A Mail-Order Hope

By: Janelle Daniels

“No idea.” He hefted another bag into the wagon. “Don’t care.”

“Truly? It says it’ll be a lot. I know they’re hoping the women pair up with some of the men.”

“Probably. It’s just a marriage scheme.”

Her lips twitched, but she didn’t call him out on his careless comment.

“Well,” she began as she stepped forward and tucked the paper back into the front pocket of his shirt, “We wouldn’t want you to fall into any such scheme, would we?”

She was shorter than him, and he could smell the honeysuckle scent of her glossy, light brown hair just inches from his eyes. Lord! He wanted to hold her there so he could smell her all day. Not even his meadow after the rain could compete with it. He gulped, but couldn’t bring himself to step away from her. “No. I won’t be involved in it.”

“Pity.” Her eyes met his and held a moment before she stepped away.

He felt the loss of her presence and cursed himself. He shouldn’t even want her there.

“Guess I’ll just have to find someone else to partner with. I’m sure there’s plenty of men who wouldn’t mind.”

Oh, he could just imagine it. Any man would want to take a big bite out of her. She was warm, lovely, and lively. “You can’t just go off with someone you don’t know.”

“Why not? It’s not like we’d ever be completely alone. Plus, I was willing to go with you, and I don’t know you either.”

He gritted his teeth. She spoke the truth. She didn’t know him, but he knew her. At least he was coming to know her. After all the visits to his cabin, he knew things he shouldn’t. The worst of it was, he wanted to know even more. He never could predict what she’d do, what she would say. And after spending so much time in the wilderness, coming to know the habits of life out there, her unpredictable nature was a breath of fresh air.

“Exactly my point,” he finally said. “You don’t know any of the men in town.”

“This is what the whole scavenger hunt is for. We’re supposed to pair up to get to know one another. How am I, or any of the other women, supposed to form attachments when there aren’t opportunities to get to know each other? How will we fall in love?”

“Love?” He finally gave her his full attention. “Is that what you’re after? I didn’t think that figured in to the equation, since you came to marry Ivan.”

Silence followed his words, and the minute he’d said them, he wished he could call them back. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean it to sound that way.”

Red tinged her cheeks with her upset. “You mean, you didn’t intend to say that I only cared about his money?”

“No. Of course not.”

Instead of running away as he expected, she stepped forward, challenging him. “I may have agreed to marry Ivan, but it was never for his money. I didn’t even know how much he had—”

“You don’t need to explain—”

“I know I don’t.” She poked him in the chest. “My parents died right before I wrote to Ivan. I didn’t have anywhere to go, nowhere to live. If I hadn’t accepted Ivan, I would be living on the street, hungry and scared—or worse. So while I accepted Ivan out of desperation, I don’t ever intend to do so again, now that it’s not forced upon me.”

Could he feel any lower? “I understand. I’m sorry.”

She stepped back with a deep breath. “You don’t need to be sorry. Ivan was wealthy. There’s no denying that, but there’s so much more to the story. To any story.” She eyed him. “I thought you, of all people, would know that.”

Her words felt like an invisible slap. “What do you mean by that?”

“Only that you have an unknown past. I know a few of the details of what happened to your fiancée, but that’s only the tip.”

“I don’t want to talk about her.” He growled like an animal. In truth, he felt like one on the inside whenever Lily was brought up.

Belle wasn’t deterred. “Or what about your relationship with Ronan? Everyone knows you don’t like each other, but no one knows why. It’s a mystery. You’re a mystery.”

“There’s nothing interesting about me.” He quickly loaded the last few things in his wagon. “There’s no hidden story here worth your time.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.”

He rounded the wagon, and she slowly trailed behind him. Before he hefted himself into the driver seat, he turned to her. “What can I do to convince you to rid yourself of your interest in me?”

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