Read an Excerpt
Millie Hamilton stood in the stagecoach doorway and looked out on the town before her. Dusty, rustic and sparse. Most certainly not like her beloved hometown of Cottonwood Springs, New Mexico, with its trees along Main Street and flower boxes in front of businesses. No, she was finally in Granite, Texas, six months past her original arrival date.
"Miss Millicent Summer?"
Millie knew without being told that the man in front of her was Levi Westland, the man who'd expected to marry her six months ago. She was to have been his mailorder bride. She recognized him from the photograph he'd sent her in his last letter, though the small picture hadn't done him justice. Surely he hadn't continued to meet the stage daily.
"Yes?" Millie allowed him to take her gloved hand and assist her from the stage.
"I'm Levi Westland."
To say Levi Westland was handsome would have been an understatement. Piercing green eyes shone from his face like gleaming porcelain, and two dimples appeared as if loving fingers had squeezed his cheeks. She was caught off guard by the sudden flutter in her heart. He was the most handsome man she'd ever met, and that meant trouble for her.
Levi Westland smiled up at her and continued to hold her gloved hand in his. He smelled of fresh-cut wood and warm earth, but his attire appeared to be that of a rancher. Leather cowboy boots, a black Stetson hat and a shiny belt buckle were not the standard dress of a woodworker, which was what he said in his letters that he did.
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Westland." Millie removed her hand from his. "I wasn't expecting you to be waiting for me-after all, it has been over six months since I was supposed to have arrived."
The stagecoach driver tossed two bags down to the boardwalk in front of them. Millie grimaced at the thud that they made and was thankful she'd thought to put her charcoal and paints in her satchel instead of in one of the bigger bags.
Levi picked up the luggage. "I wasn't really waiting for you, Miss Summer. I just happened to be walking by when the stage arrived. When the driver called out your name, I stopped." He offered her what looked like a nervous grin. "To be painfully honest, I'd given up on your arrival months ago."
Millie nodded. "I see." She inhaled deeply and turned to face the handsome man. It was time to be honest with him, as well. "Mr. Westland, I would appreciate it if you would address me as Miss Hamilton. My full name is Millicent Summer Hamilton. I only used my middle name to protect myself while traveling." She paused as she felt a slight heat enter her face. Millie took another breath and rushed on, "And when I was sending letters to strangers who wanted to get married."
He chuckled. "Then Miss Hamilton it is."
"Thank you." Millie knew she'd been foolish in not revealing her full name in the letters they'd exchanged. It was one of many things she'd done to prevent her parents from finding her. It had been foolish to run away from home, but something she'd felt she had to do then also.
Now that she'd spent some time away from her home, Millie wasn't ready to return.
Millie watched as he motioned for a gangly young boy to come toward them. The teenager stopped a few feet away. "Can I do something for you, Mr. Westland?" the lad asked.
"Amos, would you take Miss Hamilton's bags to the boardinghouse?"
The floppy hat that covered his blond locks bobbed agreement. "I'd be happy to, Mr. Westland." His young voice cracked and a red flush filled his neck.
Levi dug into his pocket and pulled out some change. As he handed it to Amos, he continued, "Please ask Beth to put the bags in room four."
"I will. Thank you, sir." He shoved the coins into his front pocket, took the bags from Levi and ran across the street and around a corner.
Millie's first instinct was to chase after the young man. Everything she needed was in those bags including most of her money, her only sketch pad and drawings. Now she wished she'd kept her money with her instead of hiding it within the bags. She could replace the sketch pad and drawings but not without money.
"Don't worry, he's reliable. Amos will take them straight to the boardinghouse. You've nothing to fret about." Levi tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and proceeded down the boardwalk.
Had her face shown her concern? Or had it been the wringing of her hands that had given her away? Millie realized she'd need to learn to control her expressions if she wanted to be taken seriously as both an artist and a woman.
"I've some business to take care of and then we'll head to the boardinghouse where you can see for yourself that your bags are fine."
Millie nodded and allowed him to guide her in the opposite direction of the way the lad had run. She wanted to scream, but since the only reason she'd come to Granite was to return the money Mr. Westland had sent for her travel expenses, she'd go along with him for now. After making him wait so long for her to arrive, Millie didn't feel it would have been right to explain her change of heart regarding marriage in a letter. No this had to be done in person.
