Mail order regrets, p.17

Mail Order Regrets, page 17

 part  #1 of  Montana Mail Order Brides Series


Mail Order Regrets

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  “Hmm, reminds me of someone. I wonder who?” She arched an eyebrow at him.

  “I was on my way back, when I realized that the whole situation was just like Tabitha all over again—me knowing what the right thing was, and not having the guts to do it. And I knew I couldn’t leave her there. I had to do something. When I pulled up the sleigh, I could hear most of the men in the barn, and I went to approach the house, hoping to talk some sense into Madeline. But I heard a…a sound. Muffled. Then I heard Madeline saying…” His voice cracked.

  Cara patted him on the shoulder.

  “…she was saying ‘stop’. And my gut just clenched. I ran around the corner of the house to find a man with her. He was…he had her backed up against the house…” Bile rose in his throat. “I saw her bag sitting on the ground—I guess she was trying to sneak out of the house—and I picked it up and swung it at him.”

  He related the rest of the story, his eyes burning from holding back the tears. Cara was devastated.

  “I feel awful,” she said. “We never should have let her go. Do you think Croft…”

  “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but he implied that…that something happened. I just don’t know what. And I didn’t feel right pressing her.”

  “I’ll talk to her, and find out.” She cleared her throat. “Clay, if he did…if she’s pregnant…”

  “I’ll take care of her. I won’t let her suffer any more because of my mistakes. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”


  In Martha’s room, Madeline slipped silently back into bed. She didn’t mean to eavesdrop that time, but as she’d reached for the doorknob, she’d heard them discussing her, and so she’d stopped and listened with her ear pressed to the doorjamb. Her cheeks burned with humiliation as she heard Cara telling Clay about her torn clothes. Cara should have kept that to herself.

  I’ll take care of her…Clay’s words echoed in her head…whatever it takes, I’ll do it.

  He felt responsible somehow, even though staying had been her own choice. She had been the stubborn one, and her pride had led to him losing his most valuable possession. Now the man felt obligated to marry her, if necessary. Thank goodness it wouldn’t be necessary, so he was safe there. She could never marry a man who was doing it only out of obligation. After the day’s events, she wasn’t sure she wanted to marry at all.


  Except that when Clay had shown up to save her, she wasn’t just glad because she was escaping a horrific situation. She was happy to see him. Thrilled to realize that he cared enough about her to turn back and make sure she was safe.

  And now she had found out that he only came back out of a sense of duty. Not love.

  Love? The idea startled her. Do I love him? I barely know him. He’s a pigheaded, rude, irritating man. How can I love him?

  But she did. And she knew he was also decent, and kind, and caring. And for all his faults, and for all the arguments they’d had, and despite all the irritation and anger he felt toward her, he had still come to her rescue. He sacrificed his sleigh for her, as well as the money he’d earned for transporting her.

  She loved him.

  And he didn’t love her back.

  Madeline laid down on the bed and wept.

  Chapter 16

  The next morning was a busy one. Cara got up early to make enough pancakes for the crowd. She expected Ben back sometime that day, and knowing him he’d have the appetite of a bear, so she made plenty extra.

  She had hoped to speak to Madeline before the children got up, but that was impossible, as they’d all begun to stir at sunrise. Clay was silent during most of the meal, lost in thought and pushing his food around his plate.

  When Madeline finally emerged from the bedroom, breakfast was over and the children had gone outside to play.

  “I’m so sorry to be late for breakfast, you should have woken me so I could help.”

  “You needed the sleep. Don’t worry, there’s plenty left.” She made up a plate and watched as Madeline sat down to eat it.

  “How did you sleep?” Clay asked quietly.

  “Fine.” Madeline flashed him a polite—but strained—smile.

  “Good. Good.” Clay looked around, at a loss for what to say. “Well, I should head outside. I promised the boys I’d help them build a snow fort.”

  “Yes, you go do the important stuff, while I clear up all these dishes.” Cara quipped. Maybe that would help him to stop acting like a scared rabbit ready to bolt.

