Bride by Mail. Katy Madison

Bride by Mail - Katy Madison

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knew nothing about raising chickens. She forced herself to open her eyes.

      Jack gave her a funny look. “Don’t you want eggs?”

      Had she given away her apprehension? Determined to put a good face on it, she said, “Of course. I’ve just never raised chickens.”

      She should tell him she didn’t have a clue how to cook eggs, but the confession froze on her tongue.

      “I have to go back in the store. Do you want to stay here or go inside?”

      Olivia cast a glance over her shoulder. Men still watched her. “I’ll go with you.”

      Jack strode into the store without a backward look. Pushing at the stitch in her side, Olivia followed.

      Her eyes took a second to adjust to the dark interior.

      Three scruffy men and the group of Indians turned her way. Everyone looked at her, except Jack. Even the grocer stared over the goods piled on the counter. His mouth fell agape. Was she such an oddity?

      Olivia took a step forward. Cracker boxes, pickle barrels and all sorts of dry goods from bolts of material to shovels crammed the space. Negotiating the narrow pathways with her hoops would be impossible.

      The Indian women pointed, while this time the impassive native men watched, too. If she tilted her hoops to get through the maze of barrels and crates, they would all laugh.

      One rough-dressed man’s gaze turned from surprised to speculative. His bold look ran down her front and stopped at her chest. Chills ran down her spine. Olivia backed away. Jack shouldered a flour sack and headed toward the door.

      She stepped to the side, out of sight of the rude men inside.

      Jack made several trips carrying supplies. He finally paused beside her. “Is there anything you need?”

      She shook her head, staring down at the wilting bows of her dress.

      Jack folded his arms. “You’ll need dresses you can work in.”

      “I’m not an idiot.” She knew the carriage dress was impractical for everyday wear. Her mother had worn it visiting when the most strenuous thing she did was raise a teacup. Olivia lifted her chin. “I have work dresses.”

      The Indians exited the store. The men left as unencumbered as they arrived, but the women bore bundles on their backs.

      “Pale Eyes lazy squaw,” said a brave as he passed.

      Olivia’s jaw dropped. She wanted to escape, but she had nowhere to go.

      Jack rubbed his forehead as if pained. He looked off to the side. “The preacher is expecting us.”

      Her stomach jumped to her throat and Olivia’s knees buckled.

      Jack caught her elbow. “Are you all right?” The question sounded grudging.

      “Of course I’m all right.” Her voice sounded breathy and strange to her ears. She locked her knees.

      Jack guided her toward the wagon. His hands around her waist, he lifted her into the box, and she felt his touch everywhere. In spite of the warmth of the afternoon sun, she shuddered.

      A bright woven blanket covered the wooden bench seat. After arranging her hoops so the front of her skirt would not shoot up in the air, she sat on the woolen blanket and folded her hands in her lap to still their shaking.

      She was getting married. Today.

      Even though she had come fully expecting to marry Jack, to meet and marry him in the space of an hour was whirlwind fast. Her pounding heart settled in her throat.

      Jack spread thick brown animal skins over the supplies, and then lashed them down.

      Olivia twisted in the seat to look at him. The Indian’s criticism had been cutting. “Should I help you do that?”

      He tied the leather straps down. “Not necessary.”

      The sun glossed the hides of the two brown horses hitched to the wagon. She bit her lip. He was taking her to the church. The minister would bind them together forever. Or did Jack already have a wife?

      Jack untied the horses, not mules, from the hitching post. He swung up and settled onto the bench beside her.

      Mr. Kincaid had been wrong about Jack owning mules; he was probably wrong about an Indian wife.

      “Mr. Trudeau—”

      “Jack,” he corrected, just a hint of a French accent coloring his words. “Might as well call me by my given name, because I will call you Olivia.”

      “Jack or Jacques, the French way?” she queried.

      He shrugged. “My mother would call me Jacques, but Jack will do.” He clearly made a distinction between the “ah” and “ack” sounds this time.

      “Must we be married so soon?” Olivia clamped a hand over her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say that. She wanted to ask if he had a wife, but she had no idea how to frame the question.

      He drew the wagon to a halt and set the brake. Bracing a boot on the board running across the front of the box, he turned sideways and measured her with his warm brown eyes. “I have a one-room cabin.”

      “Yes,” said Olivia.

      “Two days’ travel from here.”

      She nodded.

      “One bed. Unless you’d rather live in sin,” he said with a slight lilt in his voice.

      The point he was attempting to make suddenly became crystal clear. Olivia went hot and cold all over. “Oh.”

      He turned to face the front. “Figured you’d rather be married.”

      She ducked her head, hiding her flush.

      “I can put you back on the stagecoach, if you’d rather.”

      From his strong profile she tried to glean a hint as to what he preferred. Her heart sank. Even if he sent her back to Connecticut, her home wasn’t there anymore. Not that Connecticut had ever really been home. She’d just been stuck there after the train accident killed her parents.

      “We can go to the cabin without benefit of marriage, but I’ll be damned if I sleep anywhere but in my own bed.”

      “I see,” said Olivia slowly. She desperately wanted to change the subject. Blurting the first thing that came to mind, she said, “I brought you a shirt and coat.” Her voice rose to a squeak. “For the wedding, b-but I need time to finish them.”

      The shirt she’d made from fresh cotton at the mill, and for the jacket she’d recut one of her father’s best broadcloth suits. She’d only basted the seams, wanting to check the fit before finishing.

      Jack sighed. “We need to get home.”

      Home. Her mouth opened and nothing came out. She yearned for a home. But nothing was going as anticipated. She wasn’t even sure he liked her. She closed her mouth.

      “Look, I have no intention of forcing you to be a wife in all ways before you’re ready. But if you intend to leave, I’d rather you did it now.”

      Was he as uncertain of her as she was of him? The idea startled her. Nothing had indicated he was anything less than supremely confident.

      She wanted to tell him she’d slept with his photograph under her pillow for the past three months, but the words wouldn’t form. The detail seemed too intimate to reveal to a man who’d written her three letters. The man would be her husband quite soon. Her head spun.

      Silence stretched out.

      He scowled. “So what is it to be, Olivia?”

      “All right,” she said in a low whisper.

      * * *

      Jack stood before the altar in the little

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