Mail Order Regrets, page 20part #1 of Montana Mail Order Brides Series
“Herman, I just now found Madeline—she was out looking for a job. So I’ll have to eat while I work, if that’s alright.”
“Nonsense boy, I’m not busy right now, take it easy and eat your dinner with Miss Barstow. I’ll tell you if I need you.” He guided the two of them to the little chairs, and carefully removed the checkerboard from the small table without letting the pieces slide around. “Now you two enjoy your meal. Don’t mind me a bit.” He laid the checkerboard on the counter, and walked into the back room. Within moments, the sound of a sharp instrument pounding into something punctuated the quiet of the shop.
“Let me set all this out,” Clay said, making quick work of the pail contents. Everything was spread out neatly on a checkered napkin. He chattered on in a way that was uncharacteristic of his usual, stoic demeanor. He must have been trying to lift her spirits.
He went to so much trouble. How can he be so kind to me when I’ve done nothing but get under his skin and caused him so much grief? Tears pricked her eyes, and she blinked them back. She had misjudged him early on. He might be stubborn, but he was a gentleman—more so than any of the supposed “gentlemen” she knew back in Boston, such as her false suitors who turned their backs on her as soon as they discovered she was penniless.
I don’t deserve him. The thought made fresh tears come, which she tried to hide by looking down and toying with her food. Clay should get married—she hoped he would, someday. He deserved happiness. If this was how he treated a woman he didn’t like, she could only imagine how happy he must have made his Tabitha when she was alive. If Clay Porter ever married again, the woman would be very lucky, indeed.
His chatter had ceased, and he was looking into her eyes, concerned.
“Oh…I’m just very tired. And disappointed.” She couldn’t let him see how she felt, or give him reason to think he needed to worry about her. “I didn’t think it would be this hard to find a job.”
“Don’t you fret. I’ll talk to Mr. Turner. He owns a clothing store a few doors down—the one you stopped in front of, as a matter of fact. I’m sure he’ll have something—”
“Clay, no. You can’t do everything for me. I have to learn to make it on my own. I’m not your responsibility.” Her fatigue overwhelmed her, and she fought back tears. I can’t let this man lose any more time or money over me. I want him to love me, not see me as a charity case.
“But I want to help.” His eyes were wide with surprise. “Please, let me—”
“No!” She stood, abruptly, bumping the little table. “I’m sorry, Clay. I appreciate all you’ve done. But I can’t let you do any more. Please.” Tears blurred her vision, and she fled from the shop, nearly falling off the boardwalk as she rushed outside and turned right to head back to the boardinghouse.
As much as it hurt, Madeline knew she could never see Clay Porter again.
Clay sat, stunned and unmoving, as the tinkling of the bell above the door faded.
“What are you waiting for?” Herman asked behind him. “Go after her!”
“No.” Clay didn’t turn around. Just gathered up the food and stuffed it back into the pail.
“You have to tell her how you feel.”
“No. She’s made it clear how she feels. How I feel doesn’t matter.”
“What are you talking about? She’s upset about something. Find out what it is, before—”
“No!” He slammed the pail down on the table and turned to meet Herman’s shocked gaze. “No.” His voice was flat. “Don’t you see? She doesn’t want me. Doesn’t want to be tied to me, or owe me anything. She wants to be left alone. Hell, she’s probably already got guys falling over themselves in every store she walks into. Why would she want to waste her time eating a meal with me, much less marry me? She could have her pick of all the bachelors in Helena. She could get one of them ‘mining millionaires’ to marry her, if she could find a way to meet one. She’s like a bright star in the sky, Herman. She’s out of my reach.” His chest felt tight, and he brushed past Herman and walked into the back room to get started on the Carlson order.
She’s out of my reach.
The wind had picked up, and Madeline hugged her arms to her chest, dreading the walk back to the boarding house. Hot tears turned icy as the frigid wind chapped her cheeks, and she didn’t—couldn’t—stop crying the whole way up the street.
She looked up only once, glancing at the window of the Cosmopolitan Hotel as she passed, when she saw the sign: Telephone Available Here, Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Bell. It was like a sign from heaven. She would call her mother. Mother would know what to do. Then her heart sank as she remembered that telephoning across such a distance wasn’t possible. Stranded as she was in Montana Territory, who knew when—or if—she might hear her mother’s voice again?
As she turned away from the hotel window, something caught her eye. She turned back, peered beyond the glass. It couldn’t be!
She hurried to the door of the hotel, nodding gratefully at the bellman who opened it for her. Stepping into the elegant hotel foyer, she called out in a quiet voice. “Mr. Ashby?”
The man standing in front of the concierge turned. “Miss Barstow!” A wide grin spread across his handsome face. He was dressed in a brown suit, tailored in a sophisticated cut, which accentuated his tall frame in the best way possible. His black shoes gleamed, and his dark blond hair was combed back in a wave with a modest amount of hair oil. He was, by far, the most refined man she’d set eyes on since she had arrived in Montana.
“What are you doing here?” Her head spun to see someone from Boston in a foreign setting.
