Frontier Matchmaker Bride
March 1 (ISBN 978-13353-6958-1, Love Inspired Historical)
Successful Seattle matchmaker Beth Wallin has her most challenging assignment yet-find Deputy Hart McCormick a bride. Beth's still smarting after the handsome lawman spurned her affections a year ago. But if she finds Hart a wife, Beth will gain favor with the city's most influential women…and perhaps free her own heart, as well.
Marriage is the last thing on the deputy's mind. After tragically losing his sweetheart, he vowed never to love again. But as sweet, spunky Beth introduces him to potential fiancées, Hart finally feels a spark…for her! The stubborn bachelor will be Beth's first matchmaking miss, unless they can both admit that she just might be his perfect match.
Sequel to His Frontier Christmas Family, and final book in the series. Frontier Bachelors: Bold, rugged, and bound to be grooms.
Seattle, Washington Territory, March 1875
It simply wasn't easy to save a man's life.
Beth Wallin blew out a breath as she stood in front of the Kellogg Brothers' mercantile, a cold breeze tugging at her feathered hat. Hart McCormick always rode down Second Avenue between ten and noon on Tuesdays. She'd studied his movements every time she came to town, and the pattern hadn't changed in the ten years she'd known him. Here it was nearly noon, and she hadn't so much as caught a glimpse of the lawman.
Her booted foot was tapping against the boardwalk under her pink-and-white-striped skirts. She forced it to stop. The muddy street was thronged with riders on horseback and farmers with wagons. She loved the bustle, the purposefulness. Men in warm wool coats and ladies with swaying skirts passed her for the shops on either side. She smiled and nodded in turn. After all, it wouldn't do her reputation or Hart's any good if the truth about their past was known.
But really, was it too much to ask that the man be punctual?
She shook her head. She shouldn't be so annoyed with him. Hart had no idea she was waiting. He might be off chasing bandits, lying in wait for vandals, rescuing children from raging rapids. That's what he did: safeguard the citizens of King County, standing between them and the forces of evil.
"He's just a man," she muttered aloud. "Opinionated, stubborn, bullheaded…"
"May I help you, Miss Wallin?"
Beth put on her sunniest smile and turned to the clerk who had come out of the store. Mr. Weinclef couldn't help that he resembled a rat with his lank brown hair, long nose and close-set brown eyes.
"How very kind of you," Beth told him. "But I'm simply trying to decide where to go next."
He waved a hand back to the store, the movement tugging at the green apron looped around his neck and tied at his slender waist. "Why go anywhere else but Kelloggs'? We can meet all your shopping needs." He leaned closer, his flowery cologne washing over her. "And I just marked down that pink crepe you've been eying to half price."
"Oh!" Beth started toward the store. "Thank you! I might have just enough egg money to…" She drew herself up short of the door. "That is, I really should wait." She bit her lip, then met his gaze. "I don't suppose you could set aside two yards?"
He straightened, adjusting his spruce-colored neckcloth. "First come, first served. That is the Kellogg rule."
Beth sagged. "Of course. I wouldn't want you to break the rules. Perhaps you could just keep Mary Ann Denny from buying it all."
"I'll see what I can do," he murmured, glancing either way as if to make sure no one overheard his concession. "Just don't delay too long." He whisked back into the store.
Beth turned her gaze to the street, eyes narrowing. Hart McCormick would be in even more trouble if he cost her that material. A deep pink, it would make the perfect overskirt. She could see the creation now, the material swept back over her hips with pleated trim all along the hem and tiny white bows dotting the pleats, just like the latest fashion plates in Godey's Lady's Book. Pink always complemented her fair coloring and blond hair. If she could convince her sisters-in-law Nora, Catherine, Dottie and Callie to help her, she could finish the dress in time for Easter.
But not if she had to stand here woolgathering all day!
