In 1861, newly penniless society belle Angel Hardwick is on her way to Oregon to marry widower Nathan Hale, father of five, who is desperate for a wife to straighten his life out. Nate’s looking for someone who loves children and can easily take over the cooking, cleaning and laundry. Instead, he is getting Angel, whose culinary knowledge consists of weekly meetings with Cook to decide the family’s menu.
Angel is a strong-minded young woman, resigned to her fate, and determined to make the best of her situation. But will her new husband allow for mistakes? Or will he send her packing when she burns meals and misplaces his children?
Nate just wants a peaceful, well run household, without the distraction of an attractive wife. However, his beautiful wife with a very distractable body is not giving him peace. Somebody lied, because despite what he was told by the Bride Agency, this beauty knows nothing about running a home, but she sure sets him on fire at night.
Nate and Angel have to come to a working arrangement, overcoming problems between them. But will they be able to find a happily ever after with someone desperately working behind the scenes to destroy their relationship?
New York City, New York
Angel Hardwick checked her image in the elaborate gilded mirror hanging over her dresser, and smoothed a few stray hairs out of place. She glanced down and frowned at her black bombazine dress. It was slightly wrinkled, but she had no time to deal with it. A swift tug at the cuffs of her sleeves, and she was ready to meet her stepmother. As ready as she could be with a nervous stomach causing jolts of pain.
Sylvia Hardwick had sent a summons for Angel to meet her in the library. The two women had a cordial, if not close relationship, but in the few months since Gerald Hardwick’s death, things had become strained. Sylvia walked around with a pinched look on her face, oftentimes taking to her bed in the afternoon, having her maid bring a cool cloth sprinkled with lavender for her headache. When Angel inquired after her health, Sylvia merely sighed and turned away.READ MORE
Apparently Sylvia was finally ready to share her troubles. Something was up, and Angel didn’t think it would be good news. As she descended the stairs, various catastrophes ran through her mind. She shrugged. Since Papa was already dead, surely there couldn’t be anything worse.
Perhaps Sylvia wanted to talk about Angel’s latest milliner bills. She’d noticed the lack of favorite foods at the dinner table, and Sylvia’s sighs when the morning post arrived, laden with bills. There had been numerous meetings with Papa’s attorneys behind closed doors, but Angel couldn’t imagine money being the problem. Papa had been wealthy.
As she approached the open library door, she took a deep breath.
“Come in, Angelina.” Sylvia waved her scented handkerchief under her nose. “Don’t linger in doorways, it’s not ladylike.”
Still an attractive woman at forty-two, Sylvia’s blonde hair, pulled straight back from her face in a tight bun, gave her a somewhat Oriental look, although her light blue eyes belied any association with an Asian culture. She had high cheekbones, a rounded jaw, and perfectly straight white teeth.
Her black dress clung to her well-defined curves. While Angel appeared drawn and tired in black, mourning clothes looked striking on Sylvia. Posture perfect, her spine never touching the back of a chair, her stepmother was the picture of ladylike decorum.
Sylvia’s delicate hands fiddled with the handkerchief in her lap, twisting the scrap of linen and lace. She attempted a smile, but never quite made it. Angel’s sense of unease increased. Sylvia was very nervous.
“You wished to see me?” Angel settled on the stiff, high-back chair across from the fireplace.
This room had been Papa’s favorite place. Many times in her years growing up, she and Papa would sit by the fireplace in the evening and read. When she was younger, he’d read to her, and as her skills improved, she’d read to him. They shared a love of the same authors, so it was not a problem to select a book for them to enjoy together. The room never seemed the same with him gone.
“Yes, Angelina.” Sylvia waved the twisted handkerchief around again. “There are matters we must discuss. They relate to your father’s estate.”
Legal matters beyond her, Angel waited patiently as her stepmother composed herself.
“While your father was ill, he left the operation of the bank to his assistant, Mr. Reynolds.” She closed her eyes briefly. “Had I been aware of this, I would have taken steps. However, your father never confided in me about his business.” Her words dripped with derision, but she left unsaid what steps she would have taken.
“What I’m trying to tell you is this.” Sylvia paused to take a dainty sip of the cooling cup of tea on the table next to her. “When your father died, questions about illegal transactions arose and ultimately, missing deposits were discovered. Large deposits, from wealthy customers. Consequently, the bank was no longer solvent. Now the attorneys tell me your father’s personal assets must cover these discrepancies.” She finished the last part in a breathless rush.
Angel didn’t grasp what she meant, yet the pain in her stomach had grown. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what this all means. If Mr. Reynolds was in charge, why would Papa be in trouble?”
