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As Jamie Montgomery walked through the long house, he didn't so much as glance about him, for he had grown up in the house and knew it well. Had anyone else seen the cozy comfort of the house, they would not have guessed the wealth of the family that owned it. Only an art student would have been aware of the significance of the signatures on the paintings that hung from the plaster walls, or of the names on the bronze statues, and only a connoisseur would have recognized the value of the carpets that were worn and stained from years of use by dogs and children.
The furniture had not been selected for its worth but for the needs of a family that had occupied the house for a couple of hundred years. An antiquarian would have seen that the old cabinet against one wall was actually Queen Anne, the little gold chairs were Russian Imperialist, and the porcelains in the cabinet in the corner were Chinese and too old for the comprehension of the young American mind.
The house was filled with pictures and furniture and fabrics from all over the world, the accumulated haul of generations of Montgomery men and women's travels. There were souvenirs from every corner of the globe, ranging from exotic items from the tiny islands of the world to paintings by Italian masters.
Walking swiftly, with a long-legged stride, Jamie went from one room of the enormous house to the other. Twice he patted the little flannel sack that was carefully tucked under his arm, smiling each time he touched it.
At last he came to a door and, with only a soft knock that wasn't meant to be heard, he entered the darkened bedroom. For all that the rest of the house wore a tattered opulence, this room showed every cent of the Montgomery wealth.
Even in the dark, he could see the gleam of the silk bed hangings, draping the huge, four-poster bed that had been carved in Venice, the bedposts fairly dripping with carved and gilded angels. From the top of the bed hung hundreds of yards of pale blue silk, and the walls of the room were upholstered with a darker blue damask that had been woven in Italy and brought back to America on a Montgomery ship.
Looking down at the bed, Jamie smiled, for he could see a blonde head just above the silk-covered, down-filled coverlet. He walked to the windows, threw back the heavy velvet curtains to let sunlight into the room, then watched as the head snuggled deeper into the covers.
Smiling, he went to the bed and looked down at its occupant, but all he could see was one golden curl clinging to the sheet; the rest of her had disappeared beneath the covers.
Lifting the bag from under his arm, Jamie opened the drawstring and withdrew a tiny dog that weighed no more than eight pounds; what body it had could hardly be seen for the long, silky white hair that covered it. The dog was a Maltese, and he'd brought it all the way from China as a gift for his baby sister.
Slowly lifting the coverlet, Jamie put the little dog in the bed with his sister, then grinning in anticipation, he took a chair and watched as the animal began to move about and lick its bedmate.
Slowly, and with great reluctance, Carrie came awake. She always hated to leave the warm cocoon of her bed and put it off as long as she could. Now, she moved a bit, her eyes still closed as she flung the covers down about her shoulders. At the first lick of the little dog, she smiled, then smiled again at the second lick. Only at the tiny bark did she open her eyes, looked into the face of the creature, then sat up, startled, her hand to her throat. Leaning back against the headboard, a carved angel's wing tip poking her in the back, she looked at the dog, blinking in wonder.
It was the laugh of her brother that made her turn her head, and even then it took her a moment to understand what was going on. When the understanding came to her that her beloved brother had at last come home from the sea, she gave a squeal of delight, then launched herself at him, dragging silk coverlet and cashmere blankets with her.
Catching her in his strong sun-browned arms, Jamie whirled her about, while on the bed behind them the little dog yapped excitedly.
"You weren't due in until next week," Carrie said, smiling and kissing her brother's cheeks and neck and whatever she could reach of him.
Jamie, trying to act as though he weren't reveling in his sister's enthusiastic greeting, held her at arms' length, her feet off the floor. "And you would have been down at the wharf to greet me, no doubt, if you'd known when I was going to arrive. Even if I'd come in at four in the morning."
"Of course," she said, smiling at him, then, a concerned look on her face, she put her hand on his cheek. "You've lost weight."
"And you haven't grown an inch." Looking her up and down, he tried to put an older-brother expression on his face, but it wasn't easy to be stem when looking at Carrie's tiny exquisiteness. Carrie was five feet even, yet all her brothers were over six feet. "I was hoping you'd have grown until you at least reached my waist. How did Mother and Dad produce such a runt as you?"
"Luck," she said happily as she turned to look at the little dog, which was now standing on the bed, its pink tongue hanging out. "Is this my present?"
"What makes you think I brought you a present?" he asked reproachfully. "I'm not sure you deserve one. Did you know that it's ten o'clock in the morning and here you are still sleeping."
She wriggled her shoulders to make her brother put her down. Carrie's interest, now that she had seen that he was home and well, was in the pretty little dog. When her feet were once again on the floor, she went to the bed, and when she slid back into it, the dog at once came to her to be petted.
