Authors: Shanna Hatfield
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #Forever Love, #Victorian Era, #Western, #Fifth In Series, #Saga, #Fifty-Books, #Forty-Five Authors, #Newspaper Ad, #Short Story, #American Mail-Order Bride, #Bachelor, #Single Woman, #Marriage Of Convenience, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Inspirational, #Factory Burned, #Pioneer, #North Carolina, #Conniving Mother, #Reluctant Groom, #Family Plantation, #Past Issues, #Asheville, #New Beginning, #Simple Farmer, #Misunderstanding, #Unknown Existence
Dacey merely nodded, uncertain what Ellie meant by mountain folk and unsure she wanted to find out. “I best be on my way.”
“Where are you heading, dearie?” Ellie asked as Dacey picked up her valise once again and moved toward the door.
“Bramble Hall? The Douglas place?” Ellie gave her a curious glance as they stood at the door.
“That’s right. Mr. Jones at the depot drew a map for me.” Dacey held out the piece of paper the man had given her.
“That’s quite a walk from here, Dacey. If you wait until my son returns from making deliveries, he would be more than happy to give you a ride.”
“You’ve been much too kind already, Ellie. I thank you, but the walk will do me good.” Dacey opened the door and smiled at the woman who’d brightened her day.
“But Dacey, what on earth are you traipsing all the way…” Ellie snapped her mouth shut as a customer walked up to the open door and waited for Dacey to step outside.
Dacey tipped her head politely to both women then hurried down the walk. She admired the many colorful displays in store windows as she made her way through town.
Once she left the last of the city behind her, she pulled out the map from Mr. Jones and studied it a moment before stuffing it inside the pocket of her skirt.
By her estimation, she was close to three miles outside of town when dust stirred on the road. She watched an open carriage approach with a stone-faced older man at the reins and a handsome young man sprawled across the seat in the back. The weight of his gaze lingered on her as he passed, but he didn’t direct the driver to stop.
Discomfited by his attention and something charged in the air, she continued marching down the road. A few hundred yards ahead, she noticed a large pasture full of horses and stopped to watch them.
One of the things she’d missed the most after leaving the ranch was her horses. Her father had taught her early on how to ride. She’d become one of his best hands with a horse until his tragic death sent her world spinning out of control.
After setting down her valise and removing her gloves, Dacey took out the packet of cookies Ellie had wrapped for her. Under the shade of a tree, she ate them and watched the horses graze in the pasture. Eventually, a chestnut mare wandered close to the fence.
Dacey brushed away the cookie crumbs from her skirt and hands then slowly approached the fence. With unhurried movements, she reached through the weathered wooden rails and stroked the mare’s silky neck.
“Hey, girl. Aren’t you a beauty?” Dacey spoke softly, gently brushing her hand over the horse’s neck. A few other horses wandered close and she gave them all a friendly pat before tugging on her gloves, picking up her valise, and turning down the road her map indicated.
Unable to resist a peek, she glanced over her shoulder. The horses she’d befriended moseyed along the fence beside her, seeking more attention.
Laughing, she set down her bag then removed her gloves and hat. Determined to enjoy her last moments of freedom, she unpinned her tightly wound hair, removed her jacket, and climbed over the fence right into trouble.
Braxton Douglas forked his long, tanned fingers through his black hair and glowered at the ticket agent behind the counter at the Asheville train depot.
“What do you mean ‘she’ isn’t here? Who is the ‘she’ to whom you refer?” Braxton leaned against the counter and fixed the agent with a pointed glare. Mr. Jones frequently engaged in mental games that only served to test his limited tolerance. Braxton’s already thinly stretched patience nearly snapped when the odd little man offered him a cocky grin as he stepped inside the depot and muttered nonsense that “she” wasn’t there. He could only assume the woman in question was the one his mother sent him to retrieve.
A long-suffering sigh worked its way up from his chest and out his mouth. “Did a woman named Miss Butler get off the train today?”
“Oh, she certainly did. Seemed quite put out no one was here to greet her, too.” Mr. Jones puffed out his chest and smirked at Braxton. “She appeared to be in a hurry to reach your place, so I gave her directions. She’s probably sipping tea with your mother by now.”
“Probably. Why mother insisted upon me escorting Miss Butler to Bramble Hall shall remain a mystery. I’ve never even heard her mention the woman before today. I suppose she’s one of mother’s cohorts in her recent endeavors with the suffrage movement.” Braxton picked up the hat he’d set on the counter and settled it back on his head.
“Oh, I don’t doubt Miss Butler holds very strong opinions on any number of topics, including that one,” Mr. Jones said, offering Braxton a knowing look. “I predict she and your mother will get on quite famously.”
“That’s all I need,” Braxton groused as he walked to the door. “Another female in the house, full of ideas and strange notions.”
His mother wasn’t the only one with a variety of opinions. In fact, Braxton was every bit as strong-willed as his mother, and determined to do things his own way. That was one reason he remained blissfully single at twenty-seven years of age.
