Mail-Order Marriage Promise
September 1, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-373-42538-9, Love Inspired Historical)
Stunned that his sister ordered him a mail-order bride, John Wallin insists he's not the husband Dottie Tyrrell needs. The scholarly logger knows Dottie will make the perfect wife-for some other man. Yet he's compelled to invite the lovely widow and her infant son to stay with his family…but only until she can find her own way.
Dreams of true love are for other women. Betrayed by her baby's father, Dottie just wants a safe home for her precious child. But who could resist a man with John's quiet strength? When her secret past brings danger to their door, they may yet find this mail-order mix-up to be the perfect mistake…
Sixth book in the Frontier Bachelors series after A Convenient Christmas Wedding (December 2016). Frontier bachelors: bold, rugged, and bound to be grooms
Seattle, Washington Territory, April 1874
Dottie Tyrrell sat in the Pastry Emporium wondering what her groom looked like.
Not that she found looks all that indicative of character. Certainly Frank had been handsome, and he'd turned out to be a despicable rat. But it did seem odd to have traveled all the way from Cincinnati to Washington Territory and not have any picture in her mind of the man she had come to marry.
She settled her blue-and-purple striped skirts around her on the wooden chair, then pushed a blond curl back from her face. Oh, but she was fussing, and why not? It wasn't every day you expected to see your husband come walking through the door.
His sister had tried to describe the fellow to Dottie in her letters, but Beth Wallin's reference points had meant little.
"John isn't as tall as Drew and Simon, our oldest brothers," the young lady had written, "but he has a bit more muscle than Simon or James. His hair used to be red, but it's darkened over the years to look more like madrone tree bark, and his eyes are a darker green than Ma's were."
So Dottie had no idea of his height or weight. She'd never seen a madrone tree, but she could only assume John's hair was some shade of brown. Not particularly helpful!
She took a sip of the tea she had ordered earlier. The liquid trembled in the bone china cup. She was about to marry a stranger. Why, with everything she'd written to his sister, John Wallin knew more about Dottie than she knew about him!
Very likely he'd be able to pick her out the moment he walked in the door. The bakery was cozy, with a wide counter at the back next to a glass cabinet, where all manner of delicacies lay waiting for a hungry buyer. Six small wooden tables, all occupied, were clustered to one side so patrons could stop and enjoy their treats. The scents of cinnamon and vanilla hung in the air. With few women in the bakery, and all of them attended by a husband or children, the mail-order bride Mr. Wallin's sister had arranged for him would be glaringly apparent.
Dottie drew in a breath as she set down the teacup. A part of her, the part that remembered a mother and father deeply in love and that had gloried in stories of courtly romance, urged her to jump up and flee. Marriage was a sacred institution, meant to unite those committed to making a life together in love.
Funny how she still believed that even after Frank had made a mockery of their vows.
She pushed away the memory and her troubled emotions. She had given her word and accepted Mr. Wallin's money to travel to Seattle. She could sigh all she liked for what might have been, but she had to remember she had someone else depending on her now. For her son's sake, she would marry a man of stability and property, even if that meant tucking her heart away in a trunk with her wedding veil.
Another gentleman entered the restaurant, the fifth in the past quarter hour, and Dottie sat straighter, made herself smile in greeting. The telegram she'd received in San Francisco on her way to Seattle had said to meet John Wallin in this bakery, on this day, at this very hour. Was that her man?
He seemed more heavy than muscular in his plaid suit; she was certain the floorboards squeaked in protest as he marched to the counter. The tweed cap hid his hair, but his bushy beard was reddish brown. The same young lady with dark brown hair who had served Dottie tea nodded in welcome, and he snapped out an order for cinnamon rolls before turning to survey the crowd with narrowed eyes, fingers clasped self-importantly around his paunch.
Please, Lord, not him.
Dottie dropped her gaze to her gloved hands. That was unkind. She had no reason to expect anything special in her husband. She'd come all this way hoping to find a compassionate man who could provide for and protect her and little Peter. Perhaps someone who enjoyed literature as much as she did, though she wasn't even sure John Wallin could read or write, as his sister had corresponded for him.
