Mail Order Regrets, page 12part #1 of Montana Mail Order Brides Series
“I’m not a Montanan.”
He chuckled. “No you are not. But you’re a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for. And you’re with a Montanan, so you’ll be just fine.”
Tears stole down her cheeks. She didn’t feel fine. She felt scared and exposed, and as much as she didn’t want to be stuck in a sleigh out in the cold, she realized that she wasn’t eager to get to Croft Ranch, either. She was worried what the future might hold.
Clay rubbed her arm and comforted her, and though she knew it wasn’t proper, she let her head sink down onto his shoulder and wept. Clay Porter was her refuge now, and she was worn out enough and scared enough not to care what that meant, for the moment.
The afternoon passed slowly. They ate a small portion of their rations mid-afternoon, and made small talk. Clay told her what Montana was like in the summer, and he wrinkled his nose at Madeline’s description of the muggy summer days in Boston with little breeze beyond the harbor area, and crowds of people in the parks and at summertime events. She told him about how much she loved to stroll down The Mall in the springtime, with the newly-budded trees arching overhead.
Whenever the wind picked up, Clay would peek out a corner of the tarpaulin to see how the sky looked. Even in those brief glimpses, she could see that the swirling clouds of snow drifting down were obliterating the landscape. All that could be seen was snow falling and the dark, fuzzy shapes of nearby pine tree trunks.
Madeline’s toes were so cold. The last of the warmth from the coals had died out, but Clay insisted it was too soon to add more, even if it meant re-lighting. He wanted to wait until after dark, then light it, and add more coal only once during the night, if possible.
For the first time, she began to wonder if marriage, her reputation…if any of it would matter in a few hours. Will we see morning? That seemed to be the foremost concern.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“For asking you about Tabitha. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t any of my business. I don’t know what came over me.”
“No, it’s not. I can see it hurt you to talk about it. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Really, I’m fine. It hurts to think about it sometimes, yes. But I have to get used to talking about it sometime, I suppose. Today’s as good a time as any.”
“So you don’t talk about it ever? Not even with Cara?”
“I didn’t talk about Tabitha at all. Not with anyone. Not for a long time. Then eventually, I’d let Cara talk about her. When it didn’t hurt quite so much to hear it. But I never talk about…the way it happened. If Cara tried, I’d get mad.”
“Why didn’t you get mad today?”
“I did,” he laughed. “I just didn’t say anything.”
“I thought you were. Why didn’t you say anything?”
He paused. “I don’t know. I guess I figured I’d just get it out, and get it over with.”
“You mean you were hoping I’d close my mouth afterward,” she giggled.
“How do you do that?”
“You barely know me, but you seem to guess what I’m thinking pretty handily.”
“I…” she could feel herself blushing. “I don’t know. I don’t seem to be aware I’m doing it…I feel like I never know what you’re thinking. But if you think I do, then maybe you’re just easy to read.”
“Mm. For Cara, maybe. Tabitha always said she could never figure out what was going on inside my head. She always wanted me to open up more, tell her what I’m feeling.”
“Hmm, you do appear to be very closed-mouthed, but under the circumstances, it’s understandable.”
“I guess so. But what about you? You seem to know my whole life story, and all I know about you is that you used to be rich until your father died, and now you’re stuck marrying a man you’d never in a million years have considered before.”
“Clay,” she warned.
“Alright, alright, I’ll back off. But don’t think you’re getting out of it that easy.” He jostled her shoulder with the arm he had slung around it to keep her warm. “Come on, ‘fess up.”
“There isn’t much to tell. I grew up in Boston, spent most of my youth in boarding school, and summers in Mattapoisett. I had my coming out, of course.”
“And how did you make it so long, unmarried? You’re—what—twenty-one, at most?”
“I turned twenty last month. Father believed in marrying a little later than is customary. At least that’s what he said, but I suspect his real motivation was that he wanted to reel in a bigger fish for me. He had his eye on a certain gentleman that was already engaged, but he was certain the engagement wouldn’t last, and hoped he could maneuver me into the spot as second choice. Then…”
“Then he died.”
“Yes.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “It all happened so fast, and then Mother was pushing me to go to balls, to find a husband, when all I could think about was that I lost my father.”
Tears pricked her eyes, and she pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab them away. “He wasn’t very affectionate, my father. Displaying ‘excess emotion’ was discouraged in our family. But he loved me best. Everyone knew it. I was his little princess, and he was the most important thing in my world. Then he was gone, and Mother wanted me to laugh and dance at balls, when all I wanted to do was lock myself in my room. I didn’t understand how she could expect that of me.”
“She did. The attorney held a private reading of the will. Only my mother and my uncle—my father’s brother—were in attendance. I hadn’t thought it odd that they didn’t discuss it with me—after all, who else would Father have left the money to, but his own family? But there wasn’t anything to leave, except debt. Bill collectors came, debts were called, and over the next year we lost almost everything. I only found out when our possessions had to be confiscated to meet our debts. We were so ashamed. There was speculation that we hadn’t inherited nearly as much as we had expected, but we managed to keep our true financial situation from people—most people—until we lost our last real estate holding…our Back Bay home. There was no hiding it then.”
