Unlawfully Wedded Bride (Love Inspired Historical), page 1
“Who are you and why are you here?”
He frowned and released her hand. “What do you mean, who am I?”
“While we’re at it, how do you know my name?”
“Why shouldn’t I know your name? I am Nathan Rutledge and you are Kate—”
“O’Brien,” she finished. “Yes, I know that—”
“Rutledge,” he reminded her.
“Why do you keep saying that?”
He looked at her for a second. “You mean to tell me that you, Kathleen O’Brien, have never even heard my name before today?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
He began to speak then shook his head and strode over to where his saddlebag rested near his horse’s stall. “I suppose you’d better have a look at this.”
She took the piece of paper he extended to her. “What is this?”
“It’s our marriage certificate,” he replied quietly.
“What?” Her gaze held his before she stared down at the certificate. “You don’t mean—”
“I mean,” he interrupted with quiet authority, “that you, Kate O’Brien Rutledge, are my wife.”
Her love of literature began as a child, when she would spend hours reading beneath the covers long after she was supposed to be asleep. Over the years, God began prompting her to write by placing ideas for stories in her head. Eventually, those stories became like “fire shut up in her bones,” leading her to complete her first novel by her sixteenth birthday. Now, at the age of twenty-two, that fire of inspiration continues to burn.
Noelle is a Houston native and a student at Houston Baptist University, where she is pursuing a double major in mass communication with a focus in journalism and speech communication. Though life as a college student keeps her busy, God continues to use her talent for writing as a way to deepen her spiritual life and draw her closer to Him.
Unlawfully Wedded Bride
The righteous shall live by his faith.
To God for completing this good work in me.
Thanks to my family for fostering a spirit of creativity. Special thanks to Mom for being my first and most avid reader. To my sister, for believing I actually could write a novel, thus allowing me to believe it, too. Thanks to the Butterfly Sisterhood for being you and allowing me to be me.
God bless you, Elizabeth Mazer, for all of your encouragement, advice, patience and expertise! I am so proud of what we accomplished together.
Letter to Reader
Questions for Discussion
“We ordered a husband for you.”
At the sound of her little brother’s voice, Kate O’Brien’s finger froze on its trek down the page of her financial ledger. Her gaze shot to the kitchen doorway where twelve-year-old Sean stood next to their ten-year-old sister, Ellie. She met their serious stares blankly. Surely, she’d heard wrong. “I’m sorry. You did what?”
Sean exchanged a look with Ellie, then met Kate’s gaze before carefully repeating himself. Kate’s heart began to beat faster in her chest. She placed the ledger on the kitchen table and tried to swallow the sense of foreboding that skittered down her backbone. “What exactly does that mean?”
“Something wonderful,” Ellie exclaimed with a smile before slipping into a chair across from Kate. “I heard Mr. Johansen talking about mail-order brides at his mercantile. I knew that was what we needed so we put an advertisement for a mail-order groom in a few newspapers.”
She glanced from Ellie to Sean, hoping for some indication that they were joking. They both looked perfectly serious.
“We received a lot of responses,” Sean said as he pulled a small pack of letters from behind his back and placed it on the table in front of her. She spared the packet a brief glance before meeting her little brother’s sincere green eyes. “One response was special. We knew he was perfect for us so we wrote back.”
“Oh, Sean,” she breathed in dismay.
His gaze faltered for an instant before he continued. “I knew he wouldn’t respond if we told him we were children so we just told him all about you and took a few passages from Ma and Pa’s love letters to make it sound more grown-up.”
Her heart froze in her chest. “You forged letters from me? That’s against the law.”
His eyes widened and he shook his head adamantly. “We didn’t forge letters. We just never said which Miss O’Brien was doing the writing.”
“Why did you do this?”
“We wanted to help,” he insisted quietly.
She widened her eyes imploringly. “How does this help?”
“You do a lot, Kate,” Sean said. “We don’t always say thank you for it, but when we stop to think about it we know.”
“I do what has to be done.”
He nodded. “That’s just it. Ma’s and Pa’s deaths were just as hard on you as they were on us but you were strong. You had to be. We wanted you to have someone who would do for you what you do for us.”
Kate was astounded at the maturity in his voice but still shook her head in disbelief at their actions. “I appreciate that, Sean, but what you two did was wrong.”
Ellie leaned forward earnestly. “We knew what you needed and that you would never get it for yourself. You’re too shy around handsome men.”
