Mail Order Regrets, page 7part #1 of Montana Mail Order Brides Series
After the mid-day dinner, the men took the children outside to build snowmen and have snowball fights, while Cara cleaned up from the meal. It occurred to Madeline that since Cara had no servants, perhaps she should help tidy up. She didn’t think Cara was getting paid for her lodging, so she felt almost like an uninvited guest. So she brought the dishes to the sideboard, then stared at the dishpan, wondering what to do next.
“Oh, you don’t have to do anything,” Cara waved her off. “It’s only two bowls.”
“I feel as if I should. It’s the least I can do. But...” she trailed off, feeling sheepish. “I’m not quite sure what to do.”
Cara looked confused. “Do you mean you don’t know where to start?”
“Yes...but also...I don’t know how to do it.” Madeline wasn’t sure why she felt so embarrassed. The cabin didn’t even have running water—of course she didn’t know what to do. Who would?
Cara’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. Oh my. Oh, Madeline.” She stepped closer and put her arms around Madeline in an embarrassing display of sympathy. “Oh, sweetheart, are you sure you’re doing the right thing, marrying Mr. Croft?” She pulled back, searching Madeline’s face.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Madeline found herself very put out by the intrusive and unwanted advice offered by Clay, and now his sister. And she didn’t care to be pitied.
“Dear, don’t you know anything at all about being a rancher’s wife? What will be required of you? The long hours, the endless housework, the long stretches alone?”
“What? No! Of course not. Why would I experience any of those things? Mr. Croft is a successful business man. He has a staff to do all that. He told me so himself. He even has a cleaning woman.”
“Oh dear. Let’s sit down.” Cara led her to the table and sat next to her. “I think there has been a misunderstanding. I have a neighbor several miles north of here whose cousin works at Croft Ranch. From what I’ve heard, Mr. Croft’s housekeeper, Mrs. Giebler, lost her husband two months ago. Mr. Giebler used to manage the upkeep of the home and barn, and cooked for the cowboys on the cattle drives. Now that he’s gone, old Mrs. Giebler, who does all the cooking and the cleaning on the ranch, wants to go back east to live with one of her sons. Mr. Croft has persuaded her to stay this long, but she has insisted on moving back east by the end of the month, and...well...it sounded like he had no plans to replace her.”
Madeline was dumbfounded. “But who will—?”
Cara raised her eyebrows.
“Oh no. No! He can’t possibly be thinking...” Madeline clasped her hands together on the table, trying to keep them from trembling.
“Madeline,” Cara laid her own hands over them, and squeezed. “Even if Mr. Croft chooses to hire a new housekeeper, you would be expected to do her work until a suitable replacement could be found...which isn’t easy out here, especially at the low rates Mr. Croft is rumored to pay. And a ranch owner’s wife, in any case, would be expected to know how to cook and clean. Not just for her husband, but often for all the ranch hands as well.”
All the ranch hands? Madeline was shocked. Mr. Croft didn’t want a wife—he wanted an employee. Worse, an indentured servant! At least employees were paid. Madeline would be chained to the house making meals for who knows how many hungry, hard-working men, day in and day out. What have I gotten myself into?
It seemed every time Madeline adjusted her mindset a little bit and accepted the fate she had chosen, things only got worse. And worse. She couldn’t possibly marry the man. She couldn’t even wash a dish!
“You know you don’t have to marry him if it’s too overwhelming, don’t you?”
Madeline sighed. “Clay said the same thing. But…there are extenuating circumstances…”
She contemplated Clay’s idea of going back to Helena, but the thought of having to pay back the enormous transportation costs to Mr. Croft, plus come up with the money for the trip back to Boston…she felt panic rise within her. She couldn’t even hope to find a suitable bachelor—who would hire the woman who left her husband-to-be, after he paid her way across the country? They’d think her a charlatan. No decent man would have her.
