Mail order sweetheart, p.1

Mail Order Sweetheart, page 1

 

Mail Order Sweetheart
 



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Mail Order Sweetheart


  The Husband Hunt

  Theater singer Fiona O’Keefe is on a quest to form the perfect family for her orphaned niece. It’s a shame handsome and musically talented Sawyer Evans can’t support a household on his sawmill-manager wages. Fiona needs a respectable gentleman of means. And if she can’t find one in Singapore, Michigan, then she’ll just have to look for a husband in the mail-order want ads...

  Sawyer doesn’t want Fiona to marry a stranger...or anyone other than him. It would be easy to reveal that he’s secretly heir to a railroad fortune. But Sawyer’s determined to be a self-made man, so he isn’t willing to take his father’s money. Instead, can he prove to Fiona that the man she needs is already by her side?

  “Sawyer!” Fiona called out.

  This time he turned toward her. After giving the coil of rope to another man, he loped down the short distance and relieved her of the blankets.

  “Take my arm,” he said.

  The security of his strength washed over her. He would help her. He would ensure her niece was safe.

  “Must help...” she began, but could get no further before gasping for breath.

  They managed the last few yards to the top of the dune. There Sawyer released her and returned the blankets to her care.

  She caught his arm. “You need to rescue them.”

  He shook his head. “Don’t know if we can with those waves.”

  “You must. You must.” She hung on him with desperation. “My niece. She’s only seven. She could be on that ship.”

  His expression, highlighted in the eerie light of the lighthouse, twisted with concern. “I’ll do what I can.”

  A small-town girl, Christine Johnson has lived in every corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. She enjoys creating stories that bring history to life while exploring the characters’ spiritual journeys. Though Michigan is still her home base, she and her seafaring husband also spend time exploring the Florida Keys and other fascinating locations. You can contact her through her website at christineelizabethjohnson.com.

  Books by Christine Johnson

  Love Inspired Historical

  Boom Town Brides

  Mail Order Mix-Up

  Mail Order Mommy

  Mail Order Sweetheart

  The Dressmaker’s Daughters

  Groom by Design

  Suitor by Design

  Love by Design

  Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com for more titles.

  Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!

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  CHRISTINE

  JOHNSON

  Mail Order Sweetheart

  And ye shall know the truth,

  and the truth shall make you free.

  —John 8:32

  For my sister, Donna,

  who taught me a lot about strength.

  To God be the glory.

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Epilogue

  Dear Reader

  Excerpt from Taking on Twins by Mollie Campbell

  Chapter One

  Singapore, Michigan

  March 1871

  Sawyer Evans stared at what his friends had written. The piece of stationery gleamed white against the oak store counter, but the words leaped off the page.

  He shoved the paper across the counter. “I’m not ready for this.”

  “Neither was I,” Roland Decker said with a grin, “but it was the best thing that ever happened. I’ve never been happier.”

  His bride of nearly three months curled under Roland’s arm and gave him the sort of look that Sawyer dreamed of getting just once—especially from a particular redhead—but placing an advertisement for a wife was not the answer. This idea of theirs would only bring trouble.

  “If I remember right,” he pointed out, “the advertisement that brought Pearl and the other ladies west was supposed to give your brother a wife, not you.”

  Roland shrugged. “He did get a wife, and he’s just as happy as I am.”

  Pearl, Roland’s wife, nodded emphatically. “Now that you’re manager at the sawmill, you can settle down.”

  “Not yet.” Sawyer dreamed of opening his own business, not running someone else’s. Marriage would only drain his savings. Even a frugal wife brought added expenses, and the only woman who’d interested him was definitely not frugal.

  “Garrett would tell you it’s an advantage,” Roland said.

  Sawyer lifted an eyebrow. “Your brother stayed a widower for two years while he managed the mill. He has children. I don’t. Thus, no need for a wife.”

  Pearl grinned. “Not even a certain redhead?”

  Fiona O’Keefe. From the moment Sawyer met her last August, the beautiful woman with the fiery hair and temper had piqued his curiosity. She, on the other hand, barely noticed his existence except when she needed an accompanist for her concerts. She had graced the stages and cafés in New York City with her clear soprano voice, yet came to the lumber town of Singapore in answer to the advertisement that gave Garrett a wife. It made no sense. She could have married easily in New York. Why travel hundreds of miles to a lumber town in search of a husband? He’d watched and listened, but in seven months he still hadn’t discovered why she’d come here. Or why she was so desperate to marry.

  Sawyer shook his head. “Fiona has set her cap on that ne’er-do-well Blakeney.”

  The timber speculator had come to town in January, purportedly looking for a location for a new sawmill, but Sawyer had seen enough manipulators before to recognize Blakeney as one of that breed. Unfortunately, Fiona only noticed the man’s fancy clothes and lofty intentions. From nearly the moment Blakeney arrived on Singapore’s docks, she’d hung on his arm. Sawyer had tried to warn her and got a tongue-lashing for his trouble.

