"Suzannah, I love you like a daughter, and I've enjoyed your visit more than I can say, but if you don't choose one of these candidates to be your husband soon..." Russell Braddock, matchmaker extraordinaire and proprietor of the Happily Ever After marriage brokerage, took a deep breath before admitting ruefully, "You're the greatest challenge of my career, do you know that, Miss Hennessy?"
Sitting in a pile of letters on the floor at his feet, his golden-haired guest grinned up at him with unrepentant delight. " You're the only man on earth I trust, so I suppose you'll just have to marry me yourself."
"Suzannah!" Megan Braddock's soft gray eyes were laughing as she too looked up toward her uncle. "Didn't I warn you about her, Uncle Russ? She'll be a spinster for sure. And I'll be one too, because of my silly promise not to get married before her."
"There'll be no spinsters on my watch," Braddock assured them, surveying the pair with amused affection. These two young women had been best friends--almost sisters, in fact--since childhood, yet differed from one another in so many ways. Suzannah with her spirited, irreverent playfulness. Megan with her earnest sweetness and desire to please. Each of them was priceless in Braddock's eyes, and he was determined to find them perfect mates. It was his business, after all. And in this case, also his privilege.
"These files are bursting with orders from lonely men willing to pay handsomely for brides. I won't rest until I find one for each of you."
"They have to live nearby one another, so our children can play together," Suzannah reminded him sharply. "And no city men--we especially don't trust them. Right, Meg?"
"Uncle Russ is a city man," Megan countered her friend wearily. "Other than him, I don't know many, although the ones we've met during this visit have seemed decent enough."
Braddock nodded, encouraged. "Reconsider, then, and allow me to find you both husbands here in Chicago. Noelle and I would love to have you nearby."
"We'll miss you awfully when we go," Megan agreed. "And we'll miss Noelle too."
"She'll be old enough for marriage herself soon, and I guarantee you she won't be willing to allow me to choose her husband. If you two were in Chicago, you could counsel her--"
"I can't stay," Suzannah interrupted. "Noelle is darling, and you're the closest thing to a father I've ever had the pleasure to know, but sometimes ..." She looked from one to the other, her green eyes pleading for understanding. "Some people were born for city life. They thrive on the bustling crowds and magnificent architecture. And this house! It's practically a mansion. But I yearn for something else. Green meadows, not gray buildings. The sound of songbirds, not of whistles and horns. I can't explain it--"
"I think you just did, sweetheart," Braddock said. "It's a pity, though. I've made many a successful match through the mail, but I much prefer to interview prospective bridegrooms, face to face. I met a gentleman last night in fact who--"
"A city man?"
He chuckled in defeat. "Yes, Suzannah."
"Then he simply won't do. For either of us. Isn't that so, Meg?"
The dark-haired girl shrugged. "You're giving Uncle Russ an impossible task. Finding two men in his files who meet your high standards, and both must live in the same small town? What are the odds of that? Wouldn't it make more sense to include small cities like Denver? They can't have many tall buildings or crowded streets, can they?"
"Denver?" Suzannah arched an eyebrow. "Please don't tell me you're going to mention that schoolteacher again! We decided against him hours ago."
" You decided, not me."
"And I was correct. The man's pompous and humorless. That was plain to see from his letter. Three pages, all about himself."
"All about how he started a school for poor boys," Megan countered stubbornly. "That's generous, not pompous."
"And what about poor girls?" Suzannah demanded. "Don't you see, Meg? Men like him want to keep women ignorant and dependent and helpless, so they can walk all over us, and then disappear without warning, just like my father did. Just like Aengus Yates did. It's despicable."
"Your father didn't disappear, he died," Megan reminded her quietly. "And I'm sure Aengus had reasons for leaving his family, too. We'll just never know them."
"Aengus Yates?" The name teased at Russell Braddock's memory. "Who is that?"
Suzannah's eyes flashed with disgust. "Meg and I refer to him whenever we need an example of the depths men can sink to."
"That's not true." Megan smiled wistfully. "It's to remind ourselves that no one is perfect. That was Aengus's greatest sin," she explained to her uncle. "He seemed so perfect, and then he disappointed us so thoroughly. And he broke Suzannah's heart. Twice."
Intrigued, the marriage broker leaned forward in his soft leather chair. If his recollection was accurate, they were referring to a young wrangler he'd met at his brother's funeral years earlier. The earnest, soft-spoken, yet imposing young immigrant had made an indelible impression on the matchmaker despite the brevity of the meeting. Was this the type of man who caught Suzannah's fancy? If so, Braddock had his work cut out for him. "Go on. This sounds like useful information."
The two friends exchanged glances, then Suzannah spoke up. "Yes, he broke my heart. Just as Megan says. You'll laugh at me, I suppose, but--"
"A broken heart is never a laughing matter."