While Carrie's attention was on the dog, Jamie looked about the room, noting what had been added since the last time he had been home. "Where did this come from?" He held up a foot-tall ivory carving of an Oriental lady, beautiful and intricate.
"Ranleigh," Carrie answered, speaking of another of her brothers.
"And this?" Jamie nodded toward an oil painting framed in gold.
Looking up from the dog, Carrie smiled at her brother as though she had no idea what was causing him to frown. She had seven brothers, all of them older than she, all of them travelers, and every time they left the country they brought her back a present each gift more flawlessly beautiful than the one another brother had brought her. It was almost as though they competed with each other to see who could bring their little sister the most marvelous gift.
"And these?" Jamie asked, picking up a string of pearls from Carrie's dressing table. His voice was sounding downright prim.
Smiling enigmatically, Carrie picked up the little dog and hugged it, burying her face in its soft fur. "This is by far the nicest present I have ever received in my life."
"Did you tell Ranleigh that when he gave you the lady?" Jamie was sounding almost jealous.
As a matter of fact, she had told Ranleigh that his gift was the best, but she wasn't going to tell Jamie that. "What's his name?" she asked, speaking of the tiny dog and doing her best to change the subject.
"That's for you to decide."
As Carrie stroked the dog, it sneezed. "Oh, Jamie, he really is the very nicest gift I ever have received. He's so very alive."
When Jamie came back to his chair by the bed, she could tell by his face that he was somewhat mollified by her assertions that his gift was indeed the best. Smiling at her, he watched the way the sunlight touched her thick mass of dark blonde hair and the way her blue eyes glinted with pleasure as she played with the dog, and knew that she was quite the prettiest thing he'd seen in a long while. She was as small as her brothers were large, as sweet tempered as they were irascible, and as full of laughter as they were of anger. And she was as used to luxury as they were to work. Carrie was the spoiled, adored, darling baby of the large family, and any of her brothers would have killed anyone who even thought of harming her.
Jamie leaned back in his chair, for he was glad to be at home, glad to be no longer on a rolling ship. "What have you and the Ugly Horde been up to lately?"
"Don't call them that!" Carrie said, but without any real animosity. "They aren't ugly."
When Jamie grunted at that, Carrie smiled. "Not too ugly anyway, and, besides, what do looks matter?"
He grinned at that. "Nineteen years old and already a philosopher."
"I'll be twenty soon."
"My, my, such a great age."
Carrie didn't mind his teasing, for, to her, there was little that her brothers could say or do that was wrong. "Whatever our appearance" she generously included herself with the "Uglies" "the girls and I are involved in a very important project."
"I'm sure of it." Jamie's tone was patronizing, but adoring at the same time. "As important as saving the frogs from the giggers? Or making poor Mr. Coffin give his geese free running space?"
"Those projects were in the past. Now we're involved in " She broke off as the dog sneezed twice in succession. "You don't think he's catching cold, do you?"
"More likely he's reacting to all this silk. This place looks like a harem."
"Something I'm not going to tell you about."
Carrie's lower lip protruded a bit. "If you ever want to give me a really spectacular gift, you could tell me, in detail, all that you've done on a voyage."
At the thought of what such a revelation would entail, Jamie looked a bit pale, and it took a moment before his color returned. Smiling, he said, "That's one gift you're not likely to receive from any of us. Now tell me what you and the Uglies have been doing."
"We're marrying people," Carrie said proudly then was pleased to see her brother's jaw drop in astonishment.
"You got someone to marry those ugly girlfriends of yours?"
She gave him a look of exasperation. "They aren't so ugly and you know it. And every one of them is as nice as can be. It's just that you think all women should be utterly and totally beautiful."
"Like my dear little sister," he said, and there was honesty in his voice as well as love in his eyes.
Blushing with pleasure, Carrie said, "You'll turn my head."
At that impossibility, Jamie whooped with laughter, causing the dog to start barking, then sneezing.
"Turn your head," he said. "As if you didn't already know that you're the most beautiful thing in five states."
Carrie gave a mock look of deep, deep hurt. "Ranleigh said six states."
Jamie laughed again. "Then I'll say seven."
"Much better," Carrie said, laughing. "I'd hate to lose a state. The seventh isn't Rhode Island, is it?"
"Texas," Jamie answered, and they smiled at each other.
As Carrie leaned forward, holding the little dog, Jamie thought that she and the animal already looked as though they belonged together, just as he knew they would when he'd purchased the puppy he could hold curled in one palm.
