Read an Excerpt
The bitter wind that whipped the leather curtains covering the stage windows and snuck beneath the buffalo robe now piled on the hard seat could easily have stolen her breath away, but Constance Jennings's first glimpse of her destination already had her lungs locked tight. Pinning her quivering bottom lip between her teeth, she glanced over her shoulder, half hoping the other passengeran aging pastor who'd conversed pleasantly during the last leg of her journeywould indicate this wasn't their stop after all.
No such luck. Reverend Stillman smiled kindly as he waved a hand for her to climb down the steps.
The trip had been long and cold, and days of sitting left her legs stiff and her knees popping. As her boots hit the dirt street, tremors seized her toes, and then traveled, snaking all the way up to her scalp until every hair follicle tingled.
Had she completely lost her senses back in New York?
A gust of unrelenting Wyoming wind caught on her headdress. The covering had once been stylish, but was now as tired and worn as the rest of the traveling suit. She grabbed the curled straw brim to keep the wind from stealing the hat, and gulped at the swelling in her throat.
Which one was he? Ashton Kramerthe man who'd ordered a bride.
The men standing along the dusty road were of various shapes and sizes. One so tall he could have flown a flag off his neck and another so squat and round he easily could have been mistaken for a rain barrel except for the black top hat sitting on his round head. The others were in between and every one of them looked as though they'd just been spit-shined. They were an odd assortment, to say the least, and the lump in Constance's throat threatened to suffocate her.
A long-forgotten image of Aunt Theresa's canary, Sweetie, sitting on its tiny swing with Aunt Julia's big orange tomcat, Percival, staring at it through the spindly gold bars entered her mind. At this moment, Constance could fully relate to the bird.
Every slight movementone of the men nodding or tipping their hat with a tense greetinghad panic clutching her insides. Now was not the time to give in to regret or alarm. She'd chosen Wyoming.
It had sounded better. Then.
Not one of the men stepped forward, identifying himself as her husband-to-be. Ashton Kramer's letter hadn't held a picture, but had said not to worry, she'd know him straight off.
The weight that fell on her shoulder had her jumping in her boots. The hold increased and a huff sounded as Reverend Stillman took a final step off the springy stage. "Excuse me, Miss Jennings," he offered, leaning a bit harder. "These old bones of mine just can't take a ride like they used to."
Out of habit, and thankful for something to do, Constance wrapped an arm around the man's stooping shoulders while he settled the bottom of his hooked cane on the well-worn dirt beneath their feet.
The reverend gave her a warm smile of thanks before lifting his chin to scan the town. As if that was the signal they'd waited for, the men rushed forward, pushing at each other, vying for the same spot of earth.
Shouts of, "That's her!"
"He called her Miss Jennings!" And "Move out of the way!" caught and sifted in the wind.
Constance cowered, wishing she could make herself as small as Sweetie, or better yet, sprout wings.
The shout rumbled above the rest, and sent Constance's peaked nerve endings shuddering from head to toe. The reverend's bellow could have shaken the sun out of the clouds, but that, too, wasn't to be. The sky remained as thick and gray as her insides.
"Sorry, Miss Jennings," he offered, patting her hand. "I didn't mean to startle you."
A strained grin was the best she could offer. Startled was putting it lightly. Shocked, stunned, close to hysterical, not to mention freezing, were just a few ways to describe why she shook uncontrollably.
To her dismay and relief, the shout had slowed the men. They now shuffled amongst each other, almost as if waiting for a leader. Ashton, perhaps?
Their gazes had shifted, too, then went up the road. Constance couldn't stop hers from following. A tall man standing beside a wagon made something inside her sputter with hope that she'd found her intended. But only for a moment. The steely glare of his eyes not only said he wasn't Ashton, but that he wasn't impressed with the commotion taking place.
It wasn't as if she was, either.
Constance, glad the stone-faced man wasn't Ashton, turned as a young girl wearing a heavy-looking coat arrived at the reverend's side. "Hello, Reverend Still-man." The girl kissed the old man's cheek and wrapped her mitten-covered hands around his other arm. "We didn't expect you this late in the year. It's gettin' colder and colder."
"I know, child," the reverend agreed. "But I promised one last sermon before the weather makes it impossible."
Constance curled her fingers into her palms and struggled to pull her eyes off the girl's thick mittens. They were bright red and looked as thick and warm as fresh-sheared wool.
As if she were a queen and expected her orders followed, the girl gestured toward the men. "Get his bag and help Reverend Stilllman over to Mrs. Wagner's."