She nodded gratefully. "I loved Aengus Yates from the first time I laid eyes on him. I was just a child, but in my heart, I was certain he was the man I would marry one day. Remember, Meg? I watched him by day, and dreamed of him by night, and adored him through and through. He worked on a large ranch outside town, and he had a reputation for being able to gentle any horse, no matter how ornery or wild. And you'd believe it when you saw him, because he was so strong, and calm, and he had the most beautiful face--all tanned, with deep windburns on his cheekbones, and this slow, soft smile..."
Megan sighed and picked up the story. "Aengus must have been fourteen or so when he started working for the Monroes, and we couldn't have been seven or eight years old at the most. But he caught her eye for sure. She thought they had a destiny, but as time went by, she began to worry that he'd marry someone else before he got a chance to see her full grown. So on her eleventh birthday, she marched right up to him and told him straight out that he'd better wait. She told him she was growing as fast as she could, and she was determined to be worth waiting for."
"That must have been quite a picture."
Suzannah nodded. "Aengus was tall and strong. I must have seemed like a little pest, but still..."Almost to herself, she added, "He should have waited for me. Maybe things wouldn't have gone so wrong if he had."
Braddock cocked his head. "He married?"
"That same year," Megan said, her tone almost mournful. "That's the first time he broke her heart. The Monroes had a houseguest named Katherine. A thin, haughty girl from Boston. The next thing any of us knew, she and Aengus were married. It was a shock, especially to poor Suzannah. Then Katherine had a baby boy. Two years later, she had another one."
"And two years after that, Aengus deserted them." Suzannah spoke the words in a quiet voice laced with anger and betrayal. "I thought he was the finest man on earth, but he walked away from those babies and never came back."
"That was the second time he broke your heart?" Braddock leaned down to pat his houseguest's arm. "It explains so much to me, Suzannah. Here you are, full of energy and enthusiasm and love, but you won't trust a man with any of it. I see now why that is."
Suzannah flushed. "I'd gladly be alone until the day I died if I didn't adore children so awfully much, but I do. You should have seen Aengus's sons! He had something so wonderful, yet he walked away. If I can have children of my own one day, I'll never ask for anything else."
"Suzannah grew close to the Yates boys after Aengus abandoned them," Megan explained to her uncle. "Katherine took good care of them in her own way, but she was not a warm woman by any standard. Suzannah was like a big sister to them."
Suzannah bit her lip, as though to keep it from quivering. "Losing Aengus was something I had in common with his sons. They needed me, and I needed them. To tell you the truth," she added sheepishly, "it's one of the reasons I let Meg talk me into coming here after my mother died. I was growing too attached to Luke and Johnny for anyone's good."
"It was a wise thing to do," Braddock agreed. "Otherwise, you might have had your heart broken a third time. I'm determined not to let that happen, by the way. I'll find you a good husband--"
"No!" Suzannah flushed. "I've changed my mind about that. Find one for Meg. I'll make the trip with her, to wherever her fiance lives, and I'll find myself a husband there. It shouldn't be too hard," she added with a disdainful sniff. "All I need do is pretend to be ignorant and weak, and I imagine someone will find me irresistible."
"A pretty girl with sparkling green eyes and golden curls?" Braddock nodded pensively. "I'm sure you won't have trouble finding prospective grooms. The worry is you'll try to choose someone who is different in every way from this Aengus Yates."
Suzannah studied him cautiously. "Why is that a worry?"
"Because you clearly want a man who is--how did you describe him?--tall and strong, and calm. Tanned by the sun. A soft, slow smile."
She stared in delighted amazement. "You remember every word?"
"I built this business by paying close attention to customers' words--both expressed and unexpressed. What you need is someone very like your Aengus, but who deserves the love of a good woman. Someone you can trust enough to fall in love with."
"Someone I can trust enough to be the father of my children," Suzannah corrected. "That's all I ask."
"Consider it done. He must be in my files somewhere."
"Just find a good man for Megan," Suzannah advised firmly. "Someone she can trust. I'll take care of myself somehow."
The matchmaker had learned better than to argue with his pretty guest, who had proven to be every bit as stubborn as his own daughter Noelle had become. Grateful to have at least one levelheaded female in his life, he turned his gaze, and his attention, to Megan. "I'll find someone for you who lives in a newly settled area. A mining town, perhaps. There will almost certainly be a lack of available women in such a place. If Suzannah goes along with you, she'll have her choice of men, I'm sure."
"But, Uncle Russ!" Megan's gray eyes had widened with concern. "Suzannah couldn't find an acceptable husband in all your files! What chance is there she'll find someone in a dusty old mining town?"
"Don't worry, Meg. We'll have our double wedding," Suzannah promised her friend. "We'll live out our lives in a mining town. We'll raise our children together. And if either of our men tries to leave," she added impishly, "I'll shoot him dead. What could be simpler?"