The Bride's Matchmaking Triplets
June 1, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-373-425266, Love Inspired Historical)
When mail-order bride Elizabeth Dumont's intended weds another, her only option is to take a job as nanny to abandoned triplet babies. Though she longs to provide a real home for her three precious charges, as a single woman she can't adopt. Until her onetime sweetheart, minister Brandon Stillwater, offers a match of convenience…
It's only for the triplets' sake. That's what Brandon tells himself. Insecurities once drove him and Elizabeth apart, and now small-town rumors have made them man and wife. And though Brandon doesn't want to risk his heart again, he's not sure he can resist the feelings that are once again starting to bloom for Elizabeth. But can he convince her that this sweet surprise family is more than just convenient?
Third book in the continuity after The Rancher's Surprise Triplets by Linda Ford (April 2017) and The Nanny's Temporary Triplets by Noelle Marchand (May 2017). Lone Star Cowboy League: Multiple Blessings. Abandoned triplets find a home and bring hearts together in Texas.
"Some stellar storytelling! I read this entire tale in a single sitting and enjoyed every second of it. The story flows smoothly and the characters are all engaging, even the vexing old women who love to gossip. An excellent novel for any time of the year!" -- The Huntress Reviews
"Grab a copy when it comes out, you won't be sorry!" -- Wren's Thoughts
"I loved the two main characters, Elizabeth and Brandon. I was fascinated with their history together and interested to see how things worked out for them. The triplets were absolutely adorable, adding sweetness and cuteness to the story in just the right amounts. There were also characters that made me fume and those that intrigued me. It all came together to make a story that I loved from start to finish! Five stars!" -- Britt Reads Fiction
Little Horn, Texas, August 1896
"And which of our fine gentlemen have you chosen to be your husband?"
Elizabeth Dumont tried not to cringe at Mrs. Arundel's question. Instead, she picked up one of her three precious charges and handed a triplet to the lady. One look at little Theo, and Mrs. Arundel's stern face melted like snow in the sun.
"I've actually advertised for a position," Elizabeth said, bending to pick up the second baby as another woman-Mrs. Tyson, if she remembered correctly- pressed closer, the scent of her lavender cologne like a cloud surrounding them.
The snug boardinghouse room felt even more cramped with her three visitors this morning. How much nicer it would have been to receive the ladies in her own home, as her aunt had done as Cambridge's most famous hostess. Elizabeth could picture the babies playing on a rug at her feet, tea and cakes waiting on a side table. But right now, this room, with its flowered wallpaper, chintz-covered iron bedstead, porcelain washstand and sturdy walnut dresser, was the best she could do. She was just thankful David and Caroline McKay had given her the three highchairs and large crib they had used when caring for the boys.
"You don't need a position," insisted blond-haired Stella Fuller, wife of the local sheriff, as she came forward to take the last baby. "There are plenty of men in this town worth marrying. You just have to pick one. I did."
Elizabeth had heard Stella had been a mail-order bride, just as Elizabeth had planned to be.
As Stella laughed, little Jasper grinned in her arms. Eli was looking up at Mrs. Tyson, brown eyes wide, as if trying to memorize her kind face. Theo wasn't nearly so sure about Mrs. Arundel, for his lower lip trembled. He glanced at Elizabeth as if afraid the woman was about to make off with him.
Elizabeth knew the feeling. Ever since she'd been given charge of the boys three days ago, she'd wanted to gather them close, smooth their dark hair, whisper comfort in their ears. Maybe it was because they were so little and helpless, maybe it was because they were orphans like her, but Jasper, Theo and Eli touched her heart more than any of her other charges in her four years of being a governess.
"I hear Clyde Parker is looking for a wife," Mrs. Arundel offered. "He has a fine ranch not too far from town. He might not object to red hair." She bounced Theo on her hip, and he frowned at her.
Elizabeth tried not to frown as well. She'd never had anyone complain about her long red hair, now carefully bound up in a bun at the top of her head. Until the time her uncle had been sent to prison for swindling others, she'd received nothing but compliments on her looks. After that, people tended not to want to look at her at all, as if she'd somehow been tainted by the scandal.
"James Forrester needs a wife, too," Mrs. Tyson put in. "His two boys have settled down nicely since they joined the Young Ranchers program."