  “My thoughts, exactly, sis.” He winked at her, got up, and pushed in his chair to leave.

  When he was gone, Cara sat beside Madeline. She wasn’t sure how to start. “Listen…I know this isn’t my place to ask, but I’m worried about you—”

  “He didn’t.” Madeline said quietly, without looking up from her plate. “That’s what you were wondering…if Mr. Croft…well, he didn’t. He tried to, but I…distracted him. Got him to put it off until later.”

  “And the ranch hand?”

  “No.” She shook her head. “He almost…if Clay hadn’t shown up when he did…” She blinked back tears. “I’m very grateful to him.”

  “So am I.” She patted Madeline’s hand. “Even though I’d like to strangle him for leaving you there in the first place.”

  “Oh don’t, don’t be mad at him. I told him to leave me there. I wanted him to.”

  “But why? Didn’t you believe us when we told you we didn’t think he was any good?”

  “Well…I wasn’t sure. It was all rumors, no facts, and I didn’t feel like I had a choice, even after I met and realized I’d made a mistake. I just couldn’t…I was too proud to ask Clay for help.”

  “I’m just so glad that you’re alright.”

  “That makes two of us.”

  Madeline chewed in silence.

  “What will you do next?” Cara asked. “You’re welcome to stay here. Or we can find you someplace to stay in Helena. Clay knows a lot of people, and I’m sure they’d be willing to help.”

  “That’s sweet of you to think of me, but I should probably go back home.”

  “Home? Are you sure? I didn’t think you wanted to go back to Boston.”

  “Well…there’s really nowhere else for me to go.”

  “Yes there is. I told you…here.”

  Madeline shook her head. “I can’t. I just…can’t.”

  Cara didn’t know why Madeline was so dead set against accepting help, but maybe she just needed family around her. After such a horrible experience, it was understandable. But she worried that Madeline was making a mistake. Her family didn’t sound very emotionally supportive, and Cara knew that she and Ben and Clay would be.

  “How will you get back? You said you couldn’t afford the ticket.”

  “I can’t. I’m not sure, but I’ll figure something out.”

  “If you’re not in a hurry, I’m sure Clay can talk to the local churches, and take up a fund—”

  “Oh, no, the last thing I want is to have the whole town of Helena knowing what happened, and to become the town charity case.”

  “There’s no shame in needing help, Madeline. But if you’re worried about people finding out, I’m sure Clay would be willing to buy the ticket for you, even though he—” she was going to say would hate to see you leave, but Madeline cut her off.

  “No! I’m sorry. I’ve been enough of a burden already. Clay lost his sleigh and his delivery wages, trying to save me, not to mention his only chance at buying the butcher shop. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay him, but I’ll find a way. And I don’t want to add to the debt. I’ll get a job if I have to, but I won’t take another dime of Clay’s money.”

  Cara eyed her with concern. “Alright. If you’re sure, then I won’t ask him. But he’ll probably offer as soon as you say you want to go home.”

  “He can offer until he’s blue in the face, but I won’t take another dime.”

  Cara promised not to ask Clay for money, but she
didn’t say she wouldn’t tell Clay about Madeline’s plans…or ask him to find a way to keep her from leaving. Cara smiled to herself as she got up to work on the dishes while Madeline finished eating.

  Madeline isn’t the only one with plans. If I have anything to do with it, those two will be married by spring!


  As the afternoon sun waned, casting shadows across the snowy barnyard, Cara brought a steaming mug into the barn.

  “I thought you could use a hot cup of coffee,” she said, closing the door behind her. “You’ve been outside most of the day.”

  “I know. I thought I should give Madeline some space. Thanks.” He took the mug from his sister and blew on it before taking a sip.

  “Do you think space is what she really needs?”

  “I don’t know. I guess the truth is, I don’t know what to say to her.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “If Croft touched her, Cara…if he did anything to her…”

  “He didn’t,” she reassured him.

