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
Aware he was a man of importance, she’d noticed his expensive clothing, exquisite manners and fine speech. Young, virile, and undeniably attractive, she’d wondered who he was, why he cared if she rode the horses out by the main road.
Under the assumption he was close to her age, she’d admired his strong shoulders, a somewhat unruly thatch of wavy dark hair, and square jaw covered in rakish stubble. Regardless of her interest in him, she’d never once connected him to the Douglas family. Belatedly, she realized he’d failed to provide his name when she introduced herself.
“Who are you?” she asked, grasping the railing as her head spun and her limbs trembled. She snatched the hat off her head and used it to fan her flaming cheeks.
Braxton released her elbow and took a step back. With a grand bow, he dipped in front of her, waving his hat in a courtly gesture before settling it back on his head. “Braxton James Douglas, at your service.”
“You… you’re Braxton Douglas?” Dacey’s face drained of all color and her legs ceased to hold her. She sank onto the step, clutching the rail in her hand to keep from tumbling down the stairs they’d just climbed. The hat slipped from her fingers, but she didn’t notice.
“Yes, ma’am. I am.” Braxton tossed her valise up to the top of the steps then took her hands in his, pulling her to her feet. “Welcome to my home, to Bramble Hall.”
“Braxton Douglas,” Dacey muttered, assaulted with dizziness, fear, and surprise.
The strong, charming man before her was nothing like the bookish little fellow she’d envisioned marrying.
All too aware of her attraction to this handsome stranger, she slipped into a state of shock, clinging to Braxton’s hands as the world spun around her.
Before blackness swamped her, she turned her face toward his and whispered the reason for her arrival. “I’m here to marry you.”
Braxton caught Dacey as she fainted. Sweeping her into his arms, he charged up the remaining steps and raced to the front door.
“Mother!” he shouted as their butler opened the portal, eyes wide in surprise as Braxton stormed inside. “Mother!”
“Mrs. Douglas is taking tea in the blue parlor this afternoon, sir,” the butler said, uncertain what he could do to assist the young master of the house.
“Please bring her to the gold parlor, George. Right away,” Braxton said in a somewhat quieter tone. He strode across the entry hall and entered an expansive room with cream furnishings and gold-flocked wallpaper.
Gently, he placed Dacey on a settee and stepped back from her, sure he’d misheard her before she fainted.
No doubt, his unexpected interest in her conjured such a crazy notion.
How utterly preposterous.
She didn’t know him, didn’t know anything about him. Why on earth would she travel to his home with the intention of marrying him?
Doubts gnawed at him as he contemplated the possible reasons. Every thought came back to his meddling mother.
He hurried into the entry and watched as Harry set Dacey’s valise and hat inside. The driver tipped his head to Braxton before going out the front door and closing it behind him.
“Mother!” Braxton yelled again. A moment later, the woman breezed around the corner. Her skirts swished from side to side as she rushed toward him.
“My dear boy, whatever is the matter? You know bellowing about the house is completely unacceptable.” Beatrice Douglas squeezed her son’s hand as she looked up into his intense gray eyes.
“There’s a young woman in the parlor, Miss Butler. She fainted right after uttering some nonsense about being here to marry me. I’d like an…” Astounded when his mother spun away from him and hastened into the parlor, he followed.
“Oh, she’s here!” Beatrice beamed with excitement as she leaned over to study Dacey’s flushed cheeks and smooth skin. Her personal maid, Caroline, ran into the room. Beatrice turned to her and waved a hand toward the hall. “Please fetch a cool cloth for her, Caroline, and a glass of water. It might be a good idea to bring the smelling salts.”
When the maid disappeared, Beatrice turned back to Dacey, pleased by her arrival although not her distressed state. “She’s even prettier than I imagined.”
“Of what are you speaking, Mother? What have you done?” Braxton took his mother’s arm in his hand, tugging her to the far side of the room. “I demand an explanation.”
Indulgently, she patted his cheek and smiled. “Brax, I realize this might seem a bit… um… unconventional, but I ordered you a bride. Isn’t she wonderful?”
“A what?” Braxton’s voice increased in volume while his brow furrowed in anger. His mother clapped a hand over his mouth and shoved him outside onto the porch.
Quietly shutting the door behind her, she crossed her arms over her ample bosom and glared at her son. “Your preferences on the matter of taking a wife are quite clear, but I want you to wed, son. I want you to fall in love with a sweet girl and give me some grandbabies before I depart this cold, harsh world.”
