Bride by Mail. Katy Madison
jacket and shirt would upset his tense bride.
The mother-of-pearl buttons had the look of expensive tailoring. Other than being a hair too tight, the shirt fit like a glove. His mother would have been ecstatic to see him so finely clothed. He’d probably never wear the shirt and jacket again. He wouldn’t have a need.
Beside him, Olivia trembled like aspen leaves caught in the breeze. He kept his hand near her elbow in case she fainted.
As he said his vows, a sick feeling settled in his stomach. He’d wanted a wife to ease his worries, but she had increased them tenfold. The pale beauty wouldn’t stand up to Indians who walked in uninvited. She wouldn’t be able to back down men tired of panning for gold and wanting easy pickings from his cabin. She hadn’t managed to stand up to the men in town, who had daylight and witnesses to prevent them behaving too uncivilized. He’d never be able to leave on a trapping run.
But he couldn’t back out.
Olivia whispered her pledge in a tremulous voice. Her head dipped low. Even though the top of her head was on level with his eyes, he couldn’t see her expression. He held his breath, fearing she might yet balk and choose to go back East.
“Do you have the ring?” asked the preacher.
When Jack produced the ring, Olivia jerked her head up. Pink tinged her cheeks.
When he slid the ring on her finger, she would be tied to him and this place.
He caught her hand in his. Her cool fingers were long and delicate like a bird’s wings, and fluttering in his grip. What would that fluttering feel like against his skin? Likely she would be gone before he knew.
She’d find the gold band too simple, too plain.
It was too loose. Like everything else about this marriage it didn’t fit right.
The preacher intoned the solemn words. “I now pronounce you man and wife.”
“You may kiss your bride.”
Jack turned to face her, but Olivia stared down at her hand.
He waited for her to look up. The preacher cleared his throat.
Cupping her elbow, Jack eased her sideways, but she didn’t turn up her face. He nudged her delicate chin. She pressed her lips together. White rimmed her pale gray irises. Her trembling increased.
He sighed, then leaned forward and brushed a kiss on her smooth cheek. Her hat brim nearly poked out his eye. A tiny squeak left her throat. She blinked rapidly and lowered her gaze.
“Congratulations,” the preacher said heartily. “After you sign the certificate, won’t you join me in the rectory?”
Olivia swiveled back to face the preacher.
Jack began, “We need to get—”
“—on our way.”
Now she speaks. Jack rolled his eyes. She couldn’t make her dread of being alone with him be more obvious. He kept his voice coaxing, rational. “We need to leave while we have daylight.”
She gave a short nod, but her lower lip trembled.
“Just one thing, then,” said the preacher. “We do things different out here in the territories. I won’t file the certificate for a month.”
Olivia froze. Then she turned toward him with her eyes wide.
The preacher lowered his head and cleared his throat. “In case you find you don’t suit.”
“Wh-what?” asked Olivia on a shallow puff of air.
Jack caught her arm and tugged her toward the door. She looked over her shoulder at the preacher. “Nothing to worry about,” Jack mumbled.
But the V between her brows suggested she was plenty worried. She wouldn’t make it thirty days. And he wished the preacher hadn’t made it so damn obvious she could leave without repercussions.
* * *
Hours later, Olivia anxiously scanned the horizon for a dwelling where they might spend the night. Perhaps over the next rise would be a new settlement.
The horses’ heads bobbed, jiggling the harnesses. Their backs glistened with sweat as they pulled the creaking wagon over the twin dirt tracks through the long grass. The sun scraped the peaks of the green-and-purple-topped mountains far to their left. With every mile the menacing giants loomed closer.
They hadn’t encountered any other travelers. She’d rarely seen such long stretches without a town or a farm.
Jack rolled his shoulders. The basted stitches at his shoulders gaped. He hadn’t been willing to wait for her to finish the shirt.
His silence made her tense. His presence made her tense. His despairing gaze on her made her tense.
“Have you known Mr. Kincaid long?” Olivia stared ahead where the trail rose up and up into the robin’s-egg-blue sky as she waited for his answer. And waited. She wanted to ask what the preacher had meant, but she dared not.
She wanted to retract her question, yet he would have to acknowledge her sooner or later. What kind of a life would they have if they never talked to each other?
“He seemed to know you.” Both men had known Jack, but the other man hadn’t given his name.
Not willing to let the grudging opening go, she asked, “What does he do?”
“He gambles and provides whor—runs a saloon.”
“He seemed to want to let me know he was rich.”
“Because he dupes the prospectors out of the gold they find.”
“He seemed more gentlemanly than the other—”
“He fools women into working on their backs for him, too.” Jack glared at her.
“—man.” Olivia cringed, her ears heated. “I didn’t think he could be trusted.”
“No. He can’t be.” Jack drew the wagon to a halt at the base of the hill and wrapped the reins around the brake handle. “You need to get out and walk.”
Her jaw dropped and her fingers curled in. “Because I asked about Mr. Kincaid?”
“No, Olivia.” The corner of his mouth curled up.
That look mirrored the look in his photograph. She’d anticipated seeing his bemused half smile for a thousand miles. Her heart skipped a beat. She wanted that look, rather than the look of impatient disgust he’d greeted her with.
“Because the horses have to haul the weight of a loaded wagon up a steep grade.” Jack leaped out of the wagon.
Olivia stood. Preparing to climb down, she grasped the footboard. Walking might be a relief. In spite of the blanket folded on the wooden seat, the jolting wagon was not so kind to her posterior.
Jack disappeared around the back.
The width of her skirts made it impossible to see where to step. She would have changed to a more serviceable gown if Jack hadn’t been in such a rush to get her out of the church. Reaching back, she searched for a foothold.
His hands closed around her waist.
Her heart skipped.
He swung her down as if she weighed nothing. Awareness of him jangled along every inch of her skin. “Th-thank you.”
She couldn’t look him in the eye. Her cheeks heated. Her breath hitched. How foolish must she look staring at the wagon? She slowly turned to face him. His hands slid along her waist. A rush of emotions swamped her. He was her