An envelope with bright blue ink stamps landed in Dex’s lap, a startlingly bright white against the faded tan of his trousers. He brushed the wood shavings off his legs and fingered the embossment around the edge of the envelope. Was it for him? He squinted at the loopy handwriting. Sure enough, his name, Dex Stanton, wandered under the upper left-hand stamp that said Independence, Missouri. He’d given up on receiving any replies a month ago. But this had to be it. He didn’t know anyone who lived in Independence, though it was only a day’s ride away.
“Since when did you start writing letters?” His brother, Grant, pushed up his bowler to scratch his hairline. With the sun’s fiery shade of orange behind him, his younger brother was little more than a silhouette standing on the porch steps.
Dex wriggled on the hard bench. Only one letter . . . two months ago.
“Why didn’t you ask me for help?”
“Not for this.” He’d never ask anybody for help with this. He set his carving knife and a half-formed miniature bear on the stump that served as his outdoor table.
No, Grant and Lily’s table now. Everything that didn’t fit into his nice, new covered wagon was no longer his. He glanced around the porch he’d added onto the farm house when he was fourteen. He’d soon be building his own place on land that didn’t hold sour memories.
“It’s from someone named Fannie.” Grant walked up the stairs and took a seat on the railing. “You wrote a woman?”
Fannie. Her name was frilly, not a name he liked at all. He flipped the envelope over, and indeed, Fannie Elaine Pratt was scrawled across the back. “I didn’t exactly write to Miss Pratt.”
Grant’s face contorted. “How can you not exactly write to somebody?”
Couldn’t they talk about something else? Wheat and barley prices, fence mending, the weather? But Grant’s firm jaw and pointed stare didn’t invite meaningless conversation. Dex rubbed the back of his neck. “I wrote a company.”
He kept from squirming; he wasn’t ashamed. “It’s a mail-order bride company.”
Did he think men wrote to The Marital News on a lark?
Grant let out a long whistle that descended an octave. “But you’re leaving for Kansas in a week.”
“I didn’t expect a reply to take this long.” He’d have to speak plain before Grant started interrogating. “But if it hadn’t been for Ma taking care of the house, God rest her soul, I couldn’t have saved the farm. And if I’m going to succeed in western Kansas Territory, a woman will be important.”
Grant leaned forward, his hands anchoring him to the railing. “Ain’t there a girl in town you could ask after?”
“Nope.” Dex ripped open the flap of his letter. When Grant didn’t leave, he gave him the eye, indicating the conversation was over.
“Look, I understand the want of a wife.”
Dex sighed. His brother had never been good at taking hints.
“God has blessed me with a wife and a son out of nowhere, but a stranger? I’d never thought you’d do something so . . . so . . .”
“Stupid, desperate . . . mad?” He crossed his arms, tucking the letter away from sight. Maybe his brother would enlighten him. “What young lady would marry me and pack herself up for a grueling walk across the plains before next Sunday?”
Grant sat beside him and spread his hulking arms across the back of the porch bench. “What about Emma Newsome?”
“No.” She laughed like a monkey and never, ever stopped talking. His younger brother’s advice was always so . . . horrible. “Would you marry her?”
Grant pulled a face. “All right, so she wasn’t a good suggestion.” He tipped his head back and stared at the porch ceiling, his mouth bunching in thought. “What about that redhead you used to walk home a few months back?”
“Engaged to Ralph.” He’d already considered the few possibilities many times over. Unless he wanted to fight a handful of men more charming than he ever hoped to be for one of the Conner twins or marry a woman who’d need a very understanding man to live with her for the rest of her days—
“What about Rachel Oliver? She might go, seeing how her brother and sister are. Even if she’s always got her nose stuck in a—”
“Don’t bother rattling off a list.” And that was the one woman he’d hoped his brother wouldn’t light upon. He didn’t want to have to spell out why Rachel wouldn’t have him, though Grant should have realized. She was indeed available and quite attractive, but a man had to be realistic. “I know who’s available and who isn’t. And now, I have mail to read.”
Grant smiled wickedly and grabbed for the letter. “Guess I could read it for you.”
“Go bother your wife instead of me.” Dex pushed against him.
