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Grasping at Straws to Win Her Heart

She’s picked as his bride because of a game of straws. He cheats to marry her, but he doesn’t want to have her around. How can the two let their guard down and protect their unconventional family?

“When they broke apart, all Jeb could think was that it was a shame they’d never kiss again, and his hands were slow to let her go.”

When Claire sees her husband-to-be cornering her deaf sister, she decides it’s time to flee. Together, with Grace, they end up at the Davis ranch—the most mysterious and isolated building in town. Claire has nothing else to do but get married to the eldest son to protect her honor. How can she show this rough man that all hearts are meant to be vulnerable and open?

Jeb never expects to get married out of the blue and to a woman from the town that has betrayed his family. Still, seeing Claire and her sister helpless and in need of shelter stirs something in his heart he thought was lost. How can he let his guard down and express his growing feelings to Claire when he’s too hurt from the past?

If Jeb and Claire are to discover the essence of true love, they must be vulnerable and open. Will they learn how to trust in each other before Claire’s betrothed manages to tear them apart?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.6/5

4.6 / 5 (215 ratings)

Prologue

Ogden, Utah 1862

Beyond the morning’s calm, a storm approached.

Claire Bailey stood at the edge of the mountains and breathed it in. Though the air smelled dry, with a hint of sagebrush, desert clay, and pine, she swore that she detected the faintest whiff of telltale sulfur. Racing from the east, the storm would build up over the Rocky Mountains, filled with clean water and invisible electric currents that tore themselves free into fire and sound before reaching here this evening.

She smiled to herself as the breeze rose into a sudden fury, tearing at her dark hair. Excellent. There haven’t been enough storms this summer to suit me.

Again, she inhaled and stepped forward, toeing the invisible line that marked the edge of her father’s property and the beginning of the Utah wild.

From where she stood under her favorite tree, a giant Manitoba Maple, Claire took in the muted early light that only came at the end of August. The sere mountains burned a deeper gold, while the green of trees began to dip into the somnolence of the coming fall.

For as long as she could remember, she’d wanted to explore—to plunge past the lines that held her.

Then Claire made a wry face and, with years of practice that had not yet made the effort easy, tamped down her heedless pull toward adventure and sighed. Soon Claire wouldn’t even have a minute of her days to herself.

Although Claire hadn’t come to this spot to reminisce, but to steal a bit of freedom, she found herself remembering the young girl who’d stood in this spot. Who’d wished and prayed for one, simple thing. A husband who will understand me as no one else has. Not only understand, but have the same wild heart.

A man who will love me hard with every beat of it.

A single tear tracked down Claire’s face and she swiped at it a little too hard.

Try and imagine Mr. Harold Smith loving anything besides his power and deep pockets, Claire thought scornfully of her soon-to-be husband. He’d look at all this beauty and try to add up how much he could get for timber, acreage, and that rot.

Perhaps she should go weigh herself and find out what she was worth.

After all, wasn’t that why her father had agreed to marry her off to his previously-confirmed-bachelor business partner?

Claire swallowed hard. I knew that I might have to marry for convenience for my sister’s sake. But I never imagined that I’d be a pretty bauble for Harold Smith to hold up and gloat that he was wise to wait for such an auspicious match.

Energy buzzed through Claire, already rebelling at the prospect of a constricted, boring, and tedious future. I always saw myself as someone who would make a useful wife. A partner. But we’ll have cooks and nannies and servants and maids, oh my. She made a face, well-aware that some folks would cut off their right hand to avoid chores. But Claire hated sitting still. Even this morning, she’d been too animated to lie abed for more than five minutes before sneaking out.

“I should’ve left my old dreams here long, long ago, I suppose.” Claire straightened from where she’d leaned against her maple and pressed a hand to the rough bark. “You’ll keep guard over them, won’t you, old friend?”

A sweet, wheezing laugh came from behind her and Claire grinned, then turned with a mock-stern face.

Her younger sister Grace had snuck up on her, and Grace laughed again before throwing herself into Claire’s arms. Standing under her maple in Grace’s sweet embrace, Claire fought tears as she pressed her lips to her sister’s auburn waves.

When Grace finally stepped back, looking up at Claire with a grave weight to her gaze, Claire pressed a hand to her sister’s cheek. How lovely her little sister looked in her blue linen dress and snowy white apron. Grace, with her heart-shaped face, her cunning chin and perfect nose that took after Mother’s, had dark lashes and darker eyes that were the only features the two sisters shared. At twenty, Grace sometimes still looked like a teenager, she was so petite and fine-boned, while Claire was taller, with wide hips and bosom, yet strong enough to sometimes help their father in his workshop.

