Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Anonymous Bride by Vickie McDonough

This week, CFBA is introducing Vickie McDonough's latest book, The Anonymous Bride.

Do you know what I hate? I hate when I finish a book...and wish there was more. No, not in a the-book-felt-unfinished kind of way (that's always awful to have to wait months and months after a left-hanging ending for a sequel!), but in a wow-I-liked-this-book-and-wish-the-character's-lives-were-continued.

That's how I felt at the end of The Anonymous Bride. Vickie wrote a Western tale that was humorous and lighthearted, yet the story had plenty of substance and depth, too.

Here's the story:

How many brides does one man need?

It's been years, but Luke Davis is back--older and wiser--and still alone. Returning as Lookout's new town marshal, Luke is determined to face the past and move on. He flippantly tells his cousin he'd get married if the right woman ever came along. But then he discovers that the woman who betrayed him is now a widow, and all his plans fall at his feet.

Rachel has carried her guilty shame for eleven years. Her marriage to James Hamilton was not what Luke or the town thought it to be. Now James is dead, and her long-time love for Luke is reignited with his return to town. So when three mail-order brides appear, she panics.

Could they possible find love a second time?

Rachel begs his forgiveness, but Luke finds he has none to give.

And then the brides arrive. Three of them--ordered for Luke through newspaper ads by his incorrigible cousins. The only place in town for them to stay is Rachel's boardinghouse. And none of the ladies is willing to let Luke go. When choosing a bride becomes a contest, the chaos that ensues is almost funny.

When the mayor forces Luke to pick a bride or lose his job, will Luke listen to his heart that still longs for Rachel or choose one of the mail-order brides?

Will Rachel find the courage to tell Luke that she loves him? Or take an anonymous part in the contest for his hand?

From naughty "Jack" to outlaws to a pie baking contest, The Anonymous Bride captured my imagination from the very first chapter.

And although the ending doesn't leave you hanging, several tales still need to be told. I am looking forward to the second book in Vickie's Texas Boardinghouse Brides series:
Second Chance Brides, which will be available in...ugh, too-far-away October!

AND FOR YOU, a peek into the book:

The Anonymous Bride
Barbour Publishing, Inc. (April 1, 2010)

by
Vickie McDonough

Lookout, Texas
April 1886

Sometimes God asked difficult things of a man, and for Luke Davis, what he was fixing to do was the hardest task ever.

Luke reined his horse to a halt atop the ridge and gazed down at the town half a mile away. Lookout, Texas—the place where his dreams had been birthed and later had died. He wasn’t ready to return, to face the two people he’d tried so hard to forget.

“I’d rather face a band of Sioux warriors, Lord, than to ride into that town again.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.

Alamo, his black gelding, snorted, as if sensing they’d reached the end of their long journey. Luke directed his horse down the path to the small river that ran south and west of the town. A healthy dose of spring rains had filled the crater dug out by past floods where the river made a sharp turn. Local kids used it for a swimming hole, and a new rope had been added for them to swing on. Memories of afternoons spent there were some of Luke’s favorite, but those carefree days were over.

He glanced heavenward at the brilliant blue sky, halfway hoping God would give him leave to ride away. When no such reprieve came, he dismounted at the water’s edge and allowed his horse to drink while he rinsed three days’ worth of dust off his face.

Alamo suddenly jerked his head up and flicked his ears forward. The horse backed away from the bank and turned, looking off to the right. Luke scooped up a handful of water and sipped it, watching to see what had stirred up his horse. Tall trees lined the life-giving river, and thigh-high grasses and shrubs made good hiding places. He knew that for a fact. How many times as a boy had he and his two cousins hidden there, watching the older kids swimming and sometimes spooning?

“Must have been some critter, ’Mo.” He stood and patted his horse, finally ready to ride into Lookout and see up close how much the town had changed. How she’d changed.

Three heads popped up from behind a nearby bush. “Hey, mister,” a skinny kid yelled, “that’s our swimming hole, not a horse trough.”

Rocks flew toward Luke, and he ducked, turning his back to the kids. Alamo squealed and sidestepped into Luke, sending him flying straight into the river. Hoots of laughter rose up behind him as cool water gushed into his boots and soaked his clothing. His soles slipped on the moss-covered rocks as he scrambled for a foothold.

“Foolish kids.” He trudged out of the river, dripping from every inch of his clothing. His socks sloshed in his water-logged boots. Dropping to the bank, he yanked them off and dumped the water and wrung out his socks. With his boots back on, he checked Alamo, making sure the horse wasn’t injured; then he mounted, determined to find those kids and teach them a lesson. Playing childish pranks was one thing. He’d done his share of them. But throwing rocks at an animal was something else altogether.

“Heyah!” Alamo lurched forward. Luke hunkered low against the horse’s neck until he cleared the tree line. He sat up, scanning the rolling hills. He didn’t see any movement at first, but when he topped the closest hill, he found the rowdy trio racing for the edge of town. Luke hunched down and let his horse out in a full canter, quickly closing the distance between him and the kids.

All three glanced back, no longer ornery but scared. He’d never harm a child, but instilling a little fear for the law couldn’t hurt anything.

The two tallest boys veered off to the left, outpacing the smaller kid. The boy stumbled and fell, bounced up, and shot for town. Luke aimed for that one as the older boys dashed behind the nearest house. The youngster pressed down his big floppy hat and pumped his short legs as fast as he could. The gap narrowed. Slowing Alamo, Luke leaned sideways and reached down, grabbing the youth by his overall straps. The child kicked his feet and flailed his arms, but Luke was stronger, quicker. He slung the kid across his lap.

“Let me go! I ain’t done nothin’.” The boy held his hat on with one hand and pushed against Luke’s leg with the other hand. “You’re gettin’ me wet.”

“Just lie still. And I wouldn’t be wet if you hadn’t thrown rocks at my horse.” Luke held a firm hand on the kid’s backside, but the boy still squirmed, trying to get free. “Don’t make me tie you up.”

Suddenly, he stilled. “You wouldn’t.”

“Whoa, Mo.” Luke calmed his horse, fidgety from the child’s activity. Alamo had carried him through all kinds of weather, fights with Indians in the Dakotas, and chasing down train robbers, but one skinny kid had him all riled up.

“My ma ain’t gonna like you doin’ this to me, mister.”

Luke grunted, knowing the kid was probably right, but then his mama should have taught him not to throw rocks at strangers. The next man might shoot back.

Being sopping wet with a cocky kid tossed across his lap certainly wasn’t the homecoming he’d planned.

Luke scanned Main Street as he rode in, noting the changes made over the past decade. Most of the buildings on this end of town, with the exception of the saloon, sported fresh coats of paint. The town hadn’t grown nearly as much as he’d expected it would in the eleven years he’d been gone. With the new street that had been added after he left, the town roughly resembled a capital E: Bluebonnet Lane was the spine, and Main, Apple, and the new street served as the three arms.

Almost against his will, Luke’s gaze turned toward the three-story Hamilton House that filled the end of Main Street. The house, no longer white with black accents, had been painted a soft green and trimmed with white. Rachel’s influence, no doubt. If he kept going, he’d ride right up to her front door.

How much had she changed? Did she and James have a passel of children? A sharp pain stabbed his chest. They should have been his and Rachel’s children, but the woman he’d loved had betrayed him. Married someone else—the town’s wealthiest bachelor.

He shook his head. Stop! You’re here to put the past behind you. Once and for all.
He couldn’t allow himself to think about how Rachel had hurt him. He had to find a way to forgive her so he could move on, find a wife he could love, and start a family. Pushing thirty, he wasn’t getting any younger. And why did returning home make him more nervous than he’d been the day he joined the cavalry a decade ago?

The boy he’d captured found new strength and bucked several more times. “My ma will take her broomstick to you, and I’m gonna laugh when she does.”

Luke chuckled and shook his head. This kid needed his rear end tanned good, or maybe, beings as Luke was soon to be the town marshal, he should just lock the boy in jail for a few hours. That ought to scare him straight for a day or two.

A man exited the saloon, drawing Luke’s attention to his right. The Wet Your Whistle had been enlarged and sported a fancy new sign in bright colors, which looked out of place against the weathered wood of the building. To his left, the livery looked to be well-cared for. Was Sam still the owner? Or had his son taken over?

He rode past Polly’s Café. The fragrant scents emanating out the open door reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since his skimpy breakfast of coffee and a dried biscuit, leftover from dinner the night before. Maybe his cousins would join him for their noontime meal if they hadn’t already eaten. Course, he had an issue of business to attend to before he could think of food.

Dolly, twin sister to Polly, evidently still owned the dressmaker’s shop directly across from the café. The spinster had painted the small structure a ghastly pinkish-purple more suited to a saloon gal’s dress. He almost felt sorry for the old building until he remembered that it sat next door to his cousins’ freight office and they’d have to stare at it every day. He grinned. Served those rascals right.

