Handpicked Husband & The Bride Next Door

Love Inspired Historical
July 2020

Romance on the Texas Frontier

Handpicked Husband

Regina Nash must marry one of the men her grandfather has chosen for her or lose custody of her nephew. But Reggie knows marriage is not for her, so she must persuade them—and Adam Barr, her grandfather’s envoy—that she’d make a thoroughly unsuitable wife. Adam is drawn to the free-spirited photographer, but his job was to make sure Regina chose from the men he escorted to Texas—not marry her himself!

The Bride Next Door

Daisy Johnson is ready to settle in Turnabout, Texas, open a restaurant and perhaps find a husband. Of course, she’d envisioned a man who actually likes her, not someone who offers a marriage of convenience to avoid scandal. Newspaper reporter Everett Fulton may find himself suddenly married, but his dreams of leaving haven’t changed. What Daisy wants—home, family, tenderness—he can’t provide…

Handpicked Husband

Northeast Texas, 1894

An ear-splitting shriek ricocheted through the forest, startling a raucous cloud of blackbirds from the roadside trees.

"Easy, Trib." Adam Barr patted the horse's neck as the animal shied. What now?

The buggy behind him slowed to a stop, but Adam ignored it, along with the uneasy questions from the three men seated inside. He'd promised to escort the men from Philadelphia to Texas, not be their nursemaid.

The wailing continued and Adam fought the urge to tilt back his head and answer with a wild, full-throated howl.

He'd gritted his teeth so often these past few days the muscles in his jaw hurt. Taking on this job when more important business waited for him in Philadelphia had him in a foul mood, as his companions could no doubt attest.

After six years of biding his time - six years, two months and thirteen days to be exact - he'd thought he could finally pursue his goal without distraction.

If this assignment had come from anyone but Judge Madison...

Adam scanned the brush-skirted hardwoods lining the trail. Whatever the source of that eerie sound, it was headed their way.

He eased his rifle from the scabbard. Anticipation stirred his blood. He might have to employ his "company manners" with his three charges, but this bellowing beast was another matter.

No telling what manner of creature roamed this forsaken backwoods. The wail was too high-pitched to belong to a bear. A large cat maybe?

He urged Trib closer to the trees. There seemed to be a pattern to the sound, a certain mangled cadence. Almost as if -

Well, what do you know?

He leaned back. Not a wild animal after all. Too bad. "Do you think it's a wolf?"

Adam glanced over his shoulder. Chance's expression, like his tone, held more eagerness than worry. Did the kid think it would be some kind of lark to face down a wolf? Of course, from what Judge Madison had told Adam, the twenty-one-year-old was on this expedition precisely because he was prone to seek out trouble.

"Sounds more like an infernal wildcat." Everett adjusted his shirt cuff with exaggerated care, doing a creditable job of appearing unconcerned. But his British accent was more pronounced now, something Adam noticed happened when anything rattled the dandified cynic.

Mitchell, who controlled the skittish carriage horse with ease, refrained from comment. Nothing unusual in that.

The loose-limbed bear of a man had spent most of the trip west with a sort of sleepy-eyed disinterest. What was different, however, was the subtle alertness that radiated from him now, as if he were a cavalryman waiting for the enemy to appear over the rise.

Another strident note drew Adam's focus back to the roadside. He didn't bother to disabuse them of the notion that it might be a wild animal. It'd do the pampered trio good to have something to worry about besides the unorthodox plot they'd gotten themselves embroiled in.

"Perhaps you should get the carriage moving," Everett said. "I'm sure our escort can handle this better without us to distract him."

"We shouldn't abandon Mr. Barr," Chance shot back. "He might need - "

"This is about common sense, Junior, not courage," Everett interrupted. "Besides, I do believe Mr. Barr is more interested in getting rid of the lot of us than having us guard his back."

"I told you before - the name's Chance, not Junior."

Adam's jaw tightened. Everett was right. Even if it had been a grizzly headed this way, he'd rather face that than listen to more of this petty bickering. This assignment couldn't be over soon enough to suit him.

A heartbeat later, the source of the ear-grating racket stepped onto the roadside. As soon as the creature caught sight of them, the discordant warble ceased.

"It's a man!" Chance's tone carried as much disappointment as surprise.

"Not quite." Adam didn't blame the youth for the mistake. The party responsible for that unmelodic braying wore baggy overalls and an equally oversize shirt, both of which had seen better days. There was even a smudge of dirt on one cheek to match those on the clothing.

But this was no man.

From Adam's closer vantage, he spied a frizzy brown braid long enough to brush the seat of the overalls. That, along with the slender neck and hint of curves below, proclaimed this person as most definitely female. He hesitated, though, to use the word lady. She appeared more a disheveled forest waif than a civilized being.

The girl seemed as startled as the men in the carriage. But a flicker of something else - disbelief? wariness? - shadowed her surprise.

Remembering he still cradled the rifle, Adam resheathed it and tipped his hat. No point scaring her more than they already had.

