Caleb Fraser is the town bad boy and enjoying the single life to the fullest. He has no intention of marrying. No time soon, anyway. He keeps telling his mama he will chose a wife shortly, just to keep her off his back. However, Mama Fraser takes the situation in hand and sends for mail order brides for all four of her sons.
Lily Parker is running from humiliation and is on her way to marry a stranger. She’s traveling with three other women, all of them contracted to wed the Fraser brothers. What they don’t know is the men have no idea they’re about to be hog-tied.
Both Lily and Caleb are in for a surprise. But will Lily’s surprise be too much for Caleb to handle?
Angel Springs, Colorado,
Caleb Fraser looked northward. “Snows coming down fast and thick for this early. Gonna be a hard winter.”
His brother, Gideon, pushed closed the corral gate. “Pete better hurry back or he’ll be stuck in town with our supplies.”
Caleb turned up his collar. “I’m heading to my house. I don’t aim to stand around waiting on Pete, no matter what Mama says.”
His oldest brother, Jamie, shot him a stony stare. “She doesn’t ask much of us. Won’t kill you to hold off on carousing for a couple of hours. Besides, you won’t be able to head into town in this weather.”
Ethan, their youngest brother, laughed and nudged Caleb. “He don’t have to. Has him a sweet little gal stashed at his house.”
Caleb pushed at Ethan’s chest and sent him tumbling onto the snowy ground. “Keep your mouth shut, little brother. Nobody’s business but mine.”READ MORE
Ethan hopped up and Jamie stopped him before he tackled Caleb. “Settle down. We have more important things to do than wrestle in the snow
The jingle of sleigh bells interrupted their quarrel. Good thing Pete had attached the skids to the farm wagon earlier. Mama must have been listening for the ringing because she came out onto the porch all bundled up against the cold.
A tingle ran down Caleb’s spine at the uneasy look Jamie cast at their mother. Before he could ask about it, Jamie said, “Let’s go stand with Mama.”
“Why?” The feeling grew stronger as his older brother tried harder to look anywhere but at his brothers.
What the hell is that all about?
All four brothers loved and respected their mother. Since their beloved father’s death five years before, they’d been especially considerate of her feelings. Without receiving his answer, Caleb trudged along with the others to stand with her while the sleigh came into view.
Gideon craned his neck. “Looks like Pete’s got passengers. Who’d be coming here in this weather? You expecting anyone, Mama?”
She straightened her spine. “As a matter of fact, I am. I’d appreciate you boys staying right here with me. I have something important to say to you in a few minutes.”
Pete pulled on the reins and the sleigh came to a sliding stop. Caleb narrowed his eyes. Four women sat in the sleigh with Pete. Women he’d never seen before
Jamie rounded on their mother. “Mama, there’s four of them, not three. What have you done?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “What needed doing. Now you help unload the girl’s belongings. Pete doesn’t need to do all the work.”
Jamie called over his shoulder, “Come on, boys, lend a hand.”
Caleb was first behind him. “What’s going on?”
All of Jamie’s uneasy looks had vanished, replaced with a flushed face and tight lips. He stomped toward the sleigh. “We have to get these women and their belongings inside so Pete can put up the horses. Mama will explain then.”
The women were so bundled up Caleb couldn’t see more than each one’s eyes and nose. Without a word to any of the ladies, they helped each one down from the wagon and gestured for them to go inside. He hefted a trunk that weighed so much the coffer must have included everything the owner ever possessed. His brothers were carrying stuff as well, and soon they had the sleigh emptied of women, luggage, and supplies. Pete raised his eyebrows and hopped into the sleigh like his tail was on fire. With a flick of the reins, he headed toward the barn.
Inside, the parlor was a flurry of wraps being removed and female chattering. Four women huddled near the fireplace. Although markedly different in appearance, each one was attractive in her own way. Especially if you took into account the cold was responsible for each girl’s red cheeks and nose.
Milly, the Fraser’s cook, set down a tray holding mugs of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies. “One of you boys help me get the rest of the mugs instead of lollygagging. I can only carry so much you know.”
Gideon followed her to the kitchen and returned with another tray. “Mama, I believe we deserve introductions and an explanation.”
His brothers were standing around staring like they were at a church dance, awkward and unsure. The tingle running down Caleb’s spine had turned into flat out panic.
Attempting a smile, Mama licked her lips and gestured toward the women waiting expectantly. “Ladies, these are your grooms.”
Caleb jolted. “What the hell?” He nodded to the women. “Excuse me, ladies.” Lowering his voice he leaned toward his mother. “I hope this is a joke of some kind and you’re not serious.”