Madeline was well and truly stuck. She had to marry Croft. “I made a commitment. I must follow it through,” she sighed. “But what will I do? I don’t know how to do anything, Cara. How can I be expected to fill the role of a rancher’s wife if I don’t know how to cook a thing? Or wash dishes? Or do laundry?”
“Have you never had chores to do as a child?”
She shook her head, eyes filling with tears. Just as with Clay, she found herself pouring her heart out to this total stranger. What is it about this family?
“My youth was spent on piano lessons, French lessons, art lessons, embroidery, penmanship—and endless parade of lessons fit for a young girl about to enter into society as an accomplished young woman. We had servants for everything—even to help us dress!” The tears spilled down her cheeks. She felt helpless.
Cara patted her hand and tried to soothe her. “Come now, if you can learn all that fancy stuff, you must be a very smart girl. Surely you can learn to wash a dish and cook some soup before you leave us tomorrow?”
Pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, Madeline dabbed at her eyes. “You mean...you’ll teach me?”
“Of course I will! I don’t know how much we can manage in one day, but I can teach you the very basics, and here...” she got up and took a book down off a shelf. “This is the book my mother gave me when I got married. Take it with you.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t—”
“I insist. Besides, I have the receipts I need up here, anyway.” Cara tapped the side of her head. “My best receipts are penciled in the back. They are fairly simple, not too many ingredients, but plenty of flavor. You might burn a little food in the beginning, but Mr. Croft will just have to learn to be patient with you.” Her warm smile made Madeline feel as if it could really be done.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re exhausted. Why don’t you freshen up, and rest little while, and I’ll call you shortly to help me start on supper.”
After an hour in the snow, the children began to complain of the cold, and Ben decided it was time to bring them in. Cara had warm sweetened milk for them to drink to help take off the chill.
Clay was stunned to see Madeline standing by the cookstove, slowly stirring a second batch of hot milk. She had obviously washed up, and re-arranged her hair, and was wearing a clean, light blue dress under one of Cara’s aprons.
“Now don’t stop for anything,” Cara cautioned her. “And keep it toward the back, on the right. It will burn if you put it near the firebox.”
Madeline caught his stare. “I’m learning how to cook!” She grinned, her whole face lighting up. The dress was the color of a spring sky, and highlighted her sparkling blue eyes.
“Wow. That’s...great!” Clay had always admired his sister’s ability to get people to do what she wanted, and have fun doing it. But this time around, he was downright impressed—prissy Madeline Barstow, learning how to cook? Willingly? This he had to see.
He planted himself at the table and took a mug of the sweetened milk. He sniffed, wondering if Cara had made the first batch, or Madeline. It smelled fine, so he took a small sip. “Mmm, this is good.”
Madeline turned, blushing. “Thank you.”
The children all joined him at the table and made appreciative noises as they slurped up the milk.
“What’s for dinner, honey?” Ben asked, laying his hands on Cara’s shoulders.
“Winter root soup, biscuits, and honey.”
“Sounds great.” He kissed his wife on the cheek, and sat down at the table. “Cara’s winter root soup is amazing. And the parsnips came up nice and sweet this year.”
“I thought I’d keep it simple for Madeline. She hasn’t had anyone teach her how to cook, and I just couldn’t throw her to the wolves—o
“And do laundry, and scrub floors, and...” Madeline trailed off, biting her lip.
“Don’t worry about it,” soothed Cara. “Maybe we can find some time to go over a few pointers on doing the laundry and ironing.”
“Really? I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No bother. I’m sure you’re eager to wash your traveling dress, so we’ll do that, and I’ll give you just a few tips to get you started. That manual will help with the rest. And no matter how bad of a start you make, remember, you will improve with practice.”
“Sounds like I’ll be getting a lot of that,” Madeline sighed.
“Don’t we all?” Cara laughed. Why don’t you check on the biscuits, and see if they’re ready, and I’ll take over stirring the soup.”
