When Grace Kingston accepts a wedding proposal through a mail-order bride agency and travels across country to be married, she has no idea her bridegroom is a fourteen-year-old boy. There’s no way she can accept his offer but with depleted funds, and winter coming on, Grace has little choice but to stay. Things go from bad to worse when she meets Jesse’s older brother, Rafe. The attraction is immediate. He’s surly, rude and downright pig-headed but he makes her pulse race with a single glance.
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Read a 2 chapter excerpt below!
He was going to skin that boy alive. Rafe bit his tongue to keep from shouting and crossed the yard to the barn, his heated gaze on Jesse. Stopping by the fence, he adjusted his hat and propped his foot on the bottom rung. And waited. He hid a smile when Jesse stopped, turned to face him and yelled, “What?”
Rafe propped his arms on his raised knee. “Just wondering where the hell you think you’re going. We’ve got things to do around here, if you haven’t noticed.”
Jesse rolled his eyes and cinched the mule before leading him to the wagon. “I got places to be today.”
“Like none of your damn business.”
Straightening, Rafe raised an eyebrow at him. “You aren’t too big for me to take a belt to your hide.”
Jesse scoffed. “Try it.”
“Don’t tempt me.” The rebellious look on his brother’s face darkened, the freckles splattered across Jesse’s cheeks and nose the same color as the thick thatch of red hair on his head. In the ten years he’d been gone, the kid had grown almost as tall as he was. His attitude had too. He lowered his leg to the ground and tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. “Where are you going, Jesse?”
“What for?” Jesse mumbled something under his breath, his face growing brighter red before he turned his back to him. His movements were jerky, his shoulders held rigid. “We don’t need anything from town that can’t wait and that hole in the barn roof isn’t going to fix itself. Unhitch that mule and go grab that bucket of nails out by the work shed.” Rafe walked off, hoping Jesse would just do as told for once.
A glance over his shoulder and he bit his tongue, trying to rein in his temper. Jesse was still hitching up the mule. Rafe stopped, turned to look at him again, and had to remind himself that killing a man, even your own kin, was illegal. If the boy didn’t already hate him with a passion he’d be tempted to take a belt to his backside just as he’d threatened to do.
He watched him finish hitching the mule, his lips bloodless from pinching them together. The silence stretched until Rafe thought he could touch it. “Jesse, what did I say?”
“I don’t really give a damn what you said. Fix the barn yourself. I have things to do.”
That was it. The last straw. Rafe closed the distance between them at a fast clip, his booted feet hitting the ground in loud pops. “And what would that be?”
Jesse swallowed and licked his lips. His face went a funny shade of white before he whispered, “I ordered me a wife.”
It took Rafe a full minute before what Jesse said registered. He stared down at him, letting the words rattle around in his head before he blinked and focused his eyes. “You want to run that by me one more time?”
Jesse flicked a quick look at him before lowering his head. “I ordered me a wife.” He swallowed, his throat moving as he did before he lifted his head, his eyes flashing. “And don’t go yelling at me for it either cause it ain’t going to do you no good.”
He ordered a wife? Rafe tried to wrap his head around the statement but as much as he tried, it just didn’t make sense. Jesse wasn’t old enough to marry. He was just a kid but there he stood, head held high, shoulders back and looking as sure as any man about to make the biggest mistake of their life.
He bit his tongue to keep from shouting what a little fool he was, adjusting his hat instead, and propped his foot on the wagon wheel to give himself more time to collect his thoughts. When he knew he could speak without yelling, he opened his mouth. Nothing came out.
Jesse’s face turned a light shade of pink before the look in his eyes turned murderous. “Just get to the yelling part, Rafe. I’ve got places to be and you’re wasting my time!”
Rafe flinched. Jesse’s high pitched voice grated on his nerves most days, more so when he yelled. The urge to bend the boy over his knee was strong but he refused to treat Jesse like a child even though, in his eyes, the kid would always be his little brother.
When he left home ten years ago, the kid has been docile and sweet natured. That wasn’t the case now. Since the day he’d returned six months ago, Jesse had fought him at every turn. Everything he said turned into a battle of wills and he was at his whit’s end trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. His pa would have whipped that boy bloody for talking to him the way he did.
