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A BRIDE FOR ALL SEASONS
A MAIL-ORDER BRIDE COLLECTION
By Margaret Brownley, Debra Clopton, Mary Connealy, Robin Lee Hatcher
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Margaret Brownley, Debra Clopton, RobinSong, Inc., and Mary Connealy
All rights reserved.
Colton, Kansas 1870
Sure as God made little green apples, Mr. Daniel Garrett would rue this day. Mary-Jo Parker would make it her business to see that he did. For two solid hours he'd kept her waiting at the train station. He didn't even have the courtesy to leave a message or arrange for someone to pick her up.
"Well, Mr. Garrett, I've got news for you. You'd better have a good explanation for keeping me waiting or the wedding is off!" Now she was talking to herself, but that was the least of her problems. She was cold and tired and hungry and ...
She hated admitting it, but she was also scared. What if she'd traveled all the way from Georgia for nothing? Her aunt thought her crazy to marry a man she'd never met, but his kind letters convinced Mary-Jo that she was doing the right thing. Don't let me be wrong about that, God.
She dug in her purse for her watch. Two hours and twenty-two minutes she'd been waiting! If her errant fiancé bothered showing up at all, it better be on hands and knees.
She slipped the watch back into her drawstring bag and reread the dog-eared telegram. All correspondence was screened by the proprietor of the Hitching Post Mail-Order Bride Catalogue, so the telegram was signed by Mr. Hitchcock. It clearly stated that her fiancé would meet her train. They would then drive to the church to be married posthaste by a preacher.
She stuffed the telegram into her bag and marched back into the telegraph and baggage office for perhaps the eleventh or twelfth time. Her high-button boots pounded the wooden plank floor like two angry woodpeckers. Nearly tripping over the threshold, she froze.
The last time her foot had caught in a doorway, a tornado blew the roof off her aunt's house. Mary-Jo gave the wood panel wall three quiet knocks. Warding off bad luck was a full-time job, but no matter how hard she tried not to tempt fate, misfortune seemed to follow her wherever she went.
Careful not to step on any cracks, she paced the length of the counter, waiting for the youthful operator to finish tapping the gilded telegraph key.
After a while, he swung around on his stool and peered at her from beneath the visor of his cap. He was probably no more than eighteen or nineteen. "Like I told you before, ma'am, no one left a message for you."
"Yes, you made that perfectly clear." She hadn't mentioned her fiancé by name. She was humiliated enough without the whole town knowing that she had been left not only at the train station but quite possibly at the altar as well.
"Could you please direct me to the nearest hotel?" After a hot bath and change of clothes, she was bound to feel more like herself. Maybe then she could figure out what to do.
Relief crossed the youth's face, but whether it was because she was about to leave or had finally asked a question he could answer, it was hard to tell.
"Just go straight up that street." He pointed in an easterly direction. "The hotel's on the right, opposite the church."
She stepped outside. Brr, it was cold. She pulled her shawl tight and straightened her bustle, but the more she tried brushing train cinders off her yellow skirt, the more they smeared. Giving up, she reached beneath the narrow brim of her straw bonnet to fluff her curly bangs and then patted down the sausage curls in back. Perhaps things would work out for the best. At least now she wouldn't have to meet her future husband looking like a ragbag.
Gathering the carpetbag that held her carefully sewn trousseau in one hand and her Singer Fiddle Base sewing machine in the other, she started on her way.
In his letters, her betrothed had described the town as thriving and he hadn't exaggerated. Wagons raced back and forth along the dirt road leading through town. Dust flew in every direction and her already dry throat prickled.
The buildings were mostly brick, though some were faced with what looked like marble or limestone. Between taking in her surroundings and trying not to step on a crack, she failed to notice the young boy until he plowed into her.
"Oomph!" she cried. Her carpetbag flew out of her hand, but she managed to regain her balance and hold on to her precious sewing machine. The boy, however, was facedown on the boardwalk.
"Oh dear." She dropped to her knees, setting the Singer by her side. "Are you hurt?"
He shook his head and climbed to his feet. He reached for his slouch cap and plopped it haphazardly atop stringy brown hair that hadn't seen a comb for a month of Sundays. Face flushed, he looked like he was trying his hardest not to give way to tears. She guessed his age at seven, maybe eight.
