SECOND CHANCE BRIDES
Texas Boardinghouse Brides, Book Two
About the Book
Any moment, the wedding would commence and signal an end to her dreams. Shannon O’Neil cast a longing glance back toward the safety of the boardinghouse. Whoever heard of a mail-order bride attending the wedding of the man she was to marry --- especially when he was marrying someone else? “We should not be here.” Her voice trembled almost as much as her legs.
Her gaze flitted over the huge crowd gathered in the open field next door to the church. Only because her friend Rachel had requested her presence had she agreed to come. “People are staring at us.”
Leah Bennett sidled up beside her, mouth twisted to one side. “They’ve gawked at us ever since we came to town. Besides, we’ve got just as much right to be at this wedding as anyone else. Even more if you ask me. All things considered.”
Shannon shored up her apprehension and forced her steps forward. She squeezed through the group of men clustered around an array of makeshift benches and hurried toward one of the few remaining spots on the back bench.
Several men gaped at them and whispered among themselves.
That was nothing new, since she and Leah were mail-order brides without a groom. She’d been in Lookout more than a month but still hadn’t gotten used to being the focus of attention. Shannon dropped her gaze to the ground, but that did nothing to silence the loud murmurs. Leah sat next on her left, her nose pointed in the air, not in the snooty way it sometimes was, but in a way that dared anybody to challenge her right to attend the wedding.
“I can’t believe they had the nerve to show up,” a man to their right slurred, his tone dripping sour like unsweetened lemonade.
“They’ll ruin everything,” another said.
“Of all the nerve. This is Luke and Rachel’s special day, not theirs.”
Crushing the handkerchief in her hand, Shannon willed her trembling to cease. But her efforts were futile. She leaned toward Leah. “Perhaps ’twould be better if we left.”
“We’re staying put. Rachel wants us here, and that’s what matters. If those folks don’t like it, they can leave.” The sternness in Leah’s voice made Shannon feel like a scolded child. If only she had Leah’s boldness, perhaps her future wouldn’t look so bleak.
Shannon peered up at the ash gray clouds --- clouds that mirrored her future. Clouds that swirled in waves, taunting and threatening like a schoolyard bully.
Never had she seen clouds such as these, not in all of Ireland nor during the seven months she’d lived in America.
The oppressive heat sent streams of sweat trickling down her temples, back, and chest. A canvas canopy erected to protect the bride and groom in the event of rain lifted on the breeze and deflated as if it were a living, breathing being.
Let it rain. At least if showers fell, no one would notice her tears.
Men stood in a rough half-circle around the benches their womenfolk and children filled --- benches they had constructed over the past few days. The pounding of their hammers had resembled a death knell to Shannon, with each whack bringing her closer to the end of another dream.
She looked around at the growing crowd. Nearly the whole town had turned out to see Lookout’s marshal, Luke Davis, marry Rachel Hamilton, the owner of the boardinghouse --- the very same boardinghouse where Shannon resided. The very same marshal she had expected to marry. Shannon’s chin wobbled.
“Don’t you dare cry, you hear me?”
Shannon blinked her moist eyes, stiffened her chin, and glanced at Leah. She, too, had come to town, expecting to marry the marshal, although she seemed less distraught than Shannon felt over losing him. She clenched her hands. What was she going to do now? Would she never have a home of her own?
Leah leaned closer, her lips puckered as if she’d eaten a persimmon. “If I can make it through this wedding without weeping, so can you. We’re Texans now, and you’re gonna have to find a backbone if you plan to survive here.”
Leah was right. Crimping the handkerchief tighter, Shannon turned to face the front where the parson had taken his place. A fiddler off to the right zipped his bow across the strings, playing a lively tune she’d never heard before. The trees shimmied and swayed, dancing in the brisk breeze, cooling Shannon’s damp neck.
Leah might be in the same boat as she, but the pretty blond had a family to return to --- she just chose not to do so. Shannon would give anything to have her parents back, but no sooner had they stepped onto the shores of America than they’d come down with influenza and died. With her three siblings already dead and buried back in Ireland, she was completely alone in a foreign country.
Why hadn’t God healed her parents when she’d begged Him to? Her throat stung as if she’d run a race in winter’s chill. But the only thing cold in Texas was her future.
Sympathetic glances swept her way, along with the others. How was it possible to be so alone in such a large crowd?
