Read Dacey: Bride of North Carolina (Amercan Mail-Order Bride 12) Online

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: Bride of North Carolina (Amercan Mail-Order Bride 12) (5 page)

Finally, Dacey dropped her eyes to her skirt. “My trunk should arrive tomorrow. Do you think I could get a ride into town?”

“Of course. Harry will take you anywhere you need to go.” Braxton walked with her out of the room and down the hall.

“That’s a relief. I wasn’t hankering to wear the same outfit too many days in a row and as pretty as this dress is, it ain’t the most practical thing I’ve ever worn. I sure couldn’t wrangle a horse in it.”

Braxton chuckled. “No, indeed.”

Dacey turned to study him a moment.

Unable to resist, he found himself drawn to her bright eyes and sweet smile.

“Do you know if anyone in town is hiring? I met a nice woman named Ellie Howell at the grocer’s store. Maybe she would hire me.”

The thought of Ernie Howell, Ellie’s philandering son, setting his sights on Dacey caused intense protective feelings to surge through Braxton. Like a cavedweller, he wanted to hide Dacey away and claim her for his own. He sure didn’t cotton to the idea of the town rake chasing after her.

“That won’t be necessary. If you are determined to seek employment, I’m sure we can find a position for you here at Bramble Hall.”

Dacey stubbornly shook her head. “That’s not right. You’re already giving me a place to sleep and food to eat. Your mother paid for my train ticket out here. I couldn’t accept more charity from you.”

“It wouldn’t be charity, I assure you. One of the grooms in the horse barn took a nasty tumble and broke his arm earlier this week. I could use someone good around horses until he sufficiently recovers to return to work.” Braxton started up a staircase and Dacey blindly followed, thrilled at the prospect of working with the horses.

“You promise it’s a real job, not just something you’re doing to be kind.” She gave him an imploring look, stopping before they reached the top of the staircase.

Braxton held up his hand, as though he pledged a solemn vow. “You have my word. I’ll ruthlessly work you until you’re ready to drop.”

“It’s a deal.” Dacey held out her hand and Braxton took it, shocked by the jolt that once again shot up his arm at the contact.

When Dacey yanked her hand back and stared at it, he assumed she felt the same thing.

Hurrying up the remaining steps, he turned down the hall and escorted her to her bedroom door. “Tomorrow, we’ll collect your things in town, but the day after that, be prepared to work.”

“Yes, sir,” Dacey said with a smile, eager to be outside in the fresh air with the horses. “Good night, Braxton.”

“Pleasant dreams to you, Dacey.”

Chapter Five

 

The following morning, Braxton choked on his coffee as Beatrice sailed into the breakfast room with Dacey in tow.

He didn’t know where his mother had found the gown, but the deep burgundy color set off the fiery crown of Dacey’s hair and made roses bloom in her cheeks. Trimmed in black cord, the dress accented her small waist and beguiling curves.

Quickly recovering his manners, he held out a chair for Dacey as Beatrice walked around the table to sit in the chair Daniel held out for her.

“What a treat to have two such lovely ladies at our table this morning.” Daniel winked at Dacey then kissed his wife’s cheek. “We are most fortunate, aren’t we, son?”

Braxton cleared his throat, still unsure he could speak with his tongue tied in knots by the sight of Dacey. “Yes, sir,” he croaked.

After his father asked a blessing on their meal, they filled their plates from the bounty on the table.

Out of the corner of his eye, Braxton watched their guest. She spooned apple butter, made from some of his apple crop, onto her biscuit and bit into it.

When she closed her eyes to savor the tangy yet sweet spread, he grinned. “I take it you like apple butter.”

Her eyes popped open and she glanced at him. “Yes, sir. I mean, I don’t…” Quickly wiping her mouth on a napkin, she gathered her wits. “I don’t recall ever tasting apple butter, but if that’s what I just spread on my biscuit, it’s delicious.”

Beatrice smiled indulgently at Braxton then Dacey. “Cook makes it every year from Braxton’s fine apple crop. We’ve plenty, so put some more on your biscuit. You’ve hardly enough to taste.”

While the Douglas family watched, Dacey added more apple butter to her biscuit and took another bite, enthralled with the flavor.

Satisfied their guest enjoyed her meal, Beatrice and Daniel carried the conversation as they ate.

Braxton noted Dacey appeared somewhat uncomfortable in her borrowed finery.

Subconsciously, she kept tugging at the lace on her left sleeve. Each time she did, Braxton bit back a smile. No doubt, the free-spirited girl probably felt as trapped as he did each time his mother insisted he dress “appropriately” for a grand ball.

