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Eliza Kelly's worse fear had just been confirmed.
She couldn't believe she was standing on the train platform waiting for a mail-order groom. One she hadn't ordered!
With shaking fingers, Eliza opened the envelope and pulled out the slip of paper inside. Once more, her eyes scanned the letter that explained how her best friend, Hannah Young, had ordered the expected groom.
My dear friend Eliza,
I know this will come as a shock to you, but I have been writing as you to a Mr. Miles Thatcher. He posted a mail-order bride ad in the same newspaper as my own prospective groom, Mr. West-land. After reading his ad, I answered as you.
Eliza, I think you will like Mr. Thatcher. He will be arriving on the two o'clock train this afternoon.
Before you close your mind to the possibility of being a mail-order bride, know that I've prayed about this and feel I did the right thing in answering Mr. Thatcher's advertisement. Granted I should have told you. For not doing so, I apologize now.
After you read his letters, you can decide if he is a man that you will enjoy spending the rest of your life with. If you decide to send him away, I promise to never do this again.
I'll write once I get to Granite, Texas. I'm looking forward to hearing how you and Mr. Thatcher get along. Sincerely,
Your friend Hannah
Emotions sliced through her like sharp scissors through cloth. How could Hannah do this to her? Anger at her friend's impulsiveness demanded an answer that wasn't forthcoming. She caught her lower lip between her teeth. What if Mr. Thatcher arrived and refused to return to wherever he came from?
She stuffed the note from Hannah back inside the envelope with Mr. Thatcher's letters. Eliza had read them all so many times she almost had them memorized.
The two o'clock train squealed to a noisy stop. Eliza closed her eyes, said a quick prayer of deliverance and slowly counted to ten.
Jackson Hart lifted his head from the table and held it in his hands for several long seconds, waiting for the sound of grinding breaks to stop pulsating through his brain. He felt as if someone had taken a hatchet to his skull.
Keeping his eyes closed, he did a quick check of his pockets. As expected, they were empty. Whoever had taken advantage of him being alone in the train car and hit him over the head, knocking him out, had also robbed him.
"Sir, we've arrived in Durango."
Jackson looked up at the porter. He rubbed the back of his head and winced. A knot the size of a goose egg pulsated against his skull, but when he pulled his fingers away there wasn't any blood coating them. He was thankful for that and that he'd had the good sense to hide half of his money in his luggage.
He nodded to the young man and stood. "Who do I report a robbery to?"
Ten minutes later, Jackson stepped from the train. He moved off to the side of the platform and tried to ignore the sounds around him as he waited for his bag. It seemed to take forever before the porter lugged his belongings toward him. Taking pity on the young man, Jackson met him halfway and picked up the luggage. It held a few of his favorite tools, clothes and his Bible. Not to mention half the money he'd planned to use to get started in Silverton, Colorado. Again Jackson thanked the Lord that it hadn't been with him at the time of the robbery.
"Sorry for the delay, Mr. Hart. I stopped and reported what happened to you to Special Agent Wilson. He says to assure you he will be looking out for future passengers and if the thief is caught, he'll make sure you are notified."
Jackson nodded. The action cost him as pain sliced through his skull. The porter hurried away and disappeared from sight. He closed his eyes to narrow slits, trying to shut out the piercing sun and willing the pain to subside. He'd planned to rest a couple of nights in Durango before traveling the fifty miles to Silverton. Now he didn't have enough funds for the train and would have to secure employment of some kind here until he could move on. Jackson sighed. His search for his father would have to wait a little longer.
"Oh, Mr. Thatcher!"
Jackson cracked his eyes and looked to where the high-pitched call came from. He envied Mr. Thatcher as the lovely woman hurried toward him. A wisp of brown hair escaped from her hat; her brown eyes shone but didn't match the smile on her lips. She was waving as if afraid Mr. Thatcher wouldn't notice her. Jackson turned to see who she was frantically waving at.
Seeing no one, Jackson turned back around to find her standing directly in front of him. The silly bluebird on her hat bobbed just below his chin. He tilted his head and looked into her coffee-colored eyes. The woman slipped to the side of him and tucked her arm in his. She began to pull him down the dirt street.