She straightened her shoulders and narrowed her eyes at her sons. “Now boys, you all promised me you’d marry someday, but you never did anything toward keeping your word. I decided this was a good time to help by finding you wives.”
Ethan and Gideon’s eyes were wide as saucers at a ladies tea as they gaped at their future wives.
Mama turned toward the women who stared wide-mouthed. Comparing them to the photos she held, she took a willowy blonde by the hand and led her to Jamie. “Olivia, this is Jamie, my oldest at thirty-two and your groom-to-be.”
Next, Mama took Caleb by the hand and led him to a brown-eyed woman with black hair. “Lillian, meet Caleb, next to oldest at twenty-nine.”
Lillian didn’t smile. She assessed him as if he were for sale. From the way her eyes narrowed, she found her future husband wanting.
Well, hell, he found her wanting too. Wanting another man. He had no intention of getting married for a long time, and when he did, it certainly wouldn’t be to a woman who looked as though she had a stick shoved up her backside.
Mama grabbed a redhead with green eyes, by her hand. “Ruby, this is Gideon, who’s twenty-seven and the Angel Springs’ preacher.”
Unlike Olivia and Lillian, Ruby appeared happy with her lot. She smiled at Gideon and slipped her hand in his.
Nudging Ethan, she led him to a stunning hazel-eyed woman with brown hair. “Beth, this is Ethan, my youngest at twenty-two.”
Beth was one of the most attractive women Caleb had ever seen—and he’d seen a lot. She wore the fanciest dress, or it would have been if it had been clean. He pegged her as a spoiled rich girl, but her disheveled appearance made him wonder. Why would a wealthy girl become a mail-order bride—and why didn’t she wear a clean dress?
Caleb ran his fingers through his hair and strode toward Mama. “You can’t mean you did this without consulting us. I’m capable of choosing my own wife when the time comes...”
Olivia put her hands on her hips. “You mean that letter wasn’t from Jamie Fraser? Mrs. Fraser, you wrote to me?”
Mama raised her hands to quiet murmurs of rising complaints. “Everyone, just hear me out. You girls wanted grooms, and these are the four best men in this state or any other. They each need a wife and to settle down and have a family.”
Jamie clasped his mother by the shoulders. As kindly as he could manage, he asked, “Mama, may I see you in the kitchen?” He glanced at the women watching him with curious eyes. “Excuse us a moment, ladies.”
Caleb followed behind the two of them. Somehow he had a suspicion that Jamie had been a part of this. Being too agitated to notice they weren’t alone, Jamie launched into a whispered tirade, “May I remind you I have a family?”
“Do you? Those children need a mother.”
Jamie forked a thumb at his chest. “I had a wife, remember? Why did you send for a bride for me?”
“For the same reason as your brothers. I told you they needed wives so they wouldn’t be alone, and you need the same thing.” She shoved at his shoulders. “Now, get back in there and be civil.”
Caleb seized on her wording and narrowed his eyes at his brother then back to Mama. “Did you say you told Jamie? Did he know about this and just happened to forget to tell us?”
“He knew, but I swore him to secrecy. He didn’t know I’d included Olivia for him, but he needs a wife same as the three of you. Lands sakes, you know Jake and Cat need a mother to tame them.”
Mama met the angry gaze of each son. Caleb recognized the steel in her and knew he was doomed. “I want you boys to have the same thing your father and I had. You have no idea how wonderful it is to have a life partner who shares everything and always supports your ideas.”
Hell, he saw it coming and braced himself for her tears. None of them could resist her when they thought she was going to cry.
She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “We can talk more about this later.”
She motioned toward the stairs. “Ladies, if you’d like to freshen up after your long ride, go on up. Olivia and Lillian are in the master bedroom at the end of the hall on the left. Ruby and Beth are in the second room on the right.”
Ruby rubbed a handkerchief across her forehead. “I could sure use a few minutes rest.” She turned and climbed the stairs.
Beth hugged her arms as she followed Ruby. “I don’t think I’ll ever get warm again.”
Olivia sent Jamie a speculative look before she headed for the stairs.
Lillian was the last to leave. She cast Mama a cool glance. “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, ma’am. But you shouldn’t have impersonated your sons. That’s cheating and not fair to anyone concerned.”
“I did what I thought best for my sons,” Mama responded, her voice filled with steel.
“But what about the rest of us? Didn’t we deserve husbands who actually wanted us?” She shook her head and followed the rest of the brides upstairs.
