Mail order bride switch, p.1

Mail-Order Bride Switch, page 1

 

Mail-Order Bride Switch
 


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Mail-Order Bride Switch


  His Imposter Bride

  Garret Stevenson must find a bride or forfeit his newly built hotel. With his deadline approaching, he plans an in-name-only marriage with a maid who’ll cook and clean for his guests. When a pampered, pretty heiress arrives instead, the deception confirms Garret’s distrust of women. But Virginia Winterman has more substance than her elegant clothes suggest.

  Fleeing West to escape a cruel suitor, Virginia finds a business arrangement with Whisper Creek’s brusque hotel owner is mutually beneficial, and she relishes being useful. Yet what was once a practical solution soon blossoms into a deeper union. Can Garret get past old betrayals before his future with Virginia slips away?

  “You do not have to earn your way, Virginia. You’re my wife. It’s my duty to take care of you. As for Millie, she had entered an additional agreement with me to act as a maid and cook for a wage. I do not expect you to do the same.”

  You’re my wife. Her heart pounded. If only she were his wife. His loved wife. Instead of a duty. She lowered her head lest he discern the turmoil of emotions reflected on her face. Emotions that unsettled and confused her.

  “Do you understand?”

  “Yes. I understand.” What you are saying. Not what is in your eyes.

  “We’d better go in now. Before you get cold.”

  She wasn’t at all cold. She was warm from his touch and the look in his eyes. She nodded and they started forward side by side. She looked at the road ahead and fought back tears. It was both too long and too short. Nothing was simple anymore.

  Award-winning author Dorothy Clark lives in rural New York. Dorothy enjoys traveling with her husband throughout the United States doing research and gaining inspiration for future books. Dorothy believes in God, love, family and happy endings, which explains why she feels so at home writing stories for Love Inspired Books. Dorothy enjoys hearing from her readers and may be contacted at dorothyjclark@hotmail.com.

  Books by Dorothy Clark

  Love Inspired Historical

  Stand-In Brides

  His Substitute Wife

  Wedded for the Baby

  Mail-Order Bride Switch

  Pinewood Weddings

  Wooing the Schoolmarm

  Courting Miss Callie

  Falling for the Teacher

  A Season of the Heart

  An Unlikely Love

  His Precious Inheritance

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

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  DOROTHY CLARK

  Mail-Order Bride Switch

  Who can find a virtuous woman?

  for her price is far above rubies.

  The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her...

  —Proverbs 31:10–11

  To my readers. Thank you for your years of faithfulness. I am so very grateful.

  To my editor, Shana Asaro—I so appreciate your wonderful editing talent, your kindness and patience, your willingness to answer my questions and much, much more. I will miss working with you.

  To the art department—thank you for the beautiful covers you have designed for my books over the years. I truly appreciate your talent and hard work.

  And to Sam, my critique partner and friend. Once again, thank you. I don’t know what’s ahead—but I sure hope you’ll be with me.

  “Commit thy works unto the Lord,

  and thy thoughts shall be established.”

  —Proverbs 16:3

  Your Word is truth. Thank You, Jesus.

  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

  Chapter Twenty

  Dear Reader

  Excerpt from The Unconventional Governess by Jessica Nelson

  Chapter One

  Medicine Bow Mountains, Wyoming Territory

  January 1869

  Garret Stevenson kicked the snow off his boots, climbed the steps to the roofed platform of the Union Pacific Railroad station and stopped. Light from the train’s lamp pierced the deepening twilight. Snowflakes shimmered in its gleam, were swallowed by the smoke the wind wrenched from the stack. He slid his gaze over the few passengers whose business had driven them from the train to brave the winter cold. There was only one woman among them. She had to be the one. His chest tightened. The flames in the oil lamps flickered and snow swirled through the frigid air, making vision difficult. He clenched his jaw, yanked the brim of his hat lower and started forward, noted the woman’s fur-trimmed hat and coat and stopped. The woman couldn’t be Millie Rourk. No maid would wear such a costly coat and hat. Or carry a fur muff. He frowned and swerved toward the passenger car.

  A gust of wind swept across the platform, and he caught a flash of white from the corner of his eye and glanced back. The woman had stepped behind the partial protection of one of the platform posts and was struggling to hold down her long skirts. Why didn’t she go back aboard the train, out of the weather? A stronger gust of wind hit, whipping her skirts into a frenzy. He stiffened, stared down at the two black leather valises revealed by her flapping skirts. Was he wrong? Was she Millie Rourk?

  He skimmed his gaze back up the opulent dark red velvet of her fur-trimmed coat. No, his first instinct had to be right. The woman was obviously rich and pampered.

  The train whistle blasted its signal of imminent departure. A few soldiers hurried by him, leaped down the steps and trotted to the passenger car. The conductor glanced his way. He leaned over the railing and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Is there a woman yet to detrain?”

  The conductor shook his head, grabbed the metal railing and leaped onto the passenger car’s small boarding porch.

