Mail Order Sass, page 1
Mail Order Sass
Old West Alpha and Sass
Author’s Note: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to other real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Alix West
All rights reserved.
Visit Alix’s home page and sign up for her mailing list by clicking here. Mailing list subscribers receive information about future releases, exclusive offers and bonus material.
Check out Alix’s Romance Collection, Old West Alpha and Sass Collection, containing twelve steamy romances, yes 12! It is available now on Amazon.com and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers by clicking here. The collection includes growly cowboys, gruff bounty hunters and smart, sassy heroines, all safe reads with happily-ever-afters.
The young couple in the dining car stared into each other’s eyes, pure joy radiating from their faces. Charlotte had been watching them while sipping her tea, spying really, trying to share the moment, to understand what it must be like to be so in love. She also felt a sense of loneliness, not sure if she’d ever feel that way for someone, or if someone would feel that way for her. The way the young man held the woman’s hand in his, gazing deeply into her eyes as he spoke softly, filled Charlotte with deep longing.
A dull ache throbbed inside her chest.
The train rumbled along the track, smoke billowing outside the window. She felt as though she’d been on the train for years instead of days. She was traveling to meet her husband, the man she’d agreed to marry after exchanging just a few letters.
With each mile, her uneasiness grew. Watching the enraptured couple only made her more aware of her precarious situation. A woman without means or family. A simple mail-order bride.
When she’d boarded the train in Boston, her spirits were high. She was excited, hopeful about the future, happy to be heading west. Now, though, she fretted. Her man, Will Travis, likely would never look at her with such tenderness. From the beginning he’d made his intentions clear. She tore her eyes from the young lovers and reread the letter on the table, the last letter she’d received.
Please be certain to book first class travel on the train to Colter Canyon. I don’t want any ruffians to trouble you on your trip…
His letters, six in all, were full of instructions on what to buy for her new life in Texas (a good pair of sturdy boots will serve you well), what to leave behind (there’s no place for frivolous attire), and how best to prepare (eat plenty, frail women don’t last long).
A rustle of skirts drew her attention back to the couple. The man guided his wife out of the dining car, his hand on her lower back as he dipped his head to whisper in her ear. The woman laughed and chided him softly with words Charlotte couldn’t hear.
Charlotte forced her gaze to the window and the harsh landscape that stretched endlessly to the jagged horizon. They were in Texas now and only a few hours away from Colter Canyon. The land outside was as rugged and uninviting as Mr. Travis’s letters. He’d sent her plenty of money for her trip, along with an embarrassing amount for her to procure what she needed. But his letters held no warmth.
From the beginning, he’d been explicit. What interested him was an arrangement that would suit both their needs. He wanted a strong, capable woman who came from good stock. In return he offered a home, his good name and a relatively comfortable life. He didn’t need a cook, but appreciated that she was a seamstress.
She ran her hands down her skirts, eyeing her new frock with a mixture of pleasure and guilt. It was the first dress she’d owned that hadn’t either been handed down to her by another girl at the orphanage, or been something she’d made herself.
Will had sent her enough money to have several dresses made. The luxury seemed scandalous, but she’d indulged in the extravagance. Since she was preparing for life on a ranch, she’d had trousers made as well. Maybe she could convince her taciturn husband to teach her to ride a horse.
Adventures awaited her, at least, that’s what she told herself in the weeks leading up to her departure. A fresh beginning where no one knew who she was or the shame she carried on her shoulders. She would learn how to ride a horse and perhaps even shoot a gun.
One day, she might tell Will about her secret. He’d questioned her about her stock, and the truth was she didn’t know. Her mother, a seventeen-year old prostitute, left Charlotte in an orphanage when she was only a few days old. Charlotte deflected his questions about her stock with a joke about buying horses and examining their teeth.
He hadn’t been amused and replied with a sharp answer about smart mouths.
She paid for her lunch and returned to her first-class cabin. Shutting the door behind her, she closed her eyes and fought a wave of panic. What if he rejected her? What if he saw through her false bravado and knew she was the daughter of a harlot?
Usually this fear struck her in the wee hours of the morning, when she woke in her bed at the boarding house. In the dark, she imagined a monstrous man who would delight in making her life a misery. She thought being alone in the world was bad? Perhaps it was better than a cruel husband. But how much better? By daybreak her fears would fade like morning dew and she’d resolve to follow through on her scheme to go to Colter Canyon.
By the time they drew close to the small town, she’d cycled through panic and calm at least a dozen times. The train slowed, wheels screeching, and the porter knocked on the door, telling her he’d be by shortly to help with her trunks.
She pressed her fingers to the window and with her other hand touched the chain and locket she wore around her neck. One of her best dress-making clients, Emily Barstow, had gifted her with the locket. It was empty inside, of course, but Emily told her one day she’d have a picture to put there. Perhaps her husband or a precious baby.