  “Then you need to show her what she’s missing.” Pearl jotted something on the paper and pushed it back toward him. “Fight fire with fire, I say. These tweaks should capture her attention.”

  Sawyer read the opening line and shook his head. “Up and coming industrial magnate?” Little did Pearl know how close to the truth she’d come. Sawyer wanted nothing to do with that old life, where he was known as Paul Evanston, heir to the Belmont & Evanston Railway. In Singapore he earned an honest wage by the sweat of his brow. It felt good. He slept well at night, knowing he’d done his best to help others, not bleed them dry like Father did. He wanted no part of his father’s manipulation and unethical dealings. “All I do is work the saws in the mill.”

  “You’re now mill manager,” Roland said, “which is one step closer to becoming a captain of industry.”

  “A lot of steps away.”

  “Who knows where this could lead?” Pearl said. “Mr. Stockton might think so highly of your skills that he asks you to
oversee operations along this entire side of the state.”

  “Far-fetched at best.” Stockton seldom visited, least of all promoted. “If anyone catches his attention, it’d be you, Roland.”

  His friend grinned. “You never know. Mr. Stockton has an eye for men with potential.”

  Sawyer squirmed. He didn’t want to gain the lumber baron’s attention. Stockton could well know Father and bring the man back into Sawyer’s life. “I intend to earn any promotion through hard work.”

  “No one said you wouldn’t.” Pearl looked to her husband for confirmation. “I believe in you. We both believe in you.”

  “Fiona doesn’t.” He tore up the sheet of paper. “This will only bring trouble. Or don’t you remember that the advertisement for your brother attracted too many women? This would do the same.”

  “Not if it only goes in the local newspaper.” Pearl tapped a finger on the counter with each statement, as if she were instructing him the way she taught the schoolchildren. “The Singapore Sentinel circulates only in the immediate area. Few would see it. There aren’t many women of marriageable age here.”

  “That’s not the point. I don’t want to marry. Not now, anyway. And when I am ready, I don’t need any help finding a wife.” Sawyer had to put a stop to this ridiculous matchmaking effort.

  “You might change your mind if Fiona shows interest.” Pearl was already piecing the paper together. “Or would you be interested in Louise?”

  Sawyer snatched a handful of scraps from Pearl. “You know I have no interest in Mrs. Smythe.” The petite widow was quiet and bookish, not at all his type. He preferred Fiona’s high spirits.

  Pearl brushed aside the remaining scraps of paper and pulled out a clean sheet of paper. “You wouldn’t have to meet anyone since the advertisement instructs interested parties to write in care of the mercantile. Give it a try. What do you have to lose? You just might gain Fiona’s attention.” She began to write.

  “And make her forget Blakeney,” Roland added.

  “Enough!” Sawyer raised his hands. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it’s not the right time.”

  The mercantile’s doorbell jingled. Seconds later, Jimmy, the lad who helped out the Deckers, appeared at the counter.

  “He’s gone.” Jimmy managed between gulps of air.

  “Who’s gone?” Pearl asked.

  “Him.” Jimmy waved in the air. “Mr. Blakeney.”

  “Gone?” Sawyer stared at the boy. “You must be mistaken. He was going to take Fiona to the choir concert in Saugatuck. They probably left early.”

  “No, sir.” Jimmy shook his head. “I was over to Saugatuck delivering that cloth Mrs. Wardman ordered and I seen him ridin’ out of town like his horse got spooked. So I went and asked the livery boy where he was off to, and he said Mr. Blakeney paid up his bill at the hotel and was headed upriver to Allegan.”

  “Paid up his hotel bill?” Sawyer echoed. He looked at Roland and Pearl, who had equally astonished looks on their faces. “If he paid up, then that means just one thing.”

  “He’s gone,” Pearl and Roland said at the same time.

  “And he’s not coming back.”

  “Someone has to tell Fiona,” Pearl said, her gaze fixed on Sawyer.

  “Oh, no.” Sawyer backed away. “This sort of thing is better coming from a woman.”

  “It’s better coming from someone who can console her and perhaps step into the missing man’s place,” Pearl pointed out.

  More matchmaking. Nothing Sawyer had said made a bit of difference. He liked Fiona, but taking Blakeney’s place might suggest he was interested in more than friendship.

  “The time’s not right.”

  Pearl set a stack of papers on the counter. “Roland and I have to work tonight. She needs to hear this from a friend. You could ease her disappointment by taking her to the concert.”

  Sawyer knew defeat when he saw it. He threw up his hands and headed for the boardinghouse.

  * * *

  In the privacy of her room, Fiona O’Keefe reread the stunning letter. She wanted to talk some sense into her next-youngest sister, Lillibeth, but there was no time to send a return letter. Singapore didn’t have a telegraph office, which left Fiona without any means to respond.

  She shoved the letter in the envelope and rubbed her aching temples. What was she going to do? Lillibeth had done the unthinkable, and somehow Fiona would have to pick up the pieces.

  “Not now,” she groaned.

