Citified men with thoughts of love need not apply to Georgiana's ad for a husband. What she desperately needs is a rugged backwoodsman who can get her family safely to California, two thousand miles away. Someone who could wrestle a bear and not break a sweat. Someone just like Matt Slater...
Travel worn and trail weary, Matt Slater wants a clean bed and some R & Rnot a woman with fancy airs and a brood of high-spirited children. He can tell Georgiana is trouble, but doesn't realize how much until he's bamboozled into pretending to be her fiancé. And when Georgiana hitches her wagons to his train, Matt finds himself facing something much more daunting than the journey before them: a woman with the spirit and the courage to tame his wild ways...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
A respectable widow of means seeks resourceful frontiersman for the purpose of matrimony. The lady seeks passage west to land owned in Mokelumne Hill, California. The advertiser presumes her manner and appearance will recommend her and expects applications from responsible parties only. Interviews are scheduled for the 6th of next month, beginning at nine o’clock in the morning, in the front parlor of the Grand Hotel. Please be prompt.
Independence, Missouri, 1849
Now that was how a man should look. Suffocating in the stuffy hotel parlor, Georgiana Bee Blunt looked longingly out of the window, where she could see a backwoodsman tethering his animal to the hitching rail outside Cavil’s Mercantile. The fellow was a brute. He had a wild head of bristling black hair and a stiff beard, and his arms were the size of smokehouse hams. And if that wasn’t enough to make him look like a character from one of her dime novels, he was also clad head to toe in buckskin. And the size of him! My, but he looked like he could rip an oak from the earth bare-handed. That was exactly the kind of man she needed, and exactly the kind of man she had advertised for.
It was also exactly the kind of man who had not answered her advertisement. Georgiana sighed and looked over at the candidate sitting opposite her. He was a dapper, charming, handsome man, with very white teeth and very shiny hair. His fingernails were perfect ovals. And his shoes . . . They were spit polished until they gleamed. How did he do it? She couldn’t set foot outside without the bottom inch of her dress getting covered in dust. Had he shined them in the foyer before he’d come in for his interview?
She couldn’t imagine the brute outside doing that, she thought, stealing another glance. He was reaching over to unbuckle his saddlebags, and the buckskin stretched tight over the broadest back Georgiana had ever seen. She sighed again. It was probably too much to hope that he’d come to answer her advertisement.
It took Georgiana a moment to remember that she was Mrs. Smith. She’d adopted the name to hide from that horrid Hec Boehm and his henchmen, but she kept forgetting to answer to it.
“Yes?” She gave the man her full attention and tried her best to look as she imagined a Mrs. Smith should.
“As you can see, Mrs. Smith, I have a pedigree that would please even the most discerning mother.” Mr. Dugard beamed at her with his white teeth.
Oh no. He wouldn’t do at all.
“Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Dugard.” Georgiana tried to smile back. “But as you can see, I still have so many people to interview, and the hour is growing late . . . ” She stood and, because he was a gentleman, he stood too.
“If I could ask you to leave your details, I’ll be in touch as soon as my decision is made,” she assured him.
“As luck would have it, I’m staying right here in the hotel,” he said.
Of course he was. Most of them were. She resolved not to use the dining room tonight; she had no intention of talking to any of them again, let alone marrying one of them. They were all so sociable and polite and courteous and civilized. It was enough to make a woman scream. Her ad had clearly specified frontiersman. She didn’t want a well-bred man, or a good-looking man, or a charming man, or a clever man. She’d had quite enough of that with her first husband (God rest his sordid soul). All she was looking for was a simple, hardworking and reliable brute. Like the one outside.
The one who was not walking toward the hotel to answer her ad. She watched glumly as he headed in the exact opposite direction. He’d been joined by another rough-looking man and was heading for the saloon.
Perhaps she should have scheduled her interviews for the saloon, she thought with a sigh. The men there were probably far more likely candidates than the ones she was meeting here.
“May I say, Mrs. Smith,” Mr. Dugard was saying in his low, suave voice, “I hadn’t expected to find you so young, or so beautiful.”
She flinched. God save her from men with silver tongues. She wouldn’t be in this situation if it hadn’t been for Leonard and his pretty words. She had no interest in listening to any more pretty words in her lifetime.
Mr. Dugard took her gloved hand and raised it to his lips. His dark eyes were moist with admiration. It took all of Georgiana’s willpower not to yank her hand away. She suffered through the press of his lips on the back of her glove.
There was a disapproving cough from the doorway. The hotelier, Mrs. Bulfinch, was glowering at them. “I hate to break up your tête-à-tête,” she said in her clanging voice, “but there are still men in my foyer.” She said it like they were an infestation of mice. “You promised me, Mrs. Smith, that this affair would be done by midafternoon. It’s now almost five.” She gave a sniff and drew herself up to her full height of four foot nothing. “I’ve dismissed them all and told them to come back tomorrow. This is a respectable hotel, and I shan’t have men clogging up my foyer at all hours.”
Oh, thank heavens for ghastly old Mrs. Bulfinch! Now Georgiana wouldn’t have to interview another pale, clean, nice man! At least not until tomorrow . . .
And maybe before then she could hunt the brute down and she wouldn’t need to face tomorrow at all, she thought hopefully. She stole a glance at the saloon. It was a shame ladies weren’t allowed in there, or she would have headed straight over the road and through the doors.
“May I escort you into supper?” Mr. Dugard asked hopefully.
“I’m sorry,” Georgiana said, skipping out of his reach before he could take her arm, “but I really must collect the children.” If she could get through the knot of hopefuls in on the porch, that was. They were milling about, just waiting for a chance to speak to her; each and every one of them was holding his hat politely in his plump, clean hand and giving her an earnest smile. They were a horrific sight.
She’d never moved so fast in her life. She grabbed her bonnet and purse and was out the front door and off the porch before anyone could so much as make a move in her direction.
