Authors: Melissa Jagears
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050
© 2013 by Melissa Jagears
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook created 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from Webster’s Revision of the King James Version of the Bible.
The sonnet in Chapter Four is
Sonnets from the Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Dan Pitts
Author represented by The Natasha Kern Literary Agency
An envelope with bright blue ink stamps landed in Dex’s lap, a startlingly bright white against the faded tan of his trousers. He brushed the wood shavings off his legs and fingered the embossment around the edge of the envelope. Was it for him? He squinted at the loopy handwriting. Sure enough, his name, Dex Stanton, wandered under the upper left-hand stamp that said Independence, Missouri. He’d given up on receiving any replies a month ago. But this had to be it. He didn’t know anyone who lived in Independence, though it was only a day’s ride away.
“Since when did you start writing letters?” His brother, Grant, pushed up his bowler to scratch his hairline. With the sun’s fiery shade of orange behind him, his younger brother was little more than a silhouette standing on the porch steps.
Dex wriggled on the hard bench. Only one letter . . . two months ago.
“Why didn’t you ask me for help?”
“Not for this.” He’d never ask anybody for help with this. He set his carving knife and a half-formed miniature bear on the stump that served as his outdoor table.
No, Grant and Lily’s table now. Everything that didn’t fit into his nice, new covered wagon was no longer his. He glanced around the porch he’d added onto the farm house when he was fourteen. He’d soon be building his own place on land that didn’t hold sour memories.
“It’s from someone named Fannie.” Grant walked up the stairs and took a seat on the railing. “You wrote a woman?”
. Her name was frilly, not a name he liked at all. He flipped the envelope over, and indeed,
Fannie Elaine Pratt
was scrawled across the back. “I didn’t exactly write to Miss Pratt.”
Grant’s face contorted. “How can you not
write to somebody?”
Couldn’t they talk about something else? Wheat and barley prices, fence mending, the weather? But Grant’s firm jaw and pointed stare didn’t invite meaningless conversation. Dex rubbed the back of his neck. “I wrote a company.”
He kept from squirming; he wasn’t ashamed. “It’s a mail-order bride company.”
Did he think men wrote to
The Marital News
on a lark?
Grant let out a long whistle that descended an octave. “But you’re leaving for Kansas in a week.”
“I didn’t expect a reply to take this long.” He’d have to speak plain before Grant started interrogating. “But if it hadn’t been for Ma taking care of the house, God rest her soul, I couldn’t have saved the farm. And if I’m going to succeed in western Kansas Territory, a woman will be important.”
Grant leaned forward, his hands anchoring him to the railing. “Ain’t there a girl in town you could ask after?”
“Nope.” Dex ripped open the flap of his letter. When Grant didn’t leave, he gave him the eye, indicating the conversation was over.
“Look, I understand the want of a wife.”
Dex sighed. His brother had never been good at taking hints.
“God has blessed me with a wife and a son out of nowhere, but a stranger? I’d never thought you’d do something so . . . so . . .”
“Stupid, desperate . . . mad?” He crossed his arms, tucking the letter away from sight. Maybe his brother would enlighten him. “What young lady would marry me and pack herself up for a grueling walk across the plains before next Sunday?”
Grant sat beside him and spread his hulking arms across the back of the porch bench. “What about Emma Newsome?”
“No.” She laughed like a monkey and never, ever stopped talking. His younger brother’s advice was always so . . . horrible. “Would you marry her?”
Grant pulled a face. “All right, so she wasn’t a good suggestion.” He tipped his head back and stared at the porch ceiling, his mouth bunching in thought. “What about that redhead you used to walk home a few months back?”
“Engaged to Ralph.” He’d already considered the few possibilities many times over. Unless he wanted to fight a handful of men more charming than he ever hoped to be for one of the Conner twins or marry a woman who’d need a very understanding man to live with her for the rest of her days—
“What about Rachel Oliver? She might go, seeing how her brother and sister are. Even if she’s always got her nose stuck in a—”
“Don’t bother rattling off a list.” And that was the one woman he’d hoped his brother wouldn’t light upon. He didn’t want to have to spell out why Rachel wouldn’t have him, though Grant should have realized. She was indeed available and quite attractive, but a man had to be realistic. “I know who’s available and who isn’t. And now, I have mail to read.”