Why he was the lucky recipient of his anger was a mystery he’d never figure out.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he narrowed his eyes and pinned Jesse with a glare of his own. “I heard that part, little brother. What I want to know is why?”
The mutinous glare Jesse shot him should have scorched the skin right off of him. “Stop calling me little! I’m fifteen years old.”
“Fourteen. You have nine whole months before you’ll be fifteen.”
“So… you’re too young to get married.” The fire in Jesse’s eyes matched the temper the boy had developed over the years. “And you are little.” Rafe grinned. “My little brother.”
Jesse’s face turned red again, his fingers curling into his hands to make fists. “I’m tired of everyone in this town calling me your little brother. I’m a man. Have been since pa died and you were off doing God only knows what. It’s about time people saw me as a man, so, I ordered me a wife.”
Rafe leaned his head to one side. “And what do you plan on doing with her?”
“Doing with her?” Jesse stared at him wide-eyed. “What do you think I’m going to do with her? I’ll make her clean the house and cook my meals. Wash clothes and make sure my socks don’t have no holes in them.”
“And?” Rafe prompted.
Rafe laughed. The boy didn’t have the first clue what he was getting himself in to. “How old is this wife you ordered?”
Jesse shrugged his shoulder. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Rafe raised an eyebrow at him. “What does she look like?” Another shoulder shrug was all the answer he got. “You do realize most of those mail-order brides are plain and dowdy looking spinsters that no other man would marry, right?”
“What difference does it make? I didn’t order her to look at.”
It was obvious his brother didn’t have the first clue what a wife was for. Sure those other things were nice but a man didn’t take a woman to wife just to make a house servant out of her. He wanted a nice warm body to keep him warm at night. A sweet smelling little thing to make the hard days seem a little less rough. Someone to bear his children.
Rafe grinned and slapped Jesse on the shoulder. “You’re right, Jesse. If your wife is here to cook and clean for you, and darn your socks, what difference does it make how old she is or what she looks like. Tell you what. When she gets here, I’ll let you have the big room at the top of the stairs. We can’t have your bride sleeping in that tiny room of yours, now can we?”
Jesse’s face went a funny shade of white and he raised his hand, scratching the side of his neck. “Why do I need Ma and Pa’s old room?”
“For you and your new bride.”
When Jesse spoke again, it was a tiny sound that squeaked. “You mean I have to sleep in the same room with her?”
Rafe bit his lip to keep from laughing again. “That’s what men do when they take a wife.”
“But there ain’t but one bed in there.”
“Then you’ll have to share.”
Jesse swallowed, his throat moving with the small action before the boy turned and looked back out over the field. “It’ll be okay if she takes that room by herself. I’m comfortable where I am.”
The sun was overhead and Rafe felt his stomach give a painful twist. It was past lunch. He looked toward Jesse, seeing his red-tinted face, and the defiance in his eyes, and knew regardless of what he said, the kid would fight him every step of the way.
Bracing himself for the outburst, Rafe nodded toward the house. “Best go on in there and write that bride of yours a letter and tell her you’ve changed your mind. You’re not old enough for a wife, Jesse. You don’t even know what a man wants one for.”
He turned to the barn, and the gaping hole in the roof he had to fix, and motioned to the mule. “When you get finished with that, come put the mule away and help me with the roof.” He’d taken four steps when Jesse threw his hat at him, hitting him in the back.
“Don’t tell me what to do, Rafe! I’m through taking orders from you. Besides, I can’t send no letter. She’ll be here today.”
Rafe turned to face his brother. “What do you mean she’ll be here today?”
Jesse raised his chin a notch. “I sent away for her months ago. She’s supposed to be on the stagecoach today. That’s why I was hitching up the wagon. I’m going in to town to pick her up and see if that preacher is still over at the hotel.”
The mule was hitched to the wagon and Rafe stared at it for long moments before looking back at Jesse. The kid was serious. He could tell by the look in his eyes. “Jesse, you can’t marry some strange woman regardless of what you think. You’re too young. There isn’t a preacher this side of the Mississippi that would do it.”