  “Are you sure?” His body went rigid.

  “Yes. I asked her, and he tried something, but I guess Madeline manipulated him into putting it off somehow.”

  Clay relaxed, blowing out a breath. “Thank God. I guess I don’t have to worry about marrying her or taking care of her then.” He looked away to hide the turmoil that warred inside him. It was good news to hear that Madeline hadn’t been taken advantage of. The last thing either one of them needed was a loveless marriage of convenience.

  Who said it would be loveless? the irritating voice of his conscience intruded into his thoughts once again.

  I’d be no good for her, regardless, he countered. She deserves better than the likes of me.

  He sighed, turning back to his sister, who eyed him, patiently. “I failed her, Cara. I failed her the same way I failed Tabitha.”

  “That’s not true. You saved her! And you couldn’t have saved Tabitha.”

  “You’re wrong. I could have. You don’t know…”

  “What don’t I know, Clay? What is it that I don’t know, that makes you think you’re at fault? It was your horse, yes, but it was an accident.”

  “But it wasn’t, Cara. It wasn’t, not really.” He walked over to the tack box and set down the coffee. Then he slammed his fist against one of the barn’s support posts, sending a bright flash of pain through his hand and lower arm. “I could have stopped it. She asked me to—she told me she was afraid of that horse. She was afraid something would happen. She warned me—begged me to get rid of it. But I wouldn’t listen. I chose money over my wife. And I lost her.”

  He leaned on the post for support, his breathing ragged. He could hear his sister coming up behind him, then a hand touched his shoulder.

  “Oh Clay, is that what you’ve been obsessing over, all this time?”

  He turned, and saw that tears sparkled in her eyes, but she wore a thin smile. “Honey, I know all about that. She told me.”

  “She…you knew? You must have been so angry at me…”

  “No! Of course not. It was an accident.”

  “I killed my wife! Your best friend! I could have sold the stupid horse, but I chose to keep it. To keep my money.”

  “You made a sound business decision.”

  “She was afraid.”

  “For you, Clay. She was mostly afraid for you. She told me she was sure one day you wouldn’t come in for dinner, and she’d go to the corral and find you lying there, with a broken neck, or trampled on. She had nightmares about it—finding you lying bloody on the ground, with that stallion galloping around the corral, wild and agitated. In the dream, she couldn’t even get in the pen to get your body.”

  He sighed, swiping at a tear that escaped before it could trace a path down his cheek. “That makes it worse. That means that she spent her last days having nightmares. That she was unhappy, because of me.”

  “No! Clay, she…” Cara trailed off, then crossed her arms over her chest, and heaved a sigh. “I should have told you this long ago. I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess…”

  “What? What is it?” He could barely stand, he was so worn out from the guilt.

  “Tabitha…she…you know how she was acting a little weird before she died. Like with the horse, she was overly worried, and obsessing about little things like that?”

  “Yeah. She was bugging me about a lot of stuff. Things that needed to be fixed. Money that I spent on that horse, without asking her. To be honest, that was part of why I just put my foot down about the horse. I know she’d been depressed over us not being able to have a child yet, and I tried to be patient, honest I did, but…I was sick of the nagging.” The guilt surged through him again. I was a terrible husband.

  “There was a reason for the way she was acting. She…I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you before, but…Tabitha was expecting.”

  He blinked once. Twice. “What?”

  “She was pregnant. Not very far along. She didn’t tell me—I figured it out. Remember, she was saying she thought she had a stomach bug? But I noticed how she was feeling, and that she was tired, and I recognized the signs. She made me swear not to tell you—she was trying to find a good way to surprise you. I think she had a special dinner planned—”

  “Oh God… that night. She told me to make sure to get the barn chores done on time, because she was cooking my favorite meal.” The news sunk in, and his heart raced. “Pregnant? She was really pregnant? Why didn’t you say anything?”