Guessing why her sister had sought her out, Claire signed with her fingers, Father is looking for me?

Of course, Grace signed. He has some urgent matter to discuss.

“Of course,” Claire groaned out loud, and by habit, signed at the same time.

When the Bailey family learned baby Grace was deaf, their father had despaired while their mother had loved her second daughter all the harder—or tried to. It had been Claire who discovered American Sign Language, teaching herself and her little sister when they’d been girls.

To everyone’s surprise except Claire’s, Grace had been adept at figuring out ways to communicate—reading lips and coming up with her own signs at a young age. Claire and her mother had learned how to sign with dexterous flair, but their father barely knew how to sign hello.

Claire’s stomach twisted. If not for Grace’s writing board, she doubted her father would talk to her sister at all. She’d seen the sadness in her sister’s eyes when Warren passed her by with nothing but an absent-minded pat on the head. Though Warren was not intentionally cruel, only busy, and he thought he did right by them. Claire tried not to resent him for it.

After all, it simply never occurred to Warren Bailey to take what his daughters wanted into consideration.

***

It had been a mistake to indulge her fool yearnings for freedom and go to the mountainside this morning. Her brief taste had only made the prospect of tonight’s dinner with Harold that much worse and the bedroom she shared with Grace that much smaller.

With the approaching storm, the tiny space was hotter and more stuffy, the curtains hanging limp in the still of early evening. Once, this room had been dear for two little girls—small, pink, and decorated by a loving mother. For two sisters aged twenty and twenty-four, it was ridiculous. Claire and Grace constantly bumped into each other, their clothes overflowed from the wardrobe, and their books were stacked everywhere. At least once a day, one of them knocked something over.

The two sisters had just finished preparing Harold’s feast after sweating over the stove all day; they were hurrying to ready themselves for dinner, which Claire would host without her father.

In her mind’s eye, she could see her father standing amid the chaos outside his workshop. Warren Bailey was a man of middling height, with a thick black mustache and hair just beginning to go gray. Built like an ox, he held a beam of wood over one shoulder and gestured with the other.

At the eastern edge of the bustling, growing city of Ogden, Utah, Warren Bailey had built a home for his bride with his own two hands, a quaint, one-story Federalist house, but with more than enough rooms that he’d hoped to fill with business-minded sons.

Even if hopes for sons had been in vain, Warren had done well for himself. In his massive workshop on the northern end of his property where spent the most of his time, the master carpenter crafted everything from chairs to cradles to coffins. Now, after partnering with Harold, Warren could barely keep pace with the orders pouring in.

It should have been no surprise that, after Claire confirmed the dinner menu, her father informed her that he couldn’t attend. He had to leave this afternoon to oversee his shipment.

After that unwelcome news, Warren dismissed Claire’s worries about the storm, telling her to put Harold and his men in the workshop bunkroom. When Claire tried to dissuade Warren, knowing Harold would hate those accommodations and fuss and give Claire a headache, her father gave Claire his full attention for the first time in weeks.

With a frown, he’d intoned, “Go prepare your future husband’s supper, Claire.” His mustache had quivered and he’d shifted the beam of wood higher on his shoulder. “Make sure things go well. Harold should leave pleased as punch.”

“Pleased as punch,” Claire now scoffed to herself as she finished tugging up her dress.

Harold was always pleased, since their father never saw a problem with his daughters making the man a spread fit for a king. Tonight’s menu alone included hambone soup, roast venison, duck, roasted sweet potatoes, stewed tomatoes, baked beans, and a big cake for dessert.

Before Claire could take out her frustration by kicking over an innocent stool, Grace materialized to do up her stays. Her little sister was pretty as a picture in a white dress with a high collar and her auburn waves pinned in a simple chignon. Meanwhile, Claire had yanked on a forest green muslin, made in the latest—and tightest—evening-wear style.

Holding her breath, Claire winced when she caught a glimpse of herself in the looking glass. Her bosom seemed even larger than usual, and she hated the way the dress cut straight across her shoulders, with a lacy, frippery thing that was constantly itching at her skin, and a ridiculous fabric flower right in the center.

“I hate this dress,” Claire growled when Grace finished. “And I hate this hairstyle.”

You look very nice, sister, Grace signed.

