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Denver City, Colorado Territory
Twenty-seven-year-old fur trader seeks wife and helpmate. Have cabin with cookstove in Rocky Mountains. Must be brave woman with calm nature.
Oi ivia Hansson stepped down to the dusty street. Her shaking hands spoiled her attempt to look calm.
"Here you go, miss." The stagecoach driver set her mother's trunk on the boarded walk behind her.
Tossed from the roof of the stage, her carpetbag thudded next to her feet. The outrider pitched down more bags, raising a cloud. During the harrowing race across the Western prairies, his eyes had held a flinty look, scanning the horizon for danger at every stop.
Raw wood buildings blocked any view of the mountains. The sprawl of buildings with crazy false fronts substituting for second stories was a far cry from Connecticut. The farther West she'd gone, the more often city was tacked on to any cluster of buildings, but she was a little relieved the outrider no longer looked as if he feared attack from every direction.
"Gentlemen, grub and beds are available at the saloon," said the driver. He cast a sideways look at Olivia. "Are you being met, ma'am?"
"Yes, thank you." Her husband-to-be would retrieve her. As soon as the stagecoach and crowd cleared out of the way, she would surely see Jack Trudeau.
Her heart skittering, she smoothed a gloved hand over her lavender jacket and tugged the bottom to erase any wrinkles that might have formed. Meeting one's groom didn't happen every day.
In her best anticipation of how the first meeting would go, her beauty would astound him. Not that she really expected that. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips to force color into her too-pale countenance. She didn't consider herself more than passably pretty, but compared to the careworn women on the frontier, she would do well by contrast. Thanks to her mother's carriage gown, she was better dressed than any woman she'd seen since leaving Kansas City. Surely Jack would be pleased with her appearance.
"We'll head back East tomorrow morning." The driver held her gaze a moment as if warning her to return to a more civilized place.
Her throat went dry. She couldn't afford a return trip. What little money she'd possessed she'd used in a fruitless search for her father's assets.
Her fellow travelers, all men, trudged across the street and into the saloon, but no man waited for her.
The driver and the outrider drove the empty stage through the open double doors of a livery stable. They exited laden with mailbags and toted them down the street. She waited alone.
The wind kicked up gritty dust. Olivia held down her hat and searched for a man wearing buckskins. She resisted the urge to reach into her reticule and retrieve the photograph he'd sent at her request.
When the months without a reply had stretched to December and the pressure to answer another advertisement from the Matrimonial News had almost grown too much to bear, she feared her request had put him off. Then Mr. Trudeau's letter had arrived.
Olivia had cautiously unfolded the two sheets to discover his portrait. Anticipation and excitement had thrummed through her just like the Christmas morning when she'd unwrapped a porcelain doll and a miniature china tea set.
The photograph showed a man with dark curls brushing his shoulders, a clean-shaven face with strong planes and a full mouth with the slightest of tilts, as if her request had amused him.
He looked like a man accustomed to danger and the wild. He looked like a man who would think a cabin with a stove was the height of civilization. He looked like a man afraid of nothing, and nothing like a man she had expected to marry.
Her knees had gone weak and her mouth had watered anyway. A tightening sensation like fear had settled low in her gut. After sneaking peeks at the picture again and again, she'd grown sure he was a man who could protect her from the world.
Laughter and shouts emanated from the saloon, but no man from the photograph. Had he been delayed? Her chest tightened.
Her optimism was fast disintegrating. Her friends and roommates had thought her crazy for suggesting they answer advertisements for brides. Perhaps they had been right. "Howdy, ma'am."
Olivia spun around. Her throat tightened.
"Can I help ya ta find a place?" A man with an un-trimmed beard and wearing stained red suspenders approached.
Not Jack. She deflated. "No, thank you. I'm waiting on someone."
A group of bricklayers worked on a building. Men on foot and horseback passed, but not a single woman was in sight. Her spine tightened. Was she alone in a world of men?
Surely her husband-to-be hadn't spent a small fortune on her passage only to abandon her at the last stop. Had an accident or illness befallen him? Was she here in this rough place without a protector?
"Care ta wet your whistle? I can buy you a sarsapa-rilla across the street." He gestured toward the saloon.
Ladies didn't go into drinking establishments. Even in this wild place, she doubted the rules were different. "Thank you, but I had better wait here."
She turned to dismiss him.
"Who's fetching you?" he persisted.
"I'm sure he will be along directly."
The man crossed his arms and spit a stream of tobacco, narrowly missing the lavender skirts of her carriage dress.
