Mail order regrets, p.5

Mail Order Regrets, page 5

 part  #1 of  Montana Mail Order Brides Series


Mail Order Regrets

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  Clay sagged back with relief onto his pillow and laughed. The man had the audacity to laugh!

  “What are you doing? She leaned over him, yanking at his collar again. “Get up! Get it! Kill it!” She knew she was wild-eyed with desperation, but she didn’t care.

  That only made him laugh harder.

  “What are you laughing at?” she demanded, still clutching at his shirt.

  “You.” He laughed so hard, tears gathered at the corners of his eyes. “” he could scarcely contain himself, “you had me thinking we were being attacked by marauders!”

  The mouse half-forgotten, she smacked his shoulder as hard as she could. “You are not funny!” she exclaimed. “And you are not a gentleman! What kind of a man laughs at a woman in danger? That thing could carry a deadly disease.”

  “I’ve never claimed to be a ‘gentleman.’ And you aren’t in any real danger. You’re afraid of a little wood rat.”

  “A what?!” Madeline gave another little shriek, and hauled him up with all her might, lifting his torso away from the pillows and scrambling to hide behind him. “A rat! Oh dear God in heaven!”

  He was overcome by another flood of laughter. “He’s harmless enough.” Clay wiped the tears from his eyes as his laughter subsided. “Although our food for the trip is probably gone by now.”

  She clung to his back—her arms hooked under his and wrapped around his chest—and peered over his shoulder. She didn’t see any sign of the rat.

  Then its little head poked out of the tipped-over basket.

  She hid her eyes and pressed against him, making herself a smaller target.

  Clay laughed again, and leaned over to grab a boot from beside his bed. He threw it hard at the table, hitting the edge with a thwack.

  “You missed!” she cried.

  The frightened rat fled from the table, disappearing somewhere into the recesses of the cabin.

  “Where did it go?! Where did it go?!” She looked around the bed wildly, wrapping her arms around Clay and holding on for dear life.

  “I’ll go check.” He started to get up, but she held onto him with a death-grip.

  “Noooo! Don’t leave me!”

  “I can’t find it and stay to protect you.”

  “G-go, then,” she stuttered. “Hurry.”

  Clay climbed out of bed, his shirt wrinkled and untucked, and slipped into his boot, then found and put on the other. Grabbing a split log from the small pile of wood, he went around the cabin, looking under and around the few items of furniture, and checking corners and crevices. He stopped at one point, looking closer at one corner.

  “Do you see it?” She held her fingertips to her lips to stop the urge to scream again.

  “I think...” he peered closer, then pulled back his arm, readying the piece of wood in his hand.

  Madeline cringed.

  He lowered his arm. “Nope, he’s gone.”

  “How do you know?” Her heart sped up. “Are you sure?”

  “Yep. Almost had him, then I saw him go out a little hole, quick as a wink. Probably how he got inside in the first place.”

  “Oh,” she sighed, sagging back against the brass headboard. Now that the creature was gone, her teeth began to chatter. “It’s so cold.” She began to shiver, and wrapped her arms around herself.

  “Are you alright?” He looked concerned.

  “Yes.” Then she burst into tears. “No,” she sobbed.

  Clay looked panicked for a second, then rushed over and sat on the bed. “It’s alright. He’s gone. I’ll plug up the hole and he won’t come back.”

  “It’s not...I just...” she dissolved into sobs, embarrassed to look like such a crazy person in front of him for the second time in as many days. But she didn’t care. She laid her head on his chest, her own chest heaving, her nose running.

  “I’m just so cold, and frightened, and tired. I haven’t had a real bath in many days, haven’t had decent food in just as many days, and I’m afraid I’ve made a terrible mistake in coming to Montana,” she wailed.

  He put his arms around her, rubbing her back. “Shhh, it’s going to be alright.”

  “I had no idea Montana would be like this. I feel completely out of my element. I’m going to make a terrible rancher’s wife.”

