Authors: Allison Merritt
Also by Allison Merritt
The Convict and the Cattleman
The Wrong Brother’s Bride
THE WRONG BROTHER’S BRIDE
By ALLISON MERRITT
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
History has always held an allure for me. Many of my favorite romance novels have historical settings. Thanks to my dad, I have a deep interest in pre- and post-Civil War history.
I'm fortunate enough to live close to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, which is the site of the first major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. From August 10th, 1861, over 2500 men were casualties of the battle. The Rays were a family of Confederate sympathizers living in a single-story house on a farm just above Wilson's Creek. They were a well-to-do-family, emigrants from Tennessee who operated 160 acres of corn, wheat, horses and sheep. Settled above a cornfield, John Ray was able to sit on the porch and watch the Battle of Bloody Hill, where Confederate forces fired cannons on Federal soldiers as they attempted to take the hill. His family and slaves hid in the cellar until the battle was over. Their home was commandeered by Confederate forces for use as a field hospital. Union General Nathaniel Lyons was fatally wounded, and his body later brought up the house after the battle. Fully furnished with many of the original items, the bed where he was laid is just one of the fascinating items inside. The shroud Lyons was wrapped in is on display in the Wilson's Creek Visitor's Center.
The Ray House is on the tour road inside the park and the inspiration for the setting of The Wrong Brother's Bride. Situated on Old Wire Road, which was originally an ancient game trail through the Ozark Mountains that stretched from Springfield, Missouri to Fort Smith, Arkansas, the house was a stop along the Butterfield Stage route, a post office, and hub for news in Wilson township.
For the O'Dells, their farm would have been a place of comfort and solitude, particularly during 1880. The following year, a drought struck the area and caused many farmers to suffer financial difficulties. I like to think August and Loyal were prepared for the trouble. I know they overcame it with their love. I hope if you ever have the opportunity, you'll visit Wilson's Creek and walk the trails where soldiers camped and fought. I hope you can visit when the corn is high and watch the deer melt into the rows in the evenings. Maybe come for a reenactment and hear the cannons boom across the hills and smell the smoke from the soldiers' rifles. I hope you make it for the lighting ceremony in December when volunteers set out a candle for each of the casualties of battle and the Ray House is decorated for Christmas.
Most of all, I hope The Wrong Brother's Bride opens your eyes to the magical Ozark Mountains and the place I call home.
Wilson township, Missouri—1880
His brother’s wake and funeral were long over. The fields below the house were planted with acres of corn, which wouldn’t mature for a few more weeks. Two horses and a milk cow lazed in a sturdy corral beyond the barn. A flock of sheep grazed nearby under a collie’s watchful eye.
Numbness filled August O’Dell as he reined his horse to a stop on the crest above his brother’s farm. Jeremiah had been careful, almost obsessive, with his equipment, clothes and possessions. Even the split rail fences looked sturdy and the road didn’t have a single hole. Jeremiah liked perfection. August didn’t know the first thing about it. A lump formed under his ribcage.
His gelding lifted its head and called out to the other horses. They answered, gathering at the fence for a better look. The dog noticed them and barked a warning.
He ignored the dog and turned the gelding down the path. White clapboard covered the single-story house and green shutters framed the windows. A wide covered front porch welcomed visitors to sit and stay a spell, but it was empty. Beautiful as the place was, it had cost his brother’s life. If August hadn’t been so stubborn, this might have been a joyful homecoming.
Before he reached the yard, the front door opened and a woman stepped outside. His hands tightened on the reins. He would have recognized Loyal Redfearn anywhere. She’d haunted his dreams and filled hundreds of lonely hours in his mind.
A gray shawl wrapped around her shoulders, covering her black mourning dress. Auburn hair done up and tucked into a coronet showed off the sickly pale color of her face. Someone had been caring for the livestock until he arrived. He’d never guessed it would be her.
He had mixed feelings about whether he should be glad she was here, or whether he ought to turn around and cut his losses. Although she’d written for his help, he wasn’t prepared to face her. Wasn’t prepared for the way his heart lurched when their eyes met. Just like the day he’d realized he was in love with her, he lost himself all over again.
The young woman he remembered as stick-thin and awkward had filled out. Even the mourning gown couldn’t hide her figure. Dark material flared at the swell of her breasts and hips. Loyal moved down the porch steps with easy grace, meeting him as he dismounted. The dog sat at her feet, panting and watching August with interest. She looked unhappy, but then he hadn’t expected her to welcome him with open arms.
“You came.” She dabbed her eyes with a cotton handkerchief. Her worry melted into a look of relief.
He squinted in the evening sun. “I wrote that I would.”
