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December 21, 1885
"I think we've been on this train forever." Christina Eberlee gripped the handrail, breezed down the steps from the passenger car and landed on the icy depot platform. Snowflakes caught on her eyelashes and needled her face as she twirled around in the December wind, waiting for her new friend to descend from the passenger car. "Or at least it feels that way."
"It certainly does," Annabelle Hester agreed, holding her beautiful hat in place as the wind tried to snatch it. "It feels nice to get out in the fresh air. I'm afraid train travel isn't quite as glamorous as I imagined."
"Me, either. Exciting, but cramped. Who would have guessed?" Christina trudged through the snow, thinking of the blessing of Annabelle's companionship. Before they'd met, she'd sat alone on her velvet-covered seat, listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels on steel rails and counting the miles passing by. Dread was a hard thing to battle alone, envisioning all the things that could go wrong with this mailorder bride situation she found herself in.
Her biggest problem would have to be that her imagination would not stop seeing doom. Tom Rutger might be a perfectly fine manhe'd certainly seemed so in the letters they'd exchangedbut her errant mind kept picturing a bald bridegroom with a severe over-bite and warts. A man that smelled like cabbage. Orand this was the worstone of those men who was nothing but hair, including a gigantic handlebar mustache, bushy beard and hair curling over the backs of his hands like fur.
Then Annabelle Hester had joined her table in the dining car, and Christina was delighted to learn she wasn't the only mailorder bride on board. Annabelle was one, too! Finally, someone who could share her worries. Annabelle had chuckled over Christina's greatest fearabundantly curling hand hairand they'd become instant friends.
"Montana Territory is such wide-open country," Annabelle commented as she looked around. She was a dainty, lovely young woman who outshone every other female on the platform. "So different from back East."
"You will come to like it, I'm sure. I didn't like Dakota Territory at first, but I came to love the wide-open spaces and the skies that go on forever. Not that you can see either with all this snow," Christina replied.
"No, as I can hardly see my hand in front of my face. Or you," Annabelle quipped in a dignified manner.
"Are you starting to get excited?" Christina trudged through the near-blizzard conditions toward the depot, where lemony light offered shelter and the promise of warmth. Her teeth were chattering.
"I'm quite looking forward to meeting Adam Stone, my husband-to-be." Annabelle tumbled through the open door. "I'm grateful to find such a man."
"I pray he is a great blessing for your life." The blast of heat from the potbellied stove in the center of the train station's waiting room felt delicious as she looked around. A ticket counter and the telegraph window stood at one end and the newsstand at another. A kindly faced matronly woman was pouring cups of coffee and tea for interested passengers. The little sign said two cents.
And that was two cents too much. Christina's heart sank. Her reticule, dangling from her wrist, didn't have so much as a penny inside it. She'd spent her last few cents on her breakfast toast and tea. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her it was almost noon.
"Are you in the mood for something hot to drink?" Christina asked. "I'll wait in line with you, if you are."
Somethingor more accurately someonecrashed into her shoulder. Knocked off balance, she slammed to the floor. Pain roared through her arm. All she saw was a blur racing awaythe boy who'd rammed into her, a reticule swinging from his hand.
My reticule, she realized. He has my reticule! She levered herself up, watching in horror as the kid dashed through the doorway and into the storm.
"Help!" Annabelle called. "Stop that boy!"
But he was gone, just an impression of a dark coat and a faded red hat disappearing into the veil of snow, her most treasured possessions gone with him. A lump wedged into her throat. Vaguely she was aware of footsteps charging the length of the room as a man in a black coat and Stetson raced into the snow.
"Are you all right?" Genuine concern marked Anna-belle's lovely face as she grasped Christina by the elbow and helped her up. "Are you hurt? Oh, you're bleeding."
"Am I? It's nothing." At least she was trying to pretend so. Pain shot up her arm in swift, knife-sharp spikes and she gritted her teeth against it. Her worst injury was the loss of the contents of her reticuleher dead adoptive mother's broach and the locket with the image of her sisters, whom she hadn't seen since she was adopted as a small child. Now all she had of her sisters was the fading image in her head.
"Christina, you can deny it all you want, but it doesn't change the facts. You are hurt and you need a doctor. Maybe there's one traveling on the train."
Tears swam into her eyes, but she blinked them away. She cradled her aching arm, standing on shaky knees. Everyone stared at her. How embarrassing. She wanted to sink through a hole in the floor. If only she'd been paying better attention, she might have seen the boy coming.
"Don't you worry," Annabelle soothed. "I don't have much money, but I'll split what I have with you. It will be enough for meals until you reach Angel Falls."
"That's generous of you, but no, I can't take your money." Especially since she'd run out of her own funds anyway. She swallowed hard, pushing the sharp zing of pain to the back of her mind. It was nothing but a bump, she thought, cradling her hurting arm. Maybe a bruise. No need to worry. She swiped blood away from the skinned heel of her hand.
"Poor dear." A plump older lady gave her a sympathetic look. She patted one of the benches near the stove. "Perhaps you should come sit down here. I sent my daughter to tell the ticket clerk to fetch a doctor."
"No doctor." A medical bill was the last thing she needed. "I can't afford one."
"Maybe that man was able to catch the boy and bring back your reticule," Annabelle said hopefully.
"The one who ran after the boy." Annabelle gestured toward the doorway.
Right. The man had returned, nothing but a blurry shadow cloaked by the thick snowfall on the train platform. The vague shadow took on shape. First a hint of wide shoulders and the crown of a Stetson coming closer until he broke through the storm and everything and everyone surrounding her vanished in comparison. She caught a hint of his face as he strode forcefully into the lightrugged, carved granite, high cheekbones and an iron jaw. At well over six feet, he towered over everyone in the room, a formidable behemoth of a man with a badge glinting on his dark wool coat.
