Historical Romance set in the South Dakota circa
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Holly Bush Books
1887 Debutante, Julia Crawford endures a lifetime of subtle ridicule as the plump, silly daughter of a premiere Boston family. Julia strikes out on her own to gain independence, traveling to the Midwest to marry an aging shopkeeper and care for his mother. Julia finds her new home rough and uncivilized after the sophistication of a big city, while closely held secrets threaten to ruin Julia’s one chance at love.
Jake Shelling was sixteen and grew up quick when his parents died from influenza on the North Dakota prairie. Left with a half-cleared farm and two young sisters, he spent little time on his own needs . .till now. At thirty-five, he figured it was high time to have some sons and a mail order bride would suit him just fine.No expectations of love, just a helpmate from sturdy stock, ready for farm life.
Will fate and chance play a trick on Julia and Jake?
“Really, Julia, do hurry,” Jane Crawford said to her daughter still seated at the ivory lace-covered vanity. “The guests are arriving, and you should be there to greet them.”
Julia Crawford smiled up at her mother with resignation. This was a battle she did not need to win. She would make no argument.
“I’ll be down shortly, Mother. Jolene and Jennifer are there. Our guests are here to see them, not me. Has Jillian gone down?”
“She is standing with your father at the door,” her mother replied.
“I’ll be down in a moment, then. Do go down to the guests. You know how father fusses when you leave him alone,” Julia said as she spun a blonde curl around her finger.
Her mother glided to the door and closed it softly. Julia cocked her ear, waiting for the soft patter of her mother’s slippers on the steps. Only then did she pull the gold chain from her neck and insert the key that hung from it in a gilded jewel box. With a final glance at her bedroom door, Julia pulled a white envelope from the case and unfolded the letter it held.
Dear Miss Crawford,
I will be at the train station to meet you on the appointed day. My mother and I look forward to your arrival. I will stay above my shop until the day of our marriage. My mother has graciously allowed you to stay with her during that time. She is pleased to know you do needlepoint. Her arthritic hands no longer allow her to sew, and she is most anxious to have another woman about. I am anxious as well . . .
Julia read to the last line even though she could have recited the letter as if it were the Lord’s Prayer. Very truly, Mr. Jacob Snelling. The day would arrive for her to depart sooner than she both hoped and dreaded. Mr. Snelling was a successful shop owner, near fifty years old, with an aging mother in a small South Dakota town. He had never married. His mother had begun to complain of a lack of company, and he admitted he was lonely. Those two forces had led him to place an ad for a wife in the Boston Globe nearly a year ago. And to Julia’s shock she had answered it. Their correspondence had been proper, more formal than she had expected from a merchant in the Midwest.
That formality had been a great comfort to her. It was what she was accustomed to. And he sounded like a truly nice man. He had great regard for his mother, of that Julia was certain. His letters were filled with news of the aging Portentia Snelling and that always brought comfort to Julia when she was most terrified of what she was embarking on. A man so devoted to his own mother would certainly be kind to her. Julia rose from the vanity seat with a smile on her face. One more formal evening with her family could not deter her now.
Julia was not sure of the sentiment only a few minutes later. She greeted a few guests and found an unoccupied chair in the corner of the library. She had spent much of the day arranging the fresh flowers that now filled the room. It had kept her mind and hands occupied while her sisters fussed over their wardrobe and their mother had scolded the servants over some small matter. Without distractions, the day would have dragged on, and she would have dwelled on a decision her mind had yet to grasp. Julia gazed absently about the room.
Her older sister, Jolene, married now ten years with a beautiful, fair child, sashayed about on the arm of her husband, Turner Crenshaw. Julia’s younger sister, Jennifer, nearly twenty-one, sat amidst a bevy of Boston’s first sons, laughing sweetly and tilting her head just so. It was most certainly the sin of envy that would lead her straight to Hades in the afterlife.
Julia felt no jealousy, though, as her eyes found Jillian. The baby of the family. Jillian would spend the first hour of the party with the adults and then be whisked away to her rooms. Only ten-years-old and already beautiful enough to turn male heads. Dressed in navy velvet with a cream-colored lace collar to match her hair, Julia was certain Jillian was the fairest of the Crawford family. Even at her young age she was a model of deportment and graciousness with a gay laugh and shining blonde hair. Julia would miss her most of all.
The Crawford women were all tall and slender except Julia. She was no higher than her father’s tiepin at fourteen and still exactly the same height at twenty-seven. Julia snatched three shrimp from the young serving girl’s tray as she passed and laid them beside four chocolate bon-bons in the napkin on her lap. Julia preferred to refer to herself as pleasingly plump, or on the days before her monthly courses, as a fat, frothy, ugly spinster with perfectly beautiful siblings and parents.
Julia was licking chocolate from her fingers when she saw her mother staring. Jane Crawford excused herself from her guests gracefully, as she did everything in life, Julia had long ago decided. Gracefully floating, serene and above the clutter and clamor of normal living. She had attempted to instill that elegance to each of her children. Julia was certain her mother considered her second daughter her greatest failure.
“Julia, use a napkin,” Jane chided and turned her head to view the crowd in their formal sitting room. “Alred McClintok has been hoping to speak to you all evening. Why don’t you quit hiding in this corner and go talk to him?”