Leah leaned toward her. “Here he comes.”
The murmurs silenced as Luke Davis strode past the front row of townsfolk and took his place next to the parson. His two conniving, hooligan cousins, Garrett and Mark Corbett, followed, along with the old yellow dog that rarely let Luke out of his sight. The dog sniffed Luke’s shoes, sending chuckles rippling through the crowd. Jacqueline, Rachel’s ten-year-old daughter from her first marriage, sat on the front row. She smacked her lips, and Max lumbered over to her and laid down at her feet. Jack, as the mischievous child preferred to be called, would benefit from having a kind man like the marshal for a father.
A sigh of longing slipped from Shannon’s mouth as she pulled her gaze back to Luke. He looked so handsome in his new suit and hat. He was a comely man, in a rugged way. But her marriage to him had been doomed before she ever set foot in Lookout. Just imagine --- three women coming to town to marry him when his heart already belonged to a woman who’d stolen it more than a decade before. Now, two of the marshal’s mail-order brides were stuck in Lookout while the third was locked up in a jail in Dallas for bank robbery. Shannon shook her head and clutched her handkerchief to her chest. What a kettle of nettles.
And now that the marshal was marrying, she was stranded in one of the smallest towns she’d ever been in outside of Ireland. But this wasn’t the first time, and if she had managed before, she could do it again. She dabbed at her eyes and stiffened her back. The music grew louder, and heads turned toward the rear of the crowd. Shannon stood along with the others, but her gaze didn’t search out the bride. How could one feel happiness and sorrow at the same time?
Rachel passed Shannon’s row and walked toward her groom, looking beautiful in the cream-colored dress her aunt had brought from Kansas City. The bride held her Bible in front of her, and on top lay a bouquet of daisies tied together with flowing rose and lavender ribbons that fluttered on the gusty breeze. Shannon sighed at the joyful smile on Rachel’s face.
If Shannon ever doubted the marshal’s love for his bride, she did so no more. His face all but glowed, as if he’d battled a hard-fought race, come out the victor, and won a coveted prize. Would a man ever look at her with such love in his eyes?
“I now pronounce you man and wife.” A cheer rang throughout the crowd, and Shannon jumped. She blinked, realizing she’d been lost in thought and had missed the whole wedding.
“Well, that’s the end of that.” Leah stood and looked around. “There are plenty more unmarried men we can set our bonnets for.”
Leah might be snippy and bossy at times, but Shannon admired her determination. They’d once been competitors, but being the losers of the bride contest had put them in the same wagon, and they were becoming friends.
Shannon studied the townsfolk swarming the newly married couple, offering their congratulations. Men outnumbered women ten to one. “Aye, there’s truth in what you say. There surely are many men in Texas.”
“I suppose we should make our way over to the refreshment table and help serve. I know Rachel was hesitant to ask for our help, given the situation and all, but it seems the least we can do.”
Shannon nodded and followed Leah over to the west side of the church, where a makeshift table had been erected with sawhorses and wooden planks. A lacy white tablecloth hid the ugliness and boasted the biggest cake Shannon had ever seen. “Miss Dykstra surely outdid herself makin’ that lovely cake.”
Leah nodded. “Don’t know as I’ve seen one so big before. Why, it must measure three feet across.”
“Aye, and ’tis so colorful.” Lavender and yellow flowers dotted a green ivy vine that encircled the cake. Large letters saying, Congratulations to Luke and Rachel, along with the date, filled the center of the cake, which she hoped would serve the whole crowd. A haphazard collection of plates in various colors and designs were stacked on one end, as well as a collection of mismatched forks. It looked as if every family in town had donated their plates and forks to be used for the wedding.
A trio of ladies Shannon recognized from the church stood behind the table, awaiting the guests. All three cast apologetic glances at her and Leah. Shannon doubted a soul in attendance didn’t know her odd circumstances. She glanced down at the ground and felt a warm heat on her cheeks. She despised being the center of attention and hoped that with the marshal now married, chatter about the boardinghouse brides --- as she and Leah had been dubbed --- would die down.
“You ladies need any help?” Leah offered.
Sylvia Taylor, the pastor’s wife, smiled. “We just might at that. There’s quite a crowd here today, and we need to hurry before the storm lets loose.”
