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The day Leah arrived in Smoke River it was snowing. She stepped off the train from Portland and peered into a cloud of swirling white flakes, unable to see a foot ahead. Her feet were freezing inside her black leather slippers and she could think of nothing but reaching the squat whitewashed station house and folding her blue fingers around a cup of hot tea. She stumbled blindly forward, lugging her small valise.
A white mountain loomed in her path, and before she could stop, her face smacked into something furry at nose level. It turned out to be the beaver trim on the front of a man's jacket. A large man, taller than her father by at least six inches.
"Sorry, lass," he rumbled.
She clutched her floppy silk hat and looked up. Through the mist of falling snow she saw a man's square jaw and a trim mustache that reminded her of Father's. He was tall and broad-shouldered and towered over her like a sturdy tree. Instantly she lowered her eyes as she had been taught.
"Might watch where you're goin'," he grumbled.
"And the same to you, sir," she said before she could stop herself. She should not have spoken out like that. Her mother would have scolded her.
She moved to step around him, but a large, long-fingered hand encased in a leather glove gripped her arm. "You just come in on the train from Portland?"
"Yes, I did." She pulled out of his grasp and resumed her path toward the station house and the prospect of hot tea.
"Did you see a woman, maybe with red hair and a Scots burr, on the train?"
She turned to face him, and this time she did meet his eyes. He was good-looking in a craggy sort of way, with steady, sky-blue eyes that seemed to look right through her. "I was the only woman on that train, sir. And I do not have red hair."
"Ye're not Scots, then?"
"I am half Scottish. Of what interest is that to you?" She could almost see her mother's scowl for being so forward.
"None, I guess. I'm waitin' for my new bride. She's supposed to be comin' from San Francisco, but I've never laid eyes on her before, and I wouldn't recognize her."
Leah's heart dropped into her ice-crusted shoes. Oh, no. She was the woman he was waiting for. He thought she would be a Scottish woman because of her name, Cameron. She swallowed twice. Such a mistake was a very unlucky sign.
Ten days ago she had replied to a notice in the San Francisco newspaper. "Rancher with young son needs wife. Educated, honest, hardworking."
Mr. Thaddeus MacAllister had answered immediately and enclosed the train fare. He had never seen her, and she had never seen him.
And we are to be married in twenty-four hours!
She couldn't do it. She'd thought she could marry a man she had never seen, but she just couldn't. What had she been thinking?
She had not been thinking, of course. She'd just had to escape the ugly situation she'd found herself in. Now she thought she would be sick all over this man's beaver jacket, and that would be even more unlucky.
The tall man bent toward her. "Her name is Leah Cameron. Do you know her?"
"Oh, yes," she said, her voice resigned. "I do know her." She drew in a big gulp of air and let it out slowly. "I am Leah Cameron."
His eyes widened. "What? You don't look Scottish to me!" He brushed back her silk bonnet and scanned her face. "Don't look Scottish at all!"
Leah raised her chin but kept her eyes lowered. "I am half Scottish, as I said. My father's name was Franklin Cameron. He died of cholera a month ago."
The man grabbed her by both arms and pulled her forward until her nose grazed a jacket button.
"And the other half?"
"The other half is " She reached up and pulled her floppy hat completely off so he could see her face.
His eyes went even wider. "Good God, you you're a Celestial!"
"I am half Chinese. My mother's name was Ming Sa. She is now dead, as well."
He kept staring at her, his mouth hanging open. Finally his jaw clicked shut. "Look, miss, I placed my notice because I need a well, a wife. I never figured you'd be a a foreigner."
"According to the Immigration Authority, I am not a foreigner. My father was an American citizen, a missionary living in China, so I am American, too."
"Well." The man cleared his throat. "I never expected this. I mean, you."
Not a good sign. "You mean you expected me to be a white woman. Caucasian." It wasn't a question. She knew how the Chinese were regarded in the West. The tales she had heard of the treatment of "Celestial" railroad crews made her cringe.
Leah watched his expelled breath puff into a foggy white cloud. "Yeah," he muttered at last. "I guess I did expect you to be well " His voice trailed off.