Beth had explained that her brother was a very busy man and the lot of finding him a bride had fallen to her. Her writing had been so friendly and open that Dottie had dared to hope John Wallin would be equally so. If Dottie had been less than entirely open, it was only because she had learned the hard way to be more cautious. She'd said nothing to Beth about Peter and had arranged for him to stay back at the hotel with a lady they'd met on the boat. Time enough to introduce him once she'd had a chance to meet with John Wallin.
Now she made herself raise her head and return the gaze of the burly man at the counter. He lifted his brows, then grinned at her, and her stomach squirmed.
Dottie blinked, then refocused on the young woman who had stepped up to her table. She had pale blond hair, fashionably done up like Dottie's to fall behind her, and wide, dark blue eyes. Her gown of sky-blue crepe trimmed in ecru lace was right out of Godey's Lady's Book.
"Yes," Dottie said. "I'm Mrs. Tyrrell. Do I know you?"
The young lady's smile broadened on her round face and brightened the rainy day. "You most certainly do. I'm Beth Wallin."
Before Dottie could offer a greeting, John's younger sister pulled out the chair across from hers and took a seat. "I'm so glad to meet you in person at last! I've been waiting for this moment for so long, but then so have you. You're exactly as I pictured you. I just know John is going to love you."
The tea bubbled up inside Dottie, threatening to choke her. She didn't believe John Wallin would love her. She certainly had no expectation of falling in love with him. She would be a good partner-working beside him on his farm, keeping his house. Beyond that, she was not willing to promise.
"Are we expecting your brother soon?" she asked, almost afraid to look toward the fellow at the counter again.
She nearly slid from her chair in relief when Beth glanced at the door instead. "Any moment. He had other business in town. He's very conscientious. And kind. And thoughtful. But I told you all that already."
She had. Dottie hated to admit even to herself how she'd clung to the words in Beth's effusive letters. "Kind" had been repeated many times. So had "sweet" and "good-natured." Even the initial ad that had opened their correspondence had seemed thoughtful, hopeful. Small wonder she'd chosen that one to answer.
She'd been in a bad way then, desperate enough to rifle through the local paper that reprinted ads for men seeking brides. The moment she'd sent off the letter in response to the ad from "a gentleman from Seattle," she'd regretted it. How could she, who had been lied to so cruelly, trust another man to tell her the truth? How could she take such a chance?
Because she needed to give Peter security, safety.
Beth Wallin's letters had calmed her spirit, made her feel welcomed, valued. But still doubts persisted. She had forced herself to take each step-giving up her one-room flat in Cincinnati, boarding the train to California, taking a ship north to Puget Sound. Now here she sat, waiting to meet the man who would be her new husband.
The young lady who had been behind the counter approached the table with a smile. Tall, slender and modestly dressed in a gray gown with a frilly white apron, she had brown eyes that seemed wiser than her years.
"Good to see you again, Beth," she said to John's sister. "What can I get for you today?"
Beth hopped to her feet and enfolded the girl in a hug. "Oh, Ciara, it's so good to see you! I was hoping you'd be working today." She released her, dimple popping into view beside her mouth, then turned to Dottie. "Mrs. Tyrrell, this is my good friend Ciara O'Rourke. Her older sister Maddie Haggerty owns this bakery."
Impressive. A shame Dottie didn't have any marketable skills, or she might have been able to raise Peter alone. But then again, what would she have done with him while she was working? That had been the problem in Cincinnati.
Dottie inclined her head in greeting, but Beth hurried on in the breathless way she had. "I see you brought Mrs. Tyrrell tea. I think we should have something to go with it. Did Maddie make lemon drops today?"
The girl shook her head. "I'm sorry. But I'm sure she would have if she'd known you'd be in. We do have iced shortbread."
Beth clapped her hands. "Perfect. We'll each take one."
With a nod, the girl hurried off.
