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Harmony, Texas, 1889
Five weeks. Just five weeks, then she could leave.
Marlee Carrington gripped the handle of her carpetbag and reminded herself that five weeks wasn't so very long. She'd certainly managed to live longer than that in places far worse than this wild, uncivilized land called Texas.
Around her on the platform the passengers she'd spent the long journey with hurried to meet friends and loved ones, their expressions bright with joy despite the gray winter sky. Porters carried luggage from the baggage car. The locomotive hissed, shooting steam into the cold, crisp air.
Marlee stepped away from the crowd, keeping to herself.
The town of Harmony, what little she could see of it from the railroad station, spread westward. The wide dirt street was bordered by watering troughs and covered boardwalks, and lined on both sides with wooden buildings, a few of them two stories tall. She'd expected as much, but seeing it sent a tremor of uneasiness through her.
The arrival of the train had attracted a great deal of attention. Townsfolk flocked to the station. Young boys and girls raced through the crowd. Several dogs followed them, barking.
All manner of people moved about. Rugged-looking men dressed in coarse clothing, some with long, unkempt beards. They hustled about, intent on their work, driving horse- or mule-drawn wagons to the train station, yelling, cursing. And all of them had pistols strapped to their sides. Some carried riflesright out in the open, in broad daylight.
Marlee gasped. Good gracious, what sort of place was this?
Four weeks. Maybe she would only stay four weeks.
Shouts drew her attention to a group of men near the baggage car involved in a heated discussion over something. Marlee glanced at them, then looked away, not wanting to draw their attention by staring, afraid
Well, she didn't know what, exactly, she was afraid of. She was just afraid.
In the crowd of people still streaming toward the train station, Marlee spotted a number of men who, judging by the nicer clothing they wore, were probably merchants and businessmen. They joined the fray around the platform, shouting directions to their drivers and the porters unloading the box cars.
Clutching her carpetbag tighter, Marlee ventured to the edge of the wooden platform and craned her neck, searching for a familiar face in the crowd. She expected her aunt and uncle to meet the train. She'd hoped her cousins, Audrey and Becky, would come, too.
A jolt of unease shot through Marlee. Would she recognize them? Years had passed since she'd seen themshe'd been only a child when they'd made the trip to Pennsylvania to visit.
The sea of strange faces seemed to double, the shouting intensified, the children raced faster, dogs barked louder. A wave of anxiety crashed over Marlee.
What if her aunt and uncle had forgotten she was coming? What if they'd left town? What if they hadn't really wanted her to visit them, after all? What if they were just being nice when they'd invited her here? What if they'd changed their minds and fled, leaving her stranded here in this frightening place amid a town full of strangers?
Marlee drew in a quick breath, forcing herself to calm down.
No, of course her aunt and uncle hadn't left town. They simply were late arriving at the train station to meet her. That's all it was.
They'd asked her to come here and spend the Christmas holiday with them. That meant they truly wanted her here. Didn't it?
"Oh, dear.." Marlee mumbled and turned away.
Her heart beat faster in her chest, racing along with her runaway thoughts. She'd only been here a few minutes but already she didn't like it. She didn't belong here. She didn't fit in. No onenot even her cousins, probablywould accept her.
An idea struck her.
She could leave sooner than planned. Much sooner. In a week. She could make up a story about receiving a telegram from Mrs. Montgomery stating that Marlee was desperately needed during the Christmas holiday after all, and she could tell her aunt and uncle and cousins that she was leaving.
For a moment, Marlee let the vision play out in her head. She could return to Philadelphia, to her homethough it wasn't her own home, of course. Yet the Montgomery mansion in which she had a small room was the closest she'd come to feeling as if she had a home in many years.
She'd worked as the personal secretary to the wealthy and socially prominent Mrs. Montgomery for several months now. It was a job she was lucky to have gotten immediately upon graduating from the Claremont School for Young Ladies, with an education she was lucky to have received.
Girls with her backgroundno father, a working-class mother, a childhood spent shuffling from one distant relative to anotherseldom received so golden an opportunity. Mrs. Montgomery had taken a chance in hiring her. Marlee had notand would nevergive her one tiny reason to regret her decision.
Another wave of anxiety washed through Marlee, this one stronger than the last, remembering how circumstances had forced her into the journey that had landed her in this place.
Mrs. Montgomery had decided to spend the Christmas season with friends in Canada. Marlee had assumed she would accompany her, as she always did to handle correspondence, schedule social events and organize her charity work. For a few hopeful days, Marlee had thought the dear old woman would take her along, that this Christmas might somehow be different from all the rest.
