bay.”[1]

As Jimmy glanced over at his little friend, he felt a glow of pride that such a pretty girl would defy her own parents to romp through the countryside with him. Nettie was the prettiest girl in school, and boys from more affluent families than him would be proud to walk around with her on their arms; but for some reason, she liked him. He still hadn’t figured out why.

He was just grateful.

Crossing one arm over his waist, he bowed low. “Dance with me, mam’selle?” he asked, his silken brown hair falling over his brow, and Nettie took his hand. They capered down the road together, giggling and skipping and turning round and round in the firefly-studded darkness.

“When I grow up, I’m gonna marry you, Nettie Black,” Jimmy announced. “We’ll live on my pa’s ranch and raise cattle. We’ll have a hundred babies and lots of dogs.”

Nettie’s brow furrowed. “I’d like to have babies,” she objected, “but not a hundred.”

Jimmy chuckled and swung her hand back and forth as they walked. “I guess we can stick to one or two.” He shot her a quick look. “You are going to say yes, ain’t you?”

Nettie’s delicate mouth curved into a smile. “Oh yes, Jimmy. I’ll marry you.”

Jimmy relaxed, then drew himself up a bit more confidently. “That’s settled, then. When I get old enough, I’ll ask your pa for your hand in marriage, just like in the books.”

A fresh blast on the steamboat whistle quickened his pace. “Come on, Nettie! There’s already a crowd down there. We need to get close to the boat if I’m going to find Silverus George.”

They scampered past stacks of cotton bales and crates on the dock’s outskirts, and through the crowd of gathered people, even at that late hour, to welcome the steamboat.

Rows of blazing torches lined the broad, wooden dock; their golden glare lit the upturned, expectant faces of men, women, and children as the grand, ponderous steamboat pulled in slowly. Nettie dropped Jimmy’s hand to point at another boy standing on the other end of the crowd. He was one of their schoolmates, also eight years old, a tall, dark, well-dressed boy with fine features and a proud expression.

“Look, Jimmy! There’s Mark Lucas.”

Grumbling, Jimmy looked away. “Yeah, I see him. Guess his ma must’ve untied her apron strings long enough for him to sneak out of the house.”

Jimmy glared at the other boy darkly. Mark was a stuck-up mama’s boy who never missed an opportunity to remind everybody else how rich his daddy was.

Mark never missed an opportunity to try to steal Nettie away from him, either.

“He’s got a bag of sweets,” Nettie murmured and watched Mark raise each piece to his mouth in round-eyed wonder. “Wonder what kind?”

Jimmy hunched a shoulder and scowled. “Probably something sour. His mouth is puckered up like a dried lemon.”

The steamboat paddle switched into reverse with a thunderous roar, and the wheel raised a roiling rush of water as the boat glided gently to the lip of the dock. Two workers on board threw out thick ropes, and eager hands on the pier caught them and wound them tight around the tie-up posts.

“There he is!” Jimmy yelped and pointed to a tall, splendidly dressed old man standing at an upper rail. The man was six feet tall, and his spotless white line uniform and gold braid trim were as splendid as a commodore’s. He had neat white hair parted to one side, a carefully groomed mustache, a spade beard, and two gold teeth that gleamed in the firelight when he raised a brown hand and flashed a smile.

Jimmy brightened at the sight of his friend. Silverus George was the only steamboat employee kind enough to take notice of the Cajun children on the dock, like him and Nettie.

“It’s Silverus George! George, George!” Jimmy waved his arm and yelled, and the old man’s roving eye caught them as they stood on the edge of the crowd.

“Yey-ee!” The old man threw his head back and laughed to see their eager faces. “You come to see the steamboat, little chickens? Eh, bien sur, I know what you want!”

He pulled out a white paper bag from his vest and tossed it over the rail with a laugh.

“There you go, little rooster! Straight from New Orleans!”

Jimmy caught the white bag deftly. He opened it quickly and gasped, “It’s full to bursting, Nettie! Go ahead, get some!”

Nettie peeped down into the offered bag. A wild jumble of caramel candies filled the bag: caramels freckled with sweet pecans, caramels with swirls of white cream, spicy cinnamon caramels, and caramel and chocolate bark.