Scornfully, he snorted. “I’m more likely to have one foot in the grave before you, Mother. Despite whatever lies you told, I won’t marry her.” Braxton paced across the porch. “How dare you turn to such manipulative measures? Did you give any thought to what would happen to that poor girl when I refused to wed her, to follow through on whatever you offered her? What will she do? You can’t send her back to Massachusetts and, from the little I learned, it’s impossible for her to return to her home in Oregon.”
“She’s from Oregon? I just assumed she lived in that northern town with the factory that burned,” Beatrice said, taking a seat on a white wicker chair. “That would explain her rather interesting choice of attire. Regardless, we’ll make her feel at home. I’m sure once you’ve gotten to know her, you’ll change your…”
Braxton leaned over until his face was mere inches away from his mother’s. “I won’t change my mind. I won’t marry her. In addition, I won’t have a thing to do with your schemes, Mother. I’m finished with the whole mess.”
“But, son, I want…”
As he straightened to his full, impressive height, fury shot in piercing spears from his eyes. “It’s not about what you want this time, Mother. I won’t tell you again — I’ll have nothing to do with Miss Dacey Butler or your notions of marriage. Do what you like with her, but don’t expect me to make good on your promises to that poor girl.”
He spun on his heel and stalked along the length of the porch.
“Son? Braxton! Come back here!”
Beatrice released a sigh and rose to her feet. She took a cleansing breath then returned to the parlor to meet her future daughter-in-law. In spite of Braxton’s protests, she would see him married to the young woman or her name wasn’t Beatrice Louise Jefferson Douglas.
Dreams of a handsome man with black hair and eyes the color of the sky before an autumn rainstorm flittered through Dacey’s mind. She could feel the muscles of his chest and shoulders as he held her in his arms. The deep rumble of his voice seemed oddly comforting and enticing, making her ache to know him better, draw him closer.
A sharp, acrid smell assaulted her nose and brought her fully awake. Her eyes popped open and she looked around, disoriented.
She stared up at an ornate ceiling. As her gaze drifted down, she took in gold flocked wallpaper on the walls, expensive paintings, and rich furnishings.
A cool cloth brushed across her forehead.
“Are you well, dear?” A kind voice pulled her attention to her left. Dacey looked into the smiling face of a lovely woman with stormy gray eyes, incredibly similar to the eyes of the man in her dream.
“Where… where am I?” Dacey started to rise, but the woman pushed her back against the cushions with a gentle hand.
“Just lie still a moment, Miss Butler. Your head will stop spinning shortly, and then we’ll discuss the particulars over a cup of tea. Do you enjoy a good cup of tea?” The woman motioned to someone behind her.
Dacey heard the sound of footsteps receding as they left the room.
“Let’s start at the top, shall we? You’re Miss Dacey Butler, is that correct?”
Dacey closed her eyes and nodded her head.
“Splendid. That’s splendid.” The woman brushed a stray curl away from Dacey’s cheek. “Oh, you’re just perfect, Dacey. Do you mind if I call you Dacey?”
“No, ma’am. That’s fine.” Dacey opened her eyes, relieved her head had indeed cleared. Slowly, she sat up and took in the woman sitting beside her, holding a wet cloth in her hand.
Something about her seemed familiar, yet Dacey couldn’t say what tickled her memory.
“And you are?” She asked, feeling lost and entirely confused.
“I’m Beatrice Douglas. Braxton is my son.”
Dacey hadn’t been dreaming, after all. She really had travelled to North Carolina to marry a man who had already piqued her interest.
Beatrice dropped the cloth she held into a shallow bowl on a table in front of the settee and settled back against the cushions. “I’m ever so glad you’ve arrived, Dacey. Did Braxton meet your train? What did you think of him?”
“He seems very kind, and interesting to talk to, ma’am, but he didn’t meet my train. I stopped to admire your horses and he found me there.” Dacey glanced down at her skirt and plucked off a few stray horse hairs then worried about dropping them on the expensive carpet.
Mindful of her concern, Beatrice brushed them off her hand to the floor then squeezed her fingers. “Oh, my dear girl. I’m so sorry. He was supposed to meet you at the train. You must be exhausted and thirsty after that long walk.”
“I enjoyed the walk very much. It’s quite lovely here, much different from my home.” Dacey dared a glance at her hostess. “But Mr. Douglas didn’t seem to know who I was or why I came.”