With the women gone, all four men began to speak at once. Jamie’s voice was loudest, but Caleb figured his measured almost as noisy. Ethan’s face turned red with anger. Even peacemaker Gideon was tight-lipped.
Mama left the room and returned clanging the dinner triangle to get their attention. “Calm down, boys.”
Caleb leaned forward. “We’re not boys any longer, Mama. It’s time you realized we’re grown men with the right to choose our own wives.”
“I know you’re men, but you’ll always be my boys, so don’t sass me. Caleb, you worry me most. Don’t think you’ve hidden that you’re out carousing until all hours. I know you’re going down a dangerous path and I aim to see you settle down and raise a family if I have to hogtie you to achieve that goal.”
She took a deep breath. “Milly has the table ready for you to sit down like the gentlemen I raised and we’ll talk this through.”
They stomped into the kitchen. Danged if he didn’t already feel hog-tied. He could visualize a big red bow on the rope’s knot. When they’d all seated themselves, Mama took her place at the head of the table.
“Your father and I had always believed you four were the best sons anyone ever had. I still believe that, but you haven’t honored your promise to marry. Ethan, you’re the only one who can skate by on that vow because you’re still young. But I see you trying to copy everything Caleb does.” She dabbed a handkerchief to her eyes.
Damn, even though he’d suspected this was coming, Caleb couldn’t bear seeing his mother cry. He leapt to his feet. “Mama, you’re making me sound like the blackest soul in all of Colorado. I do my share of the work same as Jamie and Ethan.”
Jamie yanked on his arm. “Sit down and listen to what Mama has to say. She isn’t through yet.”
Mama dabbed her eyes again and sniffed a couple of times while she waited for Caleb to take his seat. “This snow means the ladies are stuck here so we’ll have to have the wedding right away. Milly and I will have everything ready by tomorrow. The brides have come here in good faith and their reputations are at stake. Mine, too, if you don’t cooperate. And we can’t have single men and single ladies sleeping under the same roof. You four will spend tonight at Caleb’s.”
Jamie and Gideon glared at Caleb. Ethan wore a smirk. Well, dammit to hell. There went the fun night he’d planned. Shaking his head, he stretched his long legs out and crossed his arms over his chest, staring at the table.
Ignoring the exchange, Mama gestured to the corner. “Milly and I packed clean clothes for all of you except Caleb in those satchels. Take them and get out of here until ten o’clock tomorrow morning.” She pointed a finger at each brother. “See that you show up then or I’ll bring Pete with a shotgun. Don’t think for a minute I won’t.”
After checking their rooms, all four brides gathered in the master bedroom. Lillian approved of the tidy condition and the massive mahogany furniture. The quilt on the bed was a beautiful wedding ring pattern in bright red and blue instead of the pastels she’d seen used before. Near the window, a small lamp table separated two rocking chairs where a couple could sit and read of an evening.
She wandered to stand before a painting that must have been Caleb’s parents. His father was a handsome man and probably how Caleb would look in years to come.
She whirled to face the other girls. “I’ve a good mind to leave the minute the snow stops. We were deceived.”
Olivia faced her. “We’re here, so let’s wait and see what Mrs. Fraser has to say this evening. I haven’t met Jamie’s children yet. I wonder why they didn’t run out from wherever they’d been playing to meet the sleigh.”
Lying on the bed and looking pale, Ruby waved a limp hand. “Y’all can do what you want. I’m staying and marrying Gideon. He’s a good looking man and has a sweet smile.”
Beth hugged her arms. “All four are handsome and they act respectful. And Ethan’s emerald gaze certainly warms a girl and left me breathless. Don’t think I’ll leave for now.”
Olivia sent her a glance. “What do you mean, for now? If we go through with the ceremony, then we’re married. Once we’re wed, you can’t change your mind like you would about which hat to wear.”
Beth tossed her thick brown hair over her shoulder. “Of course you can. Haven’t you heard of divorce?”
Lillian gasped. “Divorce? That’s no way to think of marriage. If you wed Ethan, it will be forever.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Wise up. Not every marriage is made in heaven. My parents’ certainly wasn’t.” Her sour expression lent testimony to her words.
Lillian took a step toward her. “But that doesn’t mean yours won’t—“
“Ladies,” Olivia clapped her hands for silence. “This isn’t solving our dilemma. If you’ve glanced out the window, you know we’re already buried in snow and more’s still falling. We can’t leave for who knows how long. If we don’t wed then our reputations will be ruined.”