  “You don’t have to be a rancher’s wife if you don’t want to. You’re not married yet. It’s still your choice.”

  She wailed again, her tears soaking into his shirt. He comforted her until her sobs quieted again.

  “I have no choice,” she sniffed. “You don’t understand.”

  He put his arms around her. “Help me understand.”

  A quick retort formed in her mind, but died away before it passed her lips. Instead, the story tumbled out before she thought to stop it.

  “My father was Chandler Barstow. He was renown throughout Massachusetts—throughout the country—for his investment prowess. He inherited a good deal of money from his father, and invested wisely, until soon he owned real estate, factories, mills, and shares in the railroad. Many men went to him for business advice. He had many friends. We lived a very comfortable life.”

  “And then?”

  “And then he died. Last year. It didn’t seem real—it was an unexpected shock. His heart just gave out. Knowing what I know now, I’m sure it was the burden of trying to save what was left...”

  A shudder rippled through her. It was too much to speak of…too much to even think of. That’s why I’m breaking down this way. I should have let myself feel this long ago, instead of pushing it aside.

  “We…we had no idea that the money was all gone—that he was barely keeping our family afloat. The bank owned everything.”

  “How is that possible? You lived an affluent life. Didn’t you notice him cutting back on luxuries? Surely there were creditors contacting him, investors asking questions?”

  She shook her head as the tears streamed down her cheeks. “No. Somehow he kept it all from us. Even looking back, we can’t remember anything that could have given us a hint. That was Father. Efficient to the last—even at hiding our dire financial situation from us. Though I’m sure if he’d have lived, we would have started seeing things…changes…that made us ask questions.”

  “I’m so sorry.”

  Madeline felt her body warming against his in the crisp air of the cabin. The comfort of his arms around her worked some kind of spell, making her spill out her secrets to this perfect stranger. She should have felt humiliated to have this man—this driver—knowing her darkest secret. But somehow it was a relief. Finally she could tell someone the truth—and he didn’t know her, or her family, so even though she was embarrassed, she’d never have to see him again. It was freeing, somehow.

  “When the worst of things had passed, and the house was gone, my mother, my sisters, and I went to live with an aunt and her husband temporarily, but we couldn’t stay there forever. I knew eventually my sisters and I, at least, would be expected to move on, and I hated being a burden. I just wanted to find a way to provide for myself. So I chose to become a mail order bride.” She shivered again, watching her breath come out in puffs of steam in the frigid air.

  “Why didn’t you just marry someone in Boston?” He stroked her hair, and she felt herself becoming a little calmer. “You’re a beautiful woman from an upper class family. Your circumstances may have made a top-notch match unlikely, but surely there were successful businessmen who would be eager to have such an accomplished wife?”

  Madeline sniffed, her nose running from all her tears. “I could never stay in Boston among my peers, married to a man below my station. I couldn’t bear the gossip. Even if it meant marrying into an even worse situation, I’d rather move across the country, far away from everything I know, than to stay and be the subject of ridicule. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now, I’m not so sure.”

  In the warmth of his arms, the shaking began to subside. She wanted to stay there, wrapped in his embrac
e. For the first time since arriving in Montana, she felt warm and safe. Even...happy.

  He kept stroking her hair, running his fingertips gently along her hairline. His touch sent shivers down her spine, and she realized she wanted him to touch more than her hair. She glanced up at him, and saw that he was looking down at her, but past her eyes. Glancing down, she realized a few buttons had come loose on her shirtwaist in the commotion, giving him ample view of her bosom, which was nearly out of her corset and chemise.

  He shifted his eyes away, appearing chagrined, but it was too late—he’d been caught.

  Her heart raced, and Madeline looked away, shame burning in her cheeks. She sat up, pulling her shirtwaist together and clearing her throat. “Thank you, Mr. Porter, for saving me from that dreadful rat.” She wiped away the tears and smoothed down her hair. “You must think I’m a disheveled mess, inside and out.”

