Texas Bride (Bitter Creek Series #9 & Mail Order Brides Series #1)

Texas Bride (Bitter Creek Series #9 & Mail Order Brides Series #1)

by Joan Johnston

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Miranda Wentworth never imagined becoming a mail-order bride. Now marriage to a stranger is her only hope of finding a home where she and her two younger brothers can escape the brutality of the Chicago orphanage where they live. With any luck, she can even start a family of her own, once the three of them are settled at Jacob Creed’s Texas ranch. But Miranda has one gigantic concern: Her husband-to-be knows nothing about the brothers she’s bringing along. What if he calls off the deal when he discovers the trick she’s played on him?

Jake Creed is hanging on to his Texas ranch by his fingernails. His nemesis, Alexander Blackthorne, is determined to ruin him. Jake will never give up, but he’s in desperate trouble. His wife died six months ago in childbirth, along with their stillborn son, and his two-year-old daughter needs a mother. The advertisement Jake wrote never mentioned his daughter—or the fact that he has no intention of consummating his marriage. He’s determined never to subject another wife to the burden of pregnancy. But Jake doesn’t count on finding his bride so desirable. He doesn’t count on aching with need when she joins him in bed. And he never suspected his bride would have plans of her own to seduce him.

The passionate Westerns in Joan Johnston’s Bitter Creek series can be enjoyed together or separately, in any order:

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345527448
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/27/2012
Series: Bitter Creek Series , #9
Edition description: Original
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 274,797
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Joan Johnston is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than sixty historical and contemporary romance novels. She received a master of arts degree in theater from the University of Illinois and graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law at Austin. She is currently a full-time writer living in Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
“It’s a disaster,”  Hannah said. “Plain and simple. We’re DOOMED.”
“You’re the  only thing standing   between us and Miss  Birch,”  Hannah’s  twin, Henrietta,   confirmed. “Once  you’re gone,   we’re dead ducks.”  Hetty drew a dramatic finger across her throat, dropped  her  head sideways,  stuck  out her tongue, and crossed her eyes. Miranda Wentworth  choked   back  a  sob. “Surely not doomed,” she  said with a wobbly   smile, as she met the gazes of the two seventeen-year-olds  sitting to the left of her on the hard dining  room  bench. But things  were going to be bad. The headmistress at the Chicago  Institute for
Orphaned Children,  Miss  Iris
Birch, had promised  as much.
Miranda   and her five  siblings had snuck  into the dining room after lights out to sit on plank  benches at a plank  table set on a frigid brick floor. The whale oil lantern in the center of the table created sinister shadows that turned  their features  into gargoyle  faces. Miranda   could  see the two younger  boys shivering on the bench across  from her, huddled under the thin, gray wool blankets they’d taken from their beds.
“The subject of this meeting is Miranda’s imminent departure from the Institute,”  sixteen-year-old  Josephine announced from her seat beside Nicholas,  the elder of the two boys.
Miranda  shivered, and not just from the cold. The thought  of leaving  her sisters and  brothers behind when she was forced to leave the orphanage  on her eighteenth birthday  was terrifying.
The six  Wentworth   children  had been orphaned three  years  ago in the Great  Chicago Fire of 1871, which  had burned for three days, destroying most of the business  district, including their father’s bank.
It had also burned down their three-story mansion and killed their father  and mother. Their wealth  had gone up in flames, along with their home. Destitute and homeless,  their uncle, Stephen Wentworth,   had decided the best place for them was an orphanage.
Miranda had begged Uncle Stephen to let them live with him, but his home had also burned down. There was no “home” where they could all be together. So the Wentworth   children  had  ended up at  the  Institute. Uncle Stephen had promised  they would  all be together again as soon  as he could rebuild.
But that day had never come.
Repeated pleas for rescue from the cruelty of Miss Birch had  gone  unanswered.   Letters to Uncle Stephen’s last known address had come back unopened. There was no way of knowing   what  had happened to him.
Then, a year  ago, Josie  had read an article  in the business section of the Daily Herald announcing that Mr. Stephen Wentworth  was opening a new bank.  It appeared Uncle  Stephen was  not  only alive and well, but that he was rich enough to open a bank!
Miranda  had immediately written to their uncle at the bank’s address, asking why he hadn’t come to get them as he’d  promised. That letter had resulted in a visit from Uncle Stephen.
