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Authors: The Bartered Bride

Cheryl Reavis

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Frederich held her tightly, awash in emotion,

afraid that Caroline would suddenly remember who he was and pull away. He grazed her cheek with his rough hand, stroked the dark hair he’d been so longing to touch.

“I would do anything for you,” he whispered to himself—in German.

He held her, feeling her sorrow and his own, determined to keep her close like this for as long as she would allow it. But the horse pranced nervously, and she abruptly let go of him and slid from his grasp to the ground, hurrying into the house without once looking back.

He sat there completely overwhelmed. He couldn’t deny the truth any longer. He cared far more for this exasperating woman than he ever intended, and he wanted her—as a friend, a lover, as a wife…!

Dear Reader,

We are delighted this month at the return of three-time RITA Award winner Cheryl Reavis to Harlequin Historicals. Her heart-wrenching tale,
The Bartered Bride,
is set in Civil War North Carolina. It’s the story of a pregnant woman who has little choice but to marry her sister’s widower, a man whom she considers heartless, but who, over time, teaches her the healing powers of forgiveness and love.

Abigail Cooprel suddenly comes face-to-face with a man who is the very image of her adopted son in
Abbie’s Child,
the second book from talented newcomer Linda Castle, whose first book,
Fearless Hearts,
was released during our annual March Madness promotion in 1995, to loud acclaim.

Multigenre author Merline Lovelace makes history come alive in her new release,
Lady of the Upper Kingdom,
the dramatic story of forbidden love between two strong-willed people separated by the treachery and distrust that exists between their two cultures, the Egyptian and the Greek. And from Catherine Archer comes
Velvet Touch,
the sequel to her previous Medieval,
Velvet Bond,
the bittersweet story of a young nobleman who is sent by his king to arrange a marriage and settle a feud, only to fall in love with the intended bride.

Whatever your taste in reading, we hope you will enjoy all four Harlequin Historicals, available wherever books are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell,
Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to: Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

The Bartered Bride
Cheryl Reavis

Books by Cheryl Reavis

Harlequin Historicals

The Prisoner
#126

The Bartered Bride
#319

Silhouette Special Edition

A Crime of the Heart
#487

Patrick Gallagher’s Widow
#627

*One of Our Own
#901

*Family Blessings

CHERYL REAVIS,

public health nurse, short-story author and award-winning romance novelist, says she is a writer of emotions. “I want to feel all the joys and the sorrows and everything in between. Then, with just the right word, the right turn of phrase, I hope to take the reader by the hand and make her feel them, too.” Cheryl currently makes her home in North Carolina with her husband and son.

For Josephine, who took me to a Robert E. Lee
lecture
exactly
when I needed to go.

Prologue

North Carolina

December 1861

S
omeone else was in the church. He stood listening for a moment, certain now that the faint sound had come from the back of the sanctuary.

“Wer ist da?” he
called out, not wanting to frighten any of the old women who might have come to polish the candlesticks or put out the hymnals for the Sunday service.

No one answered.

“Who…is it?” he managed in English.

Again there was no reply.

He began to stack the oak logs he’d cut in the wood box near the potbellied stove. He could still hear the girls playing on the front steps by the open door; neither of them had followed him inside. There was much talk among the men these days about the possibility of army deserters or escapees from the new Confederate prison in town, but neither would have been of concern to him—if he had come to the church alone. He didn’t care about the politics of this country. He didn’t care who won the newly declared war or who escaped from the prisons. He didn’t care about anything except the fact that he had Ann’s daughters with him
and he had given his solemn promise to always keep them out of harm’s way.

He took a moment to look around the sanctuary. He saw no one, heard nothing, and he decided that he must have been mistaken. But then the sound came again, a faint whimper he might not have heard if he hadn’t already been listening so intently. He turned and walked quietly toward the back of the church, and he saw her almost immediately. She was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs that led to the schoolroom on the second floor.

“Bitte—”
he began, but she jumped violently, startling him as well. He moved around so that he could see her better in the dim light, recognizing her now in spite of the fact that she turned sharply away from him. She wiped furtively at her eyes, bringing her feet up under her as if she intended to make herself as small as possible.

He stepped closer.

“Eli,” she said, making a great effort to look at him. She attempted a smile, but her mouth trembled and her voice was hardly more than a whisper. She turned away again, telling him something in rapid English he didn’t begin to understand.

He stood awkwardly, not knowing what to do. Her hair was coming down and one button at the neck of her bodice hung by a thread. If she had not been Ann’s sister and if his promise hadn’t included her as well, he would have left her sitting there.

