Eddie planned for a well-bred bride who'd help prove his worth to his father. Instead he's saddled with a ragamuffin stranger and the little boy in her care. He'll shelter them until springtime and no longer. But before the snow clears, his heart is thawing too and hoping this makeshift family can find a permanent home together.
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Northwest Territories, Canada
For the first time she was about to meet Eddie Gardiner. The man she intended to marry. The answer to her prayers.
Linette Edwards parted the curtains on the stagecoachmeant to keep out the dust and cold. The first few days of their trip, dust had filtered through them, and now cold with the bite of a wild beast filled every inch of the tiny coach. Four adults and a child huddled against the elements.
"You're letting in the cold," her traveling companion complained.
"I fear we are in for an early snowstorm," one of the male passengers said.
Linette murmured an apology but she managed to see the rolling hills and the majestic mountains before she dropped the curtain back in place. Since they'd left Fort Benton, headed for the ranch lands of the Northwest Territories of Canada, she'd peered out as much as she could. The mountains, jagged and bold, grew larger and larger. A song filled her heart and soul each time she saw them. This was a new country. She could start over. Be a different person than she'd been forced to be in England. Here she would be allowed to prove she had value as a person. She ignored the ache at how her parents viewed heras a commodity to be traded for business favors.
She shifted her thoughts to the letter of invitation hidden safely in the cavernous pocket of the coat she'd acquired in Fort Benton. She longed to pull it out and read it again though she had memorized every word. Come before winter.
"I expect more than a shack," her friend Margaret had fumed when she'd read an earlier letter from the same writer. "After all, he comes from a very respectable family." With bitterness edging each word, Margaret read the letters describing the cabin Eddie assured her was only temporary quarters. "Temporary? I'm sure he doesn't know the meaning of the word. A year and a half he's been there and he still lives in this hovel."
"It sounds like an adventure." Linette could imagine a woman working side by side with her man, being a necessary asset to establishing a home in the new world. It sounded a lot more appealing to her than sitting and smiling vacantly as a female spectator. She'd been raised to be the lady of the manor but she wanted more. So much more.
Margaret had sniffed with such disdain that Linette giggled.
"I have made up my mind," Margaret said. "I cannot marry him and join him in the wilds of the Canadian West. I expected far more when he asked for my hand before he left to start a Gardiner ranch out in that" she fluttered her hand weakly "in that savage land." Her shudder was delicate and likely deliberate.
"Oh, Margaret, surely you don't mean it."
"Indeed I do. I've written this letter."
Seated in the overstuffed parlor of Margaret's family home in London, Linette had read each word kindly but firmly informing Eddie that Margaret had changed her mind and would not be joining him now or anytime in the future. I expect it makes me sound small and selfish, but I can't imagine living in a tiny house, nor being a woman of the West.
"But what about your feelings for him? His for you?"
Margaret had given her a smile smacking of pity. "I enjoyed his company. He was a suitable candidate for marriage. There are plenty other suitable men."
How often she'd envied Margaret the opportunity to head to a new world with so much possibility simply for the eager taking of it. "But he's counting on you. Why would you want to stay here when the whole world beckons?" Wouldn't he be dreadfully hurt by Margaret's rejection?
"You should marry him. You're the one who thinks it would be a lark." Margaret was clearly annoyed with Linette's enthusiasm. "In fact, write him and I'll enclose your letter with mine."
"Write him? And say what?"
"That you're willing to be his wife."
"I don't know him." A trickle of something that felt suspiciously like excitement hurried up her limbs to her heart. But it couldn't be. It wasn't possible. "My father would never allow it."
Margaret laughed. "I think the Gardiner name would make even your father consider it a good idea. And would it not provide an escape from the marriage your father has planned?"
Linette shuddered. "I will not marry that old" Her father had chosen a man in his fifties with a jangling purse of money and a drooling leer. His look made Linette feel soiled. She would do anything to avoid such a fate. She'd been praying for a reprieve. Perhaps this was an answer to her heartfelt petition.
Yes, the Gardiners were an old family, well respected, with a great estate and vaults of money, as her father so often said with utmost reverence in his voice.