  “I’m sorry. I should have. But you were so devastated. I was worried that you would…that it would push you over the edge if you knew you’d lost your wife and your unborn child. If I had known that Tabitha had talked to you about the horse, and that you felt like you’d chosen the horse over her, I would have told you. But don’t you see? She was feeling overly anxious because she was pregnant. She was worried for you, that something would happen to you…and worried for herself and the baby, because they would be left alone if you weren’t around. That’s why the horse scared her.”

  He looked down at her, and it seemed as if she’d shrunken down into the young child she’d been when their parents had died, with her eyes wide with worry. She’d looked up to him, then. Depended on him. She’d taken on more of a mother role since Tabitha had died, worrying about him all the time, and fussing over him. But now she was a child all over again, worried that she’d disappointed her big brother, and that he wouldn’t love her anymore.

  He reached out and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tight. “Thank you.”

  “For what?” She sounded surprised.

  “For knowing the right thing to do. You were right—I probably couldn’t have handled it then. And you’re right to tell me now. I still feel like I made the wrong decision with the horse, but I feel better to know that she wasn’t as terrified of it as I had thought.”

  “It doesn’t hurt more to know that she was expecting?”

  He thought a moment, weighing the ache in his heart. “A little, maybe. But it also lifts my spirits to hear that she wasn’t miserable the last few weeks before she died, as I had thought. She was happy—she must have been ecstatic! I just wished I could have shared that happiness, even for a moment, before she died.”

  “I know.” She patted him on the arm. “But now that you know, I don’t want you beating yourself up anymore. Tabitha would hate that.”

  “She would.” He smiled. “The last time we argued, she called me the most stubborn man alive.”

  Cara burst out into laughter. “That sounds like her. And she had you dead to rights, too.”

  “Maybe.” Clay laughed too. “I’m not admitting anything.”

  “No maybe about it.” She pointed a finger at him. “If you hadn’t been so stubborn about the whole ‘I don’t want a wife’ thing, you and Madeline would be hitched already.”

  He went cold, as if a pail of creek water had been dumped over him. “I know. And Croft wouldn’t have gotten his hands on her.”

Now don’t go blaming yourself for a whole new kettle of fish. Yes, you were stubborn and pig-headed, and you should have told her how you felt—”

  “Wait, who said anything about how I felt?”

  “I did! It’s as clear as day that you’re crazy about her, even if the two of you do butt heads as often as two cranky mountain goats. And she’s obviously crazy about you, too.”

  “She…? No she’s not! She can’t stand me. Thinks I’m not good enough for her.”

  “I don’t think that’s true. I think, deep down, she thinks you’re too good for her. But her family trained her to hold herself in high regard, to be prideful, and to take no help from anyone. And you helped her, Clay. A lot. She feels indebted to you, and doesn’t know how to handle that.”

  “She doesn’t owe me anything! If anything, I owe her. I knew what she was headed for…or at least I had an idea of it. I should have stopped her. I should have insisted—”

  “Mm-hmm. And how do you think Madeline would have reacted to that?”

  He sagged down onto the tack box. “Not too well, I suppose.” He picked up the coffee mug, which had cooled considerably, and took a sip. “She’d probably have pressed her lips together, tilted up that chin so her nose pointed to high heaven, and told me that I was just her driver, and I should mind my place. Only in fancier words.”

  Cara chuckled. “I imagine that’s about right. I haven’t spent much time with her, but she seems like a really nice lady. Maybe a little rough around the edges when it comes to tolerance of people and situations that aren’t comfortable or familiar, but she’s strong. She’s tougher than you think—and probably tougher than she thinks. There are few women who could handle the likes of you,” she sat beside him and poked him in the shoulder, “but Madeline can.”

  “But does she want to? Does she really want to?” Or would she just marry me because she felt she owes me, or that she has limited choices, given her situation?

  “I can’t answer that for sure. Only she can. But I’ve seen the way she looks at you. I’ve seen that look before. The only way to know for sure is to ask her.”

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