Read an Excerpt
Seven Brides for Seven Texans
By Erica Vetsch, Amanda Barratt, Susan Page Davis, Keli Gwyn, Vickie McDonough, Gabrielle Meyer, Lorna Seilstad
Barbour Publishing, IncCopyright © 2016 Erica Vetsch
All rights reserved.
January 2, 1874 Hartville, Texas
John Coffee Hays Hart grinned as he looked at the stack of WANTED posters he had just picked up from the Hartville Herald. They draped over his forearm, still warm from the press.
"What do you think?" Hays held up a poster to show his friend, Gage O'Reilly. WANTED: A BRIDE FOR HAYS HART. Hays's grin turned into a chuckle. "For once in my life, I'll be the first to accomplish something before my brothers."
Gage looked over the poster, his blue eyes shaded by the rim of his Stetson. "Do you think it'll work?"
Hays wiggled his eyebrows. "We won't know unless we try."
With Pa's ultimatum still ringing in his ears, Hays no longer had the luxury of waiting to find the perfect mate. He either married by the end of this year or he lost his inheritance: a beautiful portion of land along the Sabinal River.
He surveyed the bustling town of Hartville, named after his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Hart. Dozens of false-front buildings extended from one end of the dusty street to the other, their gray, weathered siding a testament to the hot south-central Texas sun. "Might as well begin at the church and work our way back to the mercantile."
They started toward the end of Main Street, where the white clapboard church was the first building to greet people arriving from the south. Their spurs rang against the wooden boardwalk as they sauntered past friends and neighbors. Hays tipped his hat at Ruby and Julia Brown standing outside the telegraph office. "'Morning, ladies."
Color bloomed in Ruby's cheeks as she batted her pretty eyes under the brim of her bonnet. "'Morning, Hays."
Hays didn't take the time to stop, and the ladies' whispered giggles followed him and Gage to the end of the boardwalk.
"Why the rush to get these hung today?" Gage asked, glancing back at the Brown sisters. "You have a whole year to choose a wife."
"I plan to beat my brothers to the altar." As the youngest of seven brothers, Hays had never been the first to accomplish anything. By the time he was twelve, all but one of his brothers had left the ranch to either fight in the Civil War or start a life outside the 7 Heart Ranch. He'd grown up under the shadow of his brothers' successes. No matter what he did, it had already been done before. "For once, I'd like my pa to look at me with the same pride I see when he talks about Austin and Bowie's heroism in the war, Houston's success as a merchant in California, Travis's medical career, Crockett's work ethic, and Chisholm's job as a Texas Ranger." His voice became serious as he looked at the WANTED poster again. "I'm going to be the first to marry and make my pa proud."
He'd also prove to his family that he was no longer a child.
Gage lifted his Stetson and ran his hand over his wiry blond hair. "I'll do what I can to help." As the best wrangler on the 7 Heart Ranch, Gage was a natural choice to help Hays lasso a wife.
They arrived at the church and Hays handed the stack of posters to Gage. He pried four rusty tacks off a weather-stained advertisement from last summer and positioned the Wanted poster in the very center of the board. He set the tack in place, pounding it with the flat edge of a rock he picked up off the ground.
He made quick work of the second tack and was on the third when the front door opened. A young lady stepped out of the church, her green eyes filled with curiosity as she peered around the edge of the door. "May I help you?"
Hays stopped the rock mid-strike, his attention no longer on the poster but on the beautiful stranger standing before him.
Gage quickly doffed his hat. "We're just tacking a poster onto the bulletin board."
She glanced at the board, as if seeing it for the first time. "Oh, I didn't realize there was a bulletin board. I thought someone was vandalizing the chur —" Her response was cut off as she bent forward and studied Hays's poster.
Hays backed up to give her a better view, his chest puffing out just a bit.
She stood straight, incredulity arching her eyebrows. "Wanted: A Bride for Hays Hart?" She glanced from Gage to Hays. "Who is Hays Hart?"
