It’s here! The sixth book in The Brides of Paradise Ranch series is here! The spicy version (and it got a little extra spicy this time) is His Remarkable Bride, and the sweet version (still as sweet as sugar candy) is Elspeth: The Remarkable Bride. And here’s how both versions start….
Haskell, Wyoming – 1876
Everybody in Haskell, Wyoming knew that Athos Strong, the town’s stationmaster, widower, and father of eight children, needed a new bride. Everybody in Haskell had been encouraging him to petition Charlie Garrett, Virginia Piedmont, and Josephine Evans to send for a mail-order bride for him from Hurst Home—a harbor for women who were endangered or had been ill-used—in Nashville, Tennessee. Everybody clucked and shook their heads behind Athos’s back, worrying that his vast brood was getting out of hand without a mother to guide them, and that Athos’s sister, Piper, could only do so much to keep the children in line. But it wasn’t until after church on a breezy day in April that matters finally came to a head.
It was the first post-church, potluck lunch of the season to be held outside. Everything started out innocently enough. The spring air still had a nip in it, but the sun was out, the grass was beginning to turn green and reach for the sky again, and the men were talking baseball.
“The Haskell Hawks might have won the league last year,” Solomon Templesmith, the town’s banker, a black man of distinction, and one of the town’s wealthiest citizens observed, “But with all the babies you lot are having or are due to have, I can’t imagine you’ll have the time for adequate practice.”
“Not to mention the fact that one of our star outfielders up and moved into town,” Mason Montrose, the Hawks’ captain, grumbled.
“I’ll be playing for the Eastside Eagles this year,” Travis confirmed, slapping his brother’s back, then shifting to stand next to Solomon. “Although Wendy is due halfway through the season.”
Travis grinned from ear to ear as he looked out over the sunny churchyard to his wife, Wendy. Sure enough, Wendy’s middle rounded in a good-sized bump. A few months more, and she would bring her and Travis’s first child into the world. She wasn’t the only one. Wendy stood talking with Corva Haskell, wife of Franklin Haskell, son of the town’s founder, cradling her newborn, while Eden Chance was showing off her own brand-new baby. Libby Montrose rounded out the trio of new mothers, though her little girl was a few months older.
Athos Strong grinned along with the rest of the men, but a different kind of emotion rose up through his gut. It was warm and tender, but also hollow and lost. He glanced past the new mothers to his own children. All eight of them were lively and excitable. The younger ones were tearing around the churchyard with their friends—perhaps a little too close to where the adults stood talking or helping themselves to plates of food that had been set out for the potluck. The older ones were in mischievous spirits themselves, by the look of things. Sixteen-year-old Hubert was in a huddle with his buddies, Freddy Chance and Noah Kline, discussing something Noah held, with little Minnie Faraday looking in. Fourteen-year-old twins, Ivy and Heather, were loitering around the church’s front stairs with Muriel Chance, Henrietta Plover, and Penny Albee, most likely giggling about boys. Vernon was off in the tall grass with Petey and Matthew Simms. Which left Lael, twins Geneva and Millicent, and four-year-old Thomas, the youngest of the Strong brood, charging through the after-church gathering like a thunderstorm.
“We don’t have that problem on the Bonneville Bears.” Athos only barely registered Rex Bonneville’s comment as he watched the children playing. “I’ve been strict about letting my men associate with any ladies. Well, other than Bonnie’s girls. A man has to have some female attention.” He smirked at Bonnie Horner herself, who held Rex’s arm with resignation. She gave him a brittle smile in return.
“Your men will play ball again someday,” Solomon went on, speaking to Mason. “Take Athos here, for example. His kids are older. He could play easily. Right, Athos? Athos?”
“Hmm?” Athos snapped his thoughts away from his precious, lively, wild children and focused on the conversation.
Solomon, thumped him on the back. “I was saying that you should join the Eastside Eagles this year. We could use your strong arms to replace Charlie’s, now that he’s retiring.”
“You’re retiring from baseball?” Athos turned to Charlie Garrett, another of the town’s more successful businessman and owner of Hurst Home.
Charlie chuckled. “These old knees have had enough of running bases. It’s time a younger man with muscle replaced me.” He nodded to Athos.
