She is trying to escape the nightmares of her past, becoming his mail-order bride. Yet, healing his invisible scars of war was not what he expected. How will they find the fulfilment they are seeking in their own wounds?
After the civil war, Angelina lost everything. She is now trapped in the nightmares of her parent’s tragic death, struggling to find peace. Determined to overcome her trauma and take life into her own hands, she decides to become a mail-order bride and follow a new path. How could she defeat her fears and come to terms with the uptight rancher who is meant to be her husband?
Ethan is the Sherriff of the town. With a body full of scars from the war, Ethan believes that no one will ever love him because of this. His foreman persuades him to find a bride to help him around the ranch. The instant connection with Angelina makes his heart warm up again, but he is too afraid to open up. How can Ethan let go of his fears and reveal his true love to Angelina?
Marriage isn’t an easy business especially when you carry your fears with you. Will Angelina and Ethan find each other’s needs and cure them when the world around them wants them apart?
Jake Miller leaned back in his chair and watched as a plume of blue-gray smoke swirled and dissipated around the face of the man standing in front of him. The smoke drifted up to the ceiling, adding to the foggy atmosphere of the room.
Golden light flickered in copper wall lamps, casting a warm glow through the haze, and in the background a piano man played a song on a poorly tuned piano. Jake’s table was set in an alcove of the saloon, cordoned off by a thick swath of velvet drape that hid their dealings from the rest of the patrons. But the piano player had learned it was best to keep an eye on what was happening in that alcove and had positioned his seat to allow him a sliver of a view.
Several dusty cowboys stood across the table from Jake, who had thrown down his hand of cards on their arrival. The men he’d been playing with sat motionless, as if afraid to call attention to themselves.
Jasper Pickett shifted uncomfortably, his hat clutched in front of him, looking like he was glad for the card-littered poker table between them.
“Six?” Jake growled out, narrowing his eyes. “All that work for just six horses?”
A lock of thick brown hair had fallen across Jake’s brow, and he swept it back before leaning forward and resting both elbows on the table in front of him. He took the cheroot from his mouth and exhaled another fragrant cloud.
“There were only six in the stock car we got to, boss,” Jasper said nervously. “But there’s three fine fillies among ‘em. Good bloodstock. And a good haul of jewelry and watches from the passengers. We—”
“There was said to be close on two dozen Morgan horses on that train!” Jake spat out, flinging his cheroot down and standing so abruptly his chair fell over backward. From within the main area of the saloon the babble of conversation halted abruptly. The piano player glanced over his shoulder, frowned, then continued his playing.
“I’m sorry, boss, there was nothing we could do. Once the sheriff and his men got wind of us, there was just too much risk of getting nabbed. If we hadn’t hightailed it outta there, we’d probably been sitting behind bars right now,” Jasper said, jutting his jaw in a small act of defiance. Behind him, the rest of the men shuffled away from him. Even Ellis “Six-gun” Hodge was seeking safer ground.
Jake stalked around the table, coming to a halt in front of Jasper. The two men stood almost chest to chest and Jasper swallowed hard, his earlier defiance evaporating. Although Jasper had a good ten years and twenty pounds on the other man, Jake Miller had risen to the role of gang leader by being meaner than a snake. There wasn’t one of them who wanted to get on the wrong side of him. Jake’s nostrils flared as he stared down at Jasper.
“I didn’t spend three weeks on planning that raid only to have you to come back here with a measly six horses…” He stopped suddenly, grabbing the other man by the front of his shirt. “Unless you’re lying to me! If I find out you took those horses for yourself …”
Jasper had visibly blanched. Even the piano player had stopped playing now, quietly closing the lid over the keys and discreetly making his way to hunch behind the gleaming bar that ran along the length of the room.
It had been several years since Jake had started using the saloon as his headquarters; there’d been more than one bar fight in that time. It was no secret that all of these men would be packing iron, and Jake wasn’t afraid to draw his weapon if he felt the need.