She gaped at her younger sister. “Oh, Ellie, really.”
“Well, it’s true,” the girl declared obstinately. “You never let men court you. It’s all that awful Mr. Stolvins’s fault. Ever since he—”
“Ellie, bringing that man into this conversation really isn’t going to help you.”
Ellie allowed her words to stumble to a halt then lifted her brows archly. “It’s true and you know it. Besides, you need someone to take care of you.”
Kate slammed the ledger shut. “I do not.”
“You do so, but you won’t admit it,” Ellie said firmly. Her small fist pounded on the table. “That’s why we had to act.”
Kate crossed her arms. “You were trying to marry me off without my consent.”
“I know,” Ellie said then lifted her chin nobly as tears gleamed in her large green eyes. “We couldn’t because you have to sign a silly paper.”
Kate’s eyes widened. A dry laugh spilled from her lips. “Well, thank the Lord for that.”
“It isn’t funny,” Ellie said as large tears began to roll down her cheeks. She pulled a folded-up paper from the pocket of her skirt and held it toward Kate. “Please, Kate. You just have to sign it.”
“At least, read the letters,” Sean urged pleadingly. “Give the man a chance.”
“Absolutely not.” She pushed t
Ellie pulled the letters to her chest. The effect of her glare was slightly ruined by a large hiccup. “He’s wonderful. His name—”
Kate silenced Ellie with a look. “I don’t want to know anything about that man. I’ve heard enough from both of you on this subject. I’ve made my decision and the answer is no.”
Sean shook his head. “You’re making a mistake.”
“If I am then it’s my mistake to make.” She pinned them both with a stare. “I don’t want to hear that you two have been writing to this man again. Ever. Do you understand me?”
“Kate,” Sean protested.
She cut him off with a shake of her head. “Both of you go to bed. I’ll figure out a more suitable punishment for you when my head stops spinning.”
Ellie met her gaze defiantly then threw the folded paper on the table before rushing from the room. Sean pulled in a deep breath. He picked up the paper and smoothed it out carefully. Meeting Kate’s gaze patiently, he slid the paper across the table until it rested in front of her. With that silent urge for her to think about it, he calmly left the room.
“I don’t have time for this,” she muttered as she shook her head. She had more important things to think about, like how she was going to save her family’s farm. She opened the ledger and continued to search the farm’s financial records for some indication the situation wasn’t as bad as she feared. Hours passed and she kept coming back to the same conclusion.
Somewhere between buying food for her family and the livestock, the mortgage payments would have to be made. That meant she wouldn’t be able to pay the wheat harvesters, which in turn meant she wouldn’t be able to sell her wheat. Without selling the wheat, she wouldn’t be able to make the other mortgage payments. It was a dizzying cycle with dangerous implications.
If something didn’t change soon, they were going to lose the farm. She braced her elbows on the table, then covered her face with her hands. She heaved out a quiet sigh. “Lord, what do I do?”
She’d applied for a short-term loan at the town’s only bank and had been denied almost immediately. The banker, Mr. Wilkins, had kindly informed her it would not be in the best interest of either party to enter into another loan agreement when the farm was heading toward foreclosure. She’d put her pride aside long enough to ask if there was anything at all that would make him change his mind. He’d said the only way he would consider giving her a loan was if she married. A single woman in her position would have little success paying back the loan. However, if she had a husband the situation would be entirely different. Since she didn’t, he couldn’t help her.
Her breath stilled in her throat. Her gaze slid from the mess of papers in front of her to the official-looking document across the table. The bold font read Absentee Affidavit. The only way she could get a loan was to find a husband. Suddenly one was literally at her fingertips. Was it pure coincidence or was it something more?
She set the paper on the ledger in front of her. All she had to do was sign it and she could save the farm. She swallowed. She toyed with the pen, then pulled it carefully from the bottle of ink. Impulsively she set it against the paper. It only took a minute for her to fill in the little information that was required. She signed her name with a desperate flourish, then shoved the pen back into the bottle of ink.
Staring at her signature, dread settled in her stomach. She couldn’t do it. The farm was her parents’ heritage, yet she could only imagine how appalled they would be if they knew she’d given up her entire future to keep it. She let out a deep sigh, then set the paper as far away from her as possible. I am not that desperate, but I am not giving up. There is another way. There has to be. Perhaps if I spoke to Mr. Wilkins one more time…
Exhaustion pulled at her senses. She’d take a moment to rest her eyes, then clean up the mess she’d made and go to bed. Someone called her name and she jerked her head up. Sean stood at the end of the table watching her in concern.
