Maddie O'Rourke has waited a long time for her younger brother and sister to come West, but she never imagined her siblings to have been matchmaking along the way. Hard-working Maddie has built a life for herself, and as the owner of the most popular bakery in Seattle, she's not about to cede her independence to anyone—not even Michael Haggerty, a man she is coming to admire but who has his own past that could be a threat to them all. VERDICT With likable protagonists, a pair of sometimes difficult youngsters, a vivid setting, and an appealing dash of mystery, this sweetly inspirational romance sees an independent frontier woman and a love-wary Irishman find happiness despite the odds. Scott (Frontier Engagement) lives in Tacoma.
Maddie O'Rourke's orphaned half brother and half sister have arrived safely in Seattle–with a man they hope she'll wed! Though Michael Haggerty's not the escort she planned for, Maddie allows him to work off his passage by assisting in her bakery…and helping care for her siblings. But she'll never risk her newfound independence by marrying the strapping Irishman–or anyone else.
In New York, Michael ran afoul of a notorious gang. Traveling west was a necessity, not a choice. The longshoreman grew fond of his young charges, and now he's quickly becoming partial to their beautiful sister, too. So when danger follows him, threatening Maddie and the children, he'll do anything to protect them–and the future he hopes to build.
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Seattle, Washington Territory
Maddie O'Rourke stood on the pier beside Mr. Yesler's mill, waiting for the ship to come in. Every inch of her tingled, from her carefully braided red hair under her green velvet hat to her toes inside the leather boots. After nearly a year of working and striving, she was about to reunite with her little brother and sister.
She shifted on the scarred wooden planks, the bell of her wide russet skirts swinging in the cool fall sunlight. She could hear the whine of saws from the mill, the hammering that told of new buildings going up behind her. Gentlemen crowded around her, ready to receive the passengers and cargo from the sailing ship that had swept into Elliott Bay an hour ago. Among those about to disembark would be Ciara and Aiden. Maddie could only pray, as she had for months, that her brother and sister had forgiven her for abandoning them in New York.
But what else could she have done? Her income then as a laundress had barely been enough to pay her room and board, let alone support two others. She and her half siblings had struggled along for months after Da and her stepmother had been killed in that horrible tenement fire. It had been a dark time for them all, one she'd prefer to forget.
Only the advertisement in the paper, announcing the need for teachers, seamstresses and laundresses in far-off Washington Territory, at exorbitant salaries, had given her hope. She'd managed to scrape together enough money to join the Mercer expedition to Seattle and find a safe place for Ciara and Aiden to stay until she could send for them. But though she had plenty of work here, the costs were high, and she hadn't been able to bring her family to her or pay for a lady to accompany them on the ship.
The brine-scented breeze off the blue waters brushed her cheek, setting her net veil to fluttering and tugging a strand of hair free of her coronet braid. So much had changed in the past few months since her friend Rina Fosgrave had suggested a different future to Maddie. No more was Maddie a nameless laundress lugging pounds of dirty linens up three flights of stairs to labor over a steaming tub as she had in New York. Now she was Miss Madeleine O'Rourke, owner of Seattle's finest bakery, upstanding, respected, admired
"You're a little late on my shirts, Miss Maddie."
Maddie kept her smile polite as she turned to the older logger who stood beside her, his bushy brows furrowed in frustration. If she'd learned anything since starting work at the age of nine, sixteen years ago now, it was to never disappoint a customer. There was always another girl ready to scrub her fingers raw for a penny a shirt. And Maddie was well aware there was another bakery in Seattle.
"My deepest apologies, Mr. Porter," she said, batting her lashes for good measure. "I'll deliver them to the boardinghouse me own self tomorrow at the latest. I can't be keeping my best customer waiting, now, can I?"
At her praise, Mr. Porter turned as red as the flannel sticking out of the neck of his plaid cotton shirt. Stammering his thanks, he ducked his grizzled head and turned away.
Maddie smiled after him. Gentlemen had reacted with endearing embarrassment to her teasing since she was sixteen and her scrawny body had blossomed with curves. She'd heard enough compliments over the years to know the fellows liked the rich color of her fiery hair, the twinkle they claimed resided in her dark brown eyes. Her flirting made all the gentlemen, young and old and in between, smile for a time. There was nothing wrong with that.