“Because Mr. Reynolds brought papers to your father to sign, which he did because he trusted the man. The police tell me Mr. Reynolds has apparently vanished.”
Sylvia closed her eyes briefly. “What I’m doing such a bad job of telling you, Angelina . . .” She sighed, touched her handkerchief to her nose. “We are penniless.”
Angel stared at her stepmother. Obviously, from her strained expression, this was a serious situation. “What exactly does that mean?”
“It means we have no money. Nothing. No money, no income.” Sylvia rose and paced in front of the fireplace. “I don’t know how else to put it.” She turned and faced Angel. “The clothes you have on your back and in your closet are the only things you own.”
This didn’t sound good. Now Angel would have to return the two hats she bought from the milliner just yesterday. And that was a shame, because one of them matched her new walking coat so well. “So, what will we do?”
“Well, as much as I would love to continue to provide for you, I can no longer do that.” Even in her distraught state, Sylvia remained the lady. She turned, back straight, head held high, slender fingers clutching her handkerchief. “I have received an invitation from my sister Louise in Virginia. She has offered me a place in her home.”
Angel’s head shot up. “I don’t want to live in Virginia. All my friends are here in New York. Surely something that drastic is not necessary.”
Sylvia stopped pacing, took a deep breath, and rubbed her forehead. “You misunderstand, dear. I’m going to Virginia. There is no room for you. My sister’s home is small, with a limited staff.”
Dry mouthed, Angel struggled to process this information. “You mean to go to Virginia and leave me alone here? I would be un-chaperoned. My reputation would suffer immensely.” She furrowed her brow. “I don’t think the staff would qualify as chaperones.”
Sylvia continued her pacing. “No, Angelina. This house is being sold, and after all outstanding debts are settled, there will be just enough money to get me settled in Virginia. I will only be able to bring one lady’s maid with me, which I find most inconvenient.”
If Sylvia would be traveling with only one lady’s maid, the situation was more dire than Angel realized. Her mind was in a whirl.
Despite years of training, Angel slumped against the back of her chair. All her life, money was never an issue or concern. Things were provided before she even asked for them. She was accustomed to shopping at the finest stores, never checked prices; put everything on Papa’s account.
This can’t be happening. Surely there’s money somewhere. Where will I live?
She swallowed, posed the question. “I assume I will have to move to another house?”
Once again Sylvia sat on her chair, and avoided Angel’s eyes. With shaky hands she took another sip of tea. “No, dear. There is no money for any sort of house.” She opened and closed her mouth to speak several times, and finally drew in a deep breath. “I have arranged for you to be married.”
“Married?” Angel sat back up. Some of the fear seeped out. That would not be so bad. She had many suitors to choose from. Hopefully, Sylvia had picked one she could at least tolerate. “Then there is enough money for a wedding, and possibly a small dowry?”
The woman glanced at her, then looked away. “No.” The cup rattled as she set it on the saucer.
Her stepmother’s face grew even paler. She fussed with the timepiece pinned to her shirtwaist, her gaze darting around the room. It was obvious she had more to say that Angel would not like.
Her fear returned with a vengeance. “Sylvia, you’re scaring me. This is all so puzzling. I’m trying to understand, but something doesn’t seem right. How will there be a wedding if there is no money for it? And who am I to marry?”
Sylvia took a deep breath, and picked up a piece of paper lying alongside her teacup. “You are to travel to Oregon City to be a mail order bride.”
The silence in the room had a roar of its own. Wide-eyed, Angel gaped at her stepmother. A loud buzzing echoed in her ears and black dots swam in front of her eyes. With a soft sigh, she slid to the floor.
In her semi-conscious state, Angel fought her return to reality. She flinched when the smelling salts were waved under her nose. Her eyes fluttered, opened, and she coughed at the pungent odor. The concerned eyes of Walker, the family butler, met hers.
“Is she all right?” Her stepmother’s voice grated as Sylvia leaned over the butler’s shoulder.
Angel moaned. It all came back in a rush. This was no nightmare to awaken from. Sylvia had arranged for her to be sent off into the wilds to marry a complete stranger.
Walker, who’d been with the family since before Angel’s birth, put his arm around her back and slowly eased her into a sitting position.
Angel glared at her stepmother.
Sylvia stood in front of the fireplace, wringing her hands. The butler helped Angel to her feet and deposited her back on the chair. He bowed to both of them and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Silence ensued while Angel gathered her thoughts, then she addressed her stepmother. “Sylvia, whatever possessed you to arrange for me to be a mail order bride?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“There was no choice,” the woman snapped, flicking her skirt behind her as she continued to pace. “No respectable match could be made with our circumstances. Remember, even though he was on his deathbed when the deposits went missing, your father is being blamed for the debacle at the bank. We are all disgraced.”
