Widowed and alone, Linnea Powell agrees to swap places with a reluctant mail-order bride. Arriving in Lubbock, Texas, armed only with her future husband’s letters promising a prosperous life, Linnea feels hopeful—until the stagecoach leaves her standing before a handsome stranger who has more ambition than he does prospects. Still, Linnea accepts Sam Kincaid’s proposal, knowing the moment he seals their vows with a hungry kiss, she’ll never be able to keep her past a secret. For her appealing new husband is all too eager to share the marriage bed….
Sam knows there’s something mysterious about his new bride. But that only adds to Linnea’s allure. And when he learns his wife is really a vulnerable widow, he’s even more determined to give her the life and family she dreams of. Sam’s not afraid of hard work, especially when the prize is Linnea’s love. What the rugged rancher doesn’t know is that Linnea has an even bigger secret, one that could destroy his reputation—and shatter his heart….
Praise for Martha Hix
“A romantic mixture of sensitivity, humor and spice, Martha Hix's delicious love story offers a refreshingly atypical heroine.” —RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on Terrific Tom
“Filled with humor...and a wealth of love. Enjoy!” —RT Book Reviews on Magic and the Texan
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His Make-Believe Bride
By Martha Hix
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Martha Hix
All rights reserved.
Stage Stop Dining Room Fort Worth, Texas Late March, 1904
"What makes you think you can just step in and take this nice young lady's identity?"
Still feeling the shake and rattle of riding for days in a stagecoach, Linnea Powell, disgraced widow, tried to ignore her lunch companion's question. Impossible. The dark-haired, skinny woman was jerking her thumb at the eatery's newest waitress.
Linnea leaned in to whisper, "Put your finger down or Mr. Philpott will notice you're upset."
Jewel Bellingham did drop her hand, but her mouth flattened with disgust.
They both glanced at the reporter, their fellow stagecoach passenger since leaving the East Texas town of Jefferson — one of several waystations on their journey from Shreveport, Louisiana. The man sat at a table for one and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. Despite his hunger for a shocking story, he always refused to break bread with the women, which suited Linnea just fine.
The prig then wiggled on his chair and raised a forkful of pie as if to smell the contents. One side of his mouth lifted in what appeared to be distaste.
"He could ruin everything," Linnea said, her tone a hushed yet heartfelt plea.
The newly hired waitress approached. Carrying a large tray of plates, Ermentrude Flanders winked as she breezed by to deliver the noonday meal to a table of four. Just this morning, when the stage pulled into Fort Worth, the pleasant, flaxen-haired girl had abandoned her seat to ask the proprietor to take down the Waitress Required sign.
"I can understand wanting to better oneself," Jewel remarked, leaning in to whisper, "but I have a hard time reconciling her future. She could have been a respectable matron. To take a waitress job, on the off chance she can quit if a highfalutin bunch of Fort Worth doctors will allow her to study medicine at their school? Not likely."
The previous evening, Linnea had listened in amazement to the whys and what-fors. Ermentrude had agreed to marry, simply to please her mother. Then she had decided to please herself, accepting a match with Mr. Kincaid by correspondence. It would put hundreds of miles between her and her mother.
Understanding that part didn't come easily, as Linnea ached for family. "Well, they were her decisions to make. I hope she'll soon trade her serving apron for the surgical variety. And I appreciate this chance to benefit from her decisions."
Stirring sugar into her coffee, Jewel snickered. "You would."
Linnea chose to ignore that. She had ignored much worse comments over the past three years, had been deeply hurt by even more.
When she was offered the identity switch, her battered heart had swelled with hope for the first time in months. Thus, Linnea had jumped at the chance at something far more stable and certainly more fulfilling than her shaky plans to apply for a position in the New Mexico household of a former employer.
And now a major problem had reared its ugly head in the visage of what her late husband had called "the Fourth Estate."
Namely, Edgar Philpott, formerly of the Jefferson Jimplecute.
The strange little man had now traded nostrils to get another whiff of the dessert, then dug in to his slice of buttermilk pie. The way he behaved — and had behaved since boarding the stage for his own new start — reminded Linnea of the way a dog smells around, looking for the best place to empty his bladder.