Lillian tapped a finger against her cheek. “Not only that, but I don’t have the money to repay Mrs. Fraser for our expenses and the marriage broker’s fee.”
Beth’s eyes widened. “You mean we’d owe them money if we don’t go through with the marriage?”
Lillian regarded the youngest of the brides. “Of course. Didn’t you read the contract? If we renege, we have to return the money provided for the fare and meal costs, and repay the broker’s fee.” She studied the young girl and placed her hands on her hips. “Surely you did read the document before you committed, Beth.”
Refusing to meet their gazes, Beth stared at her hands. “I was in a bit of a hurry so I just signed. If you remember, I barely made the train.”
Olivia sighed then held out her hand. “I’m staying. Who’s with me?”
The other three brides stacked their hands on top of hers.
Ruby was first to break contact. “I’m returning to my assigned room and rest until someone calls us. That train ride jarred me to the bone and the sleigh ride froze me. Sure glad our bedroom has a fireplace.”
Over the rise and inside Caleb’s house, Jamie got up into his face. “What the hell do you use for a brain? As if things aren’t bad enough with four brides arriving, you’ve got a saloon girl stashed here.”
“I didn’t know the girls were arriving, did I?” He stabbed a finger against Jamie’s chest and leaned closer. “Because my brother kept that fact a secret.”
Jamie knocked away his brother’s hand. “Only because Mama made me promise on my honor. I only found out when I caught her writing the letters. If she hadn’t looked so guilty when I walked in, I never would have read part of the page.”
Caleb rubbed his hands together. “Well, you three can make yourselves a bed wherever you find a spot. I’m going to my room with Desiree.”
Jamie stepped in front of him, stopping him at the door. “No you’re not.”
Gideon stood beside Jamie. “This has gone on long enough, Caleb. Not only are you leading a reckless life, you’re encouraging Ethan to follow you. Starting tonight, you reform and tomorrow you marry Lillian, the pretty woman who’s waiting for you.”
“Hell and damnation. Who the hell died and left you in charge? I deserve one last night before I become a shackled husband. Desiree’s waiting for me on the other side of that door. It’s taken me months to get her out here.”
Jamie smirked. “That’s cause she was busy making the rounds of everyone else’s beds.”
“You bastard.” Caleb pulled his arm back to swing at Jamie, but Gideon grabbed his fist to stop him. “I know we’re all taken aback by this, but fighting isn’t going to solve anything.”
Tugging on the cuffs of his shirt, Caleb said, “That Lillian looks like she has a steel rod up her—“
Gideon put his hand over Caleb’s mouth. “Don’t besmirch any of those women. Each came here with good intentions thinking one of us had sent for her. If we don’t marry them, not only will we ruin their reputations, but we could ruin Mama’s standing in the community.”
Caleb batted away his brother’s hand. “Is that right, little brother? Well Mama just likes to reign over the other mothers because you’re a preacher. Anyway, who’s going to know if we don’t marry those gals?”
Jamie said, “Everyone who saw them get off the train, or who knows someone who saw them. Which means, everyone in Angel Springs and for miles around.”
Caleb gave a derisive laugh. “Let me get this straight. You think I’m going to marry that stiff-necked spinster and settle her in with Desiree and me? Don’t forget she’s snowed in for a few days too.”
Gideon met Jamie’s gaze. “What about Pete’s house? Desiree could stay there and he could move into the bunkhouse.”
Jamie nodded. “Sounds like a good plan. Pete’s a decent guy and will help us out. We can sneak her over there at dawn tomorrow.”
The door opened a crack and Desiree peeked out. “I can hear you, you know. I’m not a chair or a lamp to be shoved around like unwanted furniture.”
Gideon bowed slightly. “Begging your pardon, Miss Desiree. We’re merely trying to accomplish what’s best for you and for the rest of the people on the ranch until the snow lets up and you can go home.”
Her generous breasts heaved, drawing the eyes of all four men. “If you put it that way. I’d appreciate some time off. My feet could use a rest from all that lugging drinks back and forth. But y’all better be ready to calm Charlie down after I don’t show up at work.”
Caleb pulled his gaze away from her chest and tried to concentrate on her eyes. “We’ll be sure to see someone explains the situation and makes it right with him.”
“Well, all right. Goodnight.” She closed the door.
Caleb glared at each of his brothers. “See what you’ve done? I could be sleeping on a soft mattress with a warm, willing woman. Instead, I’m stuck in here staring at your sorry faces.”
