A set-up gets them married; a newfound love keeps them together. Can they escape the haunting past and find the peace they both yearn?
“I feel like a blind man who just got his eyes opened,” he told her softly. “You’re beautiful, Brina. And if you keep on dressing like this, you’re going to put every other woman in town into the shade.”
Brina has been the opposite of what a young woman is expected to be. She’s an orphan, poor and uneducated and she has a brother who gets into trouble with the local gang. When she travels West to find a job and start a new life with him though, she realizes that her brother got her into a marriage with a stranger. How can she find love and affection with a man who’s always haunted by his past mistakes and doesn’t trust her?
Jackson has sworn off love after his fiancée abandoned him for his best friend. Devastated, he has begun anew, rebuilding his ranch and trying to be successful. When he sees Brina, his mail-order bride, he is immediately drawn by the Irish spirit inside her and her rough beauty. Yet, opening up his locked heart to a woman is like walking on red-hot coals. How can he accept fate’s plan and fall in love with her when he denies himself happiness?
Actions speak louder than words and this is what Brina and Jackson must understand for each other. When a terrific threat comes from the past, they must take arms against injustice. Is their love worthy of pledging your heart and soul to each other?
New York City,
“Brina! Brina, open the door!”
Brina Shea pushed her bright red hair out of her eyes, sat up sharply in bed, and turned to stare at the door to the girls’ dormitory bedroom. It was trembling softly under muffled pounding.
Brina frowned and shook the sleep out of her mind. She glanced out through the dorm window. It was on the second floor of the Empire State Orphanage, and it faced another blank row of windows in the wall of a factory next door; but the factory roof wasn’t quite high enough to block out her view of the sky. A bright, silver dollar moon glimmered through the grimy window, and it had already sailed high overhead and was sliding toward the west. It was about three o’clock in the morning, or slightly later.
It was her twin Jamie’s voice. Brina threw off the threadbare quilt and slapped her bare feet onto the wooden floor. It was cold as a sheet of ice, but she threw a knitted shawl over her thin nightgown. Some of the other girls raised sleepy heads and watched her as she hurried to the door. She unlocked it with quick fingers, and her twin brother Jamie rushed in and shut the door behind him.
“Get me to the bed,” he gasped, and slumped against her. Brina pulled his long arm around her shoulders and grimaced under his weight as she helped her tall, eighteen-year-old twin stagger to her bed. He fell backward onto the mattress with a groan and clapped a hand to his side. Brina’s brows rushed together as she followed his hand.
Even in the moonlight, she could see that a dark stain was spreading across his white shirt.
She turned to the bedside table and lit a kerosene lamp with trembling fingers. The circle of lamplight cast the faces of the other girls in dim light as they raised curious eyes above their quilts.
“What happened to you, Jamie?” she hissed, and brushed his hair back from his eyes with a worried gesture.
“I got knifed,” he gasped, and rolled his gray eyes back before closing them in pain.
“What?” she yelped and tore a strip off his cuff. She scowled and quickly folded the cotton fabric into a bandage. “But it’s three in the morning! You snuck out again, didn’t you?”
Her brother shook his head weakly, and his shining brown hair shone in the yellow lamplight.
“Don’t ask me questions.”
“Move your hand.” Brina held the cotton wad at the ready and pushed it into her brother’s side as he lifted his hand. Fresh blood seeped out and painted a wider stain across his ribs. Brina’s frown darkened as she pressed the cotton wad into the wound. The anemic lamplight revealed that her brother had a long, ugly slash in his side, but to her relief, the wound didn’t seem deep enough to have punctured his lungs. Once her worst fears were relieved, she glared down at him and retorted, “You’d best believe old Hog Head will be asking you questions, if he sees this! Lie still and be quiet. We got to get some whiskey on that cut.”
Jamie opened his eyes and stared at her dully. “Where are you going?” His voice was feeble but had a note of warning.
Brina stood up. “Down to the kitchen. The Witch likes her red eye, and she keeps a bottle stashed behind the flour. I’m going down to get it. Hold that bandage tight. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Jamie tried to struggle up. “Be careful, Brina.”
She pushed him down again easily, and he fell into the pillow with a gasp. “Shut up and lie quiet! When you get over this, I’m going to beat you cross-eyed for being a blockhead,” she hissed.
She walked to the door, but a faint voice from behind her made her stop with her hand on the knob.
“Brina, what’s going on?”
She turned to see a frightened face staring at her over a quilt—one of a half-dozen other girls in the dormitory room—most of them under ten years old. Brina mustered a smile and told the little girl who’d spoken up, “Nothing. Everything’s okay. Go back to sleep, and forget you saw Jamie come in here. I’ll get him back to the boy’s dorm room in a minute.”
