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Meme showing the cover of Leftover Mail-Order Bride by historical romance author Regina Scott, part of Once Upon a Courtship, a sweet historical romance collection

Leftover Mail-Order Bride in Once Upon a Courtship

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What's a mail-order bride to do when she's left at the altar?

Victoria Milford had spent much of her life caring for ailing relatives, so it wasn't a stretch to agree to marry a near-stranger in Washington Territory for a chance at a life of her own. But the man who had proposed marriage wed another while she was enroute. The local minister's wife assures her that bachelors abound on the frontier. Surely it isn't too much to ask that one might prefer Victoria?

The leader of the family ranch, Jack Willets is determined not to let his parents' insistence on finding true love sway him. What he needs in a bride is a lady who can work beside him. When the local minister's wife introduces him to Victoria, he's immediately drawn to her sweet nature. But can a city girl ever really feel comfortable in the country?

Between a boisterous, matchmaking family and dozens of other suitors chasing after Victoria, she and Jack may have their hands full as they discover being leftover just means the perfect love can come along.

Leftover Mail-Order Bride is part of Once Upon a Courtship, a sweet historical romance collection by some of your favorite authors. This limited-time collection from 12 beloved Christian authors spans rustic landscapes, elegant ballrooms, rugged cowboys, enigmatic spies, and daring pirates! Delight your romantic heart with Colonial, Regency, Victorian, Western, and Gilded Age Romance and preorder your copy today!

 

Excerpt

Chapter One

Near Olymia, Washington Territory, late April 1877

Did a mail-order bride necessarily require a groom?

The thought pushed Victoria Milford's fingers up and down the keys of the battered upright piano as she tried to focus on the Mozart sonata. Concentrating on the shakes and runs normally chased away any fretting, but today her problems crowded closer than the walls of the little frontier parlor.

Why hadn't he waited? It had only taken fourteen days to travel to Washington Territory from Albany. She had it on good authority there were few eligible ladies along Puget Sound. Had he snatched at any opportunity to avoid marrying her, despite the promise in his letters? If that was the sum total of a gentleman's faithfulness, maybe having a husband wasn't worth the bother. She'd nursed for most of her life, first her father, then her mother, then cousin Phyllis. The territorial capital and surrounding areas might not have a hospital yet, but surely some physician would appreciate a second pair of hands.

The doctor in Puget City hadn't.

"Sorry, Miss Milford," Doctor Rawlins had said, rubbing his stubbled jaw with the back of one hand. "Much as I could use the help, I can't see bringing on an unmarried lady. It wouldn't be right. But never you fear. A young lady as pretty and talented as you will have no trouble finding another groom."

No, just one she wanted.

She closed her eyes, let her fingers fly up and down the keys, and breathed in the rousing music. Show me Your will, Father. You must have had a reason for bringing me here.

Beyond the pounding music, beyond her tumultuous thoughts, another noise intruded. She opened her eyes, expecting to see that her hostess had joined her. Instead, a man was standing in the parlor doorway, watching her, awe stamped on his handsome face. He stood tall and stocky in his rawhide coat and dusty trousers, a dime novel frontiersman come to life.

She might not recognize him, but she recognized admiration when she saw it. The look was balm to her soul after being rejected practically at the altar. Her fingers slowed, stilled.

"Don't stop playing on my account," he said in a warm voice, removing his hat to reveal short-cut hair as fiery red as the feathers of a scarlet tanager. "It would be a shame to keep such beauty from the world."

Her mouth was turning up in a smile before she thought better of it. She pulled back her hands and folded them in the lap of her mint-colored silk gown. "Nonsense. You must have a reason for coming to call. I wouldn't want to interfere."

He opened his mouth as if to explain, but Mrs. Dalrymple bustled in. The minister's wife was short, round, and quick in both action and speech, reminding Victoria of a house wren. Like her, she wore the fine gowns expected of a parlor back East, not the more practical ginghams and calicos Victoria had seen when she'd come West. Her brown curls bobbed beside her face as she glanced between Victoria and the stranger.