“Caroline? You are…ill?” he said. He had neither the proficiency nor the inclination to ask anything more. Perhaps she’d had another argument with her brother Avery— in which case her current state was to be expected. He knew Avery Holt to be a bully, and he knew from Ann that Caroline did her best to provoke him. He wanted to just go, but for Ann’s sake, he stretched out his hand. Surprisingly, Caroline took it, her fingers cold and clinging in his.

“Was haben Sie?”
he asked, making her look at him.

“…the children,” was all that he understood of her reply.

“Ja—yes,” he said, looking over his shoulder toward the open door. “Mary Louise is…here.
Und
Lise. Both— here—”

“Eli,” she said in alarm, trying to push him in the direction he’d come. “Mary Louise and Lise—please—
bitte!”

He hesitated, but he understood that her distress was such that she didn’t want her nieces to see her.

“Bitte!”
she said again, her eyes following his glance at the dangling button. She snatched it from its thread and shoved it into her pocket.

He stood up and walked quickly away, glancing back at her when he reached the end of the aisle. She was no longer sitting on the bottom step.

He stepped outside, firmly closing the church door behind him.

Chapter One

March 1862

C
aroline Holt had been waiting all afternoon for her brother Avery to return. She kept walking to the window to look out across the fields toward the Graeber farm. That Avery would drop everything to answer a summons from Frederich Graeber was incredible to her. The ground had to be readied for the spring planting, and Avery despised their German brother-in-law.

It was nearly dark when he finally rode into the yard. She went hurriedly back to the churning, a task she’d let take far too long while he’d been gone. She worked the churn hard, determined not to give him the satisfaction of knowing she’d been so curious about his absence that she’d neglected the butter making. He came into the kitchen immediately, leaving the door ajar much longer than was necessary and tracking in mud with no concern at all for the backbreaking effort it took to keep the rough oak floor scrubbed clean. She shivered in the draft of cold air, but she made no comment.

“Frederich Graeber wants to marry you,” he said without prelude.

She looked up from the butter churn, but she didn’t break the rhythm of the churning. The statement was so ridiculous
that her first inclination was to laugh. Her brother was not a humorous man, but still she thought he must be joking. Even if he had somehow guessed how badly she needed marrying, he wouldn’t have suggested Frederich Graeber— except as some kind of cruel joke.

“I want you to marry him. I’ve already answered for you,” he said. “They’re going to announce it in the German church Sunday—Frederich will make his formal pledge to you then.”

She continued to stare at him, realizing now that he was entirely serious and that this marriage plan must account for Frederich’s summons and for his willingness of late to bring her nieces here to the house to see her.

Poor Avery,
she thought. He had no inkling of the impossibility of his arrangement. For the first time in her life she felt a little sorry for him.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he said in annoyance. “Did you hear what I said?”

“I heard you, Avery. And I can only suppose that you’ve lost your mind.”

He gave a little smile. “Now why would you
suppose
that?”

“You know I can’t marry Frederich Graeber.”

“Can’t?” he said, coming closer. His hair was sweated to his forehead. Before he had departed for the Graeber farm, he and Frederich’s nephew, Eli, had been shoveling horse manure into newly plowed ground all morning. Avery still stank of it, and somewhere along the way he must have lifted a keg of beer—to celebrate the bargain he and Frederich thought they had made.

“It’s done, Caroline,” he said, his voice still calm because he was used to having his way. Indeed, who ever said no to him? And who else refused to tolerate his arrogance but her? Certainly not their mother when she was alive. And certainly not the women here. Caroline couldn’t account for the fact that so many of them preferred the civilian Avery
and his finagled farmer’s exemption to the boys who’d gone for soldiers and were fighting in Virginia—except for the fact that Avery was
here,
of course. And he was handsome. But his handsomeness was far surpassed by his fickle nature. The list of widows and maidens who’d aspired and failed to marry Avery Holt grew longer every day.

“I’ve already told Frederich you want it,” he said, and she abruptly looked away from him. She felt light-headed again and she concentrated hard on keeping the rhythm of the churning by fervently whispering the work poem that went with the task.

Come-butter-come

Come-butter-come

It was only at the last moment that she allowed herself to acknowledge her anger.

You-marry-the-German

This-time-Avery!

