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Authors: Trouble in Paradise

Liz Ireland

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Roy’s gaze fastened on her gown, making her cheeks glow with heat.

His eyes roved from the cheap eyelet trim of her simple muslin nightgown, up each cloth button until he reached her breasts, where his attention stalled. Ellie flushed with embarrassment, wishing she’d gone ahead and buttoned her gown right up to the top. She only prayed the gathered folds of her nightgown hid her six months’ swollen belly.

The sooner she helped him get a blanket, the sooner Roy would be out of her bedroom. His bedroom. She felt a little twinge of uneasiness to think that she would be sleeping in his bed, a fact that hadn’t seemed to register until she saw him staring at her in it. That slightly different scent, fragrantly musky…The sheets and blankets that covered and warmed her were the same ones that also performed the same service for him. The realization made sleeping in his bed seem almost inappropriately intimate.

Dear Reader,

The sleepy little town of Paradise, Nebraska, is turned on its ear when abandoned and pregnant Geraldine Fitzsimmons moves into town, but her lively humor and friendly nature soon win over the staid townspeople and disarm confirmed bachelor Roy McCain in author Liz Ireland’s delightful new Western,
Trouble in Paradise.

In keeping with the season, don’t miss
Halloween Knight,
complete with a bewitching heroine, a haunted castle and an inspired cat, by Maggie Award-winning author Tori Phillips. It’s a delightful tale of rescue that culminates with a Halloween banquet full of surprises!
USA Today
bestselling author Margaret Moore returns with her new Regency,
The Duke’s Desire
—the story of reunited lovers who must suppress the flames of passion that threaten to destroy both their reputations. And in
Dryden’s Bride,
a Medieval by Margo Maguire, a lively noblewoman en route to a convent takes a detour when she falls in love with a noble knight.

Whatever your taste in historicals, look for all four Harlequin Historicals at your nearby book outlet.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

T
ROUBLE
IN
P
ARADISE

L
IZ
I
RELAND

Available from Harlequin Historicals and LIZ IRELAND

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Prologue

New York City, 1892

M
rs. Louisa Sternhagen’s large green eyes, which, in her youth, had been renowned for their pleasing appearance but now were protuberant in her aged, gaunt face, widened almost to popping when she realized, quite suddenly, one morning over her customary breakfast of coffee and dry toast, that her downstairs serving maid was
with child.
Quite!

“Good Lord!” the venerable woman exclaimed.

Since Mrs. Sternhagen wasn’t one to mutter an oath even in front of servants, Ellie Fitzsimmons started in surprise, her quaking hands nearly dropping the weighty silver coffee service on her employer. She didn’t have to look into the woman’s face once more to know what exactly had caused Mrs. Sternhagen’s outburst. A knot formed in the pit of her stomach. This was the moment she had been dreading for months.

“Heavens, Eleanor! What have you done?”

Placing the coffeepot down on the sideboard, Ellie turned back to her mistress, took a deep breath, and
announced belatedly, “I’m going to have a baby, ma’am.”

Mrs. Sternhagen paled. “I can see
that
for myself.” Having recovered from the first blow of surprise, she reverted to the clipped tone she customarily used when addressing her servants. “You should have come to me sooner.”

“Yes, ma’am.”
So she could have the privilege of being sacked sooner,
Ellie thought, biting her tongue to keep from voicing the thought.

Silence stretched in the opulent dining room, broken only by the grandfather clock in the marble-floored hall chiming a quarter past eight. Ellie had no idea what to say next, but for some devilish reason, she had the terrible urge to giggle. Maybe it was the way Mrs. Sternhagen’s thin lips puckered into a sour line of disapproval. The lady had never so strikingly resembled a bug-eyed old prune.

Finally, Mrs. Sternhagen took a sip of coffee and glanced up at her again. “And what are your plans, young woman?”

“Plans?” Ellie replied, blinking innocently.

“Yes, plans!” the old lady repeated impatiently. “Come, come. Don’t you intend to find a father for your child?”

Ellie’s cheeks heated with indignation. She had expected a lecture. She fully anticipated that she would be let go. But Mrs. Sternhagen couldn’t be so obtuse that she didn’t see what had happened under her own roof!

She squared her shoulders. If she was going to lose her job and, because she was live-in help, her home, she couldn’t see the point in sparing her employer’s feelings. “I had no trouble finding him, ma’am, since he lived under the same roof as me.”

An iron-gray eyebrow shot up warningly. “Indeed?”

“Yes, but when I told him that he was going to be a father, he caught a sudden chill and decided to go on holiday to South Carolina.”