I look ridiculous, but Harold will approve since he sent the dratted thing, Claire signed back.

Her little sister’s face filled with commiseration. Oh, Claire-a-bell. You don’t have to marry him.

Father would say otherwise. Claire signed back, cursing herself for complaining in front of her too-perceptive little sister. Don’t fret. The benefits of marrying Harold far outweigh my personal feelings about the matter—or the man. I cannot be selfish.

Still, Claire couldn’t help beginning to pace. Their room had never felt so narrow and her old fear of small, tight spaces threatened to take her by the throat.

Do you need to go outside? Grace signed and Claire stopped pacing, giving a quick shake of her head. But Claire’s fingers were a little unsteady as she reached for perfume and a fierce longing for her mother coursed through her.

Winnie Bailey had possessed an uncanny knack for sensing Claire was about to panic about a small space. Her mother would hustle her quietly outside, settle Claire under a tree, and tell her eldest daughter to look at nothing but the sky, to breathe it in.

Grace pulled Claire out of her thoughts by tugging on her hair and Claire batted her sister’s hands away with a laugh which quickly turned into a sigh.

Grace signed, it’s alright that you’ve outgrown this room. I have, too.

Claire nodded. She knew that Grace didn’t only mean this room and the little-girl furniture. She meant their cramped existence under an indifferent father.

Even their room was a perfect example. No matter how many times his daughters had asked if they might move into one of the three empty bedrooms in their house, Warren put them off with vague excuses. Claire suspected her father had held out hope that those rooms would hold sons for too long. And even though his wife had passed four years ago, he couldn’t let them go.

Grace snapped her fingers and Claire jolted back again. Grace signed quickly, Don’t live a life of misery for father. Or me.

It won’t be miserable… Claire began but her fingers began to shake in earnest.

It will be, Grace signed back and then hunched her shoulders. Harold makes me so uncomfortable. I don’t know how you stand him.

Claire swallowed hard and struggled to respond. She’d taken great pains to make sure Grace never heard the rumors about why a rich man like Harold still wasn’t married.

“What it will be is worth the trouble,” Claire fibbed and signed at the same time. “Besides, if anyone in Utah could teach Harold manners, it’s probably me.”

At the same time, Claire silently acknowledged, So I hope. I know spiteful rumors are bound to follow any powerful man with money, but Grace’s discomfort makes me wonder. She has a canny knack for sizing people up.

Still… Claire bit her lip. No, Father would never leave us with someone who wasn’t safe.

Would he?

Chapter One

Ogden, Utah 1862

“We’ll be okay,” Claire signed and said out loud.

At that moment, as though to test her, she heard the distant shouts of men hailing the house. Grace struggled to smile, but Claire didn’t miss the way her sister’s eyes grew troubled.

Poking Grace, Claire signed, It’s going to be okay.

At that, Grace gave her a tremulous smile and they parted ways without having to say a word, Grace off to arrange the first course and Claire off to greet her future husband.

Even though Harold hadn’t proposed yet, he’d dropped such obvious hints over the past month, he might as well have. All the tongues in Ogden were wagging, and most folks thought it was a prudent match, even if few liked Harold.

Claire stepped onto the front porch and pinned on her smile. Prudent. Shouldn’t that be the last word one uses to discuss a matter of the heart?

As a girl, Claire’s mother had always promised that neither of her daughters would have to marry for convenience. Winnie had even gone so far as to hint that they could remain at home and become old maids.

But their dear little mother would never turn gray or see them married.

In that, Claire thought as Harold approached, she was eternally grateful. Their mother had borne up well enough under her marriage to Warren, but it would have broken their mother’s soft heart to see her daughters married off to further her husband’s business interests.

As Harold Smith approached, he lifted his hat and tipped with one hand, while mopping at his bright and perspiring dome with his other.

“Hello, Claire,” he puffed. “What a day. Never would’ve dreamed a storm was coming with all so much fine weather.” Claire rolled her eyes before she could catch herself and braced herself when Harold’s sharp, narrow little gaze snared her. A mean grin flitted over his florid face as he made it to the top step and loomed over her. “Where’s my smile?”

Straightening her back, Claire gave him a demure, flat smile, and said, “We’re so pleased you could join us this evening, Harold. Do come in.”

“You’ll have to do better than that, pet,” Harold said and chucked her chin a little too hard. Claire fought her instinctive recoil and her jaw itched as though a fly had landed there. “Now, now, don’t make that face. What if the wind changes?”