Hays leaned against the side of the building, his arms crossed. "I'd much rather know who you are," he said, affecting a drawl. "I thought I knew everyone in town."
She lifted her chin a notch — barely enough for Hays to notice. "I just arrived after Christmas." Her dark brown curls were gathered loosely at the back, and a white blouse was cinched with a red sash at her slender waist. A long black skirt came down to the tops of her polished boots. Everything about her was in its proper place — yet somehow she looked as out of place in Texas as a snowstorm in July. "I'm the new teacher. Miss Longley." She sized up Hays with one quick glance. "I presume you're Mr. Hays Hart?"
He grinned, knowing his dimples would flash and hoping they would charm her like they had so many others. He lifted his hat and offered a grand bow. "The one and only."
She didn't look impressed. "Are you George Washington Hart's son?"
"Right, again." He dropped his hat onto his head and tried to coax a smile from her — but to no avail. She looked more and more vexed by the minute.
"Does Mr. Hart condone this ... this ..." She indicated the poster with a wave of her slender white hand. "This advertisement?"
Gage lowered his head and allowed the brim of his Stetson to cover his face.
"As a matter of fact" — Hays tossed the rock into the air and caught it with a flourish — "he's the one who suggested I look for a wife."
Her arms fell to her sides, a bit of bluster fading away. "I can hardly believe it."
Hays deliberately pounded the last tack in place. "I'm looking for a wife, and anyone can apply, whether they've lived here all their life, or" — he winked — "they're new in town."
Her long lashes fluttered against her high cheekbones. "I can't allow you to post that here."
"I think that should be up to the pastor — and besides, this is a community board. It's been used for years to advertise anything and everything."
She straightened her back and looked every inch the schoolteacher. "As the pastor's daughter, I believe I can speak on his behalf. I know he'll insist you take it down."
"Well." Hays tossed the rock onto the ground. "Until he does, here it will stay." Something about the pure exasperation in her stance made Hays want to stay and tease her a bit more, but he had chores waiting for him back at the ranch, and there were still several dozen posters to hang. "Good day, Miss Longley." He wiped his hands on his trousers. "I do hope to see you again soon."
One of her hands slipped up to rest on her hip while the other pointed at the board. "Mr. Hart, I demand you remove that poster, or ..."
"Or?" He waited, loving how the rosy tint in her cheeks made her eyes look even greener. So much about this woman intrigued him.
"Or I–I'll remove it myself — and any other poster you hang in town. It's unseemly!"
He lifted the stack off Gage's arm. "Don't worry. There are more where these came from."
She let out a frustrated breath, but he didn't stop to acknowledge it.
"That could have gone better," Gage said with a nervous laugh.
"Maybe." Hays glanced behind him and chuckled when he saw her taking down his poster. "Maybe not." He had never met a woman who responded to him the way Miss Longley had. It was a refreshing change.
He turned his attention back to the blacksmith's, already looking forward to the next time he'd encounter the new schoolteacher.
* * *
Emma Longley clutched the WANTED poster as she watched Hays Hart cross the street. Of all the nerve! Who would advertise for a bride in such a distasteful manner? Was he serious?
"I see you've met my favorite Hart."
Emma turned at the sweet sound of her new friend, Constance Prescott. Connie stood in a black mourning gown and bonnet, a small Bible in her gloved hand. Her black eyes revealed the recent pain of losing her mother, yet her gentle smile showed her resilience. She came to the church every morning to pray, and the unexpected friendship was the one bright spot in Emma's short time in Hartville.
"If he's your favorite," Emma said, "I can't imagine what the others are like."
The edges of Connie's eyes crinkled as her smile widened. "They're all wonderful, but Hays and I went to school together, and we've been good friends for years. He may be a little unpredictable, but he's one of the nicest men in town."
"Nice?" Emma crumpled the poster. "He's arrogant and stubborn — not to mention improper. He's advertising for a bride."