The men talked and played with the children as Cara directed Madeline in how to know if biscuits are done, in slicing and buttering them, and how much salt to add to the stew. The aroma of the steaming soup filled the cabin, and minutes later, they all sat down to a perfectly prepared dinner.
“Mmm,” Ben murmured. “This is delicious.”
“Mmf, it is,” added Clay around a mouthful of biscuits.” I’m impressed, Madeline.”
She blushed. “Oh…well…thank you.” She eyed Clay’s mouth as he chewed his food. “But I’m sure it’s mostly due to Cara’s tutoring.”
“Don’t be modest, now. I burned my first batch of biscuits when my Mama taught me.”
“And you were how old?” Madeline raised an eyebrow.
“Well...I suppose I was six, but still...”
“I appreciate your vote of confidence.” Madeline flashed a tight smile. “I just hope that my husband is a very patient man. There is so much to learn.”
Clay and Cara exchanged a look, but said nothing. Clay knew Mr. Croft was many things, but ‘patient’ was not one of them. He hadn’t told Cara the worst of the rumors about Croft, but she knew about his stinginess and impatience, and that he had a temper. He saw her worried glance toward Madeline.
After dinner, Madeline helped clear the plates, and Cara got her started on washing the dishes. Once Madeline had the hang of it, Cara shooed Ben off to get the little ones ready for bed, then made an excuse for Clay to help her out in the barn.
“What are you thinking, bringing this poor woman to Samuel Croft?” Cara started on him before he’d even gotten the barn door shut. “He’ll eat her alive! She’s completely unprepared to be anyone’s wife, much less run an entire ranch household for a man who is too stingy to hire on a new housekeeper to help her!”
“I thought the Gieblers still worked there. Did they quit?” He hung the lantern from a hook, and the flame flickered, fighting to hold the shadows at bay.
“No, Giebler died, and Mrs. Giebler wants to move back east to live with her son. From what I hear tell, Croft has bullied her into staying until he could find a wife to replace her, and made her take over some of her husband’s old duties to boot. It doesn’t sound like he plans to pay someone once Mrs. Giebler leaves, either. It sounds like he plans to keep a wife as an indentured servant.”
“If you think it’s such a bad idea, why are you helping her?” Clay crossed his arms, angry that she blamed him for Madeline’s situation. He was just doing his job.
“Because she needs to learn how to keep house sometime. Her mother didn’t see fit to teach her, so someone has to! But she shouldn’t be thrown to the wolves like that. Did you even bother to tell her about Croft? Or were you too concerned you’d lose out on more money for your butcher shop fund?”
“Hey! My job is to drive the woman to meet her husband. That’s it. It’s not my job to meddle in other people’s affairs. I’ll leave that to the women.” He glared at her.
“I don’t expect you to meddle! But the least you could do is warn the poor woman about what she’s getting into.”
“I tried! You don’t think I tried? Geez, sis, you should know me better than that. Yeah, I didn’t want to lose Croft’s business, but I felt bad when I realized she thought he was some kind of rich gentleman rancher, so I tried to tell her. She’s a stubborn woman. She wouldn’t hear it. I don’t know what else I can do. If she’s bound and determined to marry Samuel Croft, I don’t see how we can stop her, short of kidnapping her.”
Cara raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tempt me. Madeline is a nice girl. She deserves a nice husband. Do you think Croft will be that nice husband?”
Clay looked away.
“What is it?” She gave him “the look.” The one that told him he’d better not trifle with her. “What?” she repeated.
“Uh. Nothing. It’s nothing. It’s just...I heard some things. Worse things. He won’t be a nice husband. He won’t even be decent to her. That’s what I think.” He sighed, and ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried talking her out of it. I didn’t get anywhere. She thinks...she thinks that I’m making it all up. That I’m jealous.”
“Why would she think that?” It was Cara’s turn to cross her arms, peering at him suspiciously.