“I’m awake.” She pushed her hair away from her face. “What are you doing up? It must be late.”
“It’s almost midnight. I couldn’t sleep.” He settled into the chair opposite her.
She closed her drowsy eyes and leaned back in her chair. “You worry too much.”
She heard the smile in his voice as he responded. “I promise not to worry anymore.”
“I know what Ellie and I did was wrong, but I think you made the right decision about everything in the end.”
It took a moment for her sleep-fogged mind to catch up. When it did, she felt relief fill her being. She forced her eyes open. “Good. I’m glad you think so.”
His gaze flickered to the table then back up to meet hers. “Do you want me to take care of this for you?”
“Would you? That would be wonderful.” She glanced at the table strewn with papers and shook her head. “If you could just stack the papers for me, I’ll put them away in the morning.”
“Sure,” he agreed.
She carefully pushed back from the chair then reached out to touch his dark blond hair as she passed. “Good night, Sean.”
Satisfaction filled his voice. “Good night.”
Three weeks later
Kate felt Ellie’s side of the bed dip, then rise. She listened to her sister’s small feet pad against the wooden floor of the farmhouse loft. She turned on her side to watch Ellie drag a chair to the window. The soft blue light of morning spilled through the glass as Ellie pushed back the curtains for a better view. Kate sighed then sat up in sleepy curiosity. “What are you doing?”
“I can see the road from here,” Ellie said, then jumped down from the chair with a decided thump. She ran to kneel in front of the bed and lifted her sparkling green eyes to meet Kate’s. “Do you have a feeling that today will be a very special day?”
“No, not particularly,” she said. Seeing Ellie’s crestfallen expression, she amended, “I suppose that every day can be a very special day if we let it.”
Ellie gave her a half smile seemingly more out of politeness than anything else. Kate hid her bemusement as she turned away from Ellie and quickly dressed. Her siblings seemed to have made a concerted effort to behave since she’d managed to stop their plan to marry her off. While she was relieved to see such an improvement in their behavior, she found it unnerving. How could they possibly not be up to something?
Kate smoothed her hair into an upturned twist as she watched her sister suspiciously. The girl had gone back to her post at the window. “Are you looking for something, Ellie?”
“Hmm? Oh, no,” she said absently.
“Then please get ready for school.”
Sean and Ellie stepped into the kitchen just as she set the food on the table. Kate packed their lunch pails and set them in the usual place, then turned to survey their progress and was satisfied to find them nearly done eating. “Do you both have your slates and your homework?”
“Yes.” They answered as they deposited their empty plates in the sink.
“Don’t lollygag on the way or you’ll be late again,” she warned, then sank into an empty chair and sent them a smile. “Be good and have fun.”
Sean grabbed the lunch pails and slates before hurrying out of the kitchen. Ellie began to follow him then paused to look at Kate. She met the girl’s measuring stare. “Yes, Ellie?”
“Are you going to wear that the rest of the day?”
She looked down at her serviceable blue dress. “Why? Is something wrong with it?”
Ellie stepped farther into the room. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get dressed up this once?”
“I’ll be doing the wash all day. Why would I dress up for that?” she asked in confusion.
Ellie shrugged. “If someone stopped by, you would want to look presentable. Don’t you think—”
Sean appeared at the door and frowned at Ellie. “Let’s go.
Ellie nodded then sent Kate a hopeful smile. “Perhaps just your hair—”
“Bye, Kate.” Sean grabbed Ellie’s arm and pulled her toward the door. As they left Kate heard him whisper, “What are you trying to do, anyway?”
The door slammed shut behind them leaving Kate in perplexed silence. She shook her head in frustration even as her lips curved in an amused smile. It looked like things were finally back to normal. She grabbed a biscuit for breakfast, then went about the chores with her usual determination.
She gathered their laundry and carried the large basket through the forest to the small creek that ran through the property. She washed clothes until her fingers became wrinkled from the cool water, then took a break to let the sun warm her freezing hands. She carefully stretched the kinks from her back. The waterfall that pooled into the small creek provided a drumming rhythm that lulled her senses into disarming relaxation.
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