“No, boss! I swear it! It’s that new sheriff from over in Burns Valley. He’s been shakin’ things up since he took over the reins from ol’ Sheriff Brewster. Seems every time something goes down, he’s right there on it. Me and the boys … well, we’re thinkin’ it might be wise to lie low a bit,” Jasper said the words quickly, almost breathless.
“New sheriff?” said Jake, his dark brows drawing down in a frown. “What new sheriff?”
The men glanced around at each other nervously. Jasper was now visibly shaking.
“Well?” Jake pressed. “Spit it out, man!”
“It’s … It’s Ethan Harding, boss,” Jasper stuttered. Jake’s eyes widened at the words.
The new sheriff in Burns Valley was his very own brother-in-law.
“Now that just won’t do…” Jake muttered. “That won’t do at all.”
“Oh, Izzy, you’re the picture of elegance and grace,” Angelina Mayfield breathed, her eyes misting as she took in the sight of her cousin. Isabelle beamed back at her; the young bride was practically glowing. Angelina ran reverent fingertips over the sleeve of Isabelle’s wedding dress, afraid she might inadvertently soil it.
The young woman was dressed in a gown of heavy white silk, the bodice with its high neckline adorned with satin ribbon and appliquéd lace. A full, ruffled skirt flared out from Isabelle’s trim waist, with the scalloped hem sweeping the floor over her white, buckled shoes.
Isabelle reached for Angelina’s hand and grasped it in her own. “I’m so terrified, Angie!” she whispered, glancing about, as if worried her words might be overheard. It was unlikely. The spacious bedroom they’d shared for the past fourteen years was occupied only by the two women, along with the feminine finery of a room inhabited by girls.
Angelina shook her head, though she felt her own pang of emotion at the thought of her cousin leaving to start a life without her. She couldn’t imagine waking up without her constant companion. They’d even worked together in the family bakery, and now that too would come to an end.
“You’re going to be so happy, darling Izzy,” Angelina reassured her, despite her own reservations. “Just think; this time tomorrow, you’re going to be Mrs. Randall Bennett!”
Isabelle’s eyes widened and she raised her fingertips to her mouth. “Oh … oh, my goodness! I’m going to be Mrs. Bennett!” For a moment the girls locked eyes, and then disintegrated into giggles. Angelina caught her breath eventually and then fussed around Isabelle, brushing a stray blond strand of hair back into Isabelle’s sleek chignon. She envied her cousin’s smooth golden hair; her own wild strawberry-blond waves seemed to have a life of their own some days. She’d spent endless hours trying to tame them that morning. Now, as the girls stood facing the full-length gilt-framed mirror in their bedroom together, Angelina felt tears threatening again.
“What is it, Angie,” Isabelle asked, her voice laden with fondness. She was younger than Angelina by a year, yet she’d taken on an older sister role ever since her cousin had joined their family all those years ago after the loss of her parents.
Angelina quickly gave her a smile. “I’m … I’m just so happy for you, Isabelle,” she murmured. “Although, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m going to miss you.” She gnawed on her full bottom lip, blinking to stop tears from welling. “With you leaving … there’s almost no reason for me to stay in New York any longer.”
“Angelina, that’s not true!” Isabelle turned to face her cousin, her earnest blue gaze locking with Angelina’s wide green eyes. “You’ll always have a home here, you know that, don’t you? Papa and Mama love you as much as they care for me. And the bakery would falter without your artful hand in the kitchen.” She grasped both Angelina’s hands in her own. “Why, just think of the cake you made for my own wedding! It’s sublime!”
Angelina gave a watery smile. She’d been so proud when she’d shown her cousin the cake. Three tiers of rich fruit sponge had been lovingly coated in almond paste and thick icing. She’d spent days crafting each tiny orange blossom and pink rose out of fine sugar. Slices of that cake would no doubt be wrapped beneath the pillows of all of Isabelle’s female guests, and she felt certain it would bring dreams of some very dashing grooms indeed.