He much preferred to wear his shirt sleeves rolled up, his collar unbuttoned and no hat on his head than parade around as a southern gentleman, too good to dirty his hands. In truth, Braxton spent the vast majority of his time working directly with their overseer and employees. Just for the experience, he’d done every job on the place at least once.

While his father looked down his aristocratic nose at menial labor, Beatrice and Braxton both knew it was necessary to keep the plantation successfully functioning.

Braxton listened as his mother made plans for the day. Her proposed schedule drew a frown from Dacey.

“No, ma’am, I just can’t let you do that,” she said, placing her fork on the edge of her plate.

“Now, Dacey, it would be my pleasure. Besides, I should do something to make up for my deception.” Beatrice tipped her head toward Braxton.

Although he felt bad for Dacey and still wondered what had inspired his mother to send for a bride on his behalf, he had no intention of marrying the girl. Too many of his friends had succumbed to feminine wiles or the opportunity to fortify their empty bank accounts by marrying a wealthy girl. The majority of them appeared to be miserable.

From what Braxton had observed, most women put on a good show, being sweet, charming and docile up until they had a ring on their finger. Once that happened, they changed into demanding, cold-hearted shrews bent on making a man spend his life suffering for simply being a man.

No matter how beautiful he found Dacey, no matter how much she intrigued him, he wouldn’t give in to the temptation she unwittingly presented.

“Will you join us, son?” Beatrice asked, staring at him.

“I beg your pardon, Mother. I didn’t hear the question.”

Beatrice grinned and reached out to pat his arm. “That’s quite understandable, son, considering the stunning views this morning.”

Daniel leaned back and looked outside. “Stunning? It is overcast and looks like it might rain today. I don’t see anything out of the ordinary.”

Braxton glared at his mother, aware the stunning view she implied referred to Dacey, not anything outside the window. Irritated, he scowled. “What was your question, Mother?”

“Dacey and I are going into Asheville. Harry will retrieve her trunk from the depot while we visit a few shops. Would you like to accompany us, Brax?”

“A number of matters require my attention this morning, Mother. In answer to your question, I will not be able to join you.” The last thing he needed was to spend the day near Dacey.

Already thoroughly captivated with the girl, he’d be completely smitten if he spent that much time in her presence.

That would never do.

Not at all.

He cleared his throat again. “However, I requested Harry collect Miss Butler’s trunk when the train arrives. With that matter attended to, there isn’t a need for you ladies to venture into Asheville.”

“Oh, but there is, sweetheart,” Beatrice said, smiling at her son. “Someone needs to introduce Dacey to our lovely little town and I fully intend to handle the responsibility.”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Dacey said, looking at Beatrice. “You’ve done far too much as it is. It really isn’t necessary. If I could just get my trunk, I can be on…”

“Nonsense,” Beatrice interrupted, rising to her feet. “Dacey, darling, go on to your room, freshen up, and put on the hat I had Cornelia leave for you. When you’re ready, we’ll head into Asheville. It’s been ever so long since I had a fun day of shopping. These two men have no interest in such matters, so you’ll be doing me a great favor by keeping me company.”

Dacey doubted Beatrice needed her company, but she couldn’t argue with the woman. Even she knew it would be impolite, and maybe more importantly, completely pointless.

Braxton and Daniel stood as Dacey and Beatrice rose and exited the room.

Before he changed his mind, Braxton hurried outside and asked Harry to bring the carriage around to the door. He busied himself far enough away from the house, he wouldn’t submit to the urge to spend the day with Dacey.

Yet, he couldn’t help watching as the carriage pulled away from the house and rolled down the drive. He caught Dacey eying him and tipped his head to her.

She waved and settled back against the seat with an anxious look on her face.

 

~~*~~

 

“Please, Beatrice, you’ve done far, far too much as it is.” Dacey shook her head as the woman held out a luxurious robe in a beautiful shade of peacock blue.

“Oh, just feel it for goodness sakes,” Beatrice said, lifting Dacey’s hand and setting it on the soft, warm fabric. Dacey could imagine cuddling into such a wonderful robe in front of a crackling fire with a good book to read. A vision of doing so in her room at Bramble Hall made her shake her head.

Regardless of Beatrice’s assurances, she had no right to be there and no business entertaining any such ideas.

The dressmaker took the robe from Beatrice and added it to a pile of purchases that left Dacey feeling indebted and unsure of herself.