"Sorry, ma'am, he got away from me. He had too big of a head start." His dark blue gaze gentled, softening with apology. An odd combinationsteely man and kind heart.
"I figured as much. Thank you for trying."
"I just wish I'd been successful. You've been hurt."
"Nothing to worry about." Or so she was hoping.
"You hit the floor pretty hard." He knelt before her, closing the distance between them. His closeness unsettled her, as if he'd chased off every speck of air in the station. Concern softened the rugged planes of his masculine face. "Can you wiggle your fingers?"
"Can you wiggle yours?" Christina asked.
"As a matter of fact I can." Seriousness clung to him like the snow on his shoulders, but a hint of a smile settled into the corners of his hard mouth. He held out his gloved hands, moving his fingers. "Now your turn."
"See? They wriggle perfectly." She waved her fingers on her good hand. "Everything is fine. Now, if you'll excuse us, Marshal"
"Gable. Elijah Gable, and I want to see you move your injured hand." He didn't budge, his big form blocking her from leaving. "Looks to me you have broken your arm, Miss ?"
"Miss Christina Eberlee, and since I have no funds for a doctor, no, nothing is broken. You let the thief get away with my reticule, remember?" she couldn't help teasing.
"So this is my fault?"
"Then I suspect I owe you an apology." He looked up at her through spiky black lashes. "I should have run faster."
"Exactly." Why were the corners of her mouth trying to smile? She'd lost everything that mattered the most to herthe keepsakes were all she had left of those she loved. And this man made her want to forget everything with one small hint of his grin. There were good men everywhere, she thought, and it was nice to have a pleasant encounter with a lawman for a change instead of fearing them.
"Here comes the ticket agent." The marshal's tone rang with reassurance. "You were injured on their property. They should provide a doctor."
"Really, I'm fine." And embarrassed by the attention. Heavens! She shook her head at the uniformed man coming toward her. People were still staring, and the waiting train blared its five-minute warning. "I just need to rest, is all. C'mon, Annabelle."
"I do think you need medical care, Christina," Annabelle said.
What she needed was her reticule. She wanted to hold her adoptive mother's broach in her hand and remember the compassionate woman. She wanted to gaze just once more at the image inside the locket, those small girls' faces frozen forever in time, a reminder of love and family, things she did not have now.
And hadn't had in years.
"I'm sure you are right," she told her friend as she rose from the bench. She ignored her wobbling knees and rubbed at the cut on her hand. Yes, it certainly was bleeding. Fortunately, not too badly. "If it continues to worsen, I'll have a doctor in Angel Falls look at it. I promise."
"I'm going to hold you to that." Annabelle looked as if she meant it.
Warmth filled Christina's lonely heart. It had been a long time since anyone had cared for her. What a good friend Annabelle was. Indeed.
"I'm the one who failed to run fast enough." The marshal offered her his armand what a strong, reliable arm it was. "The least I can do is to see you onto the train and make sure you're settled comfortably."
"No need." She studied himhis rough, mountain-tough looks took her breath away. "Thank you for your kindness."
"Just doing my duty." He jammed his hands into his coat pockets, making a powerful image beneath the fall of lamplight.
Snow swirled around her as she stepped into the bite of the storm. She glanced over her shoulder for one last look at the man. "Goodbye, Elijah Gable."
"Maybe not, Miss Eberlee." He tipped his hat, the low tones of his voice stolen as the wind howled around her.
She stumbled after Annabelle, trying not to remember her other less-than-kind encounters with lawmen over the past handful of years. The local sheriff arriving at the homestead to tell of her adoptive father's deadly fall from a horse. A year later his deputy knocking at the door with eviction papers. Local law enforcement hauling her from the back stall of a livery stable, where she'd curled up for a night's sleep. Being accused of stealing food from a grocer when her stomach audibly rumbled with hungerwhich it wouldn't have done if she'd been the thief in question.
"Christina?" Annabelle's cultured voice cut into her thoughts. "Do you need help getting up the steps?"
"No. You've been so good to me. Thank you."
"It's what friends do for one another." Annabelle reassured her with a smile.
She climbed into the shelter of the train, shivering from cold and shock, and stumbled to her seat. Her stomach twisted up with a hint of nausea. Fine, perhaps it was time to admit at least to herself that her arm may be broken after all.
After Annabelle settled in next to the window, Christina collapsed beside her, grateful to close her eyes for a moment. She just had to hold on through the rest of the day's journey, and surely her husband-to-be would help her.
She tried to envision a caring man, gentle-voiced like her adoptive father had been, but her fears returned. She blinked hard, but the image of warts, a bald pate, a severe overbite and all that hair jumped into her mind's eye and refused to leave.
Lord, let Tom be as wonderful as his letter. Please. Prayer filled her heart, full of so many unspoken wishes for her life. She'd been wandering for so long, since her mother's death. The hardship of her mother's medical debts, the loss of her job and the economy had each been a blow.
She was weary of sleeping in stalls and stables, in back doorways and abandoned buildings, working for day wages in hot kitchens, endless fields or drafty hotels. Nothing had worked out and although her faith was strong, she had to wonder why the Lord had put these hardships in her life. Maybe this chance with Tom was a better path, the good future God meant for her. She surely hoped so.
All she really wanted for Christmas was a home, a place to belong.
So why did the marshal's face slip into her thoughts? Granite strength, chiseled cheekbones, steely jaw.