Unspoken words between them were like a physical thing, preventing him from meeting her gaze. He knew he should comfort her, offer some words about Jeremiah being in a better place, but the sentiments stuck in his throat. In a field near the house, mature hay waved in the breeze.
“Looks like it’s time for another cutting.”
Loyal crumpled the hanky. “Your brother’s dead and the first thing you say is about work?”
“Jeremiah wouldn’t want his efforts wasted. Next year depends on the harvest.” He drew the reins over the gelding’s head and led it to the corral. The desire to look at her was almost painful, although he knew she was grieving for his brother. In one way or another, she’d always been out of his reach.
“You could ask how the funeral went. You could inquire about my feelings, August. Perhaps you could talk about your own.” Loyal kept pace beside him. “Don’t shut me out.”
Some things didn’t change. They fought as soon as they laid eyes on each other. Always had. August had never been able to express his feelings about her. That resulted in frustration and arguments. It hadn’t helped that Jeremiah, at seven years old, had declared he’d marry Loyal someday. August’s infatuation hadn’t developed until a few years later.
“I just got here. I’d like some time to think.”
“You’re right. You’ve had a long journey.” She looked contrite. “When you’re finished out here, come inside. The neighbors brought food. There’s more than I could ever eat. It’ll spoil if you don’t.”
August unsaddled the gelding. When he turned the horse into the corral, it sniffed the others and squeals issued from their mouths as they settled the pecking order. Not unlike him and Loyal. Not because he’d wanted a fight, but it seemed best to hold her at arms’ length. Especially now that Jeremiah was gone.
He slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and carried his gear into the barn. She didn’t move from her position by the corral. The dog whined, looking between them. August suppressed a groan of frustration. He had half a notion to send her home. As Jeremiah’s only living relative, the farm was his now. Which gave him the right to say who came and went. Despite his misgivings about farming, he didn’t want Loyal to see if he failed.
She waited for him, stroking the dog’s head, with a sad smile. “Everyone will be surprised you’re here. No one knew you were coming except me. I didn’t mention it, though a few people asked whether I knew where you were. I didn’t, until I found an address in Jeremiah’s rolltop.”
Had she thought about him over the years, or ever asked Jeremiah where he was?
She nodded at the house. “I’m sure you’d rather get settled in and acquainted with the farm before anyone bothers you with questions about it.”
“That’s right.” He tugged his hat lower.
Like some kind of damned bird, Loyal kept talking. They were empty words about how many people came for the funeral and who’d dropped by to say they were sorry Jeremiah was gone. None of it mattered to August. He’d taken his time getting here so he could avoid the condolences and curious questions about where he’d been.
He mounted the porch steps, hoping she’d take the hint and leave. Instead, she followed him. August felt like an intruder when he opened the door. The house smelled like beeswax and lilac flowers. The floors were spotless, the walls whitewashed. His annoyance went up a notch when he realized this must be Loyal’s doing. No bachelor farmer lived so clean.
“Take your boots off. No sense in dirtying the floors.”
He gritted his teeth. She’d always been the sort who took care of others, but he wasn’t in the mood for a fuss. “I don’t need a nursemaid. You can go home.”
Loyal’s hand hovered over her stomach. “I’m not going anywhere, August.”
“You planning to spend the night? How will that look?” He hung his hat on a hook beside the door. Next to Jeremiah’s. His brother’s work coat and a rain slicker hung there too. A stab of regret pierced his gut.
Loyal sucked a breath through her teeth. “I spend every night here.”
He stared. “You were living with him?”
“Yes.” She pursed her lips, probably waiting for the inevitable explosion sure to follow.
She didn’t know, but he’d changed too.
“Since when?” A woman’s touch was obvious in the house. His surprise was unwarranted. “Your daddy must have a thing or two to say about it.”
Her father, a preacher by trade, was as strict as they came. Not that August had attended a single sermon by Gideon Redfearn. He made a habit of avoiding churches.
“I moved in three months ago.” Her voice softened and her gaze dropped. “We were getting married after he harvested the corn.”
The news struck him hard. He staggered as he faced her. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise either. Jeremiah had been talking marriage since they were kids. August’s hope that someday she’d develop feelings for him had shriveled years ago like a seedling too long gone without water. Jeremiah seldom mentioned her in his letters, not the sort to rub it in when it came to matters of the heart.
August shook his head and slipped off his boots. Hell of a way to learn their intentions.
He braced his hands on his hips. “What’s keeping you here now?”
Too late, he realized how he sounded. Maybe he hadn’t changed much. Her fiancé was dead. Her stiff-collared father had probably disowned her when she moved in.
She paled, though she didn’t back away. “This is my home. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to live with it.”