Under the pretense of ordering a gown for the upcoming Harvest Ball, a ball Dacey wasn’t convinced she should attend, Beatrice soon added half a dozen other gowns to the order.

Before Dacey quite knew what had happened, Beatrice accumulated a pile of purchases including two corsets, stockings, nightgowns, chemises, bloomers, and petticoats. There were gloves, a shawl, and a parasol. That last item was entirely frivolous, considering winter waited just around the corner.

“I can’t accept all this.” Dacey waved her hand toward the clothing on the counter.

“Please, darling, indulge me. I always wanted daughters to dress up and I have one, at least as long as you stay with us. Please allow me to buy you a few things.”

“But, Beatrice, it seems so excessive, so expensive,” Dacey fretted, as the woman settled a hat bedecked with velvet roses and ostrich plumes on her head.

After a slight adjustment, Beatrice stepped back with a smile. “That looks perfect. We must get that for you.”

Dacey removed the hat. The dressmaker took it from her and added it to their purchases. “It ain’t that I don’t appreciate everything, but I…”

Beatrice shushed her. “Not another word about it, Dacey. Truly, this is the most fun I’ve had in a long while, so allow me to enjoy it. Please?”

For a long moment, Dacey remained silent. Finally, she released a resigned sigh. “Okay, but surely this is enough.”

Beatrice laughed and looped her hand around Dacey’s arm. “For now. I do believe I worked up an appetite with all that shopping. While Mrs. Vander wraps our purchases, I believe we should partake of some sustenance. There’s a delightful little restaurant just down the street. After we eat, we shall see about getting you some shoes.”

Three hours later, Dacey watched as Harry loaded the last of their purchases next to her trunk and they started the drive home.

She had no idea how she’d ever earn enough money to repay the Douglas family for their generosity or kindness. From her estimation, she’d have to work in their stables until she was old and gray and the debt would probably still loom over her head.

Unsettled by what she viewed as charity, she decided to write to Josephine. Her friend might offer insight into the matter. Now that she no longer had the prospect of marriage to save her from her troubles, she had to formulate a plan for her future.

Chapter Six

 

“How is she doing, Tom?” Braxton asked his head groom as they watched Dacey ride a gelding around a pen. The horse was one Braxton hoped to break and sell quickly.

A few weeks ago, he’d picked up three horses for practically nothing. Two of them were good, solid mounts. The third horse, however, had proved to be a dangerous mixture of jittery, stubborn, and crazy. The animal had thrown every man that climbed on his back and seemed inclined to be foul-tempered. A horse like that had no place in the herd he was building.

Tom studied Braxton for a moment before responding to his question. “Better than most. She’s a natural with the horses if I ever saw one.” He offered his employer a teasing grin. “I don’t know where you found her, but if I were you, I wouldn’t let a girl like that get away.”

“Yes. Well, um… thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter.” Braxton struggled to keep his wits about him as sunshine spread golden rays across Dacey’s autumn-toned tresses. The loose braid she’d created to confine her curls bounced on her back with every step the horse took.

His gaze dropped to her brown leather boots and traveled up her dark blue riding skirt. The ruffled pink blouse she wore with a short navy jacket made her appear entirely feminine despite the fact she rode the horse astride.

Even if she hadn’t been so utterly enchanting in her appearance, Braxton thoroughly enjoyed observing her skill with the horses.

In the three weeks she’d stayed at Bramble Hall, Dacey had blended so seamlessly into their lives, it seemed as if she’d always been there.

Braxton had come to anticipate seeing her bright smile each morning and listened for the sound of her laughter. Often, he found himself looking for her as he worked, hoping to catch a glimpse of her riding.

Loath to admit it, he even enjoyed hearing her twang when she excitedly discussed something that stirred her interest. For the most part, Dacey had subdued most of her western slang words. He hadn’t heard her say “ain’t” or “dang” for more than a week.

Despite his mother’s insistence that Dacey was a guest, the girl refused to sit around the house. She’d given herself a list of chores to see to every day and completed them with an enthusiasm that often made the staff smile.

 Regardless of her efforts to work at Bramble Hall and pay her way, Beatrice won the argument that Dacey needed to learn additional skills in preparation of the upcoming Harvest Ball.

Beatrice engaged the services of a tutor to enhance the girl’s knowledge of proper comportment and the fine art of dancing. Afternoons, the tutor helped polish her already fine manners and taught her intricate dance steps.

