Mail Order Regrets, page 18part #1 of Montana Mail Order Brides Series
“Ask her to marry me? I don’t know about that, Cara. I admit, I may feel something for her. And maybe I might consider marriage. But I don’t want to lead her on. I don’t want to give her the impression that I’ll marry her, before I’m even decided for sure if it’s the right thing. She should be with someone who not only loves her, but also is capable of being a good husband to her. I’m just not sure if I can be that for her.”
“Even after what I told you?”
“Yeah, even after. It helped, it truly did. Maybe I have been stubborn. But I don’t think I should rush into marriage unless I’m sure I can give a woman everything she needs. And Madeline—she deserves the best.”
“Clay, ‘the best’ is a very subjective idea. I know you’re thinking you can’t provide much in the way of luxuries for her. But you can provide her all the things she truly needs—including love and affection. I suspect she didn’t get enough of those things growing up, and fancy dresses and servants can’t replace that.”
“Maybe so. But I don’t think I should let on how I feel until I know there’s a real reason to be telling her.” He took another gulp of coffee, before it got too cold.
“She’s going back to Boston.”
Clay gagged, and spit the coffee back into the cup. “What?”
“She told me this morning. She wants to go back to Boston.”
He hadn’t expected that. “She said she couldn’t afford to go back home.”
“She can’t. And she won’t take anyone’s money, especially yours. But she plans to find a way—get a job or something.”
“Is that what she really wants?”
“I can’t tell. I think she doesn’t believe there’s a place for her here.” Cara raised an eyebrow in his direction. “It’s up to us to show her that there is. Don’t wait too long, Clay. Don’t let her slip through your fingers.”
Clay sighed and pushed his coffee away. If Madeline wants to go back home, I may not have a choice.
Dinner was a lively affair with the chatter of children, the aroma of chicken and dumplings and freshly-baked bread. Madeline had never tasted anything as good as the butter she’d helped churn that afternoon, slathered over a hunk of homemade bread. The bread was dark and rich-tasting, unlike the white flavorless breads she was used to in Boston. Strange, but enjoyable, once she got used to it.
She enjoyed watching the children interact with their uncle. Clay was very attentive and patient, putting up with their incessant questions about everything under the sun. She imagined he would have made a wonderful father, and thought what a shame it was that not only had he been denied having them with his deceased wife, but that he’d never have any, because of his abhorrence for marriage.
Soon it was Madeline’s turn to field their questions, on everything from how tall was the tallest building in Boston to what it was like to take a train across the country.
Cara smiled across the table, and tried to discourage their interrogation, but Madeline was surprised to realize that she enjoyed it, and told Cara she didn’t mind.
Madeline was biting into a delicious chunk of chicken, coated in the creamy soup, when Martha piped up.
“Miss Barstow, why is it that you came back here with Uncle Clay? I thought he was bringing you to marry a rancher.”
Madeline dropped her fork, startled. It clattered into the bowl, and left the chunk of chicken behind, between her teeth. She tried to take the chicken in without letting it fall down the front of her blouse, and dabbed at her lips with the napkin to buy herself time.
“Martha!” Cara hissed. “I told you not to bring that up!”
“But she said she didn’t mind answering questions.” Martha’s solemn blue eyes swung back to Madeline, awaiting an answer.
“I’m sorry, Madeline—” Cara began.
“It’s fine. They’re probably confused and curious. I understand.” Madeline laid her napkin on the table and gently cleared her throat. “Well…Martha…it seems that the man I was to marry had misrepresented himself in his letters to me. He lied or exaggerated about himself, his ranch, and other things.”
“You mean his ranch wasn’t big enough?”
“Martha!” Ben snapped. “What has gotten into you?”
“I’m sorry.” Martha murmured, looking down at her plate.
