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
In the weeks since her arrival, he’d become quite experienced at banking the fires she unwittingly kindled in him.
“I’m going to be ill,” Dacey moaned, pressing cool hands to her flushed cheeks.
The entire plantation had been in a fuss the past several days, preparing for the famed Harvest Ball.
Apparently, Beatrice and Daniel had hosted the dance every November for the past twenty years. Uppity members of society from all around the area attended the ball, dubbed the event of the season. In addition, the Douglas family invited anyone in town who wanted to attend.
Dacey had jumped into the preparations, helping festoon the ballroom with colorful leaves, pumpkins and gilded branches. Fashioning decorations and sampling the goodies the kitchen created for the event had been great fun.
Nevertheless, the idea of donning the dress Beatrice had ordered for her and attending the event left her ill at ease and terrified of making some unforgivable blunder.
Her stomach churned as her face paled.
“You’ll be fine,” Cornelia said, adjusting the satin ruffle on Dacey’s left shoulder. “You look stunning.”
Dacey smiled at her friend in the reflection of the mirror’s glass. “More like a mule in a thoroughbred’s barn, but it’s kind of you to say otherwise.”
Cornelia grinned and fluffed the tendrils of hair she’d left hanging around Dacey’s face. “I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. You’ll be the most beautiful girl at the ball and if Braxton doesn’t notice, he’s not half as smart as we all think.”
“I ain’t got…” Dacey sighed and rolled her eyes. “I mean, I do not possess a single chance with a man such as Braxton Douglas. He’s made it abundantly clear he has no interest in taking a bride. When he could have a rich, beautiful girl of his standing, why on earth would he even look my direction?”
“Because you make him laugh and smile,” Cornelia said, helping Dacey tug on the long satin gloves that reached her upper arms.
“Mercy, I feel like a trussed up turkey. Between the corset and these confounded petticoats, I’ve been properly caged and tied.”
Giggles erupted out of Cornelia but she quickly subdued them when a knock sounded at the door. Beatrice’s maid Caroline stepped into the room.
“Oh, Miss Butler,” Caroline said, smiling as she took her in from the curls piled on her head to the embroidered toes of her shoes. “You are sure to turn heads this evening.”
“I reckon that’s better than turning stomachs,” Dacey teased, making both women laugh. “What can we do for you, Caroline?”
“Mrs. Douglas asked me to check on you. She and Mr. Douglas just went down to the ballroom.” Caroline hovered in the doorway, offering Dacey an encouraging nod. “When you are ready, she said for you to venture downstairs.”
“Might as well go right now because if I stay up here thinking on how much I don’t want to do this, I really will be sick.”
Cornelia patted her back and walked with her to the door. “Don’t worry, Dacey. Just smile and be yourself.”
Dacey tapped Cornelia’s arm with the fan she held in her hand. “I know for certain that will get me into trouble.”
“Oh, don’t let any of them intimidate you, Miss Butler,” Caroline said as the three of them stepped into the hall. “Those stuffy ol’ gossips could use a fresh breeze like you to rustle their skirts… or bloomers.”
Cornelia gaped at Caroline before all three of them giggled. The two maids walked her down the hallway and along a corridor to another hallway that eventually took them to the stairs near the ballroom.
“I appreciate you two cheering me up. Wish me luck and send up a prayer that I don’t humiliate the family this evening.” Dacey took a deep breath and started down the curved staircase.
Carefully focused on her descent, she didn’t notice anyone at the bottom until a hand touched her elbow and she glanced up into Braxton’s smiling face.
He leaned down, his whispered words stirring the curls near her ear. “I think you just stole my breath away, Dacey Jo. You look beautiful.”
She blushed and nervously slipped the cord of her fan over her wrist.
Sensing her discomfort, Braxton placed a hand to her waist and gave it a slight squeeze. “I meant every word, honey. You’re the prettiest girl here this evening.” In fact, Braxton didn’t know how he’d keep his wits about him with Dacey appearing so enchanting.
