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Chicago, February 1873
Mrs. Pepik's Boardinghouse for Desolate Women
"What if my husband doesn't like me? What if I don't like him?" Cassandra Hamilton leaned forward at the crowded dining table. Her blond braid dipped over her shoulder as she lifted a stack of letters from her wouldbe grooms.
A dozen other chattering young women jostled around her to read the names and notes.
All these men, thought Cassandra, interested in her?
"Don't worry so much, my dear. Wedding jitters are normal. Especially since you'll be our first mailorder bride." The landlady, plump Mrs. Pepik, peered down her spectacles at Cassandra and patted her hand.
A nearby fireplace sizzled with the last of the ice-covered logs they had rationed for this evening. The warmth penetrated Cassandra's cracked leather boots.
"You're pleasant and and wholesome." The landlady's eyes flickered over the scar on Cassandra's cheek before she politely gazed away from it. "He'll like you."
Cassandra ran her hand along her right cheek, wondering if she'd ever be comfortable again with her own looks. Sometimes when she was alone and immersed in a task, she blissfully forgot about the burn injury, but in the presence of others, their curiosity and sympathy rarely allowed her that freedom.
"And as for you liking him," the landlady continued on a cheery note, "fortunately, you get to make the selection."
Giggles of excitement erupted at the table. The sound was much nicer to listen to than the sadness and despair when Cassandra had first arrived.
They were all survivors of what everyone now, nearly a year and a half later, was calling the Great Chicago Fire. A catastrophe that had caused over three hundred deaths and had left a hundred thousand people homeless. The fire had stolen the only two people Cassandra had lovedher beautiful younger sister, Mary, and their fearless fatherand had made Cassandra silently question in the horrible months that followed whether she wished to go on without them.
Once, on what would've been Mary's nineteenth birthday, Cassandra had walked quietly to the railroad depot and had almost leaped onto the tracks before an oncoming locomotive. The only thing that had stopped her were the nearby voices of two childrena brother and sister arguing over a hopscotch game they were chalking on the pavement. It was then that Cassandra had realized what her little sister would desire, more than anything: for her to live a full life.
And so ever since Mrs. Pepik had come upon the idea of advertising "her young ladies" as mailorder brides in the Western newspapers, the boardinghouse had become a sanctuary of laughter and amicable debates.
Cassandra, good with geography, logically minded and possessing a surprisingly natural skill with investigation, had helped track down some missing persons in the aftermath of the fire. She'd found intervals of employment for herself and some of the other women, and she'd gone to the records office to follow up on lost documents for others. She had comfortably and voluntarily dealt with lawyers, bankers and jailers. Due to her meticulous uncovering of lost people and papers, some of the workingmen she'd encountered had jokingly nicknamed her "That Lady Detective."
Now, Mrs. Pepik stretched closer, eager to hear of the decision at hand. "Cassandra, which man will it be?"
A slender young woman in the corner spoke up. "I'd take the jeweler in Saint Louis."
"Oh, no," said another, "My vote is on the reverend in Wyoming Territory."
Cassandra's dearest friend and roommate, dark-haired Natasha O'Sullivan, offered her perspective. "Which man stands out for you, Cassandra? Which one does your heart point to?"
Cassandra took a moment, pressed back against her chair and decided. "The man from California."
She shuffled through the letters till she found his again. The one she'd been rereading ever since she'd received it three days ago.
"But he sounds as if he works too hard," someone said.
"California," Cassandra repeated. Of all the replies to her carefully worded advertisement, his clearly stood out.
"Because of all the sunshine," Mrs. Pepik assumed.
"Because you'd like to find employment as a detective," said Natasha. "And California would allow you that as a woman."
"That is true," said Cassandra. "But mostly it's because I know him."
Feet stopped shuffling. Women stopped talking. Hands froze on correspondence.
Cassandra peered down at his signature. Jack Mc-Colton. She was besieged with a torrent of emotions. How could she express to her friends all that she felt? Jack was a link to the loving past, a tender link to Mary and Father, a link to pleasurable times and heart-thrilling memories. Yet, he was also a link to painful times, to an explosive night and accusations she never should have made, to a time when her skin had been perfect and her looks had been whole. She'd behaved so shamefully when she was younger, assuming her good fortune would last forever.
Mrs. Pepik glanced at his name and cleared her throat. "How is it that you know this man, Jack Mc-Colton?"
Trying to ignore another wave of apprehension, Cassandra proceeded to explain.