  His stomach churned. He raised his voice over the moan of the wind. “Was there another woman passenger aboard for Whisper Creek who missed—”

  The conductor jabbed a gloved finger toward the station platform. “Only her.”

  He turned, looked at the woman being buffeted by the gale. She was staring at the train, a lost expression on her face.

  “All aboard!”

  The wind carried the words over his shoulders. A door slammed behind him. The train lurched, rolled forward and picked up speed. His stomach soured. His hands clenched. Where was Millie Rourk? She must have missed an earlier switch of trains. And that meant the earliest she could arrive was tomorrow morning. And that was too close to his contract deadline for comfort. What if she didn’t make it on time? He stiffened, his pulse throbbing. Or—what was most likely—she could have never intended to come in the first place and had simply taken his money. He should have known better than to trust a woman! Not that he should be surprised. If your own mother deserted you, why should you expect decent behavior from any woman!

  Well, there was nothing he could do about it now. He would know for certain tomorrow morning when t
he train arrived. Maybe John Ferndale would give him a little more time when he explained.

  He slapped the snow from his hat and collar and looked across the empty platform toward the woman. She was tugging one of her valises toward the station door. He shot a quick glance down the road toward town. There was no one in sight. The woman would need help getting to wherever she was going. Perhaps he had found a client for his hotel. He crossed the platform, his boots thudding against the snowy planks. “Pardon me...”

  She lifted her head and blinked, her bright blue eyes fastened on him.

  “Are you expecting someone to come for you, or—”

  “Y-yes. Are you, M-M—” Her teeth chattered. She frowned, tried again. “Mr. Steven-s-son?”

  He stared. “Miss Rourk?” He’d found his bride—unless she froze to death.

  “I—I’m—” A shudder shook her.

  His manners overcame his shock. “I’m Garret Stevenson, but that can wait. You need to get inside where it’s warm before we talk, Miss Rourk.” He grabbed her valises, carried them to the top of the steps and returned. “This way.” He placed his hand at the small of her back to steady her against the driving wind, gripped her elbow with his other hand and helped her down the steps. He turned back and grabbed a valise in each gloved hand, crooked his elbow her direction. “Take my arm and hang on. My hotel is not far, but you’re so slight, the wind will blow you away.”

  * * *

  “We’re here.”

  Virginia shivered and lifted her head, but the snowfall was too thick to see the building. Garret Stevenson helped her up three snow-covered steps, across a plank porch and through a door—painted dark plum, from the little she saw of it in the flickering light of the side lamps. He stomped his boots on a braided rug, then led her straight across the large room toward the end of a stairway climbing the back wall. She caught a glimpse of a long desk standing parallel to the stairs, and an open cupboard of small cubbyholes hanging on the wall behind it. Warmth from the fire in a stone fireplace caressed her cold face as they walked by. She cast a longing look at the seductive flames and shivered her way after him.

  The room they entered was small, well furnished. His private quarters? Her heart lurched. He put the two valises on the floor at the end of a short hallway on their left and motioned toward a settee and two chairs facing a fire on a stone hearth on the right side of the room. “You can warm yourself by the fire while I get some coffee. Then we’ll talk.” He strode toward a door in the wall beyond the fireplace and disappeared.

  Another shiver shook her. She glanced at a rough wool jacket hanging from one of the pegs beneath a shelf on the wall beside her, then turned and hurried toward the fire. Her long skirts whispered against an oval, fringe-trimmed Oriental rug as she crossed the room. She shook the snow from her fur muff into the fire, laid it on the arm of a chair and did the same with her hat.

  Then we’ll talk.

  Her heart thudded. He thought she was Millie—however would she explain? This whole situation was ludicrous. And it would never have come to be if only her father believed her instead of Emory Gladen. But Emory always had a charming excuse for his small cruelties. She brushed the snow from her shoulders and removed her gloves, reminded herself she was doing Garret Stevenson a good turn by coming to Whisper Creek to marry him. To marry him! Her cold fingers fumbled at the buttons in the fur placket that ran down the front of her coat to its hem. She shrugged out of the heavy velvet garment, gave it a brisk shake, then hurried back across the room to hang her things on the pegs. She placed her hat beside a man’s wool hat already on the shelf.

  The warmth of the fire wooed her back to the hearth, coaxed the chill from her flesh. Snow melted off her long curls and made cold damp spots on the back of her dark brown wool gown. She leaned her head back and shook her hair, tried to rub away the dull throbbing in her temples and remember the story she had rehearsed.

  Footsteps drew her attention. She opened her eyes. Garret Stevenson came into the room still wearing his coat and hat. He was carrying two large cups, the steam from them rising to hover like clouds over his hands.

  “This should help.”

  He glanced her way, slid his gaze downward. His face tightened.

  She glanced down, saw nothing amiss. “Is something wrong?”

  “That’s a stylish dress for a maid.”

