Bride by Mail. Katy Madison
City, Colorado Territory
Twenty-seven-year-old fur trader seeks wife and helpmate. Have cabin with cookstove in Rocky Mountains. Must be brave woman with calm nature.
Olivia Hansson stepped down to the dusty street. Her shaking hands spoiled her attempt to look calm.
“Here you go, miss.” The stagecoach driver set her mother’s trunk on the boarded walk behind her.
Tossed from the roof of the stage, her carpetbag thudded next to her feet. The outrider pitched down more bags, raising a cloud. During the harrowing race across the Western prairies, his eyes had held a flinty look, scanning the horizon for danger at every stop.
Raw wood buildings blocked any view of the mountains. The sprawl of buildings with crazy false fronts substituting for second stories was a far cry from Connecticut. The farther West she’d gone, the more often city was tacked on to any cluster of buildings, but she was a little relieved the outrider no longer looked as if he feared attack from every direction.
“Gentlemen, grub and beds are available at the saloon,” said the driver. He cast a sideways look at Olivia. “Are you being met, ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you.” Her husband-to-be would retrieve her. As soon as the stagecoach and crowd cleared out of the way, she would surely see Jack Trudeau.
Her heart skittering, she smoothed a gloved hand over her lavender jacket and tugged the bottom to erase any wrinkles that might have formed. Meeting one’s groom didn’t happen every day.
In her best anticipation of how the first meeting would go, her beauty would astound him. Not that she really expected that. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips to force color into her too-pale countenance. She didn’t consider herself more than passably pretty, but compared to the careworn women on the frontier, she would do well by contrast. Thanks to her mother’s carriage gown, she was better dressed than any woman she’d seen since leaving Kansas City. Surely Jack would be pleased with her appearance.
“We’ll head back East tomorrow morning.” The driver held her gaze a moment as if warning her to return to a more civilized place.
Her throat went dry. She couldn’t afford a return trip. What little money she’d possessed she’d used in a fruitless search for her father’s assets.
Her fellow travelers, all men, trudged across the street and into the saloon, but no man waited for her.
The driver and the outrider drove the empty stage through the open double doors of a livery stable. They exited laden with mailbags and toted them down the street. She waited alone.
The wind kicked up gritty dust. Olivia held down her hat and searched for a man wearing buckskins. She resisted the urge to reach into her reticule and retrieve the photograph he’d sent at her request.
When the months without a reply had stretched to December and the pressure to answer another advertisement from the Matrimonial News had almost grown too much to bear, she feared her request had put him off. Then Mr. Trudeau’s letter had arrived.
Olivia had cautiously unfolded the two sheets to discover his portrait. Anticipation and excitement had thrummed through her just like the Christmas morning when she’d unwrapped a porcelain doll and a miniature china tea set.
The photograph showed a man with dark curls brushing his shoulders, a clean-shaven face with strong planes and a full mouth with the slightest of tilts, as if her request had amused him.
He looked like a man accustomed to danger and the wild. He looked like a man who would think a cabin with a stove was the height of civilization. He looked like a man afraid of nothing, and nothing like a man she had expected to marry.
Her knees had gone weak and her mouth had watered anyway. A tightening sensation like fear had settled low in her gut. After sneaking peeks at the picture again and again, she’d grown sure he was a man who could protect her from the world.
Laughter and shouts emanated from the saloon, but no man from the photograph. Had he been delayed? Her chest tightened.
Her optimism was fast disintegrating. Her friends and roommates had thought her crazy for suggesting they answer advertisements for brides. Perhaps they had been right.
Olivia spun around. Her throat tightened.
“Can I help ya ta find a place?” A man with an untrimmed beard and wearing stained red suspenders approached.
Not Jack. She deflated. “No, thank you. I’m waiting on someone.”
A group of bricklayers worked on a building. Men on foot and horseback passed, but not a single woman was in sight. Her spine tightened. Was she alone in a world of men?
Surely her husband-to-be hadn’t spent a small fortune on her passage only to abandon her at the last stop. Had an accident or illness befallen him? Was she here in this rough place without a protector?
“Care ta wet your whistle? I can buy you a sarsaparilla across the street.” He gestured toward the saloon.
Ladies didn’t go into drinking establishments. Even in this wild place, she doubted the rules were different. “Thank you, but I had better wait here.”
She turned to dismiss him.
“Who’s fetching you?” he persisted.
“I’m sure he will be along directly.”
The man crossed his arms and spit a stream of tobacco, narrowly missing the lavender skirts of her carriage dress.
Gentlemen didn’t spit in a lady’s presence. Pulling her skirts back, she hoped he would take the hint and go away.
Indians moved up the sidewalk. Loincloths and open vests exposed bronzed skin. Their long black hair glistened with blue lights. Olivia drew in a sharp breath at the sight of muscular legs and smooth bare chests covered in strange patterns. Behind the men trailed women wearing buckskin sack dresses. In contrast to the silence of the men, the females chattered in birdlike coos and calls.
They stopped and looked Olivia up and down. Bursting into giggles, they scurried after the men. Heat rose in her cheeks.
“Damned Arapaho.” The suspender-clad man spit again.
Realizing her jaw had dropped, she pressed her lips together. She couldn’t have said if her shock was because the natives walked down the sidewalk as if they owned it, or if it was because the men wore so few clothes. She felt as if she’d stepped into China or Africa instead of a territory of the country she’d been born and raised in.
Her throat dry, Olivia scanned the street again. The signs around her indicated the ticket office, the livery stable, the BK saloon, and Pike’s Mercantile, but no man in buckskins was in sight. Where was her husband-to-be? The bricklayers ceased their work and openly stared at her. Her heart raced and the back of her neck felt as if a cold demon blew on it. She swallowed hard to suppress the outward signs of nervousness.
The scruffy man scratched his armpit. Was the brown stain on his suspenders tobacco, food or just plain dirt?
One side of his mouth slid up. His gaze dropped to her chest. “You answer one of them ads for a wife?”
Olivia backed up. Her heels clicked against her mother’s trunk and she nearly fell on it. She opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
“Might as well come with me. One of us is as good as another.”
He had to be kidding. She curled her fingers in so tightly her nails bit into her palms through her gloves. What kind of place was this?
A man in a green-and-white-striped waistcoat and a shiny black jacket pushed the man in suspenders to the side. “Leave the lady be.” His pomaded hair was combed straight back