Four Months Later Napa Valley, California
"I urge you to reconsider."
"Is this why you called me to your office? It's too late. She'll be here any moment." Jack McColton removed his Stetson. He ran a hand through his black hair as he stood by the door, exasperated at the contrary advice he was receiving from his attorney.
June sunshine and summer-fresh air poured in from the window, rustling the gauze drapes.
"Don't throw it all away, Jack." Hugh Logan was more than an attorney; he was slated to be best man at the wedding. Jack had come to trust him as a dependable friend in the three years he'd been living and working in the valley.
Hugh, in his mid-thirties and a few years older than Jack, rose from behind his mahogany desk to allow his tailor to mark his new suit. The tailor, a rotund man from eastern Europe who didn't speak or understand English well, quietly pinned the gray sleeves.
"I'm not throwing anything away," Jack insisted.
"A new ranch. Two dozen horses. A veterinarian practice. Neighbors who would like nothing more than for you to marry one of their daughters." Hugh's red hair glistened from a recent cut at the barber's.
"I was intending to find a suitable wife in Napa Valley, but things don't always work out the way you plan."
"Doesn't mean it's time to throw away the plan."
"I know this girl."
"You mean you knew her five years ago."
Jack, many inches taller with broader shoulders than his friend, disagreed. "I've got to go."
"Reconsider, Jack. Take your time with this. Court her all over again. Then get married if you still want to. Maybe what she's truly attracted to is that big ranch of yours."
"That's the attorney in me speaking." Hugh's gaze flashed down to the tailor, who was kneeling and making his way round the edge of the waistcoat, giving no indication that he was intrigued by the conversation. Even so, Hugh lowered his voice. "You know it's fair advice, Jack. Hell, last night in the saloon you told me yourself she spurned you when you were livin' in Chicago. Now that my head has cleared, I'd like to bring it to your attention, for the record, that the only thing that's changed since her rejection then and her acceptance now is your net worth."
Jack frowned. "It's not the only thing." Yet the comments cut deep into his pride. Cassandra had never been the easiest woman to deal with; in fact, she'd been downright spoiled by her father. But she'd suffered through a hell of a lot since Jack had last seen her. Both physically and emotionally.
And five years ago, he hadn't proposed marriage to her. Damn, at the time when he'd approached her, she was engaged to someone else. It had all been so complicated and convoluted.
Yet, he did recall that her rejection hadn't been a gentle one.
Jack rubbed his jaw.
The tailor asked Hugh to turn, then continued pinning.
Mailorder brides weren't uncommon in these parts. Jack didn't know any personally, but he'd heard tales. There were so few women in the West that many men used any means necessary to procure a bride and start a family. Jack imagined that some of the women were desperateas were the menbut some of the ladies were adventurous and wished to travel West. It was less restrictive here than in the East, for lots of women owned their own property and ran businesses, or worked just as long and hard on the ranches and vineyards as their husbands. At least, that's what Cassandra had writtenthat in addition to the compatible marriage, she was looking forward to the freedom in choosing her own occupations to fill her time.
She'd always been ladylike and restrained, and had listened quietly to her father's advice. Jack imagined she'd be just as respectful of his opinions, and that she likely only wished to start up a library, perhaps, here in town. Or a knitting group, or work with him in some capacity on the ranch.
The ground outside rumbled. A team of horses pulling a stagecoach suddenly thundered past the window. She was here.
Jack took a deep breath.
"See you at the wedding, Hugh." He planted his Stetson back on his head and strode out of the office, trying not to let on that the words still bothered him.
Sitting in the cramped stagecoach, Cassandra peered up from the book she was discreetly reading, Tales of Bounty Hunters and Criminals. Through the dusty win-dowpane, she observed vineyards on the slopes and palm trees among the town's buildings, and worried again how very late they were. She tried to suppress her rush of nerves. It was Wednesday afternoon at fifteen minutes past twomore than two hours behind schedule.
Would her soon-to-be groom still be here, waiting for her, or had Jack tired of it and left?
She opened her large satchel and slid the book in among her other things. There was a Chicago newspaper, another text entitled California Courts and the Legal Code, a silver-inlaid derringer pistol and a small box of .41 Rimfire cartridges.
The driver pulled the team of horses into a green valley and the pretty town called Sundial, and careened to a stop. The three other passengers with heran elderly couple and a young cowboygathered their belongings as she quickly disembarked.