"Jamie, we really are marrying people to each other," she said earnestly, her face serious. "Since the War Between the States, there have been so many women who have lost their husbands, and in the West there are a great many men who need wives. We match them with each other. It's been very interesting work."
Blinking at her for a moment, trying to understand what she was telling him, Jamie sat there staring at her. Sometimes it seemed to him that of all the family, sweet, adorable Carrie was the most stubborn. When she decided to do something, she had tunnel vision: Nothing on earth could stop her. Thank heaven that, so far, all her causes had been worthy ones. "How do you find these people?"
"The women we have already, quite a few of them from here in Warbrooke, although we've had to let people in the rest of Maine know that we're providing this service, but the men have been found through newspaper advertisements."
"Mail-order brides," he said softly, his voice rising with each word. "You're doing mail-order brides, like in China. You've stuck your nose into other people's personal lives."
"I don't think it's nosiness exactly, more that we're providing a service."
"Matchmaking, that's what you're doing. Does Dad know you're doing this?"
"And he doesn't object?" Before Carrie could answer, Jamie spoke again. "Of course he has no objection. He's always allowed you to do whatever you wanted to do since the day you were born."
Stroking the tiny dog, Carrie smiled sweetly at her brother and fluttered her lashes a bit. "You aren't going to make any complaints, are you? Ranleigh didn't."
"He spoils you," Jamie said, looking stern, but Carrie was still smiling at him, and he couldn't retain the look of severity on his face. "All right," he said with a sigh, knowing he'd lost his attempt at being strict, "so tell me more about this non-nosy matchmaking."
Carrie's delicate face brightened with eagerness. "Oh, Jamie, it's just lovely. We've had such a good time. I mean, we do enjoy ourselves while we perform this much-needed service, that is. We put advertisements in papers out West and say that if the men will send us a photograph of themselves we won't send anyone out unless we've seen the man, since a photograph tells so very much about a person and a letter explaining what they want in a wife, then we will try to match them up with a lady."
"And what are the women required to do?"
"They must come to us to be interviewed. We make cards listing their qualifications and then match them with a man." She gave a dreamy smile. "We make people very happy."
"How do these women get to the men?"
"Stagecoach, usually," she said, looking down at the dog. When Jamie didn't say another word, she looked back at him, her little chin set at a defiant angle. "All right, yes, Montgomery money pays their way, but it's for a good cause. These people are lonely, and they need each other so much. Jamie, you should read some of the letters from these men. They live all alone in places that no one has ever heard of, and they need company so much."
"Not to mention a good strong back to help work the farm as well as someone in their bed," he said, trying to interject a note of realism into her dreams of everlasting love.
"Well, the women need that too!" Carrie snapped.
"And what do you know of such things?"
He was teasing her, and she couldn't help being annoyed at his attitude. Most of the time she loved being pampered by her big brothers, but sometimes they could be a pain. "More than you and the others think that I do," she shot back at him. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a little girl any more. I'm a grown woman."
Sitting there in the tumble of silken bed clothes, her thick hair down about her shoulders, snuggling with the toylike animal, she didn't look over ten years old. "Yes," he said softly, "a grand old lady."
Carrie sighed. As much as she loved her brothers, she also knew them, and not one of them, or her father, wanted her to grow up. They wanted her to stay their adoring little sister whose only thoughts were for them.
"You aren't trying to find a husband, are you?" Jamie asked, and there was alarm in his voice.
"No, of course not." She knew better than to tell any of the men in her family that she was someday planning to get married, for they all thought she was little more than a toddler. "I have all the men I want here."
Jamie narrowed his eyes. "Just what is that supposed to mean? 'All the men you want'? Since when have 'men' been part of your life?"
Since the day I was born, Carrie wanted to say. Since I was fifteen minutes old and looked up from my cradle and saw seven of the most handsome boys on earth peering down at me, a mother and a sister in the background. Since I took my first steps holding onto a man's hand, since men taught me how to ride, sail, tie knots, curse, climb trees, and flirt to get whatever I want. "Why don't you come downtown with me? We're using the old Johnson place as our headquarters. You can see what we're doing." She gave him her best, most seductive, through-the-eyelashes look that she hoped was persuasive.
Jamie paled at her invitation. "Willingly walk into that bunch of ugly women?"
Carrie bit her lips to restrain her smile. She knew that what actually scared Jamie was the way her friends fell all over themselves at the sight of one of her unmarried brothers. Carrie thought that she should speak to her girlfriends about their behavior, but it was so amusing to see her handsome brothers ill at ease that she couldn't resist presenting them to her friends.