"Are you sure you're not hurt?" she persisted. He regarded her solemnly, and she tried again. "What's your name?"
"They call me Fast Eddie."
"I do declare, you can talk. Fast Eddie, eh? I guess I know how you came by that name." She pulled off a glove and held out her hand. The boy's eyes widened before taking it. "You can call me Miss Parker. I'm new in town and I'm mighty pleased to meet you."
The boy frowned as if he didn't know what to make of her. Still, she couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Never had she seen a sorrier-looking child. His trousers were at least two inches too short and his shirt had more wrinkles than a rotten apple. Where were his parents? And why wasn't he in school?
She didn't have the heart to lecture him or even demand an apology for nearly knocking her off her feet. Instead, she lowered her voice so as not to alarm him any further.
"Perhaps you could help me." Helping adults always made children feel important. "I'm looking for Mr. Daniel Garrett. He's a lawyer. Do you know him?" Though he'd never mentioned it in his letters, surely he had an office somewhere, perhaps even nearby.
The boy regarded her with eyes blue as the bright Kansas sky. Finally he nodded. "I ... know him."
"Praise the Lord." It was the first piece of good news she'd heard since arriving in town. Maybe her luck was about to change.
"He's my pa."
Had Fast Eddie punched her in the stomach, she wouldn't have been more shocked. Dumbfounded, she stared at him and felt sick.
"Did ... did you say ... he's your pa?" she managed at last.
Again the boy nodded.
Hand on her chest, she tried to catch her breath. Her fiancé never mentioned children. There had to be a logical explanation. Yes, yes, of course. There must be two Daniel Garretts in town, odd as that seemed.
"Are you his cantaloupe bride?" Eddie asked.
Her breath caught. "Do ... do you mean catalogue bride?"
With a nod of the head, the boy effectively wiped out any hope of there being two men with the same name.
Her body stiffened. Feeling suddenly light-headed, she forced air into her lungs. If the boy was telling the truth, that meant Daniel Garrett had a serious memory problem. Not only had he failed to meet her train, but he also had a son he'd forgotten to mention.
She stood and glanced up and down the street. This day was turning out to be a nightmare. She should have known better than to leave Georgia last week on a Friday. Everyone knew that traveling on a Friday was bad luck.
"Where might I find your"—she narrowed her eyes and ground out the last word—"pa?"
The boy's face clouded and she felt a surge of guilt. She didn't mean to take it out on him. None of this was the child's fault. She swallowed hard and tried again. "Do you know where I might find him?"
The boy pointed to the high-steepled brick church across the street from the hotel. He then tore away as if being chased.
She started after him, waving. "Wait! Come back!"
Eddie darted in front of an oncoming horse and wagon. "Watch out!" she gasped.
The irate wagon driver managed to stop in time, but he wasn't finished with the boy. He pumped his fist and railed against irresponsible youth in general and Eddie in particular.
Mary-Jo hated to see the child being yelled at, but a good tongue-lashing would probably do him a world of good. He could have been killed. As for his father ... not only had Daniel Garrett lied by way of omission, he also appeared to be a neglectful parent, and she had no tolerance for either.
She grabbed her sewing machine with one hand and her carpetbag with the other. Teeth clenched and bosom heaving, she marched across the street. She was so incensed she forgot to watch for cracks.
"You better be in that church praying, Daniel Garrett," she muttered. "Because when I get through with you, you'll wish you never heard of me!"
Mary-Jo charged inside the church. The door slammed shut behind her with a loud bang that made her jump. After setting her sewing machine and carpetbag in a corner of the narthex, she straightened her attire. Not a sound filtered through the thick walls or the doors leading to the sanctuary.
Having no idea what to say or do upon coming face-to-face with her errant fiancé, she plunged through the double doors. Expecting the church to be empty or near empty, she was shocked to discover the pews filled to capacity—on a Wednesday, no less. Every head turned in her direction, but no one said a word.
A man rose from several pews away and rushed up the aisle to greet her. It wasn't until he reached her side that she noticed the sheriff 's badge on his vest.
