The Engagement Bargain (Prairie Courtships)

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9780373282999: The Engagement Bargain (Prairie Courtships)

Make-believe betrothal 

Rock-solid and reliable, confirmed bachelor Caleb McCoy thought nothing could rattle him—until he discovers he needs to pose as Anna Bishop's intended groom. After saving her life, his honorable code bid Caleb watch over the innocent beauty. And a pretend engagement is the only way to protect her from further harm. 

Raised by a single mother and suffragist, Anna doesn't think much of marriage—and she certainly doesn't plan to try it herself. But playing Caleb's blushing bride-to-be makes her rethink her independent ways, because their make-believe romance is becoming far too real... 

Prairie Courtships: Romance on the range

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About the Author:

A wife and mother of three, Sherri Shackelford's hobbies include collecting mismatched socks, discovering new ways to avoid cleaning, and standing in the middle of the room while thinking, “Why did I just come in here?” A reformed pessimist and recent hopeful romantic, Sherri has a passion for writing. Her books are fun and fast-paced, with plenty of heart and soul. Write her at sherri@sherrishackelford.com or visit her website: sherrishackelford.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Outside the Savoy Hotel, Kansas City, Kansas 1884

Remind me again why we're here." Caleb McCoy glared at the growing mass of people jostling into his space.

He didn't like Kansas City. There were too many people in too little area. A man could hardly breathe. He'd much rather be home. Working. The sooner they were on their way home to Cimarron Springs, the better.

His sister, JoBeth, flashed a wry grin. "You're here because my husband obviously forced you."

JoBeth's husband, Garrett, had been unable to accompany his wife to the suffragist rally in support of a sixteenth amendment to the constitution, an amendment for the women's vote.

Jo had been adamant on attending.

Fearing for her safety, Garrett had strong-armed Caleb instead. The opposition to the women's movement had been disruptive on more than one occasion.

The buildings surrounding the tiny grassy square loomed over Caleb like brick-and-mortar sentinels. As the time for the suffragist speech neared, the mood of the crowd had shifted from lazy joviality into restless impatience.

His sister adjusted the gray knit shawl draped around her shoulders against the brittle fall breeze. "As you're quite well aware, I'm here for Anna Bishop's speech. This is the closest she's come in the year since we've been corresponding, and the best chance I have to see her in person again. If you'd met her when she traveled through Cimarron Springs last fall, you wouldn't be so surly."

"And yet she never replied to your telegram."

Jo pursed her lips. "It's possible she never received my message. She travels quite a bit."

Caleb mumbled a noncommittal response. Having been raised with five younger brothers, Jo was tougher than tanned leather. She was smart and independent, but vulnerable in the relationships in her life. Fiercely loyal, she naturally expected the same in her friends.

A good head taller than most of the women in the crowd, and several inches above the men, Caleb searched for any sign of dissention. "There's no trouble yet. That's a relief, at least. The sooner this speech is underway, the sooner it's over."

A faint, disgruntled snort sounded beside him.

While his sister had maintained an active correspondence with the prominent suffragist, the fact that Miss Bishop hadn't responded to Jo's most recent telegram had left him uneasy. "What do we know about Miss Bishop, anyway?"

"Well, she's the current darling of the suffragist movement, a sought-after speaker for the cause and an outspoken advocate for women's rights. You can't possibly find fault in any of that."

"An absolute paragon."

"She must be. You wouldn't believe the names people call her or the threats she receives. It's positively nauseating."

A grudging admiration for the suffragist's conviction filtered through his annoyance. His work as a veterinarian introduced him into people's lives during unguarded moments, and he wasn't naive to the injustices women faced. Men who were cruel to animals were just as apt to be violent toward the women and children in their lives. And yet a man who beat his horse was more likely to be censured or fined than a man who abused his wife.

Jo chucked him on the shoulder. "Even if Garrett forced you to accompany me, it's good for you to get out once in a while. You talk to animals more than people."

"That's my job," he grumbled. "Animals don't expect small talk."

Undaunted by his annoyance, she slipped her arm through the crook of his elbow. "I've been saddled with a male escort to an event celebrating the independence of women. You're lucky I'm not insulted."

"Then you should have mentioned that to your over-protective husband."

Jo sighed, her expression rueful. "And let you spend the day alone? Again? You're becoming too set in your ways. You're turning into a hermit. Everyone thinks you're still sweet on Mary Louise."

"I'm not—"

"Shush. Anna is about to speak."

