Widower Connor Maguire advertises for a wife to raise his young daughter, Bridget, work the homestead and bear him a son.
Ellen O’Sullivan longs for a home, a husband and a family. On paper, she is everything Connor needs in a wife. However, it soon becomes clear that Ellen has not been entirely truthful.
Will Connor be able to overlook Ellen’s dishonesty and keep to his side of the bargain? Or will Bridget’s resentment, the attentions of the beautiful Miss Quinn, and the arrival of an unwelcome visitor, combine to prevent the couple from starting anew?
As their personal feelings blur the boundaries of their deal, they begin to wonder if a bargain struck makes a marriage worth keeping.
Set in Wyoming in 1887, a story of a man and a woman brought together through need, not love …
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Her debut novel, THE ROAD BACK, was voted Book of the Year 2012 by US Coffee Time & Romance, and in the same year, EVIE UNDERCOVER was published, first on kindle, and recently in paperback. A BARGAIN STRUCK, published in September 2013, was shortlisted for the RoNA for Best Romantic Historical, and later in the year, THE ART OF DECEPTION, a contemporary novel set in Italy, was published digitally. A WESTERN HEART, a novella set in Wyoming 1880, was published digitally in spring 2014. THE LOST GIRL, her most recent full-length novel, was brought out in 2015.
Liz has a story in each of Choc Lit's anthologies: ANGEL CAKE in Choc Lit Love Match, and CUPCAKE in Kisses & Cupcakes. Each anthology is a collection of short stories by Choc Lit authors, with a recipe accompanying each story.
Read an Excerpt
Baggs, Wyoming Territory; July 1887
The stage came to a halt in a cloud of dirt and grit.
Ellen O'Sullivan lifted the oiled leather flap that covered the glassless window and looked out. Dust kicked up by the horses' hooves swirled up around the sides of the coach, and she coughed. With one hand holding her poke bonnet firmly in place and the other covering her mouth, she leaned slightly out and glanced around.
They'd stopped in front of a tall, wood-framed building. As far as she could see, it was the first in a line of buildings that straggled a wide, dusty track. Hitch racks had been dug into the ground along the front of the building, and a number of saddle horses were tied to them. Several men clad in worn, dirt-covered jeans hovered among the horses; a few others stood talking in groups in front of the entrance.
One of those men would be Connor Maguire, she thought, and she dropped the flap.
She sat back against her seat and breathed heavily. Beads of cold sweat gathered on her forehead – she could be about to make a dreadful mistake, a mistake that she might have to live with for the rest of her life.
She took her handkerchief from the small bag that hung from her waist and wiped her forehead, pushing back her fear.
She couldn't let herself think like that, not after enduring four uncomfortable days on an overcrowded train, and one seemingly never-ending day on a jolting stagecoach; not after choking day after day on whisky fumes and tobacco smoke, unable to escape either the rancid odour or the open stares of her fellow passengers. She'd put up with it all just to meet this man, and now that she'd reached her destination, it was much too late to question what she'd done.
Or rather, what she'd not done.
But she'd had no choice. To have stayed in Omaha would have been a mistake. She'd been right to come to Wyoming in search of a new life, and if Connor Maguire could understand why she'd not been completely honest with him, and if he could forgive her, then that new life could be a good life.
The door of the stage was flung open. Dust and the stench of manure and sweating horses filled the coach, and she coughed again.
'This is it, ma'am. This is Baggs. It's just you to get off,' the driver told her, and he stood aside to let her get down.
Her hands shaking, she pulled her hat more closely around her face and climbed slowly down the steps, her limbs stiff and unwilling to move, her petticoats sticking damply to her legs. She reached the ground, straightened her skirt and looked about her.
Some of the men had stopped what they were doing and were staring at her, openly curious, but no one appeared to be making a move to come over to her. She glanced to her right, saw that her travelling bag had been unstrapped from the back of the stagecoach and thrown to the ground, and went over to it. Grit crunched noisily beneath her high button boots at every step.