Miranda  flushed  every time she remembered  that meeting. Uncle Stephen had told her he felt ill equipped to be a surrogate   parent.  They would have  to stay where they were. Furthermore,  she was not to con tact him again. It wasn’t his fault they were orphans. He wasn’t  the   one   who’d wanted   a  large family, his brother  had. And it wasn’t  his fault their father hadn’t kept his funds  somewhere safe, so his fortune wouldn’t have gone up in flames.
Miranda had  been  shocked   at  her uncle’s  harsh words and  devastated  by his unwillingness to help them  escape Miss  Birch. When her father was alive, Uncle Stephen’s  behavior  had always  been friendly. Obviously, appearances could  be deceiving.
Ever  since that day, Miranda  had felt all the responsibility  of being  the  eldest.  Though the  twins were only a year  younger, they were flighty and silly  in a way Miranda never had been. After the fire she’d been determined to rescue her siblings from the orphanage. But three years,  four months,  and two days later, here  they still  were.  Not only that, but tomorrow she would  be leaving Hannah,  Henrietta,  Josephine, Nicholas,  and Harrison behind while she escaped the tyrant who’d made  their lives at the Institute so miserable.
Once she was gone, her younger siblings would be at the mercy of the stern headmistress. No, stern was too kind a word.  Cruel. That was the word for Miss Iris  Birch.
“Do  you have  to leave,  Miranda?”   Nick  asked plaintively.
“I  must,”   Miranda croaked,  her throat swollen with emotion.  “I have no choice.”
Four-year-old Harry   crawled   under the   dining table and climbed into her lap. As his arms tightened around  her  neck he begged, “Please don’t leave, Miranda.”
Harry was small for his age, barely  more  than skin and  bones  and  always   sick with a  cold  that never seemed to go away. Miranda   wiped his nose with a handkerchief she always  kept with her for that purpose and pulled  him close to comfort him.
“DOOMED,” Hannah repeated, melodramatically placing the back of her hand across her forehead.
Miranda felt the urge  to console her siblings, but the situation  was likely to be every  bit as bad as they feared.
“There is another option.”
Every eye at  the  long pine dining  table turned  to Josie. She peered back  at  them  through   spectacles perched on the bridge of her freckled  nose. Josie always had her head in a library book, and she was, without a doubt,  the most  educated—and practical—of them all because of it.
“What is it, Josie?” Miranda asked. “I’m willing to consider anything.”
“Here.” Josie  unfolded  a worn advertising page of the Chicago Daily Herald on the table in front of Miranda. She pointed a grimy finger at an advertisement circled in lead pencil.
Everyone leaned close as Miranda  read:
 “WIFE WANTED: Must love children, cook, sew and do laundry.  Reply to Mr. Jacob Creed, General Delivery,  San Antonio, Texas.”
 Miranda tried not to appear as crestfallen  as she felt when  she looked  up and  met  Josie’s  owl-eyed gaze.   “I’m sorry, sweetie, but I don’t see how  this is going to help.”
“We’re DOOMED,” Hannah muttered.
“Forever  and  ever,”  Hetty agreed  with her twin. “Or at least for the next year, until we turn eighteen.” “What  about  me?” Nick said. “I’m  only ten. I’ve got eight more years of this hellhole to survive.” “Nicholas Jackson Wentworth!”  Miranda  scolded in a hushed  voice.  “Watch your language in front of the baby.”
“I’m not  a baby,” Harry protested. “I’m four. And I don’t want to stay here. Miss Birch is mean. Take me with you, Miranda,  please!”
“I can’t, Harry.” Miranda’s heart  ached with the pain of leaving them all behind. “You’re  safer here. All of you,” she said,  meeting the stark gazes of her siblings  around the table.
“Can’t we at least try to make it on our own, Miranda?” Hannah asked.
“It’s  the middle  of February,”  Miranda  replied in a voice made harsh   by the agony she was feeling inside.  “I can only count on a single  bed in a boarding house and a job in a kitchen.  I don’t have any way to take  care of you. Any of you.” She tenderly  brushed
Harry’s white-blond  hair away from his forehead.