Heavenly Father, he would send her back! She could never return to San Francisco. Not now.
"Wait," she said. "I can cook and clean and care for a child. I have had experience at the Christian mission orphanage in Canton. And I can sew and embroider
But she could not return to China. Never. Third Uncle would lose face, and besides, there was no longer any place for her there. In China, she was not half Chinese, she was half White Devil. She no longer knew where she belonged.
She watched him look away, then back to her. "It's not that I think you're not qualified, miss. But"
"You need not explain, Mr. MacAllister. It is clear that you no longer want me." She had half expected such a reaction, but now what was she to do?
She hefted her valise and started moving slowly toward the station house entrance.
He caught up with her in two strides. "It's not that you're a Celestial, not exactly." He lifted the suitcase out of her hand and fell into step beside her.
"Then what is it, exactly?" She sneaked a look at him.
His mouth tightened. "Aw, hell, I don't know. The folks here in town might not"
"Would you protect me?"
"Well, sure, but"
"Mr. MacAllister, I cannot go back to San Francisco. It took me eight days to escape from my host lady. She was a very bad woman. I will not go back."
He pulled open the door of the station house just as the train gave a high, throaty toot and chuffed on down the track. "Come inside, miss. You look like you could use some"
"Tea," she supplied without thinking. "Yes, please."
He frowned down at her, then stamped the snow off his boots. "You might let me finish a sentence now and then, Miss Cameron."
"Oh! I beg your pardon, Mr. MacAllister. Father and my teachers always said I was impulsive and outspoken. They were right."
His rust-brown eyebrows waggled. "You've been to school, then?"
"Of course. I can read and write in two languages.
My father headed a mission school in China. I was educated there until." She bent her head.
He waited. "Until?"
Leah clenched her jaw until the urge to cry passed. "Until Mother and then my father died of cholera. Papa saw to it that I was well educated."
"Aye, I can see that. You talk right proper."
"Me, I know farmingcattle, and this year I'm trying some wheat. Nobody in these parts grows wheat, but Let's see, where was I? I know how to build a barn and a house and I can read and write. That's what I want for my boy, and more."
He guided her to a stool at the counter. "Tea for the lady," he said. "Coffee for me, with a shot of Aw, skip it, Charlie. Just coffee." Charlie was the manager, the telegraph operator and the ticket seller for the small Smoke River station.
The short balding man leaned over the counter. "This yer, uh, new bride?"
Thad purposefully cleared his throat. "Mind your own business, Charlie."
"Hell, ever'body in town knows you sent away for " He focused on Leah's face and his voice trailed off.
"Oh, I see."
"Oh, you do?" Thad challenged.
"Yeah, I do," Charlie said quietly. "Won't be easy, Thad. Good luck to ya." He clomped over to the black potbellied stove in the center of the small reception room and tossed a small log into the fire.
Within minutes the room was toasty warm. Leah sent the stationmaster a grateful smile, stood up and shrugged out of her ankle-length wool coat. Thad stood, as well, grasped the coat and strode off to hang it on the coatrack by the door. When he turned back to Miss Cameron, the floor tilted under his boots.
Jehosephat, she was a looker! She wore some kind of silky blue-green trousers and a matching long-sleeved tunic with frog loops down the front. But what he noticed most was how the smooth fabric curved over her breasts and hinted at her hips. She was small and slim, built like a China doll, but she sure looked womanly.
And she'd come to Smoke River to be a bride and run a home? Hell, she looked too delicate to hang out the laundry, let alone boil sheets and dungarees in a tin washtub.
"Listen, Miss Cameron, you sure you want to live out on a ranch? To be honest, it's a hardscrabble life out here in the West, and some years it's harder than others. Summers can be scorching, winters are"
"Snowy," she interrupted. "I understand. It snows in China, too, Mr. MacAllister."
He walked a slow circle around her. Huh. She'd blow over in a stiff wind. And he sure couldn't see her down on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. Or anything else, come to think on it.
"Miss Cameron, you don't know how hard ranch life can be."