The men didn't question the request, matter of fact, two literally sprang forward. "Ma'am," the first one said, landing next to Constance.
"It's miss," the second one said, elbowing the first before tipping his hat.
Renewed shivers assaulted her. Constance stumbled backward, giving the men clear access to the reverend as she pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders.
Moments later, Reverend Stillman was escorted down the road. He waved, but the whistling of the cold, blustery wind swallowed up his departing words. A thick gush of sadness tightened Constance's chest, as if she watched her last known friend disappear. Not that he'd been a longtime friend, but he'd become a short-term one she'd greatly appreciated. His companionship had made the rocky, cold ride more endurable. "Are you her?"
Constance, releasing the air from her lungs, turned to the girl.
Seriousness covered the young rosy-cheeked face. "Are you Ashton Kramer's mailorder bride?"
Constance's heart jolted. Hearing someone call her Ashton's bride made it too real.
The way the girl surveyed the remaining men for an extended length of time had the hair on the back of Constance's neck standing on end. Under her scrutiny, the men shuffled, as if unsure if they should move forward. The girl shook her head sadly. "They're here for you."
Constance's blood turned coldin that foreboding kind of way. "Excuse me?"
"They're here for you," the girl repeated.
The men whispered amongst themselves, and some nodded her way. Constance gulped as her heart made its way into her throat. "Why?"
"I'm Angel Clayton." The girl slipped an arm under Constance's, hooking their elbows. "Someone should have been here to meet you." Abruptly, she spun about.
Constance had no choice but to twirl with the girl and then be led to the back of the stage.
"Buster, just put her things on the boardwalk."
"Will do, Angel," the stage driver said, hoisting himself onto the roof of the stagecoach.
Angel walked away from the stage, tugging Constance along as the men rushed forward, vying to catch the trunks being lowered from the top of the faded red vehicle. Another chill crept over Constance. It wasn't that she'd formed a kinship with the paint-chipped, leathercracked, rocking box on wheels, but the thought of being separated from the stage gripped her heart.
All too soon her trunks were carried to the wooden sidewalk in front of buildings built of boards as gray as the sky. Everything looked dull, almost lifeless. Other than the men, the settlement could have been a ghost town withering and dying beneath the dreary winter clouds. This isn't what she'd imagined. Then again, she hadn't contemplated what to expect. She'd spent most of the trip convincing herself she could marry a stranger. Marriage hadn't been a goal of hers, yet Ashton Kramer's letter
"What do you mean," she asked, "someone should have met me? Where's Mr. Kramer?"
The girl let out a long, heavy sigh. Tiny lines of compassion puckered the bit of forehead that stuck out below her red knitted hat. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, ma'am, but Ashton's dead."
Constance's knees buckled. Only the girl's tight hold kept her upright. "Don't faint here," Angel whispered. "They'll settle on you like a flock of crows."
Constance forced her leg muscles to work, while a lump of dread as weighty as her trunks swelled inside her stomach. "Dead?"
"Just keep walking, ma'am," Angel coaxed. "We'll sit down over in front of Link's." She waved a mitten-covered hand. "That's the general store. See he has two chairs set outside the front door. You can make it, can't you?"
Her feet grew heavier by the step, but Constance nodded, having barely heard the girl's words with all the buzzing in her head. How could Ashton Kramer possibly be dead? His letter had said he was a young man, and healthy. Even she wasn't so desperate she'd travel across the country to wed a dying man.
That little voice in the back of her headthe one she'd grown to loathe over the past monthsdisagreed. She most certainly was. Matter of fact, she'd been so desperate she'd traveled across the ocean after a dead man. A chair magically appeared beneath her and she fell onto it as her thoughts grew as uncontrollable as wild ivy, going in all directions yet tangling amongst itself until it went nowhere.
Since the moment she'd met Byron Carmichael her life had turned upside down, inside out and backward. And it hadn't stopped with his death. It just kept getting worse and worse.
"What's your name?"
The young girl knelt in front of her, looking up with big brown eyes. They were so clear and caring, Constance wondered if the girl was named Angel, or was an angel. She could certainly use one about now. "C-Constance Jennings," she managed to eke out.
"Don't worry," Angel offered, sounding much older than she looked. "I won't let any of them claim you. You're safe with me."
