Bride by Mail. Katy Madison

Bride by Mail - Katy Madison

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rush her.

      She stared at a middle button. The stitches around the hole were even and neat, not so small the edges scalloped but not so big as to appear clumsy. Her hopes of a perfect marriage had been in every thrust and pull of her needle.

      “Just get over the rise, then you can ride again,” he encouraged. Dropping his hold on her, he moved toward the team. Gripping the leather strap between the horses’ bridles, he clucked to the horses and started them up the slope.

      Olivia followed. The horses pulled the wagon faster than she could walk. Her squished toes protested. Her mother’s demi-boots were too small.

      The hill stretched out before her like a small mountain. Sucking air between her teeth, she trudged forward.

      The wagon pulled away. She pressed at the stitch forming in her side. Before long, spots danced in front of her eyes. To fit in her mother’s dress she’d laced her corset tight. While sitting, the extra cinching hadn’t mattered.

      The wide flare of her hoop skirt hid the best path. Loose rocks twisted her feet while her toes and heels painfully rubbed inside the demi-boots. The steepness increased. Her skirt snagged on a rock. Impatiently she raised her dress high enough to continue.

      She plodded forward, one foot after another for as long as she could, only stopping to regain her breath. The wagon disappeared over the ridge. After a few minutes the wagon’s rattle and the endless chirping of the chicks no longer drifted back. How far ahead was Jack?

      Resuming her trek, she climbed.

      The sun disappeared behind the peaks and the light faltered to a shadowlike dusk and then went darker. She took a step, then another. The darkness was not all because of the quality of the light, but the result of her inability to get more than a short puff of air into her lungs. Her foot twisted in a hole she couldn’t see and she fell to her hands and knees. Her palms stung.

      She stayed like a dog, her head hanging as she waited for the faintness to pass. If she couldn’t make it up the hill, would Jack leave her here?

      * * *

      Jack had planned to be another dozen miles up the road before stopping, but Olivia had dropped so far behind, the plateau a half mile past the crest of the hill would have to be far enough today.

      He guided the blowing and snorting horses into the meadow. Listening for Olivia, he released them from their traces. The horses needed to be watered, curried and dried before the temperature dipped overnight.

      Jack unlashed the wagon bed and retrieved a spade. He picked out the best place for a fire pit. So much needed to be done before the night closed in and Olivia didn’t look to be much help.

      Wetonga would have already gathered the makings of a fire by now. Hadn’t he made it clear in his advertisement that he needed a helpmate, not another helpless animal to care for?

      He attacked the sod, turning it over and away from his fire pit. He viciously scraped the dirt. What healthy young woman couldn’t walk up a quarter mile of steep hill in less than half an hour? Apparently his wife.

      He jabbed the spade in the ground and straightened. As he’d led the horses up the steep grade, he’d seen her slogging forward.

      He’d wanted to go back for her, but he couldn’t let the horses stand with the weight pulling on them. Nor could he trust them to continue up the hill without guidance. They’d already been huffing and puffing. Stopping and restarting would’ve put unnecessary strain on his livestock and risked the loaded wagon rolling backward and doing serious damage.

      He squinted toward the road. A cool breeze wafted across his brow. The temperature was dropping. He needed to make camp, not fetch Olivia. Why hadn’t she made it over the ridge yet?

      Her froufrou dress was the height of absurdity in this rugged land. The wide skirt must make walking harder, but her frivolousness irritated him all the same.

      He frowned. How the hell was Olivia to know that hoops shouldn’t be worn out here? He should have insisted she change. But he’d figured he might as well get the satisfaction of driving a beautiful woman dressed like a princess through town.

      So it was his fault that she was struggling to climb a ridge in a dress better suited for a parlor than a mountain pass.

      He stomped over to the wagon and shoved aside the animal skins until he found his rifle. Taking a hasty look around, he reckoned there weren’t any skulkers about. Too many men in the recent influx of speculators would steal his goods, or worse.

      He stalked to the road and back up the slight dip that followed the nasty incline. Many a man would find his pretty bride worth stealing. His heart stepped up a notch.

      He jogged to the ridge. His heart pounded as he scanned the tall grass. The road was empty. More than a hundred yards down a scrap of lilac material lay on the ground. His throat tightened.

      “Olivia,” he called, and then louder, “Olivia!”

      Farther out was a pool of white. His chest tight, he ran down the slope. As he drew near he made out a petticoat and her lilac-colored jacket. What had happened? A disgruntled miner or a rogue brave could have stripped her of her clothes. Jack’s heart caught in his throat.

      Horrible images flashed in his mind of her knocked out, gagged and bound.

      Was she even now being abused in the worst possible way?

      His boots thudded against the ground and his hands grew slippery on the rifle. Oh, God, was his wife being raped because he was more worried about his horses and supplies?

      Chapter Three

      Here is the photograph you requested. I am standing in front of the offices of The Rocky Mountain News by Cherry Creek. The natives say that it is unwise to build so close to the water, but their knowledge is often ignored. Tell me more about yourself. Would you be willing to travel far into the mountains?

      Now he comes for me, thought Olivia with exasperation. The only way to make it up the hill was to loosen her corset and remove her hoops, which meant half undressing. She’d thrown off her jacket, then fought through the tall grass to a gray-and-green-speckled boulder for privacy. After struggling for several minutes, she finally got the back of the dress unbuttoned.

      The lavender material puffed around her ankles as she tugged off her petticoats to access her corset strings.

      “Olivia!” His voice was much nearer.

      Bending down so he wouldn’t see her state of undress, she jerked at the strings. The ability to draw in full breaths was a blessed relief, but she barely got the strings retied and her dress pulled up before he was upon her.

      Her husband would eventually be privy to her undressing, but she wasn’t prepared to share everything now.

      “Olivia, where are you?”

      Drat, the man was practically on top of her.

      She rammed her arms into the sleeves and popped up. “I’m here. Go back—” A long black barrel pointed at her. She jerked, bolts of shock zinging through her body, making every fiber tense.

      Frozen, she stared. Just beyond the stock his jaw pulsed. After an immeasurable pause his narrowed eyes relaxed. He lowered the gun. His gaze dropped to her petticoats draped over the rock and then rose back to her face.

      Her cheeks burned as she held up the unfastened dress. “Could you give me a moment, please,” she said in a prim voice.

      “Sorry.” He turned and walked back toward the path. He stopped with his back to her.

      Why in heaven’s name had he drawn a gun on her? Shivering with a sudden cold that had nothing to do with the air temperature, Olivia slipped the buttons she could fasten into their holes. She snatched her extra petticoats off the rock, draped them and the excess material of her skirt over her arm and rejoined Jack.

      He looped the metal bands of

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