"Good traveling with you, miss," said the old gent, blinking at Cassandra's scarred cheek.
"Enjoy the last leg of your journey," she replied, turning her injured side away.
The young cowboy nodded goodbye. Although she and he were roughly the same agemid-twentiesin all the hours they'd spent together, he'd never once gazed at her with any masculine interest in his eyes. Not that she wished him to; only that she noticed selfconsciously that since her injury, most men silently dismissed her in that way.
Wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat with a chiffon scarf pushed through the top and hanging at her temples as ties, Cassandra instinctively pulled the dangling fabric over her marred cheek. She slid into the awaiting crowd and searched the faces.
What would Jack think when he saw her? She'd explained the injury to him in her letters. He'd responded that it was irrelevant to him, that he simply wished her good health and was relieved that she hadn't been seriously injured.
Of course, he had written those words thousands of miles away. Things might be different up close. He was about to marry her, and what man didn't wish to be sexually attracted to his bride?
Normally, being outdoors under the blue sky and sun calmed her, but not today. She searched the assortment of faces for someone who might resemble the man who'd walked out of her world five years ago. Back then their relationship had been strained, for it was a time when she had been engaged to someone else.
No Jack McColton.
Cassandra twirled around to study more faces. She was looking for someone tall, on the skinny side, with black hair. He was a veterinarian now, he'd written, working with horses in the vineyards, lumber mills and ranches of Napa Valley. He'd studied veterinary science in Chicago and she'd often seen him with a textbook in his hands. He'd always had a love of animals, she recalled, more interested in the livestock people owned than who might be knocking at the front door.
Searching the eager faces looking back at her, Cassandra dusted her threadbare skirts and adjusted her plumed hat to shield herself from the gleaming California sun.
So much hotter and drier than Chicago.
So much more hopeful and filled with promise.
So much more anxiety-inducing than she'd thought possible when she'd agreed to become a mailorder bride at Mrs. Pepik's Boarding House for Desolate Women. In the return address she'd given Jack, she'd left off the desolate part.
No need to tell him how far she'd fallen.
Besides, he'd see it in one glance, wouldn't he?
Stop that, she told herself, and straightened her posture with dignity and pride.
She was here to start a new life with a man she had known to be hardworking and law-abiding. In choosing Jack over the other prospects, she was at least going with a known quantity. She knew his flaws as well as his strengths. Surely that was an advantage, wasn't it?
But perhaps she'd been hasty, rushing to marry him because of past memories and his recollections of her late sister and father. Five years had passed. For all she knew, he might now be reckless and unfeeling. And back then, she hadn't spent that much time alone with him. Sometimes a person's behavior was totally different in private than in public.
"Cassandra?" said a deep male voice behind her.
Feeling a stab of terror mixed with excitement, she wheeled around and nearly bumped into him.
She got an eyeful of a very broad chest wearing a neatly pressed white shirt and leather vest. Holding on to her hat, she craned her neck and peered way, way up. Her scarf draped against her scar.
Those familiar deep brown eyes flashed at her with curiosity. Her first impression was that everything about Jack McColton was incredibly dark. Tanned skin, black hair, black eyebrows, black leather vest, black cowboy hat. And no longer thin. His shoulders were as wide as forever. Obviously, his work in the vineyards had seasoned his physique.
He reminded her of a Thoroughbred racehorse, muscled and built for speed. Her pulse tripped over itself in response to his powerful presence. Wavy hair, longer than the men wore in Chicago, touched his collar.
A sheen of moisture from the heat of the sun dampened his brow. He was clean-shaven, but already a dark shadow underlined his firm jaw and cast shadows in the dimple of his chin.
"Cassandra," he repeated in a rich baritone. "Good to see you." And then her scarf came away from her cheek, exposing the ugly ripple of flesh four inches in diameter, and his studious eyes flickered over it.
The burning heat of embarrassment and shame, and an overriding wish to flee, overtook her. This is what you ordered, she thought. How terribly disappointed you must be.
He fumbled for barely a moment, almost imperceptibly, then glanced back up into her eyes with a smile. "You look lovely."
She took in a deep breath, touched by his kindness.
Why did the rhythm of her breathing still break when she was around him? Why had it always been like this? She nodded and smiled in a confusion of emotions.
She hadn't realized how parched her mouth was. "Well, I Jack this climate certainly agrees with you." Clumsily, she reached out to shake his hand at the same instant he held out a bouquet of pink wild roses.