Flashes of that morning flitted through Clay’s mind. Her tear-streaked face. Her wide eyes. The open buttons on her blouse that had drawn his gaze. He’d almost kissed her. She shook his head, pushing those thoughts away. If he’d kept control of his wandering eye, maybe she wouldn’t be so suspicious of him. Maybe she’d have listened.
“What did you do, Clay? Why would she think you’re jealous?” Cara prodded.
“Because she’s conceited, that’s why!” He paced away, irritated with his sister’s prying insinuations. “She’s a stuck-up, conceited little brat who’s had everything handed to her on a silver platter. She thinks she’s so wonderful, so high and mighty, and every man must want to fall on their knees and worship her. It doesn’t even cross her mind that some men don’t want her. Don’t need her, or any other woman, for that matter...”
Her face softened. “Awww.” She stepped up to him and rubbed his arm, then patted it. “You poor thing, you’re falling for her.”
“What?! No I’m not! Did you hear anything I just said? The woman is a menace. I can’t wait to drop her off at Croft Ranch and be done with her!” He flailed his arms in exasperation. “What is wrong with you people, always trying to match everyone up? Even with the worst possible match? Why can’t anyone see that some of us are just fine on our own? Some of us are happy with the way things are.” He was so mad, his heart pounded against his ribcage.
Cara stepped forward and hugged him tightly around the chest, disarming him completely. “Brother, if I thought for even one second that you were happy the way you are, I’d never speak of women or marriage again. That’s all I want, is for you to be happy. But you’re not. And you haven’t been since Tabitha died—”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” He tried to disentangle himself from Cara, but she held fast, looking up at him.
“You need to. It’s been years, Clay, and you keep it bottled up inside you. I’ve let you keep it bottled up inside you. It’s time to let it go.”
“Let it go?” He asked, incredulous. “Let go of my wife, of my love for her? Of the future we were meant to have, that was stolen from me?”
“No. You’ll never stop loving her, nor should you. She was your wife! But let go of the pain. Let go of the anguish. Let go of the ridiculous notion that you’re just fine alone, and that you don’t need anyone else. Let go of the fear that if you let someone else in,” she patted her hand on his chest, “that it will happen all over again.”
Clay broke away from her and turned toward the corner, blinking back tears.
“Let go of the idea that you don’t deserve to be happy. Because you do. And Tabitha would want that for you.”
“You don’t know what Tabitha would want.”
“I know what I’d want,
Clay hadn’t really thought of it that way before. Was he dishonoring Tabitha’s memory by holding onto his grief? He didn’t think he was really grieving any more. He’d accepted her death. Accepted that he was responsible. He wasn’t even hung up on the guilt all that much, anymore. At least he thought he wasn’t. But he just couldn’t see himself marrying again. That part of his life was done.
“Sometimes,” he whispered, “moving on doesn’t necessarily mean being with another woman. Sometimes you only get one love in life.” He turned back, without looking his sister in the eye, and walked past her, out into the darkness.
Where did everyone go? In a matter of moments, everyone was off doing other things. She was suspicious of Cara’s request that Clay help her in the barn. It wasn’t very specific. Could they be talking about me? Is Cara upset that Clay brought me here? Maybe she is only helping me because she feels like she has to. I shouldn’t have complained to her.
She stewed a moment longer, then stole out of the cabin and tread carefully across the snow. She knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t help herself. She got as close to the barn door as she dared, for fear they’d hear the crunch of snow.
Madeline could hear them talking low. She heard Cara say her name, then heard Clay say he didn’t know what to do. More murmuring. Then she was shocked to hear Clay launch into a tirade about her, calling her a conceited brat, a menace, and say that he couldn’t wait to get be rid of her. Then she heard Cara say something in soothing tones—probably trying to calm him down.
That was enough. Now Madeline knew why her mother had always told her that eavesdropping only hurts the eavesdropper. Her heart ached, and her blood boiled. As she crept away, the last thing she heard was Clay’s complaint about people always trying to match him up.
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