Despite his parents’ many efforts to entangle him with any number of beautiful, eligible females, he managed to escape their plots unattached, although not entirely unscathed.
If he ever lost all his sense and surrendered to his mother’s urging to take a wife, he wanted a girl of his own choosing. It would take a special woman to turn his head and melt his heart. One full of fire and spirit, not the dull-witted spoiled girls his father continually introduced him to or the money-grabbing upstarts his mother knew.
No, he wanted a woman who didn’t care about his wealth or social standing, one who loved only him.
Thoughts of the girl he’d seen walking down the road on his way into town filled his mind. He pictured her peculiar clothes and the innocent look on her face as she trudged along, carrying a worn leather bag in her hand.
Although she was far enough away he couldn’t see the color of her eyes, he imagined they’d match the deep teal color of her jacket and unusual skirt.
If he wasn’t mistaken, the hat on her head looked like one he’d seen cowboys wearing. He puzzled over why a woman would don such a thing.
Regardless, the hat and her attire seemed to fit her, fit her personality. At least what he’d glimpsed of it as they passed by.
As he returned to the carriage and Harry guided it through the streets of town, Braxton indulged in further contemplating where the girl traveled and what brought her to town.
Although she obviously wasn’t someone who would mingle in his crowd, she had a pretty, fresh face. He would have remembered her had he happened to meet her on a previous occasion.
Leaning back against the cushioned leather seat, he watched the passing countryside, admiring the glory of the warm, autumn day. The temperature was so warm, he abandoned propriety and removed his jacket, setting it on the seat along with his hat. He studied his horses in the corner pasture as they drove past the fence.
When Harry turned the corner to head down their road toward Bramble Hall, Braxton’s jaw dropped at the sight that met him.
“Stop the carriage!” he bellowed, grabbing onto Harry’s seat for balance as he lunged to his feet.
The wheels were still turning as he jumped out of the conveyance and ran over to the fence. Astounded, he watched the girl who’d captured his interest earlier riding one of his chestnut mares bareback, without a bridle.
Small hands clung to fistfuls of the horse’s mane as she rode astride. Sweet laughter floated to him on the afternoon breeze as she urged the mare into a gallop across the pasture.
If he hadn’t been so enthralled by her ability to handle the horse, he might have been stunned by the fact she rode better than any man he knew.
The horse made a gentle turn and headed his direction. He knew the exact moment that she became aware of him. Her relaxed, carefree posture stiffened. Slowly, she coaxed the mare to a walk as they neared the fence where he waited.
“What in blazes do you think you’re doing?” Braxton swung over the fence in one smooth motion, carefully approaching the horse.
It started to shy, but the woman bent over and whispered in its ear before patting it on the neck and sliding to the ground.
“Riding a horse.” She brushed at the back of her skirt and stared at him with a look of bold defiance. “I surmised that much was obvious.”
In spite of himself, Braxton bit back a smile. Although the girl was of small stature, she possessed plenty of fire and sass.
“Who gave you permission to ride?” He attempted to pin her with a stormy glare.
The girl grinned and pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the mare she’d just ridden. “This ol’ girl talked me into it. We’ll share the blame.”
Unable to contain his humor, Braxton chuckled. “She is quite skillful at getting her way,” he said, rubbing a gentle hand over the horse’s withers. “Polly has a hard time staying out of trouble.”
“Polly, is it?” the girl asked, rubbing an affectionate hand over the mare’s muzzle. “You’re a real sweetheart, Polly.”
Braxton experienced the most ridiculous desire to trade places with the horse. Aware it was crazy to entertain such thoughts, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to experience such a tender caress from the fascinating female.
Annoyed by his interest in the outlandish girl, he took a step back and pointed toward the road. “Didn’t I see you walking earlier?”
“Yes, sir. I’m heading to Bramble Hall, but I couldn’t pass by without making friends with Polly.”
“I see,” Braxton said, not seeing anything at all. He had no idea what the young woman would want at his home. He speculated if she sought a position as one of the house or kitchen maids. After seeing her ride the horse so free from care, he couldn’t quite picture her dressed in a uniform, polishing his mother’s silver or dusting the furniture.
For a moment, he studied the girl as she stared back at him. Her long, auburn hair hung in thick curls around her shoulders and down her back. He started to lift his fingers to see if it would feel like luxurious ribbons. To keep from reaching out, he stuffed his hands inside his pockets, appalled by the thoughts racing through his mind.
Despite the voice in his head warning him to look away, he took in her smooth, creamy skin, pink lips, and eyes that did, indeed, match the deep teal color of her unfamiliar attire.
Unabashedly, he watched as she buttoned a placket across the front of her skirt that hid the wide-legged trousers. No wonder she rode astride with such ease. He’d never seen the like and assumed it had to be some sort of western garb.
