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Fresh out of Mrs. Pettigrew's School for Young Ladies, Amelia Westcott and her two best friends are ready for adventure. Suddenly a life filled with social obligations and meaningless gossip seems unappealing. On a whim, the girls investigate the phenomena of young women heading west to marry, and Amelia is captivated by the freedom such a decision offers.
Hugh Jordon needs a wife. The severe shortage of women in the Pacific Northwest makes advertising for a bride seems reasonable. As long as he finds a wife who is the exact opposite of his tempestuous mother, he'll be well satisfied. Studying the applicants, he chooses one that seems to best fit his needs, and delegates his head clerk with the critical task of sending polite rejections to the others. Unfortunately, most of them never get the letter Hugh anticipated and soon the brides descend, all expecting to marry the same man!
Amelia is horrified, and realizes that the adage "marry in haste, repent at leisure" has never been more true. How could he do that to her? What sort of man was he, to propose to so many women? She simply must have their wedding annulled and return to Massachusetts at once.
Hugh has other ideas. In his opinion, the perfect place for his bride to learn about faith, loyalty and commitment is in his home and over his knee!
Amelia pasted a smile on her face as she walked Mr. Thomas to the door.
"Thank you for calling on us, Mr. Thomas. I'm sorry my father wasn't here to speak with you. I'm sure he'll be disappointed," she said softly, her fingernails digging into the palm of her hand.
"That's quite all right, Miss Westcott. Actually, it was you I wanted to speak with, so my visit hasn't been entirely unsuccessful." His small eyes traveled from her face and seemed to focus on her bosom.
Amelia's face flushed as she watch the man turn his hat in his hands.
"Yes, I understand, Mr. Thomas. I'm sorry if my father has given you the wrong idea about me. You see, I have no interest in marrying at this time. I want to travel and see something of the world before I consider matrimony." Liar.
�"Certainly, my dear. I completely understand why a beautiful young woman such as you would be eager to explore new and exotic places. However, keep in mind the Thomas holdings are quite extensive and I would be willing to accompany you anywhere you want to go, as your husband."
"That's kind of you, Mr. Thomas, and quite generous considering what a busy man you are. In fact, I'm sure you must have important business right now," she said as she opened the door and ushered him onto the porch. "Oh dear, look at the time. I actually have some important matters to attend to myself," she continued quickly. "Perhaps we'll run into each other again," she called sweetly as she closed the door, nearly in his face.
"Yes, but you still"
"Good day, Mr. Thomas."
Good gracious, she sighed, leaning against the heavy door. The man was nearly old enough to be her father. Whatever was her father thinking? Lately he'd been parading one man after another in front of her. He seemed to be in quite a hurry to marry her off and the more offers she refused, the less picky he became. Never in a million years would she marry someone like Mr. Thomas. Despite his fortune, he had the lips of a fish and she shivered with distaste as she imagined him trying to kiss her.
The clock in the hall chiming the quarter hour reminded her she was late. Picking up the skirts of her turquoise day dress, she raced up the stairs. Once in her room she slapped a wide brimmed bonnet on her unruly auburn curls and tied a pretty bow. Dropping to her knees beside the bed, she crawled under it and retrieved the box that held all her treasures. Inside was something she'd read a hundred times in the last three weeks. Carefully, she folded the paper and slipped it in her bodice before pushing the box back and arranging the dust ruffle to conceal it.
Excitement coursed through her. What she and her friends were considering was completely and unjustifiably wicked, or would seem so to all who knew them. Snatching a quilt off the bed, she tossed it over her arm and ran from the room. Amelia took the servants stairway in the back section of the house and swiftly descended to the kitchen.
"Is it ready?"
"All set, Miss," the cook said, indicating the picnic basket on the table.
"Oh thank you, Mrs. Riley," Amelia said with a big smile. Margaret Riley had been with them for as long as Amelia could remember. She made the best meals out of the three households, so it was natural Amelia would bring the food.
"I've put some lemonade in there," Margaret called out as Amelia picked up the basket and flew out the screen door, letting it slam shut behind her.
"You're an angel," Amelia sang over her shoulder.
Shaking her head, Margaret smiled and continued dressing the duck she was preparing for dinner.
Her feet barely skimmed the gently sloping, verdant lawn as she hurried to a destination she had been to thousands of times. Reaching the iron gate, she sat the basket down momentarily as she took a small key from her pocket. It only took a moment to unlock the barrier the fathers had insisted on. Seconds later she was through and could see the bright sunlight past the thick hedge.
"I'm here," she called out gaily, nearly skidding to a stop. "Oh," she sighed dramatically as she dropped to the ground, the brim of her hat flopping up and down.
"What took you so long?" Grace demanded. "I'm starving and I almost had to go to the dressmaker with Mother."