But Avery had no use for Germans—unless he needed manure shoveled or his man’s nature satisfied. She had happened upon how deftly he accomplished the latter at John Steigermann’s corn husking. The drinking and the dancing and the games on that cold October night had been incidental to the stripping of a roof-high pile of corn and John Steigermann’s daughter. Avery had bloodied a few noses to find and keep the first red ear, and Leah Steigermann was supposed to kiss him for it. She lifted her skirts to him as well—beautiful wine velvet skirts held high for Avery Holt in a cow stall, and Caroline a witness to it all because she’d thought to keep her other, too-young brother
from hiding in the barn and sampling Frederich Graeber’s famous plum brandy.

Avery slammed his hand down hard on the kitchen table, making her jump. “I’m talking to you, Caroline! I don’t know why you think you can pick and choose here. I said you’re going to marry Frederich—you owe me, Caroline. You and Ann both owe me!”

“Ann is dead. Whatever you think her debt is, surely you can count it paid now. Just how is it I owe you?”

“I sent you to school in town. I stayed here working my tail off and I did without to keep you in ribbons and bread—”

“That was a long time ago. Mother’s inheritance paid for most of my schooling and you know it.”

“What about the nieces?” he asked, obviously trying a different approach. “What about Ann’s girls—you want them raised German?”

“What’s wrong with that—if German is good enough for
both
your sisters to marry?”

Avery swore and flung open the pie safe, looking for the fried apple pies left over from breakfast. He had married Ann to Frederich first—more than eight years ago when their mother was still alive but too addled to notice his machinations. He’d gotten the use of an acre of land with a spring out of that arrangement—when
he
should have been the one providing the property for Ann to bring to her marriage. At fourteen, Ann had been too young to marry—a fact that Frederich in his lust and Avery in his greed failed to notice. She endured one pregnancy after another in the effort to get Frederich Graeber a male heir until it killed her. People here pitied Frederich—not because his beautiful young wife had died, but because he had no sons. Caroline gave a wavering sigh. If the announcement was to be made in the German church this Sunday, then they must all know by now where he planned to get
those.

She abruptly remembered a time last spring when she and Ann had taken the girls on a too-early picnic. The sun had been so bright that day, pinching their eyes shut and warming their faces while their backs stayed winter cold. The robins ran across the ground and the violets poked out from under the dead leaves, and Ann had told her that she was pregnant again.

And Caroline hadn’t been able to make her worry.

“Everything will be fine,” Ann kept saying.

“But the doctor in town—I thought you weren’t supposed to—”

“Life is short, Caroline,” she said with a laugh, as if she were the older and wiser sister. “If you ever came out of those books of yours sometime, you’d know that.”

Doesn’t Frederich care about you at all?
Caroline had nearly asked, She had believed even then that he was a cold, indifferent man, their marriage never progressing beyond Avery’s mercenary arrangement between two strangers. Ann had never seemed to be anything Frederich considered significant to his well-being—except for
that.

Don’t worry, Caroline. I’m so happy!

But she had worried—and with good reason. Ann had died of the pregnancy that gave her such joy.

Another memory surfaced. Avery had appeared then with his many complaints, disgruntled because she and Ann had picnicked too long and delayed his supper. Ann had done her best to annoy him—she was an old married woman and beyond his command, refusing to speak to him in anything but the German she was suddenly learning, provoking him to swear because he couldn’t find out anything about Frederich’s latest agricultural successes.

Remembering now, Caroline gave a slight smile, but the smile abruptly faded. She had held Ann’s hand while she bled to death from another miscarriage. Nothing the midwife tried and nothing written in the herb book had stopped the flow. Ann was twenty-two years old. She hadn’t known
where she was, hadn’t known her children or Caroline, hadn’t asked for Frederich even once.

“I don’t understand,” she said in those last minutes and nothing more.

Caroline had had to go hunt for Frederich to tell him.

“My sister is dead,” she said to him, and he kept chopping wood and never looked at her. Ann had borne him two daughters, died trying to give him his precious son, and Frederich hadn’t even looked at her. It was little Lise, who was barely seven, who found the things Caroline needed to ready Ann for burial, not Beata, Frederich’s own sister, who should have done it. And it was Eli who lifted Ann into her coffin—Frederich hadn’t stopped
chopping.

Work. Order. Discipline. The Germans believed in nothing else—except perhaps their medieval superstitions. The mirrors had to be covered so that Ann’s soul couldn’t escape into one. She had to be taken out feetfirst so that she couldn’t give the room a “last look.” She had to be buried with a lemon under her chin. And what a good thing it was that her baby hadn’t lived, Beata said—because Ann’s ghost would have come at midnight to suckle it.