Besides, she might be a good source of information.

He dug deep for the polite pleasantries that had grown rusty with disuse. "Good afternoon, miss. My apologies if we startled you."

"Good heavens, it's a girl." Chance's whispered-but-easily-heard comment only served to heighten the color in her cheeks as she broke eye contact with Adam.

"Or what passes for one in this barbaric wilderness." Everett didn't bother to lower his voice. "Do you think she speaks English?"

Adam narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Did the men think just because she looked like an uncivilized rube she didn't have feelings?

But before he could say anything, the girl snapped out of her slack-jawed immobility. Her lips compressed and her eyes flashed daggers. So, there was more wildcat than rabbit in her, was there?

Instead of baring claws, however, she bent down to pluck a stem of grass. Straightening, she favored them with a broad, neighborly grin as she stuck the weed between her teeth.

But something in her stance told Adam the claws were there, merely out of sight for now. He also noticed she didn't step away from the protection of the trees.

This girl was no fool. He mentally saluted her precaution, then leaned back in the saddle, ready to enjoy whatever performance she had in store for his companions.

"Howdy, gents." Her words were drawn out in a thick, rustic drawl. "I reckon I was a mite surprised at that, but no harm done. We don't get many strangers out this way, especially fancy-lookin' gents like you 'uns."

Her gaze flickered to Adam's again. Some trick of the light lent a luminosity to her irises, made them appear to change from green to blue and back again. The image of a statue he'd admired in a museum years ago shimmered through his memory. The scales of the dragon had seemed to glow, had rippled with a fluidity of color that was mesmerizing.

This girl's eyes were just like that.

She turned to the men behind him, and the spell was broken. Adam collected himself, annoyed at the fanciful turn his thoughts had taken. This trip must have worn on him more than he realized.

Mitchell remembered his manners first. "Are you all right, miss?"

She slid the stem of grass to the other corner of her mouth with bucolic nonchalance. As she did so, Adam saw her size up the speaker, no doubt weighing Mitchell's intimidating size against his concerned gaze.

She finally flashed a friendly grin. "Fit as a filly in a field of clover. Why'd you ask?"

Let it go, Adam silently advised. But Mitchell apparently hadn't figured out what was all too obvious to Adam.

"It's just, well, that screeching we heard. I thought maybe something had frightened you."

Adam watched for her reaction with interest. Would she dissolve into tears of mortification, or give Mitchell a blistering set-down for his innocent blunder?

To his surprise, she did neither. Instead she winced and gave a rueful smile. "My kinder friends call what you just heard a 'joyful noise.'"

Adam tilted his hat back with one finger. A female who could laugh at herself? Now there was a novelty.

Ruddy color crept into Mitchell's face along with the belated light of understanding. "I beg your pardon. I didn't mean any disrespect. I - "

She smiled and raised a hand. "Don't fret none, mister. No offense taken. Why do you think I wait 'til I'm out in the woods to really give it my all?"

She looked around, including each of them in her gaze. "You fellas lost? There's not much out this way but trees and critters. If you're looking for the road to Bent Willow, you passed the turn about three miles back."

"Actually, we're looking for Miss Regina Nash." A flicker in her expression told Adam she knew the name. "I understand she's staying somewhere out this way." He'd hand it to the judge's granddaughter, she'd taken great pains to make it as difficult for him to find her as possible. But she obviously didn't know who she was dealing with if she thought a trek through the woods would deter him.

The girl nodded, pulling the stem from her mouth and waving it in the direction they'd been traveling. "Her place is about a twenty-minute ride farther on. Can't miss it." She rolled the stem between her fingers, eyeing him speculatively. "I was by there a bit ago, though, and it didn't seem like they was expecting company."

He swallowed a sour laugh. "No, I don't imagine they are." He watched her toss the blade of grass away, still intrigued by her in spite of himself.

Goodness knows it didn't have anything to do with her looks. In that grubby getup and with smudges on her face, and her hair indifferently tamed into a bushy braid, she lacked anything resembling sophistication or feminine wiles. No, it was more the glimpse of personality he'd seen in her eyes, and the complete lack of apology for her untidy appearance, even after the tactless comments from the men in the carriage.


The Bride Next Door

Turnabout Texas April 1895

The ornery, splinter-ridden door refused to budge, no matter how hard she shoved. Or how hard she glared.

Daisy Johnson stood on the darkened sidewalk, glowering at the weathered barricade that stood between herself and her new home. She absently scratched a splinter from her thumb as she glanced down at the black and white dog sitting patiently at her heels. "Don't worry, Kip, I'm going to get us inside, one way or the other."

Kip gave her a supportive yip, then began scratching his side.

A noise from over to her left caught Daisy's attention. Down the street, a shadowy figure exited the livery and headed unsteadily down the sidewalk toward the hotel. Probably coming from one of the poker games the locals held there - an activity she was unfortunately all too familiar with.