Angel stood and paced along with Sylvia. “Why can’t I be a shop girl, or a maid, or whatever else young ladies do to make a living?” Angel waved her hand in the air. “I could take a tiny room somewhere and stay in New York.”
Sylvia sank in her chair and sighed. “Think, Angelina. Would you want to serve your friends in the fine shops you frequent? Would you care to be the upstairs maid in another friend’s house? Or how about if a young man in one of those houses, who at one time begged you for a dance, takes advantage of your vulnerable position under his roof? Demands for unwanted attentions happen all the time, you know. You could end up ruined, with no future.”
“And you call traveling across country to marry a stranger a future? Of course I’m ruined.” Angel closed her eyes.
I wish I could get Sylvia to share that lavender sprinkled handkerchief.
The headache she’d awoken with on the floor had become a monster.
Unable to deal with anything else, Angel headed for the door, then stopped abruptly, and turned. “Who is this man you’ve sold me to?”
“Angelina, I have not sold you.” Sylvia frowned. “He seems like a nice gentleman. I contacted an agency that does these placements, and they assured me every applicant is thoroughly investigated. They even examine the background of potential wives as well.”
“And have I been deemed worthy?”
Sylvia glared as she unfolded the letter. “Sit, Angelina. It hurts my neck to look up at you.” She scanned the paper briefly. “His name is Nathan Hale. He lives in Oregon City. He’s a gunsmith.”
“A gunsmith.” Angel whispered and dropped her head in her hands.
Should I laugh or cry?
At the Harman’s ball last week, she’d danced and flirted with a university professor, an attorney, an industrialist, and a young, handsome Duke from England. “Go on.” She gulped to keep a hysterical giggle from escaping.
“Well, he has a lovely little house, so that’s promising, and he has children.” The last part came out a whisper.
Angel’s head snapped up. “Children?”
Sylvia drew herself up. “Yes, you’ve always wanted to be a mother, so this should please you.”
Angel slowly stood, walked to Sylvia and took the letter out of her hands. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she read, and then widened. She crushed the paper to her chest.
“Five!” She croaked. “He has five children!”
“Oh, dear, is that what it says?” Sylvia’s hand fumbled with the collar of her dress.
“Yes, madam, five children. Four boys and a baby girl.” She groaned and collapsed into the chair, as the cursed paper fell to the floor. “You must write to Mr. Hale and explain there’s been a mistake, and there will be no mail order bride from New York City.”
“I can’t,” Sylvia murmured.
Angel’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
“Because Mr. Hale has already sent the tickets for your trip, and I signed the contract with the agency yesterday. If you don’t go, we have to pay the fee Mr. Hale gave the agency. That’s five hundred dollars, and we don’t have five hundred dollars to spare.”
“You could always leave your lady’s maid here to save money.” Angel raised her eyebrows.
“Angelina, sarcasm doesn’t become you.” Sylvia stiffened. “And furthermore, it’s all been arranged. The house is no longer ours, I leave in the morning for Virginia, and your train leaves tomorrow, early afternoon.”
Sylvia sniffed and walked to the door. “I suggest you go to your room and pack. I have a terrible headache, and it will take Daisy and me all evening to pack my clothes. I will see you in the morning before I leave.” Without a backward glance, her shaky hand grabbed the doorknob and she left the room.
Oregon City, Oregon
“Papa, Julia-Rose stinks.” Luke held his nose for emphasis as he danced around his father.
“See if Matt can change her diaper. I’m trying to get supper together.” Nathan Hale grabbed the pan smoking with a charred steak. Forgetting to snag a towel first, he dropped it, and yelled as he burned his hand. “Dammit, anyhow.”
“Dammit, anyhow,” Luke’s twin, John echoed.
“John, make yourself useful.” He spoke over his shoulder as he washed the steak off under the water. “Call your brothers to supper.”
“Supper!” John cupped his hands and shouted from where he stood.
“Don’t stand there and scream, for heaven’s sake. Go get them and bring them back.”
Nate pulled semi-clean dishes from the counter and filled them with soggy steak, and hard carrots. At least there was fresh bread and cookies from the bakery. He slapped the plates on the table, and grabbed silverware from the drawer.
“Papa, Julia-Rose doesn’t have any clean diapers.” Matt entered the kitchen, holding a naked Julia-Rose at arm’s length.
“Well, did you at least wipe her off?” Nate poured milk into glasses lined up on the counter.
“Yeah, I washed her. What can I put on her?”
