Patrick Donovan put a hand against his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun as he gazed out across the water. He had been waiting for hours, but as soon as his eyes caught sight of the small ship sailing toward the dock, he forgot about how tired his legs were and his pulse picked up speed. His wife was on that ship.
Though the two of them had yet to meet in person, they would become acquainted soon enough. He glanced to the left, double-checking that the pastor was still present. He wasn’t the only man here waiting for a woman aboard that ship, a woman who would become his wife.
At nearly forty, he knew that he’d waited longer than most to get married. All of the other men in the small, rural town he lived in had already married, and most had several children as well. He was one of only three single men, and the youngest by nearly two decades.
Not that he’d set out to be a bachelor. It was one of those things that had just sort of happened. With his golden blond hair, broad shoulders, and dimples, he’d always gotten plenty of attention from the opposite sex. But from nearly the moment he’d first entered a schoolroom, he’d only had eyes for one. And while he’d thought that they would one day marry and have a family, that hadn’t been in the cards. He’d taken longer than he should’ve to get over her, he knew that.
Truth was, he still wasn’t completely over her. But, the past was the past, and it was time to let it lie there and move on about his life. Hence, why he waited with his thumbs hooked into his pants’ pockets, gently rocking back and forth on his heels, his mind whirling with questions. It was the same list over and over again: what would she be like? Would she like him? And lastly, why had he decided to do this?
The last was the one he asked himself the most frequently, but he still didn’t have an answer. Not a good one, anyhow. And he’d best get one quick, because people would be clamoring to know. Not that it was any of their business, but that wouldn’t keep them from asking.
He didn’t want to face questions from any busybodies, especially when he himself wasn’t all too sure of what the answer would be. It would shock the socks off of all the ladies when they learned that he had a bride at all. But if they knew that he, Patrick Donovan, had put an ad in for a mail-order bride rather than selecting one of the girls from town, well… all hell would surely break loose.
Because even though he was nearly forty, he was still quite a handsome man. And not only that, but he had taken over the family business making furniture. His father had done quite well for himself in his day, but Patrick had not only kept up with the demand from their town and the surrounding cities, he’d met with merchants in three different states and sold furniture to their stores as well.
The older women always clucked their tongues and said what a shame it was that he’d never married. That there was still time, if he had a mind to…
He knew they wouldn’t be happy about the way he’d gone about finding himself a bride. Not that he minded, overly. He’d done what he had to do, and that was that.
Patrick had always been known for being quiet, and so naturally most people assumed that he was shy, but that was far from the truth. He simply kept to himself until he had something worth saying. His father had taught him that. “Make sure that every word that comes out of your mouth is one that needs to be said, son.” That had been his motto from the time he was a boy, and it had served him well. It meant that he didn’t have conversations filled with tedious pleasantries, nor did he spout gossip. It made his life much simpler.
And he’d learned something else, too. When you kept to yourself and didn’t attract attention, you could kind of blend in with the crowd and people would just go on about their day as though you weren’t there at all, which suited him just fine. Patrick enjoyed watching people, and you could learn a lot when you paid attention. He’d been doing a lot of watching while he’d been waiting.
The dock was packed with people and though most seemed to be waiting for family members, there were other men who appeared to be like him and waiting for women they’d never met. Not that he’d inquired, and certainly no one had asked him his story. It was easy enough to spot them. Those who were waiting for their families were clustered in groups, talking to pass the time, their speech full of “I can’t wait to” and “Remember when.” Whereas the others stood apart, hands jammed into pockets, staring morosely across the water as they waited. It somehow comforted Patrick to know that he was not alone, that he wasn’t the last bachelor alive, or the only one who’d selected such an unconventional method to find a bride.
What would she be like, he wondered again. He’d asked himself that question first, and though he didn’t know the answer, sometimes he tried to play a little game and imagine. Perhaps she’d be tall. Shorter than him, hopefully, but tall for a woman. And maybe she would have a nice smile, be quick to laugh. He hoped, regardless of all the rest, that she had brown hair. He still couldn’t see a blonde head without thinking of Laura. She was the only girl he’d ever courted. He’d thought they would marry someday, but she’d died of influenza when she was only eighteen. He hadn’t courted anyone again.