But Mrs. Montgomery had decided that this holiday visit would be for enjoyment only and had informed Marlee that she would not be needed.
Marlee paced the platform as the vision filled her mind of what awaited her in Philadelphia, if she cut short her visit here in Texas.
Mrs. Montgomery's grand home would seem awfully sad and lonely at Christmas. A few of the servants had been left behind, but they had families nearby to spend the holidays with. One of them would surely invite Marlee to their home. But she wouldn't feel wanted or accepted there. Wouldn't that be the same as spending the holiday here in Harmony? How would that be different from all her other Christmases?
Well, for one thing, Marlee told herself, there wouldn't be any gun-toting men in buckskins. Or dogs roaming the streets. Or children unaccompanied by nannies. She wouldn't be forced to live with family members she didn't really know, in a town that surely had strange customs, with no friends, nothing that would make her feel welcome, wanted or accepted.
Marlee's heart soared as another thought struck her.
She could leave. Now. Right now.
She could go inside the station and buy a ticket back to Philadelphia. She could make up a story about receiving a telegram from Mrs. Montgomery stating that Marlee was desperately needed over the Christmas holiday after all, and she could ask the station master to notify her aunt and uncle that she was returning home. And she could leave.
Marlee turned and headed toward the ticket window when the roar of the crowd seemed to dip and the chaos around the station diminished. She spotted a man striding toward the railroad station. Heads turned. People moved aside and let him pass.
He was tallgood gracious, he was talldressed in dark trousers, a crisp white shirt and a dark blue vest. Though the air held a chill, he wore no coat, just a black Stetson pulled low on his forehead.
He carried no gun. Was he unafraid here among all these men who brandished weapons? Maybe he was simply arrogant. Or was it confidence?
The man moved with great purpose through the crowd, then vaulted onto the platform with practiced ease. The men gathered there hurried to him. He turned, and for an instant, faced in Marlee's direction.
Was he looking at her?
Her breath caught and her heart racedbut for an entirely different reason this time.
Handsome. A strong chin, thick brows and bluethey were blue, weren't they?eyes that seemed to slice right through her. Marlee's heart raced faster, somehow. Her knees trembled, sending a strong quake through her. She stood mesmerized, unable to take her eyes off him.
Her thoughts scattered.
Was he simply looking in her direction? At something behind her? Or was he gazing at her?
Another thought jolted her back to reality.
Good gracious, she probably looked a fright. She'd spent days aboard the train. Her dark green traveling dress was limp and wrinkled. She'd done what she could to freshen up as the train neared the station, but she no doubt looked pale and drawn. Was her hair disheveled? Her hat straight?
The man shifted his weight drawing attention to his wide shoulders, his long legs.
A few days wouldn't be too long to stay here in Harmony, would it?
Marlee watched as the man turned back to the men who crowded around him. He spoke, and they quieted. He spoke again and one of them answered, then they all nodded in unison. He pointed and they turned, and with one final word, the men headed off to do his bidding.
A longing, deep and strong, bloomed in Marlee. Such command. Such presence. Such power and strength.
The man, whoever he was, was important. Very important.
And everyone in the town of Harmony knew it.
She watched as he moved down the platform, talking to the train conductor.
Two weeks. Two weeks here wouldn't be badnot bad at all. In fact
Squeals of delight jarred Marlee from her thoughts, forcing her back to reality as two young women raced through the crowd and dashed up the steps onto the platform.
"Marlee!" one of them cried.
"We're so glad you're here!" the other said.
Her cousins. Audrey, only one year younger than Marlee's own twenty years, and Becky barely a year younger still, wearing gingham dresses and matching bonnets. Both girls threw their arms around Marlee and hugged her tight. Becky pulled the carpetbag from her grasp.
"We thought this train would never get here," she declared.
"How was your trip?" Audrey asked. She leaned back a little, looked closer at Marlee then let out a little squeal. "You look so much like Mama. Doesn't she, Becky?"
Her sister gasped. "She does! And that means you look like us!"
Marlee saw the resemblance immediately. All three of them were tall and slender, with light brown hair and deep blue eyes.
"It's like we're really sisters," Becky declared, and gave her another hug.
"You must be starving," Audrey said, and linked her arm through Marlee's as they crossed the platform. "Mama's been cooking all morning."
"We've fixed up a room for you," Becky said.
"It's small," Audrey pointed out.
"But it's so pretty," Becky said. "Audrey made new window curtains."
"Becky hooked a new rug," her sister said.