She took a deep, grateful breath of dusty air as she plunged down the street. She’d been cooped up in that parlor all day, with its smell of desiccated rose petals and burned coffee. Mrs. Bulfinch didn’t hold with open windows: too much dust. After today, Georgiana was sure she would forever associate the smell of mummified roses with disappointment.
She’d met at least two dozen men today, and not a single one of them was suitable. They’d be eaten alive out west! Just imagine if they met rogues and gunslingers like Kid Cupid or the Plague of the West! They’d probably faint dead away. No, she needed someone who could get her safely to her son . . .
The thought of Leo took any trace of sunshine out of the day. Her son, her eldest . . . all alone out there with those horrible men . . .
Don’t think about it. You can’t afford to think about it. You have to keep moving.
He was safe so long as they needed her signature on that deed. And she was on her way. Soon, she thought desperately, soon I’ll be there. She felt the two thousand miles between them like a searing pain. Goddamn Leonard for taking the boy with him. And double damn him for dying and leaving her baby stranded on the other side of the country, twelve years old and all alone, held hostage . . .
Don’t. Don’t think about it.
Georgiana was sweating but felt icy cold, even though she caught the full flood of afternoon sun as she headed to Mrs. Tilly’s to get the other children. Leo was tough, she reminded herself. Of all the children, he was the most resilient. He’d had to be; he’d been the man of the house since he was knee-high. His father would swan out of their lives for years at a time, telling Leo to look after his mother, and it was something the boy had taken to heart. He wasn’t one to cry or feel sorry for himself. She used to watch the way he kept his head high and his expression brave every time his father left, and the way he’d comforted her and the younger children, and her heart would break for him. Her eyes welled with tears. Her poor boy.
It was just one more disaster in Leonard’s long line of disasters, and he wasn’t even here for her to rage at. This was precisely why she would be choosing her next husband with her head rather than with her heart. Her next husband would protect her children and not abandon them (or kidnap them and take them two thousand miles away from her); he would be frugal and sensible and not sell the rug out from under her; he would be predictable and reliable and not flit from place to place with no thought of building a home for his family. If she had to give up hopes of marrying a man she was attracted to, she would . . . After all, what real use was attraction? And she was certainly happy to give up any idea of a love match. Love had caused her nothing but pain.
“Did you find your Prince then?” Mrs. Tilly asked her hopefully when Georgiana stepped through the front door of the tearooms. “I saw that nice Mr. Dugard heading over to the hotel. He’s a handsome-looking man.”
“Yes, he is.” Georgiana pulled a face as she let Mrs. Tilly usher her to a table by the window and pour them cups of tea. The older woman also put out a plate of strawberry tarts and immediately popped one in her mouth.
“And he’s a capable man,” she said as she brushed crumbs from her lip. “He used to run a furniture store in St. Louis.”
“He might be capable enough for St. Louis, Mrs. Tilly,” Georgiana sighed, “but he didn’t look anywhere near capable enough for the wilds. I can’t imagine him fording a river or shoeing a horse.”
Georgiana flushed as Mrs. Tilly looked pointedly at Georgiana’s silk skirts and heeled slippers.
“It’s a wonder you want to go at all, if it’s so fearsome,” Mrs. Tilly clucked as she sipped her tea. “You’d be better off keeping the little ’uns here. We have a school and lots of nice men.”
Ugh. Nice wasn’t what she was looking for.
“I’m committed to going to California, Mrs. Tilly,” Georgiana said firmly. “That’s where our land is. Leonard built us a house in the lovely little town of Mokelumne Hill.” Or so he said. “It has rocking chairs on the porch and enough bedrooms for the children to have one each.” She’d believe it when she saw it. But that’s certainly what he’d written in his letters. “And my son is there.” Oh no, there went the tears again. Georgiana fumbled for her handkerchief. She hated crying in front of people, but these days the tears just erupted. She could be perfectly serene and then, bang, she’d be crying. She had to stop thinking about Leo. She couldn’t afford to be crying all the time; there’d be time for crying once he was safe.
“Oh, you darling love.” Mrs. Tilly was welling up in sympathy. “How insensitive of me! I’m sure your people are looking after the lad, but I know how a mother feels.”
Georgiana just wanted the whole moment to end. She didn’t want comfort or fuss—it didn’t do any good. She just wanted to get on with the whole ordeal: get the husband, pack the wagon, and get on the trail. The sooner she got on the trail, the sooner she could reach her son. Crying solved nothing at all.
“How were the children today?” she asked, desperately trying to change the subject as she blotted her eyes.
“Energetic.” Mrs. Tilly didn’t quite meet Georgiana’s gaze.
Georgiana stood. “I should get them out of your way. It’s getting late.”
“Oh no!” Mrs. Tilly looked a touch panicked. “Finish your tea first. And have one of the tarts; the children helped make them. They’re with Becky; they’re fine, no need to worry.”
“I really should feed them.”
“They had some tarts less than an hour ago.” When Georgiana didn’t sit, Mrs. Tilly got to her feet too. She was looking a trifle anxious, Georgiana thought. Her stomach sank. Oh dear. What had the children done now?
There was a clanging sound from the back of the house. Georgiana saw Mrs. Tilly flinch.
“Now, don’t be too mad at them!” Mrs. Tilly cautioned. There was the sound of something breaking, and Georgiana turned on her heel and made for the kitchen. “They’re high-spirited boys!”
The devils looked up with wide-eyed innocence as she threw open the door to the kitchen. Their faces were white with flour. Even her daughter, Susannah, the sensible one, was covered in powder from head to foot.
“Mama!” two-year-old Wilby shouted, holding out his pudgy hand. Pasty white sludge oozed between his fingers. “Glue!”
The white sludge was everywhere: dripping from the wall sconces, blobbed on the bench tops, splattered across the windows.
“Well,” she said, aiming for calmness, “aren’t you all very clever, discovering the recipe for glue.”
“Glue!” Wilby shouted again, before shoving his hand in his mouth.