Patrick rocked back and forth on his heels, looking for something, anything to distract him. He didn’t want to think about Laura. Not today. Normally, he didn’t mind thoughts of her intruding on whatever else he was doing, but it felt almost traitorous to think of another woman as he waited for the one who would be his wife. He shook his head, doing his best to banish her from his thoughts.
But it was easier to think of someone he knew than someone who he hadn’t the faintest clue about. He supposed the other men on this dock, if he’d asked, would have voiced similar concerns. No one could be completely sure when you were marrying a stranger. But more than likely they had more to go on than he did. Patrick had received only a short, three-sentence letter in reply to his ad. She’d said that if he was still searching for a wife, she was willing, and to send boat fare by way of reply. He’d sent the money, but it had been four long months before he’d heard from her again. He’d known that his letter would take some time to reach her, but after all those months had passed without a reply, he’d given up on her and resigned himself to the fact that he’d been tricked out of his money. And then, suddenly, he received a telegram that said that she would arrive on the Lady Maria in three days. He’d been relieved at first, but the emotions that had followed had been that of shock and abject terror, in that order.
He’d resigned himself to being a bachelor. And truth was, seeing as he’d been one for many years now, he wasn’t discontented with the idea. But having a wife… that was something he was entirely unfamiliar with and yes, more than a little afraid of.
There was a great clamoring of excited voices and bustling as people moved forward when the boat got close enough to dock. Once the anchor had been let down, people began to quickly get off, often to shouts of welcome from onlookers.
Patrick could feel his heart hammering in his chest. His pulse was jackknifing beneath his veins. She would be here, any moment. What would he say to her? Would it matter? Would his first words to her be something she would remember all her life, or was he being a sentimental fool?
She’d sent a picture. When he’d read her meager reply to his offer of marriage, he’d been planning on throwing the letter away. But something had caught his attention, still hidden in the envelope. And when he’d pulled out her picture, the sight of it had made his heart beat like a drum in his chest, much the same way it was doing now. The picture was a close-up, and her beauty was evident even at a glance. But when he looked closer, when he studied it, he found no word adequate to describe how enchanting he found her.
Her skin was as creamy white and as flawless as porcelain. She had green eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Though her full, pouty lips were stretched into a smile, her eyes were not smiling. They looked serious, maybe even a little sad. And that vulnerability had been the deciding factor for him, the reason that he’d sent the money. The sight of those eyes had stayed with him, haunting his every waking moment and slipping into his dreams at night. Now that she was arriving, hopefully he would finally find some peace and be able to sleep soundly.
Why was she looking for a husband? A woman with such beauty could surely find a better offer for a husband without having to move thousands of miles away from her native country. But he supposed he would find out the answer soon enough. If she was disagreeable, he wouldn’t have to wait long at all.
The thought made him grimace and once more question his sanity. He’d long ago become accustomed to the solitude of bachelorhood. He hoped that he wasn’t a fool for giving it up. What if she didn’t like his company as much as he did? After all, there was a reason marriage vows said for better or for worse.
Before he could fret any more, he saw her. She paused for a moment as she approached the dock, looking out at all the people. Her eyes moved over them, searching. He wanted to lift a hand, to show her that he was there, waiting. But he couldn’t move a muscle. She was that stunning. Her beautiful, angelic face was framed by wild, curly red hair that transformed her from being a beauty into a siren. He knew that he was not the only man who stared.
She waited a moment longer, then allowed herself to be helped down from the boat. She stepped onto the dock, and just when Patrick was about to move toward her so that he could introduce himself, she shifted the cape draped over her shoulders. She moved it back in place, but not before he caught sight of the infant she had tied to her.
A baby! He found his feet frozen to the dock once more, but for an entirely different reason. He’d placed that ad hoping for a wife, but if he accepted this woman, he’d be getting a ready-made family in the bargain. He didn’t know a thing about her—perhaps this was the time to turn back. But he’d sent her the money for passage to come. She’d need somewhere to stay. He couldn’t leave her homeless, especially with a child. The nights were getting colder now that summer was over.