"Ranleigh went with me," Carrie said, looking down, her lower lip protruding just a bit. "But then Ranleigh isn't afraid of anything. Maybe you're afraid because you're my second-most handsome brother, and, too, maybe Ranleigh has more self-confidence than you do. Maybe Ranleigh "
"You win," Jamie said, throwing up his hands in defeat. "I'll go, but only if you swear you'll not try to match me up with one of your unwanted women."
"I wouldn't dream of it," she said as though appalled at the very idea. "Besides, who'd want you after they'd seen Ranleigh?"
Jamie grinned wickedly. "About half of China," he said, leaning forward to cluck her under the chin, then looked down at the dog when it sneezed again. "What are you going to name him?"
"Choo-choo," Carrie answered brightly, making Jamie groan at the infantile name, just as she knew he would.
"Give him a name with a little dignity."
"Tell me about the women in China and I'll call him Duke," she said eagerly.
Pulling out his pocket watch and looking at it, he said, "I will give you one hour to dress and for every ten minutes of that hour that you don't make me wait for you, I'll tell you a story about China."
Carrie grimaced. "About the scenery? About the roads and the storms at sea?"
"About the girls who danced for the emperor." He lowered his voice. "And...they danced for me. In private."
In a flurry of silk and flying pillows, Carrie was out of the bed in a flash. "Thirty minutes. If I can get dressed in thirty minutes, how many stories will that earn me?"
"They'd better be good stories and worth all the rush," she said in warning, "because if they're boring, I'll invite Euphonia to dinner every night you're home."
"Cruel. You are cruel." Again looking at his pocket watch, he said, "Time starts...NOW!"
Running from the bedroom, Carrie made a dash for her dressing room, Choo-choo in her arms.
"Thirty minutes," Jamie said, half in anger, half in exasperation. "You said you'd be ready within thirty minutes. Not an hour and thirty minutes, but thirty minutes flat."
Carrie yawned, not in the least disturbed by his tone. Jamie was all bark and no bite. "I was sleepy. Now tell me another story. You owe me two more."
As he flicked the reins of the horse harnessed to the little carriage, Jamie looked down at her. He knew that he complained to his brothers about how they spoiled their little sister, and he knew that now he should be firm and deny her the promised stories, but then he saw the way she looked up at him, with her big blue eyes full of love and adoration, and he cursed under his breath. There wasn't a member of his family who could deny her anything. "Maybe just one more story," he said. "But you don't deserve it."
Smiling, she hugged his arm. "You know, I think that as you get older you get better looking, and in another year or two, you might surpass Ranleigh in looks."
Jamie tried to hide his smile then gave up and grinned. "Imp!" he said and winked at her. "Like the dog, do you?"
She hugged Choo-choo. "By far my favorite present," she said, and this time she was sincere. "Now tell me more about the dancing girls."
When Carrie, with the little white dog tucked under her arm, walked into the parlor of the old house on her brother's arm, the entire room came to a halt. All six of the young women, who had been Carrie's friends for all of her life, looked up in unison. At first they merely halted their actions, then their eyes widened, then they gave a sigh that came from deep within each woman. For all that Carrie teased her brother that he wasn't as good-looking as her brother Ranleigh, Jamie was handsome enough to cause women to make genuine fools of themselves.
Smiling in pride as she looked at the women who were frozen like statues, Carrie bent a bit and blew out the match that Euphonia had just lit before it burned her fingers.
"All of you know my brother, Jamie, don't you?" Carrie said, acting as though she hadn't noticed the women's standstill. Glancing up at Jamie, she saw that, even though he was pretending he was embarrassed, she knew him well enough to see that he was actually flattered by the reaction of the young women.
Taking his arm possessively in hers, she pulled him forward. Their movement made the women come to life as they began to clear their throats and try to cover their awkwardness.
"How was your voyage, Captain Montgomery?" Helen tried to sound normal, but her voice came out in a rather curious-sounding squeak.
"Fine," Jamie half snapped, wishing he hadn't agreed to accompany his sister.
Carrie pulled him toward the far wall of the room where twenty-five photographs of men were pinned. The men ranged in age from a boy who didn't look much more than about fourteen to an old geezer with a gray beard halfway down the middle of his chest. "These are the men," Carrie said unnecessarily.
Nervously running his finger around his collar, Jamie looked at the board, but didn't see much. All the women were behind him now, and he could feel their eyes upon him, maybe even feel their collective hot breaths on his neck.
"Have there been any new arrivals today?" Carrie asked as she turned away from the board. She turned rather quickly, just in time to see Helen do something rather odd: She slipped something under a book lying on a table. Carrie pretended she had seen nothing.
