Howard Haskell Takes A Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch Book 0)

BOOK: Howard Haskell Takes A Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch Book 0)
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Howard Haskell Takes A Bride
A Paradise Ranch Prequel
Merry Farmer

Copyright ©2016 by Merry Farmer

T
his ebook is licensed
for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Cover design by Erin Cameron-Hill

ASIN:

Chapter 1
Cincinnati, Ohio – 1844

S
pring was
a beautiful time of year for a ball. The elite citizens of the burgeoning town of Cincinnati, Ohio all agreed. They had come out to new mayor Henry Evans Spencer’s home in droves to prove it. Spirits were high amidst the swirling colors of ball gowns and the trilling of strings that played the latest dance music. Laughter blended with the melody. Well-dressed black servants—servants, not slaves this far north, although plenty of people in town supported slavery—carried trays of sweet wine and punch through the revelers.

Mayor Spencer’s ballroom windows were open to let in the breeze blowing off the Ohio River and the many canals that had so recently been built. Cincinnati had become a hub of commerce, thanks to those canals and its proximity to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It was the fastest-growing city in the United States, although the length and breadth of the country turned its attention more and more every day to the vast expanse of land to the West—the unknown frontier.

Elizabeth Ayers let out a heavy sigh and peeked through one of the ballroom windows, her eyes searching the western horizon. Whatever was going on in the untamed wilderness, it was probably a damn sight better than the insufferable ball.

“What I heard was that Mr. Bond passed her a secret missive in public, right under her mother’s eyes.” Her friend Madeline related the bit of gossip to their group with eager eyes…and more than a little gloating.

“How scandalous of her,” another friend, Henrietta, gasped.

“What did she do with the missive?” the third friend who made up their group, Isobel, asked.

“Well, first she…”

Elizabeth let her mind drift as Madeline went on with the story. She didn’t care what the snotty Miss Gertrude Havers had done to flirt with an unsuitable gentleman. She didn’t care about gossip and innuendo. Her heart ached in her chest, as if it was being called by some unseen force that she could feel but not hear. The western horizon was dark, but the darkness, the unknown was filled with excitement. The story of the West had only just begun to be written. Handfuls of settlers and trappers had made the perilous journey to places with strange names like Oregon and California. They’d brought back stories of rich land and opportunity for those willing to risk all to take it.

Elizabeth was not a risk-taker. She knew that, just as she knew Gertrude Havers was a fool to accept a love note from a man her parents didn’t approve of. But all the same, she longed for something different, something grander, something…more.

“Why, she must be daydreaming of him now.”

It took several more seconds for Elizabeth to catch that her friends had stopped gossiping and were now staring at her. With a start, she dragged her gaze away from the window.

“What?” She patted her coal-black hair, wondering if a piece of the elaborate style she’d had Trudy, her family’s black maid, fix for her was coming loose.

Elizabeth’s three friends exchanged knowing looks and coy smiles.

“See, I told you. Luckiest girl in Cincinnati,” Henrietta said.

“Or rather, Jonas Armstrong is the luckiest man,” Isobel added.

Ice ran down Elizabeth’s spine. “Yes. My parents are very happy with the match.” She glanced down, hoping to hide how unhappy she was.

“Jonas Armstrong is the handsomest, most enterprising young man in Cincinnati.” Madeline congratulated her. “He’s going to be as rich as Croesus before he’s thirty years old, if his father’s business empire continues the way it has been.”

“And we’ll be able to say that we’re best friends with his wife,” Isobel laughed.

Elizabeth tried to smile. She tried to encourage herself to feel something for her fiancé, to be grateful for the position she was about to take in society. The best she could manage was mild interest, but it didn’t outweigh the mountain of resentment at being handed off to a man she’d hardly had time to get to know as a pawn in her father’s business dealings.

“You can do more than simply call yourself a friend to the wife of the richest man in Cincinnati,” Elizabeth said. “You can rescue her from the drudgery of fulfilling that position.” Indeed, she would need her friends around her once her life was shackled to the rock of responsibility.