On their own, they’d freeze   to death or starve and be dead in a week.  Or maybe two.  But if they all tried to leave, disaster  was a foregone conclusion.  Miranda was facing an impossible   choice. She couldn’t  stay, but she couldn’t bear to go.
Josie  set a  tattered   piece  of paper  on top of the newspaper  ad. “Read this.”
“What is it?” Hetty demanded.
“Something I wrote. Just read it, Miranda,” Josie urged.
Everyone leaned close as Miranda  read:
“Dear Mr. Creed,
I’m responding  to your advertisement for a wife. I’m eighteen, of sound mind—”
 Miranda looked up at  Josie. “Of  sound mind? Really, Josie—”
“Keep reading,” Josie  insisted. Miranda continued:
 "and body.  I have blue eyes and blond hair which curls by itself.”
 Miranda rolled her eyes but kept reading.
 “I can cook,  clean, iron and sew.”
 Nick snorted.  “I’ll  say! You can cook  gruel and scrub floors and iron linens and mend torn pajamas. I don’t think—” “Shhh! Let her finish,” Josie said. Miranda kept reading.
  "I love children and hope to have many of my own.”
 Miranda   stopped as tears  blurred her vision. She was  headed for a  life of drudgery from which  there was  no escape. She couldn’t imagine one day having a home and a husband  and children  of her own to love. Her current situation was impossibly hopeless.
Josie took  the paper from Miranda  and continued:
 “I will need first-class tickets and instructions how to meet up with  you in San Antonio. I am required to leave my present circumstances  by February 13, so I would  appreciate a reply at your earliest convenience.
Yours sincerely,
Miss Miranda Wentworth”
 “Oh,  sweetie,   it’s   a   wonderful idea,  a  dream, really,”  Miranda  choked out when Josie was done. “Mr. Creed  must have had  dozens  of responses. Maybe even hundreds.  He might  not be interested in me. Besides, it’s too late. By the time a letter  like this could  get all the way to San Antonio,  Texas, and an answer  come back, it will be far too late.”
Miss Birch would  have had weeks—or  months—in which to lay her cane  on the  backs  of Miranda’s brothers  and sisters without  Miranda there to inter cede.  She’d been  hoping  beyond hope for a solution that would allow her to take her siblings away from the Institute  when she left tomorrow.  This  was not it. She rose to usher her siblings to their cold beds.
“Wait! Look at this!” Josie said triumphantly.  She rose and unfolded  a crisp  piece of vellum  on the table in front of Miranda.
“What  is  this?”  Miranda asked,  picking up the paper.
“Read it,” Josie  said.
Miranda sat back down  on the bench as she read aloud:
“Dear Miss Wentworth,
I was pleased to receive your response to my advertisement. I understand your need for a quick response. Enclosed please find the first-class tickets you requested and instructions for your journey.
I will meet your stagecoach when it arrives in San Antonio.
Cordially yours, Mr. Jacob Creed”
Miranda  was aghast. “What is this?” she asked as she eyed Josie.
Hannah  and Hetty were goggle-eyed.
Josie replied with a  grin, “You’re going   to Texas, Miranda. You’re going to be married. You’re going to have a home where we can all come and live.  He must be somewhat well-to-do. He agreed to send first-class tickets.”
“Oh. Oh.” That was all Miranda  could manage to say. The thousand or so things  that could go wrong with such a plan ran through  her head, but her chest was near to bursting—with hope. “When did you get this?”
“It   came  yesterday,”  Josie said. “I   wasn’t  sure whether I should  even show  it to you, but I figured I might as well.”
“Why  do  you suppose  he  said yes?”  Miranda blurted.
“He was the only one who said  yes,” Josie replied. Miranda frowned in consternation. “How many of these advertisements  for a mail-order   bride  did you
“About fifty or so,” Josie admitted.
“Where did  you  get the paper? And  the postage?” Miranda asked, amazed at her sister’s gumption.
Josie looked  sheepish as she replied,  “I stole  them from Miss Birch’s desk.”
“Oh, Josie—”
“Forget about  the  paper and the  postage!” Hetty said. “What are you going to do, Miranda?”
Miranda chewed on her lower lip as she stared  at the vellum.  “This  was the only reply to all those letters?”
Josie nodded.
“Mr.  Creed  didn’t  ask for any other information about me? Or provide any other information  about himself?” Miranda  wondered aloud.