He hauled the youngster up, slung him over his shoulder then dismounted and tied Alamo to the hitching post outside of the Corbett Freight Office. A man and woman he didn’t recognize approached on the boardwalk in front of the building. They gave him a quick glance, eying the child on his shoulder and his wet clothing. The man grinned and nodded, and they passed by, but the woman puckered up as if she’d sucked a lemon too long.

“Where do you live, kid?”

“None of your business.” The boy kicked again and pounded on Luke’s back. “Let me down, mister, ’fore I spew my breakfast all over your backside.”

Luke chuckled and resisted smacking the boy’s rear end. The kid had spunk; he’d give him that much.

“Ma! Ma! Help me!” The boy started bucking like a mule in a nest of rattlers.

A woman across the street halted and looked up, eyes wide. Her hand flew to her chest. She hiked her skirts and bounded down the boardwalk steps like a she-bear on attack. She quickly marched across the dirt street and stomped up the steps toward Luke. Her bonnet shielded her face, but for a woman with a child, she had a pleasing figure with curves in all the right places.

Luke lowered the kid but held onto the twisting boy’s shoulders.

“Ma, he tried to kidnap me. Help me!”

Luke shook his head. “That’s not the way of things, ma’am.”

“Please let go of my daughter.” The woman lifted her headed and glared at him from under her sunbonnet.

Daughter? How had he missed that?

He glanced down at the kid again. The floppy hat hid the kid’s hair and covered half her face. He yanked it off, and a matching set of auburn braids fell down against the girl’s chest.

“Hey! That’s my hat.” She grabbed at it, but he held it high out of her reach.

What decent woman let her daughter run around dressed like a boy and playing pranks with older kids?

He clenched his jaw and stared at the woman again. Something inside him quickened.

The woman’s irritated expression changed. Pale blue eyes widened, and her mouth gaped like a fish, opening and closing several times before anything spilled out. “Luke?”

A wagonload of gunpowder exploding right beside him couldn’t have blindsided him more. “Rachel?”

She was older, but still beautiful—still the woman he’d loved for so long. Luke straightened. No, he wouldn’t give the thought a foothold. He’d known he would see Rachel when he’d decided to return to town, but this sure wasn’t the meeting he’d expected. He’d faced all manner of dangers in his years in the cavalry, but as he stood there soaking wet in front of the woman who’d stolen his heart and then stomped on it, his brain plumb refused to send words to his mouth.

“You know this fellow, Ma? Make him give me my hat. ” The kid—the girl—stood as bold as you please with her hands on her hips, not looking the least bit repentant.

Luke captured Rachel’s gaze, her light blue eyes looking big in the shadows of her navy calico bonnet. He forced himself to speak. “You should. . .uh, keep your daughter away from rocks.”

Rachel’s brows puckered. “What?”

Realizing how ridiculous that sounded, he tossed the hat at the girl, spun around, and stormed toward his horse. For years, he’d thought about what he’d say to Rachel if he ever saw her again, but he’d never envisioned it being something about naughty kids or rocks. He groaned and shook his head. She probably thought he’d gone plumb loco. And maybe he had.

Many thanks to Vickie, through Barbour Publishing and CFBA, for sending me your book to read and review!

Also reviewed on Amazon and Christianbook.

Recommend: YES

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**Disclaimer: I was given a free product for review purposes only. My reviews are not monetarily compensated and have not been influenced by the sponsor in any way, unless otherwise disclosed. Each review is based on the reactions and opinions of myself and/or family.**
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Spring's Renewal by Shelley Shepard Gray

This week, CFBA is introducing Spring’s Renewal by Shelley Shepard Gray.

Spring’s Renewal is a sweet love story of finding true beauty beyond outward looks.

Clara, badly burned when she was a little girl, has tried to be satisfied with her lonely life. However, she can’t help but long for someone who would love her for HER and see past her disfigured body.

Tim, visiting his aunt and uncle, is drawn to the quiet Clara, despite the fact that he has a sweetheart back home. Which woman is right for him?

Spring’s Renewal is the second book in Shelley’s ‘Seasons of Sugarcreek’ series. I hadn’t realized my mother in law had book 1, Winter’s Awakening, until after I’d read this book.

I think Spring’s Renewal was pretty self-explanatory, although after glancing at the back of Winter’s Awakening, I’d like to read it to know the background behind several of the characters, mostly Lilly.

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…but sometimes I judge the cover by the book, and I did not think the cover depicted Clara at all!

Clara has green eyes on the cover (brown in book) and she does not appear to have any burn scars. I could almost think her face was turned just enough not to have to portray the scarring, but her right hand is clearly shown.

So what? There’s a part in the book that makes a big deal about Tim holding Clara’s right hand and how most people avoid touching her or her scarred hand. Ok…so not really a big deal in terms of the book itself, but I often notice those little things.

So, besides the cover and the few grammar/editing errors I found, I thought Spring’s Renewal was a fast and easy rainy-day read and look forward to Autumn’s Promise, the next book in the series.

***EDIT: I just noticed the cover picture in my post -- it is opposite from the cover on the book I have! Soo, not sure if the publishers noticed and "flipped" Clara and reprinted or what? Anyway, my book cover critique may or may not be totally accurate then! Although, this 'flipped' cover directly shows the right side of Clara's face...with no disfigurement that I can tell. Again, not a big deal...but, hm, interesting.****

AND FOR YOU, a peek into the book:

Spring's Renewal

Avon Inspire (April 2010)
by
Shelley Shepherd Gray


Chapter 1


“Children, it is time to clean up,” Clara Slabaugh said. “We must wash off the blackboards and set our room to rights. Now, who would like to sweep the floor today?”

As expected, a chorus of twenty-four voices groaned loudly in reply. As she looked from one imploring face to the next, Clara fought to keep a stern expression. Sometime near the beginning of the school year, the children had started this game. Each afternoon, they did their best to delay the inevitable.

But she knew better. Clapping her hands together, she lifted her chin a bit. “Come now, it is necessary to keep our schoolhouse neat and tidy, jah? One cannot learn if the room is as tangled as a bird’s nest.”

After another few seconds of protest, ten-year-old Anson Graber raised his hand. “I’ll sweep today, Miss Slabaugh.”

“Thank you, Anson. Then perhaps Peter would care to help you water the crocuses when you’re done?”

“I’d like that, yes,” he said, his smile revealing a new tooth gone missing. Peter, too, looked pleased to have the special job of watering the patch of dirt right next to the doorway.

After assigning jobs to some of the oldest students, the rest of the children gathered their things together and pulled on coats. Not a one of them took time to button.

Clara understood why. It was March first, and what a pleasant March first it was! As the saying went, it had come in like a lamb. Outside, the weather was in the forties, and the sky was clear and sun shone bright.

Just as Clara had all but Anson and Peter in line to be dismissed, little Maggie Graber had a question. Clara bent down to her level. “Yes, Maggie?”

“Teacher, how come Anson must water the crocuses? Nothing’s coming up.”

“You are right, but we must have faith that the flowers will one day come and bloom brightly, just like they do every year.”

One of the seven-year-old boys broke from the line to peer out the open doorway. “It’s still just dirt.”

“There’s beauty just underneath,” Clara promised. “Under the ground, as under our skin, beautiful things are just waiting to be discovered.”

“Even for you?” Maggie asked.

Maggie’s sister Carrie gasped. The others were stunned to silence.

Clara’s hand flew up to her scarred cheek. The innocent question startled a lump in her throat. “Yes, even me, Maggie. My scars are only skin deep. Inside, I’m just like every other person you know.”

Around her, the other children’s eyes widened. Clara knew Maggie’s question and her answer had embarrassed them. Well, it had embarrassed her as well, to her shame.

She sought to set everyone at ease by ringing the dismissal bell a full minute early. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, then, children. Do be careful going home.”

Ten hugs later, she watched the last of her scholars wander off to their homes, the littlest ones carefully watched over by their older siblings.

When she was finally alone, Clara leaned against the doorframe and breathed deeply. Another day, done.

Her second year of teaching was almost done, too. In a mere two months, classes would end and the joy of her existence would be taking a three-month break.

Clara tried not to care so much about that.

But still, she couldn’t deny how hard it was not to feel melancholy some days when there seemed to be so little else to look forward to. At twenty-two, she was well on her way to being an old maid. She had no sweetheart to call her own.

In fact, she’d never been courted.

No, all she had was her job and her mother, who relied on her almost to the exclusion of all others.

Of course, Clara had her dreams, too.

In her dreams, she wasn’t bound by a bossy parent’s needs. In her dreams, parts of her face were no longer marked by scars. Neither was her right hand. Nor the rest of her body. No, in her dreams, she was beautiful.

