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A LOVE Of Her OwnA NOVEL
By MAGGIE BRENDAN
RevellCopyright © 2010 Maggie Brendan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Yampa Valley, Colorado September 1896
The brisk Colorado wind tugged at April McBride's silky tresses underneath her Stetson hat, tickling the exposed skin at the nape of her neck. She threw her head back in delight, and her laughter spilled across the valley floor, causing her roan's tail to twitch. There wasn't anything April would rather do on a fall day than be out riding with total abandonment. She pushed her mount higher up the slope.
A half hour later she reined her horse in as she reached the crest of the craggy ridge overlooking the Yampa Valley. Her gaze traveled down to the rumbling Blue river below where a familiar figure on horseback had stopped to give his horse a drink. Luke Weber. But this time her heart no longer thumped with excitement. Luke paused at the river's edge and rested his arms across the saddle horn. He glanced up to her on the ridgeline above him and lifted his hat in greeting. April returned the greeting with a wave. After a brief moment, Luke gave his horse a nudge and continued on downstream.
Who would have thought that she and Luke would be just friends one day? Certainly not April. It all seemed so long ago now ...
Her world had come crashing down the day Luke told her there would be no wedding. Her shock had been profound, and April, who was never at a loss for words, was speechless. She'd tried to absorb what he'd said while her heart, frozen in pain, threatened to stop beating altogether. How could he not love her? She had loved him deeply and was ready to begin their life together.
Her ego had suffered terribly, and she wondered what was wrong with her. But how could she argue with someone who told her he didn't share the same feelings? She couldn't. If it had been the other way around, she wouldn't have wanted him insisting that she marry him just because he loved her. No ... it wouldn't have worked. April could see that now, but it had taken a long time to reach that perspective. How many times had her mother told her that she was praying for her and the right man would come along when the timing was right? Too many to suit April.
She'd lived with a shattered heart, refusing to see any of the eligible bachelors in Steamboat Springs who constantly pursued her, and now, after four years, her heart had slowly mended. Luke and Crystal were going to have a baby soon, and she could honestly say she was happy for them. Who wouldn't be when one could see the love in their eyes? Her mother was certain that her mended heart was the work of the Lord. April wasn't so sure about that, but she knew she had finally moved on and was genuinely happy for Luke and Crystal now.
Enough of this reflecting. The day was simply too beautiful to waste ruminating about the past, so she headed the roan back down into the valley, allowing her to take the lead on their way back to the rocking M ranch.
* * *
Hours later, April stripped off her leather gloves and picked up the mail as she entered the large foyer of her home. With a measure of contentment, she started going through the stack. It was nice to have the house to herself while her parents were away in Ireland for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She shuffled through the assortment of bills and invitations, releasing a squeal of delight when her eyes latched onto an envelope marked Montana in her brother's bold handwriting. It was crumpled and dirty, and the postmark was early August. Where must it have traveled before reaching her? no matter. Seeing a letter from Josh brought a huge smile to her face, and she decided to go sit in the garden, away from the maid who was cleaning, to savor every word privately.
Settling down on the bench near the angel fountain with its soothing flow of water in the background, April picked up her engraved letter opener and slit open the envelope to find a single page from Josh.
Dearest Sis, Hope all is well with you, and our parents are enjoying their trip to Ireland. Mother wrote me that she was really looking forward to it. The main reason I write again so soon is to tell you that I am engaged to marry the girl of my dreams! Her name is Juliana Brady, and we are to be married September 25. I realize I should have written sooner, but time slipped away from me somehow. Now that we've finally set a date, we would be honored if you would come and represent our family. Please telegraph me your answer and the time of your arrival, and I will reserve a room for you at the Stockton Hotel right away. I can hardly wait for the wedding and to see you again! With much love and affection, Josh
Tears of joy stung the corners of her eyes. What wonderful news, but oh, how disappointed her parents were going to be to miss Josh's wedding. April decided to send one of the servants into town to telegraph her reply. She should send a telegraph to her parents as well, even though they would be unable to get back in time. Maybe Josh had already done that.
A trip to Montana! Maybe that was exactly what she needed to get excited about her life again. New, fresh faces sounded very appealing. She rose, stuffed the telegram into her pocket, then hurried down the brick path to the house, immediately thinking of what she'd need to pack.
"Tilly!" April called, and the stout maid hurried down the hallway to reach her.
"Yes, ma'am? What's all the excitement?" She was breathing heavily when she stopped short in front of her mistress.
"Hurry, I'll be leaving for Montana as soon as I can make the arrangements," she said, then rushed to the large secretary and jotted a message down on a piece of letterhead. "Can you fetch Robby to send a telegram?"