“I know you didn’t mean anything by it.” Madeline tried to smile, but she could feel her cheeks burning. Is that the impression everyone has of me? Even the children? “But actually, no, I didn’t care half so much about his ranch as I did about the fact that he was very unkind. No woman should marry a man who isn’t kind. So Mr. Porter was generous enough to offer to bring me back.”
“Will you live here?” Joseph asked, his eyes lighting up. “And Uncle Clay, too? If you get married, you can sleep up in my loft. I don’t mind!”
The blush in Madeline’s cheeks spread.
“Joseph,” Clay said in a warning tone, “you shouldn’t go asking folks about getting married. It’s not polite. If two people want to get married, they’ll tell you. Unless they do, it’s rude to assume, or to ask.”
Heat spread down Madeline’s neck, making her perspire. She desperately wanted to go outside for some air…and to escape the humiliation of having Clay make his intentions—or lack thereof—clear to the entire family.
“But Uncle Clay,” Lawrence interrupted, “why did you come back without your sleigh?”
“Really, children!” Cara was embarrassed.
“I…” Clay glanced toward Madeline, and she looked away quickly. “Mr. Croft was angry to have paid Miss Barstow’s way out to Montana if she wasn’t going to marry him, so I gave him my sleigh in payment for the money he spent on the train ticket and other expenses.”
“Seems like Mr. Croft shouldn’t have gotten anything, if he was the one who lied.” Martha grumbled, scooping up a spoonful of dumpling soup.
“I agree.” Clay nodded. “But he’s not a reasonable man, and that seemed the best way to do it.”
Martha eyed Madeline, and Madeline could almost hear the girl’s thoughts, wondering why he’d give up his sleigh for a stranger.
But if those were her thoughts, Martha didn’t speak them out loud. “If you’re not staying here, where are you staying?”
“Well,” Madeline picked up her fork again. “I haven’t quite thought that through.”
“You could stay at the inn—it’s right around the corner from the butcher shop,” Clay suggested.
“I don’t have the funds for that.”
“Of course not—I’d pay.”
“No,” Madeline snapped. “I don’t need you to pay my way anymore, thank you. I’ll find a job, or…something.”
“It’s no trouble, really, I feel—”
“No, Mr. Porter,” she put the emphasis on her formal address of him, “you’ve done enough, thank you.”
“Fine.” He took a swig from his cup of water, then set it down hard on the table.
There was an awkward pause, then Cara spoke up.
“I think that’s enough questions for tonight, children. Please eat your dinner.”
After dinner, the children went off to bed, and the men went out in the barn to do chores. Madeline helped Cara clear the table, and wash the dishes, and then Cara offered to help Madeline wash her traveling dress, since they’d never gotten the chance to do it two nights before.
“If you don’t want Clay’s help, I understand,” Cara said, lifting the huge pot of hot water off the stove and pouring it into the cold water that waited in the washtub. “But if that’s the case, I really think you should stay here, at least until you know what your next step will be.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I couldn’t.”
The two women got down on their knees on the floor, and Cara immersed Madeline’s dress in the water, and demonstrated how to rub the laundry soap across the wet fabric, then scrub up and down the washboard. As Madeline took over,
“It’s no trouble at all. I know you don’t know us very well, but even so, I think we’ve become friends in short order…easy with the buttons, you don’t want them to pop off…and if you stayed, I could teach you more about housekeeping and cooking. I’d love to have the company.”
Madeline smiled. “I’d love to spend more time with you—and goodness knows I could use the teaching. But it will only be putting off the inevitable. I don’t belong here. I have no prospects, no skills. At least back home I have my family.”
Cara’s face melted into disappointment. “Well, you have me there. I can’t tell you to forsake your family just because we’ve become friends, or because…” she drifted off.
“Nothing.” Cara shook her head. “Let’s wring this out and put it in the rinse tub. You may be going back to live at your uncle’s house, with all his servants, but you never know when it may come in handy to know how to take care of your own laundry.”
“So…” Ben stuffed a bundle of hay into the cow’s manger, “things are still strained between you and Madeline?”