Beatrice possessed the grace to blush. “I’m afraid that’s my fault. You see, my wish is for Braxton to wed. He’s my only living child, and the one thing I want for him is to be happy. The brainless simpletons who run in his circle won’t shelter his heart and love him as he deserves. One day, I happened upon a publication with advertisements for mail-order brides. Since Braxton refuses to choose one, I decided to locate a wife for him. I received many replies to the advertisement I placed, but yours stood out. I knew the moment I read your letter you were the one meant for my son.”
“But, Mrs. Douglas…”
Beatrice patted Dacey’s hand. “Beatrice. You must call me Beatrice.”
Reluctantly, Dacey nodded. “Beatrice, are you saying Mr. Douglas had no idea I came here to marry him?”
“That’s precisely what I’m saying.” Beatrice offered her a conspiratorial wink. “That’s why you and I must convince him it’s a brilliant plan.”
Dacey rose to her feet, ready to leave. Then she recalled she had nowhere to go. Defeated, she plopped back down. Maybe one of her roommates would have room for her once they settled into a new life.
She wasn’t afraid of hard work. Perhaps she could find a job in town. Maybe the nice woman at the grocer’s store would hire her.
“Oh, you poor girl. I’m sorry. This all must come as quite a shock,” Beatrice said, wrapping an arm around Dacey’s shoulders and pulling her against her side.
Unsettled by Beatrice’s kindness, tears burned the backs of Dacey’s eyes and she allowed herself to rest against the motherly woman.
Struggling to maintain her composure, the arrival of a tea tray kept her from having to say anything as Beatrice shooed away the maid and poured the tea, stirring both cream and sugar into Dacey’s cup.
“There’s nothing quite like a cup of tea to set things right in the world. I keep telling Braxton he needs to drink more tea. I find it a marvelous way to relax.” Beatrice filled a plate with small sandwiches and sweets, handing it to Dacey.
As they sipped tea and Dacey enjoyed the delicious snack, she asked Beatrice about the town of Asheville and Bramble Hall.
“Mr. Douglas said your family has lived here since the 1830s.”
Beatrice nodded and dabbed her lips with a napkin. “That’s right. My father arrived in Asheville as a young man full of dreams. With the help of his dedicated workers, he built this place from nothing and married my mother. The land where this house stands was once a bramble thicket, that’s how it got the name Bramble Hall. My parents started out in a wonderful two-story house where our overseer now resides. As Father accumulated more wealth and purchased additional acres, he built this house. It took three years to complete.”
Dacey looked around, admiring the beauty of her surroundings, and what she could see outside the parlor window. “So you married a man named Mr. Douglas?” she asked.
“Yes, I did. I was an only child, pampered and spoiled by my parents. Young and foolish, I allowed a handsome face and charming manners to turn my head. Before I came to my senses, I’d married Daniel Douglas. His family was from old Southern money, but they lost most of their holdings during the war.” Beatrice sighed before continuing. “Daniel is a good man and I do love him, but Brax and I maintain control of all business dealings. Despite his many positive attributes, my husband does not possess a head for business matters. He spends his days hunting, riding, and pretending he’s a country squire while Braxton and I work with the overseer to keep this place going.”
Dacey smiled with understanding. “What do you raise here at Bramble Hall?”
“Other than a devilishly handsome son?” Beatrice teased, delighted by the bright spots of pink blossoming in Dacey’s cheeks.
Dacey nodded and Beatrice laughed.
“My father raised tobacco, but during the war years we had to diversify. We also grow wheat and sweet potatoes.”
“I love seeing fields of wheat, golden and ripe, blowing in the breeze,” Dacey said, swamped by a wave of homesickness for the ranch in Oregon.
Beatrice smiled knowingly. “It is a lovely sight, for certain. Braxton talked me into planting an apple orchard five years ago, and that’s been doing well, too. We also have the horses. They are Brax’s special project, although I enjoy watching him work with them.”
“They’re beautiful animals,” Dacey said, setting down her teacup and looking at Mrs. Douglas. “The one I rode was very clever and well-trained.”
“You rode one of the horses already?” Beatrice’s eyebrows nearly met her hairline. There was no doubt Braxton Douglas got his dark hair and stormy eyes as well as much of his charm from his mother.
“Yes, ma’am. I didn’t plan to, it just sort of happened.”
Beatrice bounced slightly on the seat, like a happy schoolgirl. “Tell me all about it.”
“I noticed the horses from the main road and stopped to pet several of them. They followed me when I turned the corner and started down the road that would lead me here.” Dacey giggled. “The next thing I knew, I was riding across the pasture on the back of a beautiful chestnut mare.”
“Polly,” Beatrice said, grinning at Dacey. “She’s a sweetheart.”