Caleb lifted his eyes heavenward. He wasn't a man who sought attention. He wasn't a man who liked crowds. That didn't make him a recluse. He lived a good life. He had a thriving practice and he enjoyed his work. He'd tried his hand at romance once already. He'd been sweet on Mary Louise, but she'd chosen his younger brother instead. Since then he'd never had the desire to court anyone else.

With four brothers altogether, a confirmed bachelor in the family was hardly a great tragedy.

A smattering of applause drew his attention toward the podium. A nondescript woman in a gray dress took the stage and spoke a few words in a voice that barely carried beyond the first few rows of standing people.

Jo tugged her arm free. "I can't hear a thing. I'm moving closer."

She forged a path through the crowd, and he reluctantly followed. The scores of people pressing nearer had exhausted the oxygen from the space. Yanking on his collar, he sucked in a breath of heavy air. Bodies brushed against him, and sweat dampened the inside band of his hat. As the square had grown congested with late arrivals, the audience had abandoned their picnics and stood. He picked his way over the baskets and blankets littering the ground.

His heel landed in something squishy. Glancing down, he caught sight of the cherry pie he'd just decimated. No one cast an accusing glare in his direction, not that Jo paused long enough for him to apologize. He limped along behind her, dragging his heel through the flattened grass in a futile attempt to clean the sticky filling from his boot.

Near as he could tell, the gathering was an unequal mix of women to men. Judging from the expressions on their faces, the spectators were split between supporters and curiosity seekers. Jo charged ahead and found a spot near the barricades separating the makeshift stage from the audience. A young girl, no more than eight or nine years old in a bright yellow dress and white pinafore, scooted in beside Caleb. She rested her chin on the barricade and stared at the podium. Caleb frowned.

While the onlookers currently appeared harmless, this wasn't the place for an unattended child. "Shouldn't you be at home? Or in school or something?"

Two dark blond braids rested on the girl's shoulders, and she blinked her solemn gray eyes. "She's the prettiest lady I ever saw." The girl's voice quivered with admiration.

"The prettiest lady I've ever seen!''

"You like her, too?"

"No, that is…."

The woman on the stage announced Anna Bishop, and the girl's face lit up.

Caleb held his explanation. He'd been correcting his younger brothers' speech for years, and the habit was ingrained.

The girl in the yellow dress rose onto the balls of her feet and stared. Caleb followed her gaze and froze. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and looked again. Anna Bishop couldn't have been much older than her midtwen-ties or thereabouts. Her dark hair was smoothed away from her face and capped with a pert velvet hat decorated with an enormous teal plumed feather. Her skin was radiant, clear and pale, her cheeks blushed with excitement.

The cartoons he'd seen in the newspapers had depicted Miss Bishop as a dreary spinster with a pointed jaw and beady eyes. Having expected a much less flamboyant person, he fixated on the vibrant details. Her satin dress matched her feathered hat in the same deep, rich shade of turquoise. Rows of brilliant brass buttons created a chevron pattern mimicking a military style. The material at her waist was draped and pulled back into a modest bustle, the flounces lined with rope fringe.

She glanced his way, and he caught a glimpse of her eyes. Blue. Clear, brilliant blue.

His heartbeat skittered before resuming its normal rhythm. Miss Bishop marched up the stairs and exchanged a few words with the woman who'd made the introduction, then faced her audience.

"I am here as a person whose opinions, according to the laws of this nation, are of no merit to my community. I am here as a soldier in a great Civil War to amend this gross injustice," she declared, her lyrical voice pulsating with each word.

As she detailed the importance of the amendment, her eyes flashed, and the passion in her voice swelled. "We live in a country founded on the right of revolution and rebellion on the part of those suffering from intolerable injustice. We cannot fail to recognize the injustices heaped on one half of the population simply because that half is female. The Fifteenth Amendment was progress, but there is more to be done. If the question of race has been removed as a restriction, must the question of gender stand between us and the vote?"

Caleb forgot the crowds, he forgot the little girl standing beside him. He forgot everything but the woman on the stage. She was captivating. Her passion infectious, her furor beguiling.

He leaned forward, his grip on the barricade painful. Loosening his hold, he studied the rapt audience. He wasn't the only person riveted. Jo appeared equally enthralled by the charismatic speaker, as did most of the folks standing near the front. With each subsequent declaration, Miss Bishop's enthusiasm held the audience in captivated silence.

Caleb exhaled a heavy breath and shook his head.