Clay blew out a breath. “That woman…I never know what she’s thinking.” He continued to use his pitchfork to fork clumps of fresh straw into the stall for one of Ben’s horses.
“And what are you thinking?” Ben raised an eyebrow at him.
“I’m not thinking—” Clay started, then stopped himself. He wasn’t going to lie to himself or anyone else anymore. “I guess I’ve been thinking about her. I like her. A lot. I didn’t want to, didn’t feel like I needed to, but there it is.”
“Have you told her?” Ben scooped up a larger portion of hay from the pile beside him and stuffed it into the manger for the larger stall where Sunny and Tansy stood, snorting happily at the sight of their dinner.
“No. You can see how she is—the woman could provoke an angel to wrath. I just don’t know if there’s a future in that. Seems like she can’t stand me sometimes, then other times…I don’t know. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see.”
“Or maybe she’s just feeling the same way as you are. The way I see it, half the time you act like you can’t stand her, the other half, you’re looking at her like there’s no one else in the room.”
“I do?” Clay was shocked. He hadn’t thought about how much attention he’d paid to Madeline, or how much of his frustration with her had leaked through.
Ben laughed. “I’d have to be blind and deaf not to notice. If I’ve noticed, you can be sure a woman has. Especially one as sharp as Madeline.”
“She is sharp. Sharp as a tack, that one. Don’t know that I’ve ever met a woman as smart as her.” Or as beautiful.
“See? There’s that look again. You’re under her spell, I’m afraid. Nothing to do now but surrender to it, and enjoy the ride.”
Clay stared at him, wide-eyed and terrified, leaning on the pitchfork for support. “I don’t…I can’t…” he shook his head and cast the pitchfork aside, then paced the barn floor. “I’m not ready.”
“You’d better get ready, unless you want to lose her. She’s a beautiful, intelligent, well-bred lady in a territory full of lonely bachelors who can’t find many available young women. If she doesn’t go back to Boston as she’s hinted she might, the men of Helena will be lining up at her door, with the line extending around the corner, down her block, and heading out of town!”
His stomach clenched. Ben was right. The idea of someone sweeping Madeline off her feet before he could tell her how he felt—or even figure out exactly what it was that he was feeling—sent a wave of nausea rolling through him. I almost lost her once. I can’t let that happen again.
“As soon as we get back to Helena, I’ll tell her how I feel. If she feels the same way, I’ll ask her to stay. At least long enough for us to figure out if we have a future together.”
“I think that’s the right choice. Or maybe even tell her on the way.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Otherwise, the men may spot her as soon as she hits the town limits, and pull her off the horse and carry her off toward the chapel.” Ben chuckled.
“You are not funny.” He tossed a forkful of straw at his brother-in-law.
After breakfast the following morning, the family saw Madeline and Clay off again. Cara took Madeline aside.
“I saw that you left this on the table.” She held up the housekeeping manual.
“I’m not getting married. I can’t keep that.”
“I know. But you will someday. And even if you have an army of servants, you’ll still need to know how a house should be run, so you can make sure the servants are doing things right. Please. Keep it. It would mean a lot to me.” Cara held out the book.
“If it means that much…” Madeline took the book from Cara, but right away it felt different in her hands. The cover bulged up a bit in the middle. She flipped open the cover and saw a small stack of bills tucked inside.
She snapped the cover shut and held out the book. “I can’t accept this,” Madeline whispered. “You know that.”
“I know no such thing.” Cara lowered her voice and crossed her arms, her jaw set. “You’re my friend, and you’re in a bad spot. I’m expecting, I can’t have extra stress and worry because I don’t know how you’re doing. I could lose the baby.” Her expression was one of certain victory.
“You can’t use that on me. It’s not fair!”
“Oh yes it is. Someday you’ll find out, the pregnant lady always gets her way. So just give up and take it.”