Of course, she shouldn’t care about such things. Feeling shamed, Clara got to work on grading the children’s papers. It wouldn’t do to stand around and wish for things that could never be. No, she should be counting her blessings—and she had many, she knew.

She had a job she enjoyed. She loved teaching, and for the most part, her students were respectful and enjoyable. She had a bright mind, and a wonderful-gut library from which she could check out as many books as she wanted.

And she did have a mother who loved her, no matter what she looked like.

It was only sometimes, in the late afternoon—in the time between her time with students and the work at home—that she wished for something more. For someone to see beyond her imperfections and reckon that she’d make a fine wife.

But here in Sugarcreek, Ohio, all anyone ever seemed to notice were her scars. They’d never taken the time to see what kind of person she was underneath.

Wishing for something different would surely be a mistake.

“Cousin Tim, you’re still here!” Anson called out the moment the young boy spied him next to the barn.

Tim grinned at the ten-year-old who was running toward him at breakneck speed. Oh, but that boy always ran like his feet were on fire. “Where else did you think I’d be?”

“Don’t know.” Anson shrugged as he approached. “Guess I ain’t used to ya being here yet.”

“Sometimes I can say the same thing.” Though Tim had been living in his uncle’s home for two weeks, there were times that he still felt taken by surprise.

Anson scampered closer to Tim, his blond hair every which way, and dropped his books on the ground. “Whatcha working on?”

“Oh, this and that. Your father asked me to do some mending and fixing up around the house and barn for a bit. Today I decided that his fence here needed repairing.”

Looking at Tim’s hammer, Anson wrinkled his nose. “You might be needin’ more than that hammer.” The fence did look like it had taken its last breath of air. “Perhaps I should build a new one. Ah, well. I’ve got time to do that, jah?”

Anson nodded sagely. “Mamm says your being here is a real blessing. Daed can’t be in two places at a time.” Picking up a piece of discarded rotten wood, he added, “Plus, Joshua ain’t no help at the moment. Right now, he seems to be more interested in Gretta than anything else.”

It took an effort, but Tim kept his expression sober. It wouldn’t do for Anson to think he was being laughed at. “Joshua and Gretta are newlyweds. They’re supposed to only be thinking about each other.”

“Well, I hope Joshua starts thinking about the store more so Caleb won’t have to work as much. Then he could be around here more.”

“Is that what you say or what Caleb says?”

Anson shrugged. “Both, I guess. Caleb doesn’t like working at the store so it puts everyone in a sour mood.”

“I imagine things will settle down soon.”

“I hope things don’t settle so much that you leave. I like you here,” Anson replied, just as he tore off to the house, leaving a cloud of dust in his place.

Tim chuckled as he turned back to the fence he’d been repairing. Anson was right, the fence certainly was in a bad way. The slats were mostly rotten, and it had taken some careful considering to decide whether he should simply repair a few chosen boards or replace the whole fence around the corral altogether.

He’d leaned toward saving Frank a few dollars, but now he wasn’t so sure if that had been the wisest decision.

In the distance, he heard Aunt Elsa’s merry voice, followed by the three youngest children clambering for attention.

After something crashed and the youngest—Toby it was—started crying, Tim winced. Noise at his uncle’s home was never far away.

Most times, it was a constant companion.

It was taking some getting used to as well. Back home in Indiana, he was used to the opposite way of life. After his birth, his mother’s doctor had warned against any further pregnancies. So he was an only child.

He’d never minded that.

Actually, most days, he’d enjoyed it just being the three of them. At the end of every day, after his father had read a passage from the Bible, Tim and his parents would read together in their family room. Little by little, the worries of the day would dissipate and he’d be filled with the certainty of God’s love. It had been nice.

In addition, over the last year, he’d been seeing Ruby Lynn Kropf. Though he still wasn’t sure she was the right one for him, he’d enjoyed the idea of thinking that she might be. Tim had looked forward to one day taking over his father’s land and farming it by Ruby Lynn’s side. Together, they would raise a houseful of kinner and visit with his folks often.

But then one day his parents showed him a letter that had come in the day’s mail.

In the letter, his uncle had asked him to come live, for the spring and summer, at his home. With Joshua so recently married and the youngest kinner terribly young, they were stretched thin. Uncle Frank wanted his help with the farm, until Caleb, his fifteen-year-old cousin, could take on more responsibility.

Tim’s first inclination had been to decline. His parents needed him, and he knew his uncle was well-situated in the community. Surely there was someone else who could help?

When both his parents encouraged him to go, he’d stared at them in shock. “But I can’t leave you two alone.”

“You’ll hardly be leaving us alone, Tim,” his mother chided. “We’ve got many friends here.”

“But that’s not the same as family.”

“We’ve your father’s sisters and brothers, too.”

“What about Ruby Lynn? She won’t take it too kindly that I’ll be leaving her for a few months.”

His parents exchanged glances. “She’s special to you, we know,” his mother said slowly. “But I think that maybe Ruby needs to grow a bit. She’s two years younger than you. Perhaps you each could get to know some other people.”

He’d been shocked. “I don’t want to get to know any other girls.”

“Perhaps she might want to meet some other young men? At least she needs to opportunity, jah? This separation will give her some time.”

In the end, Tim knew he’d really had no choice after all. His parents had wanted him to move to Sugarcreek for a spell, and so he did.

But he was finding it to be a trying experience. At twenty-two, he figured he was a bit old to be helping out like he was.

“You about done for the day?”

Startled from his ruminations, Tim turned to his uncle. “Uncle Frank, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you approach.”

“I guess not. Your eyes had a look about them that said you were far away.”

He smiled at the description. “Not so far. Just in Indiana.”

“Ah. You missing home?”

Missing his parents and home sounded too babyish. “No . . . I’m missing Ruby Lynn. My sweetheart. What else can I do for you today?”

Uncle Frank’s eyes twinkled with merriment. “Not a thing. It’s time you relaxed. Go on in the house for a while.”

Just thinking about the many kinner running around made Tim shiver. “Danke, but I think I’ll stay out here for a bit.”

“You know, sometimes, when I’m eager to get away, I go for a walk.” His uncle pointed to the faintest of trails that started just a few yards away. “If you take that path, it will eventually lead you down to the creek. It’s not a river or anything, but sometimes it’s running.”

Walking to an empty creek didn’t sound terribly adventuresome, but Tim was grateful for the reprieve. Anything would be better than weaving his way through the maze of children in the house. “Maybe I’ll go on down there now.”

“Take your time, nephew. Elsa will hold supper for ya if you aren’t back by the time we eat.”

That sounded like too much to ask. During his short time with his aunt and uncle, Tim had been made aware of just how much effort it took Elsa to run such a big household smoothly. “I’ll try to be back before supper.”

Understanding creased the lines around his uncle’s eyes. “I know you will. You’re a good man, Tim. But I don’t want to impose on you too much. Everyone needs some time to himself every now and then. Sometimes it’s a gut idea to take a look at the scenery, too. Take what’s offered.”

With some surprise, Tim understood what his uncle wasn’t saying. His dissatisfaction had been noticed, but not necessarily found fault with. “Danke, Uncle.”

After putting away the tools, he set off on his walk.

The landscape was beautiful. Rolling hills surrounded him and trees dotted the landscape. Most fields were plowed, their rich soil black and vibrant. Every so often he’d spy a jaunty red cardinal flying toward its mate or a ground squirrel scurrying with purpose.

His own path snaked its way through a vivid green meadow dotted with tiny purple flowers just aching for a glimpse of the sky. Caught by the beauty of it all, Tim breathed deep. The land around Sugarcreek was truly one of the Lord’s most perfect treasures.

After almost a mile, the ground sloped a bit and grew rockier. And then finally, like an unexpected rainbow, Tim spied the creek.

As waterways went, it wasn’t much of one. Only a few yards wide, the creek held only a few feet of water. Underneath the current, the bed was a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and sand. But the water ran clear and the gentle noise of the stream was as inviting as a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day.

He’d never been one to resist a treat.

Bending down, Tim removed his straw hat and ran his hands in the icy cool water. Unable to stop himself, he cupped his hands to have a little taste.

And then he saw her.

“I wouldn’t risk tasting that water, if you don’t mind me saying so,” a girl called out.

Tim straightened, keeping his eyes on her approach. Her skirt was violet, and the black apron she wore over it was in stark contrast to her white kapp. A small tremor rushed through him as he realized she was Plain, too. “It’s polluted, then?” he asked when she was only a few yards away.

“I’m not sure how dirty it is, but I will say that the Millers’ cows have enjoyed the waters enough to make me wary.” She smiled.

