CHAPTER ONE DECEIVED
Wichita Falls, 1873
Perhaps she could learn to love him.
A voice muscling its way past the many troubling ones in her head, fought for her attention; a thought that left her feeling hopeless, for she understood that her future was as uncertain as her marriage to the complete stranger who sat beside her, barely breathing.
Her attention shifted to the side; in yet another failed attempt at seeing the face of the man she was now legally married to.
Tan skin, a working muscle in his jaw, curly brown hair...
Mentally, she noted his features, the tension in his muscles as he gripped the reins. His gaze remains fixed on the dirt—road before them, his sealed lips a sign that he didn't wish to converse with her.
Her gaze shifted to the worn—out shirt that hung loosely on his thin form, holes littering every inch. It was apparent that the brown color of the fabric resulted from weeks—possibly months—of neglected laundry. His rolled—up sleeves, exposed hairy hands, and his brown pants hung loosely around his thin waist.
Shrinking back, her head settled on the cold metal of the wagon as her tired eyelids pulled shut. And in the silence, but for the sound of the wheels of the rusty tires in contact with the dirt—road, a war raged within her as she considered the entirety of her life in the last few weeks—the death of her mother and the medical debt it had resulted in. Penniless, she had been desperate enough to leave her home in New York and journey to Wichita Falls to answer an ad for a mail—order bride.
Her emotions tossed back and forth, fear burying its fangs in her heart as tears filled her eyes at the thought of her present reality. She was married to a stranger, knowing nothing but his name—Raymond McAllister—and his need for a bride.
A loud screeching sound filled the air, as the fast movement of the wagon slowed to a crawling pace. She sat up straighter, her eyelids parting as it came to a halt. She turned to Raymond, just in time to watch him jump down the side of the wagon, her gaze following him — until it was settling around the wagon, until it was settling on the building.
She hitched a breath. Her eyelids grew in size as she gawked at the atrocious building before her. A two—storeyed building stood in the line of her vision, threatening to break under the impact of the soft breeze. Its washed white paint made its exterior appear gray and haunted, and the wooden windows, devoid of glass panes, made it appear deserted. She stared at the broken—down front porch, certain it housed termites.
Something took hold of her hand, gaining her attention. One look at him and she saw clearly his intent was to help her down from the wagon. She bobbed her head numbly, taking hold of his shoulders as his hands gripped her waist and carried her down, before settling her on her wobbly feet. He released her, her gaze drifting back to the building.
"Do you need help?"
Turning her weary eyes from the building, she found him hoisting her large black trunk up the three stairs leading to the porch.
For a few seconds, she stood there, numb.
"If the sky is anything to go by," his voice broke through the barrier of confusion that clouded her mind, "you need to come inside!"
Against the desire to crumble into a pile of emotions, she forced her feet forward. She took the first stair up to the front porch, the wood beneath creaking under the weight of her body. Horrified, her eyes flew to the porch in search of him, but was met by an equally broken down wooden door. Wincing, the next two stairs she took, led her to the porch and into the dimly lit building.
She blinked, her vision fighting to adjust to the light as her gaze traveled the room before her.
"Children, say hello to Miss Lily Austin, she'll be your new mother." She turned sharply to the side, shocked by Raymond's announcement, and even more shocked to find six sets of eyes staring back at her.
She gasped, clutching her chest as she stared into the malnourished faces of six children.
Children! She thought, suddenly nauseous. What was she to do with six children?
"We do not need a mother!"
Mother! The word made her lungs constrict as her eyes darted to the child that spoke. She was most likely the eldest, her large eyes staring back at her with open disdain. Her clothes hung on her skinny body and her loose brown locks of hair direly needed washing.
"Scarlet!" Raymond's stern voice beside her nearly made it impossible to keep her frightened feet on the ground.
"I'm sorry, Papa." The child answered, glancing down.
"Miss Austin, these are my children," he said, and her eyes immediately darted to him, her mouth falling open. She doubted if he noticed her shock, because he carried on like he didn't. "Scarlet's my eldest. There's James, my eldest son, there's Josie, Lexie, Leonard and Mirabel." He finished, turning to her.
She tried to breathe, but it seemed impossible; all she could do was gawk at this complete stranger. He had practically lied to her, saying absolutely nothing of his six children! Six!
"I have work to do," he announced, before turning and making his way past her. If it were possible for eyes to bore holes in human flesh, hers would have done exactly that to the back of his head.
"Hello!" someone chirped, pulling her attention from the lying bastard as he walked out of the door.
She spun around, still dazed by the news. The youngest child stood waving and smiling, her big brown eyes beholding the stranger before her in awe.
Forcing a smile to her lips, she said, "Hello, there."
"You're pretty, like my dolly," she announced, holding up a dirty rag doll.
"Oh." She touched her cheek, not knowing whether to accept the little girl's words as a compliment or an insult, considering the dolly she referred to. "What's your name?" Her rage had too blinded her, making it impossible to pay attention when Raymond was introducing the children.
"Mirabel." A beautiful smile settled on her thin lips. "And you're Miss Austin!"
She found the child's enthusiasm quite adorable, a soft giggle drifting from her lips. "You can call me Lily. Miss Austin makes me sound really old."
Mirabel nodded. "And you can call me Millie."
"Millie!" Scarlet hissed, turning to Mirabel, as if to scold her. Mirabel turned to Scarlet, stuck out her tongue, before turning back to Lily with a smile on her face.
"Can you cook?" She traced the unfamiliar voice to one of the boys. Lily raised a brow in question. "I'm Leonard, or Lenny. Mama used to call me Lenny."