"His boys are nearly grown," Stella pointed out. "I'd think you'd want someone younger to be father to the triplets." She bent and rubbed her nose against Jasper's, and he squealed in delight, winning a smile from all the ladies.
Mrs. Tyson looked to Eli and sighed. "I simply cannot understand a mother giving away a child. Has no relative come forward since Bo Stillwater found the boys abandoned at the fair?"
"Not one," Elizabeth told her, feeling a little guilty for the relief that statement brought. "The Lone Star Cowboy League advertised in newspapers all over the state, even offered a reward for information about the mother, but the one couple who had asked about the situation later sent word they weren't related after all."
Theo started fussing then, and Mrs. Arundel hurriedly handed him back to Elizabeth. He leaned his head against her shoulder, thumb going to his mouth. Elizabeth drank in the soft weight in her arms, the scent of fresh soap.
Please, Lord, couldn't I be their mother?
She stifled a sigh. She'd just asked for the impossible. While she believed God could do anything, He had never moved mountains in her life. He didn't heal her aunt of the stroke that had left her bedridden or send Elizabeth a new position or husband to support her when her last position ended. Instead, she found herself in Little Horn, a governess-turned-mail-order-bride, whose groom had changed his mind and married another. Any day she'd receive an answer to the advertisements she'd posted seeking a position, and then she would have to give Jasper, Theo and Eli to someone else to raise.
She hugged Theo closer.
"What about Pastor Stillwater?" Stella asked, perking up and causing Jasper to raise his head in expectation. "He's young enough to be a father."
Elizabeth's stomach dipped, and she started shaking her head.
Mrs. Tyson must not have noticed, for she nodded eagerly. "He's such a nice man. Everyone respects him." She tickled Eli under his chin, and he squirmed with a bright giggle that made Elizabeth want to hug him close as well.
"We are very fortunate to have a gentleman of Mr. Stillwater's character as our minister," Mrs. Arundel agreed, her face becoming all prim and proper. "He comes from near Boston, you know. He is very well connected."
Oh, but Elizabeth could tell them stories about Brandon Stillwater's supposedly excellent character. She clamped her mouth shut. Watching her, so did Theo.
"Compassionate to the less fortunate," Mrs. Arundel continued.
Focused on himself.
The other ladies were smiling their agreement. Elizabeth dropped her gaze to Theo, whose brows were once more furrowed, as if he was concerned about what he saw in her blue-green eyes. She was concerned about her feelings as well. She'd thought she'd put aside the disappointment and hurt she'd felt when Brandon had abandoned her four years ago.
Then three days ago she'd arrived in Little Horn and encountered the minister as he was marrying her groom to someone else. She still wasn't sure which had shocked her more: finding David McKay about to wed or seeing Brandon again for the first time in years.
Now Eli started fussing as well, and Mrs. Tyson rocked him, making cooing noises that seemed to calm him. By the way his little mouth pursed, he was trying to mimic her.
"It's getting close to their next feeding," Elizabeth explained, going to set Theo in one of the highchairs. It was crammed next to the wheeled handcart the babies' mother had left them in. Just looking at the care that had gone into the construction of the conveyance told her Jasper, Theo and Eli's parents had loved them. So did the note that had been found with the babies. When she'd agreed to be their nanny, David McKay had given it to her to read.
To the Lone Star Cowboy League: Please take care of my triplets. I'm widowed and penniless. The ranch is dried out. I can't stay there and provide for my babies. I'm also very sick and am going to where I was born to meet my Maker. One day, if you could make sure the boys knew I loved them, I'd be obliged. They were born September 30. Was the happiest day of my life.
The league had been seeing to their care ever since. First Louisa Clark, daughter of the town doctor, had taken a turn, but an illness had required the babies to be moved elsewhere. Caroline Murray, the woman who had married David McKay, had been hired to serve as nanny for the babies and David's daughter Maggie, but Caroline and the widowed father had fallen in love. When she'd injured her arm saving Maggie from a flashflood, it had been clear a new nanny was needed to care for the orphaned triplets. And Elizabeth, abandoned by yet another man she'd thought she'd marry, had been available and ready to help while she looked for something permanent.
