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June 14, 1875
LIKE A SPOILED child, Brooke Terrell crossed her arms over her chest and slumped in her seat. "By the time this train gets us to Denver, I'll be an old maid."
Mariah rolled her eyes and blocked out her sister's newest complaint. First Brooke had grumbled about the speed of the train, insisting she'd "lose her supper" if she couldn't rest. And now they couldn't get there soon enough. No wonder their father was sending Brooke miles away for a husband. Even a man as strong as he couldn't bear listening to this for an eternity.
Mariah averted her gaze and pursed her lips. Contradicting Brooke would get her no where. If she responded, it would only be to remind her older sister that regardless of what she'd been taught, the world did not revolve around Brooke Terrell.
Leaning her forehead against the warm window, Mariah scarcely acknowledged the foreground of green as it swished passed the moving train. Her eyes drifted further out, to the freedom of the expanse beyond. She longed to be out in that never-ending pasture, breathing the mixed scents of morning dew and summer blossoms. Anything would be better than another minute in these closed quarters.
In the distance, a patch of dark brown captured her eye. Squinting, she focused on a herd of buffalo and tapped her finger on the window.
"What now, Mariah?"
Hearing the irritation in her sister's voice, Mariah reluctantly withdrew her admiration of Mother Nature's view. With her head tipped back, Brooke had found solace under a kerchief that screened her eyes from the intruding sun. Her pointed nose held the white cloth up likea miniature teepee.
Mariah grinned, but kept the observation to herself. Her sister would, no doubt, be appalled by the comparison. Rather than share her thoughts on Brooke's teepee-like features, Mariah returned her attention to the window.
"Bison are certainly a lot larger than I expected," she murmured. "Did you expect them to be so large?"
"I don't think much on bison, Mariah." As if the Indian inside the teepee had sent out smoke signals, the kerchief over Brooke's face puffed and fell with each of her words. "My mind rests on more important matters."
Mariah bit down on her lip. Understandably, Brooke had frazzled nerves lately, snipping for the slightest reason and jumping at the opportunity to bicker without provocation. Mariah assumed that this short temper sprang from her uneasiness of meeting her fiancé, Luke Becker, for the first time.
Sitting up, Brooke squinted at the incoming beam of sunlight. Rather than brightening at the scene, she wrinkled her nose. "Draw the drapes. It's too bright in here."
Mariah ignored her. "Maybe you should get ready. We're nearly there."
"I'm as ready as I can be." Brooke tapped the pearl brooch at her collar and sighed. "I just want to get to Denver, fall asleep between cool cotton sheets, and not come out for the next ten years."
"If you do that, you'll miss your wedding next month."
"I suppose I could crawl out of bed for that social event."
"Well, I hope so because I didn't come all this way for nothing."
"Neither did I," Brooke murmured beneath her breath. Her gaze shifted to the window. "Neither did I."
Lifting a carpetbag up onto her lap, Mariah handed her sister a fresh scarf and a tin of powder. Pilfering through their belongings, she spotted a stack of letters bound with twine.
"I brought these for you, too," she said, tossing them to Brooke.
"Really, Mariah, must you be such a romantic?" She nudged the stack away then looked down her nose at her reflection in their aunt's ivory mirror. "I'm going to be married to him. I don't need his letters any more."
Mariah traced the bold script that addressed the top envelope then lifted them to her nose and inhaled deeply. "But, they say so much about him."
"I knew what I needed to know about Luke Becker before I read his letters," Brooke huffed, snapping the tin shut. "I see no reason to keep them around to collect dust."
Mariah fingered the corner of one of the envelopes. "It's a shame to throw them out."
"Then you keep them."
Reluctantly, she set Luke's letters back into their place. She'd not argue. Not today. Motioning for Brooke to turn around, she began the enduring process of rewinding the long waves of her sister's dark blonde hair.
"You did send him that photo of me, didn't you?" Brooke asked.
Mariah nodded and clamped four hairpins between her lips. "Of course."
She didn't dare say that she almost hadn't sent the picture. Brooke should've done that herself, just as she should have written Luke those letters herself, rather than making Mariah do it for her.