Evenings found Braxton admiring their guest. She was smart, witty, and often entertained them with her stories of life on a western ranch. The delicate beauty of her appearance seemed at complete odds to her tomboyish demeanor during the day.

Each morning right after breakfast, Dacey hurried out to the barn in one of her split skirts, spending hours with the horses. Although a few of his men voiced their opposition to her presence, she thrived on the work. The fact that she possessed greater skill than many of them in how to ride and train the equines created the resistance to her assistance.

Braxton rested his boot-clad foot on one of the fence poles as Dacey loped the horse around the pen and caught sight of him. A friendly wave acknowledged his presence, but she didn’t stop to chat.

In fact, if Braxton didn’t know better, he’d think she was avoiding him. Other than a few polite words of conversation during the meals they shared, she’d acted as if she didn’t know he existed.

He shouldn’t care.

In fact, he should be grateful she hadn’t attempted to force him into the marriage his mother had wrongly offered on his behalf.

Rather than push the commitment, she allowed the matter to drop without any fuss. He was sure she was the only female who would have been so gracious about the entire frustrating matter.

From what he’d observed, Dacey was friendly and kind. She’d charmed nearly every male at Bramble Hall, from the boys who mucked out the stables to their stalwart butler.

Admittedly, Braxton wasn’t indifferent to her either.

He looked forward to listening to the conversations she engaged in with his mother and father, even if he refused to participate.

The opportunity to watch her ride, hear the pleasing chimes of her laughter, or catch a whiff of her fragrance disrupted his work to the point he could hardly keep track of what he should be doing. Not for the first time, he wondered how Dacey always smelled of summer flowers basking in sunshine.

Determined to shove the woman from his mind and return his focus to running the plantation, Braxton slapped the gloves he held in his hand against his open palm. The loud pop the action created startled the fractious horse.

It leaped into the air and landed bucking. Dacey did a good job of handling the animal until it rapidly twisted to the side. Everyone watched as she began to lose her seat. When the horse lunged forward then unexpectedly spun to the left, she flew out of the saddle and landed in a heap a few feet away.

Braxton cleared the fence before she hit the ground, running to her. He dropped to his knees and lifted her head, brushing the silky strands of hair away from her face as she fought to take a breath. The fall had knocked the wind out of her.

Once she sucked in a gulp of air, she glowered at him.

“Sakes alive! Are you trying to bury me six feet under, you dunce? What’d you slap your dang gloves for?” Dacey pushed away his hands and sat up, rolling her neck and shoulders to make sure everything still worked. “You had to know that cantankerous cayuse would pitch a fit and put the licks in until it played out.” Dacey ignored Braxton’s outstretched hand and startled look at her outburst. She rose to her feet and bent one leg then the other to make sure nothing was broken.

Concluding her limbs remained unbroken and in one piece, she rounded on him again. Angrily, she shook a gloved finger beneath his nose. “I didn’t peg you for a greenhorn, but you sure enough acted like one around this worthless puddin’ foot.” Dacey’s western lingo thickened as she jabbed her thumb in the direction of the horse two of the grooms had caught. “Ain’t ya got nothin’ better to do than gawkin’ like a pie-eyed snapperhead? Push out of my way, ‘cause I ain’t even close to done tanglin’ with this loco sidewinder.”

Braxton had no idea what Dacey had just said, but the sparks shooting from her teal-green eyes and the pink suffusing her cheeks made him want to kiss her in the worst way. His employees stood around in various stages of slack-jawed surprise that the young woman had just taken him to task for a foolish mistake, using language none of them quite understood.

No one dared confront him in such a manner, yet she’d boldly spoke her mind before she spun around and approached the horse that had dumped her in the dirt.

With a firm hand, she took the reins and swung onto the animal’s back then rode him around the pen as all the men watched.

Chastised by the fact he had been at fault, Braxton climbed over the fence and disappeared inside the barn.

He needed time alone. Time to think about the havoc the brave, bright girl had wreaked in his orderly life. He’d never been as attracted to a female as he was to Dacey and her feisty spirit.

Quickly saddling a mount, he rode off for the nearby hills.

Hours in solitude helped clear his head and he returned to the house in a better frame of mind.

Eager to see Dacey, anxiety simmered in his gut when she didn’t appear for dinner that evening. Cornelia delivered a message to Beatrice that she wasn’t feeling well and would see them the following day.

When she didn’t show up for breakfast, worry etched lines across Braxton’s forehead.

Concerned, he picked at his food then excused himself halfway through the meal. He took the stairs three at a time up to the third floor and tapped on Dacey’s door.