As they walked, Millie struggled inwardly with her emotions. Just like her mother, Levi Westland had taken charge, not bothering to ask her what her plans were. For now, she'd give him the benefit of the doubt, but if he thought just because they were supposed to get married, that he could control her every move, well, he had another think coming.
She wasn't marrying him or any other man. Millie had come to Granite to tell him that she'd been mistaken in answering his mailorder bride advertisement.
She had thought at the time it was the only way to escape her controlling mother and to flee from the law.
But on the trip out, she'd changed her mind. Because Millie knew it wouldn't be right to keep the money he'd already spent on her passage to Granite, Millie had taken a job in Lubbock Texas.
It had taken her six long months to earn his money. She'd grown up during those months and realized she should have stood up to her mother and told the law what had happened.
Millie still wasn't sure if the U.S. marshal was after her or not. Burning down Eliza Kelly's house had been an accident, but now she understood that by running away, she appeared guilty and it wouldn't look at all like an accident to the law.
Her thoughts calmed a bit as she glanced around the small town of Granite. It looked like a nice place to settle. Millie thought about the art gallery she hoped to have someday. If all went well, she might just stay here and make that dream come true. Then she could return to Cottonwood Springs a success and with a little money to pay a good lawyer.
In his letters, Levi had described Granite and its people as warm and welcoming. As if to prove his point, a woman with a small boy in hand smiled and waved at them. Millie returned her smile and wave. If everyone was as friendly as the woman Millie felt sure she'd be happy here. But would Levi allow her to stay once she told him she didn't wish to marry after all? Or would he expect her to pack up and move on?
Levi had said he'd given up on her. That was good. She'd be able to tell him that marriage was out of the question and she had earned enough money at Miss Hattie's Laundry, and by selling a few of her drawings in Lubbock, to pay him back for the trip to Granite.
To break the silence, Millie said, "This looks like a nice town." She noted a furniture builder's shop and inhaled deeply. Was that Levi's carpentry business?
The soothing scent of wood filled her nostrils. Millie didn't think the scent drifted out from the store; more than likely it came from the man beside her.
Her papa worked at the sawmill in Cottonwood Springs. The smell of fresh wood shavings always gave her comfort. Today the scent reminded her of Papa, and longing entered her heart to see him again.
Levi offered a stiff chuckle. "We like it."
He continued walking with her, nodding at the locals, so Millie allowed her thoughts to drift back to her father. She missed him dearly but couldn't see herself returning home just yet.
Mother was as demanding as the day was long and Papa was as meek. He allowed her mother to boss him around. She told him what to do and where to go as if he were a child. No, Millie had had enough of that in her eighteen years at home.
Reflecting on her parents' relationship, Millie knew she didn't want or need a loveless marriage, in which one person ruled the roost and the other lived life in misery. It was sad that she thought of her parents' marriage like that, but doing so had enlightened her that she didn't want such a life.
Her gaze moved back to the handsome man beside her. He seemed lost in his own thoughts so Millie tried to work through hers. How was she going to tell him they weren't getting married? Did he still expect her to marry him? For all she knew, he could already be married.
Levi suddenly stopped. "I'm sorry. I just realized you must be tired after your long trip. My business can wait until this afternoon. Why don't we go eat lunch at the boardinghouse and afterward you can rest?" He didn't give her time to answer, simply turned around and began walking back the way they'd come.
Millie frowned at him. He flashed a smile in her direction and once more she was taken aback by his good looks. Maybe Levi Westland had charm, but no matter how much he planned on using it to get her to marry him, he could just forget it. All her life she'd been coddled and pampered, but at what price? Millie sighed. Until she'd run away from home, she'd never been free. Her mother had made sure she was hardly ever alone and that she'd never made any decisions on her own.
As they continued along, Millie thought about the event that had forced her into thinking she needed to run away.
Mrs. Eliza Kelly had asked her to watch her shop while she took her friend schoolteacher Hannah Young to the train station in Durango, Colorado. It was an all-day trip so she would be gone for a day and a half. She'd told Millie that if she wanted to spend the night in Eliza's house, she could. Her mother had agreed to let her stay.