"Of course," Margaret started, considering her with a mocking smile, "if you're dreaming of love and romance"
Linette jerked back. "All I'm thinking of is escape." Love did not enter into a suitable marriage, which was fine with her. She fully intended to keep her feelings out of the picture. A trembling in the depths of her heart warned her that love would make her weak, vulnerable, ready to give up her personal goals. Not something she intended to let happen. She grabbed a piece of paper. "I'm going to do it. Anything is better than what my parents have in mind." Being a rancher's wife in the new world suited her fine. She was weary of the social restrictions her parents insisted on and not at all loath to living the kind of life she'd heard existed in the new world. There, women marched side by side with their men. They were even allowed to own land! Doubtlessly they'd be allowed to get their hands dirty and be involved.
Before she could change her mind, she'd penned a short letter. A marriage of convenience if it suits you. Please reply to Margaret's address. She knew her father would read any letter that came to the house. Much better to know she had a positive answer from Mr. Gardiner before confronting her father. If she had to be part of a business deal, it would be on her terms. She'd say who and where.
She clasped her fingers on the answering letter that had carried two ticketsone for herself and one for a traveling companion. The missive was brief. Not much more than an invitation to come. Her heart had danced for joy. Margaret was right; her father had glowed at an invitation from a Gardiner.
The stagecoach swayed to a stop. "Hello, the house." The driver's call shivered up and down Linette's spine. They'd arrived at Eden Valley Ranch.
It wasn't as if Eddie were a total stranger. She'd read his letters to Margaret. He sounded like a strong man, an independent thinker. She had no trouble imagining herself sharing his life. Yet her insides clenched in trepidation.
She squeezed right back in protest. She would not let nerves weaken her resolve. She'd prayed for such an escape and God had generously provided. Hitherto hath the Lord helped me. Renewed faith filled her, driving away any doubts and fears.
One of the two men who also rode in the coach flicked aside a curtain. "Looks like a fine establishment."
Linette parted the curtains again and peeked outside. The coach had drawn up before a log cabin with only a narrow door and small window in the wall facing them. This must be where the man lived. She pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and refused to think how small it looked. Hardly big enough for all of them. Never mind. Nothing could deter her now. She'd prayed her way from London, over the Atlantic Ocean, and across most of the North American continent. The rooms she'd had on the trip had left barely enough space for stretching. Although vastly different from the spacious home she'd grown up in, she'd gotten used to it readily enough. This cabin would be no different.
The door of the cabin opened and Linette took a deep breath. A man stepped forth, ducking as he crossed the threshold. This had to be Eddie Gardiner. She'd seen his likeness in pictures, but they failed to do the man justice. Despite the chill in the air, he hadn't bothered to grab a coat or hat and in the bright sunshine his brown hair shone. He dressed like a range handdark denim trousers, a blue shirt that had faded almost colorless on the sleeves with dark remnants of the color in the seams, and a leather vest that looked worn and friendly.
Her heart jumped to her throat. She hadn't expected to feel anything for him. Surely it was only excitement, combined with a touch of nerves. After all, despite the letters, he was a stranger. She wanted nothing more or less from him than a marriage of convenience.
His gaze sought the parted curtains and his dark eyes narrowed as he tried to make out the face in the dim interior.
She flicked the curtain closed and turned to her traveling companion. "You keep the child while I meet him." The boy would remain a secret for now. Seeing her intention, one of the gentlemen stepped down and held out a hand to assist her. She murmured her thanks as Eddie strode forward.
He slid his gaze over her as if she were invisible and looked toward the stagecoach. "Is Margaret inside?"
Linette shook her head trying to make sense of his question. Surely he'd mistakenly spoken her name out of habit.
"Is she at Fort Benton? If so I'll go for her immediately." He glanced at the sky as if already trying to outrace the weather.
Her mouth felt like yesterday's dust as she realized what he meant. "You're expecting Margaret?" It took every ounce of her stubborn nature not to stammer.
"Any day. I sent tickets for her and a chaperone to come before winter."
Come before winter. She remembered the words well. They'd bubbled through her heart. But she thought they were meant for her. "Did you not get the letter?"
At that the driver jumped down. "'Spect any letters you'd be wanting are in here." He waved a small bundle. "Seems you haven't picked up your mail for some time, so I brought it."
Cold trickled across Linette's neck, dug bony fingers into her spine and sent a faint sense of nausea up her throat. She swallowed it back with determination. If he hadn't received her letter, then the tickets he'd sent hadn't been meant for her. He didn't know she was coming. He wasn't prepared to welcome her and accept her as a suitable helpmate on the frontier. Now what?