The gown his mother ordered for her fit to perfection and the deep teal color matched her alluring eyes while enhancing the deep auburn shade of her hair.
Dacey Butler might be a simple girl from a ranch out west, but she was the loveliest creature Braxton could ever recall seeing. Yet far more than her outward appearance captured his interest. A large part of the attraction he experienced came from how happy and light his heart felt in her presence.
Fully aware of the wolves dressed in expensive clothing inside the ballroom, Braxton planned to keep Dacey near his side throughout the evening.
A few of his close friends had met her and been thoroughly charmed. The rest of his crowd, though, would do their best to eat her alive, particularly some of the girls he’d spurned.
Concerned that Dacey enjoy her evening, Braxton had taken the liberty of filling her dance card. Although he wanted to claim every dance, he added the names of his friends, his father, and a few others he could trust to treat the girl kindly.
His mother had also promised to keep an eye on her. Between the two of them, he hoped she would make it through the evening unhurt.
“Are you ready to go in?” Braxton asked as they stood outside the ballroom door.
Entranced by the sight of the room, filled with a rainbow of colors from the autumn decorations to the women in gowns of every hue imaginable, Dacey merely nodded her head.
Crystal chandeliers sparkled overhead while soft lights glowed from wall sconces. Tables placed around the edges of the room held centerpieces of gold, orange, burgundy, and red leaves and flowers with white candles.
The overall effect was spectacular.
“Oh, Brax. It looks so…” She struggled to find a word to do the vision before her justice. “Magical.”
He chuckled and nudged her forward. “Well, you helped make it that way. Mother said they’d never have finished the decorations if you hadn’t taken charge of gathering leaves and branches.
“Shoot. That was easy. Cornelia and the others made it all look so pretty.”
Braxton caught his mother’s eye and the woman hurried their direction as they entered the ballroom. “Be that as it may, we couldn’t have done this without you.”
Dacey smiled as Beatrice wrapped her in a warm hug then kissed her cheek.
“Both of you look just splendid,” Beatrice said, patting Braxton’s cheek as she slipped her arm around Dacey’s waist. “Dacey, darling, you must meet my dear friends. They live over near Knoxville and come every year for the ball. Olivia and I were childhood playmates and…”
Dacey glanced over her shoulder at Braxton as his mother led her off to meet her friends. He winked at her and a becoming pink blush highlighted her cheeks.
Lost in watching her walk away, he failed to notice the woman sidling up next to him until she wrapped her hand around his arm.
“Braxton, I thought she’d never leave you alone. Who is that odd creature?”
Barely suppressing an annoyed sigh, he skillfully removed his arm from her grasp and took a step away from Miranda, the girl he’d once been stupid enough to court for a very brief, unpleasant time.
She hadn’t taken it well when he’d told her he no longer wanted to see her. In fact, she’d screamed, slapped his face, and behaved like an enraged harridan. She’d sent him notes, followed him if he set foot in town, and begged him to reconsider. As a final effort to control him, she’d concocted a lie that he’d compromised her. Since she’d tried that ploy before, no one believed her outlandish claims.
Braxton had begged his mother to leave Miranda and her family off the guest list for the ball, but she insisted it would be unforgivably rude to leave them out.
He should have known the conniving woman would immediately notice Dacey.
“That beautiful, intelligent girl is a friend of the family, Miss Beaudry.” Braxton overlooked the sneer on Miranda’s face as she glared at Dacey.
“Why is she here?”
Braxton looked around for a means of escape. He spied Ernie Howell heading Dacey’s direction. Hastily, he took Miranda’s elbow in his hand, propelling her forward. “She’s visiting through the holidays. Miss Butler and Mother are quite close.”
“And what about you and Miss Butler?” Miranda asked with malice in her tone.
Rather than answer, Braxton intercepted Ernie and shoved Miranda forward. “Ernie, my friend, you know Miss Beaudry, don’t you? Would you be so kind as to escort her over to the punch table? Since her mouth runs constantly, I’m afraid she’ll soon become quite parched.”