Grant’s thick body didn’t even budge, but he chuckled, then stood. A glance through the window put a telltale gleam in his eye.
Evidently Lily was in the kitchen.
“Hmm, pestering the wife’s a good idea.” He slapped Dex’s shoulder in passing and hollered at Lily before the screen door shut behind him.
Heaven help any passersby who glanced through the window. Those two were harder to pull apart than taffy. Dex rolled his eyes. The newlyweds made him squirm even in his own house. Well . . . not his house any longer since he was leaving in about a week.
He propped his feet on the porch railing, leaned against the bench seat, then pulled out the letter. After weighing down the empty envelope with his carving knife, he unfolded the expensively thin paper covered with the inky flourishes of a woman who liked to write fancy. He suppressed a groan. It was hard enough to read print.
The familiar pain behind his eyes crept in as he stared at the words, focusing on keeping the letters still. If only they wouldn’t flicker around, reading would be painless. But no, they were up to their old tricks.
Dear Mr. Stanton, I have to say, I haven’t had as much pleasure in a letter as I had in yours.
He read that twice to get all the words. So far, so good.
I do so love to laugh.
He liked to tell jokes, but he didn’t recall writing any. That would have taken too much effort. His letter had been short and businesslike—at least, he’d meant it to be.
“Feoncay” was quite the puzzle! None of us could decipher it.
He read the sentence.
Then reread it.
Rubbing his forehead, he read it again.
Oh, decipher. He read it over again now that he’d figured out all the words.
The third man I asked at the post office finally figured you meant fiancée.
Fiancée. F-i-a-n-c-é-e. How did two e’s say a? And what on earth was the mark on top of the first e for? His headache intensified.
He’s from France, so I’m certain only he could at the post office finally figured you meant fiancée.
Wait. He’d skipped up a line in the middle somewhere. He found the beginning of the sentence again.
He’s from France, so I’m certain only he could have deciphered it since it was so horribly misspelled.
The spaces between the words fluctuated, and the words ran together. He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a long, deep breath. He could do this.
Which, given the rest of the letter . . . Did you even go to school?
And then he quit. He stared at the blue-gray cloud steadily crawling across the path of the sun, cutting off the light. He shook his head, which didn’t help his headache.
He’d thought to try with the mail-order bride advertisements again when he got settled in Kansas, but should he even bother? Was his poor writing the reason he hadn’t received a reply until this one?His fingers crinkled the edges of the paper, but rather than crumpling the letter and throwing it in the puddle off the porch, he folded it and folded it until the letter was nothing more than a tiny rectangular wad. He gritted his teeth against the woman’s voice taunting him from the compacted paper.
He’d nearly written the word betrothed in his original letter, but he’d spent too long reasoning out the correct spelling and still hadn’t been sure he was right. So he’d gone with fiancée. How dumb could he be, thinking a fancy foreign word would be easier to spell than an English one?
Why not toss the letter in the mud? This woman would never have him, nor take him seriously. With a hard flick, he sent the letter flying over the railing. The chunk of paper missed the puddle by an inch and lay as bright as a new stick of chalk on the heavily trod dirt.
Intended. He smacked his forehead and winced. Why hadn’t he thought of the word intended? That would be spelled i-n-t-e-d . . . e or e-a? He ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed against the pounding between his temples.
Grant was right. Maybe he should consider one of the few unattached women here over the age of fifteen instead of a stranger. A few of the girls were . . . nice. Maybe he could look past the personality defects, inane chattering, the one with the blackened teeth . . .
But how could he court any of them when Rachel Oliver was in town?
Not that a brainy woman would give a man who could read about as well as a drunk horse a second glance.
But evidently, only a really desperate mail-order bride would overlook a man’s inability to spell. Who was he kidding? He’d have to wait until families started settling in middle-of-nowhere Kansas to find a wife. But then, any woman making the trek was likely already promised or married.
A mail-order bride was his best chance to find someone who could make him forget about Rachel’s engaging smile and her ability to do everything perfectly. Maybe he should pray that God would plunk a poor lost beauty who couldn’t spell to save a kitten on his soddy’s doorstep.
