Mail Order Regrets, page 1part #1 of Montana Mail Order Brides Series
Traveling from Boston, mail order bride Madeline Barstow hopes that Samuel Croft will provide a comfortable, respectable life, far from the prying eyes of her gossiping socialite peers. But when she steps off the train in Helena, Montana, she is appalled to find a stranger waiting for her instead of her husband-to-be.
Widower Clay Porter is tired of everyone trying to match him up. He wants only to be left alone, spending his days off making deliveries and earning money to someday buy the butcher shop he works in. When he is hired to transport a woman to Croft Ranch, he realizes she is completely in the dark about her fiancé’s character. Is Clay willing to risk his own dreams—and even his life—to persuade Madeline that she's making a mistake?
Note: Mail Order Regrets is a sweet historical romance novel of 76,344 words, but is not a Christian/inspirational romance.
Mail Order Regrets
Montana Mail Order Brides * Book 1
by Julianna Blake
Copyright 2013 Julianna Blake
Published by Timeless Hearts Press
Available now, Book 2 of the Montana Mail Order Bride series: Mail Order Promises.
And look for Book 3, coming in December 2013!
This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to an authorized eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Julianna Blake’s books are usually sweet historical romances. They do not contain any explicit or descriptive scenes of intimacy. However, they are not Christian in nature, and may contain kissing and possible brief allusions to sexual tension. [We include this warning, because bestselling sweet historicals often end up on Christian/inspirational romance bestseller lists, due to automatic algorithms in a retailer’s search engines, and this may confuse readers looking for only Christian-themed stories. This is beyond the publisher’s and author’s control. Timeless Hearts Press always places books in the appropriate categories.]
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Mail Order Regrets
Helena, Montana. December, 1887.
“Clay Porter!” the shrill voice rang through the shop.
Clay froze in his tracks, gritting his teeth because he knew the ensuing conversation would make him late. He abandoned his task near the coal stove and straightened.
“Hey there, Mrs. Perkins, how are you this fine day?”
“Chilled to the bone, my dear. That wind cuts through clothes like a knife.” The portly woman adjusted the wicker basket on her arm, then gestured to the large window of the butcher shop. “But at least it’s clear and sunny. ‘Bout time we had a sunny day.”
“Too true.” He nodded his head and tried to sidle back toward the coal stove. “Well, it was nice—”
“Not so fast young man,” she caught him by the arm. “You’re not leaving until you tell me where you’re off to, looking all spiffy like that.” Mrs. Perkins never missed an opportunity to pry.
Clay looked down at his navy blue shirt, worn along the plackets and starting to fade in places. He wouldn’t call it “spiffy,” but it was the closest thing to it that he owned. Sighing, he resigned himself to at least five minutes wasted, talking to her. She was relentless.
“Here you go, Mrs. Perkins,” interrupted Herman. The butcher flashed Clay a compassionate look before he shifted his gaze back to the lady. “Two pounds of roast. You and Mr. Perkins must be having company.” He handed the paper package tied neatly with cotton string over the counter to Clay, who handed it to Mrs. Perkins.
Shooting Herman a grateful look while Mrs. Perkins launched into a monologue about her children coming to visit for Christmas, Clay returned to his task, filling a pail with coal from the coal hopper near the stove.
He slipped into the back room before Mrs. Perkins noticed him again, and started to gather up the blankets and furs he’d need for the trip.
A few minutes later, Herman was at his side. “That woman could talk the ear off a rabbit.”
“Thank you for taking her off my hands. The train arrives in half an hour. I can’t be late.”
“Hope the team is already in harness.”
“They are, the sleigh is ready out back, and I’ve got coals heating the foot warmer. Just forgot the extra coal.”
“Boy, where is your head? Weather like this, that young lady’s toes won’t make it to the Croft Ranch intact, and I don’t have to tell you how Sam Croft would take his ‘goods’ being damaged.”
Clay shook his head. “No, you don’t. That man grates on my nerves. And you’re right, he’ll probably treat his bride-to-be as so much chattel, just as he does his ranch hands. Not to mention, he’s stingy—I never had a tip from him in the two years I’ve run cargo for him, no matter how difficult the job.”
“I don’t know why you take his jobs—the man is so rude, I can barely stand him coming in here when he wants to hire you.”
“You know why—you know how bad I need the money.” Clay looked at Herman pointedly. “Besides, his ranch is so out of the way that his jobs pay good, even without a tip.”
“Ha,” Herman snorted. “If he pays at all.”