Indignant, Miranda huffed as Ernie grinned and turned her toward the punch table.
A slap on his back drew Braxton’s gaze to his good friend, Jackson Hollis.
Jackson chuckled as he shook his head. “That was a particularly fitting remark, but I don’t know that it’s in your best interest to provoke Miss Beaudry. She’s already been acting like a scorned tempest since that debacle back in the spring. Antagonizing her this evening will not end well.”
“I know it, Jack, but that woman is such a…” Braxton stopped himself before he said something he shouldn’t. “Anyway, Ernie will keep her entertained this evening and hopefully she’ll keep him too busy to bother Dacey.”
Jack followed Braxton’s gaze to where Beatrice introduced Dacey to a group of older women. “She’s a sweet, lovely young thing, Brax. What are you going to do with her?”
Braxton frowned at his friend. “Do with her? I’m not going to do anything with her. And she isn’t all that young. She’ll be twenty-three in January.”
“Sounds to me like she’s ripe for the picking,” Jackson said, grinning at his boyhood chum. “In light of your disinterest in the matter of winning her heart, I suppose you won’t mind if I give it a go.”
Jackson took a step Dacey’s direction before Braxton placed a hand on his arm, pulling him to a stop.
“That’s enough of your nonsense,” Braxton cautioned.
Jackson laughed and thumped Braxton on the back again. “Even if you won’t acknowledge your feelings, you’re entirely gone for the girl, my friend. You might as well surrender to the inevitable and admit it.”
“I’m not admitting to anything.” Braxton glowered at a young man who approached Dacey with a cup of punch. “I’ll talk to you later, Jack. Enjoy your evening.”
Without another word, he hustled across the ballroom to thwart any plans the young man might have held about charming her.
Later, after they’d enjoyed a delicious feast, the first notes of music floated across the ballroom, beckoning dancers to the floor.
“Shall we?” Braxton asked, leaning close to Dacey from his seat beside her at a table.
“Are you sure I can’t just sit back and watch?” Dacey asked as Braxton stood then held a hand out to her.
“Positive. Mother would be terribly disappointed if you didn’t join in the fun, especially after all those hours you spent with the tutor.” Braxton led her out to the dance floor and positioned his hands to lead her in the waltz.
At first, Dacey appeared stiff and tense. As the music engrossed her and she watched the other dancers in their formal attire, eventually she relaxed.
“Oh, Braxton, isn’t her dress something?” Dacey whispered as one of his mother’s friends twirled past them. “It looks like the stars fell out of the sky and latched right onto her gown.”
Braxton grinned. “Those are rhinestones. Blue velvet certainly sets them off.” He nodded in the direction of the woman wearing the sparkling gown. “Mrs. Wilkins is one of mother’s closest friends. As a young lad, she’d bring me sassafras drops when she came to visit.”
Dacey smiled. “That was kind of her.”
The look he gave Dacey held a bit of repugnance. “I love all types of sweets, but sassafras drops taste like medicine to me. For years, I thought she didn’t like me and brought them as a form of punishment. Mother always made me thank her and eat one to be polite. It was horrid.”
Laughter spilled out of Dacey, drawing the gazes of nearby dancers their direction. Embarrassed by the attention, she immediately quieted.
“Laugh all you want, honey. No one cares. They’re just admiring the delightful woman I’m fortunate enough to escort this evening.”
“Braxton, you shouldn’t tell fibs.”
He affected a wounded look. “That cuts me to the quick, Miss Butler. How rude to imply I might utter an untruth.”
A grin lifted the corners of her mouth as she saw the mirth in his eyes and the teasing in his smile. “You’ve uttered plenty of untruths since I’ve been here, starting with telling me opossum are really cuddly pets that live in the woods. I nearly lost a finger when I picked up the one that was out by the smoke house.”
“You had on gloves. Besides, I was more worried about the poor rodent when you tossed it so indignantly into the shrubbery.”
“Well, we don’t have them where I grew up. In my opinion, they look like a badger got a little too friendly with a demented rat and created hideous offspring.”