Gentlemen didn't spit in a lady's presence. Pulling her skirts back, she hoped he would take the hint and go away.
Indians moved up the sidewalk. Loincloths and open vests exposed bronzed skin. Their long black hair glistened with blue lights. Olivia drew in a sharp breath at the sight of muscular legs and smooth bare chests covered in strange patterns. Behind the men trailed women wearing buckskin sack dresses. In contrast to the silence of the men, the females chattered in birdlike coos and calls.
They stopped and looked Olivia up and down. Bursting into giggles, they scurried after the men. Heat rose in her cheeks.
"Damned Arapaho." The suspender-clad man spit again.
Realizing her jaw had dropped, she pressed her lips together. She couldn't have said if her shock was because the natives walked down the sidewalk as if they owned it, or if it was because the men wore so few clothes. She felt as if she'd stepped into China or Africa instead of a territory of the country she'd been born and raised in.
Her throat dry, Olivia scanned the street again. The signs around her indicated the ticket office, the livery stable, the BK saloon, and Pike's Mercantile, but no man in buckskins was in sight. Where was her husband-to-be? The bricklayers ceased their work and openly stared at her. Her heart raced and the back of her neck felt as if a cold demon blew on it. She swallowed hard to suppress the outward signs of nervousness.
The scruffy man scratched his armpit. Was the brown stain on his suspenders tobacco, food or just plain dirt?
One side of his mouth slid up. His gaze dropped to her chest. "You answer one of them ads for a wife?" Olivia backed up. Her heels clicked against her mother's trunk and she nearly fell on it. She opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
"Might as well come with me. One of us is as good as another."
He had to be kidding. She curled her fingers in so tightly her nails bit into her palms through her gloves. What kind of place was this?
A man in a green-and-white-striped waistcoat and a shiny black jacket pushed the man in suspenders to the side. "Leave the lady be." His pomaded hair was combed straight back and his penetrating eyes appraised her. "Is he bothering you, ma'am?"
Letting out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding, her tension eased. The gentleman would be of assistance. "I'm sure he is just trying to be helpful."
"Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Ben Kincaid." He doffed his hat and made a slight bow.
She nodded but didn't answer in kind.
He extended his arm. "Why don't you come with me, ma'am? I'm sure you don't want to be standing in the street."
"I'd rather wait a bit longer. I am expected." But she'd be grateful if the gentleman would get rid of the man in the dirty suspenders. Ironic that she, who couldn't seem to attract a single man's attention back in Connecticut, had two men vying for her attention. She reached to take the proffered arm.
"You ain't safe waiting here all alone," Mr. Kincaid said, shattering the illusion of being a well-bred man while clamping her hand into the crook of his arm. He insolently looked her up and down.
His bold appraisal made her feel unclean. Her heart thudded in her chest, threatening to break through her ribs. Where was Jack?
A frisson of fear sliding down her spine, she tugged, but Mr. Kincaid didn't let her loose. She gave up trying to free her hand rather than create a scene. He was at least preferable to the unkempt man. Or was he?
The scruffier man folded his arms across his suspenders. "Better off comin' with me. Leastwise, I'd marry you."
Mr. Kincaid flashed a big smile. "Now, I have a private room over yonder where you could
freshen up after your journey. I'd be happy to see to your
"I'm sure I'll be fine." Olivia wasn't at all sure she would be fine. But at this point she'd opt for tagging after the Indian braves who had ignored her, rather than with Mr. Kincaid, who offered an unsavory sort of assistance, or with the man who needed a bath.
Several men toddled out of the saloon. They took various poses along the opposite sidewalk. What on earth were they doing?
"I'm sure I don't want to keep you." Perhaps she should go down to the mercantile and inquire within, but she couldn't manage her trunk without help. Inside were the last of her links with her parents. She didn't want to abandon it.
She suspected if she asked Mr. Kincaid to assist her, he'd take her trunk into the saloon. Her throat closed and she swallowed.
Her friend Anna would have laughed at the men. Se-lina would have shooed them off, but Olivia's tongue was tied and it was all she could do to keep from trembling.
Where in heaven's name was Jack, and why was he leaving her alone to contend with these uncouth men?
Horrors that could befall an unprotected woman cast big black blots in her thoughts.
"I'm waiting for Mr. Trudeau. P-perhaps you know him."
Mr. Kincaid's eyes narrowed speculatively. "I ain't seen Jack, nor his mules, lately."
