ETHAN’S BRIDE by Barbara Ankrum
Violet Bradford desperately wants a child. Believing herself barren, she answers Dr. Ethan Walker’s advertisement for a mail-order bride in Colorado, knowing he only wants one thing: a mother for his young daughter. Surely the joys of motherhood can compensate for a loveless marriage. But Ethan’s broken heart won’t stop tugging at hers. And Ethan soon realizes he must risk his heart again or risk losing it all.
27,000 word sequel to CHASE THE FIRE (Wild Western Hearts, Book 4)
“I never faint,” she said in her own defense, pressing her hankie to the moisture on her forehead.
He pulled a dented flask from his inner pocket and offered it to her.
“And I don’t drink.”
One corner of his mouth lifted in an imitation of a smile. “What else don’t you do, Miss Bradford?”
“Well,” she allowed, “I don’t usually marry strangers.”
“Ahh. That’s all right. I’m particularly good at it.” He unscrewed the cap on the flask and held it out again. “Here. It’s just water.”
“Oh.” She sniffed at it delicately.
“It does,” he allowed, “however, admit to a sordid past.”
Violet exhaled a nervous little laugh before taking a long sip, more grateful than she could say for the drink. She wasn’t certain if she was more thirsty or exhausted.
“So,” he asked, “should we call it off?”
She jerked a look up at him and lowered the flask. He might have just asked, “Shall we have tea?” or “Isn’t the sky blue today?” He was watching her closely now, his gaze on her eyes and then, more intimately, her mouth.
“Is that what you want?” she asked.
“I said my vows.”
He had, it was true. “But we’ve hardly spoken two words between us, Dr. Walker.”
His gaze slid toward the window where the sounds of celebration were still going on.
His eyes were the color of a robin’s egg, but with none of the fragility. Everything about him seemed strong. His tall, muscular build. The stark, handsome angles of his face. Even his voice. No, that was more gruff.
He reminded her of no other doctor she could remember meeting. Certainly he was nothing like her brother, Elliot Bradford, who was funny and kind and not at all fierce-looking.
No, Ethan Walker was more soldier, she thought. More warrior. More like her step-brother, Chase Whitlaw, who’d been through so much in the war and had finally found love with a most unlikely woman.
As her intended turned back to her, something seemed to shift in his expression. She’d seen that look already once before. Almost as if he was chinking the walls of some barricade between them.
“Let’s talk, then,” he said, leaning back against the wall with his arms folded across his chest.
She decided there was no reason to beat around the bush. “I couldn’t help but notice the disappointment on your face when you saw me get off the stage. Am I not what you had hoped for?”
He straightened abruptly, like a man who’d just realized he wasn’t invisible. “Why would you say that?”
“I’m only saying what I saw.”
He flinched and a muscle clenched in his jaw. “You saw wrong, Miss Bradford.”
“Did I? Dr. Walker, I’ve come a very long way. I’ve left behind my life in Baltimore and my friends and my home there. I am almost thirty years old. I have pulled up my life by its roots to come here to marry you. Partly because I don’t wish to be a burden on my brothers or their families, but mostly because my possibilities are behind me now, and, as I’ve told you, I can’t have children of my own. And I want to be a mother.”
“What idiot told you that?”
Heat crept to her cheeks. “That I can’t have children?”
“That your possibilities were behind you.”
Unbidden, a pinprick of heat blossomed from the center of her somewhere. “That’s neither here nor… we’re getting off track. You’ve made it clear from the start that love is not part of this bargain. That I shouldn’t expect it or hope for it. But I feel if I’m to marry you, I deserve at least to know why.”
Walker stared down at his hands. “I thought I explained all that. And you agreed.”
She nodded. “You explained the terms, Dr. Walker. Not the reasons behind them.”
“My reasons are my own, Miss Bradford. Private. And they are non-negotiable. You either accept them or you don’t. While I admit that living in a mining town in Colorado has its downsides, you’ll have the full protection of my name and my support as your husband. I’ll take care of you and we’ll raise Ella together, as her parents.”
Violet swallowed. Those were the most words he’d strung together since they’d met. So, she wasn’t to know. Could she live with that? Was it enough?
She lifted her gaze to him. He’d stated the terms as a businessman might a contract to build a bank, complete with vault and locked safe. Yet there was something in his eyes as he said it. Something wounded and vulnerable.