She stared steadfastly at the frightened girls until they turned over and pulled their quilts up around their ears; then she opened the door and slipped out into the dark hallway. It was freezing cold, and Brina pulled the shawl tight around her shoulders as she pattered down the tiled floor in her bare feet.
The orphanage building had been a meat packing plant before it had been converted, and it was still big and drafty and bitterly cold in the winter. Brina huddled into the shawl as she hurried down the long hall past the other doors: the big lavatory, the mop closet, the storeroom full of boxes and pails, the little infirmary full of hard, flat beds and glass cupboards, and a big, empty room with dust on the floors.
Brina reached the head of the big stairs that rolled down to the main floor. She paused in the darkness and scanned the big room below with frowning eyes. She had to be careful. Their schoolmistress, the Witch, drank on the sly. Her husband, Hog Head, was a creeper and roamed the halls at night.
She hunched a slender shoulder as his face appeared in her imagination. The little children had named him ‘Hog Head’ because he was massively fat, with a head as big as a bushel basket; but even more so, because he was as greedy and crude as a hog. She shuddered, then worked up the nerve to put one hand on the banister and glide warily down the stairs, scanning the darkness as she went.
Hog Head had tried to put his hands on her once when she was coming back from the bathroom. Brina narrowed her dark eyes in anger as she remembered it. She’d jammed his fingers so far backward, they’d popped like corn kernels, and he hadn’t tried anything with her since; but some of the younger girls hadn’t been so lucky. She’d had to hold more than one girl in her arms and rock her back and forth as she cried her heart out afterward.
Fury whisked up in Brina’s heart. Hog Head had cemented her belief that the world was an evil place. Because of him, the girls in that orphanage were forced to go to the bathroom in twos or threes.
They all knew better than to say anything about Hog Head’s nasty little secret; and Brina had never told anyone about the time he’d pawed her for fear Jamie would find out and do something crazy. Jamie was sometimes a hothead, and as he’d always been protective of her, he was capable of putting his fist into Hog Head’s jaw.
If he did that, they were both out on the street.
Brina reached the foot of the stairs and paused again. She scanned the cavernous room in the moonlit darkness, then tilted her head to listen intently; but the only sound in that place at three in the morning was the faint scuttling sound of a rat somewhere behind the walls. She flitted across the space, skirting the big white blocks of moonlight streaming through the big windows, until she reached the hall on the opposite end.
Brina jumped as a distant shout pierced the silence from somewhere in the city streets outside. She closed her eyes and pressed a hand to her galloping heart; but she was all right.
The way was clear.
Brina slipped down the hall and into the big kitchen. The moonlight streaming through the big kitchen windows lit the room up almost as bright as day, and Brina hugged the dark corners as she hurried to the second cabinet down from the door.
She opened the big cabinet door, pushed the canister of flour aside, and reached behind it. To her amazement, she pulled out, not a bottle of whiskey, but a box of fancy chocolates from Madame Lavalier, a fancy candy maker from two blocks over.
Brina stared down at the shiny black, gold-rimmed box in indignation. “Well, I’ll be.”
The Witch had never given one child in that place a single piece of candy, even on Christmas, because she claimed that it was bad for their health and cost too much money.
It made Brina angry, but it didn’t surprise her one bit. The Witch was as bad in her own way as her husband was in his, and every kid in that place detested her. She had iron-gray hair that she pulled up into a big braid that she coiled on the top of her head. Her face was hard-bitten, pinched into a frown most of the time, and crisscrossed with wrinkles. She usually wore a shiny black gown trimmed in sparkling beads at the wrist and bodice, and she didn’t have a crumb of sympathy to share with anyone on earth.
Brina opened the box, picked out a smooth chocolate drop, and popped it into her mouth before closing it up and reaching back into the cabinet. This time she found the bottle of whiskey, and she tucked it under her arm and replaced the candy box.
She closed the cabinet door carefully and moved to the kitchen door. She opened it a crack and peered out into the darkness. She saw nothing, but to her alarm, the sound of approaching footsteps filled the main room and echoed down the little hall.
Brina cast around in panic for a hiding place, then scrambled to the sink. She opened the big cabinet door under it, crawled inside, and pulled it shut after her. She crouched in the darkness, the stolen chocolate melting in her mouth, as the kitchen door creaked open.
It was Hog Head. She could tell even without opening the cabinet door, because lately, he stunk of some nasty pomade that he dipped out of a tin and slathered on his hair. His hair now looked greasy, as if he’d dipped his head in a bucket of oil. But she didn’t begrudge the smell, because it announced his approach from a long way off, and that early warning had already saved her more than once.
Not this time, though; and there was no telling what Hog Head might do to her if he thought he had an excuse.