Steadying the pins between her teeth, she wrapped the silken tresses of hair around her hand. "Do you think he'll be handsome?"
"Well, of course, he is," Brooke said. "He's rich. All wealthy men have handsome faces."
"Of course, they do. Why, look at Bradley. He's one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta, and he's extremely handsome. You're very lucky he chose to marry you."
If it weren't for the hairpins, Mariah would've bit her lip. "He didn't choose me," she said. "It was conveniently decided."
"And," Brooke pointed out, "he's rich and handsome, just to prove my point."
"True." Mariah slipped the last pin into her sister's hair, and started on her own.
She stared thoughtfully out the train window. Bradley was handsome in a clean aristocratic way, but he wasn't the man she would've chosen for herself. Bradley Bretton was dull. Dull and pretentious, all at the same time. Sighing, she pushed her fiancé to the back of her mind and faced Brooke again.
"I think Mr. Becker will be nice to look at," she said, checking her hair for stray strands. "And, just so you know, I do not base my opinion on his monetary value."
Followed by her you-poor-little-fool expression, Brooke's brows furrowed as she yawned.
"His letters were sweet," Mariah insisted. "They were short, but they were sweet. I don't think a man who sends such pleasant notes could be ugly."
"I'll take your word for it," Brooke said, looking more bored than ever.
Mariah dropped her gaze before she could speak her mind. Handsome or not, she felt sorry for Luke Becker. Anyone who married Brooke was bound for a life full of misery. Her money hungry sister had no heart to speak of. She was cold. Cold and greedy.
"We're here!" a happy voice called out.
Mariah flinched. How was it that Brooke's constant complaints could be so easily camouflaged by such a cheerful tone? Her euphoria was hardly consistent with the pitiful voice she'd used for the duration of their trip.
Glancing out the window again, Mariah's stomach tightened. They were coming to a stop. Finally. This would either be a match made in paradise or the biggest disaster in history.
"Hurry up." Brooke straightened her dress front and patted down her skirt. "How do I look?"
Catching her sister's contagious excitement, Mariah's heart pounded. "Fine. You look fine."
Just as quickly as they had brightened, Brooke's eyes dulled as she took Mariah's hand. "Please, be on your best behavior."
It was just like Brooke to put a damper on a happy occasion. Mariah jerked her hand from her sister's grip. Her cheeks flushed with fury and resentment.
"I know how to behave," she ground out. "I'm twenty years old. Not twelve. I do not need a lecture on how I should perform."
"I was just pointing out--"
"I know what you were implying," Mariah said.
Why did everything have to come back to the rules? What a lady should and shouldn't do? She straightened her cuffs. Brooke hadn't been specific, but Mariah knew she was in for another lecture on respectability.
"It's just that Luke is very well-to-do," Brooke said. "He's used to a woman presenting herself properly and behaving as a lady should. You're always so quick to let people see your emotions." She smoothed back the sides of her hair. "I just don't want you to go hopping off this train like a happy-go-lucky schoolgirl. Sometimes you forget yourself, Mariah." Bending at the waist, she peered out the window. "For my sake, be calm, be collective--"
"Be phony," Mariah finished.
Brooke straightened. "I didn't say that. Is it too much to ask that you don't embarrass me? Father sent you to chaperon me, not the other way around."
Disgust clamped Mariah's throat tight, controlling her voice. "I came all this way for you, Brooke. I left Father and Bradley behind. I did that for you because you needed a proper chaperon. Never fear, dear sister, I'll try to restrain myself." Putting her hands on her hips, she narrowed her eyes. "But if I do intend to embarrass you, just for the sheer pleasure of it, then I think I would deserve that reward."
"Honestly," Brooke huffed. "Must you be so sensitive?"
Mariah clenched her jaw and returned her sister's evil glare. Why anyone would agree to marry Brooke was beyond her.
He's dug his own grave, she reminded herself. Nevertheless, without a doubt, Mr. Becker was in for more than just disappointment.
"You listen to me," Brooke said, her nostrils flaring. "This is very important to me. I refuse to allow you to ruin it. Just because Aunt Ellie isn't here to keep you under her thumb, doesn't mean you can--"
"Don't give me any ideas," Mariah snapped.