Beth sat and turned to Dottie. "The lemon drops are wonderful. I'm sure we could get Maddie to bake some for your wedding reception. I was hoping you and John could be married out at Wallin Landing, but we haven't quite finished the church yet. It's on a beautiful spot overlooking the lake. I just know it's going to be a wonderful place for a wedding, but not yours. I guess we'll have to hold the ceremony in Seattle."
Dottie found herself gripping her teacup. "Perhaps we should discuss that with your brother."
Beth waved a hand. "He'll agree. He's very agreeable."
And kind and thoughtful, apparently. Dottie had wanted so much for this arrangement to work, but suddenly she found it difficult to believe this paragon of a gentleman existed. According to Beth's letters, John Wallin was twenty-eight, five years Dottie's senior, and had an established claim north of Seattle on Lake Union, in an area known as Wallin Landing, named after his family. He was supposed to be a pillar of the community, supporting civic and church functions alike. Yet he had no time to write letters, had delegated the task of finding a bride to his sister.
What sort of fellow was he?
The door opened again to admit another man. This one was tall and slender, with broad shoulders that showed to advantage in his navy wool coat. The golden light from the lamp hanging overhead sent red flames flickering through his short, wavy mahogany-colored hair. His features were firm, well-formed, though his full lower lip hinted of a gentleness inside. She was certain she had never met him, yet there was something familiar about him. He glanced around until his gaze met hers, and something sizzled through her like the fizz from sassafras.
He came unerringly toward the table. Her mouth was dry as she pushed herself to her feet.
"Beth," he said in a warm voice, "you didn't tell me you were meeting a friend."
Beth hopped to her feet again to beam at him. "A very dear friend, to whom I've written any number of letters over the last eight months. John, this is Dorothy Tyrrell. I chose her to be your bride."
John Wallin's handsome face turned paler than the icing on the bakery's cinnamon rolls, and Dottie had a feeling that something was very wrong.
John felt as if every voice in Maddie Haggerty's busy bakery had suddenly shut off so that all he could hear was the rush of blood through his veins. Dorothy Tyrrell stared at him, her face paling, as if Beth's announcement shocked her as well.
He'd noticed the lovely blonde the moment he'd started into the room, and not just because she was sitting with his sister. No, it wasn't every day a fellow saw hair so golden and full, eyes such a purplish shade of blue that reminded him of the lavender Ma used to grow. The fitted blue bodice, with its tiny purple bows down the front, showed a supple figure, and her fingers in her proper gloves were long and shapely. He could imagine any number of men in Seattle rushing to pay her court.
But when it came to him marrying, his sister had to be joking.
"Beth, you shouldn't tease your friend," he said with a smile. "I promise you, Miss Tyrrell, I have no intention of proposing marriage."
Her pretty pink lips had been pursed in an O, most likely in surprise. Now her mouth snapped shut, and she drew herself up. She was tall for a woman, and he was the shortest of his brothers at only six foot, so she could nearly look him in the eyes. That purple drew him in.
"A decided shame, Mr. Wallin," she said, voice tight, "because I came more than two thousand miles to marry you."
What was she talking about? He'd never met her before, certainly hadn't proposed marriage. He'd been busy of late, working on the church, looking for funding for the library he hoped to build next, but surely he'd recall courting such a beauty. He certainly remembered his last courtship, and how badly it had ended.
John glanced between the lady and Beth. "The joke's on me, then," he said. "Very funny, Beth. Did James put you up to this?"
His sister did not laugh. Indeed, her smile was rather stern.
"Sit down," she said, "both of you. We're making a scene."
She was right, of course. Already he could see patrons glancing their way. John took the chair beside his sister, and her friend suffered herself to sit as well. Still, those lavender eyes were dark enough to look like storm clouds.
Beth put one hand on John's shoulder and the other on her friend's fingers where they rested on the table, as if ensuring they each sat still long enough to listen to her.
"John," she said, "you know I worry about you, especially since last summer."
He caught himself squirming and pulled out of her grip. "This is not the time or place to discuss that, Beth."