"I wonder what Mr. Philpott would say if he knew the whole story?" Jewel said in a stage whisper.
Linnea leaned in. "Shh! Don't even consider telling him. Edgar Philpott knows too much already. Do you remember how he recognized my name? When we introduced ourselves, in Jefferson."
The reporter had hitched his britches up just a tad too high on his belly. Right in front of the driver and the other passengers, he flourished a narrow notebook and a pencil. "Tell me, Mrs. Powell," he said while touching the pencil lead to his tongue. "How did you feel when you got the news your husband shot dead the sheriff of Rapides Parish?"
She had let fly with her feelings. "I didn't feel nearly as bad as when I got the news that his deputy shot my husband dead."
But that was days ago and this was Fort Worth. With many more jarring miles now behind them, she figured the Philpott problem would right itself once they reached Jacksboro. He had a new position waiting at the Jacksboro Bee.
The diners at the next table left, allowing Linnea more room to speak privately with the other bride on her way to the milk and honey of Lubbock, Texas.
Linnea reached for Jewel's bony hand. "Jewel ... Never have I ever in my wildest dreams imagined that a decent gentleman might come along. Mr. Samson Kincaid of the High Hopes Ranch offers even more than dreams. He is security."
"By all accounts Mr. Kincaid is a decent, God-fearing cattleman. His uncle — my intended — serves as his foreman." Jewel lifted her nose so high that the black hairs in her nostrils protruded. "They're now expanding their success with cotton farming. Absolutely, Mr. Kincaid expects to match with a mail-order bride of his own stripe. But you are an imposter."
"You needn't remind me."
Still gnawing the bone of righteousness, Jewel chewed down. "If you hadn't lived the scandalous life, missy girl, you wouldn't have to worry about some reporter's opinion."
"I didn't do anything wrong, except marry stupidly."
"You mean you didn't do anything wrong until now."
Why was it so wrong, grabbing a chance for happiness laced with refuge? A great lady — the grandest person she'd ever known — had told Linnea it was cheap and common, stooping to tit for tat. Unfortunately, recollections along the ladylike-behavior line usually came as second thought.
She came back with, "What's it to you?"
"You'd be my niece. Family. Forever. That's my stake."
"That's reason enough for me to call it quits."
"Smart aleck." The arbiter of deportment slurped coffee from its saucer. "The newspapers called your Mr. Powell a gambler."
It could be that Linnea owed her self-appointed inquisitor — and future in-law — a few explanations.
"Percival was whatever the moment needed him to be." That was being generous. "I was barely eighteen when he called on Reston Oaks to sell Bibles. That very day, he said he'd give me a Good Book, if the lady of the house bought one. The mere idea of owning my own Bible — I was thrilled half to death. I was an orphan. I'd never owned anything special."
"Oh? That set of cameos you're wearing. That brooch. Those earbobs. They look pretty special ..."
Linnea's shaking fingers touched the diamond-surrounded cameo she'd pinned above her breast. Her worldly possessions totaled her Bible and what was left of Miz Myrtie's diamond-studded cameo jewelry. Never in her twenty-three years had she even seen jewels more beautiful than her matching brooch and earrings.
"Of course they're special," she said. "They belonged to a grand lady. Miz Myrtie. Myrtle Reston. Mrs. Rutherford G. Reston. I was her parlor maid. I'm sure you've heard of her. Before she and Mr. Reston moved to New Mexico to improve her health, she was well-known in Shreveport for her good deeds." Linnea swallowed the lump in her throat. "Miz Myrtie went to her greater reward, last summer, several months before my husband answered to his Maker. She left these cameos to me in her will."
"What luck. Valuable jewels to a housemaid."
"Their value isn't counted in dollars. They remind me of a grand lady who was decent and kind, and understanding and sentimental." Linnea closed her suddenly scratchy eyes.
"I don't know about the cameos, but diamonds are valuable."
Better they were made of paste. Then her husband wouldn't have stolen the matching ring, just to lose it in a game of three-card monte. That very same week, Percival Powell also lost his life.