"Oh, you've met," she said, rosebud mouth turning down. She sounded almost disappointed.

Why? Was this fellow someone she should avoid? Mrs. Dalrymple had certainly pointed out enough of those since Victoria had arrived three days ago. The clerk at the Egbert mercantile in Puget City with the nice smile had once given incorrect change and was not to be trusted with anything so important as a woman's heart. The rancher who'd offered them a cut of beef whipped his horse and would likely treat his wife and children as badly. The farmer who brought the milk did not tithe to the church, and who wanted a tight-fisted husband?

Besides, Mrs. Dalrymple had confided, every bachelor in the area would think twice before courting someone's leftover mail-order bride. Victoria must study them carefully to know their intentions.

After all, she had little choice. She must either marry or find a position. She certainly couldn't live in the Dalrymples' spare bedroom for the rest of her life. The minister's wife had already erected a sign in the front yard saying Room for Rent as if she expected Victoria's tenure to be brief indeed.

"Miss Milford," Mrs. Dalrymple said now, pug nose up in the air as if she'd smelled day-old cabbage, "allow me to introduce Mr. Jack Willets. He's the second son of a local rancher."

Second son generally meant no inheritance was involved, but not always. With those broad shoulders and long limbs, Mr. Willets could likely work at anything he wanted.

"Mr. Willets," she said, inclining her head.

"Miss Milford," he said with a nod that sent light rippling like flame through his hair. "I don't suppose you'd care to take a walk?" He glanced at Mrs. Dalrymple as if seeking her permission as well.

One look, and he wanted to walk out with her? Was he so impetuous, then? Would his interest cool as quickly as Charles' had?

The minister's wife heaved a martyred sigh that raised the ruffles on her generous bosom. "I suppose that would be suitable." She held up one finger. "Just to the end of the drive and back, mind you. Miss Milford has many obligations."

Miss Milford had had many obligations most of her life, from learning to be a lady and all the accomplishments that entailed to caring for her ailing family. At the moment, Miss Milford was blithefully free of obligations.

She rose from behind the piano. "I'll get my coat."

Mr. Willets stepped aside to let her pass, and she caught sight of his eyes. They were the smoky gray to match the fire of his hair. And they were gazing at her as if she were the most amazing person he had ever met. A woman could grow fond of such looks.

Something snagged her skirts, and she glanced back to find that Mrs. Dalrymple had followed her out of the parlor so closely she'd trod on Victoria's hem. The minister's wife tsked as she stepped aside.

"I'll watch from the porch," she murmured with a glance back at the waiting Mr. Willets.

"Is he not to be trusted then?" Victoria murmured back, spirits dipping as she shook out the ruffles along her hem.

"He seems a very responsible gentleman," Mrs. Dalrymple assured her, going to pull Victoria's embroidered wool coat down from the hook by the door. "His parents dote on him. He tithes, and he's been leading the effort to erect our first church building. He does seem a bit bossy. He is in the market for a bride, but when I suggested he might write away from one, he refused." She shook her head as she helped Victoria into her coat. "'Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall,' you know."

Humility. One more item to add to the list of characteristics Mrs. Dalrymple expected Victoria's husband to possess, along with patience, faithfulness, fiscal responsibility, kindness to animals, and frequent tithing. He would have to be an absolute paragon among men.

She'd never find a groom to match.

***

Jack slid his hat back on his head, only to pull it off again out of respect as the minister's wife sidled up to him.

"Walk if you like, but she's not a suitable bride for you," she murmured, gaze on Miss Milford's back.

Jack frowned, but Mrs. Dalrymple put on a smile and flapped her fingers, shooing him out of the house as if he were a recalcitrant chicken. Bemused, he followed Miss Milford down the front steps and onto the muddy track that ran out to the country road to Puget City. He'd never accustomed himself to the house that was now being used as the parsonage. Everyone had shaken their heads when the former owner, Mr. Henshaw, had built the four-story narrow monstrosity and painted it a jaunty pink. With all the bric-a-brac edging the roof and windows, it might have graced the richest neighborhood in refined Port Townsend to the north, with other houses close on either side. It looked completely out of place standing alone on the edge of a plateau overlooking Puget Sound, surrounded by nothing but fields and forests.