Madeline frowned at her. “Fine. But I’m paying you back as soon as I can. And if you don’t accept it, I’ll never forgive you.”
“Agreed.” Cara grinned. “It’s not much anyway, just enough for maybe a week at an inexpensive boarding house. We won’t miss it. But we will miss you.”
Madeline’s irritated expression melted into a sad smile. “I’ll miss you too.”
“If you do stay in Helena a while, you must come up and visit as soon as you can.”
“I have no way to get here.”
“Just check in with Clay. Even if he can’t do deliveries, he’ll still come up once every month or so to visit. I’m sure he won’t mind bringing you along.” Cara raised her voice. “Right, Clay?”
“Huh?” Clay stood by the horses, where he talked with Ben as he checked to make sure the supplies were fastened tight to the saddles.
“You’ll bring Madeline to visit us the next time you come, won’t you? She won’t have any other way to travel, and Ben would probably prefer that I not travel too far until after the baby is born.”
“Oh. Sure. Tansy wouldn’t want to be left behind, anyway. She’s used to pulling a sleigh or wagon with Sunny, so she’ll be happy to have Madeline ride her.”
“Then it’s settled! I’ll see you next time you come.” She hugged Madeline.
“If there is a next time. I don’t know what I’ll be doing.”
“You’ll be getting a job. You said you need money, right? Even with no experience, I can’t imagine some store owner wouldn’t want to hire a beautiful girl like you. You’d bring the men in, in droves! They’d buy up the place, just to spend a few minutes talking with you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” But the idea had Madeline’s mind working. She’d thought she would have an impossible time finding work, but perhaps Cara was right. And no one in Helena would know as much about fashion and dressing well as Madeline did!
She hugged the children and thanked them for the wonderful time. Ben patted Clay on the back, then Clay circled around the horses to help Madeline up onto Tansy’s saddle. Then they waved as they set off down the path toward the mountain trail.
The weather was fine, partly cloudy and not too windy. They made very good time, and though Clay was reluctant to stop, he knew that without being able to use the furs and foot warmer, Madeline must be chille
He chose a good spot for them to eat, with a large, fairly flat boulder, and brushed off the snow. Then he laid down the furs, and let Madeline get settled on the rock, then wrapped her in blankets.
“What about you? Won’t you be cold?”
“Nah, I’m used to it. Don’t worry, if I get cold, I’ll just yank them right off you, the way you yanked the cover off me in Josiah’s cabin.” He gave her a wink.
Madeline flushed. “Well…I only took the one.”
“The best one!”
“It was cold.” A smile turned up the corners of her mouth, though she was trying not to let it.
Clay laid out the delicious spread that Cara had made them: homemade sourdough, honey butter, a small slab of stewed venison, and a hunk of cheese. He knew the meal was probably far below Madeline’s standards, but he also knew that to his sister, this was a lavish spread for such a short, simple journey. It warmed his heart that she’d gone to such trouble.
They ate for a few minutes in silence, and he enjoyed watching Madeline’s fine manners and the dainty way she went about tasting each morsel.
To her, I must look like a ravenous wolf, he thought, as he attacked the food on his plate. What would a fancy woman like her want with a rough, uncultured man like me? Sure, he was a far better man than Croft, but that wasn’t saying much. And he could never hope to provide her with a fraction of the comforts that her former lifestyle afforded her. Even if he somehow managed to acquire the butcher shop, and was highly successful with it, he’d likely never see the kind of money or holdings that Croft had.
His stomach curdled, and he set down his fork. He’d started the trip with such high hopes. He’d take Madeline back to Helena, help her find a place to stay. He had an idea for a way to still buy the butcher shop, and if it worked out, he had planned to ask Madeline to marry him.
But what if she didn’t want to marry him? It was true, she probably thought she had no other prospects, but what if she still wasn’t interested in marrying him? Or worse: what if someone else proposed to her before he could? Someone better—more Madeline’s type?
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