As Christmas approaches, widowed Reverend Caleb Brennan needs a wife, or his vengeful father-in-law will take his young daughters. When his mail-order bride jilts him, Caleb grows desperate. During a storm, he finds an unconscious boy outside his home with signs of foul play. Despite his previous misfortune, obligation compels Caleb to lug the stranger inside. But as he provides first aid, he discovers more than he expected.
Bounty hunter Grace Blackwell refuses to owe a debt to any man, especially one as charming as Reverend Brennan. To repay him for saving her life, Grace agrees to pose as his mail-order bride. If their ploy is discovered, Caleb could lose his daughters. But in their pretense, the reverend and the bounty hunter might just both lose their hearts.
Cedar Grove, Texas
“She changed her mind.” Caleb Brennan dragged his fingers through his hair. His mail-order bride backed out of their agreement. After three months of corresponding with the young widow, she took one look at him and opted to marry a fellow passenger instead. Three months. Wasted! Numerous letters exchanged, arrangements made, money spent, and all to end with Mrs. Haddon heading to Austin in the very stagecoach that was meant to bring her to him.
“You can scowl at me all you want. It won’t change anything.” Trust his twin to state the harsh reality, without a touch of sugar.
“I’m still processing the sting, Luke.” Caleb scrubbed his face. His glower might intimidate Abby and Libby, his daughters, but it was useless on his brother.
“You should’ve told her sooner.” Luke collected the stack of wanted posters and thumped them thrice on his scarred desk to straighten the pages.
“I’m hardly a cripple.” Caleb rubbed his aching leg. The pain flared in concert with his frustration. He glanced at the far side of the room. Upright rusted bars like an iron fence separated the jail from Luke’s tiny office. The snores from the figure on one of the two bunks continued undisturbed.
Luke yanked a drawer open and shoved the papers in, and then rammed it. “She probably jumped to the wrong conclusion. Since you kept it a secret, she might wonder what other information you withheld from her.”
“Do you suggest I mention I’m a cripple in my next advertisement?”
“You’re planning to advertise again?” Luke frowned.
“I need a wife. What choice do I have?” And as far as he was concerned, whoever filled the position could have the face and personality of a fencepost, as long as her presence improved his chances of not losing his daughters to his embittered father-in-law.
“Miss Preston seems interested.” Luke studied the steam spiraling from the mug of coffee cradled between his hands.
“You’re loco. You know I can’t marry Miss Preston.” The seamstress might be the prettiest woman in town, but she was too young and too idealistic. His second marriage wouldn’t be one of love and companionship, and his bride needed to understand and agree with the terms from the start. He’d experienced love once before. Almost from the moment he’d first laid eyes on Margaret, he’d loved her. And she’d returned his affections. Her death near destroyed him. Never again. His next union would be one of respect and remoteness. An alliance on paper suited him.
Luke drummed his fingers on his desk. “How about I ask Ellen to pose as your fiancée?”
“You want to ask your wife to pretend to be my fiancée?” Caleb blinked. The warmth in the sheriff’s office receded despite the old woodstove standing only feet away. “I can’t wait to hear what she’d think about this idea of yours.” He shook his head. He loved Ellen—as a sister—and she was exactly what Luke needed in his life. But she’d drive Caleb crazy with her endless chatter, even if it was only a fleeting charade. Her overly bright personality would exhaust him.
“Don’t look at me like that. It’ll be a temporary solution. The girls love and know Ellen.” Luke shifted on the chair, scrubbing a hand along his jaw. “There will be certain rules, of course. Limitations. No kissing. No touching.”
“It was one thing swapping places as boys to play pranks on people. Having your wife pose as my fiancée is a different ball of wax.”
“She’d do it if it means you get to keep the girls.”
“She’s a saint. What did you do to deserve her?”
“Got the Lord Almighty to thank for that.” Luke grinned and dipped his head. “I’ll speak with her tonight. We don’t have much time—”
“Whoa. You expect the entire town to go along with it?” Caleb braced his elbows on the desk.
“We can try.”
“Will you throw those who refuse to play along in jail?” A rustle from the bunk drew Caleb's gaze.
The comatose drunk had rolled over, but audible snores still floated from the cell.
“Can you imagine the entire town in my cell? At least old Jeff would have company.”
“I’d rather not.” Caleb downed the last of his coffee. After putting so much effort into convincing his daughters how nice it would be to have Mrs. Haddon around, he now needed to tell them their plans had changed. He massaged his hip. The wound had healed, but the constant pain and distinct limp remained despite the doctor’s predictions that it would disappear.
“This is just a hiccup. It’ll work out.” Luke propped his heels on the desk and tilted his chair back, folding his hands behind his head. “Stuff like this works out on its own all the time.”
“That’s your suggestion? To wait?” Caleb leaned forward and swiped Luke’s feet from the edge of the table just as his brother crossed his ankles.
Few things were more amusing than watching a grown man flailing his arms like a baby bird. Luke managed to keep the chair from tilting, regained his balance, and then landed the chair on all fours on the floor with a thud.
Caleb stood, clutched his cane, and moved to the single window. Puddles dotted Church Street. A lone wagon jumbled toward the general store, the rider hunched against the wet weather. Working his jaw, Caleb leaned his shoulder against the frame. Frosty air seeped through the cracks around the window, and he pressed his forehead against the cold pane.
“I don’t know.” Last thing he wanted was to be forced into a marriage. But when Reverend Conrad’s terms for Caleb to find a mother for the girls remained consistent, Caleb turned to the mail-order bride catalogue. His father-in-law might be a minister, but many of his friends held prominent positions: judges, lawyers, and lawmen regularly dined at Reverend Conrad’s table, and Reverend Conrad held Caleb accountable for the death of Margaret.
“I don’t imagine you’ll say that to Reverend Conrad, especially since he’s set on taking your girls home with him?”
Caleb slumped against the wall and folded his arms. There were no answers to be found in the rafters, but he preferred the view to Luke’s face.
His father-in-law was bound to arrive in a couple of days. Caleb planned to be married to Mrs. Haddon by the time the man climbed off the stage. Mrs. Haddon had shown a similar interest, which was why she’d agreed to marry him. From their first written correspondence, she’d sounded like the perfect candidate. She was educated and a widow. Exactly what Caleb needed for Abby and Libby. I need wisdom, Lord. And help.
“I’ll just have to deal with Reverend Conrad when he gets here.”