As his widow Linnea had no one to turn to. With the citizens of Shreveport shunning her, she couldn't find work. Finally, she decided to throw herself on the mercy of Miz Myrtie's relocated widower, which meant a trip west. Then along came hope, glorious hope, in the form of Ermentrude Flanders.
As if she read Linnea's mind, Jewel said, "I can't imagine why Ermentrude even offered this exchange."
Jewel knew those reasons; Linnea saw no reason to rehash the situation with Miss Deaf Ears, who just wanted to be hateful. "Ermentrude doesn't want to marry Samson Kincaid. I ache for this chance to become Mrs. Kincaid. I wish her every success in becoming a doctor. Besides, it's not as if I'm doing anything to hurt her, or Mr. Kincaid. I do intend to make him a fine and respectable wife."
"Do you cook?"
"Well ... no."
"How are you at making shirts for your husband?"
"Dad-gum it, Jewel! Refined ladies don't sew any confounded shirts. Rich ladies arrange flowers and make nice homes for their husbands. They have hired help for the shirts and the washing up."
"That's the life you're already on your way to. With that banker in New Mexico. Why don't you go on? He's a widower. I think you should marry your banker."
"He is old enough to be my grandfather. Besides, he would never marry beneath his station." Linnea lowered her voice to the lowest of agitated whispers. "Dang it, Jewell, I'm pushing my luck simply asking Mr. Reston for a job, since he knows about my husband's untimely demise."
"What if Mr. Kincaid discovers the weak points in your charade?"
Linnea sighed. "I guess, well ... I suppose if things don't work out, I can catch the next coach for New Mexico. My ticket is validated to there."
"You don't know much about polite society, even though you seem to think you do." Jewel shook her head of finely textured, straight black hair that looked like it had been cut with a dull knife. "You can't play with a gentleman's emotions for a week, then leave with your reputation intact. You'd have another mark against you when you got to Clovis." She paused before adding, "Surely you're educated enough to understand what I'm saying."
Linnea tried to swallow the panic that seized her throat. "Look, Jewel. I'm not planning to reside at the High Hopes Ranch until after the nuptials. From all Mr. Kincaid and his uncle have written, he can certainly afford to humor me. I'm sure he won't mind putting me up in the hotel you plan to stay in until you can marry Mr. Craig. The Antlers, I believe you called it."
"Got it all figured out, have you?"
"Jewel, it took selling Mr. Powell's horse and saddle — all I had remaining — to pay off his debts and to survive these past months. I —"
"I bet you could sell those cameos for a pretty penny."
"They are not for sale."
"You think wearing jewels will hide your flaws?"
"I wear this jewelry to remember Miz Myrtie. She was like a grandmother to me. I was deeply touched that she cared enough to remember me in her will."
"Just because you hobnobbed with your betters doesn't mean you'll convince Mr. Samson Kincaid that you graduated from the Heaven's Gate School for Young Ladies, same as Ermentrude."
"I have to convince him. Most gentlemen expect a dowry. He won't."
"I don't care if it is hard to find a marriageable lady out on the plains. My dear fiancé described Ermentrude's man as 'tall, dark, handsome, and well fixed.' Considering you aren't the prettiest girl in the state of Texas, you should set your sights lower."
There wasn't much Linnea could do about her looks, but surely she wasn't that awful. Furthermore, the wafer-thin Jewel didn't have room to talk. She looked like she'd never partaken of the meals she'd cooked at the school. Of course, with her mouth of bucked and crooked teeth, she had a lot easier time running her mouth than using it to chew food.
Linnea had had enough of her tormentor's upper hand. "Bite your tongue. Those men are lucky to have us. You can cook and work hard as the foreman's wife, and I will make a proper home for the ranch owner. I do plan to give our marriage all that I can give."
"You have a nerve is all I can say."
"I may not be Venus de Milo, but I doubt we're going to Adonis and Atlas. Anyhow, I don't care about my man's looks. I need shelter and security. Tall, dark, and handsome aren't as important as strength of character."
"So you want a gentleman you can lie to?"