But who was she to quibble, she thought, considering her options. He’d chosen her. And many, many marriages began this way, without love, without friendship, even. And her alternatives, which she hardly even considered alternatives, swirled unpleasantly in her mind. She was walking a thin line here of losing even this one.
“All right,” she said. “But as far as the way I look, in my defense, I did send you a Carte de Visite of my own.”
He was scowling again. Silence stretched between them for several beats. “Who sends a picture that undersells them?”
She blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“That picture. The one of you in a nurse’s uniform? It doesn’t exactly look like you. I wasn’t expecting you to be… pretty.”
Ruari had been the only one who’d ever told her she was pretty. He had loved her just as she was: too tall, too thin and too opinionated. To everyone else, pretty was all the girls back home who knew how to flirt behind their fans, and dance reels and waltzes, and didn’t give a fig about an unpopular opinion.
“I turned down the pretty ones,” he said, dragging her up from her thoughts.
She felt her color rise. Why? And how many pretty ones had he rejected before he’d decided on her for her plainness?
“My goodness, Dr. Walker. That’s enough to turn a girl’s head.”
“That came out wrong. What I meant was—”
“I doubt I fit neatly beneath whatever bar you’re measuring me by, as pretty or not pretty.” She got to her feet, the dizziness gone, and walked to the window. “I can only hope that’s not the only standard by which you’ll judge me.”
He followed her, reached for the flask and replaced the top slowly, his remarkable eyes not straying from hers. “If, in my clumsy way, I didn’t make it clear to you, you fall well above the bar for pretty.”
Her lips parted and she suppressed the urge to fan herself. He was much taller than she was and he made her feel almost… delicate. She hadn’t expected him to be as handsome as he was, either. He’d shaved his beard since the war, revealing a face years younger than his Carte de Visite had hinted at, as well. But pointing that out now seemed unwise.
“But for my sake,” he continued, “I hope we’re not limited to first impressions. I’m no good at them. I do apologize.” An otherwise invisible dimple appeared on his left cheek as he dipped his head in gentlemanly repentance.
He had the presence of a backwoodsman and the manners of a Harvard man. His broad shoulders were barely contained by his jacket and the seams strained when he bent. She wondered, irreverently, what it would be like to be held in the arms of a man like him.
She fumbled to find her footing again. “The question remains, do you want me as I am or not? I cannot change who I am. I’ll admit I can be independent and opinionated. Most men consider those things flaws in a woman.”
His gaze took her in, one feature at a time. “An independent thinker is exactly what I’m looking for in a wife.”
She brightened. “It is?”
He nodded and slid the flask back in his pocket. “I need someone to think on their feet with my daughter. Not turn to me for their every need. Ella is already a handful at two. God knows what challenges a few more years will bring. The question is, do you accept?”
She looked for somewhere safe to land her gaze. She chose the dark heel smudge on the floor near her foot.
She’d had love. She didn’t expect to find the like again in this lifetime. At least she’d resigned herself to it. The fleeting image of Ruari, laughing at something she said, skidded across her memory. She pushed it away.
“I do, very much, want to be a mother. And there seems to be only one way for that to happen. But if you didn’t want a real wife, why didn’t you just hire a nanny or a housekeeper?”
Ethan stared out the window, looking suddenly lost. “There are many definitions of a real wife, Miss Bradford. As for hiring a nanny, there are plenty of folks here who have already had a hand in raising her. Helping me. But it’s not good for her. I don’t know what to do with a daughter now that she’s growing up. She needs a mother. A permanent mother.”
Ella. Was it wrong that just the thought of holding that little girl made Violet’s womb ache? She would be a mother at last. That’s why she’d come. She had to remember that.
People married for worse reasons than this, she thought. Far worse. And as trade-offs went, this was not a bad one.
He was, no doubt, still in love with his late wife and probably always would be. Allowing herself to fall in love with a man like him would be like fighting a ghost for his heart.
He was watching her now, waiting for her answer.
“There is one other thing,” she told him.
He cocked his head.
“The vow. I’d like not to say the word ‘obey’. It is a promise, after all, and obedience is something I’ve never been very good at. You can ask my brothers.”
“I’ll be your husband, not your keeper, Miss Bradford,” he replied. “Don’t expect me to be.”
“Please call me Violet. And I will be your wife, nothing less. Do we understand each other then?”
He nodded, but he was watching her sideways, as if she were a surgical puzzle he needed to approach with caution. “We do.” He got to his feet and reached a hand down to her. “Shall we?”