Substitute Bride

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Substitute Bride 

He married the wrong twin

Six years after Cole Berringer goes west to build a new life, he writes to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Main, and proposes marriage. But instead of the woman he left behind, her twin sister, Elizabeth, arrives in Colorado to take her place.

Elizabeth Main has loved Cole for years, but has always known she isn’t the woman he loves, so when her twin refuses his marriage proposal, she grabs at the chance to make her dreams come true.

As the weeks go by, Cole and Elizabeth grow closer, and Elizabeth is convinced it’s only a matter of time until Cole returns her love.

But then, Sarah arrives …

 

Chapter 1

     Elizabeth Main’s heartbeat stuttered as the postmaster handed the battered envelope to her twin sister, Sarah. It had been six long years, but Elizabeth recognized the barely legible handwriting immediately.
     Cole. Cole Berringer’s scrawl.
     “It’s from Cole,” she exclaimed, her insides abuzz with excitement. “Who is it addressed to?”
     “Me, of course,” Sarah replied. “Although why he’d write to me now after all these years, I have no idea.”
     Elizabeth closed the door against the perfumed breeze from the honeysuckle arbor in the yard and the rattle of carriages passing on the cobblestone street outside. Her skirts swished on the polished wood floor as she followed on Sarah’s heels through the foyer.
     Sarah crossed to her father’s study and retrieved an engraved silver letter opener from his desk, then strolled into the drawing room and sat daintily on a brocade chair beside the fireplace.
     Elizabeth followed close behind, barely able to contain herself. She’d waited for this letter since the day he’d ridden away to fight in the war so long ago.
     “Open it, Sarah,” Elizabeth urged, and a moment later, added, “What does it say?”
     “Patience, Bee.” The reprimand was softened by the smile on Sarah’s face. “I haven’t read it myself yet.”
     Elizabeth bristled. She remembered the day Cole and Quinn had given her the nickname, and it had stuck until Cole left for the war and his brother had followed shortly after.
     “I really wish you’d stop calling me Bee,” Elizabeth said. “We’re exactly the same age, and nicknames are for children. We’re grown now.”
     Sarah chuckled, the soft musical tone so unlike Elizabeth’s own hearty laugh. “I’m sorry, sweet. I forget how much it bothers you that I’m four minutes older than you are. Will you forgive me?”
     Elizabeth met Sarah’s blue-eyed gaze and smiled. She’d never been able to stay angry with her twin for more than a minute or two. And she was much more interested in what Cole had written than she was in continuing her pique.
     While Elizabeth paced the room, Sarah opened the envelope, then withdrew three pieces of paper and began to read.
     Elizabeth watched the play of emotions on her sister’s face as her eyes scanned the paper – a tiny frown, a faint smile, her teeth worrying her bottom lip. She couldn’t stand it a second longer. “Well? What does he say?”
     Sarah looked up, her eyes wide. “He writes of all that’s happened to him since the war, of his success as a rancher.”
     “A rancher?”
     Elizabeth had been heartbroken when Cole hadn’t come home after the war. A neighbor who’d returned a few months after the war ended had told her he’d gone to Colorado, but no one had heard anything about him since.
     Sarah nodded. “Yes. He and Quinn own a cattle ranch, over ten thousand acres.”
     Elizabeth couldn’t even imagine so much space. Why, the ranch was likely larger than Summerton, the small town outside Philadelphia where she and Sarah had grown up.
     “What else?” Elizabeth prodded.
     “He wants me to come to Colorado. He wants me to marry him. Look.” She held up a fistful of ten-dollar bills.
     Elizabeth couldn’t prevent the gasp that escaped her lips. Cole and Sarah? Married? If someone stabbed a dagger into her heart, it couldn’t cause such pain, she was sure. In fact, she suspected her heart had stopped beating altogether. She could hardly bear to ask the question, but she heard herself voice the words. “Will you?”
     The silence in the room was punctuated by the hourly chime of the grandfather clock in the corner. Elizabeth’s throat grew so tight she feared she’d soon be unable to breathe.