  His words were curt, brusque. Her shaking increased. But it wasn’t from the cold. It was from the heat of anger in Garret Stevenson’s eyes. He seemed to have taken an immediate disliking to her. What would happen when he learned she wasn’t Millie?

  He handed her one of the cups. “Do you use milk or sugar?”

  “Black will be fine.” She’d rather chance the bitter taste than anger him further.

  He set his cup down on the candle stand at the end of the settee, walked over to the shelf with the pegs and took off his coat and hat. He was a tall man, broad of shoulder and efficient in his movements. She slid her gaze over his suit. Expensive fabric and well fitted—

  “All right, Miss...”

  He turned and his eyes fastened on hers, sent another shiver up her spine. The coffee she held danced. She stilled her shaking cup with her free hand. “Yes?”

  “Who are you? And don’t say Millie Rourk. Make it the truth. I can’t abide liars.”

  She squared her shoulders and met the blaze of anger in his dark blue eyes. “And I find people who leap to conclusions about others trying. I do not lie, sir.”

  He snorted, walked back to the candle stand and picked up his coffee. “And what do you call your presence here in my home if not a lie, Miss—”

  “Winterman. My name is Virginia Winterman. And I consider my presence here a kindness to you, and a blessing to me. I believe you will agree, if you will give me a moment to explain, Mr. Stevenson.”

  “I don’t want to listen to some concocted story. I want answers! Why did you say I was going to meet you at the train depot? How did you know my name?”

  She reached into her pocket, withdrew a folded letter and held it out to him.

  He glanced at the writing, frowned and looked back up at her. “How did you get my letter to Millie?”

  “She gave it to me.”

  “And why would she do that?”

  “Millie is...was...my maid. I am in trouble and—”

  “You’re not with child!” The words exploded from him.

  “Certainly not!” She lifted her chin, glared up into his eyes. “And I will thank you not to impugn my character in such a cavalier fashion, sir!”

  He stared at her, scowled and nodded. “All right. I apologize for again leaping to a conclusion. But I have troubles of my own, Miss Winterman, and—”

  “I know of your trouble, Mr. Stevenson. But, if you will pardon my honesty, it does not excuse your rude treatment of me.”

  He took a swallow of coffee, studied her over the top of his cup. “Spunky, aren’t you? And that, Miss Winterman, is an observation, not a baseless conclusion.”

  Heat flooded her cold cheeks. She put the vanquished chill from her face into her voice. “I suppose I can be—when the situation warrants it.” She took a sip of the coffee, fought not to shudder at the strong, bitter taste and put her cup down.

  His mouth lifted into a crooked grin. A charming grin. She stared, transfixed by the transformation it brought to his face.

  “All right, I deserved that. But let’s get back to your story. I have a problem to solve and I’m running out of time, hence my ‘rude’ behavior.” He lifted his cup to his lips.

  “I know of your time constraint, Mr. Stevenson.” She turned slightly to warm her other side. “That’s why I came here to marry you.”

  Coffee spewed from his mouth, shot by her in a violent spray. He grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket with his free hand and wiped his mouth and chin, swiped it ove
r his vest and suit coat. “You came to marry me?” He stopped swiping at the coffee and looked at her. “What sort of trouble are you in? And what happened to Millie Rourk? Where is she? Did I get coffee on you?”

  “No, it missed me.” She took a deep breath and plunged into her explanation. “My father is a wealthy man and I am his only child. He wants what is best for me—for my future. To that end, he has given his blessing to a man who wishes to marry me. The man is wealthy, and to all appearances an honorable gentleman. I cannot abide the man’s presence. There is something about him...” She shuddered, took another breath, thankful there was no need to say more. “I refused the man’s proposal. My father ordered me to accept it that evening.” She turned to the fire, shaken by the memory. “When Millie found me...distraught, I blurted out my fear.”

  She turned back, her eyes imploring Garret Stevenson to believe her. “You see, my father had threatened to throw me out of the house without a penny of support from him until I came to my senses and agreed to the marriage. I had no money...save a few coins of my allowance, and no place to go. I have a cousin, but he stands to inherit all that my father possesses unless I acquiesce. That’s when Millie said perhaps she could help me.”

  He stiffened, stared at her.

  “Millie told me she had answered a posting for a woman who would be willing to enter into an in-name-only marriage with a young man in Wyoming Territory in exchange for a comfortable home and living. She said there was to be no...intimacy involved in the relationship.” Warmth returned to her cheeks. “She told me time was pressing, that the man had to be married by a certain date or lose his business, and so the man had sent her money and a ticket to make the journey. But Thomas—our butler—had proposed to Millie in the meantime, and she had decided to marry him and stay in New York.”

  He sucked in air, shoved his fingers through his hair. “So, as a resolution to your problem, you came to Whisper Creek to marry me in her stead.”

  “Yes.” He looked furious. And she didn’t blame him. A tremble shot through her. Garret Stevenson wanted nothing to do with her. What would she do now? Her mind raced, but there was only one answer. She needed time to make him agree to accept her offer.

 
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