Her heart beating fast, she took up a position next to her bag, tied her bonnet ribbons into a tighter bow and stood waiting, her eyes firmly on the ground.
'Be you Mrs O'Sullivan?'
She gave a slight jump. Shaking inwardly, she drew in a deep breath, and looked up. A tall man in a suit was standing in front of her, twisting a broad-rimmed felt hat in his hand.
'I am. Yes,' she said. Piercing blue eyes scrutinised her face. She attempted a smile. 'And you must be Mr Maguire.'
He nodded, his eyes never leaving her face.
Self-conscious, she put her hand to her cheek, then slid it to the ribbon beneath her chin. Her heart pounding, she untied her bonnet, took it off and smoothed down her hair. 'My hair is thick with dust. I fear I'm very travel-stained.' She could hear the nervous edge in her voice. Fixing her gaze on the broad shoulders in front of her, she stood very still.
Silent, he stared at her. Then he cleared his throat. 'The Justice of the Peace is waiting in the roadhouse. With two witnesses.'
She forced herself to raise her chin and look directly into his face. 'And you still wish this?'
It was a moment before he spoke. 'I believe in honourable behaviour, ma'am, and I always honour the agreements I make,' he said quietly. He bent down and picked up her bag.
A lump came to her throat. 'Thank you, Mr Maguire. I promise, you will have no cause for regret.'
'That is to be hoped,' he said flatly. 'For afterwards, I've ordered you a room for the night, and a tub of hot water. You will feel stale after so much travel, I'm sure, and you will wish to bathe. And there will be a meal for you. For my part, I'll go straight to a friend – we have business to talk over. I'll come by for you tomorrow morning, when you've had breakfast. We must start early if we're to reach the house before sundown.' He paused. 'I hope that this suits.'
'It does suit. Thank you, Mr Maguire.' She put her hat back on and tied the ribbon tightly.
He nodded again. 'Then we can go.' And he started to walk.
Guilt swelled up inside her. Swallowing hard, she followed a few paces behind him.
His face impassive and his eyes fixed on the infinite horizon, Connor headed the wagon out of Baggs and across a vast expanse of blue-green sagebrush spiked with clumps of golden rabbitbush and spears of purple asters.
Sitting next to him, clutching the side of the wagon with one of her hands and gripping the wooden seat with the other, Ellen clung on tightly as the wagon raced across the uneven ground at full speed, jolting her sharply whenever it hit a rock or a deep rut. From time to time, she turned to stare from one side to the other, watching mile after mile of emptiness fly by, an endless wilderness of sage-green shrubland, broken only by patches of yellowing grass and the occasional glimpse of an isolated claim shack.
More than once she glanced across at Connor and wondered about trying to strike up a conversation with him. But while he looked more relaxed than he'd done the day before, having changed into denim jeans and a light-blue flannel shirt, the grim set of his mouth daunted her. Instinct told her that any attempts at conversation would prove unwelcome, and each time she'd turned away from him and continued to stare in silence around her.
As the morning drew to a close, the desolate beauty of the brush desert gradually gave way to gently undulating hills and lush green meadows. A line of trees in the distance suggested that they were following the course of a river, and soon she saw Connor pull on the reins to angle the wagon so that it was heading in that direction.
As they drew closer to the trees, she caught fractured glimpses of a verdant meadow beyond the foliage and blue-green water. Reaching the first of the trees, Connor slowed the wagon and began to guide the two horses skilfully between the slender trunks of the tall aspens and aromatic pines. A heady scent enveloping them, they made their way beneath a canopy of branches until they came out of the shade and on to an open expanse of grass that led to the water.
She gazed in front of her. On the other side of the river which was meandering across the meadow, sparkling in the bright light of day, a wide, tree-studded patch of green stretched far into the distance where it met a line of dark-blue mountain ridges that were framed by an azure sky. Her face broke into a smile and she turned to Connor.
He continued to stare fixedly ahead, clicked on the reins and increased the speed of the horses. She turned away and held on to the side of the wagon more tightly.