“Uncle Dex?” Allen’s sweet voice grated against the ringing in his skull. Not in the mood to play sword fight or practice roping like he’d done every day this past week, he kept his eyes closed for a few seconds longer. He’d only gotten a nephew a few months ago and now, in a week and a half, he might not ever see the lad again.
He opened one eye and peered at his ten-year-old step-nephew, the boy’s hair probably as mussed as his own. Smoothing back a lock, he stopped at the sight of the slightly unfurled chunk of a letter sitting in Allen’s outstretched hand.
“Why’d you toss this in the mud, Uncle Dex? You don’t ever get mail. Don’t you want to keep it? Momma rereads her letters all the time.”
“This coming from a boy who hates to read as much as I do.” He snatched the fat wad of paper from the boy’s hand lest he attempt to read it himself.
“Miss Oliver tells me I just have to practice reading more.”
Miss Oliver? “Rachel?”
“Yep, the older one, not the pretty one.”
Dex bit the inside of his cheek. Rachel was pretty enough in her own right and much more mature than her younger sister. Besides, he’d hardly call nineteen old. “She’s helping you read?”
Allen’s head dipped emphatically. “And write better too.”
“Why isn’t your teacher doing that?”
“Miss Zuckerman says she don’t have the time to help me. She told Momma I need extra help if I want to pass, but Momma grinds her teeth when I take too long, so she can’t do it either. But Miss Oliver don’t ever get frustrated with me. And she’s helping me more than Miss Zuckerman ever did. Like having me figure out pictures for my words.”
Allen leaned against the railing, grabbed the pole, and swung around. “I told her I couldn’t see some words, so she helped me figure out a picture. Now I don’t skip over the word the when I’m reading . . . well, most the time.”
Pictures. Where’d she come up with that? “Does she have you make pictures for other words?”
The porch floor creaked behind them.
“She’s done wonders for him.” Lily’s hands were on her hips as she surveyed her freckle-faced boy, but her lips bunched into a half smile and pride flickered in her eyes. “Not that you don’t have lots of room for improvement, young man. But I’m right proud you got a sixty on your spelling test today.”
Dex sucked in a breath and held it. His father would have beaten him for a sixty. Not that he’d gotten many sixties. His grades hovered more in the thirty to forty range—that is, when he’d bothered to hand something in.
Dex ruffled Allen’s hair. “Good job, keep at it.”
Allen ducked his head and beamed. “Thanks, Uncle Dex.”
“No thanks needed. If you work hard, we ought to be proud of you.” It sure beat being forced to drill the same words over and over and getting a kick in the pants for good measure.
“Time to come in and wash.” Lily flicked her dish towel at Dex. “You too.” She turned and scurried into the house.
Allen stared at him.
Dex lowered his brows. “What? Didn’t your mother tell you to go inside?”
“Pa told me you can’t read none too good either.”
Dex swallowed and waved a hand at Allen as if being unable to read well was nothing shameful—as if the flaw didn’t matter. “All of us got our problems.”
“Maybe you could ask Miss Oliver to help you like she’s helping me.”
Yeah, letting Rachel, the town genius, know he couldn’t spell genius if his life depended on it wouldn’t hurt his pride one whit. “Can you really read better?”
“Not as good as any of the girls in school.” He scowled.
Overachieving girls. Some things never changed.
“But I can read better . . . for me anyway.”
“Allen Richard Carson the fourth!” Lily hollered out the window.
Dex cringed, giving his nephew a sympathetic look. “I don’t envy you being ‘the fourth.’ Having my Ma use my middle name was bad enough.”
“Don’t I know it.”
The screen door flew open and slammed shut behind the boy.
Standing, Dex stretched and surveyed the fenced pastures, the repaired barn, the cellar he’d dug, and the hay fields he’d tended since quitting school twelve years ago. He was probably the only twelve-year-old boy in the world who was relieved when his father abandoned him. How could he complain since the beatings for every misspelled word had stopped, the one man God commanded him to respect never again told him he was worthless, and little girls in pinafores and braids could no longer outshine him on every test?
Like Rachel Oliver. The then six-year-old aced the spelling tests he flunked. He hadn’t yet finished the second grade primer to his teacher’s satisfaction, and Rachel had skipped through the first spelling book within a matter of weeks.
Good thing he left school a month later.