Recognizing her son Percy’s autumn itinerary, Mrs. Sternhagen froze. “Is this blackmail, miss?” she asked icily. “Because if it is, I warn you I’ll have none of it.”

Fury coursed through Ellie’s veins. She looked down at the coffeepot, wishing now that she
had
spilled some burning liquid on the old biddy’s lap. She had to keep her eyes focused on the Persian rug to calm herself. “I merely thought you might wish to be informed that you’re going to have a grandchild.”

“Outrageous impudence!” thundered the deep voice. It appeared the great lady might faint, but she soon gathered her breath and glared blisteringly back at Ellie. “I
have
grandchildren. Eight of them—my own flesh and blood.”

“But—”

Before she could be given that lesson in biology, Mrs. Sternhagen continued, “Frankly, Eleanor, when you first came here, I was concerned. But you seemed intelligent, and quick enough. A little too dreamy, perhaps. I often worried where your mind was. Now I know. It was in the gutter.”

Now Ellie feared
she
might faint. To be called “quick enough” by a woman who could barely write a bread-and-butter note without assistance was too much to bear. She had read twice as much, knew twice as much, as most of the guests who passed through the marble foyer! But then to be told that her mind was
in the gutter…

Mrs. Sternhagen’s expression turned unspeakably
grim, silencing Ellie before she could hurl the insult the old woman so richly deserved. “This is a respectable house, Miss Fitzsimmons, and as such, there is no longer any place for you here.”

Chapter One

“I
t’s a fine mess you’ve gone and got yourself in, Ellie,” Mary O’Malley, one of Mrs. Sternhagen’s upstairs maids, lectured. “Not that I couldn’t see it comin’. First day you came around to the house, I says to myself, ‘Lord, if that one ain’t gonna cause herself a load of trouble, thinkin’ she’s better’n everyone else—with her books and her letter-writin’ and her absentminded ways.’ And that’s just what you done, ain’t it? Caused yourself a load of trouble!”

Ears already numb with lecturing, Ellie nodded. The only load she could think about at the moment was the one she was carrying in both hands. The two battered grips held all her possessions in the world, including beloved but weighty books that had belonged to her father. For a moment she blocked out the terrible cacophony on the busy street—most of it coming from Mary—by imagining what her favorite novelists might do with a character in her predicament. Say, Mr. Dickens or Victor Hugo. Then she shuddered. They would surely make her out to be one of those characters who came to a bad end—either washing up on a storm-tossed rocky shore, or worse, marrying some toothless old farmer who owned a
deep well to toss herself down some blustery day. She tried to think about Anthony Trollope instead. Or better yet, Jane Austen. They might be a little kinder…or at least funnier. Everything was bearable if she could laugh, although right now she didn’t feel like she had so much as a chuckle in her.

“And if you ask me,” Mary said, “that coffee you spilt on Mrs. Sternhagen’s finest Persian rug weren’t no accident, neither!”

Ellie reluctantly pulled herself out of fiction and back to her real biography. She shrugged sheepishly. “I was upset, naturally….”

“Pride goeth before the fall, don’t it? Lucky for you that I’m the charitable type,” Mary rattled on, heedless of the dust kicked into their faces by a passing carriage. “Fergus and me’s happy to help you. Your room’s no more than a closet but I daresay you’ll be lucky to be havin’ it, since you won’t be able to pay us nothin’ and will likely be a terrible burden.”

“I’ll do what I can, Mary.” But the promise rang hollow even to Ellie’s own ears. She had little money saved, and what she did have would probably be gone before the baby came, no matter how tightly she economized. Mary was right. She
was
lucky someone would take her in for a little while, at least until she could find another situation.

But how was she going to achieve that feat? The only work she had ever done was as a domestic, but no decent family was going to take in a pregnant girl. She was lucky not to have her condition show too much, but a maid’s uniform was not very forgiving. Besides, her potential employers would soon learn that she had been dismissed by old Louisa Sternhagen, and it would inevitably become known, in the way things always became public knowledge in the
small world of New York society, that her downfall had been caused by a liaison with her ex-employer’s son.

She would have to leave New York. But where would she go? Philadelphia? Things were probably no better there for a young woman with a child. She couldn’t imagine anywhere being very promising. Except…

For a brief moment, her mind blotted out soot and dust and noise and she imagined the grassy rolling plains of a place far west, as they had been described to her in letters. Parker McMillan had written that Nebraska was a more informal place than the east. He’d also said there weren’t too many spare women out west, which had to mean that practically any woman could find work there. Even a woman with a baby, perhaps.

“Here we are,” Mary announced, steering Ellie into the door of a dreary brick building. Once inside, they were met by a dark narrow staircase.