A shame she'd fallen in love as well, with three little boys she had no hope of keeping. Even if she could have persuaded the ranchers of the Lone Star Cowboy League to allow her to adopt the triplets, she had no way to support them. With her skills, she might have applied to be a cook, seamstress or some kind of teacher. But Little Horn had a teacher and seamstress; no one seemed to need a nanny or governess; and the only cooking jobs available would require her to go on cattle drives, spending weeks on the trail where women were rare and babies could not go.
No, she would have to give up her charges unless God intervened.
A knock sounded on the door, and, with a look to Elizabeth, Mrs. Arundel went to answer. Brandon Stillwater stepped into the room with a compassionate, kind, humble smile Elizabeth was certain must be false. His sandy-brown hair was as thick as she remembered, combed carefully back from the high forehead her friend Florence had called noble. He stood tall, confident and reserved in his brown frock coat: the perfect minister. The look in his quicksilver eyes said he had come to help.
But how could she accept help from a man she could not depend on?
Brandon smiled at the ladies in his congregation who had come to visit the triplets that morning. Mrs. Arundel puffed up as she usually did in his presence; the feather in the hat resting on her graying curls stood at attention as if even it was determined to have him know its wearer was a proper Christian lady. The brown-haired Mrs. Tyson was beaming at him in such a motherly manner that he was reminded of the sixteen jars of peaches she had provided him recently. Mrs. Fuller, however, had a speculative gleam in her golden-brown eyes that made him wonder what the women had been discussing before he entered.
And then there was Elizabeth. Miss Dumont, some part of him chided. She had made it clear four years ago that she was no longer interested in having him court her, so he would have forfeited the right to use her first name as well. At least, in public. His heart, he feared, still defaulted to Elizabeth.
She was regarding him now, her eyes the exact shade of the Charles River on a sunny day. The fine silk gowns she used to wear had been replaced by a practical dun-colored twill skirt and brown-and-green striped blouse with the puffy sleeves that were all in fashion, if the ladies of his congregation were any indication. She'd covered her clothes with a cotton apron already decorated by working with the triplets. And she held herself as if she were royalty and everyone else was merely here on her sufferance.
"Come to see the babies too, Pastor?" Mrs. Fuller asked with a grin. "Or someone else?"
He ignored the implication, bending to put his head closer to the baby who was squirming in her arms. This had to be Jasper. He was the most rambunctious, always laughing or playing. Theo, on the other hand, was shy, hugging his nanny close more often than not. And Eli was the watchful one, taking his cue from his brothers. Now Jasper flashed a grin that showed two white teeth before reaching for Brandon.
"And how are our little men today?" he asked, opening his arms to offer to take the baby.
Elizabeth stepped between him and Mrs. Fuller. "Quite energetic, as you can see." She intercepted Jasper before the baby reached Brandon. Jasper pouted as he peered over her shoulder at him.
Brandon knew the feeling of frustration. It came over him every time he was in Elizabeth's company.
She set Jasper in the chair next to Theo's. Mrs. Tyson brought her Eli, who reached out a hand to grasp Theo's as he sat in the third chair.
"As I was saying, it's just about feeding time," Elizabeth told her company, "so it might be best if you leave me to it." She smiled at the women. "We all know the damage a baby can do to a nice dress."
The women all chorused agreement, patting down their cotton skirts as they took their leave and headed for the door. Mrs. Arundel paused to eye Brandon.
"A baby can damage a fine suit as well, Pastor," she informed him as if he hadn't already been christened by each of the triplets since his brother had found them at the county fair six weeks ago.
"Then I'll just have to rely on the Lord's mercy and the skill of the kind ladies who do my washing," he replied with a smile.
The older woman glanced at Elizabeth, brows narrowing. "But you can't stay. It isn't proper."
Not proper for him to care about three babies left alone in the world? Even if the little fellows hadn't tugged at his heart, as the minister of the only church in Little Horn, it was surely his duty to see to their well-being. He was called in to comfort and mediate in most areas, from praying over sick children to finding homes for orphans like Jo and Gil Satler to stopping the feud between Dorothy Hill and Tug Coleman and their families.
"Not proper at all," Elizabeth agreed, arms crossed over her chest. "And I know Reverend Stillwater is very careful about his reputation."
There was an edge to her words, as if trying to live up to his calling was somehow shocking. She'd known him since he'd attended divinity school at Harvard. What else would she have expected him to become but a minister?
"It's all right," Mrs. Tyson said, stepping back into the room. "I can stay a little longer. You go ahead, Margaret. I'll join you for tea in a bit."