Connie brought the worn Bible up to her lips as she giggled. "Oh, Hays."
"You're not shocked?"
"When it comes to Hays, nothing could shock me." Connie lifted the hem of her gown and walked up the steps to join Emma. "He's the youngest of the Hart sons and doesn't quite fit in with the rest of them. They all tend to be serious — but Hays is different. I know you'll come to like him."
Emma stole a glimpse across the road, unable to keep her gaze off the handsome man. "I don't see how."
Connie smiled at Emma and then opened the front door. "Are you getting settled in the school?"
Emma followed Connie inside the building, happy to change the subject. "It hasn't been easy." The church also served as the schoolhouse for the children of Hartville. The winter term would begin in four days, but it was almost impossible to prepare with everyone coming and going. Papa dropped in regularly to prepare for his first service on Sunday, and several people had stopped by to meet the new pastor.
"What this town needs is a separate schoolhouse." Emma went to the front of the room, where her desk was pushed back against the wall.
Connie walked to the front pew, which also served as a desk, and took a seat. She removed her gloves and set them on the desk next to her Bible. "There's no money to build one. Some former teachers have made the same request, but they're often met with resistance from the citizens of Hartville, so they don't pursue the idea."
"Resistance?" Emma gathered several Texas history books she had been studying and took her reticule from the top drawer. Just like all the other times people came to pray, Emma felt it best to leave. It caused a great deal of interruption in her daily routine, but the building was first and foremost a church.
"Yes. People in Hartville have a hard time changing, or giving up their hard-earned money when they already have a perfectly good building for the school."
"But don't they understand how inconvenient it is for everyone?"
Connie lifted her delicate shoulder. "I can't say."
Emma hugged the heavy stack of books in her arms. "I plan to speak to the superintendent of the school and see what can be done."
"I thought you were planning to go back to Minnesota in March."
"I am, but I can do something for the children before I leave." Emma's parents had hoped she'd stay in Texas, but already she was homesick for her work with the Ojibwe Indians. She would fulfill her teaching contract in Hartville and go home at the end of the winter term. "Surely I can make a difference in that amount of time."
Connie offered an encouraging smile and then lifted her Bible.
"I'll leave you to your prayers." Emma walked to the back of the church and let herself out quietly.
Hartville teemed with activity on this second morning of 1874. The dusty streets and dry land around the town were nothing like the countryside of her beloved Minnesota. Back home, the lakes and rivers would be frozen over, the land would be covered under a blanket of snow, and the branches of large elm, oak, and maple would be bare against the pale winter sky. Ice-skating, sledding, cross-country skiing, and hot cocoa around a fireplace were but some of the things she missed.
Emma walked across the road toward the blacksmith's shop, where Mr. Cochrane, the school superintendent, had entered every day at this time.
The history books were a bit cumbersome in her arms, but she didn't want to take the time to carry them to the parsonage, which sat just behind the church. Instead, she walked through the open doors of the smithy and inspected the interior.
The ringing of hammer against anvil met her ears, and she was surprised to find several men in the building. It appeared to be a popular meeting place. Many of them doffed their caps at her and she nodded a cordial greeting.
Mr. Cochrane turned and smiled, his large mustache touching the bottom of his nose. "Miss Longley, it's nice to see you again. Looks like you've got your hands full."
"Yes, I just came from the church — school." She stood awkwardly. "I actually came to speak to you about the school."
"Oh? Can't it wait until the school board meetin' next month?"
"I'm afraid not." She had very little time in Hartville, so she must make the most of every moment.
Mr. Cochrane glanced at his fellow companions. Many of them gave him good-natured grins. "I'm about to start a game of cribbage with these men. Make it quick."
She cleared her throat. The heat and smoke from the blacksmith's fire made her eyes water. "I'd like to discuss building a new schoolhouse."
"A what?" Mr. Cochrane's bushy eyebrows came together in a V.
"A schoolhouse — one separate from the church. It's extremely inconvenient to share the school with the church."