Another noise caught her attention, and she glanced to the right. A group of men lounged outside the Pastry Emporium on the next block. The roughly dressed fellows ought to be working at the sawmill at the foot of Mill Street, but perhaps it was their meal break. Either way, they elbowed each other and grinned at her, and she knew it was only a matter of time before one of them worked up the courage to come speak to her.
She was one of the only unmarried females over the age of eighteen within a fifty-mile radius, so that sort of thing happened a lot. Normally, she didn't mind. Their approach allowed her to put her matchmaking skills to the test, suggesting other ladies who might better appreciate their attentions. She loved playing matchmaker, helping couples reach their wonderful happy-ever-after. Her success with her brothers had brought her to the attention of the Literary Society, an august group of women she had dreamed of joining. All were established, respected, admired for their civic contributions and taste. She'd felt nearly giddy taking tea with them, eager to volunteer for any of the worthy causes they supported-women's suffrage, literacy, medical treatment for the poor.
Unfortunately, the opportunity they suggested she volunteer to champion was the most difficult she could have imagined, taking her back to a day nearly two years ago, a day she'd tried in vain to forget.
Beth put her back to the men now, straightened her shoulders in her gray wool cape, but still the memory intruded. She'd just turned one-and-twenty and had filed for her claim. That was what was expected of her, choosing one hundred and sixty acres that would augment the town her family was building at the northern end of Lake Union. She was proud to do it.
She was too proud.
She saw that now. A young lady on the frontier might accomplish much at such an important age-file for her own claim, pursue a career. Select a groom.
She didn't have to look far. She'd admired Deputy Sheriff Hart McCormick since she was fourteen and he'd ridden out to Wallin Landing the first time. Tall, handsome, worldly even at the age of four-and-twenty then, he'd been the embodiment of the heroes in the romantic adventure novels their father had left her and her brothers. He was the knight Ivanhoe, fighting to save England; the dashing John Alden petitioning the fair Priscilla Mullins to wed. She'd smiled and primped and giggled at him every time he came near. He never seemed to notice.
But when she turned one-and-twenty, she became determined to make him notice. She was certain God had a plan for her life, and it included Hart McCormick. She just needed to give God a little help in moving things along.
She'd dressed in her best gown, a vivid blue with white piping, styled her pale blond curls to spill down behind her. She'd borrowed her brother James's famous steel dusts and driven the horses in to Seattle to tell Hart how she felt. It hadn't been hard to locate him. Then as now, Seattle consisted of a few business streets hugging the shoreline with residences and churches on the hillside above, backed by the forest from which they'd been carved. She could scarcely breathe when he'd agreed to walk with her. They'd passed the Brown Church when she'd stopped him, gazing up into his dark eyes.
"I admire you far more than any lady should," she'd said, voice ringing in her ears. "I don't suppose you might feel the same."
He'd gazed down at her a moment, and she'd thought she would slide into the mud of the street, her bones had turned so liquid. She waited for his gaze to warm, his arms to go about her, his lips to profess his undying devotion. That was what happened in her father's novels. That was the way she'd always dreamed it would be for her.
He'd tipped his black hat to her instead. "That's mighty kind of you to say, Miss Wallin. But I have no interest in courting you. Best you go on home now."
She had. She'd run all the way back to the livery, startling the owner, and urged her brother's horses Lance and Percy into a frenzy to get them back to Wallin Landing. She very much doubted she'd be willing to risk her heart again, for him or any other fellow. It seemed her role in life was to encourage others to marry. Perhaps it was easier to see from a distance how two people might become a couple. She'd certainly misjudged her own circumstances. Even now, she avoided spending time with Hart.
Yet how could she allow him to be pushed beyond his endurance? For that was what would happen if the ladies of the Literary Society thought she had failed in her commission.
Farther up the street, a movement caught her eye. A black horse, sides glossy, head high and proud, trotted toward her. The man riding him was no less impressive-carriage firm and controlled, gaze sweeping the street. She knew those eyes could be as dark and unyielding as a rifle barrel. Her heart slammed against the bodice of her dress.