"Yes, it is," she insisted. "You've retreated into a shell, won't listen to anything I have to say. You work yourself night and day for the betterment of the community, but you think nothing of caring for your own needs. You should have someone to help you, stand beside you, support you. So I took matters into my own hands and found you a bride."
He heard the lady suck in a breath. "Didn't you have your brother's permission to write to me? To propose marriage?"
"No," Beth admitted. "I'm sorry if I gave you that impression. But I can assure you that everything else in my letters about my brother and our family was true."
John felt ill. "Beth, you proposed to this woman for me? An agreement for a mail-order bride is a binding contract. She'll have spent money coming here in expectation."
Before his sister could respond, Ciara approached the table, a plate of iced shortbread in each hand. Her eyes were bright as she beamed at John. "Hello, John. Maddie's still singing your praises for helping her and Michael install the new ovens. Did I hear someone's getting married?"
"No," Beth's victim and John said in unison.
Ciara set down the plates on the table and backed away as if she thought John and the lady might come after her.
His sister, on the other hand, didn't look the least concerned as she drew one of the plates closer and picked up a cookie. "Yes, John, I invited Dottie to Seattle for a wedding, but I didn't ask her to pay her own way. I used the inheritance Ma left me to fund her passage." She took a bite of the shortbread.
She'd used her inheritance, money that was supposed to have gone toward building her future. It seemed his sister thought he needed it more. The very idea was lowering.
He would have to talk to Beth about what she'd done, find a way to pay back the money she'd spent. But at the moment, he was more concerned about the woman sitting beside him. How horrible this must be for her, how embarrassing. A woman had to be desperate to marry a stranger, from what he understood of the custom of mail-order brides. She had taken the ultimate chance in coming here, and now she had nothing to show for it.
He could not help feeling that it was partly his fault. If he had listened the many times Beth had tried to talk to him about taking a wife, he might have realized his sister's plans before they'd come to this. He had to find a way to make things right.
"Miss Tyrrell---" he began.
"Mrs. Tyrrell," she said.
She was a widow. Odd. She didn't look much older than Beth. How tragic to have already lost a husband. His guilt over how she'd been used ratcheted up higher.
"Mrs. Tyrrell," he acknowledged. "I can only commend you for your willingness to journey all the way to Seattle. My sister must have painted a very convincing picture."
"Thank you," Beth said, icing dripping off her chin.
John continued, undaunted. "But I am not prepared to marry."
"Yes, he is," Beth said, leaning forward, half-eaten cookie in one hand. "He has a nice house, a good farm and a steady nature. He just needs the right incentive."
"Beth." He had never been a man of temper. Indeed, his brothers were likely to tease him for being the peacemaker in the family. But his sister's actions were making him feel decidedly less than peaceful.
"You cannot think that a few letters I knew nothing about will encourage me to offer marriage," he told her. "I'm not interested in taking a wife." Beth's lower lip and fingers trembled, sending a drop of icing to the table. "But John, look at her. She's sweet and pretty. She loves books as much as you do. She'd be perfect for you."
He looked at Mrs. Tyrrell, whose eyes appeared suspiciously moist. Guilt wrapped itself around his heart.
Which was unfortunate, for his heart was entirely the problem. All his life, he'd tried to be the sort of man he'd read about in the adventure novels Pa had left them-bold, daring, determined, willing to brave great things for the woman he loved. His courtship last summer had made him painfully aware that he was no hero. That wasn't how God had made him.
Besides, Beth seemed to understand that his last attempt at courting had only wounded him. Why would she think he'd be willing to try again, and with a stranger?
"Mrs. Tyrrell is lovely," he said to Beth, though he kept his gaze on the woman who was supposed to be his bride. "I'm sure she'll make some gentleman a marvelous wife. But I will not be that man."
He could see Mrs. Tyrrell swallow even though she had not taken a bite of the shortbread Ciara had left in front of her.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, Mr. Wallin," she said, her gaze holding his. "But I was promised a husband, and I won't leave without one."