“I realized my sisters and I were my mother’s only hope—that we had to marry well, and that was why Mother had pushed me. So I began attending balls, and hid my troubles with a smile. But it was too late. They all knew. I could scarcely get a dance from a man, but for pity, and where I had loads of admirers before, I then had none. No one wants to marry a penniless heiress. No one at my level of society, anyway.”
Clay laid a hand on her arm and squeezed it gently. “I’m sorry. It must have been hard to have your whole world turned upside down.”
“It was.” She stared at her hands, barely visible in the dim light under the canvas.
The light faded away completely as the sun set, hidden behind thick clouds. The snow eased up until only tiny flurries fell, but the wind blew stronger. When Clay peeked out, the inky black sky scattered with stars could be seen through small breaks in the clouds. She had hoped they could get back on the road before dark, but now that was impossible. Only the faint starlight reflecting off the blanket of fresh snow gave any visibility, allowing her to catch glimpses of the hulking outline of snow-covered pine trees.
Twigs snapped and branches creaked under the weight of new snow. Each noise made her jump, sure they were about to be devoured by some large, fearsome creature.
When a rustling thump startled her, sounding very close to the sleigh, she jumped, sliding closer to Clay and clutching his sleeve. “What was that?!”
Clay laughed. “It’s the horses, I’m sure. You need to relax. You’re as nervous as a lamb in a den of wolves.”
“I’m worried I am a lamb in a den full of wolves!”
“Don’t worry. The horses will detect any predator long before we could. If the horses aren’t going crazy, we should be fine.”
Of course, he’d probably do that for anyone, she thought. He must really be a decent man to care so much for the well-being of a woman he detests.
Sitting so close to him, she could detect the sweet smell of honey on his breath, from the biscuits with honey they’d eaten earlier, and underneath, the musky male scent of him. She was aware of the heat of his body pressed against hers, and was grateful for it, but it aroused feelings in her that she wasn’t expecting, and didn’t think she should be feeling.
“Why is it that you’re so concerned for me, if you can’t stand being around me?” It was out of her mouth before she realized she was saying it. She bit her lip, dying a little inside, wishing she could take the words back.
Silence hung in the air for a moment that stretched into eternity. She could hear his breath catch.
“I…” his arm tensed around her.
She braced herself, waiting for him to remove his arm. It wasn’t until then that she realized just how much she wanted his arm to remain in place, snug around her, making her feel safe and warm and…something else. What else? She wasn’t sure…
“It’s not that I…” he blew out a breath. His arm remained in place, but loosened a bit around her shoulders. “I don’t know. I just…care about you. I care about your safety. I worry for your future. I care that you’re comfortable—as comfortable as I can make you—and that you’re not frightened.”
“But why? I’m just your passenger, as you said last night. If I drive you to distraction, if you can’t wait to get rid of me at Croft Ranch, why do you worry so much about me?” She turned toward him in the dark, painfully aware that his face was mere inches from hers. It sent a shiver through her core—flutters of strange feelings she didn’t understand…but she liked them.
“Madeline, I…I can’t answer that. I just do.”
She turned her head away and listened to the flakes skittering down the tarpaulin. The wind had died down a bit, making it a little less cold inside the sleigh.
“Why is it that you live so far from your sister? You used to live close to her, and now you live in Helena. I’m surprised you wouldn’t want to live closer.”
“I…we used to live fairly close to them, as I told you before—Tabitha and I did. Then I lost her and…” he sighed, the muscles in his arm tensing. “I sold our place and worked as a ranch hand. Then when Cara and Ben moved up north of Helena, I…they’re my family. All I have left. I wanted to be somewhat close to them, but still...I wanted to forget. I wanted to lose myself in work and forget. Got a job in Helena with Herman in the butcher shop, and worked as many hours as I could get. But I was still close enough to visit from time to time. Like you said, Cara’s my kin. And she visited whenever the family came into town. I just…I guess it was too painful to see her.”
“To see Cara?”
“Yeah. She…my sister is always so bubbly. And when Tabitha died, Cara was sad—Tabitha was like a sister to her—but she was often still the same happy-go-lucky Cara. She had kids. She had a spouse who loved her. The whole family—they’re so happy together. And I…”
“You couldn’t watch that. Because she had what you wanted.”
He sighed, and the tension ebbed away. “Yes. She had what I should have had. And I was glad for her, I really was. But…it was hard.”
“And it was easier to be alone.”
He turned to her in the dark, and she could feel his breath on her cheek. “Madeline…”
She lifted her chin, to look up toward him, when he leaned down to her. His lips brushed near hers, then found her lips, kissing her gently. Madeline was surprised, and felt tension rising within her. Pleasure bloomed, and without thinking she lifted a hand to his cheek, rough with stubble. His arms encircled hers, and his kisses grew more fervent.
