Bride by Mail. Katy Madison
dress the color of lilacs stood in the center of the throng. Bands of ruffles and bows flared out from her tiny waist.
Her back was to him. Her wide-brimmed straw hat with ribbons and bows covered her hair. One of the ne’er-do-wells who hung about Denver City saloons tugged on her arm. She pulled free and leaned against Kincaid. His bride, or a fancy whore brought in by Kincaid?
He hopped on the boarded sidewalk and headed toward the throng.
Kincaid covered the woman’s hand.
The woman who claimed to work hard in a cotton mill couldn’t be this waiflike thing clinging to the saloon owner. Kincaid was a worthless excuse for a man. Jack didn’t have any use for a man like him, nor would any woman worth her salt.
A reedy female voice said, “Your place is lovely, but is there a hotel or a boardinghouse where I could get a room?”
She wouldn’t convince anyone she meant what she said with that waver in her voice.
“Why, ma’am, just come across the street, and I’ll be sure that you’re taken care of,” said Kincaid in a snake-oil-salesman’s voice.
“Olivia?” Jack called sharply.
She spun around, and for a second it appeared she had no color in her eyes, except thin black dots at the center. “Mr. Trudeau?”
Crystal earbobs danced against her pale-as-milk slender neck. She looked extravagant and indulged. A woman who dressed as if she was due for a ball was all wrong for the frontier. Wrong for the hard life in a trapper’s cabin. Wrong for him.
“Where have you been?” she screeched.
Jack winced. He forced his feet to move forward. “Buying supplies.”
Jack focused on the woman as he walked closer. Her irises were of such a pale gray-blue that from a distance she appeared to have the eyes of a ghost. Eyes more gray than blue, she’d written.
“I’ll give you fifty dollars for her,” said Ben Kincaid.
Jack hesitated. Fifty dollars was a lot of money, not as much as it cost to get her here, but enough he could reconsider and send for another bride.
Olivia’s eyes widened.
“Unhand her,” Jack said softly.
Ben Kincaid loosened his grip on Olivia’s arm.
She exhaled and her shoulders dropped. Going limp, she put one hand on the trunk. He thought she might swoon. Could she be any more useless?
“She ain’t going to be here long nohow,” said a man in greasy suspenders.
His heart sinking, Jack silently agreed. No way would this woman last long in the newly christened Colorado Territory.
Her Cupid’s-bow mouth flattened. As if the boards of the sidewalk had burst into flames, she stared down. Her long lashes fluttered against the carved alabaster curve of her cheek.
Good Lord, his bride was beyond pretty. She was beautiful. Could anything be worse in the Colorado Territory, where women were scarce enough that men wanted to treat them as communal property? Rather than being able to defend his cabin while he was out hunting, her looks would just draw more squatters.
“Seventy-five dollars,” said Kincaid.
Jack rolled his eyes.
She stared at Kincaid.
“Do you want to go with him?” asked Jack. His jaw tightened until a twitch developed.
Her head jerked back, and she stared at him as if he’d turned into a rattler. She swallowed hard, but then her chin slid up a notch. “No. I’m not a possession to be sold.”
Her voice had moderated from the thin, raspy screech she had greeted him with. She still sounded too breathy and young, but he reckoned he could live with the sweeter sound. Maybe, just maybe, she had a bit of grit. “Then tell him to leave you alone.”
She gave him an angry glare, then marched toward the mercantile. The way she floated over the ground in her swaying skirt mesmerized him.
“Sure you won’t sell her to me?” said Kincaid, breaking the spell. “Seems to me she took to me a mite better than you.”
His blood rising, Jack turned toward Kincaid. “You wouldn’t know how to handle a lady if you had one.”
“And you would?” Kincaid taunted.
“Yeah, I would.” His mother was a lady. And she’d never let anyone forget that her blue-blooded grandparents had fled France during the Reign of Terror.
Jack was off-kilter. Olivia was a huge miscalculation on his part. The last thing he wanted was a woman who reminded him of his mother. God help him if Olivia was as haughty. Watching the stiff set of her shoulders, he didn’t harbor high hopes.
She should have been a plain, sturdy woman. Mail-order brides wore calico and sunbonnets, not hoop skirts and beribboned straw hats. Pioneer women were ordinary, not pretty, not pampered. It wouldn’t be long before Olivia complained of the dirt, the primitive living conditions and him. It wouldn’t be long before she fled—just as his mother had.
My name is Olivia Hansson. I work in a cotton mill. I live in a boardinghouse with my two dearest friends. They consider me the quiet one. I have light hair and am fair skinned. I am above average height for a woman. My eyes are more gray than blue. Please send me a photograph of you.
Spots danced in front of Olivia’s eyes, and she prayed she would reach the wagon. With her tight lacings, she could barely breathe. She needed to stop and catch her breath, but she wanted away from those awful men. Jack included.
Her lungs screamed and her vision closed in. She reached the wagon and gripped the side, trying desperately to breathe. Lying down would be prudent, but she suspected Jack would look at her with even more distaste in his brown eyes. Oh, God, he was even better looking than his picture. Yet his frowning appraisal had implied she was a bitter tonic to swallow.
Her eyes stung. She’d fantasized all kinds of greetings, but for him to look at her with distaste had never even crossed her mind. For a minute she’d feared he would sell her.
Her carpetbag thudded into the wagon bed. Her trunk followed. He’d shouldered it as if it weighed nothing. “I’d hoped to be done stocking up before the stage arrived.”
The planks of the wagon side bit into her palms. She couldn’t look at him. It wasn’t much of an apology, but his tardiness hadn’t upset her so much as his not protecting her from the swarming jackals. “I understand. The stage doesn’t always arrive on schedule.”
She strove to sound rational. He’d asked for a calm woman, and hysteria would not be endearing. Nor did she think fainting would project bravery.
Silence stretched between them. Olivia’s heart pounded.
“Men here so seldom see a pretty lady, they don’t know how to be civil,” he offered.
Had he called her pretty? “I am not used to being accosted in the street.” No, she was used to being ignored or studiously avoided by the men in Connecticut. She looked out of the corner of her eye at Jack.
He scowled at the trunk he’d just put in the wagon.
“Or offered up for sale,” she muttered.
He glared at her. “I didn’t offer to sell you. Besides, you were clinging to Kincaid.”
“Yes, well, it seemed better to choose one of them rather than to be torn apart.” Olivia chomped down on her tongue. Railing at Jack wouldn’t improve things.
“I’m sure they preferred you in one piece.” Jack shoved her trunk against the side of the wagon. A rigorous round of