There was the faint swiping sound of a match being lit, and a whiff of sulfur, and a stripe of light bloomed under the cabinet door. Brina listened intently as a faint creak told her that Hog Head had come down to the kitchen for a late-night snack. She put her face to the crack in the cabinet door and pushed it open just a hair. There was just enough room for her to see Hog Head open the cabinet she’d just closed, and her eyes widened in terror. If he found the whiskey bottle gone, he’d raise the whole house, and both she and Jamie would get caught flat-footed.
Their headmaster had heavy jowls like a hog, and thick, puckered lips that he smacked in anticipation. As Brina watched, the older man pulled the chocolate box out of the cabinet, and Brina went limp with relief when she saw him open it and dump all the rest of the chocolates into his big hand. He tossed them into his mouth like popcorn, threw the empty box into the trash can, and belched softly.
He closed the cabinet door absentmindedly, munched as he sighed, “Blasted Tammany Hall swindlers. It’s getting so an honest man can’t make a living in this city.”
Brina frowned and watched him as he paused there, staring into space; but after a long moment, he picked up the lantern on the table and lumbered back out into the hall. She crouched there, waiting and listening, until the sound of his ponderous footsteps faded into the distance; then, she opened the cabinet warily and hurried to the kitchen door.
She put her ear to it, and hearing nothing, she pushed the door open silently, slowly, and just a crack. She saw no glimmer of light and no hint of motion, and every minute that she hesitated was a minute that Jamie was bleeding out in their bedroom.
Brina padded down the ice-cold hall as fast as she could without running, but she paused again before moving out into the main hall. It was moonlit, and it was possible that Hog Head was somewhere out there, still haunting the darkness.
She waited as long as she dared, but when she heard nothing, she launched out again. She crossed the gray hall like a ghost, then went hurrying up the stairs silently and swiftly. The moonlit hall at the top stretched out ahead of her, and her bare feet pattered softly across its cold tile floor.
Brina gained the bedroom door, slipped inside, and quickly closed it after her. Jamie was lying splayed out on her bed with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. His hand was still clamped tightly to his side. The other girls were silent but watched her as she hurried to the bed, sat down on the edge, and uncorked the bottle.
Jamie opened his eyes a slit and watched her as she ripped a little piece of cloth off the hem of her nightgown and wadded it up. She tilted the bottle and carefully dribbled alcohol into the makeshift bandage until it was completely soaked. She’d sometimes been pressed into service when a charity nurse came to the orphanage, and she knew how to dress a wound.
“This is going to burn like fire,” she warned her brother as she scooted closer and lifted his hand from his ribs. “Brace yourself, and don’t yell out.”
Jamie nodded and closed his eyes. Brina gingerly lifted the bloodstained bandage, took a deep breath, and abruptly pressed the alcohol-soaked pad into the raw wound.
“Gah!” Jamie arched his back in agony. “Oh, da—”
“Hush!” Brina hissed, glancing over her shoulder. “Hog Head’s out tonight; I saw him downstairs. Be quiet!”
“I can’t,” he grimaced. “It’s like a hot poker!” He twisted on the mattress, clenching the sheets in his fists, and Brina watched him writhe with a worried frown. Her sheets were flecked with Jamie’s blood.
“Oh, my side!”
“Hush!” she urged, then glanced over her shoulder in alarm. The sound of approaching footsteps echoed in the hall outside and caused her heart to jump into her mouth. Brina scrambled to hide the whiskey bottle. She slapped the table drawer open, tossed the bottle inside, and closed it up. She grabbed the quilt off the foot of the bed, threw it over Jamie up to the neck, and sat down on the bed beside him. She was just in time to clasp her hands in her lap and put on an innocent expression when the handle rattled, and the door creaked open.
The door swung open to reveal an apparition, a ghost raised from the grave. The Witch’s haggard face, washed even paler by the lamplight and crowned with a white bed cap, appeared in the opening. Her dark eyes narrowed and flicked over Brina’s face.
“What’s going on in here? We can hear shouting all the way down the hall in our bedroom!”
Brina glanced down at her hands and replied primly, “My brother came in here and asked me to help him because he got sick, ma’am.”
The older woman’s narrowed eyes swept over Jamie’s pale face. “What’s wrong with him?”
Brina licked her lips. “He’s green as a new apple. Threw up a couple of times. Says he caught sick from a peddler on the street.” She glanced up at the older woman in the hopes that her story would go over.
The Witch had been marching across the floor toward them, but at that, she stopped dead in the middle of the room. Brina added quickly, “Don’t come too close, ma’am! You don’t want to catch what he has. You don’t want to be throwing up your guts in a few minutes!”
To her relief, the threat had the desired effect. The Witch put a withered hand over her nose. Brina pressed, “I’m his sister, ma’am, I got to tend him. I’m gonna get sick, it can’t be helped, but there’s no reason you got to come down with it, too. Just let me sit up with him until he feels better, and when he can stand, I’ll help him back to his own bed.”