She made herself step to the edge of the boardwalk and raised a hand. "Deputy McCormick! A word, if you please."
His gaze swung her way, and the world seemed to narrow until she could see nothing but him. Shoulders broad in his worn black leather duster, the flash of metal that was the badge on his chest. Long legs in denim and black boots. Her breath was hard to find as he guided his horse across the street and reined in in front of her.
Gloved fingers brushed the brim of his black hat. "Miss Wallin. What can I do for you?"
Beth swallowed. Where was the speech she'd so carefully rehearsed? Why did one look at those chiseled features still serve to make her tremble? She refused to be a ninny in front of him again. He wasn't the man for her. Her experience and his determination had confirmed that.
"Hitch Arno a moment," she directed him. "We need to talk."
He leaned back in the saddle. "I thought you and I were done talking."
Heat rushed up her. He had to remind her of the most ignoble moment of her nearly twenty-three years, as if she wasn't reminded of it every time she saw him.
"This is different," she told him, catching a stray hair the wind had freed from her bun and tucking it behind her ear. "There's a plot afoot, and you must be wary."
He stiffened, but then there was nothing soft about him. She wasn't sure why she hadn't noticed before confessing her feelings. Hart was all planes and angles, his brows a slash, his lips an uncompromising line. Some in Seattle were afraid of him. She wasn't. She wouldn't allow it.
He slung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. Tying his horse Arno to the hitching post in front of Kelloggs', he followed Beth around the corner onto a quiet side street.
"What's this about a plot?"
His gravelly voice stroked her skin. Beth stood taller, even though that brought the top of her feathered hat just under his chin.
"The Literary Society has designs on you," she informed him.
His brows shot up. "The Literary Society? Mrs. Howard, Mrs. Yesler, Mrs. Wyckoff, the Denny ladies and Mrs. Maynard?"
Beth nodded. "The most influential women in Seattle. They are determined that every upstanding citizen do his or her part to grow the territory."
He relaxed, arms hanging loose at his sides. "As deputy sheriff, I'm available to help as needed."
Beth licked her lips. "Not in this particular area, I fear."
He shrugged. "If they need a lawman, they have only to ask. They didn't need to enlist your aid to turn me up sweet."
"As if that would work," Beth muttered.
His eyes narrowed. "See? I told you we were done talking."
And she hadn't noticed how stubborn he could be, either. Beth stamped her foot. "Oh! Will you listen for once? I'm trying to save your life!"
Once more tension slid over him. "What do you mean?"
Finally! Beth met his gaze. "The ladies of the Literary Society have decided it's time for you to wed. They've even compiled a list of candidates. And they've asked me to play matchmaker."
Hart stared at her. For a moment, when she'd mentioned saving his life, he'd thought she'd stumbled into something dangerous. She couldn't know how the suggestion chilled him. He'd have cheerfully walked barefoot through a raging forest fire before he saw her harmed. But marriage?
He barked a laugh. "Well, you can try, but we both know it won't work."
The pink was rising in her cheeks again. Better that than the pallor she'd worn the day he'd refused her overtures. He'd been shocked when she'd confessed she admired him. He'd known her since she was a girl, had thought her sweet, had nothing but respect for her older brothers and their wives. That day he'd looked closer and recoiled as if he'd run into a brick wall.
Little Beth Wallin had grown into a fine woman.
That didn't mean she was the right woman for him. She had always been everything pure and bright, her enthusiasm as shiny as a new penny. She didn't need his shadow covering her. He'd been curt, almost rude in refusing her. It was for the best, or so he'd told himself every time he'd seen her since.
"You don't understand," she said now. "If I had declined the request, they would have asked someone else."
Perhaps they would. He knew each of the ladies. They were used to getting their own way. They had been the vision and the drive to transform the tiny frontier town into the second biggest city in the territory. There was nothing more dangerous than a woman with a vision.
"I'll speak to Mrs. Wyckoff," he told her. "There's no need to look for a bride for me. I'm not marrying."