Sweat pricked her skin as she stared at all the six children before her. They were young—really young. Scarlet seemed to be between the ages of eleven and twelve, or perhaps even older. Her figure was thin, but she seemed wiser than an eleven—year—old, and her eyes seemed to behold Lily with accusation. The boy who stood beside Scarlet seemed to be the next in age. Perhaps ten—years—old, Lily wasn't certain, for his brown eyes held wisdom and his jaw set, like his father's. His curly brown hair was unevenly cut, most likely trimmed by Scarlet.
Standing next to the boy was a girl. She stood quietly beside her brother, her brown eyes observing Lily with curiosity. She was thin, but her skin seemed more alive than the others. She was eight, or perhaps nine. A younger girl stood beside her, her gaze fixed on the dirty floorboards as Lily watched her. As if sensing Lily's eyes on her, she raised her gaze, fierce green eyes settling on Lily.
She turned from her and Lenny, the one who wanted to know if she could cook. The little boy struck her as a six—year—old, and next to him was Millie, who was most likely five or four.
Four girls and two boys. Just what Lily needed—a husband and children! She groaned loudly.
She tore her gaze off of the children and began examining the room. It wasn't anything fancy, but it was manageable with sparse furnishing that comprised an old, worn—out gray sofa, a rocking chair and a dirty rug sprawled across the center of the dirty floorboards. Behind the children was a space that opened up to a kitchen with a wooden table and a stove visible from where she stood. There was a staircase to her right, most likely leading to the rooms.
"Can you?" Lenny called, bouncing on his heels.
Lily drew her attention back to Lenny and nodded, deciding she wouldn't take her frustration out on the children. However, she was irritated, and she needed to let it out.
"Give me a second, children." She forced a smile, before turning around and stumbling out of the door.
The second the door slammed close behind her, she hurried down the squeaky stairs and began searching for her unruly husband. It was a vast piece of land, she noted, even as she stomped through the property in search of him. The house needed work, but it could be done right after she had had a conversation with the man she was certain she would kill.
She found him hard at work in the barn, feeding the animals.
"The nerves on you!" she began, heat burning her face and most likely turning it red.
He turned to her, and for the first time, she saw his face. Two deep lines creased his forehead as he frowned, fierce green eyes dimming at the sight of her. His parched lips parted slightly, his muscles flexing as he leaned down and placed the bucket from his hands on the stack of hay and straightened. He was most likely in his mid—thirties, several years older than her twenty—three years.
She swore, causing him to shrink back. "Children?!"
He folded his arms across his chest.
"You have children?"
"I didn't think that would be a problem," he answered casually, before turning his attention to the work before him.
Lily clenched her fists, fighting the urge to yell in frustration. "Let me guess," she said sarcastically. "You forgot to include that in your ad."
"An honest mistake."
She glared at him; her face catching fire. The vile man deceived her! He practically lured her into this marriage to be a mother to his six children, feed, clean and mend their clothes. Then, she'd be forced to serve him as his wife, keeping his bed warm through the winter!
She bit down on her lower lip, afraid she'd curse again. With one last glare his way, she decided she was too tired to come up with a way out of her predicament today. She'd sleep on it and wake up with a solution by the next morning. And as it was, a divorce seemed to be the only solution.
Raymond knew he should have apologized. He went through his entire day thinking he should have apologized. He had practically deceived a young woman into marriage, forcing her to travel several miles, only to be hit with the frankly disconcerting news of mothering six children. But what choice did he have? He couldn't afford a housekeeper. He had put out an ad a year ago with the information of his six children, and no woman had been willing to take on the role of being their mother. The children were already malnourished and near death, and if he hadn't omitted the minor detail of his children's existence in the new ad for a mail—order bride, they would all be dead by winter.
He needed a woman! No, his children needed a mother. He had no plans for Miss Austin that extended beyond caring for his children. She would do just that; care for his children and his home. She would owe him no extra obligation of sharing his bed.
He groaned, running a hand through his hair. He had killed a woman once; he didn't plan on repeating the same thing with Miss Austin. Yet, her beauty would be difficult to ignore. It was the first thing he noticed, the second he saw her at the station; she was beautiful. Her clothes spoke of a woman of wealth and grace. Her lush, golden locks and shiny skin spoke of health and perfection. Her bright blue eyes spoke of hope, and her diction spoke of the best of education. She wasn't the woman he thought would respond to an ad for a bride. She was the type whose dance cards would be full at every ball.
He had to admit, ignoring her would be difficult. But if her angry outburst earlier was anything to go by, she most likely wouldn't want anything to do with him.
He washed the mud off that stained his hands and pulled his sleeves down before making his way into the building that night.
The house stood silent, the children most likely asleep, and Miss Austin... Well, hopefully, she was asleep. He didn't know where she slept, considering the fact that he forgot to plan for that. There were only two rooms in the building; one belonging to his children and the other to him.
The faint smell of food drifted to him. Stunned, he paused and breathed in the smell, his stomach churning in response to it. Turning to the side, he found a plate of freshly baked bread on the table. He didn't even know they still had flour for bread!
Hungry, he pounced on it, devouring every bite and draining his cup of water. Once he was done, he made his way upstairs to his room. He pushed the door wide open and immediately froze in his tracks.
Standing there, completely naked with her back to him, was Miss Austin. The light from the hearth illuminated her skin as water dripped down her wet hair and made a trail down her bare back. She was flawless and for a while; he stood there, watching her, enthralled by the very sight of her until she pulled the nightdress over her.
Snapping out of his trance the second her silk nightdress fell to her knees, he turned around, silently pulling the door shut as he made his way down the stairs.
What did he do to himself by choosing to bring a wife home?!