That would be her luckgetting a child angel instead of an adult one who could really help. Not wanting to hurt the girl's feelings, Constance offered a tiny smile. "Thank you." If only her mind would clear long enough for a concentrated thought to take hold, perhaps then she could fully comprehend what was happening.
"Angel!" The deep voice was followed by footsteps sounding off the boardwalk. "It's time to head home."
"Hey, Pa. I'd like you to meet Constance Jennings," the girl answered, standing up.
Constance clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. The stiffness of the man's features were as bitter as the frosty wind, and the scowl covering his face was even more fierce now than when he'd stood next to the wagon, glaring at the commotion.
"Constance, this is my father, Ellis Clayton," Angel continued.
Tugging the collar of his sheepskin-lined coat up until it almost touched the wide brim of his hat, the man briefly nodded toward Constancethough his eyes never actually landed on her. "Time to go."
"Pa, Miss Jennings needs to come home with us," Angel said as calmly as if she'd just said it was cloudy today.
Constance flinched, and again when the frown on Ellis Clayton's face grew as if a storm built inside him.
"Angel." The warning tone in his voice was colder than the bitter wind.
"Pa." Angel held her ground as firmly as someone twice her age. "Look at them." She pointed toward the men who'd now gathered across the street from where Constance sat. "They're circling in like a pack of wolves on a fresh kill."
Constance shuddered, and the groan thickening her throat could no longer be contained.
Ellis Clayton glanced her way before he took his daughter's arm. "Angel," he said, his patience clearly spent. "She's not one of the injured animals you're always bringing home. You can't save the world."
"Maybe not, but I can save her."
"Excuse me," Constance started, ready to insist she didn't need to be saved, but the man's sideways glare made her lips clamp shut.
"What if it was me, Pa?" Angel continued. "What if I was in a strange town without a familiar face in sight? Wouldn't you hope some kind stranger would take me in?"
Constance held her breath, both at the thought of such a young girl being on her own and at the bone-chilling wind gusts penetrating her layers of clothing.
"That's not likely to happen. You're my daughter and"
"But what if? We don't know what the future will bring. It could happen." Beneath her heavy coat, the girl shrugged. "Somewhere, sometime, it could happen."
The man rubbed his forehead, then glanced at the group of men and stared for an extended length of time. Constance's heart throbbed in her stomach. She should say something. Offer some type of solution, but try as she might, she didn't have one. Angel was very close to the truth. Constance did need a kind stranger. Her final fifty cents had paid for last night's meal.
A shrill whistle split the air, followed by the crack of a whip. Groaning and creaking, the stage pulled away from the boardwalk. Moments later, dust swirled as the horses picked up speed. The animals appeared excited to leave the tiny town of Cottonwood, Wyoming Territory. For a moment, Constance pictured herself bundled beneath the buffalo robe on the bouncing stage seat. The vision faded along with the wagon, leaving her chest extremely heavy.
"Widow Wagner only has one spare room, Pa, and Reverend Stillman just settled in it. He came to perform the ceremony."
Constance assumed the girl referenced the wedding between her and Ashton Kramer, which also explained how the reverend had known she was a mailorder bride even though she hadn't provided the information when he'd climbed into the stage in Fort Laramie.
Time ticked by as Ellis Clayton's gaze went from the men to the house the reverend had entered, and then landed on her. Though she was frozen stiff from the wind, heat penetrated Constance's cheeks.
"You're Ashton's bride?" he finally asked.
Biting her lip, Constance managed a nod.
He didn't respond, but Angel did. "She'll need a decent coat, Pa. What she has on won't get her halfway to the ranch."
Constance tugged the gray shawl that had once been Aunt Theresa's tighter around her shoulders. Bits of snow clung to the knitted yarn. The wind had picked up. It now carried swirling and growing flakes through the air with a stinging force. Once again, the girl was right. Constance had on her warmest dress, a beige wool two-piece, but had been close to freezing during the last leg of her journey, even with the buffalo robe.
Qualms piled inside her faster than she could comprehend. This had not been a good plan. Not only was she out of her element, her wardrobe was as out of place in Wyoming as the ocean would be. What she wouldn't give for the red velvet cape lined with rabbit fur she'd left England with. She'd sold it, along with a few other of her more elegant pieces, hoping to find a way to financially support herself. The amount she'd gained had paid her room and board for the week, but hadn't been enough to replace the overcoat, let alone anything else. That had contributed to her ultimate decision: become a mailorder bride.
The way Ellis Clayton glared down his nose at her made Constance doubly wish she'd never seen Ashton's first letter.