"Dad-gum it, Jewel, stop!"
The scarecrow jacked up a hoity-toity look. "I could tell him the truth. After all, I am the genuine article. Before Mr. Kincaid's uncle wrote the school to ask for the hand of a lady not quite as young as the graduates, I served as chief cook and seamstress at the academy."
"How nice for you," Linnea came back, gritting her teeth.
"I could warn Mr. Kincaid that you are neither eighteen nor a virgin."
You hateful witch! "I guess you'd get a lot of satisfaction, tattling on me."
"You'll tattle on yourself. Once he's in, you'll be out!"
Panicked, Linnea grabbed her unraveling plan. "Don't be silly. He probably won't even notice."
Jewel Bellingham let out a bellow of laughter that displayed a number of her unfortunate teeth. Naturally, the laugh drew the attention of every diner in the place. "You simpleton," she said as soon as the spectators lost interest. "Men can always tell."
"How do you know?"
"Never you mind that. What I want to know is, what are you going to do when the subject comes up?"
I have no earthly idea!
She wanted to marry the Texan. She needed this woman's help. What could she do to get Jewel on her side?
While her wifely arts might be lacking, Linnea had gained an education at the Academy of Hard Knocks. Instinct told her that Jewel Bellingham's loyalty carried a high price. It might be fastened to the breast of Linnea's one last traveling suit. "What if I were to give you this brooch?"
"My loyalty is not for sale."
"I'm not trying to sell it. I am willing to give it to you as a gift. Would you be willing to show your gratitude by promoting my cause?"
"Never in my twenty-nine years have I owned a piece of jewelry ..."
Already Linnea was loosening the catch. "Now you do."
"I never ... Oh! It is so beautiful!" Jewel reached for the brooch with one hand, her fingers crabbing around the treasure. "Oh, happy days! Thank you, Linnea. This is so sweet of you."
Giving up her brooch was a great sacrifice, but ...
At last, Linnea's troubles were over.CHAPTER 2
April Fools' Day, 1904 Lubbock, Texas
With their two rented surreys parked near the corner of the Lubbock stagecoach depot, Sam Kincaid and his uncle, Charlie Craig, waited for their prospective brides. The preacher-man sat nearby. Both bridegrooms shifted their weight from one leg to the other while turning their hats in hand. Over and over and over again.
Thank God the full heat of summer had yet to set in, Sam thought as he swatted at a buzzing insect. This being the first of April, it would soon be hotter than a potbellied stove.
"I always knowed the stage to be late, but I never knowed it to be this late," Brother Frederick Inman of the Heaven's Gate Missionary Church put in. From his seat on a bench that had been nailed to the depot wall, lest some heathen steal the damn thing for wooden building materials, he added, "I don't do weddin's after three p.m. Mrs. Inman and I always carve out that hour for a little siesta."
"Good for you," Sam muttered.
"'Course, I might be talked into going ahead with the weddin's even after three. For another five bucks."
It was this type of greed that annoyed Sam when it came to the preacher who had shown up last summer, straight from the main mission in Shreveport. He'd replaced Brother Theodore Alington — father to Lubbock's sheriff — after Brother Ted tipped over, dead as a doornail, from trying to stop his missus from taking a hatchet to the mahogany bar inside Scarlet Garter Jenny's Saloon.
Not too happy that he and Charlie were already paying this man of the cloth extra to work on Saturday, Sam said dryly, "That's what I like about you, Brother Inman. You not only teach the kindness of Jesus, you also live by the Golden Rule."
Apparently irked, Brother Inman said, "Nature calls, gentlemen." His bulbous nose and rubbery cheeks red as a fire wagon, he added, "Think I'll make a trot out back."
"Do that, Brother Inman," Charlie allowed. Not five seconds after the preacher took off for the outbuildings, he sidled up to his nephew. "You think the girls will be mad when they find out we exaggerated a bit about our houses ... the cattle ... the cotton patch ... ?"
"Of course they'll be mad."
Excerpted from His Make-Believe Bride by Martha Hix. Copyright © 2016 Martha Hix. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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