  “You can call me Clay. And no, I don’t think that. I think you’ve been through a very rough time. You’ve lost everything you ever knew, and have been thrown into a world that is frightening and strange. It’s understandable that you’d be overcome with emotion. It’s a lot for anyone to take.”

  She smiled at his kindness, but didn’t meet his gaze. “Thank you for being so compassionate.” She climbed off the bed with as much dignity as she could muster. “I suppose we should get going. Mr. Croft will be worried about me.”

  “Madeline—Miss Barstow,” he corrected himself.

  She halted, but didn’t turn around.

  “I understand your predicament, but you really don’t have to marry him, if you don’t want to. I hate to think of you trapped out in the wilderness with a man who...well...isn’t a good match for your temperament. There are other choices. I can bring you back to Helena, find a place for you to stay, and ask around. Perhaps we can find a businessman in town who is in need of a wife.”

  She turned back slowly. “I do appreciate your concern, Clay, but I could never repay the money Mr. Croft has spent on my transportation. There is no guarantee I could find a suitable husband, and there is no guarantee I will be any happier in Helena than on the Croft Ranch. A suitor in the hand is worth two in the bush, so to speak. And I’m a woman of my word. I’ve promised to marry Mr. Croft, and marry him I shall.”

  She turned away, and walked over to the window, staring out at the brilliant blanket of snow coating the ground and trees. She didn’t know what was happening to her. Did this wild, uncivilized place wreak havoc on the mind?

  A trip that had seemed like an exciting adventure only two days ago now felt more like an icy funeral march toward the death of her old self.

  Chapter 6

  Once he had cared for the horses and hitched them up, Clay brought out the gear and loaded it into the sleigh. He lit the coals and laid out the furs and quilts, then brought Madeline out and helped her into her seat.

  She was strangely silent, appearing to be deep in thought. It should make him uncomfortable, but it didn’t. He understood her better now, had seen a different side to her. He had more sympathy for her situation now than before.

  He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to help her, but wasn’t really in a position to do so. Besides, she didn’t seem to want his help. And from what Madeline had said, she was essentially destitute. Maybe being taken care of by Croft was the best thing for her.

  As good for her as a kick in the head from a mule. The thought popped into his mind unbidden, and he felt the bile rise in his throat as excruciating memories bubbled up with it. But he swallowed the bitterness. She’s not mine—not my responsibility.

  But that didn’t stop the flood of guilt he felt, knowing what he’d heard. He remembered about a month before, sitting in the saloon talking to a few men at the bar. A couple of the men were ranch hands, and each of them had been fired by Croft, though at different times. As they drank more, the tales of Croft’s wrongdoings piled higher and higher. It wasn’t uncommon to hear about Croft’s temper, his miserly ways, his failure to pay employees their due, but since the stories usually came from fired ranch hands deep in their cups, Clay usually took what they said with a grain of salt.

  However, that day the stories took a meaner bent. They talked of incidents where Croft failed to pay a driver because he was half a day late making a long, difficult delivery, or beat a horse near to death, or punched young stable boy in the stomach, making him vomit. It made Clay reluctant to work for the man again. But he always got his money in advance, and though the pay wasn’t great, since the deliveries were a long distance, the money added up, and was a big help to Clay’s shop fund.

  Remembering the gritty details of those stories, he cringed at the thought of leaving Madeline with the man. A woman had few rights in any marriage—what kind of chance did she stand, living alone in the wilderness with a man like Croft? The ranch hands would be no help—they worked for the man. Even if half the things he’d heard were true, it wasn’t a situation he’d like to see any woman in. But what could he do, if Madeline wouldn’t listen?

  He gave the reins a little slap, and the horses started out.

  “You hooked them both up today,” Madeline said.

  “Yes. With the extra snow, and us still heading uphill, it’s easier for them to pull together.”

  “What if they get tired? Isn’t is still a long way to the ranch?”