He flinched in surprise. At first, he’d only been thinking about her eyes. They were light brown and tilted up a bit at the sides, like she was about to break out laughing. But when his gaze flickered to her lips, he noticed only one side of her mouth rose perfectly. The other stopped in a maze of puckered red skin that decorated her cheek. “I think I’ll pass on that drink, then. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

She stopped. Suddenly looking uncertain.

And it was no wonder. He, too, had heard the strain in his voice. Tim was reminded of a deer in the glade, her stance was so timid, her posture ready to make a quick escape if need be.

Struggling to not stare at the scars on her face, he spoke again. “I’m Tim Graber. Frank Graber’s nephew.”

Her posture eased. Eyes, brown and expressive, looked him over. “And I am Clara Slabaugh.”

“Do you live nearby?”

She pointed to a white house in the distance. “Close enough. I walked to school today. Going home on the road takes longer, so I thought I’d cut through here.”

“School?”

“Yes. I’m the area’s teacher.” She paused. “Sometimes I enjoy walking home this way. It’s a lot quicker to take a turn by the creek than to keep to the road.”

She said the words almost like an apology. As if she was the one intruding on his time. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was the one who didn’t belong.

Or, perhaps he was trespassing? “Clara, am I on your land?”

“Heavens, no. I’m not certain who exactly owns this piece of property, if you want to know the truth. For as long as I can remember, all of us in the area have used it. And we all enjoy the creek. Even the Allens. They’re your English neighbors, you know.”

“I . . . I met them.” Even as he uttered the words, he winced. Oh, could any man sound more feeble?

For a moment, her eyes held his. Then, as a faint red flush appeared in her cheek—the cheek that looked as soft and perfect as the petals of a May rose, she turned away. “I’d better be going.”

He didn’t want her to leave. There was something about Clara that calmed him. He appreciated her serene demeanor. So much so, he yearned to keep her close. “Would you like me to walk you the rest of the way home?”

“There’s no need. I walk by myself all the time.”

“Ah.” Now he was embarrassed. But not enough to not risk getting to know her better. “Are you married, Clara?”

Her eyes narrowed in surprise—and with a bit of distrust. “No.”

“Courting anyone?” Oh, but it was a forward question. What had possessed him to ever ask such a thing?

Hurt filled her gaze. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

She was right. It was not. He’d been unforgivably rude.

“I must be going.” Before even waiting for a reply, she turned her back to him and started walking briskly toward the small white house in the distance.

Too affected by his impertinence, Tim simply stood silently and watched her walk away. Within minutes, she’d gone up and down a hill, then faded from view. “Goodbye, Clara,” he whispered.

Then wondered why he was so overcome.


Thank you, Shelley, through Avon Inspire and CFBA, for allowing me to read and review Spring's Renewal!

Also reviewed on Amazon and Christianbook.

Recommend: YES

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Friday, April 23, 2010

The "Real Food Project" by Hellmann's® and Chocolate Mayo Cake!

Very few products that I buy are brand name. My experience with most store-brand items have been positive, not to mention easier on my budget!

However, I have a definite preference for brand names in regard to personal products, ranch dressing, and MAYONNAISE.

And Hellmann's® is my mayo choice!


Celebrity chef Bobby Flay (mine and hubby's favorite Iron Chef!) and actress/mom Lori Loughlin have teamed up with Hellmann's® and Best Foods® Mayonnaise to unveil the Real Food Project on Hellmanns.com, a comprehensive online resource offering tips and ideas on how to create real meals made with Real Food.

Because videos are great for multi-tasking moms, The Real Food Project features a series of entertaining how-to tutorials, hosted by Bobby Flay, to give us tools and techniques to prepare great-tasting, at-home meals for our families.

Just by visiting www.Hellmanns.com, you can access a wide range of recipes, including sandwiches, entrees and side dishes, all designed to please picky palates. There are even chances to WIN great prizes like a kitchen essentials bundle, Bobby Flay Grill It and Hellmann's® and Best Foods® products by playing the "Wheel of Real" instant win game and entering the Real Food Sweepstakes.

So what are you waiting for?? Head on over to Hellmann's® Real Food Project for some amazing recipes like Ham Salad on Biscuits, Honey Mustard Chicken Fingers, or Asian Slaw.

Here's another fantastic way to use Hellmann's® - a chocolate mayonnaise cake!

Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups water
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees . Lightly grease one 9x13 pan.

Mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa, and sugar into a large bowl. Stir in mayonnaise. Gradually add water and vanilla and blend until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Cool.

Slather with your favorite frosting! (I recommend peanut butter! Make your own, or I stirred 1/2 cup of peanut butter into a tub of cream cheese frosting -- delish)!

Recommend: YES
Thanks to MomSelect for the opportunity to share Hellmann's® Real Food Project with my readers!

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Bridegrooms by Allison Pittman

It only takes an instant for love to strike.

I’ve read mixed reviews on some of Allison Pittman’s other books, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to read and review her latest work, The Bridegrooms.

As the oldest of four sisters, Vada’s days seem monotonous, even purposeless, until an unconscious man is brought to her home to be treated by her father “Doc.” Mystery surrounds the man, who was struck in the head by a baseball.

From the strange Mr. Triplehorn to Hazel’s secret mail-order bride letters to baseball to orchestra instruments to bold acceptance of flirtations by supposedly-taken Vada to silent, poetic Althea, I felt that The Bridegrooms was somewhat disjointed, like there were too many storylines going at once that didn’t really connect.

Also, the “Cajun” language of Mr. LaFortune drove me crazy. I couldn’t imagine how he was supposed to sound, unlike a well-known Southern accent or Molly’s Irish brogue. To me, his speech came across as a combo of uneducated and irritating (like Pepe le Pew)!

The cacophony of characters and storylines made it difficult to stay focused. I would read another book by Allison, but The Bridegrooms wasn’t my favorite.

Many thanks to Blogging for Books by Waterbrook/Multnomah for sending me The Bridegrooms to review!

Also reviewed on Amazon and Christianbook.

Recommend: NOT PARTICULARLY

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Simple Oven Roasted Potatoes

Roasted Potato Wedges are one of my husband's favorite side dishes.

I love them because they are soo easy and you can flavor the potatoes to suit any dish.

First, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Now, wash your potatoes. Cut into wedges, chunks, or fries. Place on a baking sheet.

Lightly drizzle with oil (many people like olive oil, I prefer canola oil). Use your hands to toss the potatoes so each one is evenly coated with the oil.

Now, season! I usually keep them simple with just a sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, but the possibilities are certainly endless!

Roast in your preheated oven for 20 minutes, minimum, or until potatoes are golden and crispy and easily pierced with a fork. (Roasting time will vary, depending on the size and cut of your potatoes).

Now, eat and enjoy!


By the way, The Creative Side of Me finally has a fan page on Facebook and I'd love if you would fan me!! Check out my right sidebar or click HERE!

Recommend: YES

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Wildflowers of Terezin by Robert Elmer

This week, CFBA is introducing Wildflowers of Terezin by Robert Elmer.

I’ve read many books set in WWII - in fact, it's one of my favorite period settings. I don’t believe I’ve ever read any set in Denmark in WWII, so Wildflowers in Terezin was the same subject with a fresh face.

Steffen Peterson is a Lutheran pastor who wants to stay safely behind his pulpit…and yet realizes he could help Denmark’s Jews escape Nazi law. Steffan does what he can, although clumsily, which leads to bigger consequences for the escapees…and him.

When Hanne, the Jewish nurse he has begun to love, is sent to Terezin, a Nazi prison camp, to what lengths will he go to be reunited with her?

I thought Wildflowers of Terezin was good. Good enough that I had to research Terezin myself when I was finished reading.

Although Wildflowers of Terezin is a work of fiction, the truth and actual events that took place during that time were successfully woven throughout the story. I was amazed that the Nazis took time to beautify a small section of Terezin for a short Red Cross visit – to prove to the world how well they were taking care of the Jews. How sad that so much of the world was deceived by Hitler’s hatred.

AND FOR YOU, a peek into the book:

Wildflowers of Terezin
Abingdon Press (April 2010)
by Robert Elmer

1 BISPEBJERG HOSPITAL, KØBENHAVN
FRIDAY MORNING, 17 SEPTEMBER 1943

I live in a crazy time. — ANNE FRANK

Hanne Abrahamsen awoke with a start in the middle of a bad dream, something about being in nursing school once again and a man who looked like Adolf Hitler (but with the face of a codfish) announcing at her graduation that she was a Jew, and didn’t everyone already know that? The graduation had stopped, and she remembered wanting desperately to escape but not being able to move.

Hanne had never thought much about dreams, or cared. Until now.

Somewhere outside her window she heard what had awak- ened her: a line of cars and trucks roaring through the narrow streets of København, on their way to the devil’s business. And even louder at this time of the morning, when the only ones awake were the skrallemænd, emptying garbage.