Effie turned up her nose and gave a delicate shiver. "How horrible," she drawled as she took the quilt from Amelia and spread it neatly on the ground.
"Don't make light of it, Effie," Amelia said with a laugh. "When Mother died, Father asked Mrs. Wentworth to take me along to the dressmakers with Grace. I've never been poked so much in my entire life."
"Sorry," Effie offered, sitting on the quilt and watching Grace unpack the basket.
"It's all right," Grace replied, picking up a pickle and taking a big bite. "You just have no concept of how exacting my mother can be," she continued, chewing as she spoke.
"Wouldn't Mrs. Pettigrew have a fit if she could see us now?" Amelia asked as she sat cross legged, her bare legs showing as she reached for her own pickle.
Effie straightened and placed her hands on her hips. Looking down her nose, she began a perfect imitation of the woman they'd all grown to hate.
"Young ladies, young ladies," she spat out crisply as she clapped her hands. "It is not proper to show your lower extremities," she scolded, eyeing Grace who was sitting on her heels. "When a lady sits, she does so gracefully, gently sweeping her skirt to the side. She does not cross her legs, nor does she allow anything more than a glimpse of her ankles," she continued, hiking up her pink dress and pointing her toes inward, giving her backside an inflated appearance.
Grace and Amelia howled with laughter.
"Ladies, a well-bred young woman does not bellow with mirth," Effie informed them, wagging her finger. "She quietly titters behind her fan or a lace handkerchief. Observe," she continued, plucking a small lace square from her pocket and holding it to her mouth as she giggled and rolled her eyes.
Grace and Amelia began clapping, yelling, "Bravo!"
"Thank you, thank you all." Effie bowed, blowing kisses to her fans. She swept into a deep curtsey before gracefully sinking to the ground. Her brown eyes sparkled as a breeze touched her blonde curls. "I just love the seclusion here," she sighed, flopping onto her back on the soft grass. "Our fathers knew what they were doing when they built this garden for us."
"My mother always says they did it to contain a bunch of hooligans," Grace snorted as she handed each of them a glass of lemonade. "Frankly, I don't care why they built it. With our properties all bordering each other, it's been the perfect place to share our secrets. Speaking of secrets, does anyone have any news?"
"I do," Amelia whispered, excitement staining her face. "But let's eat first," she continued holding a hand to her breast. "I want to savor it a few minutes more."
Grace flashed a knowing smile and passed out the plates. They dined on finger sandwiches, sliced cucumbers and deviled eggs as they chatted. At times the conversation fell silent as each of them contemplated what they were about to do.
"So why were you late?" Effie asked.
"Another gentleman caller," Amelia said with a frown.
"Really? That's the third one this week," Grace added.
"Who was it, anyone worth mentioning?"
"Mr. Theodore Thomas."
"You're teasing us," Grace said with a wink.
"Unfortunately, I'm not," Amelia said sadly. "I don't know why my father is in such a hurry to get rid of me."
"Maybe he's sick or something? He's dying and wants to see you settled," Effie suggested, placing the back of her hand against her forehead and dabbing at her eyes. "He can't leave his poor precious daughter at the mercy of the hands of fate."
"Oh for heaven's sake," Grace snapped, giving Effie a shove. "Mr. Westcott is as healthy and robust as a horse. Hey," she offered, her green eyes sparkling. "Maybe he wants to remarry. You know what they say about two women in the house. Has he been acting strangely?"
"You know what I mean. Is he walking around all moony and dreamy eyed? Does he get distracted when he's talking to you? My cousin Agatha says that's a sure sign a man has taken one of Cupid's arrows."
"Don't tell me you've forgotten all the time we spent on Mythology at Mrs. Pettigrew's. Cupid is the Roman God of love, the son of Venus. He shoots these little arrows that cause the victims to fall in love."
"I remember, but that's all just a silly myth. My father would tell me if he were interested in taking another wife," Amelia insisted weakly.
"I'm sure he would," Effie assured her, shooting a glare at Grace.
Grace shrugged and took a sip of her drink.
"Let's put these things away and get to the good stuff," she suggested, gathering up the dirty dishes and placing them in the basket. "You won't believe what I've been able to acquire."
Together, they repacked the basket and set it aside. Facing each other, Amelia started.
"Who wants to go first?"
"I will," Effie said, grinning. "I went to visit Mrs. Jennings with Mother. I didn't want to, those visits are always so boring and they send me off to do something when they get to the juicy gossip," she added with a pout. "However, this time Mrs. Jennings sent me out to the garden to pick some Lilacs for Mother to take home. As I was walking across the terrace I spotted a Ladies Home Journal setting on a table, so I sat down to look through it, you know, just wishing I was anywhere else and guess what I found?"
"What?" both girls whispered at the same time.