Her friends laughed. “You sound as if you’re going to the gallows instead of to a bed of satin.” Madeline cuffed her on the arm.

“I would give anything to be in your shoes,” Henrietta sighed.

“Would you?” Bold as brass, Elizabeth slipped out of her dancing slippers and pushed them across the floor with her toe to her friend. “Here you go.”

More tinkling laughter sounded from her friends, but all Elizabeth could think was how good it felt to wiggle her toes.

Before she could sober up and retrieve her shoes, prickles shot up the back of Elizabeth’s neck. She glanced up, subtly searching the crowded room to discover the source of the prickles. Someone was watching her. The light and color and sound of the ball was a raging distraction, but that didn’t stop the feeling. Her heart beat faster, as if fate was tapping her shoulder.

And then she saw him. Half a room away, standing in the frame of one of the French doors leading to the balcony, stood the most striking man Elizabeth had ever seen. He was tall, inches above the whispering couple that stood beside him. His shoulders were broad and his brown hair perfectly coifed. Most arresting of all was his smile. It was broad, bold, absolutely sure of itself. His smile reached his eyes, illuminating them across the distance. If she hadn’t known any better, Elizabeth would have thought that he was the mayor—no, the president, the king, the emperor. Her heart fluttered up to her throat, and she could feel the heat rise to her cheeks. The regal young man—master of all he surveyed—was smiling at
her
.

“Who is he?” Isobel asked what Elizabeth’s heart was crying out.

Henrietta and Madeline turned to look as well.

Madeline hummed and tsked. “I think that’s Mr. Howard Haskell.”

“Who?” Henrietta wrinkled her nose.

Howard Haskell. Elizabeth repeated the name in her mind and heart. Something about it sizzled. Or perhaps that was his smile. He looked at her as though she was a rival to the sunrise. No one had ever looked at her with such longing, such appreciation before. Her heart beat double-time.

“Do we know him?” Isobel asked.

“No, and from what I understand, we don’t want to.” Madeline tilted up her nose.

“Why not?” Henrietta asked.

Madeline sniffed. “He’s an upstart nobody from who knows where. My papa says that he’s been nosing around Commerce Street for months now.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?” Isobel made a face.

“Maybe he’s in business?” Henrietta offered.

“More likely he’s looking for a job or trying to get involved in one scheme or another,” Madeline said.

“He could be a businessman himself,” Elizabeth offered. Yes, with a proud smile and confidence like that, she had no doubt he was an entrepreneur of some sort.

Madeline sniffed. “Him? Not likely. Everything I’ve heard suggests he’s loud, brash, and coarse. He’s certainly not our sort, you can be sure of that.”

Elizabeth nodded, but she wasn’t so sure. Howard Haskell had an air of excitement about him, a presence that made her feel as though he was inches away, even though he was at the other side of the room. He gave her a feeling, several feelings, and one of those was that he was indeed completely her “sort.”

* * *


W
ho is she
?” Howard asked. He was loathe to drag his eyes off of the vision in blue silk that he’d spotted across the ballroom. Whoever she was, her pale skin was like porcelain, waiting to be stroked with reverence, her hair was as black as midnight, and her eyes were so blue they pierced him from across the room.

Howard had never been one to mince words or draw out decisions. This was no exception. He’d taken one look at the beautiful, captivating, young woman and known in an instant that she was his future wife.

At his side, his sister Virginia tilted her head and squinted to get a better look. “Oh, that’s Elizabeth Ayers. She’s Carl Ayers’s daughter.”

“You remember Carl Ayers,” Virginia’s beau and Howard’s best friend, Cyrus Piedmont, added. “He operates a shipping firm and was instrumental in planning for the Whitewater Canal.”

“What,
my
canal?” Howard dragged his eyes away from the woman who would be his and smirked at Cyrus. “The one we invested all that money in?”

“The very one.” Cyrus winked.

“I wonder if her father knows that he owes the success of his business to you,” Virginia chuckled.