But this laundry delivery would be her last. The woman who was coming with Ciara and Aiden could take over the remaining laundry chores, to Maddie's everlasting relief. Whether that lady flirted with her customers was her own choice. Maddie would be focused on making the bakery a success so she could repay entrepreneur Clay Howard every penny he'd invested in her, with interest.
Her nerves tingled again as she turned her gaze once more to the ship. The vessel was a two-masted steamer much like the one that had brought her most of the way here. That ship had been filled with women like her, seeking a better life. This one was bringing her own heart's desire.
A longboat had been lowered over the side, filled with passengers. Were Ciara and Aiden among them? How much longer would she have to wait?
"Nice day for a stroll, eh, Miss Maddie?"
Maddie nodded to the gentleman who had been so bold as to step up to her this time. He was one of the clerks in the Kellogg brothers' mercantile, where she'd bought her supplies for the bakery. "A fine day to be sure, Mr. Weinclef."
He squeezed the rim of the hat in his hands so hard she thought he might strangle the blocked wool. "I'd be happy to stroll with you."
"To the moon and back!" one of his friends called from the edge of the pier, and others laughed.
Mr. Weinclef turned a sickly white.
"Sure-n but you're a sweet gentleman to be offering," Maddie said with a smile designed to turn his friends green with envy. "Perhaps you'd be so kind as to sit with me in services this Sunday."
"I I'd be delighted, ma'am," he said. He seized her hand and pumped it up and down so hard her hat tipped to one side on her braid. "Thank you, thank you so much!"
Maddie managed to retrieve her hand before he scurried off. Righting her hat, she turned once more to the waiting ship. She'd never lacked for gentlemanly company in New York, though she'd been careful to keep from making a commitment. Here in Seattle it was far worse, with needy bachelors falling over themselves to make her acquaintance, seek a moment of her time.
She knew some of the ladies who had come west with her were already betrothed. She'd attended several weddings, been a bridesmaid at two. But that wasn't how she planned to lead her life. She'd seen how hard work and privation could make any marriage a struggle.
Look at Da and his second wife. Look at her life with her father and her late mother in Ireland, for that matter. It seemed love between a husband and wife could not last in adversity. Why pretend otherwise? Why set herself up for more heartache?
She put up her hand to shade her eyes from the sun, already low over the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound. Every yard the longboat bobbed closer, every wave it crested, her body tensed the more.
Oh, please, Lord. I know You have better things to be doing than to deal with the likes of me, but perhaps You could spare a few moments. I tend to speak my mind, and I'm not long on patience. Would You help me make us a family again? Ciara and Aiden deserve that.
The burly-armed sailors were putting their backs into their work as they rowed the boat toward the pier. Now she could make out a girl and a boy nestled among the other passengers, and she thought her heart might push its way out of her fitted bodice, it swelled so much. Oh, how they'd grown! Ciara's hair, a proper brown, was past her shoulders in a thick braid, and wee Aiden's dark head was nearly to the shoulder of his sister's blue coat. The seven-year-old was glancing about with wide eyes as if he'd never seen such a place.
Of course, he hadn't. How strange Seattle must look to him after being raised in Five Points, the Irish neighborhood in New York. When she'd first walked past the whitewashed houses dwarfed by towering firs all around, she'd thought she'd arrived in another world entirely.
She felt a little foreign now. Would her brother and sister talk to her as they used to, sharing their fears, their triumphs? Would they still say their prayers together at night? She couldn't take her gaze off them as the boat bumped the pier and men surged forward to catch the lines, make the boat fast and help the passengers ashore.
Calm now. Show them what a fine lady you've become. Show them that allowing you to go ahead was worth them staying behind.
Her smile felt shaky as she stepped forward.
A man leaped from the boat to land on the pier. She had only a moment to register height and broad shoulders before he turned to lift first Ciara and then Aiden to the planks as if neither weighed more than a feather. His heavy dark blue coat and rough brown trousers made him look like a sailor, but instead of helping the rest of the passengers to alight as the other sailors were doing, he took Ciara's hand in one of his and Aiden's in the other and turned toward Maddie. The look in his eyes was more challenge than welcome. It was almost as if he was Ciara and Aiden's father, determined to lead them into a new life and protect them from any harm.
"Maddie!" Aiden broke from the man and ran toward her. All her resolve to be a grand lady evaporated like fog burning off in the sun. She bent and caught him as he hurtled into her, hugging him close.