She was pretty enough to make a way for herself, if she so chose.
He needed to keep his word.
But his promise of marriage had been to her. He hadn’t made any vows for a child that he had not fathered.
Thoughts swam in his head, one after another, coming so fast that it was hard to make sense of anything.
Patrick took a deep breath, and he stepped forward.
Isabella Francs didn’t know quite what to make of the man in front of her. And that, more than the fact that he was heads taller than her 5′4 frame and the fact that she only understood every other word he said, made her uncomfortable. Since she was a child she’d had an uncanny ability that allowed her to get a good sense of a person after only a few moments in their presence. She’d found that those first impressions were rarely, if ever, wrong.
But for some reason that she couldn’t fathom she was having a hard time getting a sense of Patrick Donovan, and since he would soon become her husband, that did not bode well for their future. The fact that he was much more handsome than she’d dared hope did. Or, at least it boded well for their wedding night.
The thought made Isabella blush. She couldn’t help herself. Not for the first time—and surely not the last—she silently cursed her fair complexion. Alabaster skin might be pretty to look at, but there wasn’t a single emotion that you could hide.
“I’m not certain how things were done where you’re from,” Patrick was saying. “But here, in America, we make vows until death do us part.”
She furrowed her brow, trying to make sense of his words. Her mother was self-taught, but the missionaries they’d met from America had told her that her English was nearly perfect. She’d taught Isabella, but clearly, some things were getting lost in translation.
“I expect the same. My first marriage will be my last. I know that you left a lot to come here, and I hope it’s a small consolation that I will do my very best to make you happy.” He looked at her, clearly waiting to see if she would respond.
But truthfully, she didn’t know what to say. They were nice words, certainly, but she had seen firsthand that men would say anything when they longed to bed a woman. And though matrimony was the issue at hand here, one seldom came without the other. When he tired of her, his sweet words would pass by as quickly as a breeze in summertime.
“However, I also believe that the husband is the head of family.” He paused again, but when she said nothing, he continued. “I will have rules for our household, and I expect you to obey them. If you do not, then there will be consequences.”
Ah, now they were getting to it. At least this Patrick Donovan was upfront. She liked that—at least, she thought she did. Only time would tell for certain.
“If you disobey the rules I set, then I will have to punish you.”
Isabella, quite without meaning to, raised her brows.
Seeming encouraged by her reaction—the only one he’d gotten thus far, save the blush—Patrick continued. “I will have to spank you.”
“What does this mean? Spank?” she inquired, testing the word out, marveling at the funny taste it left on her tongue.
“Oh, ah… well, it means I will, ah, take you over my lap and smack your bottom with my hand.”
Now he was the one blushing, so at least Isabella was not alone. “You mean whip,” she told him. “That is how we say it.”
Patrick smiled at her, and warmth spread throughout her body. “That works just as well, I suppose. Should I take this to mean that you’re agreeable?”
Isabella opened her mouth to reply, but then she shut it again. What good did it do to tell him that no, she didn’t care to be chastised like a naughty child? What she wanted didn’t matter anymore. She’d come to a new country, away from her family or anyone else who might be inclined to help her. She knew no one here—save this man, who’d she’d known all of five minutes. The only way she had any chance of surviving in this unfamiliar land was with him. Or, through marriage to another man, and who was to say that all men here did not feel the same way as this one did? Perhaps whipping wives was what they did to pass the time around here.
“I will never punish you unless you deserve it.” Patrick spoke up.
Isabella did a double-take. Surely he couldn’t read her mind! Although, perhaps the hesitation on her face spoke loudly enough on its own.
“If you’re willing, then I will work hard to provide for you… and your child.”
A gasp emitted from her lips as she took a step back. She’d taken such care to keep the babe hidden! Her heart had been pounding triple time, and only due in part to the fact that she would soon be meeting a man she’d moved across the country to wed without so much as laying eyes on him first. She’d known that she’d have to reveal him sooner or later—but she’d been hoping to exchange vows before later came.