Grant smiled wickedly and grabbed for the letter. “Guess I could read it for you.”
“Go bother your wife instead of me.” Dex pushed against him.
Grant’s thick body didn’t even budge, but he chuckled, then stood. A glance through the window put a telltale gleam in his eye.
Evidently Lily was in the kitchen.
“Hmm, pestering the wife’s a good idea.” He slapped Dex’s shoulder in passing and hollered at Lily before the screen door shut behind him.
Heaven help any passersby who glanced through the window. Those two were harder to pull apart than taffy. Dex rolled his eyes. The newlyweds made him squirm even in his own house. Well . . . not his house any longer since he was leaving in about a week.
He propped his feet on the porch railing, leaned against the bench seat, then pulled out the letter. After weighing down the empty envelope with his carving knife, he unfolded the expensively thin paper covered with the inky flourishes of a woman who liked to write fancy. He suppressed a groan. It was hard enough to read print.
The familiar pain behind his eyes crept in as he stared at the words, focusing on keeping the letters still. If only they wouldn’t flicker around, reading would be painless. But no, they were up to their old tricks.
Dear Mr. Stanton, I have to say, I haven’t had as much pleasure in a letter as I had in yours.
He read that twice to get all the words. So far, so good.
I do so love to laugh.
He liked to tell jokes, but he didn’t recall writing any. That would have taken too much effort. His letter had been short and businesslike—at least, he’d meant it to be.
“Feoncay” was quite the puzzle! None of us could decipher it.
He read the sentence.
Then reread it.
Rubbing his forehead, he read it again.
. He read it over again now that he’d figured out all the words.
The third man I asked at the post office finally figured you meant fiancée.
. How did two
? And what on earth was the mark on top of the first
for? His headache intensified.
He’s from France, so I’m certain only he could at the post office finally figured you meant fiancée.
Wait. He’d skipped up a line in the middle somewhere. He found the beginning of the sentence again.
He’s from France, so I’m certain only he could have deciphered it since it was so horribly misspelled.
The spaces between the words fluctuated, and the words ran together. He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a long, deep breath. He could do this.
Which, given the rest of the letter . . . Did you even go to school?
And then he quit. He stared at the blue-gray cloud steadily crawling across the path of the sun, cutting off the light. He shook his head, which didn’t help his headache.
He’d thought to try with the mail-order bride advertisements again when he got settled in Kansas, but should he even bother? Was his poor writing the reason he hadn’t received a reply until this one? His fingers crinkled the edges of the paper, but rather than crumpling the letter and throwing it in the puddle off the porch, he folded it and folded it until the letter was nothing more than a tiny rectangular wad. He gritted his teeth against the woman’s voice taunting him from the compacted paper.
He’d nearly written the word
in his original letter, but he’d spent too long reasoning out the correct spelling and still hadn’t been sure he was right. So he’d gone with
. How dumb could he be, thinking a fancy foreign word would be easier to spell than an English one?
Why not toss the letter in the mud? This woman would never have him, nor take him seriously. With a hard flick, he sent the letter flying over the railing. The chunk of paper missed the puddle by an inch and lay as bright as a new stick of chalk on the heavily trod dirt.
He smacked his forehead and winced. Why hadn’t he thought of the word
? That would be spelled
. . .
? He ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed against the pounding between his temples.
Grant was right. Maybe he should consider one of the few unattached women here over the age of fifteen instead of a stranger. A few of the girls were . . . nice. Maybe he could look past the personality defects, inane chattering, the one with the blackened teeth . . .
But how could he court any of them when Rachel Oliver was in town?
Not that a brainy woman would give a man who could read about as well as a drunk horse a second glance.