After delicately picking out a piece of caramel bark, Nettie lifted it to her mouth. She took an experimental bite, raised wondering eyes to Jimmy’s, then lifted on her tiptoes to kiss his chin.

“I love you, Jimmy McLeod!” she declared vehemently. “You’re the best beau in this parish. The best in the world!”

Jimmy felt red all over, but warmth filled his chest and made it puff out with a bit of confidence, too. Still, he wasn’t sure he knew what to do with Nettie’s burst of affection, so he nodded toward the bag and changed the subject.

“Go ahead and take all you like, Nettie!” He waved to the boat. “Merci, George! Merci!”

The old man laughed again, waved, and disappeared inside the boat as the gangplank came down and the passengers prepared to debark. Jimmy dug into the bag, popped a caramel into his mouth, and rolled it from side to side, savoring its creamy richness.

“Well, well, well! Bonsoir, Jeanette.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes and was disgusted to see that Mark Lucas sauntered over in his fancy breeches and oversized foofy shirt with lace on the cuffs. Holding a bag of his own, he offered it to Nettie. “Have a praline, Jeanette.”

Nettie gave Mark a doubtful look, then questioned him with big, pretty blue eyes. “Um, merci, Mark,” she stammered, in her politest native patois, “but I’ve already had lots of candy. Couldn’t eat another bite.”

Mark shrugged, withdrew the bag, and took a long, luxuriant bite of praline. “Mmm,” he murmured and wiped his mouth. “My father bought this for me this afternoon,” he mumbled, and his eyes moved to Jimmy’s. “He can afford to buy me lots of sweets. I don’t have to beg them from servants.”

Jimmy balled his fists and glared at him. “Sure enough, you got to buy candy because no one likes you enough to give you any, you stuck-up Mama’s boy!” he shot back.

Mark’s expression darkened. He brushed the lint off his sleeve and replied softly, “Well, that’s the kind of thing one might expect a beggar to say. My father’s a rich man, a planter, and yours tends cows on a scraggly patch of land next to the swamp. You’re nothing but poor, white Cajun tras—”

Jimmy hollered and charged Mark Lucas, knocked him to the ground, and had the satisfaction of punching his sneering face. “My pa’s as good as yours any day!” Jimmy fetched his rival a swipe across the jaw for that and for daring to flirt with Nettie. He punched his screaming opponent another time or two before he was pulled off, still yelling and swinging.

“Here! What’s all this, eh?”

Jimmy looked up through his hair into the dark, frowning face of Silverus George. The older man shook him by the collar, then pointed to Mark as he staggered up and prepared to take a retaliatory swing.

“None of that, you! Now, what’s this all about?”

Nettie piped up, “Mark called Jimmy white trash, and Jimmy punched him in the nose!”

The old man’s snowy brows rose in amusement, and a slow, sharp smile dawned across his face. “Did he, eh?”

“My father’ll have you whipped on the town square!” Mark mumbled, with a handkerchief to his nose.

“I’ll punch your daddy, too!” Jimmy lunged at Mark again, but the old man yanked him back.

“Here now! If you keep kickin’ up sand, little rooster, I’ll thow you into the river! And you” —he scowled at the glaring Mark— “this boy is a friend of mine. If you make me mad, I’ll use my fee-rocious magic powers to whomp a curse on you. Turn you into a toad frog!” The old man’s face pinched into a dark, frowning knot, and he raised his hands into the air like weapons readied for battle.

“Stuff and nonsense,” Mark grumbled, but he watched the old man warily over his handkerchief.

“You don’t believe me?” The old man blared his eyes wide and lifted his hand high. He curled his long fingers over Mark’s head and intoned in a deep voice:

Bubble and squeak,

Rrrrrise from the creek,

Hop through the bog,

Turn into a—

Mark’s eyes bugged out in terror. Whirling on his heels, he bolted through the crowd, and Silverus George threw his head back and laughed.

Jimmy wrestled out of his grip, brushed the dirt off his clothes, and complained, “Why’d you have to come sticking in with a made-up story, George? Why didn’t you let me thrash him?”