But it fit the beauty walking beside him perfectly.

She was as unexpected as the house. That dusky red hair was smoothed back in a proper bun, but the arrangement couldn't hide the luster. How Ma would laugh if he brought home another red-head. Their family was filled with them.

And wouldn't Ma be pleased if she knew that he'd taken one look at the lady and toppled like a fir under his brother Jesse's two-handed ax? Love at first sight? His parents claimed they'd married because of it. He'd thought it a fine story, something endearing to share with their children.

Until Victoria Milford had played that music, and all he could do was stand and stare.

He grimaced now and hoped she hadn't noticed. Love at first sight might be something his parents and the poets celebrated, but he wasn't looking for love. He wasn't looking for a bride only suited to the parlor either. He needed a wife who could be a helpmate, working beside him to care for his family. And if he'd wanted any old bride, he could have written away for a mail-order bride, like his younger brother Jeremy had.

Mrs. Dalrymple must know something about this woman that she hadn't been able to share with Jack to caution him against her. After all, Jack had asked her to help him find a lady to court. The minister's wife was sitting on the porch bench, knitting needles in her hands but gaze watchful. Perhaps she expected him to discover the flaw in this rose.

"Are the Dalrymples your family, then?" he asked.

She picked up her skirts with one hand. Like the rest of her, they were dainty and elegant. His sisters Jenny and Joanna would have swooned at the number of rows of frilly ruffles that covered the bottom third of the dress. Jane would probably have laughed. She understood the need to be sensible.

"No," Miss Mitford said. "They were kind enough to take me in after… I came West."

Single ladies didn't usually travel to the frontier alone, at least not ladies his mother would accept in her house.

"What brought you out this way?" he asked, frowning.

She turned to look at him and jerked to a stop, forcing him up as well. "What is that!"

Had she spotted a bear? A cougar? Jack whirled, hand to the pistol on his hip, but the fields rippled green into the distance, where the mountain rose in all her glory.

He smiled at his companion. "That's Mount Rainier. Is this the first you've seen her?"

She nodded, gaze on the mass of white and silvery rock rising beyond the Nisqually Delta.

"She likes to hide when it's rainy or there's any hint of a cloud between us and her," Jack explained, "but you have to admit she looks rather fine reigning over the area."

"She's beautiful," she said, voice awed.

Yes, Miss Milford was. Her eyes were as brown as a walnut, with flecks of gold as if hinting of something fine, something precious inside. Her lips reminded him of the inside of the shells his sisters like to gather from the shore, though they looked a lot softer and warmer. If he bent closer…

He reined in his thoughts with more difficulty than a runaway horse. He'd just met this woman! Jack swallowed and forced his feet to move again. He was just thankful she fell in beside him.

Still, he struggled to think of what to say next. Too soon to tell her his hopes for a match. Too intrusive to ask if she was itching to wed.

The area. That was a safe topic of conversation. He nodded to the northwest. "The forest is blocking the view, but if you get beyond it, you can see the Olympics across Puget Sound as well. Then there's Mount Saint Helens to the south and Mount Baker to the north. On a clear day, you can see all of them."

"You're ringed by grandeur," she said, shaking her head as if she could hardly believe such riches. "How do you get anything done without standing and shouting a hallelujah?"

He chuckled. "Well, you get used to it after a while."

"I hope I never do," she vowed.

So did he. It would be a shame to lose that light in her eyes.

Apparently, she had questions for him as well, for she cleared her throat and started asking. "Mrs. Dalrymple said you have a ranch nearby, I believe?"

"The Jumping J to the south of us." As soon as he said it, he felt foolish. "My littlest sister named it that. It's a busy ranch, and all our names start with the letter J."

"All?" she asked innocently.

