A Mail-Order Hope

By: Janelle Daniels



“I’ll manage.” He had no desire to linger in town. The longer he stayed, the more likely it was that he’d run into the person—woman—he was avoiding.

“Suit yourself. It’s all in the back room.”

“Thanks.”

Mr. Stevens nodded before snapping his fingers. “I almost forgot.” He fished a paper out from behind the desk. “I thought you might be interested in this. Figured you wouldn’t have heard about it yet.”

Asher took the paper and glanced down at the announcement. “A scavenger hunt? Since when does the town sponsor something like that?”

The shop owner raise his eyebrows knowingly. “Since those brides came to town.”

Of course. It all had to do with the women and the men who were trying to win their hands.

“Pretty big cash prize is being offered.” Mr. Stevens nodded toward the paper for Asher to take a second look. “All you need is a partner.”

“I work alone.” Not that he was even interested in the scavenger hunt.

“If you want to enter to win this contest, you’ll need a companion. It’s written in the rules. Better to woo women when you’re paired off, I guess.”

The man’s grin irked Asher, but he didn’t let it show. “Thank you.” He added before heading off to load his supplies. He had no desire to pair himself with anyone, let alone a woman that needed courting, but he admitted, even if it was just to himself, that the challenge sparked something within him. Except for helping find Clara, it’d been awhile since he’d used his skills for hunting anything other than game.

He glanced at the paper one last time before tucking it into his pocket. But what did he need the prize money for? He already had plenty, and he had no intention of changing his lifestyle. The cabin was his home. His life.

His prison.

Disgusted with himself, he hauled two bags of flour and a few other supplies outside and started loading them into his wagon. All he wanted to do was get back home, close the door, and forget all about the scavenger hunt.

“Mr. Walker?”

The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as Belle’s soft voice floated through the air. He closed his eyes and ticked off a few second before turning toward her. “You’re in town early.”

“So are you.” She eyed him skeptically. “You wouldn’t be avoiding me, would you?”

“Of course not.” He almost believed himself he’d sounded so convincing. “There’s just a lot to do.”

“Hmm.” She’d already dismounted from her horse and was now walking around to view the back of his wagon. “No doubt you spend countless hours watching flies buzz around the meadow. Busy work, that.”

He swallowed his smile, not wanting to be charmed by her. He needed to get away before he did something foolish—like give her any hope. “If only life were so easy. A lot goes into supporting one’s self, especially when they live far from town.”

“No doubt,” she said, but doubt tinged her voice. “I hope you enjoyed the basket I left. Or I should say, I hope there was something left inside the basket I left. Did animals get to it first?” Her arched brow challenged him.

She knew he’d run off, but darn it, he really had needed fresh meat. “I enjoyed several muffins.”

“Good, but you could’ve enjoyed them warm if you had, you know, been around. Where were you?”

He bent low to grab a sack of sugar on the ground, a snort of amusement escaped him before he could stop it. “I appreciate the determination, Miss Sweeney, but that isn’t any of your business.”

“Belle.” She tilted her head as if testing him to see if he’d agree. “And I’m going to call you Asher.”

He shrugged. It didn’t matter what they called each other. The fact was, she was pushing in where she didn’t belong. “Belle, then. Regardless, it’s still none of your business.”

“You know I’m not going to stop,” she said, handing a crock of butter to him from the ground. “I told you it didn’t matter how long I’d have to hound you.”

“And I’ve already told you that it won’t change things.”

He leaned over to pick up more supplies, and the folded announcement for the scavenger hunt fell out of his pocket. Before he could reach for it, she swooped down and scooped it up.

“What this?” Unfolding the paper, she read the flyer.

“That could’ve been private,” he said dryly.

Her cheeks pinked, but she spoke boldly. “Well, it wasn’t.” She folded the paper back up, but didn’t hand it back to him. “The scavenger hunt. I thought about entering.” She tapped the paper on her chin. “I wonder how much prize money there will be?”

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