Conscious that he looked a bit silly doing it, Athos glanced down at himself. True, working as the stationmaster, loading and unloading crates and shipments and luggage all day, every day had bulked him up, but perhaps there was a little too much extra bulk around his middle. And while he was at it, his clothes were shabbier than they should have been. The hem of his jacket was starting to fray. Perhaps Piper would have some time to fix— No, Piper barely had time to put up her hair in the mornings, let alone mend his clothes on top of the kids’.
Athos shook his head. “I wish I had time to play baseball, but the train schedule is full and I only have so many hands and hours in the day. I can barely get home for supper every night as it is. I couldn’t ask Piper to give up her few free hours just so I could play baseball now and then.”
“Yes, but do you have any free hours?” Charlie asked, studying Athos and rubbing his chin.
Athos laughed. “No, no I haven’t had free time for, oh, nearly ten years now. After the fourth was born, Natalie and I barely had time to say hello to each other, there was so much to do. And of course it’s four times busier now. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Piper. The whole house would come crashing down.”
As if on cue, there was a loud rip, then a crash, and a trio of female screams. The men jerked and twisted, looking for the cause of the disturbance.
Across the yard, one corner of the tent covering the tables of food had come down. Underneath it was a pile of silk and lace, petticoats and tablecloths. And more than a few splattered plates of buttered peas, cherry cordial, and apple pie. The screams had come from the four women who had been knocked over and splashed with bright red and greasy green. They struggled to get up, dresses ruined, gloves stained, and faces smeared with the spoiled part of the feast.
It would have been an alarming curiosity to Athos…if it wasn’t Lael, Geneva, Millicent, and Thomas standing around the disaster with wide eyes and dirty hands.
“Oh, no.” Athos winced and rushed toward the scene, along with the men he’d been talking to, most notably Rex Bonneville. It was his daughters who had ended up as the victims of the accident.
“Papa! Papa!” one, or maybe two of them, screamed. It was hard to tell which young ladies were talking underneath all the frills of skirts and underthings, tablecloths and tent. “Help!”
Several men jumped forward to extract the Bonneville sisters from each other and from the remains of the table. Vivian Bonneville leapt into her father’s arms as soon as she was free, squashing half an apple pie between them. Melinda and Bebe Bonneville were helped to their feet—both in tears—and immediately set about picking remnants of peas and pie crust off of what were undoubtedly expensive dresses. Solomon Templesmith reached down to help the last sister, Honoria, to stand. Honoria had been at the bottom of the pile, and although she’d escaped most of the food, she looked decidedly flattened and unwell, and broke into a coughing fit.
“Are you going to be all right, Miss Honoria?” Solomon asked, his arms still half around her to help with her balance.
Honoria coughed and pressed a hand to her pale face, then nodded.
“Get your hands off my daughter,” Rex snapped.
“Rex,” Bonnie tried to both scold and soothe him.
Rex ignored her, grabbing Honoria’s arm and yanking her away. He caused her to lose her balance and almost stumble into the remaining mess on the grass. Rex didn’t notice. He was too busy snapping at Solomon. “Who do you think you are? Money doesn’t make you any less of a trained monkey.”
Solomon straightened his tailored suit, fixed his dark eyes on Rex, and held himself with more dignity than Athos could ever have mustered. But as soon as he opened his mouth to protest, he was cut off.
“It was terrible, Papa,” Vivian wailed. She shifted her stance to stand in such a way that the most people could hear her as she went on. “Those ragged little mongrels charged at us out of nowhere.” She thrust out her arm and pointed dramatically at Lael, Geneva, Millicent, and Thomas.
Athos gathered his kids into a tight group around him, resting his hands on Neva and Millie’s heads as if that could protect them. “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it, did you?”
“No, Papa,” they answered.
“We were being a train,” Lael said.
“A runaway train,” Geneva answered, eyes flashing with excitement. “The brave stationmaster was trying to save us by switching the tracks and preventing certain doom.”
A grin tickled Athos’s lips. Ever since they’d read the phrase ‘certain doom’ in a dime novel after supper the week before, Geneva had been using it in all of her games. “Is that so?”
“Those children are a public menace,” Melinda yelped, cutting off Geneva’s explanation. “They should be locked in the town jail.”
“They should be hung, drawn, and quartered,” Bebe added.
“They should be sent off to darkest Africa,” Melinda went on.
“Yes, and fed nothing but gruel and roasted rats,” Bebe finished.
If they had hoped to frighten the Strong children, they were sorely disappointed. From Lael down to Thomas, they all laughed.