Perhaps I should try my luck with two slices, Angelina thought.
“I have a solution. You must wed too!” Isabelle said abruptly, as if reading her mind. Angelina wrinkled her nose slightly, but her cousin continued. “I’m serious, Angie. Just think how wonderful it would be for us to visit together, in our very own homes. We could raise our babes to play together! Oh, you must! You simply must!”
Angelina shook her head, smiling at her cousin’s enthusiasm. Clearly her own happiness was influencing her judgment. “I don’t know of anyone even remotely suitable, Izz,” she said, smiling ruefully. “Aside from Uncle William’s friends, who are all so very old and so very dull,” she rolled her eyes. “The only men I ever meet are those who come into the bakery, and that’s not the way I’d like to be courting,” she giggled. “I’m almost always covered in flour!”
Isabelle gave a grin. “Yes, I guess you’re right. That’s probably not the best impression to make. But we’ll need to think of something for you. You’re not gettin’ any younger—” She stopped short. “I mean, neither of us is,” she added quickly.
Angelina stifled a frown. She hated to think about it, but her cousin was right. At 21, she was facing an age where marriage prospects would grow more limited. In fact, she’d begun to worry that she might end up an old maid. There’d been a time when it hadn’t bothered her so much, but since Isabelle had announced her engagement six months ago, it was hard not to think about it. It was hard not to think of her life in general, and the fact that she had no real plans. She couldn’t go on like this indefinitely.
“I’m certain you’ll find a suitor if you put your mind to it, Angie,” Isabelle reassured her. “You’re so charming, and such a beauty.” She lifted a hand and brushed Angelina’s cheek, then grinned impishly. “Although, of course, you could always become a mail-order bride! I hear you can find a man in under a month if you’re willing to go that route!” Angelina gasped in horror and Isabelle laughed lightly. “I’m joking, of course, darling Angie!” She reached forward and gathered her cousin’s slight frame into an embrace. “Any man would be lucky to have you, and the right one is waiting out there for you right now!”
Angelina gave a nod, although deep down, she felt a swirl of sadness. “Let’s not dally any longer,” she eventually said, carefully keeping her tone light. “Your groom is waiting.” She reached for Isabelle’s veil and her cousin dipped her head as Angelina clipped the pristine white lace to her hair and then adjusted it carefully. She stepped back to survey her handiwork, giving a sigh as she looked up at her cousin.
“You’re the most beautiful bride New York has ever seen,” she breathed. “Now let’s get along to the chapel. Your mama will be banging the door down any minute now.” As Isabelle gingerly gathered her flowing skirts in one hand and took a step with the pointed toe of one dainty white shoe, Angelina smoothed a hand down the satin of her own pretty pink gown.
“Ever a bridesmaid …” she sighed under her breath. And Isabelle’s words swirled in her head for a moment. Mail-order bride. Perhaps that might be the answer after all …
Three months later…
Isabelle set her teacup down with a clatter and stared at Angelina, wide-eyed. “You’re what?” she asked sharply, her face a picture of disbelief.
“I’m getting married,” Angelina repeated, reaching for a tiny apple tart and popping it into her mouth. Her cousin continued to stare at her for a moment, mouth opening and closing as she appeared to be searching for words. The pair were in the parlor of Angelina’s aunt and uncle’s comfortable brownstone apartment, and she noticed idly how the floral pattern of Isabelle’s dress was beautifully offset by the rich blue velvet of the couch she was seated on.
“But … but to whom?” Isabelle was asking, giving no pretense of hiding her alarm. “Where did you meet him?” She regained her composure and reached for her cup, raising it to her lips and taking a ladylike sip of the fragrant brew.
“I took your advice,” said Angelina, licking crumbs off her fingers. “I answered a advertisement in the newspaper.”
Isabelle choked on her tea. “My advice?” she spluttered. “But Angie, I was joking!” She set her teacup and saucer back onto the table between them, seemingly afraid that she might drop it and shatter the delicate china.