“Top floor.” Mary bustled up the stairs with barely a glance back at Ellie. “Lord, you look a thousand miles away!”

Ellie laughed. “I was.”

Mary frowned her disapproval, as if laughter weren’t allowed a fallen woman like Ellie. “Thinking about some fella, I suppose. As if you hadn’t had enough trouble with men!”

Ellie stiffened defensively. “I only write to Mr. McMillan about cultural subjects.”

“McMillan? Ha!” Mary rolled her eyes, obviously shocked that Ellie could be so misguided. “What would a
Scotsman
know about culture?”

Three flights later, they arrived at the O’Malley apartment, which felt nearly as gritty as the street had. The front room was narrow, with a kitchen stuffed
right in the middle. Laundry hung on a line zigzagging the room, assaulting the occupants with patched worn garments and gray drawers that made Ellie want to avert her face as she passed. Mary escorted Ellie to her “room,” little more than a section of a hallway marked off by a cloth screen.

Mary gauged her reaction. “Don’t like it, do you?” Her voice held a challenge.

Ellie shook her head, not wanting to be impolite, or to give Mary another chance to call her high and mighty. “No, no, it’s very nice. I just…” She swallowed, feeling despair overwhelm her. “I think I might write a letter before supper.”

“Letters!” Mary scoffed, retreating. “I might’ve known. Well, suit yourself—as long as you know dinner don’t make itself!”

Ellie flopped onto the cot, sending a cloud of dust billowing up from the mattress. Dust or no dust, her living conditions would be easier to endure than Mary’s charitable nagging. Wasting no time, she reached into one of her bags and found her writing paper.

Nebraska. She mouthed the word, familiarizing herself with the feel of it on her tongue. It sounded so foreign, so far away. Yet the name of the town was comforting. Paradise. What more could she ask for?

She could probably just scrape together enough money for a train ticket there, and even then she would probably have to sell some of her father’s nicer books. She looked down at her bags and frowned. Her father’s treasures, his legacy to her. They were practically all she had left of him. Her mother had died when she was still a baby, and her father, a coachman, had raised her in the tiny rooms furnished by his employers. These books had been his joy in life, his one
extravagance, and they’d read them together. In a way, those pages had been their real home.

And yet she needed them now to provide for her own child.

Her child…. For a moment, she tried to imagine her own boy or girl, growing up somewhere unfettered by the strict rules that governed the society she knew. Why, in Nebraska it might not be so terrible not to have a father.

She shook her head. No place on earth was that unfettered!

But then again…who in Nebraska would have to know her child had no father? After all, even Parker McMillan, whom she had written to for almost a year in response to an advertisement in the paper seeking a correspondent on cultural subjects, knew very little about her. And what little he did know wasn’t entirely accurate. When he had mistaken her for an educated lady of leisure after receiving her first letter with its impressive return address, she had embroidered her dull life with just enough fabulous detail to appeal to her own sense of fun, not to mention her love of fiction. She had never dreamed that she would actually meet Parker McMillan from Nebraska.

But there was absolutely no reason now, when her need was so desperate, that she couldn’t embroider her tale just a little more. For instance, if she told him she was recently widowed…

“When you goin’ to open that letter, Parker? Christmas?”

Ike Gray, tickled by his own wit—Christmas was nearly three months away—burst out laughing at what was supposed to be a joke, not caring that no one else joined in the merriment.

In truth, at the reminder of Parker’s letter-writing
proclivities, Roy McMillan was annoyed. His younger brother always tightly guarded the mail he received from a certain New York City address, then pored over the letters by the fire after dinner. What the heck were he and that lady writing about all the time? Roy couldn’t imagine. He himself had barely written five letters in his entire lifetime, and most of those had been for business. What could anyone have to say to a girl on paper, especially one who was a thousand miles away?

Parker, accustomed to their farmhand’s ribbing, pushed his chair away from the dinner they’d just demolished, leaned back, and smiled broadly. “Is it my fault that I like to talk about other things besides hogs and wheat sometimes? Or that I have to go halfway across the continent to do it?”

Ike smiled broadly at Roy and winked. “You sure all you’re doin’ with this Eleanor woman is talkin’, Parker?”

Roy scowled at the idea that it could be anything more. His brother’s correspondence with a woman plumb across the country was his own business, but he hated to think of Parker getting carried away. For a McMillan man, Parker was uncommonly susceptible when it came to matters of the heart. All last winter, Roy had had to deal with Parker’s moping over fickle Clara Trilby—and last winter had been unusually long and severe, giving Parker ample opportunity to stare endlessly into the fire, letting out occasional breathy lovesick moans. How irritating that had been! With November just weeks away, Roy certainly didn’t care for a repeat of last year, especially if all that groaning was going to be over a woman Parker had never even clapped eyes on.