“I’m here to see you, of course! I just got in this morning.” He strode across the foyer, bowing his head. “I’m delighted to have found you so easily—I was just asking the concierge how I might go about finding Miss Madeline Barstow.” His eyes flitted momentarily over her face. “Are you alright? You look upset?”
“Oh.” Her cheeks burned, knowing that she must look teary-eyed and wind-blown. “It’s nothing. The wind is very brisk here, and my eyes are sensitive to it. But tell me, why have you come to see me?”
“May I?” he asked, gesturing toward her arm.
Madeline nodded, and he took her by the elbow and guided her to a round leather sofa, where they sat together.
“My dear, you look chilled to the bone. How is it that your husband lets you go around unescorted like this, and in such weather?” He wore a look of concern, but she didn’t miss the way his eyes flicked down to her gloved left hand.
“I…I am not married, Mr. Ashby.” She could feel herself blushing in earnest now. “My fiancé…” she searched for the best way to answer. “He misled me about his situation, so I called off the wedding.”
Although she knew it was the kind of answer that would be easily accepted by anyone who knew her, the words sounded shallow to her ears.
“Oh dear,” he frowned, but the corners of his mouth turned up slightly. “What a dreadful situation. You must be distraught.”
She shook her head. “I was disappointed, but once I arrived here, I perceived my mistake immediately. His land is not even close to the town—there was no hope of electricity or telephone service.”
“Quite unacceptable! But why would you be out in such terrible weather? It looks as if you’ve been tromping through the snow.”
“I…” she looked around, searching for a reason, when her eyes lit upon the telephone sign in the hotel window. “I was looking for a way to contact my mother, and let her know I had arrived safely. I’m sure she must be worried by now.”
“You’re in luck—they have a Western Union Telegraph office in the building next door.”
“Indeed. But before you send your mother a telegram, perhaps we could have dinner together. I have something I’d like to discuss with you. Have you eaten?”
At the thought of food, her st
Dalton Ashby grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Two hours later, Madeline was back in her room, prying the ice-cold leather boots from her feet. She sat in the rocking chair massaging her feet to warm them up, then wrapping them in a quilt. It was shocking how much her world had changed. Only a few hours before, she had been desolate, alone, penniless, with no prospects, and longing for a man that she knew didn’t love her back.
Now she was engaged to a rich man.
Not officially, of course. Not yet. Dalton would wait to propose the proper way, once they had returned to Boston. But it was understood. It was all arranged.
He had been one of the suitors who had turned away from Madeline, once news of the poor circumstances of the Barstow estate had spread. Madeline knew he’d been in love with her for years, but she hadn’t given him any encouragement, because his fortune wasn’t great enough, in her estimation. She’d been surprised when he had cast her aside so quickly, like all the others. She had assumed he of all people would still have wanted her. She’d been wrong.
Apparently he’d had a change of heart as soon as he’d heard Madeline was gone. He missed her. He didn’t care that she had no fortune. Her father’s reputation—what was left of it—was good, and Madeline was a beautiful young woman, well-schooled in all subjects that a young lady must know to become the wife of prominent member of society.
“I swear, turning away from you was not my desire,” Dalton had told her as they drank hot tea in the hotel restaurant, waiting for their food to arrive. “It was with great reluctance, at my parents’ urging. I only heard the terrible rumor last week, a few days after you’d departed, that you’d run off to marry a stranger out west. I was devastated, and told your mother so when I saw her at church services. Jennings packed for the both of us that night, and we left Boston the next morning. Your mother warned me that you were likely to be married by the time I arrived, but I had to take the chance.”
“I would have been married days ago, but the weather caused delays getting to his ranch, and once I met my intended husband…well, he wasn’t a very kind or honest man. I had the driver take me back to Helena.” She nearly broke down again, thinking of Clay.
“I am so sorry to hear that you had to make such a long journey only to be disappointed—though I must admit, I am very glad, for my own benefit. And yours as well. I don’t see Madeline Barstow making a very good frontier wife.” He chuckled.
“No, indeed.” Madeline had given a weak laugh, though there was no joy in it. She had a chance to marry a rich man—why did she have an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach? She should have been glad, not only to be sitting in a fine restaurant once again—the finest Helena had to offer—but to be sitting across from a potential suitor who was worth more than Samuel Croft could ever hope for. He could solve all her problems—provide her with a luxurious lifestyle, give shelter to her mother, and pay off Madeline’s debts to Cara and Clay.
But Clay was all she could think about as Mr. Ashby talked of his cross-country trip—she wondered whether Clay would feel uncomfortable in such a fine restaurant. Wondered what he would have ordered. Wondered what he would have worn. Probably something that passed for Sunday best in Helena, with slight wear on the cuffs, or with a loose button that needed mending. She smiled at the thought.
Madeline managed to make small talk throughout the meal. Mr. Ashby walked her out into the hotel foyer and sat with her again on the round leather couch.