“Perhaps you were,” Angelina responded blithely. “But I gave it some thought, and it seemed like a good idea.”
Isabelle was truly at a loss for words at this point. For a moment she continued to stare at her cousin, until voices from the hallway interrupted the pair, and both girls sprang to their feet. Angelina’s aunt and uncle had been closing up the family bakery that afternoon but were determined to make it home in time for their daughter’s visit.
“Hello, darling!” Sophie Mayfield said warmly, walking quickly toward Isabelle with both hands outstretched. Close behind her was Angelina’s uncle, Charles. Even after all these years, his resemblance to her own father made her heart twinge a little.
“It’s so wonderful to see you, dear,” he said to Isabelle, grasping her shoulders in his hands and leaning forward to brush a kiss across her cheek. “How’s married life treating you?” He was running an eye over the tea tray on the table and bent down to whisk a jam scone from the top of the tray. Sophie gave him a look of warning, but he ignored her completely. In spite of spending all his working hours surrounded by confectionary, Charles Mayfield could still never resist a baked treat.
Angelina resumed her seat and patted the chair beside her. “You’re just in time for tea,” she said, making space for her aunt, who settled next to her.
Charles was opting to sit beside his daughter. She’d always been “Daddy’s little girl,” and he spoke daily about how much he missed her in the house.
“So how is that husband of yours?” he pressed. “Has he been treating you well?” He was eyeing a jam tartlet and Sophie shook her head at him.
“You know perfectly well that he has,” said Isabelle. “We saw you not two weeks ago, remember!”
“Yes, but things may have changed since then,” Charles quipped, and winked at her. “Perhaps my little girl is ready to come home.”
Isabelle gave an indulgent shake of her head. “Well, it seems things certainly have changed, Papa! Though certainly not my happiness.” She raised an eyebrow at him, and he looked confused for a moment. Sophie shot a look at their niece and then back at her daughter.
“I suspect you’ve told her?” she addressed Angelina, who gave a nod.
“So, you know Angie’s planning to get married?” Isabelle said, sounding shocked. “To a perfect stranger?”
“He’s not a stranger,” interrupted Angelina. “Well, we haven’t officially met. But we’ve exchanged several letters, and he seems like a very nice man.”
Isabelle looked as if her eyes might actually bug out. “This is simply astonishing Angelina!” she said. The full use of her name made Angelina aware that her cousin was not amused. “Where is this man? What’s his name?”
“His name is Ethan William Harding, and he’s a rancher and a sheriff. In … um … Texas,” Angelina said, then held her breath as she waited for the reaction.
“Texas!” Isabelle burst out. “That’s practically on another planet!” She clutched a hand to her chest and Angelina decided that being married had brought out her cousin’s flair for drama. “How will you—? What of the night fears, Angelina? Who will assist you?” Isabelle glanced from her cousin to her parents, who remained silent. Angelina’s recurring nightmares were accepted but never discussed. The only concession to her troubles had been the girls’ shared living quarters. As if realizing she’d raised a taboo topic, Isabelle changed tactics. “Have you discussed this with her, Papa?” she said, turning her attention to her father, who shook his head sadly.
“I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, my dear,” he replied. “Angelina is a grown woman and she’s free to make her own decisions about her future. As much as we would love for her to stay here with us …” he glanced back at Angelina, his eyes underscoring his words.
Sophie patted her niece’s hand affectionately. “Angie is a woman with strong opinions and if she feels ready to make this adjustment, then it is not our place to dissuade her,” she said firmly. “But of course, dear, you must know that you always have a home here with us.”
Angelina felt a surge of love for these people who’d seen her through some of the worst times of her life. Her lips curved up at the corners as she noticed her uncle surreptitiously reaching for a small chocolate bonbon while his wife’s attention was distracted. She’d always be grateful for all they had done.
But it was time to find direction. It was time to create her own future.
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