She released the air she'd been holding and closed her eyes. One month... One month and she could return to the simple life she had with her father and Bradley. One month and things would return to normal. With one exception. Brooke would be here in Colorado and Mariah would be living peacefully in Georgia.
She opened her eyes and smiled at the prospect. "All right, Brooke. I'll do whatever you feel necessary."
• • •
LUKE BECKER observed the loud train as it pulled into the busy depot. He scratched the week's worth of beard on his cheek, knowing he'd never get used to the new growth. Pulling a floppy farmer's hat lower on his forehead, he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his denim overalls and rocked on his heels.
Since when did his nerves decide to become unsteady?
Not for the first time, he wished his brother, Reed, had come along to meet the Terrell sisters. Luke expected that he and Brooke would get along as well as they had in their letters, but uneasiness still haunted him. He didn't much take to the idea of promising to wed a girl before they had the chance to meet.
Sighing, he scratched the back of his neck.
Regardless of the circumstances, he needed a wife. Luckily, she fit his requirements: Willing and available.
Scanning the passengers, Luke searched for the face he would wake up to for the rest of his life. Apparently she'd arranged to bring her young sister to Denver with her. That was another idea he didn't take too quickly to. Having a child under foot, particularly a girl, would take some getting used to. But it would be worth it, he told himself. In less then a month, he would have a wife.
The train whistle blew, ripping him from his quiet thoughts. Luke shook the shrill from his ears and resumed his search.
"Becker?" a man called out. "Luke Becker?"
Luke turned and caught the smiling face of a boisterous, red haired man approaching him with long, even steps.
"Hell, if 'tisn't, Luke," the Irishman said, closing the space between them.
Reaching out, Luke shook the man's hand. "Donnel, how are you, old friend? What are you doing so far away from home?"
"Jus' be passin' through," Donnel said. "I nearly din't notice ya."
"Fer a week or so. On the trail of Ames Archer, and then I'll be off, hopefully with the scoundrel in me custody."
Luke froze at the mention of that name. Ames Archer. He scratched his beard again. The last thing he needed was that butcher slithering through his town. Then again, if it hadn't been for Ames, Luke wouldn't be engaged to Brooke Terrell in the first place.
"I thought we took care of him, Donnel. What happened?"
"They were takin' him ta Texas." The older man shook his head. "Damn heathen took flight. A few fingers directed me here."
Luke swiped his lower lip with his thumb and frowned at the thought of someone like Ames being loose. He had a fiancée now. And a fiancée made a difference. It wouldn't be right to just up and leave her while he tracked down the murderer. For once there wasn't a damn thing he could do.
He shifted his stance and glared at the train. Regardless of his thirst for revenge, she had to come first.
"Good luck," was all he could tell Donnel. "You'll get him. You'll get him before I run into him and kill him myself."
"Ya know I'll get him," Donnel said. "Can't promise ta bring him in alive, but I'll get him."
Luke tried to relax. If anyone could capture Ames Archer, Donnel Malloy could. Luke pushed the threat of Ames to the back of his mind. "Why don't you stay at the house? We still keep a room for you, you know."
"Ya do, do ya? Aye, well it looks like I'll have to be comin' by. I bin missin' Laurel's fine cookin'." Donnel winked.
Luke grinned at his friend's playful demeanor. It was no secret that he kept a place in his heart for the Becker's cook, Laurel Darby.
"Sorry, old boy, but I won't be able to visit with you. I'll be staying on the farm for the next few weeks... maybe less," Luke said.
"Just a few things I have to take care of. Personal business."
"I take it this business has something ta do with them clothes you're wearin'. Why, I hardly recognized ya. And look at your hair. Your mother would redden your backside were she to see it that long."
Luke touched the back of his neck where unruly hair curled against his skin. "It's not as bad as it looks," he said. "I was hoping I wouldn't run into anyone."
Donnel's bright blue eyes shone and he grinned. "As if ya could ever 'scape me eye." He shook Luke's hand again and patted his shoulder. "Whatever it is that your up ta, ya hurry up an' get yourself back home before I leave."