Emily, herself, was engaged to a man her father had selected. It was difficult to say which of the two girls felt more apprehensive about matrimony. Emily treated her as an equal and they’d parted as dear friends. As Charlotte studied the outskirts of the small town through the cabin window, she imagined the letters she’d write to Emily, telling her about her journey and arrival and all the people she’d meet.
The train slowed to a stop. Outside, the Colter Canyon depot was a hive of activity. Everywhere she looked she saw cowboys and more cowboys. The crowd was almost entirely made up of men. A few women dotted the depot, their brightly colored hats a stark contrast to the men’s dusty cowboy hats.
The porter came and quickly loaded her trunks on a trolley. With her heart thundering in her chest, she followed him to the door. A man walked behind her, muttering about her pace being too slow for his liking.
“Why don’t you let the menfolk pass?” he demanded.
She looked over her shoulder, but her surprise prevented her from responding. He was big, burly and with a thunderous scowl on his features. Thank goodness Will had sent her money for first-class fare. She couldn’t imagine making the trip with this sort of passenger seated nearby.
Shaking her head, she tried to keep pace with the porter as he drew near the door. He stopped the trolley and took the first trunk off. With swift and efficient movements, he returned for her other trunk and set it down beside the first. He cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted her name. He knew she traveled as a mail-order bride. He kindly announced her name to the crowd milling about. Somewhere out there was her husband. A man stepped in front of her trunks and spoke to the porter.
“Will,” she murmured, her feet rooted to the top stair. He was head and shoulders taller than the porter. His shoulders were broad and his back tapered to a narrow waist. Her breath stilled in her throat as she waited for him to tur
“Get out of my way, ya dumb bitch.” The man behind her spat the words. He wrapped his hand around her elbow. His grip sent a jolt of pain up her arm and she cried out. She struggled to free her arm and in so doing came face to face with the beast. The man’s eyes flashed with fury. His breath washed over her. He was drunk. A drunk bully. He drew his lips back to, no doubt, unleash another string of insults.
In that instant, a man stepped in front of her. The man grabbed the drunk by the throat and slammed him against the wall of the train so hard that his head bounced. His eyes rolled back in his head and the stranger let him sink to the floor.
The stranger turned to face her. For a long moment they stared at each other. His eyes were a pale blue with flecks of gold. His jaw was square, and his mouth was pressed into a thin line of disapproval.
“Sorry about that, Miss.”
His voice, a deep baritone, made her heart stutter. He towered over her. His presence, commanding and powerful, held her immobile, unable to respond. She was aware of his scent. Living in a small town outside of Boston, she was used to civilized scents of aftershave and soap, but he smelled of leather and hard work.
He frowned, waiting for her reply.
“That’s fine,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
“Better find your parents and stay away from Melvin here. Especially after he’s had a few too many. Understand?”
Her parents? She wanted to ask what he meant by that, but he turned from her and disappeared into the throng of passengers. She wanted to call him back, but the din of the station was too loud. The drunk stirred on the ground, rubbing the back of his head, and she hurried down the steps, eager to be away when he woke.
Biting her lip nervously, she stood by her trunks and waited. The train had mostly emptied, but a few passengers boarded, heading to Santa Fe most likely. The crowd thinned, but still there was no sign of Will. Had she imagined that he’d spoken to the porter? What if no one came to meet her? What if he’d changed his mind? The terrible what if questions besieged her once again.
The train conductor yelled All Aboard, and the train whistle pierced the air. She shivered and waited and wondered. The afternoon air held a hint of chill, and once the sun went down, she’d be truly cold. What if she caught pneumonia?
She shook off the question and straightened her shoulders. Chastising herself, she thought about how she’d come for adventure and a new start. If there was no Will to collect her, she’d find a hotel. Surely Colter Canyon had a hotel or boarding house or some sort of accommodations.
The train lurched and slowly pulled from the station. The ground shook beneath her feet as the great engine belched smoke and lumbered down the track, slowly gaining speed.
A few moments later it was gone. In its wake was a silence that deafened. A few cowboys remained, talking in pairs or small groups. They cast her curious looks.
“You,” came a voice from behind her, the tone edged with disbelief.
She turned to find the blue-eyed stranger, her rescuer at the top of the steps, glaring at her. What had she done wrong to merit such anger? And who was this man?”
“I beg your pardon?”
He moved closer, narrowing the distance between them until he stood a hand’s breadth from her, his furious gaze centered directly on her. “Charlotte?”
Dear God, this furious man was Will. This was her husband. She swallowed. For some reason a small breathless laugh bubbled up. He narrowed his eyes even more.
“Maybe,” she said softly.
A strange awareness crackled between them. His gaze fell from her eyes to her lips and back again. In the letters, he’d referred to their marital relations delicately, saying he thought it best if they take some time, a month he thought, to become acquainted. But now he looked at her with a mixture of ire and hunger. What had she done to offend him?
“I might be Will. Maybe.” He snapped.