Mrs. Dalrymple must not have mentioned that to her. Not everyone appreciated the size of his family. He'd heard the jokes for years.

Your pa sure must like pups 'cause he has a pack of them.

Why'd he stop at ten? Jesus had twelve apostles.

But any woman who married him had to marry into his family. Supporting them was non-negotiable.

"I'm one of ten," he told her. "My oldest brother, Jesse, lives up at Wallin Landing, near Seattle. Then there's me, Jeremy, Jacob, Jane, Jenny, Joanna, Jason, Joshua, and Joy."

"Joy, who named the ranch," she surmised.

She was quick. Not many would have followed that litany, particularly as he hadn't taken his time spitting it out. "That's right. She's the youngest at ten. Jesse is the oldest at one and thirty."

"What a time your mother must have had," she said, voice sounding awed again. "Ten live births is quite an accomplishment. She must have had a good midwife."

Funny. No one had ever talked about his mother's laying-ins before. Then again, most of the men in the area wouldn't have thought to question how hard it was to birth babies.

"Not many midwives in the area," Jack allowed. Not many wives of any kind, but if she hadn't figured that out, she would as soon as the other suitors started stampeding to her door.

She made a noise as if deploring the lack of medical care.

"Of course, we have a fine physician," he hurried to add. No sense scaring her off. "Doctor Rawlins comes out whenever we send for him."

"Yes, I've met the good doctor," she said. She didn't sound particularly impressed.

In fact, aside from the view, she didn't seem impressed by much of anything in the area. Who could blame her? Not many were suited to live on the frontier. That's why so few traveled West.

Those who stayed in their big cities back East didn't know what they were missing. Freedom, purpose, a chance to make your own way.

The quiet to worship a God who had created all this for His children.

"You planning on staying in the area?" Jack asked.

She sighed. "Yes, I suppose so. There's nothing for me back home in Albany."

Albany. That was in New York state, if he remembered Ma's geography lessons right. Like Olympia to the southwest, it was the capital. Miss Milford might be used to dealing with governors and legislators, folks who lived in fancy houses and did important things.

Things more important than running a cattle ranch on Hawks Prairie.

The words popped out before he could stop them. "Are you fixing to marry, then?"

She flinched as if the question had taken a bite out of her.

"Sorry for the plain speaking," he tried. "That's my way. Best you know that now."

"I appreciate your candor, Mr. Willets," she said. "Allow me to offer the same. I am considering marriage as one of my options for my future, and Mrs. Dalrymple has encouraged me to look for a suitable groom, one who meets her criteria for a match."

Mrs. Dalrymple had criteria for husbands? He'd thought the minister's wife hesitant because of Miss Mitford's qualifications, not his.

"Maybe I should talk with the lady," he said, glancing back at the porch.

Mrs. Dalrymple waved a plump hand at him, proving that she'd been watching them. Encouragement to continue his walk with Miss Mitford?

Or encouragement to leave?

"That might be wise," she said. She seemed to think he'd want to do that right this moment, for she turned with a swirl of her mint-colored skirts and started back up the drive. "Marriage is an important endeavor. Too important to leave to chance."

"I couldn't agree more," he assured her. It was also too important to leave to letters through the mail or one glimpse across a crowded room. Or even an uncrowded parlor.

True love is all that matters. He heard his mother's voice in his head. The kind of love that lasts through thick and thin. The kind of love you can build a life around. That's what I want for all my children.

He wouldn't have admitted it to any of his siblings, but he'd always hoped he might find a love like that. Oh, maybe it would start with a small seed, like the nubs that fell out of the fir cones, but it would grow into a tree that would shelter all those who came upon it.

Could a frontier rancher find that kind of love with a lady from a big city, used to fine things?

His heart seemed to be urging him to find out.

 

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Extras

Remember the other books in the Frontier Brides series:
Cover for Sudden Mail-Order Bride, book 1 in the Frontier Brides series, by historical romance author Regina Scott, showing a sassy looking lady standing in front of a ranch house with Mount Rainier in the background