“Roasted rats! Roasted rats!” Little Thomas shouted.
“What’s going on here?” Piper came running to join the scene from the other side of the tent. She pulled up short when she saw the Bonneville sisters covered in food and stained with grass and cherry cordial. “Good heavens above.” Before she could stop herself, she burst into laughter, then slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Vagrants, the lot of you!” Vivian shouted. “No good, pitiful, filthy vagrants.”
“Now see here.” Athos stepped forward, intending to defend his children to the death if he had to.
His attempt was cut short by a cracking boom and a high-pitched whiz several yards beyond the tent. Several ladies screamed. A half-second later, there was a sharp fizzle, then the opposite corner of the church tent caught fire. Another rash of screaming followed as women and children dashed out from under the tent and Dr. Dean Meyers and Aiden Murphy grabbed several glasses of lemonade to throw on the canvas. The fire went out quickly, which shifted everyone’s focus to the cause of the sudden conflagration.
It wasn’t difficult to find the culprits. Hubert stood with a box of matches in one hand and a burnt-out stub in the other. At his feet was a stick—the kind fireworks were attached to in order to assure a straight launch. Freddy and Noah stood several feet back. All three boys wore startled expressions on their pale faces.
“Vagrants!” Vivian called, even louder. “The younger ones tried to murder me and my sisters, and the oldest tried to burn down the—EEK!”
Her tirade came to an abrupt halt as Vernon rushed into the crowd to see what was going on, a grass snake in each hand. It was the Bonneville sisters’ bad luck that he squeezed between Vivian and Melinda to get a good view of the fuss. Only, Vivian’s shriek shocked him just enough for him to simultaneously jump and let go of the snakes. One fell on the ground and slithered under Bebe’s skirts, but the other leapt right for Melinda’s bosom. It just so happened that with her bodice sticky with apple pie, the snake stuck to her for the split-second it took for her to clap a hand to her chest in fright. The snake used that split-second to wriggle against her hand and up through the row of buttons on the front of the dress, disappearing under the fabric.
The shriek that erupted from Melinda was loud enough to wake the dead. “Get it off me, get it off me!” She bolted from the crumpled side of the tent in hysterics, ripping at her bodice.
Two of Bonneville’s ranch hands chased after her and began helping relieve her of her bodice by tearing through it. It was only when the snake plopped to the ground and raced away that Melinda realized two rough men had divested her of part of her clothes. She let out an even more piercing scream and slapped the one closest to her with a resounding smack.
Bebe, meanwhile, had broken into a flat-out run, wailing in misery, “It’s in my petticoats! Help! Help!” as she took herself as far as possible from the spot of grass her snake had landed in.
“This is an outrage,” Rex Bonneville boomed. He advanced on Athos, fist raised.
Athos’s first and only reaction was to throw both arms wide to shield his children. “It was an accident.”
“Vivian is right,” Bonneville went on. “Those children are conniving, evil-minded, wretches.”
“They are not!”
“They’re no better than beggars in the street, and you, sir, are unfit to be a father to them.”
“Rex, calm down,” Bonnie hissed from the side. She was ignored.
All of the grit and energy Athos had saved up to defend his children deflated under Bonneville’s comment. As much as it hurt, the man might have had a point.
“My brother does the best he can,” Piper stepped in to defend him. “He’s a good father and a hard worker.”
“Ha!” Bonneville barked.
His exclamation was underscored by Vivian’s weeping and Melinda’s and Bebe’s continued shrieking as they fled the scene. Honoria—who had been standing by Solomon’s side, watching the scene with wary eyes—hesitated, then rushed after them.
“You’ll regret this,” Vivian shouted, pointing a cherry cordial-stained finger at Athos. “The whole pathetic lot of you will regret this! Tell them, Papa.” She didn’t wait for her father to speak. She lifted her ruined skirts and fled after her sisters.
“You will regret this,” Bonneville vowed in a far more menacing voice. He narrowed his eyes at Athos, taking one last threatening step toward him, then turned and stormed off, head held high.
Be sure to pick up your copy of either super spicy His Remarkable Bride or lovely, sweet Elspeth: The Remarkable Bride today!
His Remarkable Bride is coming soon to iBooks, B&N, and Kobo too! Elspeth: The Remarkable Bride is exclusively at Amazon and for Kindle Unlimited.
(Unless otherwise noted, links are for Amazon. B&N and Kobo links coming soon!)