“We’ll see about that.” Picking up his hat, Jesse brushed it off and put it back on his head, shielding his eyes from the sun. The hats brim cast his face in shadows, but Rafe didn’t need to see Jesse’s face to know the look being thrown at him would singe the hide off a cows ass.
Watching him march to the wagon, Rafe took off his own hat, ran his fingers through his hair and looked up at sky. “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
Sighing, he placed his hat back on his head and started after Jesse. When he reached the wagon, he propped his foot on the wheel. “So, what are you going to do?”
Jesse snorted a laugh. “What do you think I’m going to do?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”
“I’m going to town to pick up my wife. I done told you that.”
Rafe looked toward the sky again hoping some divine answer would slap him across the face and exhaled a long breath when none came. He looked back at Jesse, the fire in his brother’s eyes still shining, and he felt his temper rise again. “You can’t keep her, Jesse. I won’t allow it.”
“You don’t have no say so in it, Big Brother.” Jesse grabbed the reins, throwing them over the front of the wagon and turned, giving Rafe his full attention. “I’m going into town and there isn’t anything you can do about it.”
“I can blister your hide.”
“I’d like to see you try.”
Rafe straightened, towering over his brother. “Don’t test me, Jesse. I have enough work to do to last me clean through the winter and I don’t have but a month to get it all done. I don’t have time for this foolishness.”
“Me getting married ain’t foolish. Every man does it at some point. Hell, even you did! I’m just going to do it earlier than most.”
Memories of Katie flooded Rafe’s mind so quickly they almost staggered him. He pushed her away like he always did and the anger those memories brought hardened his heart just a little bit more.
Bringing Katie up seemed to accomplish what Jesse hoped it would. The boy had a smug look on his face, and the urge to strangle him until his eyes popped out of their sockets was tempting. The little fool never listened. Why did he think today would be any different, especially with this?
The kid had no idea what he was getting himself into. The woman who came to be married would take one look at Jesse and laugh. Then what? He’ll come back home ornery as a bull, he thought. Just like any other day. It would serve him right to be handed his ass by some high-strung woman. Maybe she could put the kid in his place. He sure as hell couldn’t.
Rafe repositioned his hat and stared his brother in the eye. There was no talking him out of this, he could see that now. He rarely could when Jesse set his mind to something. Their fights were beginning to be legendary the boys temper was so out of control, so why not let him have his way for once and let him see, first hand, what it takes to be a man?
“You know what, Jesse? You’re right. I think it is time you grew up. Have a little more responsibility than I’ve allowed. I’ll head on in with you to pick up your bride if you don’t mind.”
Jesse looked confused for a moment before he nodded and climbed up into the wagon. He waited for Rafe to join him before taking the reins and handing them over. Rafe held back a smile. For someone who was old enough to take a wife, you would think he could handle a wagon, and a older than dirt mule, with confidence. Just goes to show, the kid had a lot to learn yet and his brother’s wife was going to give him a lesson he’d never forget.
They were laughing at her. Grace Kingston’s face heated, embarrassment burning her throat and landing on her face as every person in the room guffawed and belly-laughed while staring at her.
Her nervousness about making the journey across the country to marry a man sight-unseen grew ten-fold as Ellie, the stagecoach station owner, and the dozen or so men scattered around the room continued to stare after telling them the name of her intended groom.
What was wrong with the man she’d promised to marry that had an entire room full of people laughing?
She’d had a bad feeling the moment the stagecoach stopped and she was helped out to stand on the wooden sidewalk, getting her first good look at the town of Willow Creek. It resembled nothing of Boston and she knew Jesse Samuels, the man she’d agreed to marry, had lied. His descriptive letter had painted a picture in her mind that was filled with wild flowers, fields green with grass and clean mountain air, and a town teaming with life.
How disappointing to realize Willow Creek looked like every other dusty town she’d traveled through to get here.
She’d taken in the dirt road, its deep tracks carved from wagons and horse hooves. Dust seemed to cling to everything in sight and her clothing was covered in a light layer of it in a matter of minutes.
The buildings on the one and only street were lined in uneven rows, the wooden walkways unlevel and tilting toward the rutted road in most places. New construction at the end of town told her the small community was growing but it wouldn’t be fast enough for her. She was used to the finer things in life. Why did she think a small pioneer town in the middle of nowhere would be anything like the city she loved, and left, to find an adventure?