“William Bee! Don’t eat that!” Georgiana pulled his hand from his mouth and got glue and slobber all over her glove. She eyed it distastefully. Mothering really was a messy business. This was only her second month without a nanny, and she had to admit, she was struggling.
“He can eat it,” one of the twins (Phineas?) said impatiently. “It’s just flour and water.”
Georgiana cleared her throat.
“It’s really Becky’s fault,” Mrs. Tilly said quickly in defense of the children.
“My fault!” The girl was outraged. She popped up from in front of the stove, which she’d clearly been scrubbing vigorously. She was a mix of soot and glue. “How is this my fault?”
“I told you to watch them,” Mrs. Tilly scolded. “You know what they’re like.”
Georgiana blanched. If she’d been a better mother, this never would have happened. You know what they’re like. Wild. And running wilder every day. They certainly hadn’t been like this when Mrs. Wyndham, the nanny, was still around.
Georgiana bit her lip. What would Mrs. Wyndham do in this situation?
“How was I to know they’d make glue while my back was turned?” Becky complained.
This never would have happened if Mrs. Wyndham had been here, that was the whole problem.
“Well, your back shouldn’t have been turned. Don’t think I don’t know where you were. I saw Fancy Pat’s horse tethered up outside. And I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that you’re throwing good after bad, consorting with the likes of him. Your poor parents must be rolling over in their graves.”
“His name’s Pierre,” Becky said, sounding more outraged by the minute. “It’s French.”
“Now, now,” Georgiana interrupted, still striving for calmness as she surreptitiously looked around for something to wipe her slobbery glove on. “It’s hardly Becky’s fault.” She turned a stern look on her children. Only Susannah had the good grace to look shamefaced.
“They promised me they’d clean it up before you came in, Mrs. Smith,” Mrs. Tilly said hurriedly. “And really, there’s no harm done.”
“See,” the other twin said. (Was it Philip? Surely, a good mother would be able to tell them apart?) “She doesn’t mind.”
Georgiana shot him a black look. “My dear Mrs. Tilly . . . and Becky . . . ” It was proving difficult to keep her voice even. “The children and I would like to take you to supper to make this up to you. Please. If you’d like to go and freshen up . . . ” She cleared her throat dubiously as she took in Becky’s filthy face. “The children and I will get your kitchen in order. And then we’ll all go out for a nice meal.” Georgiana peeled off her slobbery glove.
“Oh no!” Mrs. Tilly sounded scandalized. “I can’t let a lady like you scrub my kitchen.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Georgiana said grimly, “I won’t be the one doing the scrubbing.”
“You don’t need to. Becky can—”
“Becky can get scrubbed up for tea in no time,” Becky said quickly, cutting Mrs. Tilly off mid-sentence. She wriggled out of her apron and hung it on the back of the kitchen door on her way out.
“Please, Mrs. Tilly.” Georgiana tried to smile at her. “It would be our pleasure.”
Mrs. Tilly looked dubious but nodded and retreated. She paused at the door. “They were perfect angels for most of the day,” she said weakly.
“Were you?” Georgiana asked once the door swung closed.
“We’re perfect angels now,” Phin said, rolling his eyes. “We’re only not angels if you don’t like glue.”
“Indeed.” Georgiana felt ill as she looked at the paste smeared in lumps all over the kitchen. “How does one clean glue?”
“Vinegar,” came a muffled voice from behind the kitchen door.
“Thank you, Mrs. Tilly! We’ll see you in an hour for supper!”
There was a pause, and then they heard footsteps retreating down the hall.
“We could let Wilby lick it all up,” Philip suggested.
To Georgiana’s dismay, Wilby didn’t look entirely unhappy at the prospect.
“Listen,” she said, thinking fast, “if you can get this place clean by the time they come downstairs for supper, I’ll buy you rock candy from Cavil’s Mercantile in the morning.”
“How much rock candy?”
“More than you deserve. And if you don’t get it clean, I’ll tell Mrs. Bulfinch that you’ll help her wash her unmentionables tomorrow. It’s laundry day at the hotel.”
Of course she wouldn’t. And of course Mrs. Bulfinch wouldn’t either. But the twins didn’t need to know that. “Just test me.”
Maybe parenting wasn’t so hard. She watched as they hurried to grabs mops and buckets. The children were the only good things Leonard had ever done in his life, she thought fondly, as she watched the curly dark heads bent over the concoction of vinegar and water they were brewing in the sink. They were working the water pump madly. With any luck, they could clean up the mess without destroying Mrs. Tilly’s kitchen. Georgiana tugged off her other glove and set to work helping them. She didn’t have much experience scrubbing kitchens or . . . well, anything. But now that her trust fund was exhausted and they had no more money for servants, she guessed she’d just have to learn.
“Did you get a room?” Matt asked when Deathrider joined him out the front of Cavil’s Mercantile.
Deathrider looked like his name personified. His skin was waxy, and his eyes had the unfocused stare of someone who was using up all his energy just staying upright. He still hadn’t recovered from the gunshot wound he’d sustained back in Kearney. “No beds,” he grunted.
“What do you mean, no beds?”
“The man at the saloon said there are no beds.”
Matt felt like punching something. This was because Deathrider was an Indian. He knew it. This last month had been the most hellish month of his life. He’d been holding on to the idea that things would get easier once they got to Independence, but so far that just wasn’t the case.
Matt unbuckled his saddlebags. His old gray donkey, Fernando, gave a cranky hee-haw. Matt pulled his ears absently and then hefted the saddlebags over his shoulder. He was bone-tired from the trail, and the last thing he needed was trouble finding a bed. “C’mon,” he growled.
“Sam!” he bellowed as he pushed into the dark saloon. “What’s this I hear about you not having a bed for me?”
“Well, look who it is,” the bartender said. He spat tobacco juice at a spittoon so full it made a wet sloshing sound as the stream hit. “You’re late. You said you’d be here by the end of March.”