Millie had made the mistake of telling her friends that she planned to spend the night at Mrs. Kelly's and would have the house to herself. The other girls had decided it would be fun to come over and smoke a few cigars. The boys always snuck around smoking the horrible things.
Her friend Charlotte had brought a handful to the shop and said it was time they found out what was so wonderful about them. They'd made plans for the girls to come over later, after the shop had closed, and try them out.
If only she hadn't tried to smoke one of the horrible cigars before the other girls arrived. She'd just lit it when her mother had come barging into the house. Millie had panicked and tossed the other cigars out the kitchen window. She'd laid the lit cigar on the window-sill and hurried into the dining room to meet her mother.
Mother had decided she shouldn't spend the night alone and forced her to go home. Before Millie could sneak out and back to Mrs. Kelly's, the cigar had rolled out the window and into the dry ground below. It had set the grass and remaining cigars on fire. The house and dress shop had gone up in flames and burned to the ground.
Millie lassoed her thoughts with a snap. No use crying over spilt paint. The only thing to do was set things right. And that, she planned to do. Millie shaded her eyes with her hand.
Granite wasn't a bad-looking settlement and so far she hadn't seen a saloon. That was a huge plus in her books. However, she did miss the trees and flowers that lined Main Street in Cottonwood Springs.
They took a side street that didn't have as many businesses. Her companion remained silent as they passed Bob's Mercantile and the Sewing Room.
Bob's Mercantile had a window on each side of the open door, with an old flyer advertising the newest parasols from New York City. The plank exterior was newly whitewashed, and Millie could see barrels in the center aisle near the door.
But the Sewing Room grabbed her attention, and she slowed, trying to take it all in. Every frill imaginable had been showcased in the two windows; a quilt, hankies, ribbons, bonnets even an apron. A sign hung in the window stating it would soon be closing and everything was on sale.
"We're almost there," Levi finally offered.
Millie quickened her steps and simply nodded. The smell of baking bread tickled her nose as they passed the bakery and she inhaled deeply. Her stomach rumbled.
A warm chuckle was the only indication that Levi had heard the sound. Butterflies replaced her hunger pains at the rich sound of his amusement. A dimple flashed in his cheek. She almost groaned aloud.
He truly was a handsome man. Maybe she should move on to another town once her business with Levi Westland was done. It wouldn't do for her to fall for a take-charge man and lose her newfound independence.
Levi enjoyed the soft scent of lavender that Millicent Hamilton wore. With each step they took, it filled his senses. He was still a little shocked that she'd arrived six months later than he expected. She'd been so silent in the time they'd been together that he'd had time to do some thinking.
A little over a year ago, at Christmas, his mother, Bonnie Westland, had surprised him and his brother with the news that she wanted a grandchild and that she expected them to get married and provide her with that child. She'd pitted her boys against one another by stating that the first to marry and have a child would inherit the ranch.
Levi knew Daniel wanted the ranch more than he wanted to live. So at first Levi had enjoyed playing the game, mainly just to irritate his older brother. He'd never intended to win the ranch. He shook his head at how foolish that sounded now.
Levi pushed the gate open in front of the boardinghouse and allowed Millie to slip past him. As they walked up the path, his thoughts returned to his mother and the contest she'd started. When Daniel had married Hannah in the fall, Levi had thought that would satisfy their mother. Daniel loved the ranch and so did his wife, but Levi's mother had informed him that he was still expected to compete for the ranch. Why was it so important to Mother that he marry, too? The question swirled through his mind like a wild tornado.
Bringing himself back to the present, Levi heard the lacy blue curtains flutter in the breeze. The smell of roasted meat drifted out the open window of the boardinghouse's restaurant.
He heard the soft rumble of Millicent's stomach and said, "The food here is wonderful. Beth is probably the best cook around." He placed his hand in the small of her back as she climbed the short steps to the entryway.
"Beth?" Millicent's blue eyes searched his face as he stepped around her and opened the door to the boardinghouse.
He pointed to the sign that read Beth's Boardinghouse and Restaurant. "Mrs. Beth Winters. She runs this fine establishment." He didn't mention that he owned the boardinghouse since there would be time enough for that later.