He reached out and brushed back an errant curl from Claire’s cheek. His breath had a whiff of beer on it and even the pleasant odor of his expensive cologne soured, turning her stomach. She had a fleeting moment of horror, imagining Harold leaning in closer for a kiss.

The lower half of Harold’s face took up her view, the mournful appearance of a bulldog, jowls and all, with a trim of brown whiskers that made it all the worse. The top half of his face was no better, tight and pinched, from his small, upturned nose, to his close-set blue eyes and sparse brows. From there, his overlarge forehead rose, part of a bald and knobby dome that always reminded Claire of milk curds gone stale.

“It amuses me when you try to keep up,” Harold murmured. “And no need to play the proper housewife. Not when we’re alone, eh?”

This time, Claire couldn’t help but take a step back and her stomach bubbled with unease like hot grease. “We’re not alone, though.”

As though on cue, Grace appeared, bobbing a curtsey to Harold.

“Ah, yes,” Harold said and raised his voice to that obnoxious, hearty level that some folks got around Grace. Even though she couldn’t hear a blessed thing, they acted as though their voice would somehow be the one that was heard. “How are you, Miss Grace?”

I wished it had rained, Grace signed. Maybe he’d smell less.

His clothes are so wet from sweat it might as well have, Claire signed back, then said out loud, “She bids you welcome and hello. Please, let’s go have dinner.”

“How cunning that you two can do that,” Harold guffawed, his beady eyes flicking back and forth between their fingers. But even as he said it, she could tell Harold was disgruntled that he had no idea what they were saying. “Some folks could say you were pretending. That you trained up your sister like a tricky pony.”

Claire gasped and Grace went rigid next to her.

“Joking, girls,” Harold said with a simpering smile while Claire fought the urge to box his ears. “And dinner, so soon?”

“Oh, my father insisted.” Claire gave him a guileless look. “Though, if you want to put dinner off and it rains, I suppose we can put you up in the workshop … Although, I do think there are quite a few mice in there.”

Taking Grace’s arm before Harold could offer, Claire turned and led them down the hall, then swept into the dining room. It had been their mother’s favorite room and it reflected Winnifred Bailey’s fine taste, from the painted walls of a quaint countryside mural to the long, golden drapes at the three windows that overlooked the garden and the mountains beyond.

Harold sat at the head of the table while the Bailey sisters waited on him hand and foot.

They barely got a chance to sit and tuck in themselves before Harold would ask for something or other.

“You know, Claire,” Harold said as he polished off his fifth plate and the girls nibbled at their cold victuals. “I’ve been thinking we should discuss your sister.”

Grabbing at her napkin, Claire dabbed the corner of her mouth, hardly daring to breathe. She’d been trying to figure out a way to bring up this subject all evening and there was Harold, handing it to her on a silver platter. Claire sent a quick prayer of thanks.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Claire said with utmost sincerity and gratitude. Indeed, she almost leaned over and placed a hand over Harold’s, but thought better of it. “I have, too. You see—”

“She’ll live with us and tend house,” Harold said grandly. “Help you mind our many future children. It’s perfect, isn’t it?”

No.

Bad enough to condemn Claire to a life with Harold Smith—but Grace?

Harold relished having Claire pinned under his thumb, wriggling and gasping for the smallest bit of air. This man would suffocate her, she knew that. She’d accepted that, for Grace’s sake.

At that moment, Claire had never hated Harold more. She could feel Grace’s frantic gaze on the side of her face, which meant that Grace had read Harold’s dratted, flabby lips.

Harold so blatantly wanted to use them to satisfy his every whim. Claire, to finally give him status as a married man and bear his heirs, and now Grace to tend his house, no better than a maid, when she so longed for school and studies.

How could Warren Bailey, who could spot the smallest warp in his wood or a tiny spot of discolored stain, fail to see how this man truly was? How could her father have chosen this selfish, petty man over his daughters?

“What else can we do?” Harold chortled and sprayed spit. “Marry her off?”

Claire heard Grace’s intake of breath and closed her eyes for a moment, wishing that her sister couldn’t read lips. Then Claire pictured Grace living in Harold’s house and it was as though a pit had formed in her stomach, robbing her breath.

Finally, Claire opened her eyes and exhaled. “I agree with you, Harold,” she said and she saw Grace recoil out of the corner of her eye. She held up a hand. “Grace cannot stay here. But why do you think she can’t have a full life or marriage or motherhood?” Claire tilted her head and gave Harold a sharp smile as his laughter died. “I don’t understand. My sister is beautiful and smart.”