The old man sobered and stared at him with his dark eyes. “Because his daddy’s the richest man in this parish,” he replied solemnly. “You got a few licks in, little rooster. But if you’d done more, you’d be in trouble.” The smile returned to his face. “Take your little copine and run off home now. It’s almost ten. Too late for boys and girls to be roaming the streets.”

Jimmy picked his bag of candy up off the ground. “I ain’t a little boy,” he bellyached with a glance at Nettie, but her pretty eyes were shining as she peered up at him.

“You’re the bravest boy in the whole world, Jimmy,” she told him solemnly. “Nobody’s ever dared to punch Mark Lucas in the nose. His own daddy don’t whip him!” she added in breathless admiration.

“Huh,” Jimmy retorted but offered his arm, and Nettie took it. “Well, it’s high time somebody punched him.” Now that it was all over, and Mark had been soundly thrashed, Nettie was on his arm, and he felt a good foot taller and five years older.

Nettie smiled at him. “Mark sure looked funny with a bloody nose, didn’t he, Jimmy?” she giggled, and Jimmy sputtered and nodded. “I’m going to tell everybody at school all about it,” she confided and pursed her lips. “Mark is so hateful, nobody likes him. You’re going to be a hero, Jimmy!”

Jimmy rubbed the back of his neck and found no words to say, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit puffed up, too. He stood straight and tall and soaked up the look of hero-worship shining in Nettie’s eyes.

Silverus George stuck his hands on his hips and laughed. The victorious Jimmy saluted him jauntily before strutting down the road with Nettie as proud and stately as any fine boulevardier in Paris.

He assumed that things would go on that way forever. So he walked his little sweetheart home as happy and carefree as the rooster Silverus George always called him.

Chapter One

New Orleans, Louisiana

1881

 

“I said do it and do it now!”

Edith Smith slammed the kitchen door with a thunderous bang, and Nettie stared after her in resentful silence. She bent to pick up a mop, then sloshed it around in a pail of sudsy water before mopping her aunt and uncle’s kitchen floor again.

The kitchen was spacious, with a black and white tile checkerboard floor, a huge kitchen table standing in the center of the room, and a big black cast iron stove against one wall. That kitchen was the center of Nettie’s world, and the larger brownstone formed its outer borders.

She spent most of her day in that big, drafty kitchen, cooking meals, serving meals, and cleaning up after.

A curling tendril of red hair fell over her brow as she mopped the tile floor. Nothing she did ever seemed good enough for her aunt Edith and uncle Marcus. Nettie frowned as she dragged the mop over the clean floor a second time. Aunt Edith reminded Nettie of a big, angry chicken. She always styled her iron-gray hair up and away from her head in a wild poof, her face red with fury, and her small, dark, beady eyes set deep in a fat face.

Uncle Marcus was even worse. If Edith was a chicken, Marcus was a pig. His salt and pepper hair had been thick once, but now he had a pink, bald patch on the top of his head the size of a coffee saucer. His face was solid, fat, and heavy, it had the beginning of jowls, and he had a paunchy stomach, but he behaved as though none of that mattered. Nettie’s frown deepened.

Her aunt and uncle were forced to take her in after her parents died—it seemed like a lifetime ago now. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out that they’d resented having to do it. They hadn’t taken her in because they loved her. The only reason she was there was to save them the cost of a cook and a maid.

Not that they ever acknowledged that or thanked her for it.

Nettie straightened and frowned. When she closed her eyes, she saw her mother’s still face on her pillow, heard her father’s raspy cough in the next room. They had died of consumption when that plague swept through their little town, and she still dreamed about them, still missed them like a hollow ache in her chest.

She had long since wished that she’d died with them, died while she was young and happy and secure, and lately, she fantasized about escaping from her aunt’s house. Though she had no money to do it and no place to run to, her misery reached such a pitch that she did not care.

Her aunt’s angry voice called from the sitting room, “That floor had better shine like a new penny when I come back in there, or I’ll make you mop it again until you get it right!”

Nettie blew her hair out of her eyes and grumbled under her breath.

Her uncle’s blaring voice blasted out from the sitting room like a foghorn. “And when you’re finished, Nettie, you can come in here and help pull my boots off. They’re stuck again.”

