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There was no sound but that of crickets and whooshing horse tails. Tired of standing in the hot September sun battling swarms of flies, the horses swished their tails to the rhythm of the insects' chirps and stomped their feet to signal let's go.
Jared Callahan massaged the back of his neck as he strained to hear the train whistle. He, too, had waited in the sweltering heat longer than expected, and the flies irritated him nearly as much. He brushed one from the perfume-scented paper he'd just finished reading once again.
I'll be arriving at eleven in the morning on the tenth. I hope you 'll be anxiously awaiting my train. Yours lovingly, Rebecca Layne.
Swiping sweat from his eyes, he slid off the wooden bench and returned to the building where Bobby Reed, the stationmaster in too-long sleeves and a canvas vest, apologized one more time. "Not sure why the train's late. But I'll let you know soon as I have word."
Jared shoved past the other anxious folks and moved back to the bench. Opening the letter again, he allowed the words to sink into his heart. Gently sloping script filled the page as well as the sides. He reread the last sentence for the fourth time since arriving in town, thinking he might have misunderstood the day or hour. No matter how many times he scanned the words, they said the same thing.
Uh-uh. No misunderstanding. She said lovingly and she meant it. His mailorder bride would arrive, throw her arms around him and they would be married. Just like that.
The noon sun bore down on him, sweat mingling with the dust from the ride into town. He slipped off his hat, ran a hand through damp hair that he recognized as long overdue for cutting and stared over the open prairie toward the lure of his homestead. The hot, miserable Minnesota summer choked him with the sun's last chance to make him almost wish for winter. But he couldn't think about that now. All he thought about was his beautiful Rebecca.
"Young fella?" Reed's nasally voice penetrated Jared's daydreams. "I hate to be the one to break it to ya, but I just got word. The train you're waiting for derailed some distance this side of Rochester. A lot of folks injured."
Jared jumped from the seat. "They what?"
"Calm down. That's all I know for now. Hopefully, I'll have more information in a bit. Why don't you stroll across the street to Millie's and get yourself a sarsapa-rilla? I'll come find you when I get more particulars."
Jared glanced across the narrow street toward Millie's. Uh-uh. He'd wait right here. With a quick crease, he refolded the wrinkled paper and slid the letter into his pocket. She might be dead. After all their plans, she could have been killed in a train accident. He slapped his hat against the bench.
Not acceptable. Surely God wouldn't allow his future bride to die.
The wagon bounced over the rutted road until she longed to rub her backside for relief. Empty prairie for miles and an occasional scrub of trees that dotted the land here and there. Looking across the wagon, she recognized the man who'd offered her his coat following the accident. He was sitting directly across from her. She grew uneasy under his scrutiny. He eyed her as if he could read the doubts in her mind, and she quickly diverted her gaze.
Over the side of the wagon, ash swirled around the horses' hooves. This far away and still the burning followed them.
She leaned toward an older woman at her side. "Where do you suppose they will take us?"
A grunt and a dazed expression emanated from her riding companion.
Another scan of the wagon box provided nothing more than that man's glare closing in on her once again. Only this time, it made her more than a bit uncomfortable. Why didn't he look elsewhere?
They hit a bump and she slid forward, slamming her knee into Mr. Fletcher. He cocked a grin in her direction and she scrambled back to her post next to the gray-haired lady. For some reason, her skin crawled.
If only she could remember who she was and where she'd come from.
Even more important where she was going.
Tired as all get out, Jared leaned his head against the side of the false building front and pulled his hat over his face. The stationmaster said wagons should start arriving soon. What was taking them so long? He'd been in town all afternoon. At home there would be one very angry cow if it weren't for a nearly weaned calf no doubt helping herself to the extra milk.
Would Rebecca be among those living or among the dead? He closed his eyes and prayed for sleep to release him from worry. She had to be alive. He'd pinned all his hopes on her.
The sound of teams of horses awakened him. He leaped up, scanning the muddled scene unfolding before him. A hundred feet or so of wagons filled with folks seemingly in a daze, lined the town front to back and then some.
One by one the folks climbed out of the wagons with the help of townspeople. A handful of womenfolk cried; others groaned. What had happened out there? The stationmaster shouted out names. A stout man nursing a slight limp moved toward the second-to-last wagon and helped a young woman from the back.
Jared's back stiffened. Curly blond hair, wide blue eyes and a rather curvy figure caught his attention at once. Alone, the lady stepped around the wagon wheel and gazed toward the crowd of people, no doubt scanning the group for him.