Or was it? Because now, if he wanted a wife, he’d have to write another letter—a better letter. One with all the words spelled right.
Maybe Rachel Oliver could help, but was it worth her finding out how stupid he really was? He’d worked hard to keep his secret from her. Anytime she’d joined his Bible study class, he’d find a need to attend another lest she wonder why he never volunteered to read. And the one time she had asked him to help with the children’s nativity, he’d thought he’d been safe volunteering to build the set—until she’d wandered into the freezing barn to ask him to work with one of the struggling wise men to learn his lines. The poor boy was confused about why they practiced in the basement, far away from the others.
Could he stand Rachel knowing he was dumber than dirt?
A thick, official-looking letter dropped in front of Rachel Oliver’s sheet music, and she fumbled the chord she was playing, the notes clashing together as if her family’s fat tabby had decided to walk across the ivories.
“Did you really have to do that?” She swiped the letter out of the way, but her eyes caught on the stamped return address. No need to finish practicing Beethoven’s Sonatina in G which she’d planned to play for Papa tonight. “Where’d you get this?”
“From the post office. Where else?” Her sister Patricia rolled her eyes.
“But I went to the post office with mother.”
“Not before eight this morning.”
Rachel hiked an eyebrow. Had her parents known her indolent sister had been dressed and traipsing about town that early? Nothing piqued Patricia’s interest . . . except flirting. “Were you with Everett?” If she had indeed been flirting, she better not answer with anyone else’s name.
Patricia’s normally striking smile turned glorious. What Rachel wouldn’t give for those perfectly straight teeth or the blond hair or—
“I spent all day with him.” She clasped her hands in front of her flounced skirt and twirled as if she’d been rescued by some knight instead of visiting the man who’d courted her the last few months. “We went to the mercantile so I could suggest some things to take with us to Kansas, ate at Calico Café, and then he took me to the confectioners’ for strawberries and cream.” She sighed. “A perfect morning.”
“Did you finish baking the bread?”
Her sister scowled in the most becoming way a person could possibly scowl. Rachel scowled back so the girl would know how to do it properly.
Patricia stuck out her tongue. “You always pooh-pooh everything.”
“Momma asked you to, and it’d be nice for her to remember you as an obedient daughter.” Plus, she didn’t want to get stuck with the baking. “I don’t want to do it for you.” Again.
“You talk as if I were dying instead of going with Neil to . . .” She fluttered her hand at the front wall of the parlor, which faced southeast—nowhere close to west. “. . . wherever it is we’re going.”
The door creaked open, and Neil’s dark, stocky form stepped through the doorway.
Patricia sidled over to their brother. “You don’t think my walking out with Everett today was wasted time, do you?” She laced her arm through his and looked at her sister smugly. “I learned all about wagon stuff. I could advise you on what you need for our trip.”
“No need.” He patted her arm with little enthusiasm.
“Oh, so you’ve already done that?” She batted her big blue eyes.
He nodded at their sister, but Rachel saw the slight shake of his head after Patricia looked away.
“See?” She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Neil doesn’t fault me for not making bread.”
He rubbed his stubbly chin. “I am hungry.”
Patricia frowned. “You could have let me know.” She pranced out of the parlor and turned in the direction of the kitchen.
Like a specter, Neil glided over to the settee and noiselessly dropped upon it. He leaned back and crossed an ankle over his knee.
Rachel glanced at her unopened letter, but Neil rarely remained in the room with her—or any female besides Patricia for that matter. “You must be anxious about leaving.” She moved to the settee. “We’ll miss you.”
“You’ll hardly know I’m gone.” His smile was self-abasing. His hazel eyes and heavy jaw matched hers, and yet he was rather handsome for a brother.
“You might not say much, but your presence is soothing—especially when Patricia’s in the room and I want to tear my hair out, or hers. I’m not picky which.” She smiled.” But I’ll miss her too, of course.”
“You can still come with us. It’d be better than New York.”
She snagged her letter. “This one’s thick. I might be going to Tennessee instead.”
She slid the envelope around in her hands. Mary Sharp College in Winchester would not appeal to her mother’s fancy ideals like Elmira Female College in New York. But she’d be more comfortable in Tennessee, and she’d still be going to one of those newfangled colleges that awarded women degrees equal to men’s. Momma would just have to content herself with Tennessee.