“Well, he’s always paid me. I know rumor has it different, but I’ve always gotten my money.” He wouldn’t mention the newest rumors he’d heard—rumors that made him half-wish he hadn’t accepted Croft’s most recent offer.
“That’s only because you’re smart enough to get it up front.” Herman slapped Clay on the back, laughing. Then the laughing turned to coughing...then wheezing.
“You alright?” Clay laid a concerned hand on the old man’s shoulder. Herman Kirschner wasn’t just his boss, he was also like a father to him. He hated to see how Herman had aged so much in just the last year or so.
The coughing fit subsided and Herman waved him away. “I’m fine, I’m fine. But when are you going to take this place off my hands so a body can rest?”
“I’m trying, Herman. I’m still three hundred shy. But this trip makes a small dent in it.” Clay mentally calculated the wad of cash in his pocket. He would put it in the bank once the job was done—he couldn’t count the money as really his until it was—and that would put him a bit closer to his goal.
“You know I wish I could let you have it for a smaller down-payment, but I need some money to set myself up in a new place before you take it over.”
“I know, Herman, don’t worry about it. I’m just grateful that you’re selling it to me on payments at all. I couldn’t afford it any other way, and I know that Johnson has been asking about it.”
“Bah, that Johnson has been a thorn in my side since he moved to Helena last year. I wouldn’t sell it to him for double the price. Besides,” he turned away, not looking
“You’re practically giving it to me as it is, and I appreciate it.” He was getting a bit choked up.
Herman cleared his throat and changed the subject. “You know what you should do with a little of that money? You should pay for your own classified ad, get yourself a mail order bride.”
“Bite your tongue,” Clay growled.
“I’m serious. If that ornery Sam Croft can order himself up a nice wife from back east, why can’t you? I could do with some home cooking around here.”
“Sounds like you need a mail order wife,” Clay sneered. He expected a laugh from Herman, but was met with silence instead.
“I had my chance, Clay, and I wasted it. Don’t make the same mistake I did.”
“Don’t start, Herman. Why do old people want to match up young people so darned bad?”
“Because some of us know what it’s like to be old and alone. I was just like you, Clay. Just like you. When my Katherine died, I was beside myself. Didn’t want nothing to do with any other young ladies. But a man has needs—and I’m not just talking about the bedroom kind. A man has a need to be wanted, to be needed. To be looked after, and missed when he’s not around. To have a stomach full of something besides bean stew every day, and to have someone keeping his bed from being cold and lonely at night. And don’t try to tell me you aren’t familiar with all those needs, because I’ll call you a liar.”
“I’m getting by just fine.”
“Yes, I said the same when I was a lad. Because deep inside I knew I could always change my mind. I was thirty, still young enough to remarry. But I didn’t want anyone if I couldn’t have my Katherine. Then the years go by, and the girls all marry, and next thing you know, no single woman would give you the time of day, because you’re old enough to be her father.”
Clay rooted through the pantry noisily, gathering food supplies, and showing his irritation with the subject. “There’s always a widow around you could snap up.”
“Bah, I’m too old and set in my ways, no woman could put up with me. But you, you’re still young! You don’t have to end up like me—old and sick, with no one to look after you.”
“I don’t need no wife. And you have me to take care of you.”
Herman clapped him on the shoulder, and coughed from the effort. “And who will take care of you when I’m gone?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“That’s what I said. But forty years has a way of changing things.” He coughed again, and a bell tinkled from inside the shop. “That’s my cue.”
“I’m off.” Clay gathered up the supplies and headed for the back door. “I know Jack Lawson will be here to help as usual for my days off, but I told him to check in even after that, to see if you need help again, in case I get delayed for any reason. Don’t be too proud to ask him to help out. And—” he pointed at Herman from under the armload, “don’t say nothin’ to no one else about me needing a wife. Last thing I need is you getting all the womenfolk around here in a tizzy, like the last time. I need them matchmaking me with young girls like I need a hole in the head.”
Herman sighed, shaking his head as if to say stubborn boy. “Be careful out there. Feels like snow.”
“Snow? There’s not a cloud in the sky.”
“The ache in my bones says snow.” Herman shuffled into the shop.
“Then you best be using Jack, like I said, if a good snow slows me down,” Clay called. After hearing a muttered, unintelligible reply—something about which one of them was the boss—he pushed open the back door and looked out at the bright sun glinting off the remnants of last week’s snowfall.
Herman’s bones were never wrong.
The train screeched to a slow, lurching stop, with a groan and a long whoosh of steam.
“Helena!” Called the conductor as he wended from car to car. “Helena, Montana!”