Other than that, things were quiet. Which was fine by her. Kip was the only company she needed tonight.

Daisy spared a quick glance at the adjoining building which housed the newspaper office, and thought briefly about knocking on the door to see if she could borrow something to use as a pry bar. But she discarded the thought almost before it had fully formed. Not only was the hour late, but from what she recalled about the man who owned the place, he was an uppity gent with a highfaluting accent of some sort. His attitude reminded her too much of her grandmother. Not the sort who would take kindly to being roused from his sleep. Or someone she'd wanted to owe any favors to.

Turning back to the stubbornly closed door, she jutted her chin out and tilted her hat back. No warped slab of lumber was going to get the better of her, not when she was so close to her goal.

Using her foot to shove aside one of the rotten boards she'd pried from across the doorframe, Daisy jiggled the key and turned the knob again. There was just enough light coming from the glow of the nearby street lamp to confirm the door wasn't locked. Which meant it was just stuck.

"If you think you can out-ornery me," she muttered at the door as she rolled up her sleeves, "then you better think again." With that, she took firmer hold of the knob, twisted it as far as it would go, and led with her shoulder as she rammed against the door. Kip stopped scratching and gave her a you-can-do-it bark.

The door held a moment longer, then scraped noisily open a few inches. Progress. But not enough. Kip might be able to squeeze through that opening but not her.

Steeling herself, Daisy threw her shoulder into it one more time, grunting at the impact. With a last creak of protest, the door gave up its fight and opened wide enough to allow her to pass.

With a triumphant grin and a prickling of anticipation, Daisy retrieved her pack, tossed her bedroll up on her shoulder, and met Kip's curious glance. "This is it, boy. We're home."

With a deep breath, Daisy took her first step inside the building, Kip at her heels. The room was mostly cloaked in shadows, illuminated only by what light filtered in from the street lamp, and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust.

As she surveyed what little she could see of the room, her grin disappeared. "Jehoshaphat!" She'd spent the night in abandoned barns that were cleaner and neater than this place.

Striding farther into the room, Daisy muttered a few unladylike epithets under her breath as she batted at cobwebs and felt things scrunch beneath her boots that she wasn't ready to examine more closely.

She spied a lamp sitting on the counter and was relieved to find a bit of oil still in the base. It took several attempts but she finally managed to get it lit and then took a closer look around.

She could hear Kip sniffling around, picking up goodness only knew what kind of scents. A couple of loud doggy sneezes confirmed that it was as dusty at his level as it was at hers.

She hadn't expected a servant-scrubbed palace, but hang it all, she'd hoped to find something in a little better condition than this. No wonder the previous owner had been so quick to gamble it away.

She started to close the outer door, then changed her mind. It wouldn't hurt to leave it open for a little while to help air out the place.

Daisy tromped across the room, ignoring the skittery scrambling sounds coming from just outside the circle of lamplight. Hopefully whatever critters had taken up residence in here were on their way out. Still, she was glad for Kip's company.

The back room wasn't much better than the front. In the yellowish light of the lamp, she could see dust, debris and a smattering of rickety furniture scattered higgledy-piggledy across the space. Daisy kicked at an old sack lying in her path, then let out an explosive sneeze as a cloud of dust billowed up in her face.

Great! This was just pointy-fanged-rattlesnake perfect.

She fanned the air in front of her between sneezes. Why should the day end even a gnat-speck better than it had started?

Then she caught herself up short. Not that I'm complaining, mind You, Lord. I know You answered my prayers in a powerful way when You took Pa's weakness for gambling and turned it to good by providing me with the deed to this building. And I truly am mighty grateful. Besides, I do know there's nothing wrong with this place that a bit of honest sweat and elbow grease won't fix up just fine and dandy. You've done Your part and now I aim to do mine.

Daisy looked around again. Make that a lot of elbow grease.

But that didn't scare her none. No sir. The place was more than roomy enough for what she had in mind. She could already picture how it would look all cleaned up and put to rights. It would be so wonderful to have a place of her own, a place to set down roots and build a proper life. And to finally make some genuine friends of her very own.

And maybe, if she was very, very good, she could have a family of her very own one day as well.

I know, Lord, baby steps. I asked for a family of my own, one like all those close-knit, loving families I saw during my travels. And instead You gave me the seeds of one by providing a means for me to settle down in one place. So here's my promise to You. I'm going to do my best to make myself an acceptable helpmeet in the eyes of some god fearing man so I can start that family as soon as possible. And I promise to look past appearance, manner and finances to see the heart of whoever You send my way.

Feeling focused and enthusiastic once more, Daisy went back to work. First order of business was to clear herself out a place to sleep. There was no way she could lay down in the midst of this gritty, grimy, cluttered mess, so if she was going to get a good night's rest she'd best start clearing and cleaning.

She tested the soundness of a crate near the doorway then set the lamp and bedroll down. Plopping her hat and pack beside them, she rolled up her sleeves. No time like the present to get started.

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