But evidently, only a really desperate mail-order bride would overlook a man’s inability to spell. Who was he kidding? He’d have to wait until families started settling in middle-of-nowhere Kansas to
find a wife. But then, any woman making the trek was likely already promised or married.
A mail-order bride was his best chance to find someone who could make him forget about Rachel’s engaging smile and her ability to do everything perfectly. Maybe he should pray that God would plunk a poor lost beauty who couldn’t spell to save a kitten on his soddy’s doorstep.
“Uncle Dex?” Allen’s sweet voice grated against the ringing in his skull. Not in the mood to play sword fight or practice roping like he’d done every day this past week, he kept his eyes closed for a few seconds longer. He’d only gotten a nephew a few months ago and now, in a week and a half, he might not ever see the lad again.
He opened one eye and peered at his ten-year-old step-nephew, the boy’s hair probably as mussed as his own. Smoothing back a lock, he stopped at the sight of the slightly unfurled chunk of a letter sitting in Allen’s outstretched hand.
“Why’d you toss this in the mud, Uncle Dex? You don’t ever get mail. Don’t you want to keep it? Momma rereads her letters all the time.”
“This coming from a boy who hates to read as much as I do.” He snatched the fat wad of paper from the boy’s hand lest he attempt to read it himself.
“Miss Oliver tells me I just have to practice reading more.”
Miss Oliver? “Rachel?”
“Yep, the older one, not the pretty one.”
Dex bit the inside of his cheek. Rachel was pretty enough in her own right and much more mature than her younger sister. Besides, he’d hardly call nineteen old. “She’s helping you read?”
Allen’s head dipped emphatically. “And write better too.”
“Why isn’t your teacher doing that?”
“Miss Zuckerman says she don’t have the time to help me. She told Momma I need extra help if I want to pass, but Momma grinds her teeth when I take too long, so she can’t do it either. But Miss Oliver don’t ever get frustrated with me. And she’s helping me more than Miss Zuckerman ever did. Like having me figure out pictures for my words.”
Allen leaned against the railing, grabbed the pole, and swung around. “I told her I couldn’t see some words, so she helped me
figure out a picture. Now I don’t skip over the word
when I’m reading . . . well, most the time.”
Pictures. Where’d she come up with that? “Does she have you make pictures for other words?”
The porch floor creaked behind them.
“She’s done wonders for him.” Lily’s hands were on her hips as she surveyed her freckle-faced boy, but her lips bunched into a half smile and pride flickered in her eyes. “Not that you don’t have lots of room for improvement, young man. But I’m right proud you got a sixty on your spelling test today.”
Dex sucked in a breath and held it. His father would have beaten him for a sixty. Not that he’d gotten many sixties. His grades hovered more in the thirty to forty range—that is, when he’d bothered to hand something in.
Dex ruffled Allen’s hair. “Good job, keep at it.”
Allen ducked his head and beamed. “Thanks, Uncle Dex.”
“No thanks needed. If you work hard, we ought to be proud of you.” It sure beat being forced to drill the same words over and over and getting a kick in the pants for good measure.
“Time to come in and wash.” Lily flicked her dish towel at Dex. “You too.” She turned and scurried into the house.
Allen stared at him.
Dex lowered his brows. “What? Didn’t your mother tell you to go inside?”
“Pa told me you can’t read none too good either.”
Dex swallowed and waved a hand at Allen as if being unable to read well was nothing shameful—as if the flaw didn’t matter. “All of us got our problems.”
“Maybe you could ask Miss Oliver to help you like she’s helping me.”
Yeah, letting Rachel, the town genius, know he couldn’t spell
if his life depended on it wouldn’t hurt his pride one whit. “Can you really read better?”
“Not as good as any of the girls in school.” He scowled.
Some things never changed.
“But I can read better . . . for me anyway.”
“Allen Richard Carson the fourth!” Lily hollered out the window.
Dex cringed, giving his nephew a sympathetic look. “I don’t envy you being ‘the fourth.’ Having my Ma use my middle name was bad enough.”
“Don’t I know it.”
The screen door flew open and slammed shut behind the boy.