“She’s deaf, my dear,” Harold said with a pitying look. “No one would want to risk such a condition in their offspring.”

“A condition she bears with utmost grace, as befits her name,” Claire shot back.

“Well, of course,” Harold said and rolled his eyes. Claire bit her cheek, certain he’d been waiting for a moment to do that.

“Grace can read lips,” Claire said sharply. “So, do please stop speaking of matters you can’t hope to understand.”

“I understand better than you do,” Harold said grumpily and took another bite of food, which turned Claire’s stomach. How could he eat so calmly after he’d announced he’d rewritten Grace’s future to save a bit of money? “You’re at the end of the world out here in Pleasant Grove. We must be prudent, Claire-y. She’ll live with us.”

“No, Harold,” Claire said. “Grace will go to school.”

Harold stared at Claire for several seconds, his mouth hanging open, and Claire felt another vicious stab of hatred for this man. Never had he looked so foolish and repulsive.

Then, slowly, Harold sat back and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, studying Claire with that razor-sharp iciness that he hid so well. All of his goodwill was gone and his lip curled as he flitted his eyes between the two sisters.

“You’ve been waiting to ambush me with this, haven’t you?” He asked. Her officious, grandstanding, and gracious husband-to-be had vanished. “Waited until your father wasn’t here and thought you’d pamper me, try to be oh so clever and strike a bargain before I even asked you to be my bride.” He shook his head mournfully and, again, Claire had to quell the urge to box his ears. “I’m disappointed in you, Claire-y.”

“Oh, no, no, you’ve misunderstood me dreadfully, dear Harold,” Claire said and gave him a soft smile, even as she wanted to scream and dash his dinner into his face. “I’m sorry. I did want to ask you without father around, but only because I thought you’d see the prudence in this plan where father cannot. He can be old-fashioned and you’re a city man.” She looked away and pretended to brush away a tear, while Grace giggled into her sleeve. “Truly, I thought perhaps you’d already thought of schooling for Grace. You’re so clever like that.”

Harold sighed. “Hm, perhaps I’ve been too hasty. Salt Lake City was a tiring trip, too. So many fillies try and court me in the city. Most of them are empty-headed dolls dangling after my purse-strings, but some are quite sneaky.” He reached over and patted her hands. “You’ve no idea how lucky you are to have me, Claire-y.”

Claire’s head pounded a little. Was Harold truly trying to pretend other women flirted with him and make her feel both jealous and grateful? God, what a dolt.

“So grateful,” Claire said. “You’ll think about it?”

“Well, how about this?” Harold asked. “You go and fetch dessert, Claire.” He gave Grace a wide smile. “I want to know what Grace thinks about this.”

Claire shot an alarmed look at Grace who’d squared her shoulders, even though her lips were pinched at the corners, a sign that she was desperately uncomfortable.

For reasons Claire could never—or perhaps didn’t want to—articulate, she’d gone to great lengths to never leave Harold alone with her sister. While Grace had never asked for such a thing, Claire thought it was because her little sister trusted her not to.

Before Claire could speak, Grace signed across the table, it’s alright. Let me persuade him. I’ll pretend I’m stupid and helpless, just as he wants.

But you’re not, Claire signed back in agitation.

Grace tipped up her chin and her eyes flashed. I know that well. But Harold doesn’t. She gave Claire a long look. And that’s just one of the many reasons that he doesn’t deserve you.

Will you be alright? Claire asked.

Yes, I’ll just have to be nice to him, ugh. Grace signed with a roll of her eyes.

Claire bit back a laugh and then looked at Harold, who was frowning at their hands. He immediately smoothed his face into a placid smile. “So clever. Perhaps I’ll learn. For now, will you ask Grace to use her writing board?”

A snort came from the far end of the table and Claire gave Grace a look while her sister struggled to keep her face straight. Thankfully, Harold was oblivious and Claire gathered the plates while Grace got her writing board and chalk from the sideboard.

In the kitchen, since she was working alone, it took longer than usual for Claire to clean up and get the cake ready. Then, she couldn’t find the dratted whiskey that Harold always insisted on having as a nightcap. Finally, Claire pulled open the little closet by the backdoor, and there, on the top shelf, the whiskey bottle twinkled at her.

Then Claire spun and she clutched it with shaking hands to her chest, her heart racing.

Had she heard a scream?

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