Matt always stayed at the Lucky Star when he was in town. Mostly because it was the only place that didn’t run whores. Matt didn’t like whores. They made him uncomfortable. And he didn’t want to stay in a bunkhouse; he wanted his own room, away from other people. Matt didn’t care much for people.
“I had a room for you at the end of March,” Sam told him.
“We got held up.”
Matt saw the way Sam’s eyes slid over Deathrider.
“We?” There was another slosh as Sam spat his juice.
“This is my . . . brother.” Matt was still getting used to the lie. “He said you don’t have room for us.”
Sam shrugged. “I don’t. I ain’t in the business of keeping rooms empty when there’s money to be made. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a gold rush on.”
Matt grunted. He’d more than heard; he’d had a busy few months at the end of last year finding the fools lost on the Siskiyou Trail from Oregon down to California.
“They’re piled four deep up there,” Sam told him, jerking his head at his rooms upstairs. “And you’ll find it’s the same everywhere. Town’s bursting at the seams. On the upside, you should do a roaring trade putting together your train this year.”
This would be the fifth year in a row Matt was taking a train on the trail. As always, he was dreading it. He didn’t know why he did it to himself, except he was good at it and he couldn’t think of much else he would rather be doing. It paid well, but Matt didn’t really need or want the money. He’d sort of just fallen into it when his brother Luke had given it up; it was either stay home and be a third wheel in the house with his brother and his new wife, or find something else to do. He’d tried running cattle with his brother Tom for a while, but he found he hated cows even more than he hated people, if such a thing was possible. At least with the wagon trains he got to ride out by himself. The people tended to stay in a neat clump and not have to be herded the way cows did. But they complained a lot more than cows did.
“Are you telling me there ain’t a single bed in town?” Matt felt more than ever like punching something. He didn’t fancy another night sleeping out rough.
“’Fraid so. I can sell you a drink though.”
“I bet you could,” Matt said sourly. But there wasn’t much daylight left, and they needed to find a room.
“The Grand Hotel probably still has space,” Sam said grudgingly. “That woman charges a fortune, and people get mighty pinchy about their pennies when they’re heading west. It’s an expensive business as it is, without paying through the nose for a bed.”
Matt grunted his thanks, and they headed back out into the street. He didn’t want to spend a fortune on a goddamn room. But he also didn’t want to sleep another night on the ground. He’d been looking forward to cleaning up and enjoying a decent mattress. Damn it. He could wring Sam’s neck.
You’re just tired. It’s what he told the emigrants on the trail when they got low, and there were many points on the trail when people got low. It’s nothing a decent feed and a good night’s sleep won’t improve. It was good advice, advice Matt’s father used to give them when they were boys. Matt had been pretty young when his father had died, but he’d never forgotten those words. It was true. When life got to you, it was always best to put your worries aside until you’d eaten and slept. Problems had a way of looking bigger when you were tired and hungry. Especially when you had to pay a goddamn ransom for somewhere to rest.
“Looks like we’re headed for the Grand Hotel,” he grunted. It was a mark of how low Deathrider was feeling himself that he didn’t protest.
“You wait here,” he told Deathrider shortly, pointing at their animals, which were still tethered over the street from the hotel. “Let me deal with this. You give people the terrors.”
Deathrider didn’t protest. It was true.
It had been a hell of a month. Matt rubbed his face as he headed for the fancy hotel. A hell of a year so far. At some point, Deathrider’s notoriety had snowballed, and it had become a sport to hunt him. They’d run into a mess of trouble back in Fort Kearny, and Deathrider had taken a bullet. They’d laid low until he was well enough to travel again, and by then word was getting around that Deathrider, aka the Plague of the West, had been killed. Matt had bullied his friend into using the gossip to his advantage; they’d dressed him as a white man and passed him off as Matt’s brother, Tom. Everywhere they stopped, Matt had spread the gossip about the Plague of the West’s demise. He only hoped the story would get picked up by one of those wretched dime novelists. A book about Deathrider’s death would set them both free.
The Grand Hotel was a three-story brick slab with pretensions of grandeur. There were white columns all along the length of the porch and wicker furniture for people to take their ease. A couple of scrappy hickory trees grew out the front, and there were dusty-looking rosebushes by the stairs. Lanterns were burning along the brick wall of the porch, and light fell through the windows in warm pools. But for all its grand pretensions, the rawness of the town clung to the hotel too; it looked hastily built, and the stairs were slightly askew. They creaked under Matt’s boots as he climbed them. The place was busy. Matt hadn’t seen so many freshly scrubbed and suited men outside of a church. They were sprawled in the wicker furniture and clumped along the railing, talking in low voices. They all looked as though they were waiting for something. Or someone.
Matt hoped it wasn’t him.
“Best wipe your boots.” The advice came from a scrawny-looking fellow who was sitting in the rocker closest to the door. He had an elaborate waxed mustache, which barely seemed to move when he spoke. It sat as stiff as a pencil. He peered at Matt over a pair of pince-nez. “Mrs. Bulfinch is rather particular about her floors. She hates dust.”
“She’s living in the wrong place, then.” Matt wasn’t much for conversation at the best of times, and now certainly wasn’t the best of times. He wiped his boots on the mat. It didn’t seem to do much good. The dirt was baked on.
“By the look of you, I’d hazard a guess you’re fresh in from the frontier!”
“My girls and I are headed west ourselves.”
“That so?” Matt ducked through the front door before the man could continue. The fellow didn’t seem daunted; in fact, he followed Matt inside.
Into what could only be described as a man’s worst nightmare. Matt had never seen anything like it. The place was too pink to be believed. The wallpaper was flocked pink on pink, the rugs were pink, and the lampshades were frosted pink glass. All of it a dusty, grayish pink that made Matt think of faded roses. Even the air smelled pink.
He didn’t like it.
There was a small brass bell on a doily-shrouded desk and a prissily lettered sign: “Please ring for attention.” He rang it, trying to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn’t have to take in the smell. It was like a graveyard for roses.