Josie  looked  wary as  she replied,  “No. Is  that a problem?”
“I don’t know anything  about this man. He could be a murderer  or a thief  or—”
“He’s   our  salvation, Miranda,”   Hannah interrupted. “He’s going to get us out of here. Once you’re married to him, we can all come live with you.”
“I  couldn’t  possibly take  advantage of a  stranger like that!”
“He’s  willing to take  a wife sight unseen,”  Hetty said.  “Maybe he wouldn’t care if we came along.”
“I would care,” Miranda  said. “If I went at all, I’d want to come  with the honest intention  of making Mr. Creed a good wife.  I’m still  not convinced this is a good  idea.”
“Why  not go?”  Nick asked.  “It’s  an opportunity you won’t  get again, Miranda.   I know you. You’d never  do  anything   like  this  on your own. If  Josie hadn’t written all those letters, you’d be stuck scrubbing pots and pans for the rest of your life.”
It  was a   painful truth  to  admit, but Miranda couldn’t  deny she was  more  mouse than lion, more likely to take a beating than  to fight back. With one notable exception. She’d rescued Harry from the upstairs nursery during  the Great Fire. She shuddered. She would live with that terrifying  memory—and the resulting scars—for the rest of her life.
“Maybe Mr. Creed will  turn out to be  really rich and have an enormous  house with lots of bedrooms, and  you’ll be able  to send  for us after   you’re married,” Nick finished. “Who knows?”
The advertisement  for  a mail-order   bride hadn’t mentioned Mr. Creed’s age or his looks or his financial situation. Not that Miranda was in a  position to consider  whether  Jacob Creed was  old and fat or skinny as a bed slat. This  might  be her only opportunity to marry.
But she was afraid  to go  so far from her family without knowing  more. Even if she traveled all the way to Texas  and  married   a  stranger,  her siblings might  have to remain  at the mercy of Miss Birch for a long time to come.
“Before  all of you get  your hopes  up too high,” Miranda said, “remember we  don’t  know anything about Mr. Creed’s financial situation.  He could be living in a sod house.  He could be as poor as a church mouse. He—”
“He had the  money  to send you first-class tickets on the train and on a steamship   and on a packet— that’s a sort of sailboat—and on a stagecoach,” Josie pointed out.
“Where are the tickets?” Miranda asked.
Josie  produced them  from a  secret  pocket  in her nightdress  and reverently  laid them on the  table.  “I had to keep  an  eagle eye on Miss Birch’s mail to intercept them. Here  they are.”
Hannah  and Hetty issued  a collective sigh  of awe. Miranda was afraid to reach for the tickets. She seldom took anything for herself before offering  it first to one  of her siblings. Her life the past three years had  been full  of sacrifices. But none of her siblings were old enough to marry.  She would  have to do this herself.
It  didn’t  feel  like a sacrifice.   She’d be  going on a grand adventure  to a place she knew  about only  from stories in the Daily Herald. A place full of wild broncs and longhorn  cattle. A place full of cowboys . . . and Indians. It all sounded so exotic. And exciting. She’d have a husband and maybe, one day soon,  children  of her own, two things she’d  seen as very  far in the future after she’d become   a destitute orphan. And with a new  life outside  the orphanage, there was at least a chance she could  rescue her  siblings.
Miranda didn’t  let herself dwell on the possibility that her husband might turn out to be as cruel as Miss Birch. No one could be as cruel as Miss Birch.
Speak of the devil  and she appeared.
“What is this?” a piercing  voice demanded. Miranda quickly slid the vellum  and tickets across
the  table to Josephine, who slipped  them  back into the pocket in her night shift. As the headmistress  descended  on them  like a  whirling dervish, Miranda whispered  to her siblings, “I’ll   take care  of Miss Birch. Go!”
Her  younger  brothers and  sisters  grabbed  their blankets   and  scampered for  the  door in  the  dark shadows at the opposite end of the dining  room,  leaving Miranda  behind to face their nemesis.
Miss  Birch was wearing    a  tufted robe over her nightgown, and her long black hair, of which she was so proud, was pinned up under a nightcap. The head mistress was short and stout,  with large eyes so dark brown they  were  almost  black  and cheeks that became florid when she was angry, as she was now.