Jared pushed through the throng of people and edged forward, touching her arm. "Miss Layne?"
She turned toward his voice. Dirt smudged her cheek and a goose egg bulged from her templeshe was injured! He should have been there to protect her.
"Rebecca Layne? I'm Jared Callahan. I believe you're looking for me." He put his hand out but she pulled away.
"Layne?" She hesitated to offer her hand, indecision lining her face with worry. "You are waiting for me? I'm afraid I don't know anyone here."
He glanced at the beautiful face again, streaked with sooty smudges. He hadn't noticed any other young ladies alight from the wagons. This had to be Rebecca. She fit her description perfectly, right down to the dark blue skirt and white blouse she said she'd be wearing.
"Can I help you with your things?"
"I don't have any things." She drew back, the blue eyes sparkling with what? Frustration or fear? "I'm sorry, Mr. Callahan, was it? You must be mistaken. I don't know any Rebecca Layne."
Why did he keep staring at her as if she were a piece of molasses pie? And who was he, anyway? Did he know her? She blinked back tears. "You have me at a disadvantage, sir." He acted as if he knew her. She must have come by train to enlist the services of this man. But for what? What would have made her travel to Minnesota from wherever she'd come from?
He edged closer, encircling her elbow and leaning in. "Why don't we sit down and talk?"
She needed a bath, warm and soapy, to ease away the frustrations and confusion filling her headher heart. If she could relax, she might remember who she was. This man, good-looking though he was, merely presented another obstacle.
She drew her arm away. "Mr. Callahan, talking will do me no good. I am tired and dirty."
His face showed obvious compassion. His eyes targeted hers as surely as a dart. Did she play darts? Did her father, a man friend, a brother? The crooked smile on Mr. Callahan's lips offered its own kind of sympathy. She stood to his chin. He wasn't tall, wasn't short. His wide shoulders and slim waist caused her to stare a minute longer than proper before determining he appeared just right. Like the muscular build on one of the bulls in neighbor Spencer's field.
Neighbor Spencer? She had a neighbor named Spencer? Surely, if she could remember a neighbor, she'd soon recall her own name.
His hand nudged her arm. Not to be manhandled again, she jerked back.
"Mr. Callahan, the railroad is putting us up in the hotel across the street. Tomorrow, I intend to speak with a doctor." She'd speak with anyone at all to discover who she was. "If you'll excuse me." She took a shaky step but stopped soon enough.
"Rebecca. I'm here because we're supposed to be married tomorrow."
Her hand covered her heart. "Married?" Head whirling, her eyes fluttered and her legs turned to jelly as he grabbed her to him.
Fingers clutching, Jared supported Rebecca from falling to the ground. Picking her up easily, he strode immediately to the hotel down the road and across the street, dust and pebbles scuffing under his boots.
He stared into the beautiful face against his shoulder. More beautiful than he'd hoped, she was also light as a breeze and fit well in his arms. Perfect for his wife.
His wife. The words tripped through his thoughts so easily. If all went according to plan, he would find a way for them to be married tomorrow. He took in every bit of her face from her sooty lashes to her heart-shaped mouth.
When they arrived at the front of the hotel, Jared shouted for assistance. "Ben, can you help me out here?"
The withered hotel manager, Ben Sherwood, loped through the crowd in the doorway. "I got some hardcash customers in there. What's all the racket?" He stopped short. "Oh my. Poor little thing. This the girl you been waiting on?"
"She is, but she took a hit to the head during the train wreck. Doc Parker in there checking on folks?"
Ben glanced over his shoulder, indicating the back of the building. "Yeah. Got a makeshift hospital in the mudroom. Why don't you take her right on through?"
Marching across the lobby with his arms full, Jared stifled a sneeze at the sudden antiseptic odor tickling his nose. He stopped outside the door and waited. "Doc? This lady here's Rebecca Layne. She just fainted away in my arms."
Doc Parker's gaze bore a mischievous wink when he waved them in. "Well, you are the ladies' man, now, aren't you, Jared?"
Jared pushed the annoyance into his belly. "Listen, she's hurt and needs your help. Can't you see that bump on her head? And there's blood on her glove. Looks like she cut her hand."
The doctor pushed the spectacles from his nose up to his eyes and took a closer look. "Yessir, that's a bump, all right." He shoved a portly gent with nothing except a bruised ego to the side. "Let's get her on up here and we'll see what we'll see."