Nettie straightened painfully, rubbed her back, and wiped her brow with her forearm. Her glance flicked across the big kitchen table, and a new object on it made her set the mop aside. She lifted the brown paper parcel tied up in string. The label read, Msr. Armand’s Fine Caramels.

A ghostly smile played over her lips. She closed her eyes, remembering a summer night long ago when her beau gave her caramels, the two of them dancing to the happy music of a steamboat calliope, and her parents were still alive.

Jimmy McLeod had promised to marry her, fireflies had bobbed on the evening air, and moonlight on the river had shimmered like spun gold.

Silverus George had scared her with his gold teeth and roaring laugh, but he’d also scared off a bully with a wild fairy tale and showered them with caramels. Nettie’s fingers curled around the box as she remembered the taste—smooth, creamy, and so very sweet.

Her world had been beautiful then, but that world had slipped away, and it was so far away now that it seemed like a dream.

* * * * *

The kitchen door slapped open, and Nettie faced her aunt’s scowling wrath.

“Just as I thought—daydreaming again!” she declared, and her kindling eye fell on the box of candy. “Here, give me that!” she snapped, swiping the box from Nettie’s hands. “I suppose you thought you were going to help yourself to it, didn’t you? These aren’t for you, and you know it!”

Nettie’s mouth gaped in dismay. “I wasn’t going to—”

Her aunt’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded angrily. “I know you aren’t going to,” she retorted, “because I’m going to hide the box! To think that my own sister’s child would steal from me!”

Nettie flushed to the roots of her hair. “I’ve never stolen a crumb from you!” she objected, but her aunt snorted like a horse and stormed out.

“Be sure to get that floor clean. I’ve warned you!”

The door banged again, and Nettie blinked back angry tears. She’d grown used to being ordered around, to being overlooked on holidays, to being worked day and night, to being talked down to. She’d thought of herself as little more than a human broom, only valuable for sweeping up other people’s dirt and messes.

But that box of caramels reminded her, if only for a moment, that once upon a time, her life had been different.

That she had been loved.

Nettie withdrew a little heart-shaped locket from the collar of her cotton dress. It wasn’t authentic silver, and it was fifteen years old, but to her, it was more precious than a treasure chest full of jewels.

Jimmy McLeod had given it to her when her aunt and uncle whisked her away to New Orleans to live with them. He had stared at the floor, unable to meet her gaze, but when he gave her the gleaming locket, she knew he’d spend his last penny on it.

“I bought this for you, Nettie,” he’d murmured and offered it out to her. She’d stared at the little locket in wonder, then draped it reverently around her neck.

She shook her head. “It’s beautiful, Jimmy.”

He kicked at the floor. “Can I write to you, Nettie?”

Her mouth crumpled up, and she nodded silently, about to cry. She’d hated everything about that day: hated leaving her childhood home, her town, and all her friends. But most of all, she’d hated leaving Jimmy.

They were only nine years old.

She’d had the feeling it would be the last time she ever saw him, and that fear had come true. They’d exchanged a few letters, then the hand-written envelopes from home had just stopped coming.

Fifteen years ago.

A pang of regret stabbed her, and Nettie stroked the little locket and sighed. Jimmy was probably married by now. He likely had children of his own and had forgotten all about her.

But the thought of Jimmy had been growing on her lately, fueled by her growing desperation. He was the last real friend she had. Her aunt and uncle didn’t even like her, and they’d held her back from going to school, so she’d made no new friends of her own.

Their brick townhouse in New Orleans looked respectable enough from the street. The entrance was a full story above street level, with graceful stairs curving up to its doors on either side and walls of pale beige bricks stretching three stories from the ground. The interior was genteel looking, at least for that neighborhood, with thick carpets on the floors, plush furniture in the parlor, and an actual oil painting of sailing ships hanging over the mantle. But it was her prison, and more and more, she was feeling trapped inside its walls.

“When are you going to come help me with these boots, you lazy wench?” her uncle’s voice bawled, and Nettie shot another angry glance at the kitchen door.

She’d fantasized about using her own boots on him, and she comforted herself with that mental image as she mopped the gleaming floor.

[1] “Camptown Races,” Stephen Foster, 1850

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