Mules? Olivia again looked around for Jack or mules, but no mules were in sight. A new buckboard wagon and horses waited in front of the mercantile, but no Jack. Her stomach somersaulted.
"Jack's got him a woman already. He don't need you," objected the scruffy man.
Every fiber in her went rigid.
"Now, didn't Jack tell you he had an Indian wife? Shame on him," said the slick man with a sigh, as if he expected no better of Jack.
Her future husband had a wife already? He hadn't said anything about a wife. Her mind blanked as icy dread crept up her spine.
"You'd better come with me." He patted her captured trembling hand as if to soothe her.
She snatched it back and gripped her reticule as if it might shield her.
The men watched her with an intensity that made her neck tighten.
She wanted to crawl under the boards of the sidewalk or run away, but her feet were stuck as if vines had twined around her ankles to hold her in this awful place.
Mr. Kincaid reached out and caught her arm. "You're coming with me. You look like you need to sit down."
The suspender man grabbed her other arm. "I saw her first."
The idea that she could be fought over like a child's plaything made noise rush in her ears. As if she was being swept into a roaring river, she sought the purchase of a rock or a muddy bank. She didn't know what to do. If Jack had a wife, she couldn't go with him, either. Trembles shuddered through her and she fought to breathe.
Jack Trudeau waited for the poky grocer to fill his order. He checked the sack of coffee for nuts and twigs that were often used to bulk up the precious beans. He inhaled deeply of the rich scent.
The mercantile owner painstakingly penciled a list on butcher paper.
A brightly colored array of tins resided on the shelf behind the counter. Olivia might want tea.
"I'll take a tin of tea, too," he said.
"Orange or black?" asked the grocer.
What was the difference? A red tin with a white flower stood out. If his bride didn't like the tea, she might like the metal box to store whatever small things a woman liked to accumulate. "The red one."
Her request for a photograph had struck him as bold, exactly the kind of woman needed on the frontier. Olivia probably wanted the photograph to make certain he wasn't a grizzly, unshaved mountain man. He'd been fortunate to find a man taking photographs of the sprouting Denver City, who'd said he'd take Jack's picture because he reckoned the portrait would help get a pretty wife.
But pretty didn't matter. His first wife hadn't been pretty. She'd been short and dark and built like a tree stump, but he'd loved the way Wetonga's eyes would disappear into upside-down half-moons when she laughed. She had been the wife of his heart.
But Wetonga was gone. He could not raise a plot of vegetables or keep varmints out of his cabin while he had to go farther and farther north to find the lucrative beaver and red fox.
The worst vermin were the two-legged variety who thought an empty cabin was an invitation to track in mud, sleep on his bed and burn his food into his pots. The pots they left behind anyway. Upon returning from a trapping run and finding his home defiled, Jack had decided he needed a new wife.
He glanced toward the window, where he'd been looking out every now and then to see if the stage had arrived.
Jack shifted impatiently. He'd already waited half an hour to be helped. His bride was due to arrive. He'd promised to meet her, but he hesitated to leave for fear if he returned later he would have to wait another half hour before his shopping was seen to. He wanted to be ready to leave for home as soon as they were hitched.
A group of Arapaho entered the store. As they unwound lengths of cloths, the squaws giggled about a pale-eyed woman with a skirt as big as a tepee.
Jack turned and asked in an Algonquian dialect where they had seen the woman.
A brave stepped forward and said in perfect English, "Pale Eyes arrive on the stage. Many men wish to claim her."
A miner standing near the door leaned out. "It's a right fine-looking lady. Kincaid's got her. She goes to work for him, I'll be first in line."
"Merde!" How had he not heard the stagecoach's arrival?
The Indian switched to a French patois. "Pale Eyes afraid."
Were they playing musical languages? Jack stared at the brave, who slowly smiled as if they were sharing a great joke.
"Merci." Jack swiveled around to face the grocer as he backed toward the door. "I'll be back before you finish."
Imagining that a scared-horse look was the reason for the nickname Pale Eyes, he trotted out onto the street. A cluster of men blocked his view. He took a few steps closer. A willowy woman dressed in a bell-shaped dress the color of lilacs stood in the center of the throng. Bands of ruffles and bows flared out from her tiny waist.
Her back was to him. Her wide-brimmed straw hat with ribbons and bows covered her hair. One of the ne'er-do-wells who hung about Denver City saloons tugged on her arm. She pulled free and leaned against Kincaid. His bride, or a fancy whore brought in by Kincaid?