"May I help you, ma'am?" he asked in a hushed voice. Towering over her five-foot-eight-inch height by a good six inches, he had a rugged square face, a neatly trimmed mustache, and short brown hair. He regarded her with eyes so blue and intense that for a moment she forgot her reason for being there.
Gathering her wits about her, she spoke in a quiet but urgent voice. "I wish to speak with Mr. Garrett."
"I'm Sheriff Tom Garrett."
"Sher—" Now that she thought about it, Daniel did mention something in one of his early letters about his brother being a lawman.
"Mr. Daniel Garrett." She glanced at the nearby faces turned toward her and wished she'd changed at the hotel before barging in. Everyone else was dressed in black, and she stuck out like a sore thumb in her yellow outfit. She shifted her gaze back to the sheriff.
His brow creased. "Who might you be?"
"I'm Mary-Jo Parker." When the sheriff made no response, she added, "I'm Daniel's fiancée." Or was.
Sharp and assessing eyes studied her from beneath the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, and her cheeks flared. Was that surprise on his dark, muted face or something else? Disapproval, perhaps?
"Tell him I'll wait outside."
"I'm afraid that telling him anything at this point would be ... impossible."
"And why is that, Sheriff?"
He stepped aside and inclined his head toward the distant altar.
A previously unnoticed pine coffin rested on a stand surrounded by wreaths of flowers.
She sucked in her breath. "That can't be—" She swayed and the sheriff grabbed her by the arm.
"Perhaps you should sit down, ma'am. Can I get you some water?"
Shaking her head, she regained her balance. "I-I'm all right. Thank you."
He released her. "Did you say you were Dan's ... fiancée?"
She nodded mutely and stumbled down the aisle toward the altar. Nothing seemed real. She had to see for herself.
"Ma'am," the sheriff called to her, but she kept going, ignoring the curious eyes that followed her down the aisle.
Daniel was dead? Not again, dear God. This can't be happening again. Please let this be a dream. Let me wake up and ...
She stopped in front of the coffin and stared in horror at the stranger she'd promised to marry. Daniel had the same sandy hair color as his brother and son. Two silver coins covered his eyes so she had no way of knowing if they were the same intense blue.
Suddenly the reality of her situation struck her—she was in the middle of who knew where, and her whole future, all her plans, had evaporated with the death of this man. The walls of the church started closing in, and it was hard to breathe. Whirling about, she picked up her skirts and raced up the aisle toward the door. The sheriff tried to stop her, but she ran past him and kept going. She grabbed her sewing machine and carpetbag and bounded from the church.
Moving as quickly as the weight of the Singer allowed, she didn't know she'd walked under a ladder until the man on top yelled, "Hey, watch it!"
Oh no! Now she'd done it! More bad luck. Hadn't she had enough already? "Sorry," she mumbled.
Blinded by tears, she ducked into an alley. Setting her sewing machine and carpetbag down, she slumped to the ground and bawled.
* * *
County sheriff Tom Garrett chased after the distressed woman in yellow. The bright sun nearly blinded him as he dashed out of the church and ran down the steps to the boardwalk. He looked both ways but the lady had vanished.
He wished now he'd been better informed as to his brother's plans, but the two were never close. Dan had moved back to town less than a year ago following the death of his wife, but even then they hadn't spent much time together.
He and his brother argued the last time they spoke, and Tom regretted that more than words could say. He was against Dan's crazy plan to send for a mail-order bride from the start. Not only did the idea strike him as distasteful, he considered it beneath a man's dignity to order a bride sight unseen like purchasing one's under-riggings.
And what was wrong with a woman who couldn't find a husband without the help of a marriage broker? Either she was lacking in looks or personality, maybe both.
Not that anything was wrong with this lady's looks. With her honey-blond hair, delicate features, and big blue eyes, she looked quite fetching. That could only mean one thing: she lacked something personality-wise.
Perhaps integrity. Old man Whitcomb's mail-order bride robbed him blind before taking off, never to be heard from again. A lawyer like Dan should have been more cautious, but once he got something into his fool head, there was no changing his mind.