"You haven't even started teaching yet, and you're inconvenienced?" Mr. Cochrane looked to his companions, who nodded agreement. "The church has served us quite well until now."
"I haven't taught — yet — but I've been there every day this week, and I can already surmise the complications that will ensue."
"Big words for such a purdy lady," a man with white whiskers said. He turned his head and a stream of brown tobacco juice flew from his mouth into a spittoon.
Emma tried not to gag.
"We have one of them highfalutin women on our hands again, Jake," said another who was tall and spindly. "Nothing's good enough for them."
"That's not true," Emma said quickly, her cheeks warming at the accusation. "I simply want what's best for —"
"Miss Longley, this is a modest town," Mr. Cochrane said with a deep drawl. "We don't take much, and we don't ask for much. We make do with what we have."
"But a schoolhouse is necessary for the advancement of civilization."
"There she goes again, talkin' all fancy-like," the man with white whiskers said, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve.
"A schoolhouse would cost a lot of money to build," Mr. Cochrane added. "Money we don't have."
"The only people in town with money are the Harts," said a younger cowboy who leaned against a dirty worktable. "Why don't you go ask GW?"
"Mr. Hart?" If he was anything like his son, she'd rather not make his acquaintance — besides, the town needed to raise their own money and take ownership of the school. It was everyone's responsibility. "I'd prefer not ask him."
"I can't help you," Mr. Cochrane said. "There's not enough money for a new school building."
"What if I raise the money myself?"
The white-whiskered man whistled under his breath. "Fancy and rich? Where were you when I was younger?"
"Hush up, Willie." Mr. Cochrane turned back to Emma. "You're telling me you've got enough money to spare?"
"No. I thought we could hold a fund-raiser."
Mr. Cochrane snorted. "If you think you can raise enough money for a school in this town, be my guest."
The other men laughed.
Emma repositioned the books. "Then I have your permission?"
Mr. Cochrane spread out his arms. "Permission granted."
"You'd save yourself some time if you just ask GW," the young man said.
Emma glanced at the men, frustration strengthening her determination. She would raise enough money for a school, and she wouldn't need to ask Mr. Hart.
"Good day, gentlemen." She left the building — but paused when she saw the WANTED poster Hays had tacked up near the entrance to the blacksmith's shop. With a sigh, she maneuvered the books to one hand and removed Hays's poster from the wall.
Her books toppled out of her grasp, and she clumsily tried to save them. "Oh, dear." They fell into a misshapen pile in the dirt.
She bent to retrieve them just as a shadow loomed overhead.
Emma looked up and stared into the laughing eyes of Hays Hart.
Thankfully she was already near the ground, since his charming grin threatened to make her knees weak.CHAPTER 2
Hays squatted and lifted the first book within reach, A Comprehensive Survey of Texas History. The tome was surprisingly heavy, and it was only one of several Miss Longley had been carrying.
"Looks like you dropped something," he said.
Without looking at him, she took the book and then proceeded to stack the rest in an organized pile, largest to smallest.
His torn poster was on the dirt next to her. Without another word, Hays stood and removed an extra poster from his back pocket. He unfolded it and tacked it in place. "Good thing I had one left over."
Miss Longley sent a frustrated look in his direction and then finished arranging the books.
"Here." He scooped up the stack in an effortless sweep of his hands. "I'll be happy to carry these for you."
"That won't be necessary." She stood and tried to take them, but he stepped out of her reach.
"Are you heading back to the church?" he asked.
Her hat was askew and a dark tendril of hair hung over her eye. She blew at it, but it refused to leave her pretty forehead alone. "I am going to the parsonage — and I can carry my own books."
Excerpted from Seven Brides for Seven Texans by Erica Vetsch, Amanda Barratt, Susan Page Davis, Keli Gwyn, Vickie McDonough, Gabrielle Meyer, Lorna Seilstad. Copyright © 2016 Erica Vetsch. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.