His lips were warm, and he tasted of honey. His hands stroked her cheek, her hair, and she found herself breathless, and eager for more. This was what she had wanted all evening…what she had been unwittingly yearning for. For his kiss, his touch, his closeness. She ached with need for it, and though some deep part of her knew it was wrong, she enjoyed the feel of his body against hers as he pressed her against the side of the sleigh.
His hands delved into her hair, and she felt him pulling pins loose, one by one, and heard the click of each falling to the floor of the sleigh. Her hair came loose in a tumble of tangled silken curls, trailing down over her shoulder, and it made her feel attractive, desirable, and a little bit wanton.
That brought her up short. What am I doing? She was alone with a man she was not married to, with her hair loose in a way she thought no man would ever see it until her wedding night, doing things that—oh, dear God, felt so good—but shouldn’t be done with any man but the one she someday married.
And she was engaged to someone else.
She pulled back. “Stop,” she panted. “We can’t. It’s wrong…and I’m engaged…I can’t do this…”
Clay pulled back with a reluctant sigh. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“No, it’s alright. I mean,” she added quickly, “it’s not alright, but it’s not your fault. Or not only your fault. I participated every bit as much as you.”
“You certainly did.”
She could hear him grinning.
“Stop that!” She slapped his arm. Madeline was sure she was blushing to her roots. “I never should have let things—”
“No, don’t. I should have been more respectful. You’re a lady, and an engaged one at that. You’re scared, you’re vulnerable, and I shouldn’t have taken advantage. I shouldn’t have led you on. It was wrong.”
Led her on? What did that mean? Did that mean he didn’t have feelings for her? That it was nothing more than lust for him? Now her cheeks truly burned, this time with humiliation. That’s all it had been for him. He was a man who had lived without the benefits of a wife for a long time, and he’d let himself slip, let his passions take over, because he was crowded in close quarters with her, for the sake of warmth and survival. It was nothing more than a momentary lapse in judgment, for him. The idea galled her.
But why should it, Madeline’s conscience piped up. Weren’t you just thinking the same thing? That it was a mistake?
But it didn’t feel the same. She wasn’t sure why. Perhaps because she had felt something—she wasn’t sure what—beyond mere attraction. Sure, she’d let her passions run wild. A grievous lapse in judgment, to be sure. But that wasn’t all it was, for Madeline. She felt something more.
And Clay didn’t.
“Are you alright?” Clay asked, his hand on her shoulder. “You seem a bit…tense.”
“I’m fine,” she said in clipped tones, trying hard not to let her fury and humiliation show through. “But I think it would be advisable to just sit beside me, and not put your arm around my shoulders.”
“If that’s what you think is best, I understand.” He pulled up the covers that had slipped down to her lap, and tucked them over her shoulders.
They settled in awkwardly beside each other, trying to huddle together for warmth without actually touching much.
Clay wanted to pound his fist into his thigh. Or punch anything, really. What had come over him? How could he have let it happen? He’d given her ideas now, he was sure. Led her on. Made her think he was in love with her or something, when he wasn’t.
No! I’m not! he answered himself.
Just because he’d let himself slip, let himself get lost in the warmth of her body against his, the feel of her body moving under her clothes and coat every time she moved—that didn’t mean that he had any feelings for her. He was a man. Men have needs. It was nor
But that argument didn’t hold water. He couldn’t quite convince himself. He had felt more—it was the last thing he wanted, and the last thing he’d want to admit to anyone, even himself—but he’d felt much more than lust. He’d felt aroused by Madeline all day, since they first huddled under the tarpaulin together. But that wasn’t what drove him over the edge.
She was. Her. Who she was. He didn’t know how she did it, but she managed to zero in on the touchiest subjects with him, and somehow elicit an answer from him, when he would have bit the head off anyone else who’d have tried the same thing.
More than that, she somehow understood. Though she had no idea, truly, of what he’d gone through, she was able to understand, because in some small way she’d gone through a similar experience. Just as she’d run from her problems, he’d run away from his past with Tabitha, and from his sister—the happy life that Cara lived every day. He’d run away from the memories and the pain, and walled himself off from everyone.
Well, isn’t it better that way? Isn’t everyone better off seeing me for only small chunks of time, so they don’t have to deal with my sadness, my loneliness, my loss?
Wasn’t that what Madeline had done, in a way? Fled Boston to avoid the pain and embarrassment, and to spare her mother the embarrassment of seeing her daughter marry far below her station?
That made Clay wonder—was Madeline’s stiff, conceited demeanor just a way of shielding herself from more pain? Of shielding herself from having to get to know people, and having them judge her, as her Boston friends had judged her? And was that what he himself was doing? He’d always told himself it was easier to be alone—that he was better off alone. But was he? Or could he be, as Cara suggested, just trying to avoid heartache?
Maybe he and Madeline weren’t as different as he’d thought.
Beside him, he could feel Madeline fidgeting with her hands, and tucking the furs and blankets tighter around her. The bit of space he’d given her had allowed the cold air a channel to filter down between them. Already a chill seeped in, but Clay wouldn’t invade her space any more than was necessary.
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