"Oh, me darling boy! I've missed you so!"
"Me too." He pulled back and scrunched up his round face. "It took forever to get here."
"It was two months, twenty-six days and four hours," Ciara corrected him as she approached at a more ladylike pace. "But that was a very long time." She glanced up at Maddie with the deep brown eyes they'd inherited from their father. "How nice to see you again, sister."
Though Maddie had longed to hear that word from Ciara, she couldn't help thinking that the girl was even more determined to play the lady than Maddie was. She wasn't sure whether to tease Ciara or respond in kind. Ciara didn't allow her time to choose. She tugged on the sailor's hand, forcing him forward until he nearly bumped into Maddie.
"This is Mr. Michael Haggerty," Ciara announced, gazing up at him with so much pride, Maddie might have thought her sister had sewn him together from whole cloth. "He's come to marry you."
Maddie's head jerked up, and she stepped back to eye the fellow. With hair black as a crow's wing swept back from his square-jawed face and eyes bluer than the Sound on a sunny day, he wasn't a bad-looking sort. There was character in those solid cheekbones, determination in the firm lips. He even nodded respectfully as his gaze met hers. But no amount of good manners and handsome looks was going to win him a place in her affections.
"Mr. Haggerty came all this way for nothing, then," she told them all, raising her chin. "I've no reason to marry, him or any other man, and that's the last that needs to be said on that score."
Michael Haggerty could not imagine a worse way to be introduced to his benefactor. Most ladies he knew would have cried out, demanded an apology at Ciara's announcement that he had come intending marriage. Miss Maddie O'Rourke had given him a proper set-down instead, her declaration softened only by the lilt of an Irish accent that reminded him of his aunt and all he'd left behind.
Now her glare flashed around the pier, daring anyone to disagree with her. Several men ducked away as if afraid she would discover they secretly harbored hopes of winning her.
Best to calm the waters if he wanted a chance at sailing through them.
"I think Miss Ciara is overstating the case," Michael said with a glance at the little girl. Ciara's proud look dripped away like water off a roof. In the time Michael had known her, first at the children's home his aunt kept in New York and later aboard ship, he'd seen the pattern many times. Ciara had been one of the older children at the home, a position that had earned her the respect and awe of most of the others. Her queenly demeanor lasted only until someone disagreed with her, and then she quickly reverted to the unsure eleven-year-old who dwelled inside.
"But he came all this way," she protested to her sister. "He took care of us."
"We like him," Aiden added, slipping his hand back into Michael's. That was Aiden, loyal as the day was long, to each of his sisters, to Michael, to anyone who befriended him. His trembling lower lip was enough to make anyone rethink whatever they'd been doing to cause his distress.
For a moment, Michael thought Aiden's look had touched Maddie as well, for her tension eased. "Glad I am that Mr. Haggerty was so kind to you both," she told her brother. "But that doesn't mean I owe him my hand in marriage."
Ciara stiffened as if she quite disagreed.
"No, ma'am," Michael said before the girl could build up a head of steam again. "I'm the one who owes you a debt. Your money paid for my passage."
Maddie frowned. She had delicate russet-colored brows over a pert nose and the creamiest skin Michael had ever seen. And that hair, thick as coals after a fire and twice as fiery. But a pretty exterior could hide a far less pleasing heart, he'd learned to his sorrow.
"I don't understand," she said. "I asked for a lady to escort my brother and sister, someone who could be helping me at my work."
That's what Aunt Sylvie had been intending to send her, until the threats to Michael's life had convinced her to beg him to go instead. But he didn't want to explain that now, not with people crowding around them on the pier, gazes already curious.
So Michael released his hold on Aiden and saluted as the men on the naval ships in New York harbor had been wont to do. "Able Seaman Michael Haggerty at your service, ma'am."
Her lips tightened until they were a pretty pink bow on her oval face. "I'm not a captain of a ship, Mr. Hag-gerty. I have no use for sailors."
Michael lowered his arm, determined not to give up so easily. "You must have some fixing and carrying that needs to be done, ma'am. All I ask is a chance to repay my debt to you."
She shook her head, threatening the placement of the tiny green hat that perched on her braid. He'd seen a few of those in New York, usually on women who couldn't be bothered to count the cost of the whimsical things.