“I presume  that bunch who  ran off was the passel of brats you brought with you to the Institute,”  Miss Birch said. “I’ve warned you before about leaving the dormitory  after lights out, Miss Wentworth.”
Miranda  lowered her eyes in submission, knowing that was the best way to conciliate the headmistress. “Yes, Miss Birch. I was saying goodbye to my brothers and sisters, since I’m leaving tomorrow  morning.” “You think the  fact  that  you’re leaving   tomorrow
means you can flaunt my rules tonight?” “No, Miss Birch. I—”
A slender wooden rod whipped through the air and hit Miranda’s right shoulder without warning. Whop. She  gasped at the pain  and bit her lip to keep from crying out. She didn’t  want her siblings to hear her and try coming to her rescue. There was no defying Miss Birch.
Miranda  kept her hands at her sides, aware that if she tried to protect herself, Miss Birch would only hit harder.
“I’ll be  glad”—whop—“to see”—whop—“you go!” The pain  was excruciating. Miranda  felt tears of pain well in her eyes, but she didn’t  make  a sound, not even  a whimper.  She refused to give Miss  Birch
the satisfaction.
She could hear the heavyset woman breathing hard from the effort  of whipping her. Miranda  raised her gaze, staring  into the black eyes that stared hatefully back at her, and said with all the calm and dignity  she could muster, “Are you done now?  May  I leave?”
She watched as Miss  Birch resisted  the urge to hit her again.  Three cracks  of the  rod. That was Miss Birch’s limit, no matter how bad the infraction.  Miranda knew her punishment was over, which was why there had been a taunt  in her calm, dignified voice.
Then Miss Birch hit her again. WHOP! Hard enough to make Miranda  moan with pain. Hard enough to make the tears in her eyes spill onto her cheeks.
“Now I’m done,”  the headmistress  said with malicious satisfaction. “Go back  to the dormitory, Miss Wentworth,  and stay there until it’s time for you to leave.”
Miranda  had turned to go when  Miss  Birch said, “Too  bad  you won’t  be here  when  those  brats get their punishment.”
“You’ve already punished me!” Miranda protested. “There’s no need to punish  anyone else.”
“They were here, weren’t they? Where  they didn’t belong? Oh, they’ll be punished, all right. Each and every one of them.”
“The baby—”
“That brat is no baby! He’s four years old.”
“Only four years old!” Miranda  retorted,  fear for her youngest brother, whom she would no longer  be able to protect, making her bold.  “How  can you be so mean?”
“Mean?”  Miss  Birch pressed  her lips flat. “I en force discipline,   Miss   Wentworth. Without  discipline, where would  we be? Those  children must learn to obey the  rules. They must learn  there are consequences when they break them.”
“If you must punish  someone,  beat me instead.” Miss  Birch raised her eyebrows  as she tapped the
rod against her open palm. “Let me see. Three strokes times five  offenses.  How many  is  that, Miss  Went worth?”
“Fifteen,”  Miranda  replied, her throat tight with fear.
“I’m   tempted,  Miss  Wentworth. Oh, how I am tempted.”
“Who would  know?” Miranda  said in a voice  that was almost  a whisper. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Miss  Birch laughed.   “You’re a  fool, Miss  Went worth. I could  give  you fifteen  strokes of the  rod tonight  and punish  the rest of them tomorrow  after you’re gone.”
Miranda knew very well that Miss Birch would find reasons to punish her siblings, even if there weren’t any. But the tickets  secured in Josie’s pocket  gave her courage.  “Do it,” she  urged.  “I trust you will be too tired after the effort to bother my siblings,  at least for tomorrow.”
“Very  well, Miss  Wentworth. Turn  around   and bare your back.”
Miranda’s eyes went wide.  “You can’t mean—” “Bare your back,” Miss  Birch demanded.  “Or  I’ll
have every one of those brats back in here tonight  to get three strokes of the rod.”
“Yes,  Miss  Birch.”  Miranda turned  and  slid  her shift off already aching shoulders,  securing the folds of cloth against her small breasts.
She focused her terrified mind on the faceless man at  the  end of her upcoming journey.  The man who would  be her husband. The man who would  be the salvation of her siblings. The man who would plant the seeds for a family  of her own. The man she would somehow learn to love. The man who might someday learn to love her.
Miranda braced herself  and waited for the cane to strike.

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