Her journey so far hadn’t been at all as she’d imagined. The money she’d saved to make the trip was all but gone due high priced meals and lodging along the way. The lack of proper hygiene was beginning to make its presence known as her traveling dress was stained and was starting to smell. Of course, most of the stench in the air came from the town’s livery stable that sat beside the stagecoach station. The scent of manure and straw filled the air and pulling a perfumed handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and holding it to her nose, did little to ward off the stench.
The entire situation was deplorable but she had little choice but to see her rash decision through. Which brought her back to Ellie and the men scattered around the room who still snickered at her as if she were the punch line of some joke no one bothered to tell her.
Ellie was heavy set, her graying hair pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head. She had a kind face, wrinkled from laughter and age, and Grace remembered her manners and excused herself without spouting off a biting remark at the woman’s behavior. She turned on her heel and made her way back to the wooden sidewalk outside.
Grace tried her best to look calm but she was failing. Her stomach was in knots as every horrible possibility her friends had told her about screamed through her head in quick succession.
The thought of Jesse Samuels misrepresenting himself was now a reality. The reaction Ellie and the men inside the station had, had to mean something. Was her bridegroom a scoundrel instead of a rancher as he’d said? Was he lacking in some way that caused the prospect of marrying him to be so amusing to the townspeople? Was he was a drunkard or worse? A man so ugly the thoughts of giving her body to him would turn her stomach despite his fortune?
Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. She knew the possibility of marrying a man who wasn’t at all pleasing to the eye was possible but at the time, she felt she had little choice. It was either marry sight-unseen or marry the man she suspected of stealing her father’s fortune. A chill raced up her spine at the thought. She’d marry the lowest man in all of Montana before giving that foul beast the satisfaction of having her and her father’s money.
She could have changed her mind a number of times during her journey but she hadn’t. She’d sold every possession she owned to pay off her father’s debts and have enough to travel across the country. Now, she had no choice but to stay. She didn’t have the money for a return trip home, and besides, what waited for her there left her feeling desperate.
But would her new bridegroom be just as unwelcome a sight as her old life in Boston?
She walked over to her things, grabbing her skirts before sitting down on top of her trunk, and propped her chin on her hand before sighing. She stared out across the dusty road, watched the townsfolk go about their business and prayed she hadn’t made the biggest mistake of her life.
Long minutes of waiting turned into an hour. Grace tapped a heel on the wooden sidewalk and huffed out another breath. A cool breeze sent wisps of dust flurrying across the sidewalk as another wagon rolled over the rutted road. She straightened her back and peered at the driver. He lifted his hat in greeting but kept going just as every other man who passed by did.
She was about to give up hope when she spotted a smaller wagon ambling into town that seemed to be heading in her direction. A man and young boy were both looking at her as they neared the stagecoach station, and she lifted a hand to shield her face from the sun to see them. Surely this wasn’t her bridegroom. The wagon was no more than a broken down wooden box with wheels.
When they stopped in front of the station, the man sat staring at her for long minutes before looking to the boy who was doing the same. Neither seemed inclined to move. She stood, stretching the kinks out of her back, and said, “Hello.”
The man mumbled something to the boy before he shook his head and jumped to the ground. When he approached her, Grace felt her pulse jump and her lungs seized until she found it hard to breathe.
He was handsome and tall, with dark hair that fell to his shoulders in waves. The brown hat on his head left much of his face in shadow but she could see his eyes were green, in a shade so pale she was mesmerized just looking at them. A light dusting of whiskers was growing in on his chin.
When he stopped in front of her, Grace hoped this was the man she’d been waiting on. He fit the physical description she’d received from Jesse in the letter he sent with his request, and he was more handsome than she’d hoped he would be.
“You Grace?” he asked, repositioning his hat.
Grace nodded her head, her heart thumping in her chest. It was him. This was the man she was to marry. The joy she felt was overwhelming. She smiled when she realized the prospect of being stuck in this tiny town didn’t seem like such a burden now. Jesse Samuels was everything she’d hoped to find. A man who was strong, handsome… and who had all his teeth. He wasn’t fat nor ugly. He didn’t have the look of a drunk and his eyes didn’t hold that predatory glint she’s seen in so many of the men she’d known in her life. He didn’t look like a wealthy rancher but she supposed he wouldn’t if he worked his land instead of just hiring others to do it for him.