With a nod, Mrs. Arundel sailed from the room, her feather high.
And he had a chaperone. He could have told Mrs. Tyson that she had no need for concern. Elizabeth Dumont would have no use for him even if he proposed marriage right then and there.
The older lady went over and clucked at the babies as Elizabeth moved to the dresser against the far wall and picked up one of the jars of applesauce crowding the surface. He was pleased to see the ladies of his congregation had been equally generous to the babies as they were to him. The gingham-topped jars of pears would be from Mrs. Dooley; he had a dozen like them at the parsonage. Betsy McKay had likely donated the stewed plums, the purple glinting in the light. For the triplets' sake, he hoped the applesauce had come from Lula May McKay, for she was one of the best cooks and canners in the area, not to mention being the leader of the Lone Star Cowboy League.
Elizabeth came back to the highchairs carrying the jar and a silver spoon. Once, she'd presided over an entire table laden with silver and fine china and crystal. Her long red hair had been smoothed into a tight bun, and the emeralds at her ears and throat had called attention to her almond-shaped eyes. The smile she'd offered him across the table had been bright, eager, almost as if she couldn't wait to learn more about him.
Now her smile seemed brittle as she reached for a wooden chair against one wall. Brandon hurried forward to lift it for her, positioning it in front of the highchairs. Mrs. Tyson nodded approval, but Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at him as if suspecting he had ulterior motives.
What did she think he was going to do, pull it out from under her?
Putting her back to him, she perched on the chair. The sunlight from the window across from her blazed fire along her hair and made him wish he still had the right to touch the gleaming tresses.
Help me, Lord. I don't know what I did to earn her wrath. Show me how to behave toward her.
Elizabeth remained focused on her charges. "All right, little bird," she said to Jasper. "Open wide your beak." She dipped the spoon in the jar and brought it closer to him. Jasper opened his mouth for the applesauce.
Theo reached for the spoon and ended up knocking it aside, splashing fruit across the chairs. Eli set up a howl.
"Oh, dear," Mrs. Tyson said. "Let me see if I can find something to clean that up." She hurried to the dresser and began rummaging through the items left for the babies.
Elizabeth wiped applesauce off her cheek with one finger. "Well, that didn't work."
Brandon stepped forward and picked up the crying baby. "I'll take Eli. Can you handle the other two?"
Her gaze snapped to his, and there was fire in those eyes. "Certainly, Mr. Stillwater. That's what the Lone Star Cowboy League is paying me to do, remember?"
Of course he remembered. He'd been at the wedding when David McKay had made the suggestion. It was only right that David find some way to support Elizabeth, after she'd come all this way to marry him only to find him marrying another. The rancher had sent her a telegram telling her of the change in plan, but it had never reached her. Still, Brandon couldn't help wondering why Elizabeth had agreed to marry David in the first place.
Now he merely nodded. "I meant would you prefer me to take Theo as well so you can focus on Jasper," he said, moving back from the highchairs as much to separate Eli from the food as to distance himself from her anger.
"We're fine," she said, turning her attention to the two remaining babies.
"Babies can be such work, the little dears," Mrs. Tyson put in with a commiserating look to Brandon. She bent to clean up the floor.
Elizabeth moved Jasper and Theo farther apart, then took turns feeding them a spoonful of the applesauce, her movements brisk and efficient. Mrs. Tyson hovered behind, ready to step in if needed. Brandon rocked Eli, the baby warm in his arms. As Eli's cries quieted, he looked up at Brandon, trusting.
When had Elizabeth lost trust in him?
He'd thought them destined for marriage, partners for life. She'd been everything he could have dreamed of in a wife back then-caring, loving, generous. Even now, she cajoled the babies into eating, praised them for waiting to take their turns and set them to beaming happily. Their brother in his arms reached for her as if he simply had to get closer.
Brandon had felt the same way once. She'd been the one to break things off, to marry a wealthier, more socially prominent man, she'd said. Yet here she was, a mail-order bride of all things. Much as he loved Little Horn with its wide-open spaces and kind-hearted people, the community was a far cry from the society she'd been raised in near Boston. So what had happened to bring Elizabeth Dumont back into his life again?
Be sure to read all the books in the Lone Star Cowboy League historical series. Here's for a summary of all books.