And Avery expected her to marry into that.

“You’re past your prime, Caroline,” he said, startling her because in her reverie she hadn’t realized that he had come so close. He suddenly reached out and grabbed the plunger in the churn, stopping it and holding it fast. She tried unsuccessfully to peel his big fingers away. After a moment, he abruptly let go.

“What do you get out of this, Avery?” she asked, picking up the rhythm of the churning again, holding on to it for dear life. Perhaps there had been a reason for Frederich’s woodchopping on the day that Ann died after all, she thought. Work could be an anchor, a place to hide, a way to
not
think.

Ah, but to do that, Frederich would have had to be a man capable of feeling in the first place, and she knew better than that.

“I’m the head of the family,” Avery said. “It’s my duty to see you married.”

“What do you get out of this, Avery?” she asked again.

“Nothing I don’t already have,” he answered obscurely.

“Does William know what you’ve done?”

“I haven’t
done
anything, Caroline, that isn’t for your own good—and yes, our little brother knows. He was there when Frederich asked for you.”

She abruptly stopped churning; Avery looked up from the pie he was eating and smiled.

“You see?” he said with his mouth full. “You thought it was all my doing. It wasn’t, Caroline. The marriage is Frederich’s idea, not mine. To tell you the truth, it never even occurred to me.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then ask William.”

“Beata Graeber won’t stand for her brother marrying another Holt, Avery. She despised Ann.”

“Since when do you think a man makes his plans according to the whims of some old maid relative?”

“Frederich never went against anything Beata said for Ann’s sake. Never. Ann had to live in his house like some kind of poor relation.”

“Frederich asked for you. I said yes. So there you are. You’re past your prime, Caroline,” he said again. “If he wants you, you should be grateful—God knows, I am.”

“I won’t marry my dead sister’s husband—”

“Let’s see if I’ve got this right, Caroline. First you ‘can’t.’ Now you ‘won’t.’ You’re the one who said it—Ann is dead. And, by God, you
will
marry him. He’s got no heir and he’s not likely to get one out of you.”

She understood then. If Frederich had no sons, then who would be his closest male heir after Eli? Frederich might
leave a portion of his land to his inept, non-farmer nephew, but he wouldn’t leave the rest of it in the care of his daughters—no man here did if there was any other alternative. His daughters’ uncles might be another matter. Avery would be right there waiting, and if not him, then William—which would be the same thing. William was too timid to go against whatever Avery wanted, even if it were to take over an inherited Graeber farm.

But she didn’t understand Frederich. He was rich enough to send to Germany for a bride if none of the women here appealed to him. The German men and his sister Beata would have surely pointed out how foolish he was being. The young Holt couldn’t breed—nothing but females and dropped litters. And the old one? Why do you want a thirty-year-old wife when you’ve got no sons? they’d ask him.

Why?

She had no accord with Frederich Graeber. She had hardly spoken a dozen words to him in all the time he and Ann had been married. He’d never made her feel welcome at the Graeber house, never seemed to notice Beata’s rudeness to her and Ann both. It couldn’t be because she was aunt to Mary Louise and Lise, she thought. Frederich Graeber didn’t care in the least for his female children. Or if he did, not enough to marry a woman “past her prime.”

Except that she wasn’t past her prime, and before long everyone would know it. She had had no monthly bleeding since November; a horrible and unpredictable nausea had taken its place. She couldn’t control it, and she’d been frantic that Avery would notice. Clearly, he hadn’t.

Oh, God,
she thought.
What am I going to do?

The back door abruptly opened—her younger brother William bringing the cold March wind in with him. She saw immediately that Avery had been telling the truth about him at least. William knew all about her proposed marriage, because he studiously avoided her eyes. He, too, went to the pie safe in a quest for food.

“Is Eli still out there?” Avery asked him.

“He went home,” William said, looking again at the bare shelf in the pie safe as if he expected something to just magically appear. He was big for his age, taller than Avery, and he was always hungry.

“You got the horses settled?”

“Eli did it—”

“Damn it, boy, you get back out there and make sure those animals are put up right. Eli doesn’t know a damn thing about horses—”

“He does, too,” William interrupted in a rare contradiction of one of Avery’s pronouncements. “It’s farming he don’t know nothing about. He can take care of a horse good.” He glanced at Caroline, but he wouldn’t hold her gaze. He stood awkwardly for a moment. “I…reckon Frederich’s got in the habit of marrying Holt women,” he offered, still avoiding her eyes.

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