"I'll try," Luke promised.
As soon as his friend disappeared back into the crowd, Luke returned his attention to the dozens of passengers filing from the train. His stomach tightened. He knew what Brooke would look like from her picture. His gaze moved from one lifeless face to another, searching the new arrivals for a light haired woman with a thin face and straight features.
Remembering what Reed said when he saw her picture, Luke tried not to laugh aloud.
"She's got a sweet tone when it comes to writin' them letters," his younger brother had pointed out, "but she sure ain't much to look at."
True, Brooke wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, but she wasn't so unsightly that he'd have to hide her from society either. A nice face fell last on his criteria for a wife. Not that it mattered. When Brooke's father, Trent, had offered this marriage arrangement, Luke's obligation outweighed his own preferences. He could only hope that his bride-to-be had inherited her father's kind demeanor and good intentions.
He'd agreed to marry her for two reasons. The debt he owed Trent and her gentle heart. Her messages had been often and full of life, revealing a disposition different from any other woman he'd known. Like a curious child, her letters rambled on, full of innocence and questions, and almost always making him laugh. Her heart more than compensated for her plain face.
Luke raked his hand through his hair and replaced the beige hat on his head. Guilt squeezed the air from his chest. If he trusted and felt so strongly for her, then why was he doing this to her?
The answer came as easily as the question. He had to know if she truly cared for him the way she swore she did. He knew too many people, particularly women, who were willing to do and say whatever was needed to get close to the Becker money. Luke had to be sure she wasn't one of those.
He slapped a cloud of dust from his leather gloves before yanking them on. He would know from first glance if she had her sights set on a happy union or a full pocketbook.
Determined to discover the truth behind his fiancée, he refused all doubts of his intentions. Could any woman be that sincere?
A woman stepped from the train, straightening the white lace that trimmed her wrist. Immediately, he recognized her. Brooke Terrell. Searching for the small child he expected to be accompanying her, he lowered his eyes to her side.
Instead, the thin waist of a woman, one step behind his fiancée, caught his attention. Lifting his review, he narrowed his gaze on young, bright eyes. The breath caught in his throat at the sight of the second woman. For a brief moment, he wished the sincere words in Brooke's letters could belong to her.
• • •
MARIAH STEPPED OFF THE train and pursed her lips, trying not to smile. Regardless of Brooke's lecture, she couldn't help the instant delight that sent a dozen butterflies dancing in her stomach. After being caged in the stuffy train, crisp Colorado air blessed her lungs and made her dizzy.
Scattered in every direction, passengers pushed and shoved Brooke and her to the side. Someone stepped on the back of her foot, jostling her forward. Before she could topple to the ground, she righted herself and ignored the ache in her ankle.
A clatter of voices buzzed in her ears, stealing her gaze from one set of faces to another. Tugging her sister's elbow, she warded off the oncoming excitement.
"Can you believe this?" she breathed.
Brooke huffed and gripped Mariah's upper arm. "Keep close. And wipe that shine from your eyes. You look like a dumbfounded tourist."
"But I am a dumbfounded tourist..."
"Please, Mariah. You promised."
Mariah bit her lip. She'd not say another word. Brooke's sour disposition would only crumble her rapture. Making their way to the walkway under a wooden shelter, Mariah nodded politely at the scurrying citizens.
"What about our baggage?" she asked, when they were clear of the crowd.
"Luke will have someone get it for us." As placid as ever, Brooke held her somber expression. "He must be late in coming."
Mariah glanced hopefully at each man that passed them. "Maybe he's already here."
"I'll know him when I see him." Primping her hair, Brooke raised her sleek eyebrows. "I expect he'll be divinely dressed and driving the most luxurious carriage he owns."
Standing on her tiptoes, Mariah swept her gaze though the crowd, still searching for her sister's fiancé. "Maybe we should ask someone."
"Maybe you should leave this up to me," Brooke snapped.
Mariah held back her retort, but continued to scan the depot. She skimmed past a blond fellow escorting his wife, and a robust red-haired man who seemed to be in a hurry. Smiling, she lifted her brows at two small children bickering as they stepped off the train. Obviously pouting, the small, round boy tugged roughly on the skinny girl's disheveled braid.