"A few," one of the women answered. "But nothing promising. We have about twice as many men as women. You wouldn't like to put your picture on the board, would you, Captain?" She was doing her best to sound nonchalant, but there was just a touch of desperation and yearning in her voice.
Jamie gave the woman a weak smile. "Carrie, my love, I think I'd better go. I have to " He couldn't think of what he needed to do except get out of there because the women were making him feel like something in a zoo. After giving his sister a quick kiss on the cheek and a look that said, I'll get you for this, he was gone.
For a moment the room was silent, then the women emitted a second combined sigh before turning back to their stacks of letters and photographs. Carrie stood where she was for a moment, then set Choo-choo to the floor, pointed him toward Helen, and gave him a little push.
"Catch him!" Carrie cried to Helen. "He'll run away."
Helen began to chase the little dog, leaving the table she had been standing by as though guarding it. Choo-choo decided he didn't want to be caught and within seconds all the women in the room were chasing him all of them except Carrie, that is. She used the commotion to cover her movements as she went to Helen's table, lifted the book, and took what was hidden from under it.
Carrie pulled what was, by now, a very familiar-looking envelope from under the book. It was the type of envelope that held the photograph and letter from a man desiring a bride.
While the others were busy chasing the dog about the room, Carrie opened the letter, pulled out the photo, and looked at it. The picture was of a young man standing behind two badly dressed children, and it was the children Carrie examined first. There was a tall boy of about nine or ten and a girl of four or five. The clothes the children wore were clean but fitted them badly, as though they had been given whatever the local charity office had without consideration for fit.
But far more important than their clothes was the sadness in the eyes of the children, a kind of sad loneliness that said that there was very little laughter in their lives.
When Carrie looked up from the faces of the children, she gasped, for she saw the face of what she thought was the handsomest man in the world. Oh, maybe he wasn't actually as good-looking as her brothers, for there was an altogether different look about him, and this man had a look of melancholy about him that no Montgomery had ever had.
Helen snatched the photograph from Carrie. "That wasn't very nice of you to snoop like that. This is mine."
Carrie didn't answer but sat down on a nearby chair, feeling as though the wind had been knocked from her. The moment she sat down, Choo-choo ran and jumped onto her lap, and unconsciously, she hugged the warm little animal.
"Who is he?" Carrie whispered.
"For your information, he's the man I'm going to marry," Helen said proudly. "I have made up my mind and no one is going to change it."
"Who is he?" Carrie repeated.
Snatching the photo from Helen, Euphonia turned it over. "It says on the back that his name is Joshua Greene, and the children are named Tem and Dallas. What an odd name for a girl, or is the girl named Tem? Look, he misspells Tim."
As the women passed the photo around, they looked at it. The little group was a handsome family, in spite of the children's clothes, and the man was certainly handsome in a dark sort of way, but they had all seen better-looking men before. Not one of them could understand why Helen would hide the photo or why Carrie was looking as though she'd seen a ghost.
"I liked the man we saw last week better. What was his name? Logan something or something Logan, wasn't it? He didn't have two children already. If I were going to marry a man I'd never met, I'd want one without children so I could have my own."
The other women nodded in agreement.
Helen snatched the photo away from the women.
"I don't care what you think. I'm going to marry him and that's that. I like him."
Euphonia, who had been reading Joshua Greene's letter during this, began to laugh. "He won't want you because he says he wants someone who knows how to work. He wants a woman with a great deal of farm experience, one who can run a farm if she has to, and he says he doesn't mind a woman who is older than he is he's only twenty-eight and he doesn't mind a widow. He'll even take on more children. What's important to him is that she knows all there is to know about farming." Smugly, she looked up at Helen. "You know so little about farming that you probably think the way to get milk is to pump the cow's tail."
Helen grabbed the letter away from her. "I don't care what he says he wants. I know what he's going to get."
As Helen grabbed the letter, the photo fell from her hands to the floor and Carrie picked it up. Looking at it again, she decided that it was the eyes of the man that called to her. His eyes were filled with hurt and longing and need. They were the eyes of a man who was crying out for help. My help, she thought. He needs my help.
Standing, she tucked Choo-choo under her arm, smoothed her blue silk skirt, and handed the photo back to Helen. "You can't marry him," she said softly, "for I am going to marry him."
There were a few seconds of stunned silence before the women began to laugh. "You?" they laughed. "What do you know about farming?"
Carrie was not laughing. "I don't know anything about farming, but I know a great deal about that man. He needs me. Now," she said regally, "if you'll excuse me, I have some preparations to make."
Copyright ©1992 by Deveraux Inc.