"I love your dress," Becky declared. "You have to tell us about what the girls in Philadelphia are wearing."
"Wait until you hear what the town is doing for Christmas this year," Audrey said.
"This is going to be the best Christmas we've ever had," Becky declared.
With a cousin on each side of her, Marlee descended the steps and headed toward town. She glanced back over her shoulder and spotted the man still talking to the conductor.
Five weeks. Five weeks, as originally planned. Five weeks in Harmony, Texas. It really might be the best Christmas she'd ever had.
1 his Christmas is going to be marvelous," Becky declared, as Marlee walked with her cousins down the boardwalk away from the train station.
Marlee spotted a few women wearing simple dresses covered by long cloaks. Some carried market baskets; most tended the small children who swarmed around them. The street was filled with carriages, horses and wagons.
"Here we are," Becky announced and gestured to a large display window filled with blue speckled pots and pans, an array of colorful blankets and knitted hats and scarves. Harmony General Store was painted on the glass.
Marlee followed her cousins inside. She'd read about the store her aunt and uncle, Viola and Willard Meade, owned in the letters she'd received from them over the years. It was exactly as she'd imagined, with aisles and shelves filled with merchandise, everything organized and spotless. But she hadn't expected the place to look so warm and inviting.
"She's here!" Becky shouted.
Customers turned to stare. At the rear of the store, the woman behind a counter looked up and smiled. Marlee knew immediately that this was her aunt Viola. Tall with slightly graying hair, she resembled Marlee's own mother.
"Oh, Marlee, welcome," she said, as she hurried down the
17 aisle. She threw her arms around her. "We're so blessed to have you here this Christmas."
"Thank you. I'm pleased to be here," Marlee said, and decided there was no sense mentioning that only a few minutes ago she'd seriously considered jumping aboard the next east-bound train to escape this place.
"Your uncle Willard is seeing to the arrival of the new merchandise," Viola said. "You girls show Marlee her room and get her settled."
They passed through the curtained doorway into the family living quarters, a large room with a wooden table and chairs, cupboards, a sideboard and a cookstove. Ruffled curtains covered the windows. A narrow staircase led up to the second floor. The room was warm; the aroma of baking ham hung in the air.
"We used this for storage," Becky said, as she headed toward the rear of the room. "But we emptied it so you could have a place of your own."
Marlee lingered in the doorway as Becky and Audrey went in ahead of her. The room was small, but larger than the quarters she'd been assigned at Mrs. Montgomery's Philadelphia mansionand much more inviting.
Dark green curtains hung on the windows, bringing out the warm colors in the patchwork quilt and rug. A bureau stood against one wall, and on another a small writing desk and stool; a rocker with a soft cushion sat in the corner.
Emotion rose in Marlee. They'd put this room together for her? Her? It seemed too good to be true.
"It's lovely," she said, in little more than a whisper. "Absolutely lovely."
"We picked green because it's Christmas. We even decorated a little," Becky said, pointing to the bureau where a golden star was nestled among evergreen boughs. "You're going to love our Christmas this year. We're having a big festival. The whole town is going to be decorated."
"We're going to have music almost every night," Audrey said.
"Real musical performances at the social hall," Becky said, then gave her sister a teasing smile. "Performances that will include a certain man."
Audrey blushed. "Nothing is going on between Chord Barrett and me."
"Nothing?" Becky said. "Well, he certainly finds every excuse possible to stop by the store a dozen times every day."
"He's just seeing to his duties," Audrey insisted, then said to Marlee, "Chord is one of the town's deputies."
"A deputy and a musician?" Marlee asked.
"Chord's whole family is singers and musicians," Becky said. "The Barrett Family Singers, they call themselves. Malcolm and Selmathat's Chord's ma and pagave all their children musical names. Chord's younger brother is named Allegro, but everybody just calls him Al."
"Then there's Melody, Lyric and Aria," Audrey said.
"Piccolo and Calliope are twins," Becky added. "The family has performed everywhere. Malcolm is in Colorado lining up more performances for them."
"Chord doesn't travel with the family as much as he used to now that he's a deputy sheriff," Audrey said.
"And because he likes to be in Harmony near you," Becky pointed out.
A little grin crept over Audrey's face, but she ignored her sister's words.
"You get settled, Marlee, and rest up a bit from your trip," she said. "We'll all have supper after the store closes." She and Becky eased out of the room and closed the door.
Marlee unpinned her hat and took off her shoes. She needed to unpack, but the bed looked awfully inviting. She lay down and fell asleep.