Sighing, Mariah spun in a slow circle. What if Luke was already here and didn't recognize them? The three of them might search all day and be right under each other's noses. Shifting her gaze, she narrowed her eyes on a tall man with dark hair and a floppy hat.
If she wasn't mistaken, he was staring right back.
Mariah wrinkled her nose. Somehow that funny hat didn't belong on his head. It went with his unshaven face, his muck-covered trousers and dingy shirt, but didn't belong to him. In fact, it looked just plain ridiculous.
He gazed solemnly back at her, his carob brown eyes shining.
Mariah returned the smile and nodded as politely as she had with the other strangers. This one, however, at least appeared cordial. It didn't look as if he was scurrying off, trying to get nowhere fast. In fact, he seemed perfectly content, right where he was, letting the chaos spin around him.
If it were up to her, she would ask him if he knew where to find Luke Becker. He looked kind enough. Kind and approachable. Brooke would have a fit though. He certainly wasn't sophisticated enough to speak to.
The man shifted his penetrating stare. His chest heaved with a deep breath as he looked Brooke over, and then took Mariah in his sights again. She swallowed and tried to look away. Disobedient, her eyes refused to move from his rugged features.
"Let's ask him," she heard herself whisper.
Brooke gasped. "Have you lost your mind?"
"I'm going to ask him."
"You most certainly are not. And stop staring. He's revolting."
Ignoring her sister's order, Mariah inched toward the mysterious stranger. She felt Brooke's fingers brush the back of her upper arm, trying unsuccessfully to stop her.
Mariah didn't dare look back. Besides, the stranger's eyes, still locked with hers, wouldn't let her turn away.
"I'll be right back," she murmured.
The man pulled a filthy glove off as she approached.
"Ma'am," he said with a nod.
The hairs at the nape of her neck tingled when he addressed her with a soft, yet firm tone. Looking back over her shoulder, she cringed at the scowl Brooke gave her. She'd lose points with her sister for this one for sure. Mariah ignored the glare and faced the man again.
Slipping her hand into his outstretched palm, she took a deep breath. "Excuse me, sir, but my sister and I were wondering if you might be able to show me... I mean us, which of these gentlemen is Mr. Luke Becker."
He wrapped a strong grip around her smaller hand and slipped his hat off. "I could."
Afraid that her hand might disappear completely within his, she withdrew her arm. "Oh, thank you. Who is he?"
"He is--" the man wrinkled his dark eyebrows and searched the dispersing crowd," -- standing right in front of you."
Attempting to hide her shock, Mariah covered her mouth. "Mr. Becker?"
"You must be Mariah." With his hand, he motioned the height of a small child. "I expected a little girl."
Remembering that Brooke stood behind them, probably cursing her for conversing with the man she said was revolting, Mariah cleared her throat. She cringed inwardly at the thought of Brooke's reaction to meeting Luke.
This couldn't be good. As kind as he appeared to be, Brooke would not be happy. With a deep breath, Mariah prepared herself for the worst.
"If you're Luke," she said, pointing over her shoulder, "I think you'd better tell my sister."
Luke narrowed his eyes on Brooke again. She continued to glare at him, frowning as if he nauseated her.
"Why don't you introduce us," he said, no longer smiling.
Mariah silently prayed that Brooke would hold her tongue and not embarrass him by pointing out that he was no where near what they expected.
Brooke watched the exchange between her sister and the stranger. Her heart stopped when the dirty man gave her a thorough inspection. Inwardly, she hoped he was a Becker servant, sent to meet them at the depot, but something told her he wasn't. Even dressed in such shoddy clothes, she could sense the sureness of this stranger, not the kind of man that would work for another.
"Brooke," Mariah said in a weak tone, "I'd like to introduce you to Luke Becker... your fiancé. Luke, this is my sister Brooke."
Brooke could have killed Mariah for then stepping back and giving Luke access to her. He held his filthy palm out, but she made no move to touch it. Mariah glared at her, a look of death Brooke couldn't avoid.
Uncomfortably clearing his throat, Luke retracted his hand. "I'm glad you made it here safe."