When he did nothing more than stare at her in return, she looked away. The boy had climbed down from the wagon and was staring at her. His face was bright red, as was his hair, and Grace gave him a smile. His blush deepened before he looked away.
She managed to snap out of her stupor and returned her gaze to the man in front of her. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
“It’s a long trip into town and that old mule can only go so fast.” His gaze moved from her face to her breasts to her hips before coming back up. Grace would have been offended if it hadn’t caused such a delicious tingle to run laps up and down her spine. She averted her gaze, watching the boy as he kicked at the sidewalk with the toe of his boot. He was young, long legged, and thin. He’d yet to put on any muscle she could see. He favored her new bridegroom in facial features but that was about it. Their coloring was completely different.
She smiled again, pleased her trip hadn’t turned out to be a total mistake and settled her gaze back on those soft green eyes of the man standing before her. “Will we marry now or at some later date? Is there a preacher in town?”
He grinned at her before turning to the boy. “You want to go hunt down that preacher?”
Ellie chose that moment to stick her head out the door of the stagecoach station. She gave a chuckle in Grace’s direction before saying, “The preacher ain’t here.” Nearly everyone in the stagecoach station was hovering in the doorway of the building. Ellie was smiling, amusement flashing in her eyes. “He left yesterday morning.”
“Are you sure?” the youth by the wagon asked.
Ellie laughed before nodding her head. “Afraid so.” She glanced at them all before looking toward Grace’s bridegroom. “Afternoon, Rafe. I hear there’s to be a wedding.”
Grace turned. She stared up at her bridegroom, the man she knew just spoke, but he didn’t answer to the name Jesse. “You prefer to be called Rafe?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yep. It’s the name my Ma gave me. Everyone uses it.”
The snickers started again. Grace took a step to the side so she could see everyone at once and her fatigue started to take its toll. She was getting irritated as well and her confusion was growing. “All right. I’ll call you Rafe as well.” She smiled at him before asking, “How long will we have to wait to be wed?”
“A while I suppose. The Preacher doesn’t get around to these parts but every few months.” Rafe repositioned his hat again, glancing over his shoulder to the boy. “But don’t worry. Jesse will do right by you. He sent for a bride and he’s determined to have one.”
Now Grace was confused. She looked at Rafe, then Ellie and the men standing in the station, before turning to look at the wagon. The redhead boy was still standing there blushing and Grace felt as if she was being pulled in endless circles. Ellie chuckled one last time before ushering the men back into the building and leaving her alone with Rafe and the boy. “It’s been an extremely long day,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m a bit confused.”
“Well, everything.” Grace sighed. “Are you Jesse Samuels?”
“No. I’m Rafe Samuels. Jesse’s brother.”
Grace’s eyes widened. “Oh! Well, that explains my confusion.” She laughed, trying to mask her disappointment. “I thought you were my bridegroom.”
Rafe smiled, those fine white teeth of his gleaming. His gaze traveled the length of her again, stopping to linger on her breasts for long moments before meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry to say I’m not. There’s your groom.” He turned and pointed toward the wagon.
The redheaded boy was still there, looking at anything but her. It took Grace only moments for Rafe’s words to sink in. Jesse Samuels was there. He just wasn’t who she thought he was. “That’s Jesse?”
Looking up at Rafe, Grace could see amusement dancing in his eyes. He knew she’d mistaken him for Jesse and he was enjoying her stupidity. And stupid is how she felt. Not only had she agreed to marry sight-unseen, but she’d somehow promised herself to a child. A boy who was too embarrassed to even look her in the eye.
End of Excerpt…
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LILY GRAISON resides in North Carolina, a stones throw away from the Blue Ridge Mountains and a few hours from the Outer Banks. First published in 2005, her debut novel won a Reviewers Choice Award. The author of over a dozen published books, Lily writes in the Western, Contemporary and Paranormal Romance genres.
When not writing, Lily can be found at her sewing machine creating 1800’s Period Dresses or at a nearby store feeding her obsession for all things resembling office supplies.