Curiosity eventually overrode his normal impeccable manners. “What are you wearing?” he blurted, unable to keep his thoughts contained in his head.
The woman glanced down and brushed a hand along the fabric, removing hair left behind by Polly. “It’s a split skirt. I used to have a dozen of ‘em before I had to up and leave the ranch.”
“The ranch?” Braxton asked, confused and oddly intrigued.
“Yep. I grew up on a ranch in Eastern Oregon. Prettiest place in the world, if you ask me, which you didn’t.” She grinned at him and climbed over the fence.
Shocked by her lithe movements, Braxton silently observed her as she twisted her hair into a tidy bun. She jabbed in hairpins she fished from inside her skirt pocket to hold it in place. When she finished, she tugged the broad flat top black hat on her head, slipped on her jacket, and yanked on her gloves.
Politely tipping her head to him then Harry, she picked up her valise and resumed walking down the road.
“Miss! Wait, miss!” Braxton found his tongue as he swung over the fence and jogged to catch up to her as she bustled down the road toward his home.
She turned and raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to speak.
“May I give you a ride to Bramble Hall? I’m heading that direction anyway.” Braxton took her elbow in his hand and guided her back to the carriage.
“I’d appreciate that, sir. I’m sore-footed, plumb exhausted, and ain’t exactly sure what to expect when I get there. Thank you.”
Braxton set her valise on the front seat with Harry then held out his hand to her. She accepted it with a demure nod and started to step into the carriage then suddenly stopped.
“Oh, gracious. I’ll get Polly’s hair all over. I think I better just walk the rest of the way.” She turned to jump down, but Braxton blocked her path.
“I assure you, miss, it wouldn’t be the first or the last time there was horse hair on the seat. Come along. Please?” He held onto her hand and placed his other at her elbow, giving her a slight nudge forward.
With a resigned sigh, she stepped the rest of the way into the carriage and moved over so Braxton could enter. “If you’re gonna force me to ride with you, I suppose I should at least tell you my name.” The smile she cast over her shoulder left Braxton fighting the urge to kiss her lips. “I’m Dacey Butler.”
“Miss Butler,” Braxton said, forcing a smile, wondering what business the enigmatic young woman had with his mother. From what he’d observed, the only similarities the two females had in common were a propensity for bluntness, a love of horses, and a determined spirit.
Sure her visit was tied to something that held no interest for him, Braxton didn’t press her further. Rather, he questioned her about the ranch in Oregon and where she’d learned to ride so well. He picked up the hat and jacket he’d left on the seat and tossed them over her valise by Harry.
“My daddy had me on a horse before I could walk. My mother said my first word was ‘ride’ and by the time I was five, I could handle any horse on our place.” Dacey shook her head and laughed. “The hands used to race me all the time, but after I beat every one of them, they finally gave up.”
“How large was your ranch?”
“It was only a thousand acres, but we raised a bumper crop of wheat and had the best beef cattle. Our bunkhouse cook could sure wrestle up some good chow. Rowdy, our ranch foreman, kept things going after my daddy died.”
Once again shocked into silence, Braxton didn’t think he’d ever met a woman who spoke so honestly and unaffected. In addition, her western twang made him grin.
Harry turned the carriage up the road that lead to Braxton’s home. Miss Butler’s eyes widened as she took in the trees lining the lane.
“What are those?” she asked pointing a gloved finger toward one of the giant magnolias. “The trees with the leaves that look like they’ve been dipped in chocolate.”
Braxton smiled at her unusual description. “Magnolia trees. The leaves turn deep brown in the autumn, but they truly shine in the spring when they’re filled with pink magnolia flowers. The scent is remarkable. Do you have any flowering trees in Oregon?”
The answer he awaited died on her lips as she caught sight of his imposing home.
Straightening her posture, she gawked at the plantation house his grandfather had built in the 1830s. “My stars!” she whispered. “This is Bramble Hall?”
“The main house,” Braxton said, trying to envision what the place looked like to someone accustomed to the landscape Dacey had described of rolling hills of wheat, pastures of fat cattle, and sagebrush-dotted land. “The horse barn is over there, to the left. Behind the house are the cottages where the help lives. And the carriage house is over there.”
Dacey appeared dazed as Harry turned the carriage around in the circular drive.
She sucked in a ragged breath as they stopped, gaping upward at the three stories of the Greek revival structure. A dozen white columns stretched from the ground up to the third story, flanking the front of house. The curve of a grand rotunda peeked around the side of the imposing home.
“This is where the Douglas family lives?” she asked, sounding unsure and a little frightened.
Braxton grinned as he helped her out of the carriage. Quickly slipping on his jacket and placing his hat on his head, he took her valise in one hand and her elbow in the other, escorting her up the sweeping staircase to the main level of the house. “My family has lived here since 1836 when construction was completed on the house. Before that, my grandparents lived in what is now our overseer’s home behind the carriage house.”
Dacey stumbled on the steps as she looked at the man beside her. “Your family?”