I'm so excited about my new series "Runaway Brides". I'm centering all of the books in this series around one Montana town - Stumptown.
Book One - Denton's Bride:
Courtney Mills is not a murderer.
Of course, convincing her fiancé’s family that she had nothing to do with his death is a different matter. They are bound to put a noose around her neck, and she can’t defend herself. There is only one thing to do. Run far away and stay hidden. She needs a plan… Become a mail-order bride.
Denton Reed catches criminals for a living, and when a wealthy family hires him to find the number one suspect in their father’s murder, Denton jumps into action. But, it appears the only way to catch her is to convince her that he's part of her plan to become a mail-order bride. There’s no harm in pretending… or is there?
Never in Courtney Mills’ life did she think she would be planning a wedding only to see her intended, lying on the floor, dead.
Arranged marriages to old men needed to be outlawed!
Courtney Mills twisted her handkerchief against her middle as she stared at the lifeless body of Albert Greenwood – the man ten years older than her father – lying on the floor of his study. Blood stained the beige rug under his head as his lay face down. Next to his head was a marbled bust of George Washington. In Albert’s study was his collection of history, and from the looks of it, George Washington was the very thing that probably ended Albert’s life.
Her stomach lurched, and she turned away, lifting her handkerchief to her mouth and inhaling the scented cloth slowly. Although she detested her parents selling her to Albert Greenwood to keep the money flowing between the two wealthy families, she didn’t want the old man dead.
After the initial shock of walking into the room and seeing him on the floor murdered, Courtney’s body shook violently. Her mind clouded with confusion and mixed emotions. Part of her wanted to be relieved that she wasn’t going to get married today, and yet, from what she could tell, someone had wanted him out of their lives, too. They’ll blame me!
Her throat constricted as panic welled within her. Albert’s family – three sons, and two daughters, who were all older than Courtney – hadn’t wanted their father to marry her. It didn’t matter that she agreed with them, she had to obey her parents and marry the older man. His children hated her, no matter how nice she tried to be with them.
The rhythm of her heartbeat accelerated, and her head throbbed with indecision. She should alert one of Albert’s servants about his demise, and yet, she hesitated. Since she was the first to find him, she’d be their main suspect. She’d read mystery novels before. She knew how the law worked. She also knew that they would consider her guilty until she proved herself innocent. At this moment, she didn’t know how that would ever happen.
On unsteady legs, she slowly moved toward the door. She must leave. Now!
She opened the door and stepped into the hallway. The butler was the only person to see her this morning since he had let her inside the house. Her parents hadn’t arrived yet, and she must leave before anyone else noticed her presence. The fewer people who could testify that she was here, the better her chances were of not being hanged for a crime she hadn’t committed.
Instead of heading out the front door, she turned the other way and hurried toward one of the side doors down a back hallway. Voices were heard from somewhere in the house, but she couldn’t tell who it was or where they were. Dizziness assailed her, and she bumped her shoulder against the wall. A picture that had been hanging fell to the floor. The wooden frame broke into several pieces. She couldn’t stop. Freedom was what she needed.
Her head filled with fog, and it seemed the door that would lead to her escape was so far ahead as if she were entering a tunnel. Courtney continued, placing one foot in front of the other. I can do this… I must do this!
Finally, she reached the door and turned the knob. Two steps later, she was outside. Inhaling deeply, she tried to clear her head. She needed to be alert to get away. But where would she go? Returning home to Butte was out of the question. That would be the first place the sheriff looked.
Courtney took cautious steps around the house, staying as close to the red-brick as she possibly could. As she passed behind tall bushes, the twigs pulled strands of hair out of the coil her maid had wrapped the bulk of her hair into. Courtney didn’t care. Her main focus was to leave without being spotted.
The stables, just down the slope, had some servants moving around inside. She stopped and held her breath. From her viewpoint, she didn’t know if they noticed her or not. She couldn’t let them see her at all. Moving slower now, she kept an eye on the stables, wondering if anyone would come out to see to her needs. She prayed they didn’t.
As she reached the front of the house, she realized her buggy was still out front with her luggage tied to the back, and she expelled a relieved sigh. Everything she owned was in those three trunks. She could leave Helena and never return.
Tears stung her eyes as Courtney made the decision. She’d leave her family, her friends, and all those things she held dear to her heart. Then again, she would have had to do that after she married Albert, anyway. However, this time, there was no other choice but to follow the road and let it take her far away from here.
She glanced around the yard, making sure nobody saw her, and darted toward her buggy. Just before reaching the vehicle, a terrified scream ripped through the air, coming from inside the mansion.
Inwardly, Courtney groaned. One of the servants had found Albert.