He shook his head in disgust. “Look, I don’t have enough covers to supply pallets. Unless Mama included bedding in your valises, everybody has to sleep on the hard floor. I’m taking the spot nearest the fireplace. I hope you three freeze your asses off.”
But instead of lying down, he sat cross-legged on the floor. For a few seconds the only sound was the fire crackling in the grate. “I swear I will not marry that Lillian. Guess she’s not that bad looking, but I’m not ready to wed. When I am, I can choose my own wife, and it won’t be some old dried-up spinster virgin”
Gideon sat beside him. “Let’s talk, big brother.”
Early the next morning the women darted around in a frenzy but once again gathered in the master bedroom.
Olivia held up her lavender dimity gown and shook it. White lace trimmed the neck, cuffs, and flounces. “I should have hung this up last night so more of the wrinkles would disappear. I wonder if we have time to press our things?”
Lillian shook her head in response. “I already asked, but there’s too much going on in the kitchen with food preparation. We’ll have to make do.” She held up her white grosgrain dress decorated with pink embroidery. Smoothing her hand along the skirt, she touched the pink roses and trailing vines and leaves. It wasn’t the dress she had planned on wearing to be married, but since that dress was long gone, this one was a nice substitute.
“That dress looks pretty with your dark hair. It will also be lovely for church and other occasions,” Olivia said, giving Lillian a warm smile.
Ruby touched her stomach. “I’ll wear my green traveling suit. I brushed it this morning and I think it looks better than anything else I have.”
Looking forlorn, Beth glanced down at the wrinkled and soiled dress she’d worn on the entire trip. “This is the best thing I have.”
Lillian suspected it was the only thing she had. Her small valise couldn’t hold more than one other dress, if that. “Why don’t I ask Mrs. Fraser if she has something more appropriate?”
Beth chewed her lip for a few seconds. “I-I don’t know. I guess you could.”
Lillian hurried downstairs to explain the situation.
Mrs. Fraser greeted her with a bright smile as she dried her hands on her apron. “I have just the thing. I think my own wedding dress will fit her. Of course, it’s out of style, but it’s very pretty.”
Lillian followed her to the room at the opposite end of the hall from Jamie’s. Her soon-to-be mother-in-law opened a trunk at the foot of the bed.
After removing items and stacking them on the coverlet, she pulled out a cream silk gown. “Here it is. Let’s see if Beth can wear this.”
Not only could Beth wear the elegant garment, but when Lillian and Mrs. Fraser presented the gown to the young girl, she beamed. “This is lovely. I’ll have the best dress there. Uh, no offense meant.”
Olivia rolled her eyes at Lillian. “None taken.”
Mrs. Fraser said, “I need to get back to the kitchen. Ten o’clock will soon arrive and I still have to change and do my hair.”
When she’d gone, Beth twirled to straighten the train. “I could do a whole lot worse. Ethan is handsome and Mrs. Fraser really is a nice woman.”
Lillian gave the girl a tight smile. “Who’ll soon be our mother-in-law, even though she deceived each of us, as well as her sons. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I had no intention of marrying a man who was being dragged to the altar.”
Certainly not, given her luck with men so far.
Ruby sat on a rocker. “She had her boys’ welfare in mind and we each needed a groom. I don’t see the problem as long as the men show up and go through with the wedding.”
“Don’t you think them wanting to show up would be better? Don’t you all feel a little bit manipulated?” Lillian said.
The other three women all cast their eyes in different directions, avoiding Lillian’s gaze.
Beth’s eyes widened. “If we’re snowed in, who’s going to perform the ceremony?”
In spite of her appearing a bit sly, Lillian wondered how bright Beth was. “Gideon is a minister. He can officiate.”
As the hands of the clock moved closer to the hour, the room quieted. Chatter ceased as the women contemplated their upcoming vows. Lillian glanced around the room at the ladies she would forever be tied to, her new sisters-in-law.
For better or worse, they were all about to take a huge step by marrying men they’d just met. A knot formed in her stomach at the thought of Caleb, her soon-to-be husband. She’d planned on weeks of getting to know him and suddenly she was being thrust into marriage with a wedding night only hours away with a man she hardly knew. She would have to deal with that issue very shortly.
At ten o’clock, Milly rapped on the door. “The men are ready. It’s time.”
Lillian breathed deeply, trying to get a grip on her nerves, relieved the men had shown up for the wedding. That had to be a good sign—one that showed they respected their mother. And would hopefully transfer that respect to their wives.
With one last glance in the mirror over the washstand, she left the room, knowing after this moment, her life would be forever changed—for better or worse.
“Good luck, ladies.”COLLAPSE