“Miss Barstow, I’m sure you’d like to rest after all that traveling you’ve endured this week, and then being forced to walk across town to look for a telegraph office—and I’d be happy to send off the message for you, so you could go home and rest. But let me ask you this—” he cleared his throat, and took her hand in his. “I know that a man of my means normally wouldn’t have much of a chance with a beautiful woman like yourself, from such a distinguished family. But given the change in your circumstances…dare I hope for a chance?”
Madeline had been speechless. Here was her chance—her salvation! Exactly what her mother had hoped for. Then why couldn’t she force the word “yes” from her lips?
“I…I…” Dalton stuttered to fill the silence, “I know that am not a handsome man, but I believe my looks are more than passable. I may not have a great fortune, but I do have an adequate fortune, and stand to inherit part of my grandfather’s estate someday. One thing I can promise you, Madeline, is that I will be kind to you. If you know anything about me, surely you know that.”
Shame filled her, for not speaking sooner. “Of course I do, Dalton. I have never seen you behave as anything but kind and considerate. You will make a wonderful husband.”
“I will?” His voice was bright and eager. “Then you will consent to be my wife?”
I didn’t say that! The words had nearly tumbled from her lips, but she bit them back. What choice do I have? I’m stranded in the west with no money and no family to count on for help. Dalton is, as he said, a kind man with a decent amount of wealth. I’d be a fool to turn him down.
Madeline imagined herself as an old spinster, living off the begrudging charity of cousins. No! Anything but that. “Yes, Dalton. I’d be very pleased to be your wife.”
She had listened with growing dread as Dalton droned on for a few minutes with exuberance over his plans. They would return to Boston, where he would propose in proper fashion, and host a party at his parents’ home to announce their engagement.
As he talked of buying her new gowns as part of her trousseau, and spending the spring together in Paris as newlyweds, Madeline had been surprised to find that the idea of such finery and the return to luxury didn’t appeal to her as it would have only a week before.
Instead in some far-off corner of her mind, she had imagined the sound of a prison cell door clanging shut behind her.
Two days had passed since Madeline had left the butcher shop in tears, and Clay forced himself to stay away. If she wanted to spend time with him, surely she would drop by and tell him she’d been upset over nothing, wouldn’t she? And maybe she would ask if they could reschedule that luncheon together…or at least hint that she’d be interested.
But Madeline didn’t stop by. Maybe she’d already moved on. Every time Clay made a meat delivery or ran an errand, he expected to see some local dandy escorting Madeline around town…but he didn’t.
He even found himself making excuses around supper time to go for walks around town, huddled against the bitter winds as he glanced into the windows of restaurants, expecting to catch a glimpse of Madeline and some lucky bachelor, eating fine food at a table dressed in white table linens and set with fine china and silver. But he saw no sign of her.
Each hour dragged on as if it were a full day. Each moment seemed so empty. Though he had always enjoyed his job—chatting with the customers, finding out how their families were doing, helping someone pick out the right piece of meat for an upcoming occasion—he found himself avoiding people. If Herman didn’t need him out in the shop, he stayed in the back room, pounding the butcher block as he used his cleaver to dissect a side of beef with great violence.
Sometimes—to his chagrin—he imagined the side of beef was one of Madeline’s hopeful suitors.
“You’re going to split that butcher block in two,” Herman said from the doorway.
Clay didn’t respond.
“Will you just go talk to the girl?”
“Let it alone, Herman.” Chop.
“You’re going to wait too long, if it isn’t too late already. You’re going to lose her.”
“I never had her.”
Chop. Chop. Chop.
“You could if you wanted to.”
Clay pointed at Herman with the cleaver with an irritated flourish. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Embedding the cleaver into the marred surface of the butcher block, Clay grunted in frustration and flailed his arms out at his sides. “I was going to open up—that was the whole point of the little dinner I’d packed for us to eat. I was going to talk to her. And then she left.”
“She left the butcher shop. She didn’t leave you.”
“Same thing. She left, and she didn’t come back. She doesn’t want me helping her, and she doesn’t want me around.” He picked up the cleaver and started chopping again. “I have to respect that.”
“She deserves to know how you feel about her.”
“She deserves to be happy! And I can’t make her happy, Herman. She left Boston to avoid the humiliation of marrying a shop owner. Me? I work for a shop owner.”
“You’ll own this place soon enough.”
“I don’t see how, now that my sleigh is gone. And I’m not sorry for that—it was worth it, to save Madeline. But if she’s not interested in me, I’m not going to force my attentions on her, and have her end up feeling like she owes me, and has to marry me. If she doesn’t want me, I need to let her go.”
“If she doesn’t want you, then fine, let her go. But you don’t even know how she really feels.”
“I think she made that clear as she ran out of here sobbing.”
“You don’t even know what she was really upset about. You didn’t even bother going after her.”
“I respect her enough to give her the time and space she needs to figure out what she wants. It’s been two days. Clearly, whatever she wants, it’s not me.”
“That’s a poor excuse, and you know it. You’re afraid to find out how she really feels. You were married for three years, boy! Are you going to tell me that in three years, you didn’t figure out that when a woman runs out of the room crying, you go after her?”
“What I learned is that when you run after a girl right after she leaves the room in tears, you get a girl who shakes you off or yells at you.”
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