     Sarah smoothed the crumpled pages and folded them neatly, then slipped them back into the envelope. Before she had a chance to respond, the door burst open and an elderly woman rushed in. “Who was at the door?” she asked, fanning herself furiously against the July heat.
     “The postman brought a letter from Cole, Aunt Meg,” Elizabeth told her.
     “Cole Berringer?”
     The disdain in her aunt’s voice surprised Elizabeth. What did she have against Cole?
     Elizabeth nodded. “He wants Sarah to go to Colorado and marry him. He even sent money for her travel expenses.”
     “Good heavens.” Aunt Meg’s fan quivered like a hummingbird’s wings. “That’s … that’s preposterous …”
     “He’s doing very well financially,” Sarah put in.
     “He’s no better than that drunken father of his.” Aunt Meg practically spit the words out. “I’m astounded at the nerve … writing after all this time … as if people had forgotten what happened and why he went off to war in the first place.”
     “I’m sure he’s grown up by now,” Elizabeth interrupted. “It was a long time ago.” And not entirely his fault, she could have added, but decided sometimes silence really was golden.
     “Hmmph. Nevertheless, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” Her aunt had a proverb for every situation, and Elizabeth couldn’t remember ever getting through a conversation without hearing at least one. “Has anyone ever tried?” Elizabeth asked innocently.
Her aunt’s face reddened. “What …?”
     “Maybe Sarah could turn Cole into a silk purse.” Elizabeth couldn’t imagine Cole being any different from how she remembered him – tall, strong, with eyes the color of slate and a tiny dimple in his chin that she’d teased him about for years. No, she couldn’t picture him as a refined town gentleman, sipping tea with the ladies or dressed in a frock coat and derby.
     Aunt Meg let out a bitter laugh. “The wilds of Colorado are the perfect place for the likes of him. He’d fit right in with the rest of the ruffians who headed west after the war.”
     Elizabeth was tempted to point out to her aunt that it was ‘ruffians’ like Cole, men who craved adventure and who were willing to risk their lives to explore new frontiers, who had discovered America in the first place. “I think he was very brave—” she began.
     Aunt Meg scowled at Elizabeth. “Of course you do.”
     Elizabeth suspected this was part of the reason she’d fallen in love with Cole so long ago. She’d known it the first time she’d seen him that he was the only man she’d ever love. Of course, he’d been little more than a boy then, poised beside the Ring-the-Bell, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his sinewy forearms gripping the mallet, and a cocky grin on his face. In one smooth effortless arc, he’d swung the mallet. She’d watched as it had hammered the board at the bottom, sending a piece of metal flying up a tower. A moment later, the bell had rung. Right then, she’d fallen in love, and even though her heart had been shattered when he’d begun courting Sarah, her love for him had grown stronger with every passing day.
     And then he’d left Summerton. Gone to fight for the Union Army. She’d prayed every night for his safe return, and even though he hadn’t come home when the fighting was over, at least he’d been alive.
     Sarah’s voice interrupted her reverie. “I wonder if there are shops in Colorado.”
     Elizabeth could have given a two-hour lecture on Colorado. She’d read everything available on western travel and settlement, as well as the tales in the dime novels she hid beneath her mattress.
     Aunt Meg harrumphed. “The whole idea is ridiculous. Why, I’ve heard about the west – outlaws, Indians who capture women and … well, never mind …”
     Sarah smiled up at her aunt and tucked the letter into the pocket of her skirt. “Don’t worry, Aunt Meg. I have no intention of going off to Colorado.”
     Elizabeth heard the sigh of relief escaping from her lips and guiltily slid a glance to her sister and aunt. Had they heard her?
     “Good. At least you have the good sense to stay where people are civilized and you’ll be able to marry a man who’ll be able to look after you properly and treat you like the lady you are.” Aunt Meg closed her fan and turned away. “Now, let’s forget all about this Colorado nonsense. Tea is ready, and we still have many plans to make for the ball next month.”