Neil tipped her chin up, and the probing look in his eye and the uncharacteristic physical contact squeezed her heart.
She slipped across the seat and folded him in her arms. “I’ll miss you.”
He slowly wrapped his arms around her and awkwardly patted her back, then bussed the top of her head. “You’ll do well at either school.”
She held onto her brother, memorizing the feel of his firm chest and the smell of musk and wool. But within seconds, he started fidgeting, so she gave him a little girl grin and returned to sitting more ladylike. “Thank you, but your job will be harder than mine. You’ll have Patricia.”
She’d never understood how her parents had produced a child as different as Patricia, but perhaps being the baby and spoiled was not a good thing. And for some reason, even Neil seemed to give in to her. “What are you going to do when she marries Everett? There won’t be a word spoken in your little hovel for months on end.”
His smile lit with genuine amusement, but then drooped.
“You’ll miss her.”
He breathed in sharply through his nose and scratched behind his ear, his fingers disappearing in his thick dark locks.
“How far will you travel before you settle? Do you think Patricia can handle all that walking?”
Neil shrugged. “As close to the Sixth Principal Meridian as we can get, I imagine.” He re-situated himself and looked in the direction of the kitchen. “And she’ll manage. She’d follow Everett anywhere.”
Rachel clucked. “She’d follow any pretty boy anywhere.” Though she couldn’t imagine dainty little Patricia walking her way to Kansas without any fuss.
“Sorry, I know she says she’s serious this time.” Rachel fought not to roll her eyes. Patricia would probably start whining the first day. But their brother thought the sun rose and set on their sister for some reason. And he defended her mightily . . . using as few words as possible. But then, Patricia jabbered enough excuses for herself that he hardly had a need. “And you wouldn’t take her unless you were sure she was committed since Everett hasn’t proposed.”
“Yet.” Patricia sashayed back into the room, her hands on her hips. She stopped at Rachel’s side but remained standing, the better to peer down at her, she supposed. “He’ll ask me when he gets settled, when he’s ready.”
Yes, Everett would commit, but would Patricia? Neil, Papa, and Momma believed he could hold the seventeen-year-old’s attention for the rest of her days. But if he didn’t? Patricia would have far fewer men to flirt with on the prairie. Then again, maybe the isolation would get her focus off impressing others with her hair and dress and onto good, honest work.
Rachel stole a glance back at her letter. She needed to stop wasting her time and start school. She should have already been a junior. If only she hadn’t wasted two years waiting for . . . well, never mind. That flimsy excuse would leave along with her siblings.
Sighing, she reached for the letter opener. She had absolutely no reason, or rather, no man to entice her into going to western Kansas Territory with her siblings, so hopefully she’d be headed to Tennessee over New York.
“Hello? Is anyone home?”
She froze at the sound of the warm, rumbling voice. Certainly he wouldn’t be at her door now. Not after she’d given up waiting.
The visitor knocked. “Hello?”
But it was him. No one else’s voice was that smooth and buttery. She dropped the letter, adjusted her skirt, and glanced toward the rippled windowpane to check her reflection.
Patricia sat on a nearby chair and picked up the tatting she’d left there earlier. “It’s for you, Neil.”
Her brother pushed himself off the settee and strolled out the door. “Dex.”
“Neil, nice to see you.”
Hinges whined, followed by the slapping of hands on backs.
Swallowing to wet her abnormally dry mouth, Rachel forced herself to retrieve her acceptance letter. Since Dex was going with her siblings on the wagon train, he must be there to talk over plans with them. Nothing more. If he’d never visited her in the years she’d hung around waiting for him to notice her, he wasn’t there to see her today.
Dex and Neil tromped into the parlor, and Patricia slapped on her prettiest smile.
But Rachel didn’t smile. If she did, Dex would have no choice but to compare her sister’s flawless smile with her own gapped-tooth, flat one.
Without asking permission, Dex plopped beside her, making gooseflesh ripple up her arms. She scooted to give him more room, and Neil dropped onto the piano bench across from them.
Her hands fluttered conspicuously, so she slid her letter onto the end table and rammed her hands under her legs.
Dex inclined his head toward her. She pasted on a grin.