Effie grinned and took a folded sheet of paper out of the book she'd brought along. Reverently, she unfolded it and passed it to her friends. "Be careful with that," she implored. "I don't know when I could get another."
"Oh my," Amelia exclaimed. "It's a page of Matrimonial advertisements!" Laying it on the quilt, she and Grace leaned forward to study it. "Did you read it?"
"Only about a hundred times," Effie said with a giggle. "There wasn't anything that tempted me to respond, but you girls go ahead. Wait! What did you find, Amelia?"
Amelia slipped her hand in the bodice of her dress and withdrew a section of a newspaper. "It's The Matrimonial Times from San Francisco," she said, handing it to Effie. "There are many advertisements and while most are not very appealing, a few seem well thought out and worth reading. I've circled the ones I thought worthy of a second look."
"Oh, I see what you mean: Strong, healthy hard-working young man seeks young woman with matrimony in mind. I am looking for an honest, independent female that will not need an abundance of attention as I have a thriving business to run. Must be able to manage our home in my absence. Serious minded females apply to H. Jordon, Seattle, Washington Territory. Send small picture and requirements ASAP.
"Well, he's blunt, I'll give him that. Why ever did you circle this one, Amelia?"
"I don't know. I liked that he was clear about the kind of wife he was looking for and that he didn't mention physical attributes."
"He did ask for a picture, didn't he?" Grace stated, twirling her red hair around her finger thoughtfully.
"Yes, but he probably wants to make sure he doesn't end up with a bride as old as his mother."
"Yes, there is that. Are you going to answer the ad?" Effie asked.
"I might. I haven't decided yet. Go on, read some of the other ones."
Amelia didn't understand why she felt the need to lie to her two very best friends. The fact was, she'd posted a response to the ad several weeks ago. It may have been pride as the picture she'd sent wasn't very flattering. If she heard nothing back, or if he wrote he wasn't interested, at least she would not be embarrassed.
For the next couple of hours, they poured over the papers, at times laughing hysterically. One miner from San Francisco stated he wanted 'no uppity woman who felt the need to pad either her bosom or bottom'.
"Goodness, is he talking about a bustle?" Grace asked, giggling.
"I hope so," Amelia replied. "If not, I have no idea why a woman would want to make her behind look bigger than it is. I wish mine were less prominent. Now that bustles have fallen out of fashion a bit, I always think men are looking at my backside." She cringed.
"They are," Effie said, laughing. "I, on the other hand, have no behind whatsoever. I'd give anything to be a little curvier," she sighed.
"Well, aren't you two a fine pair," Grace sniffed. "How would you like to be considered fat?"
"You're not fat," they insisted in unison.
"Oh really, then why did Homer Treadwell tell my father that I was a little too much bride for him?" she demanded.
"Because he can't see past the end of his nose, for one thing," Amelia spat. "And I mean that quite literally. Do you have any idea how many times I've seen men looking at you and nearly drooling? Once I overheard Todd Breckenridge tell Charles Woods that you were 'luscious'."
"I wonder what he meant by that?"
"I'm sure I don't know," Amelia said as she rose and stretched, "but it didn't sound like an insult."
"Hmm, luscious huh? I'll have to think about that."
Effie giggled and moved the picnic basket off the quilt. "Come on, luscious, get up. I've got to be getting home. As it is, Mother will be wondering where I've been."
Grace stood and folded the quilt. "So what's our next move?"
"Well, I think we still need to find out everything we can about this mail order bride business. Personally, I'd rather take my chances on a stranger than some of the men my father's been inviting to the house. If I don't go through with it in the end, at least I got to see some of the country. Who knows, maybe I'll meet someone along the way if I do decide to go west."
"You would consider traveling to Washington Territory alone?"
"Why not? I'm a grown woman with the most acceptable manners Mrs. Pettigrew could instill. I'm sure it would be an adventure. Let's meet again next week," Amelia suggested. "If something exciting happens in the meantime, I'll send round a note."
Both girls froze and turned to stare at her with narrowed eyes.
"What kind of exciting thing could possibly happen around here?" Grace demanded.
"Yes," Effie agreed. "Why do I have the feeling you're not telling us everything?"
"And why don't you want the newspaper back?" Grace added.
"I don't want it back because I've already read all the advertisements," Amelia replied, avoiding eye contact. "Have I ever kept anything from you, my two dearest friends?"
"Yes!" they both replied.
"Oh well, nothing important anyway." Straightening her bonnet, she kissed both their cheeks. "Don't worry," she continued, picking up the quilt and basket. "I'll see you next week, or maybe sooner," she called as she walked toward the gate.
"Something's not quite right," Grace said as she made her way toward the gate that would let her into her backyard.
"I feel the same way," Effie replied. "I think we better keep a close eye on Amelia."