She lifted her hand in the narrow space between them. “Pleased to meet you, Will Maybe.”
He shook his head and took her hand. The touch of his hand sent a tingle along her fingers and palm. The sensation traveled up her arm and she had to bite back a murmur of surprise.
“You said you were twenty-five.”
“I said mid-twenties.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-two. But I lived in an orphanage and they didn’t keep records very well.”
His gaze hardened. “So, you could be younger than twenty-two. Am I right?”
She flushed and tried to tug her hand free, but he held her tightly. “I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think that’s accurate.”
“Usually mail-order brides lie about being younger, not older.”
“I didn’t lie, Mr. Travis. I simply don’t know. I thought my revelation of growing up in an orphanage would engender some concern. A little sympathy.”
She sounded prim and indignant, even to her own ear. She hadn’t intended to say a word about the orphanage, maybe ever, and yet the words tumbled from her lips without a moment’s hesitation.
“And oftentimes,” he went on to say. “They claim to be as pure as the undriven snow and then show up with a brat on their hip.”
“You never asked if I was pure, but I can assure you I don’t have a child.”
“You’re a little different than what I expected,” he growled.
She felt paralyzed. Staring up at him, she wondered if his next words would be to send her home. That she didn’t suit him, and he wanted to send for another bride. Her eyes stung and she blinked back the tears that threatened to fall.
“I’m sorry, Will. If you’re not agreeable-”
“I’m agreeable, Charlotte. I’m more than agreeable. I just hope you know what you’ve signed on for. I’m not looking for love. I’m looking for a wife. That’s all. And you look like a girl who wants romance and poetry. There’ll be none of that foolishness. I’ve got plenty of money and you won’t ever want for anything, but I’m not one for pretty words. Understand?”
She gave a brittle nod. “I understand.”
Will and his brother, Nick, had spent most of the day working the cattle, sorting them for a cattle drive to Fort Worth the following week. They stood by the fence of the corral, discussing the number of heifers they would sell, what price they might fetch, and other details of the trip. Normally, talk of the cattle would have Will’s complete attention, but not today. He barely heard his brother. Instead, his attention was on Charlotte, his wife of seven days. She stood on the porch some fifty yards away, speaking to Silas and his wife. Silas’s grandchild was going to be baptized in a few days, and Charlotte had offered to sew the baptismal gown.
Charlotte leaned over the porch railing as she laughed at something Silas said. Dressed in a soft blue skirt and a white, lacy blouse, she looked every inch the proper lady. A perfect ranch wife for a man of his wealth and standing. Will’s full attention was on Charlotte, and Nick knew it.
“I found one of the fillies milling around behind the corral yesterday.”
Will didn’t respond.
“The stallions couldn’t take their eyes off her.”
“Is that so.” Will’s posture was unchanged, eyes fixed on his wife and everything she did.
“Yep. She was teasing them, I could tell. Prancing around in a blue skirt and lacy blouse.”
“What?” Hearing his brother talk about something white and lacy broke Will’s trance.
“Brother, you haven’t heard a thing I’ve said, have you?”
His brother’s sharp tone drew his attention from Charlotte.
“I’m listening, Nick. Twelve hundred head. Of that eight hundred are heifers. Sounds about right.”
Nick followed his gaze to where Charlotte stood. “You sure you want to leave your bride to go on a dusty cattle drive?”
Nick smirked. His brother had given him unmitigated hell over the idea of getting a mail-order bride. “Trouble? Already?”
Will turned his attention back to the corral, and to the horses Nick had brought for the trip to Fort Worth.
“No trouble. I’m just trying to keep my distance. I didn’t think she’d be so…”
“Pretty?” Nick offered.
“Yeah. Why would a woman who looks like that want to come to Texas to be a mail-order bride? She says there’s a black mark against her back in her hometown. No one wanted to offer for her. She says there are a bunch of girls who grew up at the orphanage like that.”
Nick grunted. “Hard to believe.”
“I told her we’d take a month to get to know each other.”
“That was gentlemanly of you.”
“I regret the hell out of it now. That’s why I’m grateful to get away. From her. She’s been here a week and keeping away is enough to make me lose my wits.”
One of the horses ambled over and Will patted his neck. The animals had served as a welcome distraction this past week. Nick raised some of the finest horses in Texas. He’d broken the three geldings and Will had spent the prior days putting the horses through their paces. He was certain they’d do well on the two-day trip to Fort Worth.
He let out a tortured breath, thinking about Charlotte. Every day he worked long hours, well past dark. Charlotte always waited for him, ready to serve him dinner. They’d dine together, mostly in silence. She tried to make conversation, and he tried to ignore her floral scent, or the way she gestured when she spoke, or the way her curves filled her blouse.
“A trip to Fort Worth will do you good, get your mind on something else for a few days.”
“And then what? I told her a month. I’ll have 20 days left to go.”
“Maybe you’ll need to build a new barn. On the West pasture. And sleep there too.”