She shivered and pulled up the covers to her chin, but couldn’t put away the feeling that something was not right. It was not the first time she’d heard German vehicles at odd hours, so maybe it was just the dream. Still, she slipped out of bed to check the window that faced Tuborgvej. Of all the nurses’ apartments on the Bispebjerg Hospital campus, hers commanded the best, and sometimes the noisiest, view of the city. She shivered at the September predawn chill, reach- ing the window in time to peek through the heavy blackout shade and see a pair of brake lights flash as a vehicle careened around the corner.

“Well, they’re in a hurry, aren’t they?” she mumbled, push- ing at the upper pane of her window to keep out the draft.

A Dane? Not likely. No dansker would dare make so much noise at this time of the morning—especially not after all the troubles and tension they’d seen here in København over the past several months. After the strikes and all the troubles this past summer, no one wanted to make themselves a target.

No,she’d heard German vehicles—and then another truck screeching around the corner confirmed what she’d feared. This one carried armed soldiers in back, holding on for dear life. This could only mean that the Germans had stepped up their campaigns against the Danish Underground—and that they were flexing their muscle in an early morning raid somewhere in the city.

Hanne drew back as the little cuckoo on the wall of her kitchen sounded four . . . five . . . six times.

“Too early, my cuckoo friend,” she told the clock with a sigh. “Though I suppose I needed to get up for the morning shift, anyway.”

But she stood there, shivering in her nightgown and bare feet, unable to move and unable to forget her dream—or the nightmare outside her window.


ON THE STREETS OF KØBENHAVN FRIDAY MORNING, 17 SEPTEMBER 1943

“We’re late.”

Wolfschmidt frowned and checked his watch once more as he squeezed the backdoor handle. Was he the only one in this operation who cared about being punctual? It would take a Gestapo man’s attention to detail to make this work.

His young driver from the schutzpolizei, the German Security Police, mumbled a weak apology and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead as they squealed past the famous Round Tower, then careened around the corner and approached the Jewish synagogue on Krystalgade.

Ahead and to the right, he could make out the large, blond- bricked building, rather square and squat despite a row of stained-glass windows running the length of the second floor level and a stepped roof even higher to the rear. Wolfschmidt thought it rather base looking and nowhere near as grand as a proper German cathedral, though that did not surprise him. A place of worship, indeed!

“Do you see it?” Wolfschmidt sat on the edge of his seat and pointed to a clear spot on the curb, directly in front of a gate in the street-level fence. “Stop there.”

“Yes, Herr Sturmbannführer,” replied the driver, using Wolfschmidt’s proper Gestapo title. At least he could do that correctly. But now Wolfschmidt grabbed the young man’s shoulder to get his attention and to go over their instructions yet one more time. Despite the utter routine of their action this morning, Wolfschmidt couldn’t help feeling his heart pounding in his ears. He was made for this work.

“Listen carefully, Anwärter,” he told the young recruit. “You will accompany me into the building. I will be two steps behind you. If any doors are locked you will break them down. If any- one tries to stop you or question you, step aside and I will deal with it. Keep your weapon holstered but loaded and ready.”

“I understand.” The driver shut off the car’s ignition and waited.The good news was that if they needed to, Wolfschmidt was confident this large young man had the required beef to make his way through any door they needed, locked or otherwise. Much more so than Wolfschmidt himself, who was slight of build and might break his shoulder if he attempted such heroics.

“Good. We will locate this librarian and escort him back to the car, so he will assist us in our task.”

Again the driver nodded. How hard could this be? But by now they were almost five minutes off schedule, and Wolfschmidt could feel his anxiety rising as he pushed open his door and stepped out into the cool September air. No more delays. No more foolishness.

“All right, then,” hissed Wolfschmidt. “Let’s be about our business.”

He straightened his high-peaked gray hat where it perched on his precisely short-cropped blond hair, then checked to be sure his matching gray trousers still held a crease after his short ride. Why was it so hard to find anyone in København who knew how to properly clean and press his uniform? Soon that would change, however, once this war was won and a more full measure of the Reich’s efficiency found its way to this city.

Or they could simply flatten it and start over. In his opinion that might prove to be the more efficient solution. Frankly, he didn’t care either way.

“After you.” Wolfschmidt waved for the young man to lead the way through the gate.

Happily it swung open with hardly a complaint, though he had to say that didn’t surprise him, either. These Danes had no sense of how to secure their buildings. They would be content, he imagined, to remain fat and protected by Germany, enjoying their cheese and beer and sending the best of their own produce to help keep the German army well-fed. In this way they could at least be useful, even if too many of them did not appreciate the advantage such an arrangement posed to their wealth and security. What did the Danes know of that?

Three steps up from the outer gate, the building’s large oak outer door swung open just as easily. This was going to be too simple. Checking his own pistol, Wolfschmidt stepped in behind the driver as they entered a high-ceilinged foyer. It smelled of ancient, institutional dust in the way of most such buildings, which gave him even more reason to despise the place. He stepped on the driver’s heel to hurry him along.

Beyond the red-carpeted foyer a set of double doors with small glass windows opened into the synagogue’s main auditorium, an expansive room with lofty ceilings and a horseshoe-shaped balcony level all around the back.

This could make a fine movie theater, he thought, and made a mental note of it.

But right now he focused on the task at hand, which would lead the way for a more sensible use of the building. Up in front, a cluster of twenty or thirty men had gathered for their Friday morning prayer service, dressed in the peculiar head garb that left no doubt of their religion.

Wolfschmidt had not come to pray. Despite his revulsion at being found in such a place, he straightened his back and coolly strode to where a robed, bearded man stood before the group. This would be the rabbi. And by this time they had stopped their prayer, or whatever Jewish thing they were doing, and all stared wide-eyed at the remarkable impertinence of Wolfschmidt and his assistant.

“Pardon me, sir,” began the rabbi, visibly shaken as he should be, “but—”

“Josef Fischer will accompany us immediately.” Wolfschmidt interrupted the rabbi. He naturally had no time for nonsense or small talk, even if he had been so inclined. To emphasize his commands he made a point of moving a hand to his holster, making certain they all noticed. They would understand his meaning, if not his German.

He needn’t have worried. A pink-faced little man in the front row stepped out after an uncomfortable silence, gently pushing aside the hand of a friend who halfheartedly tried to hold him back.

“Ich bin Fischer,” said the man, who adjusted a pair of round spectacles and stepped up to face them. He ignored the whispered warnings of his nearby friends, which Wolfschmidt counted for blind stupidity. So this was the man they’d gone to all this trouble to apprehend?

He might have respected a little more defiance, just for sport, even though this man stood a full foot shorter than himself. But never mind. They would all face the same fate, sooner rather than later. This Josef Fischer could appear brave as much as he wanted to, for all the sturmbannführer cared.

He signaled with a nod so that his assistant grabbed Fischer by the back of the collar and guided him roughly back up the aisle toward the exit. The man’s tasseled prayer shawl fell at Wolfschmidt’s feet, but when the Jew bent to pick it up Wolfschmidt couldn’t resist holding it to the floor with the toe of his boot.

“Keep walking!” ordered Wolfschmidt.

“Wait!” objected the rabbi. “What has he done? You can’t just come in here like this, disrupt our prayer meeting, and abduct our people!”

Wolfschmidt would have gladly taken on this man, here and now, had it not been for his specific orders and the even more specific task at hand. But with a deliberate motion he picked up the shawl and quite deliberately tore it in two. The ripping sound pleased him, even more as he watched the expressions on the men’s faces turn from fright to horror.

Without another word of explanation he turned on his heel to follow his assistant and their charge out to the waiting car.

***

Fifteen minutes later Sturmbannführer Wolfschmidt stood with arms crossed in the middle of the Jewish Community Center offices on Ny Kongensgade, New King’s Street. Surely it didn’t need to take this long to find a simple file of addresses?

And this librarian—Fischer—worse than useless. They could have easily broken down the front door, and never mind the keys which the little man now held in his trembling hands as he watched five uniformed schutzpolizei taking apart his office, file by useless file.

“It’s not in this one, either,” reported one of the polizei, tossing another file drawer into the middle of the room. Still the librarian trembled.

“You’re wasting our time!” cried Wolfschmidt. “Or would you rather we simply torch this place and be done with it? We’re going to find it, whether we destroy your office or not.”

Fischer looked to be in pain as he closed his eyes and mouthed . . . what, a prayer? Little good it did him now, because a moment later one of the schutzpolizei let out a cry as he pried open a locked metal file cabinet with a crowbar.

“I think I found something!” said the young man. Fischer winced but said nothing as they poured out the contents of the drawer, and then another—hundreds upon hundreds of cards, each one neatly printed with a name and address. Wolfschmidt smiled and stepped over to pick one up.