"I'll do it right away, and I'll have him get your valise down from the attic too." Tilly turned to go find Robby.
"One bag won't do. I'll need my trunk for certain." April clapped her hands together, then grabbed Tilly's hands and swung her around in a circle. April's straight, silky blonde hair flew about her shoulders until Tilly giggled and they were both out of breath.
"You must be going to see Josh."
"Yes! it's the best news-Josh is getting married!"
"Land sakes, Miss April, you can't go alone. Do you want me to accompany you?"
April stopped and stared at her. "Mmm ... I think I can do this alone. I'll be on the train and stage the entire way with lots of company. Besides, you're needed here."
"That may be so, but you will need my help."
April clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I'm grown and can handle a trip by myself. Don't forget it's almost the turn of the century. Women are doing many things on their own right now."
"Maybe so, but your parents are not going to like this one bit," Tilly muttered. "no sirree, not one bit."
But April was already taking the stairs two at a time in her riding pants while Tilly stood looking up at her mistress and shaking her head. When April got excited about something, the entire household had better watch out!
"When you're ready, come up to my bedroom. I need to get organized," April called over her shoulder as she reached the landing. "Yes, Miss April, just as soon as I find Robby to send your telegram." Tilly scooted her stout frame as fast as she could in the direction of the kitchen.
* * *
Billings, Montana, was nothing more than a cow town to April's way of thinking, much like Denver. Lots of dusty streets, roughhewn buildings, and plenty of bustling activity that she'd observed from her window seat as the train flew past the center of town to the rail depot situated on the eastern outskirts. The smell from the hundreds of sheep corralled near the railroad station overpowered her, and April reached for her handkerchief to cover her nose. Josh had told her in one of his letters that Billings was a major depot to ship the woolies back East. She wondered for the tenth time today why her brother wanted to live in Montana after living most of his life in Colorado. Aching and tired, she was not looking forward to another long ride from Billings to Lewistown. One never knew what kind of characters you might encounter in this part of the country.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the conductor announcing their arrival in Billings in his booming voice.
"Final stop, Billings, Montana!" he called, then continued walking down the aisle.
April couldn't wait to disembark and stretch her legs. She was much more comfortable on horseback and preferred that way to travel. "Excuse me," she said to the gentleman blocking the aisle. He was bent over trying to collect his paperwork in the seat across from her. "This is where I must get off."
"Well, miss, it's the last run of the evening"-he straightened to give her a level stare-"so there's no hurry."
"I beg your pardon." April gazed back at the dark-haired man whose eyes twinkled with mischief in his affable face. He was of medium build with thick, dark hair, neatly combed, and his gray brocade vest stretched snugly across his trim build. He reached down to don his matching jacket, then hoisted a black bag from the train's floor. A doctor? she wondered, but she was in no mood for humor. "Please don't let me get in your way!" she snapped.
He seemed totally unruffled by her comment. "Can I help you with your bag there?" He indicated the small valise she held in her hand.
"I'm quite capable. Now if you don't mind, could you please let me pass?"
The gentleman bowed, clicked his heels together slightly, then moved aside, gesturing with his hand for her to go before him down the aisle.
"Humph," April muttered under her breath, her skirts swishing in her haste to get out of the train car. She had noticed him ever since he'd boarded the train at Union Station in Denver. There was no ring on his left hand, yet he hadn't even acknowledged her presence throughout the long ride, completely absorbed in whatever he was reading.
April wasn't used to being ignored, especially by a nice-looking gentleman. Just as well, she thought, he's probably engaged anyway. Or was she losing her looks? The thought gave her a jolt. After all, she had aged in four years. At twenty-two now, had she lost her appeal? She wasn't entirely sure that she was looking for more than friendship with any man. She was through trusting a man with her heart.
Stepping down the steep metal stairs with the aid of the conductor, April turned to thank him, but he had already returned to the boxcar. She looked in exasperation at her bags, which had been deposited at her feet, then saw the words Northern Pacific Railroad Depot painted above the large doorway of the depot.
A young boy of about thirteen ran up to her. "Need some help with your bags, lady?"
April eyed him with distaste. He was nothing but a street urchin, with his pants two sizes too big, held up by suspenders and torn at the knees. A cap sat cocked to one side of his head, covering his longer-than-normal, unruly hair beneath. He looked unbelievably thin.
"Well ... I ... guess so. You could carry them up to the ticket station for the next train to Lewistown."
"There ain't one," he said, tilting his head up to see her better.
"Surely there is one leaving in the morning?" April started for the ticket counter.
"No, ma'am. The train won't come again until next week, and the stagecoach left for Lewistown early this mornin'." He wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve.