“Where are you from, Mr. . . . ?”
Matt rang the bell harder.
“My name is Pierre LeFoy,” the man said brightly, holding out his hand for Matt to shake. Matt didn’t shake it. He just kept ringing the bell. The sign was clearly inaccurate—no attention was forthcoming. Unless you counted the attention he was getting from the skinny little man with the French name.
When Matt didn’t shake his hand, LeFoy awkwardly let it drop. “Are you here to answer Mrs. Smith’s advertisement?”
“No,” Matt said shortly. He gave up on the bell and instead bellowed up the stairs, “Is anyone in?”
“Me neither. But I think we may be the only ones. It’s been quite a parade today.”
“Listen,” Matt sighed, “I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. . . . LeFoy, was it?”
The man nodded.
“My brother and I have been in the saddle for eleven days straight. I haven’t had a hot meal in almost a week, and I haven’t slept in a bed in God knows how long. I ain’t had a good day, and I ain’t in a good temper. So I’m not the best person to be talking to right now.”
Mr. LeFoy looked taken aback. But only for a moment. Then he took the bell from Matt’s hand and put it back on the desk. “Our landlady is hard of hearing. You’d need to be clanging that right next to her ear for her to hear it. Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll see if I can find her for you; she’s probably in the kitchen preparing for the evening meal. Which is served promptly at seven. I recommend avoiding it at all costs, as she is a terrible cook.” LeFoy gave him a sympathetic smile. “If you fancy a hot meal, I can recommend Gillette’s cookhouse. I’ll be taking my girls there for supper in about half an hour and would be more than happy to show you the way.”
“Uh . . . thanks.” Matt watched as the dapper little man disappeared through a door under the stairs.
He braced his arms on the desk and closed his eyes. He wanted this day to be over.
“Well, why didn’t he ring the bell?” A strident female voice broke the silence.
LeFoy was back, trailing a woman no bigger than a gnat. She wore a lacy white cap and a faded pink dress. A bunch of giant fabric roses was pinned to her narrow chest. She didn’t look big enough to produce a voice that size, but she fairly crackled with energy.
“Why didn’t you ring the bell?” she snapped at Matt, and then she continued without giving him room to draw breath, let alone reply. “We’re full except for the Palatial Suite.”
“The Palatial Suite?”
“I’m afraid the widow and her little ’uns have taken the Imperial, which is our blue-ribbon suite on the third floor. But the Palatial is the next best we have, and it’s directly opposite.” She shot LeFoy a withering look. “Ideally, it’s suited for a family party. But it’s all I have.”
LeFoy’s attention seemed to be riveted by a glass bowl full of dried rose petals. He was running his fingers through them. At least he was until the old woman gave his knuckles a rap. “That’s not for touching. You’ll get your finger oils in there and mess it up.” She turned her snapping gray eyes back to Matt. “This one and his three hellions are crammed into a Gold Standard room.” She sniffed. “I’ve had to levy an extra charge, as the rooms are clearly designed for two people and not an entire tribe.”
“They’re small girls,” LeFoy told Matt, giving his sore knuckles a surreptitious suck.
“I used to be a schoolmistress, Mr. LeFoy, and I know very well how much space three girls occupy. And let me just say, your girls occupy more space than most.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “They’re circus performers,” she told Matt.
“Entertainers, Mrs. Bulfinch,” LeFoy corrected, sounding a touch wounded.
“They have a traveling show.” She made it sound like a traveling brothel.
“My girls sing,” LeFoy explained to Matt.
Matt didn’t care a fig if they sang or danced naked down the main street of Independence; he just wanted a room.
“How much is it, and how much to stable the animals?”
Mrs. Bulfinch named a ridiculous sum, made even more ridiculous by the fact that she doubled it when she found out his brother would be joining him, but Matt was too tired to argue. He slapped his money down and signed the register.
“Supper costs extra.”
Matt glanced at LeFoy, who shook his head and pulled faces behind her back.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll try my luck at a cookhouse.”
“I don’t hold with drunkenness in my establishment,” Mrs. Bulfinch snapped, closing the register so sharply it almost caught Matt’s fingers. “So if it’s a saloon you’ll be visiting, you’d best plan to spend the night there, rather than bringing your degeneracy back here with you. And,” she said ominously, leaning forward and dropping her voice to a fierce whisper, “I hope you know it goes without saying: no women.”
“He’s not going to a saloon; he and his brother are coming to the cookhouse with me and the girls, Mrs. Bulfinch,” LeFoy jumped in to defend him.
“Friends, are you? I should have known. You look like the type to hang around with circus folk.”
“We’re not a circus!” LeFoy couldn’t keep the frustration out of his voice.
“Come now and I’ll show you to your room. I don’t have time to stand about yapping or supper will burn. You can stable your animals after I show you upstairs. Or I can have my stable hand do it, for a fee.”
“We’ll do it ourselves,” he said shortly.
“Is that mutt yours?” Mrs. Bulfinch peered out the window, to where Dog was pacing around the horses.
“You’re to tie him up in the stable, you hear? I won’t have him bothering my guests.”
Matt was beginning to wonder if the bed was worth it. Maybe it would have been easier to sleep rough.
“Is your brother coming in?” she snapped. “I’ll be wanting to show you to your room now. I have supper on; I can’t be standing here waiting for you to sort your animals.”
If Matt felt out of place in the pink hotel, Deathrider sure looked it. He came in like a dusty shadow, silent, seething with exhaustion.
“You’ll take your hat off indoors,” Mrs. Bulfinch ordered him.
Deathrider looked her up and down.
“Just do it,” Matt sighed.
He did, and his long black hair tumbled down his back. If possible, Mrs. Bulfinch looked even more disapproving.
“You’ll get that cut if you’re wanting to stay here.”