She sighed. "That's what my brothers said, and look at them now."
Her five older brothers were happily married, and she'd had a hand in it.
"I'm not your brothers," he replied. "I'm not pining for a wife."
Her head came up. How did such a little chin look so hard? Everything about her was feminine, from the silvery-gold curls tumbling down behind her head to the curves hinted at when her cape swung about her. But Beth Wallin was another lady who wasn't used to being told no.
"And why don't you want a wife?" she demanded. "You have a position of authority. You're well respected in the region. You're not getting any younger, you know."
Despite himself, he winced. Two-and-thirty wasn't so old, for all he sometimes felt twice that. Chasing after criminals could sap the joy from life at times.
Watching the woman you love die in your arms, knowing she'd sacrificed herself for you, did worse.
"Some men aren't meant to wed," he said. "Thank you for the warning, but I'll be fine."
She shook her head. "You really think it's that easy? They'll be throwing women at you. You won't be able to turn around without stepping on one."
He chuckled. "I'll take my chances."
"I give it a month. Maybe two."
Hart turned for Second Avenue. "Good day, Miss Wallin. Give my regards to your family."
"Oh! It would serve you right if I followed through with the agreement to match you up."
A chill ran through him again, and he turned up his collar, even though he knew the feeling had nothing to do with the brisk March weather. "You do what you have to do. So will I. No one can make me walk down the aisle, say my vows before a preacher. Not even you, Beth."
The words held such pain, such sorrow, he nearly turned back. But if he did, he'd only give in to the need to gather her close, be the man she wanted him to be, promise to protect her.
And he could only protect her if he kept his distance.
"You don't have to encourage them," he murmured, gaze on the busier street beyond. "Tell them you have better things to do. It's only the truth."
He heard her sigh, the rustle of cloth as she must have shifted on her feet. "But Hart, if I decline, the next person they ask might not have your best interests in mind."
And she did. Whatever their differences, he knew that. Beth Wallin only ever acted from love and compassion. He had refused to accept her as his bride, but she would willingly find him another, if that pleased him.
How did anyone grow up so selfless? He'd been practicing for more than ten years, and he still failed some days.
And was he doing any better today? As much as the high-handed machinations of the Literary Society annoyed him, the ladies were right. Settling the frontier took men and women of courage and tenacity, and partnerships like marriage only made sense. You needed someone you could count on at your side, in good times and bad, a helpmate, a comforter and encourager.
Only Sheriff Wyckoff knew that Hart had already found all that, and lost it. He couldn't go through that pain again. The best he could do was work to make sure no one else lost a love to an outlaw's bullet.
And he could try to see this from Beth's perspective. She'd once confessed herself in love with him-nothing more than a schoolgirl infatuation, he was sure. However much it had hurt at the moment to be denied, she'd be better off in the future with another man less burdened by his past. Yet how mortifying now to be asked to play matchmaker to the man she'd hoped to wed, and by the mighty Literary Society, no less. Every lady in Seattle wanted to join the elite group. Beth likely wasn't immune. Besides, if any lady had a right to be admired, respected, it was her.
"Follow through as you promised," he said. "Just know I won't agree. It won't matter which lady you parade in front of me. The answer will always be no."
She scurried around him to block his way forward. That pink hat with its silk bows and white feathers was far too frivolous for the concerned look in her deep blue eyes. "Are you sure, Hart? You have a lot to offer a lady."
"And a great deal no lady should have to bear."
Her eyes lit, as if he'd given her the key to unlock his heart. He tugged on the brim of his hat, started around her, intent on escaping before he betrayed himself further.
"You wait, Hart McCormick," she called after him. "I'll find you the perfect bride, one you can't refuse."
He didn't respond. He'd already had the perfect sweetheart. Her loss had left a gaping hole, sharper than a knife and deeper than a bullet. And he doubted even the pretty, sweet-natured Beth Wallin could heal it.