Was the woman insane? What did she think she was doing? Jackson felt like digging his boots into the dirt, but he'd already noticed the attention she was getting from bystanders. His temples throbbed; maybe it would be better to let her get wherever they were going and then tell her she'd made a mistake.
"Come along, Mr. Thatcher. I am Eliza Kelly. I am a little tired and would really like to get back to the boardinghouse and get this situation taken care of, immediately. I know none of this is your fault, but I am exhausted because we were up so early yesterday to make the trip here from Cottonwood Springs, then this morning Hannah had to be at the train station by seven, and that's when she told me about you. My stomach has been in knots all afternoon. At one point I thought I'd be sick. I still can't believe Hannah would do such a thing."
He marveled at the fact that she didn't even take a breath as she continued walking and talking. That the woman had the courage to pull him along also amazed him. Most women took one look at his bulk and turned the other way.
"I hope you don't mind, but I have made arrangements for you to stay at Mrs. Hattie's boardinghouse until we can smooth out this mess. Hannah didn't mean any harm in what she did, but well, I'm afraid she put us both in a very bad situation. You see, I am a widow." She stopped and glanced over at him. A puzzled look crossed her pretty features before she pressed on. "But she probably wrote you that already, at least I hope she did. Anyway, I have asked Mrs. Hattie to make us a nice pot of tea so that we might discuss the situation."
The woman talked faster than anyone he'd ever had the pleasure to meet. Her brown eyes sparkled, or maybe he was still seeing stars from the knock to the head, as she chattered on about Hannah and letters. The scent of vanilla filled his nostrils as he inhaled her fragrance.
When she took a deep breath, he decided now was the time to tell her she was mistaken, that he wasn't Mr. Thatcher. "I
"Now, let's not discuss it out here on the street." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I would hate for the town to find out that you were brought here under false pretenses. Of course, I'm sure Hannah didn't mean for it to happen like that." She paused and her voice returned to normal. "Well, maybe she did. Although, I want you to know that she did apologize to me and promised never to do such a thing again."
Jackson felt as if his brains were swimming in a sea of words. Curiosity caused him to ask, "What did she do?" He noted that they'd arrived at a two-story house with blue shutters. The sign on the front lawn stated they were at Mrs. Hattie's Boardinghouse.
Eliza reached forward and pulled the door open. Once they'd entered and she'd closed the door behind them, Eliza said, "She answered your mail-order bride advertisement. Only you didn't know it was heryou thought it was me."
He allowed himself to be tugged into a sitting room. The furniture was a little worn, but everything looked clean and in its rightful place. Her last words sunk in, and Jackson pulled his arm free of her. He'd not placed any mail-order bride ad and had no intention of marrying Mrs. Kelly or her friend Hannah. Just when he opened his mouth to say so she interrupted again.
"Oh, I'm making a mess of this, aren't I?" Before he could agree or disagree, she continued. "Sit right there." She indicated a rocking chair by the front window. "And I'll go get the tea." Her skirts made a soft swishing sound as she hurried away.
Did the woman ever stop talking? Jackson watched her disappear down a short hallway before he eased into the chair and took a deep breath. The smells of baking bread filled the air and his stomach growled in response.
What had he gotten himself into? He was in a strange town, without enough money to make it to Silverton, with a fast-talking woman who didn't make sense. He rested his aching head in his hands and sighed.
"It's not that bad," Eliza said as she reentered the room. "I know you were expecting to get married today but"
"What?" Jackson raised his head and looked at the woman. The sudden action sent new pain through his temples, and he groaned aloud. She'd taken off the silly bird hat, and dark brown hair curled about her face. A very pretty face. He still had no intention of getting married. As soon as she settled down, Jackson planned on telling her so in the nicest way he knew how.
He'd not be ruled by another woman.
"I am sorry, Mr. Thatcher." She continued forward with a tea serving tray extended before her. "Since I didn't write the letters, I would think you'd understand that I can't marry you. I know this has to be a disappointment to you."
Jackson held up his hand to silence her incisive chatter and tell her he was far from disappointed. He was surprised when the action worked. She placed the tea set and sandwiches on the table in front of him and waited.