The church door opened and Mrs. Hoffmann stepped outside, her huge black hat shaped like a ship. She owned the boardinghouse where Tom lived.
"Do you know if Barnes found the boy?" he asked. Eddie had taken one look at his father's coffin and taken off. His deputy sheriff chased after him. Garrett grimaced at the memory; the boy was like a wild mustang.
"Nein." Mrs. Hoffmann shook her head. "Not that I know of." She spoke in a thick German accent. "Who vas that woman?" She said something else in her native tongue, but Garrett didn't bother asking for a translation. "Imagine. Coming to a funeral dressed like a harlot!"
The woman's tendency to be judgmental irked him at times but he kept his annoyance at bay. With all her faults, she meant well and she was the only one willing to watch the boy.
Still, recalling the shocked look on the young woman's face, Garrett felt a need to protect her. He didn't approve of her reasons for coming to Kansas, but none of what happened to Dan was her fault.
"I don't think she expected to attend a funeral." Neither, for that matter, did he.
"Then she had no business barging into a church, of all places." The woman stabbed the ground with her cane and vanished back inside, the door slamming shut in her wake.
Garrett was about to follow her when he noticed his deputy sheriff walking toward him, shaking his head. Barnes was at least six inches shorter than Garrett and, at age forty-five, ten years older.
"Sorry, Tom. No sign of Eddie."
Garrett blew out his breath and, after scanning the street one last time, followed his deputy back into the church. Right now his top priority was to bury his brother. He'd deal with the boy—and the mail-order bride—later.
The note beneath the door of Mary-Jo's hotel room read:
We need to talk. Meet me in the hotel dining room at seven a.m. for breakfast. Sincerely, Sheriff T. Garrett
The bold script made it seem more like a command than an invitation. She swallowed her irritation. She couldn't imagine what the sheriff wanted to talk about, but he was Daniel's brother and she owed him a hearing, if nothing else.
A seamstress by trade, she normally had little time to fuss with her own clothes, though she had made a couple of new outfits to start wedded life. Today she chose the most conservative of the three, a pretty blue skirt and matching shirtwaist. Multiple rows of ruches circled the skirt and the delicate puffed sleeves complemented the carefully draped bustle in back.
Her aunt heartily disapproved of such frills, but Mary-Jo couldn't help herself. Sewing was a breeze with her recently purchased Singer. Once she got started on an outfit, she couldn't seem to stop adding embellishments. Fancy dresses required fancy hairstyles and she took special pains to smooth each carefully rolled ringlet in place. A quick pinch of her cheeks and she was ready except for her shoes.
She put the right shoe on first so as to prevent a headache or more bad luck. Then she braced herself with a quick prayer, for all the good it would do her. She had more faith in knocking on wood than she had in God.
She reached the hotel dining room before the appointed hour, but already the sheriff was seated at a table in front of the window overlooking Main Street. He rose when she approached and she was reminded once again how tall he was. He sure enough was pleasing to the eye and given the early morning hour, that was saying something.
"Thank you for meeting with me," he said, as if he doubted she would. His gaze lingered on her a moment too long, bringing a blush to her face. Seeming to catch himself, he hastened to pull out a chair for her. He then took his seat opposite. He'd removed his hat and a strand of sandy-brown hair fell across his forehead from a side part. Without his hat he looked younger, but no less commanding. He also looked tired, as if sleep had been as elusive for him as it had been for her.
"I apologize for yesterday," he said. "I had no idea you were arriving in town. Had I known, I would have arranged for someone to meet your train."
"It's me who should do the apologizing. I had no call to barge into church like I did." She should have known something was seriously wrong when her fiancé didn't show up as promised, but as usual she had jumped to all the wrong conclusions. She pressed her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry for your loss."
A muscle tightened in his jaw. "I'm sorry you had to find out the way you did." And as if there could be any question as to what he meant, he added, "About Dan."
"His son, Eddie?" The boy had been so upset he almost got himself run over. "Is he all right?"
Excerpted from A BRIDE FOR ALL SEASONS by Margaret Brownley. Copyright © 2013 by Margaret Brownley, Debra Clopton, RobinSong, Inc., and Mary Connealy. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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