***

     “Eighty-seven, eighty-eight …” Elizabeth stifled a yawn as she sat at her dressing table later that night and ran the mother-of-pearl hairbrush through her long blonde hair.
     Suddenly, the door burst open. Sarah hurried in and let out a distressed sigh as she flopped down on the bed, her frilly chemise and pantaloons flapping.
     Elizabeth turned from the mirror to face her sister. “What’s wrong? Is Aunt Meg trying to marry you off to old Lucius Grant again?”
     Sarah grimaced and gave an exaggerated shudder. “I don’t understand why Aunt Meg is so insistent I marry him. Why not you? It’s not as if he’d even know the difference.”
     “I don’t understand it either, but I admit I’m glad I’m not the target of her matchmaking at the moment. After her attempts to marry me off to Edgar Whittington, only to discover he has a wife and children tucked away in the country …”
     “That was unfortunate for him, but providential for you,” Sara put in.
     “It was, and since then, Aunt Meg has allowed me time to recover from my broken heart.” Elizabeth began to laugh, and within seconds, she and Sarah were lost in fit of giggles.
     When they finally composed themselves, Sarah gave Elizabeth a stern look. “The problem is that since you’ve escaped her clutches for now, she’s turned her attention to marrying me off. I’m almost tempted to marry Cole just to avoid Aunt Meg’s matchmaking.”
     Elizabeth’s throat tightened. Surely Sarah wasn’t serious. She’d made it very clear earlier that she’d rather wither away as a spinster than live in the Colorado wilderness.
     “But even marriage to that fuddy-duddy couldn’t convince me to go to Colorado. Cole has been out in the sun too long if he thinks I’d ever consider his proposal,” Sarah said, running her braid through her fingers.
     “But you were sweethearts,” Elizabeth said, as if she needed to remind Sarah of her relationship with Cole. “You must have loved him.”
     Sarah waved away Elizabeth’s comment. “He loved me, and I must admit I was flattered by his attention. He was very handsome, after all. But love? Heavens, no. Can you imagine being married to a man like Cole? And worse, living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere?”
     Yes, Elizabeth thought, her mind wandering. She’d imagined just that for years. Well, not the ranch part, but she had fantasized about being married to Cole and living with him in Colorado every night after she said her prayers.
     Now, she could add a ranch into her imaginings along with space, fresh air, land. Working beside him on his ranch, raising his children, building a life together. Her heartbeat quickened at the thought. If only Cole had loved her instead of Sarah. If only the letter had been addressed to her …
     “I’m going to bed,” she announced, slamming the brush on the silver tray on the dressing table.
     Bounding up, she crossed the room, slipped out of her silk wrapper and draped it across the foot of the bed. Sliding under the sheets, she turned her back on her sister lest she see in her eyes the longing for something she’d never have. “Please turn down the lamp before you leave,” she muttered as she pulled the blanket over her shoulders and closed her eyes.
     Hours later, Elizabeth’s eyes sprang open. The house was silent, the fire had died, and faint moonlight filtered through the curtains at the window.
     An idea had germinated somewhere in her subconscious as she slept. She and Sarah were twins. They’d spent many hours giggling about how they’d fooled not only their parents, but the servants, their tutors, their friends.
     Why not Cole? Could she fool him, too? Her heart skittered inside her chest. It was a dangerous plan, one that could ruin her reputation and leave her homeless. Yet, excitement gnawed at her at the thought of becoming Cole’s wife.
Sarah didn’t love Cole, so Elizabeth’s actions wouldn’t hurt her. Sarah would never leave Summerton. So why couldn’t she take Sarah’s place and make her own dreams come true?
     There was no doubt in her mind that what she was considering was wrong. Yet if it made Cole happy to think she was the woman he loved, and she was married to the man she’d dreamed of for years, how could it really hurt anyone?
     She’d loved Cole since the day she’d discovered the difference between boys and girls, and her prayers that he’d somehow discover he loved her, too, had gone unanswered. Now, this opportunity had presented itself, an opportunity to make her dreams come true.
     Yes, it was deceitful, and she was sure her plan was a sin, but the temptation was too strong to resist.
     She would go to Colorado. She would become Sarah. And she would marry the man she’d always loved.

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