The calluses on his hands scratched his cheeks as he ran them over his face. He shut his eyes for a brief moment to gather his thoughts and figure out a way to break the news to her. If only his head would stop hurting.
Jackson sighed and looked her in the eyes. "You have the wrong man."
She picked up the teakettle and opened her mouth to speak.
He quickly raised his hand again to stop the flood of words that he was sure would be forthcoming. "My name is Jackson Hart, and I'm a blacksmith headed to Silverton, Colorado. I'm not your Mr. Thatcher."
The metal teakettle slipped from her fingers and clattered to the floor. Hot tea splashed his legs and boots.
Eliza placed a finger against the throbbing pulse in her neck and felt the color drain from her face. Her stomach did a flopping thing, and her hands shook. For the second time today, she felt as if she were going to be sick. Her mind frantically worked to make sense of his words. If he wasn't Mr. Miles Thatcher, then who was he?
It abruptly dawned on her that she'd dragged a complete stranger into Mrs. Hattie's boardinghouse.
Her gaze moved to his boots and pant legs. A dark stain ran down his limbs, and liquid pooled at his feet. "I am so sorry. You must think me a complete fool." She picked up the teapot and saw a crack across the bottom. "Oh, I've ruined Mrs. Hattie's teapot, your boots and pants. What more can I ruin today?"
Hattie hurried from the kitchen, carrying a dishcloth. "Are you all right?" she asked Eliza. Her eyes swept the room and landed on Jackson and the pool of tea he now stood in.
Tears sprung to Eliza's eyes. "I'm fine, but I've made quite a mess of things." A sob tore from her lips as she covered her face to hide her shame.
His clear deep voice echoed the statement she'd said to him earlier. "It's not that bad, Mrs. Kelly." When she uncovered her face, he continued. "I can take the pot to the nearest blacksmith and he'll fix it up. Boots can be wiped off and pants washed, so see? No harm done."
Hattie patted her shoulder. "He's right. I have another teakettle and we can clean up this spill in no time."
No harm done? Who was he kidding? She'd dragged him from the train station and rambled on about being a mail-order bride. And to make matters worse, she had no idea where the real Mr. Thatcher was or what he looked like.
She studied the man before her. How could she have mistaken him for a scholar? He was big, taller than her by at least a foot. Large sinewy hands and brawny arms marked him as a man who was used to physical labor. Guarded cobalt-blue eyes stared back at her. Fresh flames of heat licked up her neck and into her cheeks.
Eliza jumped to her feet. "I have to find the real Mr. Thatcher. I'm so sorry to have caused this inconvenience, Mr. Hart. If you will excuse me." Hoping she hadn't sounded as breathless as he made her feel, she hurried from the room and scooped her hat from the kitchen table. She took a couple of deep breaths before returning to the main room.
Eliza didn't want to face Jackson Hart again but knew she'd have to go back through the main sitting room to exit the house. She exhaled and slowly walked back the way she'd come.
Hattie was wiping up the mess, and Jackson Hart still stood where he'd been a few moments ago. A bewildered expression rested on his handsome face. He held his hat in his hands and stared down at the mess she'd made.
She hurried across the room and yanked the door open to escape. Her shoes pounded the wooden sidewalk. It wasn't until she was halfway to the train station that Eliza and her heartbeat slowed down.
Eliza stopped and tried to picture the train station as it had appeared when she'd dragged Mr. Hart away. She closed her eyes and focused, recreating the memory in her mind. Jackson Hart had been standing beside the platform with a pained expression on his face. She'd thought he looked lost. Her gaze had scanned the train yard. Seeing no other passengers emerge from the train, she'd assumed he was Miles Thatcher.
She sighed and opened her eyes. Maybe Mr. Thatcher had changed his mind and hadn't come. Or maybe she hadn't waited long enough for him to have exited from the train. What if he was lost and searching for her? He could be anywhere, she thought.
"He's probably long gone by now."
Eliza jumped at the sound of Jackson's voice so close to her elbow. How long had he been standing behind her? Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she turned to face him.