Julia dabbed chocolate from the corner of her mouth and looked at the man her mother was referring to. Did everyone assume that plump women were only attracted to fat men? One of the reasons Julia continued writing Mr. Snelling was because of his description of himself early on in their writing. I am of medium height and very thin. Dear Mama worries I am ill, but Dr. Hammish assures me . . . Alred McClintok was busy stuffing canapés in his mouth, leaving a trail of grease around his fleshy red lips. He reminded Julia of a large black ball propped on two very stubby sticks.
“I’m perfectly happy here, Mother. Your party seems a rousing success,” Julia said. Changing subjects had been a tact Julia had used successfully when conversation turned her direction, especially with her father and Jennifer. Her mother and Jolene, however, rarely allowed such a diversion unless it was to their advantage.
Julia knew she had failed when her mother gave her a glare she was long accustomed to. The icy blue of her mother’s eyes and the pinched shell of her mouth screamed spinster, on the shelf, and a long list of other shortcomings without saying a word.
“Mr. McClintok is an associate of your father’s, dear. We must always endeavor to make your father’s business prosperous. Household expenses only seem to rise, rather than fall,” her mother said.
The veiled reference to Julia’s dependence on her parent’s home did not escape her. She also knew her family’s business was very successful. Feeding and clothing her would never send them to the poor house. Julia glanced at the shrimp still lying in the napkin on her lap. Maybe she’d best go speak to the man. Nothing would come of a quick introduction and might keep her from expanding her waistline yet another inch. If he spit lamb on her gown, she could go to her rooms to change and not emerge until morning. Or she would slip to her room via the servant’s staircase in the kitchen and check her bags already packed and stacked in the dressing room of her bedroom. On the morrow there would be only three days until she departed.
Julia had hoarded every bit of silver she could for her trip. The letter to her family was written, as well as a separate one for Jillian. Their maid, Eustace, would give them out when she didn’t arrive home from a weeklong visit with Aunt Mildred. By that time she would be married, and there would be nothing her family could do.
Jolene would roll her eyes. Jennifer would be sad. Not for long, though. Her father would rant and rave. Her mother’s fury would be hidden behind a glassy stare. Though, all in all, Julia was sure they would be glad she was gone. They would never voice the sentiment, for certain. Would be gauche to admit this final lapse in judgment would, thankfully, be the last, in their company at the least. They would tell friends Julia was on an extended holiday at Aunt Mildred’s. Just as they had done before. Soon no one would inquire as to when she would be coming home. Her family least of all.
The only person other than their housekeeper, Eustace, who would miss her would be Jillian. No more long walks in the park. No more reading together by candlelight with the rest of the household long abed. No more brushing the girls’ silken hair till the child’s eyes drooped. Jane Crawford supposed Jillian preferred Julia’s company because Julia often acted with the sense of a ten-year-old rather than a woman. Julia would insist that Jillian loved the freedom to just be herself in Julia’s company. For whichever reason, they would miss each other desperately.
But it was long past time that Julia did something for herself. Make something of herself. Even if it was to only be a wife to a thin, balding Midwesterner and a companion for his mother. She could have lived indefinitely with Aunt Mildred. Her aunt had written her as much. Julia loved the woman and her aunt adored her, but Mildred at seventy-two had an active life with other widowers in the seaside town she lived in. And a beau in his eighty-fourth year. As Mrs. Jacob Snelling, she was someone of her own making. Someone’s wife. Something no one could take away from her.
Awakened from her daydreaming, Julia realized her mother had drifted on. She let out a sigh of relief and rose from her chair, having made her obligatory appearance and feeling quite content to reread Mr. Snellings’s letter until she fell asleep. Her escape to the kitchens was thwarted by Jolene.
“Julia, come here,” her elder sister said hurriedly. When Julia was within arms reach, Jolene pulled her close. “I do believe Mr. McClintok would love to talk to you. Stay right here with Turner, and I’ll fetch him.”
Before Julia could form a reply, Jolene was off in a whirl of pale blue silk. Julia looked at her brother-in-law from the corner of her eye. “Hello, Turner.”
“Ah, how are you, Julia?” Turner asked.
Turner Crenshaw was strikingly handsome. And rich. He and Jolene made a very attractive couple, much in demand at social functions. Jolene’s throaty laugh and elegance combined with Turner’s good looks and business success made them the couple to emulate. Turner was always comfortable and in command, other than when he was forced to converse with his wife’s rather eccentric and spinster sister.
“I’m fine, Turner. Thank you for asking. How is William?” Julia asked.
“Quite the little man, already,” Turner replied with a smile.
The ensuing silence stretched on. As usual they had little to say to one another. Julia never pictured Turner as the brother she never had. Exactly the opposite, in fact. There was nothing sisterly about how her heart raced when Turner’s face broke into a beautiful smile. This was the most compelling reason to board that westbound train. She wasn’t eccentric. She was pitiful. Pining after her sister’s husband, year after year.
“William is so handsome already. He’ll break hearts all over Boston, I fear,” she said.
Turner agreed with a nod and gazed over the crowd, stopping as his wife leaned her head back to laugh. “With a mother as lovely as Jolene, I had little fear our children would not be beautiful.” Turner tilted his head and stared at his wife with passion and reverence. “She is the perfect mother, the perfect hostess. I am indeed a lucky man.”
Julia swallowed and turned to him with a shaky smile. “My sister is accomplished. The essence of all my mother’s work. But Jolene is lucky as well.”
Turner’s face reddened slowly from his neck to his ears. “Julia, I did not mean to go on so about her.”