  Two months of effort were about to come to fruition. Mr. Carson Blakeney, who’d come to Singapore to find a good location for his new sawmill, was ready to propose. She could sense it. He just needed that last little push. Her niece couldn’t show up now, not until she broached the subject with Carson.

  Time had run out. Little Mary Clare could arrive any day now. Lillibeth hadn’t been clear about that part, so Fiona had to be ready. Tonight she would secure a marriage proposal from Mr. Blakeney. If not...

  Well, there were no other options. She tucked the missive into the bureau drawer and slammed it shut. The sound reverberated through the boardinghouse. That was that. The time for gentle persuasion was over. Tonight she would employ direct pressure and pray the man didn’t dart away like a frightened rabbit.

  What was Lillibeth thinking? A child of seven should not travel across the country without the accompaniment of a known and trusted adult. The thought of that poor motherless child alone and frightened tugged on her heartstrings. When Mary Clare’s mother and Fiona’s older sister Maeve died, Fiona promised to care for Maeve’s only child. She was doing her best to marry respectably so she could do just that. It meant leaving Mary Clare in Lillibeth’s care temporarily, but Fiona sent every dollar she could back to New York. Granted, that hadn’t been much lately, but Lillibeth shouldn’t have run short unless she was spending that money elsewhere.

  Fiona pulled the letter out of the drawer and unfolded it. Oh, yes. Lillibeth complained of hardship at home. Fiona’s purse was nearly empty. She hadn’t any extra to send until the concerts began again at the hotel. But she’d sent plenty over the last year. A little care could make that stretch over these lean months, but apparently once the flow of money had dwindled, Lillibeth—or more likely that worthless husband of hers—had decided to send poor Mary Clare to her.

  There’s this group a orphans headin’ west, Lillibeth had written, an the matron said she’ll take real good care a Mary Clare.

  Orphans! The poor girl must think she’d been abandoned. Why couldn’t Lillibeth wait? Though Fiona’s efforts to find a husband in New York had ended in scandal, she was doing her best here.

  Last August, Fiona had arrived in Singapore in answer to an advertisement for a bride. Unfortunately, two other women also arrived with the same intent. In January, the groom, Garrett Decker, married one of them. When Carson arrived later that month, Fiona shifted her efforts to him.

  Now it was late March. The snow had melted. The ice on the river had broken up, and the sawmill had roared to life when the first logs floated downstream. She had one last chance, and she had to seize it. Tonight.

  The door to her room opened a crack.

  “Are you busy?” Louise Smythe peered through the opening.

  The short, mousy woman—and competitor for a husband—had recently moved back to the boardinghouse after losing her position as companion to the ailing Mrs. Elder.

  “Not any longer.” Fiona tucked the letter into the bureau drawer beneath her unmentionables. Louise wouldn’t read it. Fiona had tested her when she first arrived. Louise hadn’t touched the note that Fiona placed in the bureau while Louise was watching.

  “I didn’t want to disturb you,” the widow said, still from behind the door.

  “It’s your room too.” Fiona pinned a bright red curl in place
. Men loved hair piled high atop a woman’s head with curls cascading to the shoulders, and Carson was no exception. She had been blessed with thick, naturally curling locks in a hue that drew attention. “You can come in whenever you wish.”

  Louise must have had to tiptoe around the Elders’ house. Either that or she was simply too meek to barge into her own room. When Captain Elder shuttered his house and took his wife to Chicago for better medical treatment, Louise had lost her position. Though the kindly couple offered to let her stay in the house, Louise had refused, saying she didn’t want to live alone. Fiona had offered to share her room. Louise thought her generous, but the lack of paying concerts over the winter had depleted Fiona’s funds.

  Louise opened the door a little wider. “I wouldn’t have bothered you, but you have a caller.”

  “Carson!” The time had arrived. Fiona straightened the skirts of her green silk gown and then plucked a lavish necklace from her small jewelry box. She placed the sparkling diamond and emerald jewels—all glass—around her neck and then admired the effect in the mirror.

  “What do you think?”

  Louise stepped into the room for a closer look but then hesitated. “It’s...ostentatious.”

  “Osten-what?”

  Louise’s gaze darted to the door. “Uh, like something the very wealthy might wear.”

  “Precisely.” Fiona returned her attention to the mirror. “Hopefully, it’s enough.”

  “Enough?”

  “To secure an offer.” Fiona adjusted the lace edging on her gown.

  “Um, Mr. Blakeney isn’t the one calling for you.”

  “What? Who then? I’m expecting Carson. He’s escorting me to Saugatuck for the choir’s performance of Handel’s Messiah.”

  “That might be the case,” Louise said slowly, “but Mr. Evans is the one paying a call at the moment.”

  Fiona bit back irritation. She did not have time to waste on Sawyer Evans. He was a fine accompanist and an uncommonly attractive man, but his prospects were dim to say the least. She hadn’t worked so hard to sing on the New York stage only to throw her future away on a sawmill worker. She must marry for Mary Clare’s sake, but not to just anyone. Her future husband must hold a position of authority. A tidy nest egg would help too. Carson fit her criteria perfectly.

 
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