'We've gotta cross the river,' he shouted above the creaking of the wagon and the pounding on the ground of the horses' hooves as they gathered pace, his voice breaking up at every jolt of the wagon. 'The crossing will be easy. There's been scant rain this summer and the water's low. Hold tight.'
With a loud clatter as their hooves hammered across the white pebbles that lined the water's edge, the horses dragged the wagon into the shallow depths, its wheels grating stridently. Water splashed up its sides, spraying Ellen's dusty boots and dampening her skirt. She gripped the wagon more tightly as the horses pulled them deeper into the water, their necks straining.
They reached the other side and the wagon gave a mighty shudder as the horses pulled it clear of the river.
'Are you all right, ma'am?' Connor asked, glancing across at her as he pulled on the reins and brought the wagon to a halt.
'Ma'am?' she repeated in surprise, turning to him. She glanced down at her left hand, at the thin gold band that glittered in the light, and she looked back up at him. 'Not Ellen?'
'No, not Ellen, ma'am. I don't know you.'
'Then in answer to your question,' she said, her voice shaking, 'I am all right, thank you. The dress is calico and it will soon dry. Thank you for asking.'
He nodded, dropped the reins and jumped down to the ground. 'We'll break now – the horses have need of water and we must eat.' He unhitched the horses, took the bits from their mouths, pulled off their bridles and gave them a slight push in the direction of the water. With a toss of their heads, they made straight for the river, their flanks steaming.
Ellen climbed to the ground. Aching all over, she stretched herself, put her hands on her hips and arched her back. Then moving her shoulders in circles to rid them of their stiffness, she walked down to the water's edge and stood a little way downstream from the horses, watching them drink their fill from the water that lapped against the pebbles.
The late morning sun beat down upon her, and without the cooling effect of the wind that the moving wagon had thrown back at her, she began to feel hot and uncomfortable in her tight bodice. Kneeling down, she gathered her skirts and petticoats and bunched them between her knees, then she cupped her hands, scooped up some of the clear water and lowered her face into it. Then she ran her wet hands across the back of her neck. Feeling slightly fresher, she dried her face on her underskirt, stood up again and smoothed down her damp garments.
'If we don't have rain before long, we'll see the rivers dry up like the springs have done. The land's startin' to crack up.'
She turned sharply and saw that Connor was only a few steps away from her. He was standing in the water, which was trickling over the toes of his brown leather boots, his hand shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun as he scanned the river in both directions. He'd rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and the tanned skin on his forearms gleamed gold.
She swallowed hard.
'It certainly is hot,' she ventured, her mouth dry. 'Now that we've stopped, I can feel the intensity of the sun.'
'It sure is intense, as you put it,' he said, his eyes still on the river. 'It's been an unusually hot summer with little rain, same as last year. I've known years when we've woken on a morning in August and found a light frost, but I doubt it'll be that way this year.' He turned to her. Deep-blue eyes stared at her from a sun-browned face, eyes without warmth. 'Reckon we'd better eat now and be on our way again.' He started to walk back to the wagon.
She watched as he took a large canvas bag from the back of the wagon, carried it over to the cottonwood tree and sat down in the shade of the wide, silvery branches. As she stood there staring at him, at his face which was dappled from the sunlight that slipped between the leaves, she ran her hand slowly down her cheek. Then she tightened the ribbons of her bonnet so that its sides were flat against her face, and she went and sat under the tree a little way back from him.
He opened the bag and pulled out two packets of food and two canteens of water. Leaning across to her, he passed her one of each, then he sat back upright, opened the other packet, took out a slab of cornbread and started to eat. At the sight of the food, she realised how hungry she was, and she hurriedly unwrapped her parcel and began to eat the cold chicken and cornbread that she found inside it.
Neither spoke as they ate.