Madeline Barstow gathered her fur muff and her valise from under the seat and buttoned up her coat. She had plenty of room to move about, as her seatmate had gotten off two stops before, much to her delight. The woman had nattered on about the son she was traveling to see for at least a hundred miles of the journey.
Through the window, Madeline eyed the landscape with chagrin. Beyond the buildings and columns of smoke rising from hundreds of homes and businesses, she saw the snow-covered mountains ringing the town of Helena. There were few trees in sight, and those she saw along the mountains were all some kind of pine or other evergreen.
She’d seen more than her share of pine trees along the last leg of her journey, and she missed the deciduous trees back east, their spindly, leafless branches reaching for the sky, just waiting for spring and the chance to unfurl new, green leaves. It was a shock to realize that she would live here, in a place where there were no large, leafy trees to shade oneself from the hot summer sun! Did it get hot in Montana?
She was used to the heavy snows of winter and humid Boston summers. One of her favorite things to do as soon as the leaves unfurled in spring was to walk along the Beacon Street Mall, a very wide, paved walking path through Boston Common, where two lines of trees ran alongside the path, their branches arching out to meet in the middle, more than two stories overhead. In summer, she would sit on a bench in the cool shade of their leaves, watching other young ladies stroll, and compare their elegant walking dresses to her own finery.
Her brow furrowed, thinking of the refinement of her former days. She stood, gathering her things and making her way down the passenger car’s aisle toward the exit. She supposed her days of dressing in the latest fashion—or even gazing at it—were over anyway, shade trees or no. The year-old, fine gowns she still had were a bit tight around the chest, and showing slight signs of wear at the collars and cuffs—one of the many reasons she’d left Boston. She couldn’t abide being seen by her former companions in her outdated wardrobe. The titters. The amused glances. The young men who avoided her as a dance partner at every social event. It was unendurable.
Reaching the entrance, the conductor helped her down the steps, and she set foot on Montana soil—or a platform over it—for the first time. The winds whipped her dress, and despite pulling the collar of her wool coat tight around her, the bone-chilling cold seeped beneath the fabric. It was frigid. In seconds, her cheeks were painfully cold, and her lips felt chapped and dry. She’d never felt such cold in her life.
Fear gripped Madeline, and instinct told her to flee, to retreat back into the warm confines of the train and ride it right back to Massachusetts.
I have no choice.
Steeling herself, she moved forward, blending in with the small crowd of debarking passengers.
She surveyed the attire of the Helena residents who waited to meet passengers. With a critical eye, she noted that most of them were dressed plainly, and some even slovenly, as if the word “fashion” had never crossed their lips. It was appalling.
At least in Montana, I’ll likely still be considered fashion-forward, she thought. As long as my current wardrobe holds out, that is. In fact, her dresses were less worn-looking than the average dress she saw before her. Perhaps there were benefits to living so far from civilization!
Once her own dresses were no longer serviceable, her husband-to-be would be able to supply her with dresses that, while not from Maison Worth in Paris, would surely still be superior to what most ladies in Helena could afford.
And no one from Boston would ever know. That would have to suffice.
Around her, couples and families reunited with sobs and smiles. She scanned the faces, looking for the one who matched the photograph she carried in her bag. Samuel Croft was a tall man, he’d told her, and in his photograph that he’d sent her, he had black hair, a thick moustache, and dark eyes. She could not see anyone of that appearance.
“Miss Barstow?” a soft, deep voice came from her right.
“I—why—yes, I am Madeline Barstow,” she stammered. “I’m sorry, you look very different than I expected. The photograph you sent me—”
He laughed—a rich, hearty, carefree laugh that made her feel strangely warm inside.
“Miss Barstow, you are mistaken. I’m not Mr. Croft. I’m Clay Porter. Your driver.”
“Oh!” Madeline could feel her cheeks flush. It was then that she looked down and saw his long, worn coat and his damp, scuffed-up boots. She supposed the shabby dress of those around her on the railway platform made his threadbare apparel less obvious.
Or you were distracted by that handsome face, a quiet voice piped up in her head.
That just made her cheeks flame all the more. “The driver?” Naturally, a successful ranch owner would have a driver. Mr. Croft must be waiting inside the station where it was warm. She was embarrassed to have made the mistake. “That explains your attire,” she glanced with disdain at his coat.
The man straightened, lifting an eyebrow, then held out a hand. “May I take your bag, Miss Barstow?”
“Yes,” she handed him the bag without looking him in the eye. His hand brushed hers as he took the handle of the valise, and though they both wore gloves, a shiver ran through her, as if skin had touched skin. She cleared her throat. “And where is Mr. Croft? In the station?”
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