Cornelia immediately opened it.

“Is Miss Butler unwell?” Braxton asked, wanting to peer into the room to ensure she didn’t suffer from some malady.

“I believe she’s quite well, sir. She went down to the kitchen more than an hour ago and asked for a biscuit and apple butter before venturing outside. However, upon your inquiry she did request that I inform you or Mrs. Douglas that she has gone for a walk.”

“Thank you, Cornelia.” Braxton spun on his heel, hurried down the stairs and out the back door.

Ribbons of orange, gold, and pink streaked across the sky as he rushed to the stables and saddled his favorite horse.

The morning stillness surrounded him as he rode away from the buildings of the main area of the plantation toward the nearby hills.

Although the apple harvest ended weeks ago, the tart scent of the fruit still hung in the air. It mingled with the spicy, loamy aroma of earth settling down in preparation for winter.

The temperature was cool, but not cold, garnering his gratitude for the mild, sunny autumn they’d enjoyed.

Normally, they experienced several cool, rainy days, but the sun had shone nearly every day since Dacey arrived.

Mindful of his fanciful thoughts, Braxton mused that perhaps she brought the sunshine with her. If she left, he would definitely miss the light of her presence at Bramble Hall.

If he cared to admit the truth, which he most certainly did not, he couldn’t imagine life without her in it.

In the short time she’d been at his home, she’d become such an integral part of it. His mother couldn’t stop talking about her, and the servants adored her. Even his father seemed quite taken with her in spite of her “western” ways, as Daniel called them.

Braxton rode over the top of a rise and caught sight of Dacey sitting on a large rock, looking out over the valley below her as the sun spread welcome light across the sky.

Quietly, he dismounted and tied the reins around a branch before walking up behind the girl who had dominated his thoughts since her arrival.

“Dacey? What are you doing out here?” he asked as he sat down beside her.

Startled, she jumped and placed a hand to her chest. Once she recovered from his sudden appearance beside her, she reached over and popped him on the arm. “You practically scared me spitless, Braxton. You shouldn’t sneak up on a body like that.”

“I didn’t sneak,” he said with a grin. He removed his hat and forked his fingers through his hair out of habit before settling the hat back on his dark head. “You appeared lost in your thoughts. Are you well? You skipped dinner last night and we were worried when you didn’t join us this morning.”

Dacey studied him a moment. As it did every time she found herself in his presence, her mouth watered at the sight of him. Braxton was everything she’d ever dreamed of finding in a man, yet he wanted nothing to do with her.

When he ran his long, tanned fingers through his wavy, black hair, she wished she could do the same.

Covered as it was with a growth of stubble, she wanted to trace the outline of his square jaw with her kisses. Unless his mother insisted he shave, Braxton went for days without removing the dark hair on his face. Dacey didn’t mind at all. She thought it gave him a rascally appearance and enhanced his already irresistible appeal.

She took in the dark gray of his topcoat, the black waistcoat, and light gray shirt he wore. The gray tones enhanced the color of his stormy eyes until the silvery orbs drew her into their depths.

Finally forcing her gaze from his, she looked over his cream riding breeches, neatly tucked into black knee-high boots.

Everything about Braxton Douglas exuded wealth and class.

Even if he’d been interested in pursuing a relationship with her, which he clearly wasn’t, she was a simple ranch girl with no idea how to fit into his world.

The best she could offer him was training his horses until she figured out what to do with her life.

She couldn’t go back to Oregon.

Her friends were all scrambling to start over after losing their jobs in the wake of the factory fire.

There wasn’t a single person she could turn to for help.

The unbelievable generosity of the Douglas family continued to astound her, but she wouldn’t allow herself to grow accustomed to it. After the holidays, she would leave, even if she had no idea where she would go.

It was because of their kindness, the way they’d opened their home and hearts to her, that she felt sick about the way she’d lost her temper at Braxton the previous day when he’d spooked the horse.

She knew he meant nothing by it, knew it was an accident, but she’d hollered at him like a bawdy girl in a saloon fight.

Mortified by her outburst, she couldn’t bear the thought of facing him at dinner. She went to bed hoping things would look better in the light of a new day. When she arose that morning, she’d still been too ashamed to sit across the breakfast table from him.

Now, with the heat of his big body penetrating her side, she struggled to articulate the apology she needed to offer for her behavior.

Had she been a man, she held no doubt that Braxton would have fired her or punched her in the mouth yesterday for her disrespectful outburst. Instead, he’d walked off without a word after he made sure she wasn’t injured.

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