The Witch stared down at Jamie in distaste, but grumbled reluctantly, “All right. You tend to him. But keep it down. I could hear him yelling all the way down the hall.”
Brina tried not to let her relief show on her face. “Yes, ma’am.”
The Witch turned on her heel and marched toward the door. She was reaching for the knob, and Brina had just begun to relax, when the door opened again, and Hog Head’s massive shadow appeared in the doorway. He had brushy brows, heavy jowls like a hog, and thick, puckered lips.
Brina straightened in alarm and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders.
“What’s all the commotion?” his thick voice demanded. Brina stiffened as his beady eyes skimmed past his wife, skipped across the floor, and paused to linger on her chest.
“The boy over there is sick to his stomach,” the Witch replied briskly; he put a big hand on her arm and moved around her into the room. The wooden floorboards groaned as he advanced, and Brina’s heart gave a sickening thud as his eyes moved from her chest to Jamie’s face.
“Well, boy, what’s wrong with you?” he demanded, and walked up to the bed. Brina kept her seat in the slender hope that she could block the big man’s view of Jamie, but she had to exercise force of will, because he pressed in so close that she had to turn her head to avoid kissing his bulging waistband.
Jamie stirred behind her. She knew he was in agony, but she was proud of how level his voice sounded as he replied, “I’m sick.”
“Sick, eh? I don’t see a mess.”
Brina broke in, “I cleaned it up.”
Hog Head looked around and stared at a dozen frightened girls huddled in beds around them. “Is that right?” he demanded.
Silence was the only answer, and after a long moment, Hog Head turned his attention back to Jamie. He leaned over, and Brina had to dart away to avoid getting squeezed between him and her brother. Hog Head put his massive hand on Jamie’s brow.
“You’re sweating, but you don’t have a fever.”
Brina watched anxiously as Jamie lay still and rolled his eyes in silent misery.
Hog Head turned his head slightly and snuffed the air. “What’s that I smell?” he grumbled. “It smells like whiskey.”
Brina’s heart jumped into her throat, and for once, she didn’t have a ready excuse. She clasped her hands tightly as she stood beside the bed; but to her surprise, Jamie groaned, “The whiskey was what made me sick. I got ahold of some bad jug juice. A fellow on the street sold it to me.”
Brina rolled her eyes to Hog Head’s face, but it was his wife who answered from the bedroom doorway.
“Why, you young reprobate!” she scowled, and her face was hard and angry. “We have standards in this orphanage. I won’t have you corrupting the other children with your vices!”
Brina shot her a resentful glance, but she had to bite her lip and hold her temper as the Witch came storming across the room. The white-haired apparition charged up to the bed, leaned over, and flicked the quilt back. Both she and her husband recoiled in shock to see the ugly gash in Jamie’s ribs, and Brina’s heart sank into her boots.
“Why, he’s been brawling in the streets!” the older woman exclaimed. “Look at that wound!”
She raised her eyes to Brina’s guilty face, and gasped, “And you, shameless little hussy, you stood there and lied right to my face about it! That boy didn’t get sick off bad liquor. He reeks of whiskey because you poured it into that gash!”
Brina watched as it dawned on the older woman where she’d gotten the whiskey. Shock flicked across her face, and Brina narrowed her eyes in grim satisfaction; but her enjoyment was short-lived. The Witch shot her a look of murderous fury and drew herself up to her full height.
“Hubert, I won’t tolerate drunkenness and deceit. These two are of age now. We’ve coddled them long enough. I want them out of this house—tonight!”
A shocked murmur eddied around the room from the other girls, and Brina straightened in alarm. “You can’t throw him out on the street with that cut in him!” she cried. “It’s freezing outside, and he needs a doctor!”
The Witch’s cold eyes glittered as she stared down at Jamie’s pale face. “He should have thought of that before he snuck out of this house,” she retorted.
Hog Head straightened up slowly and ponderously. He stared down into Jamie’s face and told him matter-of-factly, “Get your things together. You and your sister are leaving tomorrow morning.”
Brina stared at him in dismay. Panic and a flicker of freedom swirled in her chest. “But we don’t have anywhere to go—no money!”
Hog Head turned toward her. His tiny eyes flicked over her, and Brina pulled her shawl across her chest, but lifted her chin and stared him down.
“You’ll have to find jobs, then.” He shrugged. “You’re old enough to work. We have enough problems around here without having to deal with troublemakers.”
Brina stared at him as he followed his wife to the bedroom door. He paused in the opening to bark, “Turn down that lamp,” before closing the door.
You just read the first chapters of "An Orphaned Bride to Love Him Unconditionally"!
Are you ready, for an emotional roller-coaster, filled with drama and excitement?
If yes, just click this button to find how the story ends!
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.