“Davidsen, Noah.” He smiled as he fingered the card. “You don’t imagine this could be a Jewish name, by chance?”

By this time the schutzpolizei had dumped the contents of several drawers on the floor. Which was all very well, but now they would just have to gather them all up and cart them away.

“In a box,” he said with a wave. “All of them.”

All of them, yes. The name and address of every Jew in this little country—and that would constitute close to seven thousand names. Perhaps that didn’t amount to much, com- pared to populations in other countries they had liberated. But it was enough to make their job much easier when the time came.

And that, he knew, would be very soon.


Many thanks to Robert, Abingdon Press, and CFBA for sending me Wildflowers of Terezin to read and review!

Also reviewed on Amazon and Christianbook.

Recommend: YES

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Soldier Buttons

I've got a thing for raspberry at the moment. I found this cookie recipe on Allrecipes and it was absolutely wonderful!

SOLDIER BUTTONS

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup strawberry preserves (I used seedless raspberry jam)

Mix together flour, confectioners' sugar, butter or margarine, egg, and vanilla. (I followed the directions some reviewers suggested in these whipped shortbread cookies, by whipping the butter for 5 min, adding the sugar and whipping another 5 minutes, then adding the rest of the ingredients and whipping for another 2-5 minutes).

Shape dough with your hands to 1 1/2 inch rounds, and place on greased cookie sheets. Press your finger in the middle, and fill each hole with jam. (The dough was very soft for me. I used my cookie scoop and then using my finger - dipped in confectioners' sugar - made the holes. Also DO NOT overfill the holes with jam. You will be tempted to fill to the tippy top, but the cookies spread and as the jam melts, you'll have a mess if you overfill!)

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 12 minutes, or until the bottoms are lightly browned.

Recommend: YUM YUM YES

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell

She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell is the second book CFBA is introducing this week.

Wow.

From the very first paragraph, Siri Mitchell had my full attention. I read She Walks in Beauty in two evenings. I could not stop reading it!

Clara Carter is pushed into the social season a year earlier than she expected. Aunt and Father have insisted that she must win only one man’s hand, the De Vries heir. No other man will do. No other handsome catch will fix the breach of honor the Carter family has endured.

Clara has difficulty learning all of the rules of the social season. She doesn’t understand what her father and Aunt have lost or why love can’t play a part in this high-stake game of marriage matching.

It all comes down to money…and secrets.

Will Clara risk true love and true honor to obey her family’s wishes?

The historical references to Victorian high society behaviors fascinated me. Behaviors such as super-tight corset lacing with the ensuing health issues and the desire of debutantes to have the proper, “pouty” lip.

I’m not sure we’ve come all that far since that era!

Siri absolutely enchanted me in She Walks in Beauty. I loved Clara and how real she seemed. A young girl, thrust into a world she doesn’t want or understand, and yet who has no reason to doubt her upbringing or family’s confusing demands. It is what it is…isn’t it?

She Walks in Beauty is the perfect blend of rich, historical detail and glittering jewels in the ballroom. Loved it!

Here's a glimpse into the book:
She Walks in Beauty

Many thanks to Siri, Bethany House, and CFBA for sending me She Walks in Beauty to read and review!

Also reviewed on Amazon and Christianbook.


Recommend: YES

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Oatmeal Raspberry Bars

Using a yellow cake mix makes this recipe super simple and turns out rich, beautiful bar cookies!



OATMEAL RASPBERRY BARS

1 (18.25 ounce) package yellow cake mix
2 1/2 cups quick cooking oats
3/4 cup margarine, melted
1 cup raspberry jam (I prefer seedless)
1 tablespoon water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease a 9x13 inch pan.

In a large bowl, mix together oats, cake mix, and melted margarine so that it makes nice clumps and there is no dry mix left. Press 1/2 of the oats mixture evenly into the bottom the prepared pan. In a separate bowl, mix jam with water, and spread over the crust. Sprinkle the remaining oat mixture evenly over the top.

Bake in the preheated oven for 18 to 23 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned. Cool before cutting into bars.

Recommend: YES

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Sixteen Brides by Stephanie Grace Whitson

I had the opportunity to review both of the books that CFBA is introducing this week. The first is Sixteen Brides by Stephanie Grace Whitson. You’ll hear about Siri Mitchell’s She Walks in Beauty later this week.

I had a hard time getting started with Sixteen Brides. Perhaps because I’ve agreed to review (almost) too many books this month, or perhaps because I had a deadline hovering over my head? I’m not sure why - it wasn’t the subject matter, although trying to keep track of sixteen women who were fairly quickly whittled down to five (more than enough!) main characters took a bit of concentration!

It seemed that every time I picked up Sixteen Brides, the phone rang or my kids needed a bandaid!

So, Sixteen Brides had a bit of a slow start for me. But, once I struggled my interrupted way through the first third of the book, I couldn’t put the rest down.

Stephanie’s story was inspired by a headline she came across during research, “Another cargo of war widows arrived…”

Here’s the “ad” emblazoned on the back of the book:

ATTRACTIVE WIDOWS

April 7, 1871Another cargo of war widows arrived in Plum Grove last Tuesday morning, sixteen in number, and filed upon claims adjacent to town. This was decidedly the best lot of widows that has arrived thus far.

(I’ll take this quick moment to also say how much I loved the cover design for Sixteen Brides! Really fun and creative!)

So, the story? Sixteen women head west with the promise of free land. What they don’t know is that men are anxiously awaiting their arrival - as promised brides. When the deceit is revealed, who will refuse to wed?

The women who refuse matrimonial security band together and claim land for a homestead. Their strength and determination is admired by the growing town… but will any of the ladies admit to wanting true love as well?

When books have multiple main characters, I often have a favorite and tend to skim over the other character’s portions. Not so in Sixteen Brides! Stephanie did a great job of not only keeping each lady’s story separately interesting and engaging, but she successfully wove their lives together as well.

I loved it.

Putting Stephanie Grace Whitson on my read-more-books-by-this-author list!

AND FOR YOU, a peek into the book:

Sixteen Brides
Bethany House (April 2010)

by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Chapter 1

A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps. -Proverbs 16:9

As the carriage pulled away from Union Station, Caroline Jamison almost panicked and called out to the driver, "Wait! Don't go! I've changed my mind! Take me home!" her heart racing, Caroline forced herself to turn away. St. Louis isn't home. And home doesn't want you. Daddy told you that in his last letter. Still, there were times when she entertained a desperate few minutes of hope. But what if I was standing right there on the veranda. Would he really turn me away? If I told him I was sorry ... that he was right ... if I begged ... what then?

For just a moment the possibility that her father might forget everything and pull her into his arms made Caroline feel almost dizzy with joy. But then she remembered. It had been five years since she'd opened that last envelope, and still she could recite the terse few lines of the last letter posted from General harlan Sanford of Mulberry plantation.

Daughter.

We received word today. Langdon now joins his two brothers in glory. Your mother has taken to her bed. The idea that any—or all—of these deeds of war may have been committed by one their sister calls HUSBAND—

The sentence wasn't finished. Caroline still remembered touching the spot where the ink trailed off toward the edge of the paper, a meandering line that wrenched her heart as she pictured Daddy seated at his desk, suddenly overcome by such a deep emotion he couldn't control his own hand.

We are bereft of children now. May God have mercy on your soul.

For a moment, as Caroline stood, frozen motionless by uncertainty here on the brick walkway leading up to Union Station, desperate regret and a renewed sense of just how completely alone she was rose up. Panic nearly swept her away. If she didn't get hold of herself she was going to faint. A few deep breaths would be helpful, but the corset ensuring her eighteen-inch waist wasn't going to allow for that. She closed her eyes in a vain attempt to hold back the tears. You don't dare go home ... and you don't dare stay here.

An axle in need of grease squealed as another carriage pulled up to the curb, this one drawn by a perfectly matched team of black geldings. Their coats glistening, their manes plaited with red ribbons, the horses tossed their heads and stamped their great hooves. As the driver called out to calm the team, a coachman hopped down from his perch, but he was too late to open the door for his fare.

One glimpse of the wild-looking man emerging from the polished carriage and Caroline swiped at her tears, snapped open her gold silk parasol, and bent down to pick up her black traveling case. You'll make a scene if you faint right now, and the ladies of Mulberry Plantation never make a scene. the ladies of Mulberry plantation didn't associate with the kind of men emerging from that carriage, either. Lifting her chin, Caroline headed toward the station lest one of them offer to escort her up the hill. The last thing she needed today was to have to extricate herself from the unwanted attentions of some dandy dressed up like a poor imitation of Wild Bill Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok indeed. Grateful to be thinking about something besides home, she almost smiled at the memory of Thomas, one of the Jamisons' servants, and the ridiculous hat he'd sported for weeks after seeing Hickok and Buffalo Bill on stage. A hat just like the ones on the heads of the men climbing out of the newly arrived carriage. Only these men didn't look ridiculous. They looked ... dangerous. Caroline peered back at them from beneath the edge of her parasol even as she made her way up the hill. The tall one had a certain appeal—if a woman liked that kind of man. Caroline did not.