“Yes, that’s true. I suppose everyone wanted to see for them-selves that the marshal was truly marrying Rachel Hamilton and not one of you two,” Margie Mann said.
Mrs. Taylor’s brow dipped, while Agatha Linus’s brow dashed upward.
“Now, Margie, I don’t think that’s a proper topic of conversation today. These young ladies are well aware of the importance of this event.” Sylvia, always the peacemaker, Shannon had learned, tried to calm the turbulent waters Mrs. Mann had stirred up.
“Well” --- Leah looked around the crowd --- “I don’t think we’ll have much trouble finding another man to marry.”
“It’s true that there are many unmarried men in these parts,” Mrs. Taylor said, “but don’t jump into anything. Marriage is a lifetime commitment, and you want to be sure you marry the man God has set aside for you. You’re both still young and have plenty of time to find a good man to marry.”
Shannon pursed her lips. Plenty of time, aye, but an empty purse and no way to survive had driven many a woman into the arms of a less-than-acceptable man. That was why she had agreed to marry the marshal before meeting him. A man who enforced the law must be honorable and upright. Only she found out later that it wasn’t Luke Davis who’d penned the letters asking her to come to Lookout to marry him but rather one of the Corbett brothers pretending to be Luke. Her gaze sought them out and found them plowing their way through the crowd, making a path so the bride and groom could get to the cake table.
The Corbett men were quite handsome, similar but different. They both had those sky blue eyes that made a woman’s heart stumble just looking into them. Blond hair topped each brother’s head, but Mark’s was curly while Garrett’s was straight. Mark’s face was more finely etched than Garrett’s squarer jaw. But they were pranksters, full of blarney, the both of them. Jokers who’d turned her life upside down. She clutched her hands together at the memory of that humiliating bride contest. Four women competing for one man’s hand. Who’d ever heard of such shenanigans?
Mrs. Mann cleared her throat, pulling Shannon’s gaze back. “I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s probably best that you not help serve.” She glanced at the bride and groom, halfway to the table, with Rachel’s daughter holding on to the groom’s right arm and grinning wide. “It might be distressing to the Davis family, what with all that’s happened.”
Leah scowled but nodded and turned away. Shannon realized what the woman meant. What bride wanted the women who’d competed for her husband’s affection to help with her wedding? She slunk away and found a vacant spot under a tall oak tree, whose branches swung back and forth in the stiff breeze. Holding her skirts down, she searched for Leah and found her talking to a stranger.
A man cleared his throat beside Shannon, pulling her gaze away from Leah. A heavy beard covered the short man’s smallish face, and dark beady eyes glimmered at her. “I was wonderin’.” He scratched his chin and looked away for a moment. Shannon couldn’t remember seeing him before. He captured her gaze again. “I ain’t got a lot, but I do have a small farm west of town and a soddy. Since you ain’t marryin’ up with the marshal, I was hopin’ we could get hitched.”
Shannon sucked in a gasp. Was the man full of blarney? Why, he had to be twice her age. His worn overalls had ragged patches covering every inch of his pants’ legs. He scratched under his arm and rubbed his beard again. She hated hurting people’s feelings, but she could not marry this man, no matter how much she longed for a home. “Um. . .thank you for your generous offer, sir, but I don’t plan to stay in Lookout. I’ll be leaving by the end of the week.”
His mouth twisted to one side. “I didn’t figger you’d wanna marry up with me, but I had to ask. Guess I’ll try that blond, though she’s a might uppity for my taste.”
With a mixture of relief for herself and pity for Leah, Shannon watched him approach her friend. Leah’s eyes went wide, and then she shook her head. The poor farmer shuffled away and disappeared into the crowd.
As the last of the people wandered toward the refreshment table, a mixture of glances were tossed her way. She felt odd being at the marshal’s wedding, and yet she’d wanted to support Rachel, who’d been so kind to allow the brides to stay at her boardinghouse. How difficult that must have been for Rachel when she was still in love with Luke.
Pushing her way through the people, Shannon drifted to the edge of the churchyard. She’d done what she felt was needed, and all she wanted to do now was to get away from the gawking townsfolk. She walked toward the street, feeling relieved to have made her getaway.
Excerpted from SECOND CHANCE BRIDES: Texas Boardinghouse Brides, Book 2 © Copyright 2017 by Vickie McDonough. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Books. All rights reserved.
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