She wouldn’t find a better time than now to make a run for it. The servants would be rushing inside the house to see where the scream had come from. Courtney couldn’t wait a moment longer. She dashed toward her buggy and climbed inside. The hem of her dress caught on the step and ripped. A ruined dress didn’t matter to her at the moment, and she grabbed the reins and whipped them in the air, urging her horse forward. Instead of taking the main road, she went off the trail and into the woods, following other paths. She couldn’t go as fast as she wanted, but she tried to get out of this area as quickly as she could. People would be looking for her very soon.
The image of Albert’s wrinkled, palish-gray face popped into her mind again. Her stomach lurched just like before. The old codger didn’t deserve to die. Even though the idea of marriage to him made her physically ill, he still had a good ten or twenty years left to live.
Several hours passed, and thankfully, nobody followed her. As she took in her surroundings, she couldn’t place where she was. Her hands ached from gripping the reins so tightly, but her heart wrenched in agony. Fear was still the underlying emotion in her gut, but it also was the very thing that kept her moving.
Up ahead, she noticed a town. She would have to find something to eat before continuing on her journey. That would be the only way for her to keep going forward.
As soon as she saw people moving in the street, she slowed down her horse and straightened her shoulders. She mustn’t look like she was running away. Instead, she must appear that driving her buggy was normal and that she was going to visit a friend.
A few people glanced her way, but thankfully, nobody knew her, nor did they question her motivation. As she approached the town hall, she noticed a little wagon out front with a canopy over a table that sat on the side. Written across a thick board were the words – Mail-order Brides.
Courtney had read ads in the newspaper about ranchers looking for brides. She felt sorry for the woman who had to sink to such pitiful circumstances. It was difficult to imagine what a woman would have to suffer through in order to decide to marry someone they’d never met before.
The man standing by the table, dressed as a preacher in his long black robes as he held a Bible, looked up at her. His gaze swept over her once before he smiled widely.
“Pardon me, miss.” He moved in front of the horse, stopping her progress. “Do you believe in guardian angels?”
Irritation grew over her. This wasn’t the time to talk about Heaven. “Yes, but please, sir, I need you to move.”
As he stepped closer, he petted the horse. “Because I believe your guardian angel has led you to me.” He pointed to his wagon. “You appear to be down on your luck, so let me tell you how to find your future.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine.”
“But you’re not fine.” He moved closer as his gaze shifted to her messy hair, and then down to the bottom of her ripped gown that was still hooked on the step. “You look like a woman who needs help.”
“I don’t,” she snapped. “Please, just move aside so that I can pass.” She didn’t want to cause a commotion here in the road, only because if the sheriff came looking for her, he’d ask the people in this town, and she didn’t want anyone to remember her.
“Miss, please consider being a mail-order bride. I have a list of men looking for someone to manage their homes and be mothers to their children. These men need good, upstanding, women like yourself.”
Although she didn’t want to give in, this might be the only way to make this man leave her alone. Of course, signing up didn’t mean she actually had to go through with it. “Fine, what do I need to do?”
The middle-aged preacher grinned and motioned toward his tent. “If you could come over here, I’ll show you what needs to be done.”
He helped guide the horse closer to his wagon and then assisted her as she climbed down. The preacher even removed the ripped hem of her dress from the step. Courtney pulled her arm away from him once she could stand on her own, and she walked to the table with him. A ledger was unfolded in front of her with many names and locations.
“All of these men are looking for a bride?” she questioned.
“Indeed, miss. They are praying for kind women like yourself to help them in their time of need.” He pointed to one of the lines. “Just write your name next to the man you want, and then you send him a telegraph to let him know you are interested in being his bride.” The preacher shrugged. “It’s really that easy.”
She took a pencil and wrote Courtney before realizing she shouldn’t reveal her true name. She quickly wrote Parker as her surname, since that was her mother’s maiden name, and the only one she could think of right away.
“Splendid,” the preacher said as he wrote on another piece of paper the name and location of the man who was looking for a bride. “Now, take this and send him a telegraph.”
She took the paper from him, hating that she had to do this.
“I must say, Mr. Timothy Graham is a very lucky man.”
Courtney nodded and turned back to her buggy. As she climbed back up to the seat, the preacher said, God bless you, and drew a cross in the air.
Her heart clenched. Was God really blessing her, or was he disappointed in her for not staying and trying to make Albert Greenwood’s family and servants believe that she was innocent?
She gripped the reins and urged the horse away from the wagon. Her weary mind spun with alternative plans. She was on the run, and yet, wasn’t the best place to hide being married as a mail-order bride? Surely, the sheriff wouldn’t think to look there.
But no. Courtney wouldn’t sink to marrying a stranger. It was almost as bad as marrying an older man that was closer to her grandfather’s age than her father’s. There must be other ways to be on the run and start a new life.
Making a hasty decision right now would ruin her life completely. She must take a few days and think about the consequences first… and pray that the Lord would lead her in the right direction.
Series link - https://www.authormariehiggins.com/runaway-brides-series