She knew what kind of woman that made her. There were plenty of unkind words to describe it in Russian, and some extra ones in English, she was sure. But she was only doing it to protect Peta. He was the one who mattered here, and if being furtive for his sake made her a bad person, so be it.
“You do not have to answer now. Let me get you something to eat. You are sure to be starving after that journey.”
At the mention of the boat, her stomach lurched. If there was one thing she knew, it was that she had no desire whatsoever to ever step off solid land again. Yet another reason to make things work with this Patrick. He seemed like a decent man—she hoped that was her instincts talking, and not just her libido.
“I am not hungry. But we could go somewhere, if you wish.”
He eyed her curiously.
“The only place I intended to go before heading home was over to see the preacher.” He hiked his thumb back and indicated a man behind them.
Isabella took in his all-black garb and guessed that he must be the one performing the marriage ceremonies.
“I’m still game, if you are.”
Isabella frowned and shook her head. “This is not a game to me, sir.”
Patrick threw back his head and laughed. At first, her frown deepened. She didn’t like being the butt of anyone’s joke. But as time went on, she found herself powerless to resist the infectiousness of his laughter and found herself smiling. At last, she felt her uncertainty give way. A man who could laugh even in these uncertain circumstances would not be a bad partner to have by her side.
Their ceremony was brief. They repeated their vows after the minister, during which she promised to love, honor, and obey a man she’d just met. Though she felt a slight tremor of hesitation, her voice held steady. Much to her surprise, when asked Patrick produced a beautiful gold band with a single diamond in the middle.
“It was my grandmother’s,” he explained. “If you don’t like it, I can save up and get you a better one down the road.”
Her eyes flew to his face, searching to see if he was mocking her. His expression was so earnest it made her ache inside. The fact that he would put a family heirloom on the finger of a woman he’d just met, and one who he undoubtedly believed to be a whore, said a lot. Not only that, but he’d offered to replace it at her whim, which said even more. Clearly, Patrick Donovan was not a man who took his vows lightly. She was pleased to know that.
In fact, she was liking him more and more by the hour. Nearly as if he’d planned it, as soon as the minister said, “You may kiss the bride,” Peta had awoken with a loud fit of squalling. Relieved, she’d begun to tend to him, and rather than wait, the minister had gone ahead and pronounced them husband and wife.
If Patrick had been annoyed to have his moment interrupted by an unexpected infant, he hadn’t let on. Instead, he’d said, “Poor thing’s probably hungry. Why don’t we find somewhere to sit down and have a quiet meal before we head for home?”
Isabella flushed. “I do not wish to make you go to such an expense.” When Patrick frowned, she wondered if she’d said it wrong. “I do not want you to spend money—”
“To feed you?” His mouth quirked but he didn’t look happy.
And she hadn’t the faintest idea why. This American man was so perplexing. Were they all? She couldn’t help but wonder. But she didn’t need to worry about any man but this one, fortunately. And she had a lifetime to figure him out. She hoped the reminder would help her relax, but the quizzical look in his eyes made her feel uncertain.
“I do not mind spending the money, Isabella. You are my wife. What is mine is yours.”
She registered his words, along with the straight face he presented her, with surprise. Could he truly mean it? Or did he feel compelled to say such things as he brought his new bride home, hoping to soften her for the wedding night? The thought made her blush.
Patrick surprised her further by lifting a hand to tenderly caress her cheek. “Why do you blush so easily, my dear?”
“I… I d-don’t know,” she stammered, blushing hotter. This time, she wasn’t sure if it was from embarrassment or merely heat rising from the electricity in his touch. “I always have.” She ducked her head and much to her relief—or was it remorse she felt?—he moved his hand. With her eyes on the ground, she saw his feet step away, then heard him talking quietly. When he returned, she lifted her eyes to see a piece of fruit in one hand and a hunk of cheese in the other.