“Put her nightgown on for now, and after we eat, I’ll find something. Let’s hope she doesn’t wet herself before then.”
Mark entered the kitchen and shoved John into Luke. The three laughed and pushed each other.
“Everybody sit down and eat.” Nate yelled as he grabbed the twins by the back of their shirts.
Matt came back with Julia-Rose, set her on cushions stacked on a wooden chair, and wrapped the leather strap dangling from it, around her. Nate buttered a piece of bread, and put tiny pieces on the table in front of the baby.
Silence prevailed as Nate bowed his head and offered thanks for the food, and his family’s health. Then the kitchen filled with the sound of five lively children shouting over each other while shoveling food into their mouths.
“Papa, these carrots are hard.” Luke banged the vegetable against the table.
“Carrots are good for you, whether they’re cooked or not. Eat them anyway.” Nate double-checked Julia-Rose’s carrot pieces to make sure they weren’t too big. Not happy with them, he scooped them up and put them on his plate.
John stared at him, food falling out of his open mouth. “Why did you steal Julia-Rose’s carrots?”
“I’m afraid she’ll choke on them.”
Mark immediately grabbed his throat. “I’m choking, steal my carrots, too.”
He glared at his son. “Never mind, just eat.”
Before long, the plates had all been emptied, and the boys devoured the cookies from the bakery. Nate cleared his throat, and looked at each boy in turn. “I want to talk to you about something.”
Four pairs of eyes met his. Julia-Rose, oblivious to the seriousness of her father’s voice, continued to bang the table with her spoon, a soggy cookie in her other hand.
“Things have been a little crazy around here since your mama died.”
God, I hope I’m doing the right thing.
“I know it’s been tough for all of you. And for me, too.” Stiff fingers raked through his hair. “To make things better, I decided to get married.” He mumbled the last part.
“What?” Matt’s eyes grew wide.
“I said,” he cleared his throat again. “I’ve decided to get married.”
Nobody spoke for a moment. Four boys sat open-mouthed. “Does that mean we’ll have a new mama?” Matt wanted to know.
“Yes.” Nate’s voice strengthened. “You’ll have a new mama.”
“I like mamas.” Luke wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “They bake cookies, and kiss you goodnight. Sarah says her mama reads story books to her, too.”
“Is she pretty?” John asked.
“Well, I’m not rightly sure. I didn’t get a picture of her, just letters.”
“Where is she now?” Matt shoved the last of his cookie into his mouth.
“Right now, she’s on her way here. She’s coming all the way from New York City.”
“New York City?” Luke and John said at the same time, eyes wide. “That must be a million miles away.”
“No.” Nate chuckled. “Not a million miles, but a long way. Clear across the country.”
“What’s her name?” Luke climbed down from his seat and wiggled onto Nate’s lap.
Nate played with the soft, silky hair on his son’s head. “Her name is Angelina. Angelina Hardwick. However, she tells me she likes to be called Angel.”
“Angel?” John rolled his eyes, blushing.
“Is she an angel like our mama?” Luke’s serious eyes stared at Nate.
“No, son, she’s not an angel like your mama. Your mama is an angel in heaven. This Angel is right here on earth.”
Mark hadn’t said a word. Nate turned to him. “Mark, what do you say about this?”
“I don’t want no goldarned new mama.” Red-faced, the boy pushed back his chair and ran from the room.
Nate sighed. One out of five wasn’t bad. He placed Luke on his feet and began collecting dirty dishes from the table. “All right boys, get washed up and into bed. It’s getting late.”
The boys dragged their feet, never anxious to end their day. Nate walked to the window, and, hands shoved into his pockets, stared at the darkening sky. This had not been an easy decision. Six months wasn’t a long time to grieve a wife of ten years, but his life had begun to fall apart.
His marriage had been satisfactory, if not great. Lonely after leaving the army, and miles from his home, Amy had filled a hole in his heart. He tried not to dwell on whether he would have married her if she hadn’t become pregnant. She did, so he did, and five kids later, here he was, ready for a new wife. He sighed and turned back to the table, grabbed the rest of the dishes.
He still had to deal with the no diaper issue, so he stacked the dishes in the sink. Mrs. Darby, his neighbor and sort-of housekeeper, would wash them in the morning. Julia-Rose grunted and thrust her head back, wiggling to get out of the chair.
“Come on, baby, bedtime for you, too.” He undid the strap, picked her up, and hugged her chubby little body to his chest.
What is that?
He gaped at the warm, wet stream running down his leg from underneath Julia-Rose’s nightgown.
“Mama.” She smiled up at him. Then with the spoon she still held in her hand, she smacked him in the eye.