She stiffened her shoulders. She had not crossed an ocean and a vast continent to be turned back now. Her prayers for escape had been fervent. God held her in the palm of His hand now as He had on the journey. This was her answer. She nailed her fears to the thought. Besides, nothing had changed. Not really. Margaret still wasn't coming and he still needed a wife. Didn't he? She sought her memories but could not remember that he'd ever said so in clear, unmistakable terms. Had she read more into his missives than was meant?
Eddie took the bundle of mail and untied the strings. He flicked through the correspondence.
Recognizing Margaret's handwriting, she touched the envelope. "That one." Her own message lay inside, unseen by the man she thought had invited her to join him. She sucked moisture from the corners of her mouth and swallowed hard.
He slit the envelope and pulled out the pages in which she'd offered to take Margaret Sear's place. I look forward to being part of the new West. He read her letter then Margaret's, his fingers tightening on the paper as he understood the message. A flash of pain crossed his face before he covered it with a harsh expression.
Her heart twisted. He expected Margaret and instead got his hopes and dreams shattered. If only she'd known. But what could she do about it now? Except prove she was better suited to be a woman of the West.
Thankfully he did not read the letter aloud, which would have added to her growing embarrassment as the three men listened intentlyone peering from the inside of the coach, one standing at its side where he remained after helping her alight, the other pretending to check on the horses though he made certain he could hear what was said. Even so, her face burned at their curiosity about an obvious misunderstanding of mammoth proportions.
Eddie jammed the pages back in the envelope. "This is unacceptable."
Her muscles turned to warm butter. It took concentrated effort to hold herself upright, to keep her face rigid. She would not let him guess that the ground threatened to rise up and clout her in the face.
One hand clasping the mail bundle, he jammed his fists to his hips and turned to the driver. "You can return her to the fort."
The man tipped his hat back on his head and shook his head. "Ain't goin' a mile more'n I have to. It's about to snow."
The wind bit at Linette's cheeks but the cold encasing her heart was not from the wintery weather. She could not, would not, go back to London and her father's plans.
The coach driver went on in his leisurely way of speaking. "I'm taking these two gentlemen to the OK Ranch then I'd hoped to make it back to Fort Benton where I intend to hole up for the winter. I don't fancy being stuck in Edendale." He made a rattling noise in the back of his throat. "But it looks like I'll be stuck at the OK for the time being."
Linette cared not whether the man was returning to the tiny cluster of huts bravely named Edendale or back to Fort Benton. She wasn't going anywhere.
The gentleman who'd helped her down still stood at the steps, waiting and watching. "The girl is strong. Tough. Takes a special kind of lady to take care of travel arrangements and her traveling companions. Not a lot of young women are prepared and able to do that. You could do worse than have her at your side in this brave new frontier."
Linette gave the man a fleeting smile of appreciation then turned back to Eddie.
Eddie met her gaze. He must have read her determination though she hoped he hadn't seen her desperation. "We need to talk." He grabbed her arm and marched her around the side of the house, out of sight and hopefully out of earshot of the others, where he released her to glare hotly at her.
She tipped her chin and met his gaze without flinching even though her insides had begun to tremble. Where would she go if he sent her away? Not back to the marriage her father had arranged. Perhaps money would convince him. "I have a dowry."
"Keep your money. I have no need of it."
"I came in good faith. I thought you'd received my letter." Come before winter. The words had seemed so welcoming. She'd made preparations as quickly as she could. How was she to know he didn't respond to her letter? Hadn't even received it. She stood motionless. She wouldn't let so much as one muscle quiver.
"Obviously I hadn't." He stared at the bundle in his hand, sounding every bit as confused as she felt. A contrast to the anger her parents had expressed when she'd informed them she would not marry the man of their choosing and meant to go West. Only after she showed her father the letter from Eddie and only because the Gardiners were a well-respected family had he agreed. With many constraints. Her father knew her too well. Knew she would avoid this marriage, too, if she had the means to strike out on her own. Knew she would not flinch before the dangers nor shirk from the challenges. That's why he'd allowed her barely enough money to keep from starving to death on the journey and made sure her dowry would be held until he had proof she was married. He'd made her understand he would allow her only enough time for the necessary documents to cross the ocean. Should they not arrive in a reasonable time he would send one of his henchmen to bring her back. She'd used the limited funds he'd provided caring for the sick and destitute she'd crossed paths with. She had not so much as a penny to her name.
She shuddered as she imagined one of her father's cruel servants poised and ready to pursue her.
There was no escape from her father's plans apart from this marriage.