Deathrider went to leave. Matt blocked his way. “Don’t be an ass,” he said under his breath. Then he turned to the hotelier. “We’ve been traveling for near on two weeks without rest. If we could just get a feed and a night’s sleep, we’ll make sure we clean ourselves up proper tomorrow.”
Mrs. Bulfinch sniffed, but she liked their money too much to cause more fuss. Matt bet she’d kick up again tomorrow though, if they still looked like trail hounds then.
“This way,” Mrs. Bulfinch said sharply, taking a lamp and heading for the stairs, which were, of course, carpeted in pink.
“The girls and I will wait on the porch for you,” LeFoy called after them.
“Don’t go hollering up my stairs,” Mrs. Bulfinch hollered down at him. “This is a respectable establishment.”
“I don’t suppose you provide a bath?” Matt asked tiredly as they passed first one landing, then another.
“Not for the likes of you. There’s a washbasin in your room. And there’s a bathhouse in town you can make use of.”
Matt sighed. He wasn’t up to a bathhouse tonight. It was no skin off his nose if he dirtied up Mrs. Bulfinch’s sheets; he wasn’t the one who’d have to wash them.
“This is your room,” Mrs. Bulfinch said when they reached the top floor. “There’s only the two suites up here, yours and the Imperial.” She fixed them with a gimlet stare. “Mrs. Smith is a lady of quality, you mind. From New York. You watch your manners, and don’t bother her or her children. If I hear you’ve been improper in any way, I shall be sending for the sheriff!”
“We ain’t planning on bothering anyone,” Matt told her, struggling to keep his temper. “We’re just looking for a bed.”
“Well, the Palatial has the biggest bed in the house,” she announced as she unlocked the door and threw it open. “There’s two rooms: this one and the one through there. This one has the double bed, and the other has two singles. As I said, it’s meant for a family.”
It was a nice clean room, which, thankfully, wasn’t pink. It had pale blue wallpaper and a big brass bed next to the fireplace.
“You have that,” he told Deathrider. He poked his head into the second room. It was smaller but perfectly serviceable, with matching single brass beds. Matt could sleep in here. It was better than he was used to.
When he turned back around, he found Deathrider had fixed Mrs. Bulfinch with his unblinking pale stare. She might be an old dragon, but even she wasn’t immune to the sense of danger he emanated. Deathrider held out his hand, and she gave him the key with obvious reluctance.
The minute the door closed behind her, Deathrider sat down heavily on the bed.
Matt eyed his own bed longingly through the open door. But as nice as it would be to lie straight down and sleep, his stomach was rumbling, and he knew if he didn’t eat now, he’d wake up in the middle of the night, ravenous, and there wouldn’t be anything to eat but the hardtack in his saddlebags, and he was sick to death of hardtack.
“You up for going out for food?”
Deathrider answered by unbuttoning his shirt. Matt winced. The flesh above and below the bandage was swollen and red.
“I’ll ask Doc Barry to come see to you,” Matt said. “I’ll bring you some food too. Just rest up. I’ll see to your animals.”
Deathrider nodded and collapsed back on the bed.
Matt didn’t envy him the wound, but he did envy him the rest. He dragged himself to the washbasin. The reflection in the shaving mirror was daunting. His beard and hair were a wiry, matted mess, the grime from the plains had worked its way deep into the creases beside his eyes, and his nose and lips were flaking from the sunburn he’d got a few days ago. He gave the neatly folded linen washcloth and the porcelain washbowl a doubtful look. He couldn’t imagine being able to shift even one tenth of the grime with those.
Why even bother?
He jammed his hat over his filthy hair and headed for the door. He’d face it tomorrow. After all, who did he have to impress?
Nobody, that was who.
It was him! The brute! The brute was here, in the cookhouse! Oh my, and here she was, looking a fright! Georgiana tugged at the bodice of her dress, which had great oily stains from the glue. She cursed herself for not going back to the hotel to change. She’d meant to, but halfway there, Wilby had thrown a colossal tantrum, and Susannah had been dragging her feet, and they’d all been hungry and tired, and the thought of going back to the hotel and out again was too much. There’d also been the deterrent of the men she’d interviewed today, most of whom were back at the hotel, hanging around, just waiting to catch her alone. The last thing she felt like was running that gauntlet. Who could have imagined there were so many men looking to be husbands? Especially to a woman with so many children.
They thought she had money, obviously. She should never have put “widow of means” in the advertisement. It made her sound wealthier than she was. These days she had enough money to get them to California and set up a store, and that was about it. What she’d meant by “widow of means” was that she wasn’t a burden. She had land. She had money to get them west. She had a plan for the future. But it had been clear from their careful questions today that they’d all read it differently. Especially because she’d made the mistake of saying the land was in Mokelumne Hill. And how big is your claim? Was your husband mining it? They all had the shine of gold fever in their eyes. She’d been sure to tell them that there was no claim and there was no gold; there was just the house in the town and her hopes of setting up a mercantile business. She didn’t have gold—not anymore. She had to sign that land over to Hec Boehm, or who knew what would happen to her son. But she couldn’t tell anyone about that.
At the thought of facing the men at the hotel, she’d given up on any idea of dressing for dinner and gone into the first cookhouse they passed. The place was a revelation after Mrs. Bulfinch’s stuffy dining room. Georgiana loved it. It was like something out of a novel. It was a big, rough-hewn hall with raw pine tables and benches, pewter dishes, tin mugs and sawdust on the floor. There was only one thing on the menu, which was beef and beans. And there was only one thing to drink, which was coffee. It was exactly how she’d imagined the frontier to be. Much more so than Mrs. Bulfinch’s airless Grand Hotel, which was a bit like a maiden aunt’s house.
The children loved it too, and Becky seemed happy enough. It was only Mrs. Tilly who was dubious. But the food was actually very good and seemed to pacify her. And the patrons were mostly emigrant families, so it wasn’t too rough. Although it was very loud.