“Here.” He offered them to her. “Eat.” When she didn’t reach out to take them, he leaned in close, speaking for only her to hear. “And remember. I consider your health one of my highest priorities.”
The warmth of his words in her ear sent tingles skirting throughout her entire body. When she reached for the food, his mouth curved, making her blush all over again.
With his words still ringing in her ears, Isabella set aside her pride and mustered the courage to ask her new husband to buy her some milk. He agreed, seeming pleased that she’d asked. She hadn’t wanted to—she had learned the hard way to never expect anything of anyone. It was hard for her to set that aside long enough to ask for help—but when Peta began to wail, she was glad that she had.
Patrick turned to look at her, and she did her best to ignore his stare. His eyes had a magnetizing effect, and every time she felt them on her, she longed to look up. Instead, she focused on the babe in her arms. Little Peta was strong for his age, with a head full of long, dark hair and chubby arms and legs that he kicked as he screamed. He’d only been at it for a moment, and already his face was red. His lungs were very strong. It was the first thing she’d noticed about him the day he was born.
“Calm down, little one,” she told him in their native tongue. “I will not let you starve, I promise.” Pulling a rag out of her coat, she soaked it in the milk and then, when his mouth was wide open, she squeezed it into his mouth. She repeated the action over and over again until finally, full, he slept. She loved to watch him sleep. He looked so peaceful and handsome that it made her heart ache.
“We will arrive home soon.”
Patrick’s words broke her out of her reverie and she looked up, wondering how long he’d been watching her. In her defense, she’d been traveling for a very long time, and this was the first time in weeks that she’d been able to rest without hearing the screaming of other babies, or other passengers retching from seasickness. She hadn’t even realized that she’d nodded off.
“I’m sorry, I—”
“You must be tired,” he interrupted, his voice gentle and understanding. “It’s all right, close your eyes. I’ll wake you when we get there.”
She wanted to protest, to prove that she would be a good wife, not the kind that fell asleep on men they’d barely known for a few hours. But she couldn’t even manage that nicety. Smiling gratefully, she allowed her eyes to close and was asleep in moments.
The room was dark, black as pitch. Isabella pulled the pillow over her head, making it darker still, assuring that her eyes wouldn’t witness anything they didn’t want to see. But she couldn’t stop her ears from hearing.
“You are a disgrace, Natalia!”
“Please, Papa, don’t say that. You cannot mean it!” her sister answered in Russian.
“I do! I mean every word!”
Even with the pillow pulled over her head, Isabella could see him in her mind’s eye. He would be standing, towering over her sister, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. She’d seen him this angry before—she knew what he looked like when he was growling like a bear, as he was doing now.
“But it was not my fault. Surely—”
“Do not try to distract me with your lies, girl! I know better! The whole village knows better!”
Isabella winced when she heard the cracking sound of flesh hitting flesh. She was certain that if she looked closely in the morning, her father’s handprint would still be visible on her sister’s cheek. Natalia screamed, then began to sob. It went on for what felt like—and might very well have been—hours. Finally, mercifully, Natalia had cried herself to sleep, though she still moaned with every breath.
If only she could sleep. But Isabella kept tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable. She felt the walls closing in around her, making her feel unbearably trapped.
I have to get out of here, she told herself again and again. I have to get out of here. I cannot stay. No one can live like this.
She startled awake and found herself looking into Patrick’s kind, concerned face. “I’m sorry. What is it?” At the sight of his furrowed brow, she realized that she’d slipped back into her native Russian. She repeated the question in English.
“You were talking in your sleep. You seemed to be having a nightmare. Are you okay?”
She flushed at the knowledge that he might have heard something she wanted kept secret. “I am fine. I hope I didn’t say anything that made you uncomfortable.”
“No, of course not.” He gave her a long, searching look. “Well, we’re here now. Let me help you down and I’ll show you your new home.”
When she felt his hands slip around her waist, tingles shot throughout her body. Oh, what was this man doing to her?
She looked out at a white house perched on top of a hill. It was smaller than she’d imagined, but it didn’t matter. She was free now. She and Peta both were safe, and that was all that mattered.