With every step away from the street and toward the station, her doubt and fear receded. She could do this. after all, it was the only thing that made any sense. no one was coming to rescue her. It was time she rescued herself.

***

"Painting walls and hanging pictures don't make a barn into a home, Mama." Ella Barton looked away from her own face in the mirror just long enough to catch her mother's eye. "A barn is still a barn." Shaking her head, she untied the new bonnet. "I'm sorry. I just can't. You were sweet to buy it, but I look ridiculous." She put the stylish bonnet back into the open bandbox sitting atop the dresser. "We'll return it on the way to the station."

"We will not return it." Mama snatched it up and ran her hand along the upturned brim. She smoothed the nosegay of iridescent feathers just peeking out of the grosgrain ribbon that bordered the crown. "It's beautiful."

"Did I say it wasn't?" Ella turned her back on the mirror. "The problem is not the hat." Gently she extracted the bonnet from her mother's grasp and nestled it back into the box. "The old one is better. It suits me." She settled the lid on the bandbox."What do I need with a new hat, anyway? I hardly think they parade the latest fashions up and down the street in Cayote, Nebraska."

"Maybe not," Mama said. "But you can bet there will be a parade when we all arrive. Everyone says women are in short supply out west. That means you can expect a parade of bachelors coming into Cayote as soon as word gets out about the Emigration Society's arrival."

Ella crossed the room to where their two traveling cases lay open on the lumpy mattress. "And they will see me as I am—and leave me be. Even if I were interested—which I am not—a new bonnet wouldn't change anything." She finished folding her white cotton nightgown into the case as she spoke, especially mindful of the wide border of handmade lace as she closed the lid. It had taken her over thirty hours to make that gown. She wanted it to last.

Mama joined her by the bed, closing and locking her own traveling case as she said, "You don't know what others see when they look at you, Ella. You have lovely eyes."

Ella snorted in disbelief. "I know what they see. Milton reminded me almost every day."

"Milton!" Mama spit the name out like spoiled meat. She made two fists and pummeled the air. "I wish I could get my hands on him. I'd teach him—"

"Mama." Ella's voice was weary. Mama's opinions about Milton had grown old long ago. "Let him rest in peace. It's over."

"Except that it isn't. What he did to you—what he made you feel about yourself—none of that is over."

Ella sighed. It was no use debating Milton Barton with Mama. Mothers looked at their daughters and saw the best, which was, in Ella's case, her eyes. But mothers tended to see only the things like beautiful hazel eyes. They ignored broad shoulders and strong frames, large hands and noses.

As Ella lifted her traveling case off the bed and set it on the floor so she could smooth the blanket into place, she glanced toward the mirror. She always had regretted that nose. But simple regret had evolved into something else, thanks to Milton. It was her fault he sought other beds. It was her fault he wandered. It was her fault they had no children. She wasn't pretty. She wasn't feminine. She wasn't—

Stop. Stop the litany. Stop it now. Nothing good comes of it. What was it Mama always said ... forget what lies behind. Press on to hope. She must do that now, even if she did still hear Milton's voice at times. She was clumsy. She lumbered like a cow. Such a big nose. Such large hands. Such rough skin. She was barren. But of all the words Milton flung at her, the ones that hurt most were the ones Ella added to the list herself. She was gullible. Gullible and stupid to have believed a man could love a woman like her.

And so, after being widowed by the war, having lost her farm and much of herself in the process, Ella moved to town and rented a nondescript room on a nondescript street in St. Louis. She cooked and cleaned at a nice hotel nearby, and kept to herself. She was never asked to stay on, never promoted to serve in the dining room. After all, who would want a cow lumbering about with their fancy china and silver candlesticks? Dark thoughts hung over the widow Barton like a cloud. And then one day she saw Mr. Hamilton Drake's sign in a milliner's shop window.

WANTED, it said in large letters. ONLY WOMEN NEED APPLY. Smaller print said that Mr. Hamilton Drake of Dawson County, Nebraska, the organizer of the Ladies Emigration Society, was here in St. Louis to help women TAKE CONTROL of their own DESTINY by acquiring LAND IN THEIR OWN NAME. he invited ALL INTERESTED LADIES to meet with him in Parlor A of the Laclede hotel on any one of three evenings listed. He promised that if women would HURRY, they could still acquire FREE PRIME HOMESTEADS in the most desirable portions of the county.

Control of her own destiny ... land in her own name ... a prime homestead. Ella stood looking at that sign for a long while. at the first meeting she attended, Mr. Drake produced an "official" copy of the homestead law president Lincoln had signed back in 1862. Ella read it and learned that what Drake said was right. As a single woman and therefore the head of her own "household," Ella could file on a homestead. And Ella knew land. She knew livestock and crops and plows. She knew when to plant and how to harvest. She also knew there was little, if any, chance a man would ever love her, and even if some fool tried, how would she ever know if it was sincere? But Ella knew something else, too. For the first time in a very long while, Ella knew hope.

Ella looked into the mirror and smiled. Mama was right. the simply dressed woman with the plain face did have rather nice eyes. She glanced at Mama in the mirror. Dear Mama, with her tiny waist and petite stature. Mama, with her lively sense of humor and youthful spirit. What, Ella thought, would she have ever done without Mama?

"Ella."Mama patted her shoulder."Stop riding the clouds and come back to earth." When Ella blinked and looked at her, Mama put her hand atop the bandbox. "I asked if you're sure about the new hat."

"I'm sure." Ella reached for the old brown one hanging on a hook by the door.

With a dramatic sigh, Mama took the bandbox in hand and opened the door.

Ella picked up their two suitcases and followed her out into the hall and downstairs. As they headed toward the train station by way of the milliner's, neither woman looked back.

***

The resolve that had propelled Caroline Jamison up the hill and into Union Station faded the instant she lowered her parasol just inside the door. She hesitated, gazing at the scores of people buying tickets, hurrying toward the tracks, seated in the lunch room sipping tea, browsing at the newsstand. Her head hurt. Her kid leather gloves were growing damp. Perspiration trickled down her back. She was feeling shaky again.

The members of the Ladies Emigration Society were supposed to proceed through the station and gather on the siding near track number 2. Mr. Drake had said he expected almost a train-car full of women to join the Society. Caroline wasn't ready to meet all those strangers. She looked toward the tracks. Oh no. Please no. Not the sisters. Caroline had especially hoped those four would have talked each other out of heading west. At the thought of facing those four—and maybe a few dozen women just like them—Caroline found an empty bench and sat down.

Pulling her traveling case onto her lap, she clung to the handle with one hand and her parasol with the other even as she tried to calm herself. Close your eyes. Think of something else. Think about ... the rose garden. Remember how wonderful those yellow ones on the arbor smelled when they bloomed? Can you hear old James humming to himself while he trimmed the hedge? Shutting out the sounds of the bustling train station and thinking about the garden helped. She stopped trembling. There, now. That's better.

She looked toward the tracks. Where were the dozens of women Mr. Drake talked about? What if the sisters decided they wouldn't have her today? What if they united the others against her and spoke to Mr. Drake and talked him into canceling her membership in the Society? Laws O'massey, what if she had to go back? Back to Basil's parents' home here in St. Louis. Back to—

With a little shudder, Caroline stood up. When all else failed, thinking about Basil's father would give her the determination she needed for this day and a hundred more like it. It had cost her everything when she ran off and married a Yankee. Those women had no idea. Had any of them spent their widowhood listening to a rattling doorknob and the mutterings of their very own father-in-law begging them to move a trunk away from the door? Using her parasol as a walking stick, Caroline stood back up. She had as much right as anyone to homestead land. Abraham Lincoln himself had said so, may the good Lord rest his soul.

A gangly blond-haired boy just now coming out of the diner looked Caroline's way, nodded, and tipped his cap. She smiled at him. He blushed and hurried to where a woman dressed in a black traveling suit waited just inside the door. The woman glared at Caroline, said something to the boy, and literally pulled him toward the tracks and the group of women waiting near track number 2. Oh dear. She'd apparently just offended another member of the Society, and this time she hadn't even opened her mouth.

All right. The only way to do this was to ... just go and do it and never mind the rest of them. With one last glance toward the street, Caroline headed for the tracks.

"You goin' west, too?"

Caroline looked back toward the owner of the gravelly voice. She couldn't possibly be old enough to file on a homestead, could she? Mr. Drake said you had to be twenty-one. This girl didn't look a day past eighteen. Surely she wasn't widowed, either—but then, being a widow wasn't exactly a requirement for joining the Society. Some of the ladies at her meeting had appeared to be more interested in finding husbands than homesteads. Maybe that was the case with this girl.