Too loud for the brute by the look of it. For a minute, Georgiana thought he would bolt, and her heart plummeted. But then the tide of people behind him seemed to sweep him along to the serving hatch, and he surrendered and went with the flow. He really did look like a character from a dime novel come to life, Georgiana thought admiringly as she watched him take off his hat and have a good look around the room. He was even bigger and rougher than he’d looked from a distance. He was precisely what she’d been picturing when she’d come up with the whole mail-order husband idea. He didn’t look like anything—or anyone—would intimidate him.
“Oh!” A breathless noise from Becky dragged Georgiana’s attention back to the table. The children had already bolted from their food and run off to play. Their toys were strewn everywhere, discarded where they’d fallen. But that wasn’t what Becky was making noises about.
“It’s him,” she sighed. Georgiana followed her gaze and felt a stab of jealousy. Becky was looking straight at the brute.
“Him who?” Mrs. Tilly craned her neck. And then her expression turned very cranky indeed. “Oh, for heaven’s sake! Did you tell him we’d be here?”
Becky gave her a disdainful look. “And how could I do a thing like that when I didn’t even know we’d be coming here?” Before Mrs. Tilly could stop her, she was on her feet and skipping through the crowds. To Georgiana’s brute!
“I’m afraid I’ll rue the day I ever took her in,” Mrs. Tilly despaired.
Georgiana was already ruing the day.
“He’s about as French as my French hen,” Mrs. Tilly muttered.
And then, miracle of miracles, Becky walked straight past the brute, who didn’t so much as blink at the sight of her, he was so busy paying for not one, not two, but three bowls full of beef and beans. And they weren’t small bowls.
Georgiana gave herself a shake. Of course Becky wasn’t interested in him. Look at him. He was a beast.
“That girl is a perfect fool if she believes a word he says,” Mrs. Tilly was saying. Georgiana wasn’t really listening; she was searching the room, trying to see if there were empty seats. How could she get the brute to sit at their table? There was a big gap right next to them, where the children had vacated the benches, but why would he sit here and not somewhere else?
“He has some sort of traveling show.” Mrs. Tilly was sighing. “Those are his three girls there. Sweet little moppets, but really, who drags their children around the country like that?” There was an awkward pause. “Oh. I didn’t mean any offense . . .”
Georgiana craned her neck to see what the brute was doing. He seemed to have paused and was speaking to someone out of Georgiana’s line of sight. “Believe me, Mrs. Tilly, I wouldn’t be moving if I didn’t have to.” Which wasn’t entirely true. She’d always longed to travel. That had been one of the ways Leonard had wooed her, with promises of adventure. None of which had ever eventuated.
But she was here now, wasn’t she, finally having an adventure. Without him. And, she had to admit, even if it was trying and frightening and she was worried sick about Leo, she’d never felt so alive in her entire life.
“And of course she’s bringing him over,” Mrs. Tilly said, throwing her hands in the air. “Her mother would be rolling over in her grave.”
Becky came back into view, trailing a man Georgiana vaguely recognized. He was slender and neat, with a very carefully styled mustache. He really did look very familiar. Lord, she hoped he wasn’t one of the men she’d interviewed today. That would be embarrassing.
Behind the slender man came three little girls, in descending order of height. They were dressed identically, in green gingham, and they had riotous golden curls that burst out of some very badly done braids. To Georgiana’s shock, bringing up the rear like the last duckling waddling after the mother duck, came the brute.
He was coming to her table! Her heart started pounding. Hard.
She ran a hand over her hair. Her chignon was in complete disarray. She looked terrible. But then he got closer, and she had a clearer view of the state of him, and her hand dropped from her hair. At least she was clean, which was more than she could say for him. His buckskin shirt may have never been washed in its lifetime, and his hair was a thick mat of knots. Most of his face was obscured by beard. And look at his hands. They were the size of anvils, enormous muscular paws. But the really notable thing was how deeply ingrained the dirt was; his fingernails were black with it.
“See, we have plenty of room,” Becky was chattering as she brought the party to their table.
If the brute looked big from a distance, he was enormous up close. Enormous and not particularly friendly. He had the look of a bear that had been woken from hibernation.
“Pierre, you remember Mrs. Tilly, the lady I work for?” Becky shoved Wilby’s wooden sword off the table. Georgiana caught it and then removed the rest of the toys before Becky could sweep them aside, which she seemed in a hurry to do.
Mrs. Tilly gave the neat little man a look that should have reduced him to ashes. He adjusted his collar nervously.
“And this is Mrs. Smith,” Becky said offhandedly. She was clearly not very enthusiastic about her beau meeting Georgiana.
“We’ve already had the pleasure,” the man with the mustache gushed.
Becky’s face blackened, and Georgiana flinched. Oh no. Had she interviewed him today?
“My girls and I are staying in the Grand Hotel,” the man told Georgiana, oozing charm. Georgiana wasn’t charmed. “We spoke briefly at breakfast. Over the coddled egg.”
Georgiana smiled politely. She had absolutely no memory of it. But she’d spoken to so many men today.
“The hotel is bursting at the seams with Mrs. Smith’s suitors,” the little man told Becky with a twinkle. “It’s impossible to take a step without bumping into one of them.”
Georgiana still couldn’t tell if he included himself in their number, so she just kept smiling politely.
“Are we going to sit?” the brute asked bluntly. “My beans are getting cold.”
“Matthew?” Mrs. Tilly sounded shocked. She seemed to have just noticed him. “Matthew Slater, is that you? Look at the state of you!”
Mrs. Tilly knew him. Georgiana couldn’t believe her good fortune as she watched Mrs. Tilly cluck over the brute, settling him on the bench next to her.
“I was expecting you in March,” the widow was scolding him. She had completely turned her back on Pierre LeFoy. Becky took advantage of her rudeness and sat Pierre next to her. Georgiana found herself surrounded by the little girls. At least Mrs. Tilly and the brute were sitting directly opposite her, so she could eavesdrop, and hopefully when Mrs. Tilly had stopped fussing over him, she might remember to introduce him to Georgiana.