“Doubtful.” Howard pulled himself to his full height, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his vest. Someday, no doubt, he’d be old and fat, and the gesture would make him look like one of the white-haired bankers who he’d dazzled with his financial prowess. They called him a prodigy. He called them yesterday’s news.

His gaze returned to the Venus at the other end of the ballroom. She was whispering with her friends now. Four sets of feminine eyes were on him, so he struck a pose that would show him to his best advantage. At the same time, he chuckled. There was a vast difference between what they saw and what they were actually looking at, but only time could reveal the subtleties.

When the beautiful Miss Elizabeth Ayers lifted her soot-dark lashes to meet his eyes, Howard’s heart leapt in his chest. It wasn’t the only thing that leapt, but they were in company, so he ignored the rest.

“I’m going to ask her to dance,” he declared and started forward.

“Oh, Howard, you can’t,” Virginia called after him. “She’s—”

Whatever she was, it would have to wait. He had a wife to meet and a future to court.

The music seemed to soar, providing the perfect accompaniment to his mission. Dancing couples parted before him, opening a corridor as straight and true as the flight of Cupid’s arrow. At least that’s what it felt like to Howard. The four whispering ladies at his destination curtailed their whispering and stood straighter, eyes aglow. Howard only had eyes for one of them. The other three faded into the background.

“Miss Elizabeth Ayers, I believe?” Howard executed a perfect bow before her, as was only fitting. At first sight, he had known she was his queen, and he would forever be her servant.

“Yes?” his angel replied, voice trembling.

Howard stood and reached for her gloved hand. With all the braggadocio he could muster, he raised it to his lips and planted a kiss on her knuckles. “My darling, I have found you at last.”

A chorus of sighs and squeaks sounded from his true love’s friends. Elizabeth swayed as if she might swoon. Her fingers tightened around his, and her eyes flashed with delight and flirtation.

Just as quickly, she drew an imaginary veil over her excitement.

“I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met.” Carefully, she withdrew her hand from his.

“Perhaps not in this world, my dear,” he answered her. “But in the realm of dreams and wishes, we have been together always, will be together always.”

The pink that splashed her cheeks, the way she lowered those dark lashes of hers, told Howard that he had won, he was winning, and he would continue to win.

“Howard Haskell, at your service.” He bowed again, though not as low as the first time.

His siren lifted her eyes to scrutinize him. Her clever look struck like a thousand darts in his heart. Love was such a grand adventure when it was new. The orchestra finished their song, and a buzz filled the room as dance partners were returned to their parties and new ones were sought.

“Mr. Haskell, I do not know you,” she said.

“Yet,” he answered with a wink. “But that can easily be remedied.”

One of her friends cleared her throat. “It is customary for a gentlemen to ask to be introduced to a society lady. But I don’t suppose you would know that.”

Ah, so his dear heart had a shrew for a friend. Howard nodded respectfully to her, then turned a conspiratorial smile to his beloved.

“We don’t sit idly by waiting for the strictures of society to be fulfilled, do we, Miss Ayers? We charge headlong into the gardens of our fancy whenever it strikes us.”

Elizabeth drew in a breath, her eyes sparkling like diamonds. It both thrilled and wounded Howard. His love was far too excited by the idea of breaking the rules of society, which meant that she had likely been pressed down under them for far too long. In fact, he’d been watching her for long enough to catch that weary, oppressed look in her eyes that only came from chaffing under the yoke of society’s rules. He knew the feeling all too well.

The orchestra began the first notes of the next song, calling couples back to the floor.

“My darling, would you care to dance?” He advanced his suit a little quicker than he had planned, seeing that he would get nowhere as long as she was under the influence of her friends.

“I’m sorry, Mr.…Haskell, was it?” The shrewish friend stepped forward. “Miss Ayers couldn’t possibly dance with you without a proper introduction by—”

“Yes.” Elizabeth stepped in front of her friend, holding out her hand. “Yes, I would be delighted to dance this next set with you, Mr. Haskell.”

BOOK: Howard Haskell Takes A Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch Book 0)
6.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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