She spun toward him. "I am not afraid of hard work. I fear only being alone and unprotected in a big city where I know no one."
"Like San Francisco?" He was fishing, but he had to know something about her. "What scared you in San Francisco that wouldn't scare you here in Smoke River?"
She was quiet for a long minute. "It was not safe in that city," she said softly. "Especially for a Chinese girl. I.I had to get away."
Thad frowned. Something didn't add up. "How come?"
She twisted away from him so he couldn't see her face. "When I left the ship, two men laid their hands on me. They wanted me to come with them. I showed them my papers, but they laughed and tore them up."
"Good grief," Thad muttered. "I never thought about Sit down, Miss Cameron. Have some more tea."
She sank back onto the stool at the counter and wrapped her slim fingers around her teacup. "Those men dragged me into a carriage, but I escaped through the other door and ran down an alley and kept running, but they caught me."
"Did you get away?"
"No," she said shortly. "Nothing happened to me before I got free, but I cannot go back, do you understand? Hard work does not frighten me." She gave an involuntary shiver. "But bondage does."
Thad took a long look at her thin shoulders, her creamy neck and the delicate-looking hands. She appeared small and kind of lost, like a kitten. The least he could do was give her a home. She could teach Teddy. And she could keep house and cook and.
"Charlie? Look after Miss Cameron for five minutes, will ya?"
Charlie poked his head out of the ticket window across the room. "Where ya' goin'?"
"Up the street to the mercantile. Gotta get her some ranch duds."
For the third time, Carl Ness dusted off the display of kerosene lamps, watching out the corner of his eye while Thad MacAllister pawed through boy-size flannel shirts and jeans. Too big for his seven-year-old son, Teddy; too small for any adult he'd ever seen in town.
"Find what yer lookin' for, Thad?"
"Nope," the tall Scotsman snapped.
"What are you lookin' for, anyway?"
"You hire somebody to help out at the ranch?"
Thad paused and gave the diminutive mercantile proprietor a hard look. "Yeah, you might say that." He held up a blue plaid shirt with buttons down the front, then snagged two moreone red and one greenand piled them on top of the three pairs of dark denim jeans he'd laid over his forearm.
"Kinda small for a ranch hand," Carl observed. He patted the pile of garments Thad laid on the counter.
Carl just shook his head. "You know, gettin' more than three words out of you since your wife Well, you know. It's like squeezing a hen's egg. You press too hard and you end up with egg yolk all over your hand."
Carl started to wrap up the shirts in brown paper.
"Anything else, Thad?"
"Yeah. Bottle of brandy. Make it a big bottle." Thad dropped some coins on the counter and gathered up his paper-wrapped parcels. He could hardly wait to see Miss Cameron's reaction to his purchases. Maybe the sight of the rough work clothes would convince her ranch life could be a killer. It had killed Hattie, his wife. It could kill a delicate woman all too easily.
Leah sat huddled over her tea, watching the station-master behind the ticket cage. He could sell her a train ticket to well, to anywhere. But where could she go? Not back to the city. Not to Portland, either, which was just another big city where she would know no one. One small town was probably as good as another, and here there was a man who noticed her heritage but acted as if he did not care much.
"Mr. Charlie?" she called across the room.
"Yes, miss? What can I do for you?"
"Is.. " She could scarcely get the words out. "Is Mr. MacAllister a good man?"
"He's the best kind there is, miss. Leastways he used to be."
"What happened to him?"
"Lost his wife a year ago in a train wreck. Ain't been the same since."
"Is he cruel or violent?"
The stationmaster laughed. "Thad? Nah. He's gone kinda crazy over this wheat-growing idea, and once he gets his mind made up, he's hard to move. Sure, he gets hot under the collar sometimes, but I've never seen him do anything mean."
Leah turned back to her tea. Everything would work out. It had to work out; she had no place else to go.
The front door banged open and there stood Mr. MacAllister, snow frosting the shoulders of his jacket and dusting the wide brim of his gray hat.
"Come on, Miss Cameron. Time to take you home."