  “We won’t make it to the ranch today. If we tried, and had bad weather, we could get stranded out on the prairie, once we’re out the hills. I’d rather not take that chance. I think we should stop at my sister’s overnight as planned, even though it’s not far from here. Then we’ll start out early the next morning, and hope for good weather.”

  “Oh. So the short trip won’t make them tired.”

  “Not at all. It’s only a couple of hours to Cara’s house from here. I figured we’d hook up both horses for today’s short journey, and have extra time to relax and get some good sleep before we have to get up so early tomorrow.”

  “That makes sense.” She stared forward, a blank expression on her face.

  He couldn’t help but glance at her from time to time. Her hair was tucked up in her wool bonnet, a scarf wrapped around her neck up to her chin. He was running low on coal so he didn’t want to use more than necessary, and had been unable to provide her breakfast because of the rat. She looked pale, with dark circles beginning to show under her eyes. He worried for her health. Even more, he worried about her vacant stare. It was as if the spark had gone out of her eyes.

  Maybe she was right. Maybe he was jealous of Croft. After all, he couldn’t even raise the money to buy a meager butcher shop on payments, and Croft had a ranch on seven thousand acres, plus almost five hundred head of cattle. Now he had a beautiful, elegant woman who had traveled two thousand miles to marry him, sight unseen. Not that Clay wanted a wife, but still…Croft certainly didn’t deserve her.

  Croft hadn’t see fit to meet his future bride at the train station himself. It wasn’t even the busy season for a cattle rancher—what could possibly be his excuse? There was none. His comment to Clay when he’d hired him—that it wasn’t worth the trip back into town—was explanation enough.

  No, it wasn’t jealousy clouding Clay’s judgment. Croft was, by all accounts, bad news. He had to find a way to convince Madeline that she had choices. Maybe his sister could convince her. For Madeline’s sake, Clay told himself. Not his own. He wouldn’t want to be saddled with such a headstrong, snobbish woman as Madeline Barstow.

  Since they were far away from any town and unlikely to run into any other sleighs, Clay had left the sleigh bells packed away. The wind had died down, so the only sound was the swishing of the sleigh’s runners through the snow, the creaking of the horses’ harnesses, and crunching of the horses’ hooves through the powder.

  After an hour of travel, the sun passed behind the clouds, cutting down the glare off the snow.

  “Are you warm enough?” He glanced down at her.

  Madeline nodded
, but he could see her teeth chattering.

  “I can stop to add more coal.”

  She shook her head slowly, as if caught in a pool of molasses.

  Clay pulled over anyway, and got out to add coal. She stared straight ahead the entire time, allowing him to remove and replace her feet on the foot warmer, as if she were a marionette. When he was done, he tucked the blankets and furs around her, stopped to pet the horses, and then climbed back in.

  “We should be at my sister’s place in about an hour.”

  “Mm,” she murmured.

  “Miss Barstow? Miss Barstow? Are you alright?”

  She didn’t respond.

  “Madeline.” He laid his hand on her arm.

  She started, as if coming out of a trance. “Yes?”

  “Are you alright?”

  She blinked. “Yes. I’m fine. I guess I’m...tired. It’s been a very long week.”

  “You will sleep better at my sister’s house. The accommodations will be much better than the cabin was, though not as fine as what you’re used to, I’m afraid.”

  “It will be sufficient, I’m sure.”

  He could see he was losing her again to whatever little world her mind was in. “If you don’t mind my asking—weren’t there any relatives or friends who could help your family out in your time of need?”

  Madeline pursed her lips, sparing him a glance of irritation. “No. Well, yes. At least, you would think so. But we found that our rich ‘friends’ abandoned us like rats from a sinking ship. Our relatives avoided us, seeing us as a burden that was not their responsibility. Apparently those privy to Father’s difficulties had warned him to be more cautious in his financial dealings, but he ignored them. They felt our plight was well-earned, due to his negligence.”

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