She looked at him, hardly believing her ears. "I simply must be in Lewistown by Friday for a wedding, and we still have nearly a hundred miles to go. Where is the train conductor? Get him for me." Her voice rose. "How am I supposed to get to Lewistown, pray tell?"
"Same as I will," a voice behind her said.
April turned to see the gentleman from the train. "I beg your pardon?"
"You sure do use that phrase a lot." He flipped the kid a couple of coins, and the boy jumped to catch them, his eyes wide. "I'll get her trunk, but thanks, kid, for your offer."
Now she was really irritated. "Why in the world would you keep count of how many times I've said that? I don't even know your name," she said with an icy glare. Her feet were killing her in her tight leather dress shoes. Oh, what she would give to have on her cowboy boots and britches.
He set his luggage down next to hers and stuck out his hand. "name's Mark Barnum. And you are?"
"April McBride." She eyed him suspiciously and extended her hand into his warm handshake. "So the answer to my question is ..."
"Stagecoach, but it won't be leaving until the morning."
"In the morning! But it's Wednesday, and the wedding is Friday afternoon. That just won't do. I have to have time to rest and clean up."
Mark squinted back at her in the bright sunlight. "I'm afraid that's the only way you'll get there, Miss-it is Miss McBride, isn't it?"
"Of course it is."
"Then I know your brother, Josh."
April drew her shoulders back. "Really? How do you know my brother?"
"I live in Lewistown. It's a small town-hard not to know almost everyone."
"Then you also know that he is getting married on Friday? I had planned on being there."
Mark nodded. "With any luck you will. You'll have to spend the night at a hotel and leave bright and early tomorrow."
April rolled her eyes heavenward. She was spitting mad that there was only one stage a day to Lewistown. She didn't come all this way to miss Josh's wedding. She took a deep breath to collect her wits about her. There was simply nothing else to do.
"Could you point me in the direction of the nearest hotel, please, Mr. Barnum? Then I'll be out of your way." April placed her small valise under her arm, then gripped the leather strap of her trunk, struggling with all her strength to pull them across the street. Somehow she lost her grip, and her valise slid from her armpit and fell in a heap in the dust. It flew open, spilling its contents, including her unmentionables, right there in plain sight for Mr. Barnum to see. Lord have mercy! What next?
"Please, Miss McBride. Let me hire a carriage to take all our bags to the hotel," Mark said. He squatted down in front of April, who felt her face blanch with embarrassment. He picked up one of her dresses off the ground and placed it back in the valise, pretending not to notice the fine silky underwear as April hastily threw them in her case and slammed the lid shut with a vengeance.
They stood up, and April swallowed her pride. "That would be so kind of you. Thank you."
The young boy was hanging back, watching. "I have a wagon, sir. I don't mind helping ya at all. The only other one has already left."
"Wonderful! Lead the way, young man, and take us to the Billings Hotel," Mark replied, lifting his bag and one of April's while letting the young boy haul April's trunk.
April followed the boy toward the cart that he called a wagon. Stopping a few feet back, she almost laughed out loud, but caught herself when she saw Mark's hard look.
"I can't ride in that contraption," she said softly to Mark as she watched the young boy throw her luggage into the cart. "Look at the old horse. She may drop dead before we go a half a block!" April loved horses and hated to see one so old having to work. At home, this horse would have been turned out to pasture long ago.
Mark took her elbow and gently propelled her forward. "Sure you can. It'll only be for a couple of blocks."
April jerked her arm back. "Well, I won't be seen going down the streets in that thing," she said through clenched teeth, pointing to the cart.
Mark stopped short with a quizzical frown. "Who cares? no one knows you here, Miss McBride, so what difference does it make?" He looked around. "Besides, I don't see anyone paying us any mind."
April stood with her arms crossed, not moving, surveying the situation. One person couldn't carry all her luggage. The boy was right. Everyone had left the station. She eyed the cart that had room for only two. The boy motioned for them to come forward. She groaned. "Oh, all right. I guess it won't kill me just this one time, but we can't all three fit in that seat."
"Don't worry your pretty blonde head. I'll hop in the back. I don't mind, I've ridden in much worse."
Before he assisted April into the small seat next to the boy, she paused to give the old nag a gentle stroke across her bony back. "Sweet friend, thank you for hauling my bags," April whispered into the horse's ear. The mare responded with a low snort and toss of her mane. The gentleman hopped into the back of the cart.
The boy gave her a sideways glance. "Her name is ruby, named after my maw." A shadow of sadness flickered in the boy's eyes.
Excerpted from A LOVE Of Her Own by MAGGIE BRENDAN Copyright © 2010 by Maggie Brendan. Excerpted by permission.
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