Just his luck. The one woman who'd caught his attention in the time since his childish infatuation with Mary Louise was a suffragist. A woman who, according to the newspaper clippings Jo collected, considered men an unnecessary nuisance and marriage a legalized form of bondage. If Jo hadn't been standing beside him, he'd have hightailed it out of there. The last time he'd noticed a girl, he'd wound up with his heart broken and a whole passel of trouble besides.

"Go home to your mother," a hoarse voice near his left shouted, jarring Caleb from his glum ponderings.

"I think her mother is here!" Another jeered.

"Yeah," a third man bellowed. "How about you do something useful? Find yourself a husband."

A chorus of titters followed.

Caleb yanked upright, blinking as though he'd been awakened from a dream. The growing hostility in the crowd sent a slither of apprehension up spine.

The dissenters remained buried in the confusion of people. Anonymous in their enmity. Cowards.

He glanced at the little girl in the yellow dress, then leaned down. "Where are your parents?"

She pointed at the Savoy Hotel across the crowded square.

Caleb tugged on Jo's sleeves and nodded toward the girl. "She shouldn't be here."

Jo's eyes widened, clearly noticing Miss Bishop's young admirer for the first time. "Is she all alone?"

"Near as I can tell."

His sister tightened her bonnet over her dark hair, tossed a wistful glance at the podium, then sighed. "The atmosphere here is growing hostile. We should take her home."

He stepped back and let Jo pass before him. A gunshot sounded. Someone screamed.

Miss Bishop's brilliant turquoise skirts disappeared behind the podium. In an instant the scene descended into chaos. A man tripped and slammed into his back, shoving Caleb forward, and he careened into Jo. They crashed over the barrier. He angled his body and took the brunt of her weight, knocking the wind from his lungs. His ears rang, and he shielded Jo with his arm, searching for the girl in yellow.

She stood in the midst of the stampede, her eyes wide, her hands covering her face. The crowd parted around her like water skirting a boulder.

Caleb pushed off and forced his way through the fleeing mob. A sharp heel dug into his foot. A shoulder knocked him off balance. With a burst of strength, he lifted the girl into his arms, turned and leaped back over the toppled barricade.

The mob pushed and shoved, scattering like buckshot away from the podium. A cacophony of deafening voices shouted as people were separated in the confusion. While disorder ruled, Caleb crouched behind the limited protection of the barricade with his sister and the girl, shielding them as best he could with his outstretched arms. He'd rather take his chances with a stray bullet than risk getting trampled beneath the fleeing spectators.

After several tense minutes that seemed to last an eternity, the ground ceased vibrating. The noise lessened. A gentle breeze stirred the hair at the nape of his neck.

He chanced lifting his head, astonished by the sudden silence. In an instant the square had cleared. Only a few people remained, looking dazed but uninjured.

Jo shoved her bonnet from her face. "Is everyone all right?"

The little girl nodded. She straightened and brushed at her yellow skirts, appearing no worse for wear. A panicked voice shouted behind him. "We need a doctor!"

Caleb searched for the source of the frantic call. The dispersing crowd had all but emptied the grassy square, taking cover in the nearby hotels and businesses, leaving a mess of blankets and overturned baskets in their wake. Caleb pushed himself upright and reached for Jo.

She yanked her hand from his protective grasp. "Find out who needs a doctor, and I'll take care of this little sprite."

"I'm a veterinarian."

"You're better than nothing," Jo declared with her usual blunt edge. "Can you see Anna? Is she all right?"

"She took cover as soon as the pandemonium started. I'm sure she's fine."

His answer was mostly truthful. While his attention had been focused on Jo and the young girl, he'd caught a glimpse of Anna's turquoise blue dress near the podium.

"Help," the frenzied voice called. "We need help."

Though reluctant to lose sight of his sister, Caleb knew Jo better than most anyone. She wouldn't put herself in unnecessary danger. She was smart and resourceful. They had to separate.

He touched her sleeve. "Whatever happens, meet me in the lobby of the Savoy at noon. That's twenty minutes."

At his easy capitulation, Jo's expression lost its stubborn set. "Noon." She reached for the girl's hand. "We're going to find your parents. What's your name?"

The girl pressed her lips together, as though holding back her answer.

She shook her head, and her two long braids whipped around her neck. "I'm not s'posed to tell strangers."

Jo shrugged. "That's all right. You don't have to tell me. My name is Jo. Can I least walk you back to the hotel?"

The girl screwed up her face in concentration. "To mama?"

"Yes, to your mother." The girl nodded.

Satisfied Jo had control of the situation, Caleb spun around and pushed his way through the knot of people toward the frantic voice. He broke through to the center, and his stomach dropped.

An...

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