“Not like you can talk in a letter anyhow,” Roy
pointed out. “Not really. It’s certainly no way to carry on a romance.”

Ike practically howled at that statement. “Since when were you a romance expert, Roy?”

Roy shrugged, perturbed. Whose side was Ike on? He’d been here last winter, too. Didn’t he remember the
moaning?

Besides, everybody knew the McMillans were a family of bachelors, with the singular, albeit vital, exception of Roy and Parker’s father, whose marital gambit had turned out to be a disaster. The woman he’d married had been able to stand only five Nebraska winters before she’d bolted, leaving her husband and toddling babies behind. As far as Roy knew, their father had never heard from his mother again before he died three years later. Roy and Parker were subsequently reared by three bachelor uncles, and Roy could remember thinking, even as a boy, how companionable they all seemed, how much more free and happy their lives were than their father’s short, disappointing life had been. Even now their last surviving uncle, Ed, was still living on the old McMillan homestead five miles away, alone and happy and productive, an example to them all of the joys of bachelor life.

Unfortunately, Parker appeared to forget the McMillan bachelor creed sometimes, opening himself up to unnecessary suffering.

Roy kept his gaze focused on Ike, but directed his words to his brother. “I just don’t see the point in getting all tangled up with a woman in Paradise, much less one in New York City.”

His brother’s eyes, which could stare right through a person with disarming intensity, focused on him. “Then who was that gal I saw you all tangled up with at the Lalapalooza last Saturday?”

“You know what I meant,” Roy replied curtly, squirming a little under his brother’s gaze. “Saloon girls don’t count.”

“They’d count if you’d married one,” Ike interjected. “Yessir, if you married one, she’d sure count.”

“Well I’m not going to marry one,” Roy replied.

“Wilber Whitestone did—that pretty yellow-haired girl named Marie.” Ike crossed his arms as if he’d just won an argument.

Roy rolled his eyes. “But
I’m
not going to marry anybody.”

Parker laughed. “Don’t worry, Roy, I’m not embracing matrimony. Even if I wanted to, I doubt Miss Fitzsimmons would have me.”

That assurance didn’t soothe Roy any, either. In fact, it made him downright mad. “Why? Does this Fitzsimmons lady think she’s too good for you?”

Parker shook his head. “She’s not like that. But from what she’s written me, I know that she lives pretty well. A big house in a neighborhood where all the richest people in New York live. You should hear the parties she’s described—the food and the dancing and the people! Do you know that the Vanderbilt family visits her home?” He continued to shake his head, clearly impressed with such opulence. “A fine society lady wouldn’t be interested in moving to a dusty four-room house in western Nebraska.”

“Sounds pretty hopeless, all right,” Ike admitted.

“Good,” Roy said. “Women are more trouble than they’re worth.”

“I don’t know…” Ike put in. “My mama was an awful hard worker, and so were my sisters. In fact, Roy, a woman can be a handy thing to have around the house. They can do all sorts of things that you probably never think about.”

“Like what?”

“Well…they can cook, for instance.”

“We can all cook just fine,” Roy argued.

Ike and Parker’s gazes subtly surveyed the remains of their dinner, which, incidentally, Roy had prepared. He knew what they were thinking. He himself had to admit that the corn bread had tasted leathery, and all right, he’d charred the ham a little. Personally, he
liked
that smokey flavor. The beans had come out mushy—but that was just because while he’d been cooking them, he’d also been working on sharpening the blade on the old plow. Time had gotten away from him.

“Most of the time, we do just fine,” Roy reiterated.

“Oh, sure,” Ike agreed. “Not to mention, it’s folks like us what keep the indigestion-pill salesmen in business. But cooking aside, women can also mend things, and keep a house tidy, and help out with chickens and churn butter.” His gaze took on a faraway look. “If you could have tasted my mama’s butter….”

Several times a month they were treated to rhapsodies on the subject of Ike’s sainted mama. At times like these, the only thing to do was either nod politely or change the subject.

Roy changed the subject. He still couldn’t stop worrying about the highfalutin’ female writing Parker letters. “If this Fitzsimmons woman is so busy with these Vanderbilts all the time, what’s she writing to you for?”

Parker lifted his shoulders. “She’s curious about the west, and she saw my advertisement for a correspondent. That’s all. We talk about books, and music, and things of that nature.”

Ike grinned. “Knowing this Miss Fitzsimmons is better than goin’ to college, it sounds like.”

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