Jared laid her reverently on the table and the doc wagged a small bottle under her nose. She bolted upright, eyes wide and frightened.
"What are you doing?" Her face showed instant displeasure at being prodded and poked, but the doctor eased her back onto the makeshift examination table.
"There, now, miss. You've been hurt."
"I guess I know that."
"Well, feisty, that's a good sign. Jared, no reason you can't find the justice of the peace in a few days and get married like you planned."
This time, Rebecca sat up straight, yanked the doctor's hand away from her and aimed her wrath at Jared. "What is this constant nonsense about my marrying you? I have no intention of marrying anyone." She fought to drop her legs over the side, pushing the doc's hands away from her.
Jared cleared his throat. "Rebecca, we planned this."
"I didn't plan a thing, and, Mr. Callahan, stop calling me Rebecca!"
Doc smirked and helped her down. "Your injuries probably appear worse than they are. Always plenty of blood around the head, but there's not much we can do about head injuries except to watch them. You should recover in a few days. I think you can safely go now. Keep this bandage on your hand. There might be more swelling tonight. Watch for red around the cut. Bathe it in warm, soapy water two more times tonight. If it's redder in the morning, come back by and I'll have another check of the wound." He looked to Jared with a jerk of his head. "Have the hotel keep watch on her a couple times tonight. Head injury and all."
Jared reached out, but she swatted him away. His scowl spoke before his words. "Listen, Rebecca. If you'd let me talk to you for a few minutes, I might be able to clear this all up."
She'd be the one to clear things up. She wasn't going to marry anyone, even if the entire town banded against her with hot tar and feathers. Rebecca Layne, indeed.
And what was all this about marrying some cowhand or pig farmer or whatever he was?
His face pleaded with her. He must know her somehow. No man would march into a situation like this and try to walk off with a stranger. Would he?
"How about if we just sit in Millie's Restaurant across the street and talk? I'll buy you dinner. You must be hungry by now."
Her stomach rumbled. "I'll buy my own dinner." She reached for her bag, but her fingers met nothing except air. No purse, no overnight bag, not even a handkerchief to call her own. Her stomach growled again, deciding for her. "Well, if you insist. I'll speak with you for a few minutes. No harm in that. Which way is the restaurant?"
After the delicious roast chicken, biscuits with honey and fresh apple pie, her attitude improved significantly. She even found it agreeable to smile at him and thank him for the meal. "I am sorry if I sounded so harsh earlier. This has not been the best trip thus far."
Mr. Callahan pulled a paper from his pocket. "Here, maybe if you read this, it will help you to remember. Believe me, I'm not one to go about expecting unfamiliar young ladies to marry me."
Why he would need a mailorder bride was beyond her. His looks alone should be able to melt any heart in town. Maybe there was a shortage of eligible women. Maybe there were things about this man she couldn't imagine in her worst thoughts. She snapped back.
"It won't bite you."
But you might. She chewed the edge of her lip and accepted the letter with her good hand. She sniffed the lilac scent. Lilac, one of her favorites. Yes! She rememberedit was one of her favorite scents!
She eyed him, waiting for him to behave in an untoward manner. He smiled at her and nodded. "Go ahead."
August 21, 1882 Dearest Jared,
The time is almost here. I have to laugh to think that just four months ago I answered an ad in the paper for a mailorder bride. My sister is still so scandalized she hardly speaks to me. But I simply could not allow my family to marry me off to the highest bidder like a mare ready to foal. Pardon my immodesty on this topic.
These past months, writing to you, have convinced me I want to live in the West. I hope you are as anxious as I for our marriage. Your darling little house sounds like heaven to me and I cannot wait to get to Worthville.
I'll be arriving at eleven on the morning of September tenth. I hope you'll be anxiously awaiting my train.
Yours lovingly, Rebecca Layne
Did the words sound like her? She didn't know.
She stared at the signature. Flowery. Definitely a woman's handwriting. She wouldn't know for sure if it was hers until her hand healed and she had cause to sign a letter or document. What a calamitous mess. If she was Rebecca Layne, no wonder she had run away. Her family sounded simply horrid. Of course, she didn't have the slightest idea who her family was and how peculiar they might be. She closed her eyes and sighed. She had to face factsshe might have written the letter.
No. Not possible. She would surely remember planning her own wedding.