“You’re Philip’s mother,” one of the little girls said as she bent low over her bowl and began shoveling beans in.
“Yes,” Georgiana said absently.
The brute was suffering graciously under Mrs. Tilly’s motherly attentions, but he clearly wanted to be left alone to eat. He was eyeing the way the little girl was shoveling beans with no small amount of envy.
“I hope you’re getting a haircut first thing in the morning,” Mrs. Tilly was saying. “It’s a disgrace.” She patted his arm. “Eat. We’ve finished already.”
“I only just got in from the trail.” His voice was a pleasant surprise, low and smooth. He didn’t sound half as rough as he looked. Somehow that was reassuring. Georgiana might be looking for a frontiersman, but she didn’t exactly want a ruffian. She watched as he fell to his food in relief, finishing one of the bowls in three huge spoonfuls. He mopped it out methodically with a hunk of corn bread. His manners weren’t too terrible. Nothing she couldn’t live with.
“There’s always time for a haircut,” Mrs. Tilly disagreed. “And a shave.” She paused. “And a bath.”
“Mrs. Bulfinch doesn’t have baths. Not for the likes of me, she says.”
He was staying in her hotel! Georgiana squeaked.
They both looked over at her. Oh. Oh. Oh my. He had the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen. They were the warmest, most hypnotic golden-brown. They had flecks of light that put Georgiana in mind of dust motes floating in sunshine . . .
“Is that true, Mrs. Smith?” Mrs. Tilly asked. “Matthew, this is Mrs. Smith. She’s from New York.”
He gave her a polite nod. Georgiana tore her gaze from his. It took some effort.
“I would have thought a fine hotel would furnish a bath,” Mrs. Tilly said, frowning. “She certainly charges exorbitant prices.”
“We have a bath,” Georgiana said, struggling to think straight.
He was in her hotel. That was marvelous. It would give her time to examine his suitability. It was a relief to think that there was at least one possibility for a husband, if the rest of her interviews came to nothing. “Our suite has a washroom.”
“We don’t have a bath in our room,” LeFoy interrupted, leaning over Becky to try and join the conversation. “But we can get a tub sent up when we want to bathe.”
The brute didn’t look surprised. He gave an imperceptible shrug and went back to his food.
“She honestly refused you a bath?” Mrs. Tilly sounded outraged on his behalf.
“I can go to a bathhouse tomorrow. I was lucky to get a room, I guess, looking like this. Sam said everywhere is full.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Tilly sighed, “it gets busier every year.”
“I can’t complain,” the brute said, stacking the second empty bowl inside the first and dragging the third one toward him. “It’s good for business.”
“Well, I must say you’re leaving it very late this year. The captains have been out in the town square for weeks already, signing people up. If you’re not careful, you’ll be left with the dregs. Did you know Slumpback Joe’s group is already at more than 150 parties? Can you imagine?”
The brute grunted. “The trains have been getting bigger every year. Last year Andy Sawyer had close to three thousand people in his party. It was chaos. You could see ’em on the horizon, just a big cloud of dust, like a storm coming.”
“What’s this?” LeFoy was still struggling to join the conversation. “What’s this you’re saying about wagon trains? Did I hear someone say Slumpback Joe? We were thinking about employing him. Should we not?”
“I thought you said you might stay here,” Becky said, sounding hurt.
LeFoy smiled nervously. “We might.” He cleared his throat. “But we might not.”
“Papa says there’s a market for theater out west,” one of the girls told Becky.
“Does he now?” Becky didn’t sound too happy about it.
“And we can perform along the way.”
“Matt here’s the best wagon train pilot in the country,” Mrs. Tilly said proudly. “Better even than his brother.”
“That wouldn’t be hard,” the brute said dryly. “Luke gave it up before the trail even got busy.”
“We’re heading for California,” LeFoy said. “If you can take us on, I’d be glad to hear your price.”
“We haven’t signed up for a train yet either,” Georgiana said quickly.
“Best wait to see what the new husband wants to do,” Mrs. Tilly advised, giving her hand a pat, “whoever he might be.”
Georgiana had to bite her tongue. She had no intention of letting her husband decide anything on her behalf. She’d do the deciding about her life, thank you very much. She’d had quite enough of being at the mercy of a husband’s whims.
“I don’t go to California,” the brute said, swiping out his final bowl with the corn bread.
Georgiana’s heart sank.
“But it’s the same trail till we get to Fort Hall. I often join up with Josiah Sampson and then we split at Fort Hall: he goes to California; I go on to Oregon. If you find Josiah in the square, tell him I sent you. He’s the one I’d recommend. He’s sensible. Not like some of them others. Slumpback Joe’s liable to get you lost before you even find Courthouse Rock.”
Oh. Well, that was disappointing.
Georgiana wondered how firm he was about not going to California. If she decided he was suitable husband material, she wondered if he and this Josiah fellow could swap trails . . .
“Do you have a wife in Oregon?” she asked. One might as well be blunt. That was the big question, wasn’t it? There was no point in thinking about him further if he was already married.
“Nope.” He finished his final mouthful and pushed his tray away. And then, to Georgiana’s dismay, he got to his feet.
“You come by tomorrow,” Mrs. Tilly told him, “and I’ll feed you up. But you get a bath and a haircut first, mind, or I won’t let you in the door.”
“I ain’t going yet,” he said, picking up his tray. “I’m just getting more food.”
“Lord, but that man can eat,” Mrs. Tilly said as they watched him walk away. “Becky, we’d best do some extra baking in the morning.”
“How long have you known him?” Georgiana asked, as she admired the way his shoulders stretched out the buckskin of his shirt.
“Oh, years and years. Ever since his brother gave up the trail. Matt came out a year or two after that to pick up his business. He’s a sweet boy.”
Georgiana could think of many ways to describe the brute, but “sweet boy” wasn’t one of them.
Excerpted from "Bound for Sin"
Copyright © 2018 Tess LeSue.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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