Caroline didn't know hair that color existed in nature. It reminded her of the scarlet crepe myrtle growing around the gazebo at home in tennessee. And that dress. It was a bad enough shade of yellow now. It would have been an absolute horror before it faded. Women with hair that shade of red should never wear that yellow. Especially if they had ivory skin. It made them look ill.

The girl coughed into the handkerchief she held balled up in one palm. "Sorry," she said and coughed again before extending a hand in greeting. "I'm Sally. Sally Grant. No relation to the general by that name. Although I got his autograph at the Sanitary Fair when I was little and he said my eyes reminded him of his daughter—" She rattled on as Caroline introduced herself and shook hands, but then the girl broke off abruptly. "Sorry," she said. "I tend to talk too much when I'm nervous." She pointed toward the group of women waiting outside. "You with them? Us, I guess I should say."

Caroline nodded. "You as scared as I am?" When the young woman coughed again, Caroline wondered if Sally Grant's pale complexion was more a result of ill health than anything else. How frightening it would be to have committed to something like this trip west and then be threatened with illness. That would be worse than a dozen attacks of nerves.

The girl misinterpreted Caroline's silence. "I can see you're a real lady," she said, motioning to Caroline's dark gold traveling suit and parasol even as she made a vain attempt to smooth the front of her wrinkled calico dress. She gave a little shrug. "You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to. I was just tryin' to be friendly." and with that, she brushed past Caroline and headed for the tracks.

"Wait!" When the girl turned back, Caroline hurried to catch up. "I'm sorry. I seem to have been rendered speechless this mornin', but it's got nothin' to do with you." her voice wavered. "I didn't mean to be rude. It's just that—just that I'm—"

"—scared?" Sally Grant's smile revealed a missing front tooth.

Caroline shook her head. "No, ma'am. I'm not scared. I'm terrified." only it sounded more like ah'm not scairt, ah'm ter-ah-fide. She glanced away, hating the knowledge that she was blushing, trying to cogitate on how she would handle it if Sally Grant—frayed dress, missing tooth and all—was a certain kind of Yankee.

"Memphis or Nashville?" Sally asked, eyeing Caroline closely.

Caroline stiffened. What did that matter? She was just as deserving as any other member of the Emigration Society. She'd sacrificed her way of life and her own family to marry Basil, and he'd died for the Union just as surely as if he'd been shot in battle. And hadn't she herself done her duty, too, nursing him faithfully until the day his body followed where his spirit had already flown? Caroline didn't even try to sound less southern as she drawled, "What's it mattuh? Ah'm the widda of Private Basil Richard Jamison of the Ninth Missourah Volunteers."

Sally's blue eyes stayed friendly. She nodded. "That so? Well, it don't really matter whether it's Memphis or Nashville. I was just wonderin'."

"Ah—ah see." Caroline cleared her throat. She nodded toward the waiting group of women. "You know any of 'em?"

Sally shook her head. "naw. I only went to the one meetin' and they wasn't much for chitchat seeing as how I'm ..." She bit her lower lip. her bony shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Seeing as how I'm me. And divorced. And I told 'em so." She tilted her head and eyed Caroline carefully. "What about you?"

"Me? Oh no—like I told you—my husband was—"

"No," Sally interrupted, "not are you divorced. I heard what you said about all that." She frowned as she pointed toward the tracks. "Seems like Mr. Drake said there'd be more of us. Do you know any of 'em?"

Caroline shook her head. "those four off to the side were at the meetin' when I joined. But I don't recognize any of the others." She shrugged. "A-course they weren't much for chitchattin' with me. Least not after I opened my mouth and let the Tennessee out."

The girl grinned. "What d'ya say you 'n' me stick together for the ride out?"

Caroline had never met anyone as forthcoming as Sally Grant. Her dress was frayed and her thin hands and bony shoulders were evidence she probably hadn't been eating very well of late. There was a good chance that everything Sally Grant owned was inside the worn carpetbag clutched in her hands. And Caroline liked her. "If y'all don't mind travelin' with a southern gal, ah think that'd be fine."

"Way-el," Sally teased, mimicking the accent, "not only do ah not mind ... ah'd be on-uhed." and with that, she looped a thin arm through Caroline's.

***

A gaggle of ladies, one boy, and a man who seemed to be shepherding them all made their way toward the train sitting on Track Number 2. As she watched them climb aboard, Hettie Gates wondered where they were headed—and why. At the sound of footsteps she whirled around, her heart racing. Calm down. Another half dozen chattering ladies scurried through the station and followed the group boarding the train. Hettie watched them for a moment, wondering if those four always dressed alike. They were obviously sisters ... maybe one pair of twins. But for them all—well. It was just odd. Glancing back toward the street, Hettie adjusted the veil attached to her hat and went to the ticket window.

"And how may I help you, ma'am?" the agent nodded toward the train. "Assuming, of course, that you aren't one of Mr. Drake's ladies. If you are, he's already purchased your ticket."

"I ... I beg your pardon?"

"You aren't with the land agent who's been collecting ladies for Nebraska?"

Hettie frowned. "Nebraska?"

The agent removed his spectacles and wiped them with a cloth as he said, "Well, I'm glad to hear it." He shook his head. "If you ask me, Mr. Hamilton Drake's got something else in mind besides helping women get their own homesteads."

Hettie peered at him. "C-can they do that? Homestead, I mean ... without a man?"

"Well, now," the agent said as he settled his glasses back on his nose, "that's just the thing, isn't it? How on earth could they? Can a woman plow? Can a woman grow crops? Can a woman defend herself?" The ticket agent shook his head again. "It wasn't but three years ago the Cheyenne derailed a handcar out that way and—" He broke off. Clucked his tongue. "I don't know what this world is coming to when women begin to think they can just step into a man's world like it was nothing. But I beg your pardon for my sermonizing, ma'am. What can I do for you this fine day?"

Hettie glanced at the train and then back at the agent. "California," she blurted out. California was as good a place as any, wasn't it? Or Denver. Denver might be far enough. She could stop in and visit Aunt Cora. No—that wouldn't be wise. Aunt Cora was a lovely woman, but she never had been able to keep a confidence.

"That's it right there," the ticket agent said, and pointed at the same train the group of ladies had just boarded. He peered at Hettie over pince-nez glasses. "One way or round trip?"

"I ... I don't know about the return trip. The date, I mean. I might be gone a long—"

"One way, then," the man said. "That'll be six dollars."

Hettie counted out her money. Six greenbacks. Only two left. That was all right. She'd get a job washing dishes. Maybe cleaning houses. Something. A whistle blew.

Snatching the ticket,she grabbed her carpetbag from where she'd set it at her feet and ran for the train. It started to move. When she tossed the bag up, it landed with a thud just outside the door to the ladies' car. Grasping the railing, she hauled herself aboard. As the train picked up speed, she struggled to catch her breath. Finally, she climbed the three steps to the car door. Just as she opened it and stepped through, the train lurched. If the stern-faced-looking woman in the seat on the left hadn't ducked, she would have gotten Hettie's elbow in her ear. "E-excuse me," she gasped, and dropped into the empty seat on her right across from a petite elderly woman and a near-giantess. She'd barely regained her composure when the elderly woman spoke up.

"Well. So now we are sixteen."

"S-sixteen?"

The woman nodded. "Yes. I agree. Disappointing. Mr. Drake reserved the entire car." She gestured toward the empty benches at the back, then smiled. "But I don't suppose anyone will complain about having an entire double berth to themselves when it comes time to pull down the shades and go to sleep tonight."

Hettie glanced across the aisle. The woman she'd almost hit in the head had turned her back to them and was rummaging in a bag on the bench between her and a blond-haired boy looking out the window. The bench facing them was empty. As the train picked up speed, Hettie smoothed her frizzy blond hair and adjusted her hat.

The old woman smiled. "Zita Romano." She nodded at the woman seated beside her. "and my daughter, Ella." She hesitated, obviously waiting for Hettie to introduce herself.

"I'm Hettie. Hettie Ga—" She broke off. Didn't the Bible say something about shaking the dust off your feet and not looking back? She cleared her throat as she pushed her spectacles up on her nose. "Please call me Hettie." If they didn't care about last names, so much the better. It would give her time to think of a new one.



Many thanks to Stephanie, Bethany House, and CFBA for sending me Sixteen Brides to read and review!

Also reviewed on Amazon and Christianbook.

Recommend: YES

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**Disclaimer: I was given a free product for review purposes only. My reviews are not monetarily compensated and have not been influenced by the sponsor in any way, unless otherwise disclosed. Each review is based on the reactions and opinions of myself and/or family.**
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