His meal finished, Connor stood up. 'You might want to freshen up – put water on your face, make yourself more comfortable. We won't see a river again until we reach the house. The creeks between here and there are dry. I'll see to the horses, and I'll fill the canteens again. If you'll pass me yours.' He held out his hand.
She finished the last of her water and handed the canteen to him. He went down to the river, refilled the canteens, then stood nuzzling the mouths of the horses, his back to her.
Understanding that he was giving her privacy, she ran quickly to a nearby clump of bushes. When she'd finished, she went down to the river, rinsed her face and hands, and wiped her face dry.
Returning to the tree, she saw that Connor had already cleared away the remains of their lunch and had hitched up the horses again. He was standing on her side of the wagon, waiting to help her up to her seat. She hurried over to him. As she reached him, he offered his hand to her.
She took a step towards him, went to take his hand and stopped. 'Are we not to talk at all?' she asked, trying to keep the tone of her voice light.
'Not if we want to get to the house before sundown. Of course, you may prefer to go slow enough to talk, and then bed out beneath the stars tonight. It can be mighty cold when the sun goes down, but if you want to do that ...' He shrugged his shoulders.
'No, I've no wish to do that,' she said quietly, and she gave him her hand and allowed him to help her up.
The moment she'd cleared the steps, his hand released hers and he went around to the other side of the wagon, climbed up to his seat and picked up the reins. One of the horses threw back its head, whinnied and struck the hard ground with its hoof in impatience. He clicked the reins and moved the horses forward.
She glanced across at his profile. His face was cold, distant. Not once, from the moment that she'd come to an agreement with him after their exchange of letters, had she allowed herself to look forward, to think about how he might react when he saw her, saw what the bonnet wouldn't be able to hide completely, but if she had done so, she wouldn't have expected that. Angry, maybe, or bitter and accusing, but not coldly polite, and silent.
She felt a chill inside her. She should never have come to him like she had.
Anxiety building up within her, she faced the way ahead and stared with unseeing eyes at the mountain ridges veiled in a haze of deepening blue.
The sun was sinking behind the mountains, smothering the grassland with lengthening shadow that slowly spread out from the deep grey hills, when Connor steered the wagon sharply to the left, on to a broad, heavily rutted track that stretched out ahead of them into the gathering gloom. Their heads down, the horses gained speed, and the wagon swayed wildly from side to side as its wheels ground against the deep-sided walls of the ruts. Ellen clutched her seat with both of her hands, and fixed her gaze on the blurred shapes that were taking form at the end of the track.
This must be Connor's land, she thought, and that must be his homestead. They'd soon be there. Her stomach gave a sudden lurch.
The shapes took on features and became buildings. She guessed which one was the main house from a faint amber glow that came from within one of the structures. She couldn't see the house clearly, though, half hidden as it was by a large barn which stood a little way back from it between the track and the house, but she could see enough to know that it was made of sawn wood, not logs, and that beyond the house there was another large barn, and a few smaller buildings behind that.
They reached the low fence that encircled the yard and the buildings, and Connor pulled back on the reins and brought the wagon to a halt in front of a wide, cross-beamed gate.
'We're here,' he said. He turned slightly and nodded towards the grey-hazed fields to their right. 'You can't see it now as the light's almost gone, but Liberty Creek flows across our land. Even when the water level is low, as it is now, we still have water, and that makes us better off than a lot of our neighbours.'
She heard his love for his land in his voice.
'You have a good position,' she said, and she ventured a smile in his direction.
'I've got my folks to thank for that.' He jumped down, went up to the gate, pulled up the iron bar and swung the gate open. Returning to the wagon, he climbed back up and urged the horses forward. 'Yup,' he said. 'Back in '65, two years after the law had said they could, my folks staked their claim here. Five years later, it became theirs in the eyes of the law, one of the first of the homesteads in the Territory of Wyoming, and we Maguires have been here ever since. They're gone now, my ma and pa, but the land that they claimed has served the family well, and will continue to do so long after we've gone.'
Excerpted from "A Bargain Struck"
Copyright © 2013 Liz Harris.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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