"I'm sure you are," she answered in a tight voice.
Shaded by his hat, his eyes narrowed on her.
Quickly, she avoided his glare. She didn't know what kind of game he thought this was, showing up for their first meeting dressed like the town drunk, but she wasn't amused. Her father wouldn't be either. Longingly, she stared at the train, wishing she could reboard and suffer the trip back home.
"How was your trip?" she heard him ask.
"Miserable," she answered.
"We were just very anxious to get here," Mariah chirped.
Brooke pushed past Luke as if his being there was of no consequence. "Let's see about our baggage, Mariah."
She turned around for a final glimpse at the slovenly man who was to be her husband. His glare seemed equally full of disgust and disappointment as his eyes narrowed and his mouth frowned.
When they were out of earshot, Mariah gripped Brooke's upper arm. "Your manners to Mr. Becker were abominable."
"I was going to say the same of yours," Brooke countered.
She should have known that a child like Mariah could never grasp the seriousness of such a distasteful confrontation. Had she no concept of their position in society? Didn't she realize what being seen publicly with a man like Luke Becker could mean? Heavens, what had she gotten herself into?
"And what does that mean?" Mariah snapped.
"You're entirely too kind to the man who lied to me, who manipulated Father and Aunt Ellie--"
"Who is going to be your husband," Mariah finished.
Brooke stopped abruptly and let the words sink in. It was true. She was here to marry that man. The thought twisted her insides. She closed her eyes, forbidding the shiver that threatened to roll up her spine. Rather, it settled in the pit of her stomach, and made her nauseous.
"Absolutely not." Resolute, she opened her eyes. "I can not marry him."
"You don't even know him."
"I don't have to. I'm an excellent judge of character."
Mariah pursed her lips, looking exactly like their father did when he'd been disappointed. "What you mean to say is you're an excellent judge of wealth."
Brooke didn't deny the accusation. Financial security had always been at the top of her list. This Luke Becker didn't even come close.
"He is not what he said he was, Mariah. I can't marry a liar."
"You're hardly what you said you were either. He's a kind man. If you'd bothered to read his letters, you would know that. If you'd look past his clothing and into his eyes, you would see that. You're so blinded with greed, I'm ashamed to claim you as my blood."
Brooke looked down at her sister's delicate hand clamped tightly around her forearm. She yanked away from Mariah's grip and continued walking. Vaguely, she remembered a time when Mariah's gullibility had been amusing, even charming, but it had also grown tiresome. It was time for Mariah to grow up.
"You're too naïve," Brooke called over her shoulder.
Holding her breath, Mariah let Brooke go. Being in her sister's company churned her stomach. Then again, she hated to face Luke alone. The original sparkle in his eyes had been replaced by a cold glare, an expression that uneased her. He'd been a different man before Brooke had been introduced.
Stepping beside her, Luke yanked his glove on. "Tell Brooke to hurry. We have a long drive to Leadville."
"What do you mean? You said your house was in Denver." She folded her arms over her chest. What would her father do in a situation like this? "You said a lot of things, Mr. Becker. You can't blame Brooke for being upset."
Luke clamped the floppy hat on his head then pulled it further down his brow.
No remorse? Mariah swallowed the bitter, choking knot in her throat. His eyes had fallen blank, showing absolutely no remorse for the awkward situation his lies had caused.
"What would posses a person to completely fabricate his entire life?" she asked. "I just don't understand. You said you lived in Denver with your family. Do you even have a family or did you make that up as well? You also said you were rich--" she shut her mouth as soon as the words escaped.
Now she sounded as shallow as Brooke.
Luke nodded, as if he completely understood. "I lied."
As if it were nothing, he shrugged his broad shoulders and left her side.
Mariah caught her breath along with her next string of questions. If Mr. Becker had no regrets, there was no sense trying to pry answers out of him.
Reluctantly, she looked at the crowd her sister had disappeared into. Averting her gaze, she searched the opposite direction for Luke. Neither could be found.
Mariah took a deep breath. If only their father were here. . . .
If anyone could find the solution to this mess, he could.
Copyright © 2003 by Cass Andre