After no one spoke for a spell, Patricia narrowed an eye at her before clearing her throat. “Can I get you tea, Mr. Stanton?”
Rachel looked away, feeling the pink in her cheeks for not even seeing to their guest’s comfort. But Patricia needed the practice anyway. She’d have to be a hospitable hostess for the lodging and trading post Neil intended to run—and later as Everett’s wife.
“That’d be mighty nice, thank you.”
“Rachel? Neil?” Patricia turned to her siblings for answers.
Neil nodded, and Rachel whispered, “Yes.”
Oh, why did Dex have to sit right next to her? The tremors of his jostling leg shook the seat, making her want to put a hand on his knee to stop the quaking. A rush of heat swooped up behind her ears the second she let her imaginary hand feel his knee beneath her fingertips. She turned toward her brother. Maybe he’d start a conversation for once.
He only eyed her.
Dex cleared his throat. “Since we’re planning on leaving next Sunday after services, I’m going around and making sure everyone is set.” He squirmed, and her skirt pulled.
She looked down to find him grinding a corner of her green and tan plaid gingham under the heel of his boot.
“You all have everything you need?”
Neil nodded, and Patricia returned with four cups of tea. She handed one to everyone and sat. The mantle clock’s ticking seemed to slow. Dex stared at his lap as if he found his knees highly captivating.
Was he all right? He looked a little sweaty.
She took a drink to moisten her mouth. She was going to have to say something before the silence got out of hand.
“Is the sale of your farm final?” Neil’s bass voice startled her. They must all be out of sorts if he was the sociable one.
“Yes, Grant and Lily are moved in and comfortable. I’m sending Luther and his wife their part of the money for the farm, so I’m squared away.” He glanced down at his nervous footwork, then jerked his foot off her dress, tearing a bit of the ruffle with the action.
“Nothing to worry about.” She stared at the ripped fabric. Nothing for him to worry about anyway. But maybe instead of mending it, she’s snip it off and make a bookmark. She shook her head at herself. Stupid thought. Her college roommates would question her ability to add two and two let alone excel in trigonometry if they discovered the reason behind her scrap memento.
Dex just needed to leave town. The man had never given her two thoughts, was always finding a reason to leave the room when she appeared, and so it was time to put away her Patricia-like obsession over him.
But the fixation wasn’t Patricia-like at all. The men her sister fancied followed her around like bawling calves.
Dex had never looked her way. She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut. I’m pitiful.
A throat cleared. Then a second time. Opening her eyes, she found everyone staring at her.
“What did you say?” Patricia looked bewildered, though still cute.
“Um . . .” Had she said that out loud? Oh no. What rhymed with pitiful? Visible, predictable, laughable? Yes, laughable would work. “Nothing.”
She evidently needed further education. Her brain must be going soft if her mouth ran off like that.
“I’m actually here to see Rachel.” Dex turned his soft green eyes on her. “I, um, need to ask you a question. But I don’t have much time before the wedding ceremony this afternoon. Are you going?”
“Maybe,” she whispered. She could hardly hear herself over the heartbeat in her ears.
“We’ll excuse ourselves.” Patricia stood and beckoned at Neil before throwing her sister a wink. Romantic, silly girl. Dex wasn’t here to propose or anything. But then, why else would he be squirming so much?
And all of a sudden, it was hard to breathe.
Neil glanced over his shoulder from the doorway and made a point to swing the parlor door wide open.
The second her brother’s back disappeared, Dex stood, walked a pace, then pivoted toward her. His chin jutted, and he put his hands behind his back and splayed his legs wide.
She sat up straighter.
He closed his eyes and sucked in his lips. As if he were about to bow his knee and declare himself her subject.
Should she stand? She rubbed her sweaty palms on her skirt.
“This is a rather hard thing for me to ask, but I don’t have any other choice.” He cleared his throat. “Or rather, you’re my only choice.”
Well, if this was a marriage proposal, Dex was about to give Mr. Darcy a lesson on how to thoroughly offend and insult a woman while asking for her hand.
“So I’m going to ask before I change my mind.” Dex finally focused on her. “I need help—reading help—like Allen does. Would you mind giving me a few writing lessons before I leave?”