October 16, 1890
Julia Benson wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt and gazed out the train window as it pulled into the station. Smoke from the engine floated past the glass, clouding her view of the station and town. Wickerton, New York.
This was it. Her stop.
What have I done? I must be out of my mind to agree to marry a stranger.
A mail order bride. Never in her wildest imaginings—and she had plenty of those—had she ever envisioned herself as one. That title was reserved for ugly, aging, desperate women who traveled from their hometown to marry men who badly needed a wife.
Aside from the aging part, the description did fit her. Oh, she wasn’t exactly ugly. But her limp from a carriage accident as a child drew an observer’s attention from her nice form and pleasant face. It was the first thing a person saw, and made the biggest impact.READ MORE
And she was certainly desperate. After losing her employment when the factory where she worked burned to the ground, she and many of the women who worked there decided to sign up with the bride agency. Survival, they’d called it.
The hissing of the steam soothed her as it had the entire ride from Boston. If only she could ride the train forever and not get off. Not face a new life she wasn’t all that sure about.
Her coworkers had pooled their money once the factory was lost and helped each other prepare for their new lives. Groups of women had parted on several days over the past week, hugs and tears at each leaving. As far as she knew, the women were headed to just about every state and territory in the country.
“Wickerton, New York.” The conductor walked the passageway from one car to the next, announcing their destination.
Julia took a deep breath and stood, smoothing her dress as best she could. It was quite wrinkled from the long ride, but nothing could be done for it now. She grabbed her satchel from the shelf above her seat, the jerking of the train’s brakes making for a clumsy walk to the door.
The station bustled with activity. Passengers getting off, passengers getting on. Shrieks of happiness as family members were reunited. She stood at the top step and looked around. Mr. Johnson was supposed to meet her at the station. He’d written that from there they would go directly to the parson’s house and get married. Her stomach roiled.
Tears stung her eyes, either from the steam or building anxiety, as her eyes darted back and forth, looking for Mr. Johnson. Owner of the Wickerton Mercantile, he had described himself as in his thirties, a bit rotund, and with a full mustache. She was not fond of facial hair, but when a woman was desperate for a roof over her head and food in her stomach, she couldn’t afford to be fussy. Almost as an afterthought, he’d written that he had two sons.
Please God. Just make him be kind.
Sheriff Fletcher Adams stood alongside Marvin Johnson as the man waited for his bride. Fletcher didn’t exactly call Johnson a friend, but the man had grabbed him a short time ago and asked him to go to the station with him, and then stand up as witness to his wedding at the parson’s house. Fletcher had oftentimes found the man to be mean, and he sure wasn’t doing too good of a job raising his two boys. Hopefully, his new wife would take the rascals in hand.
A mail order bride. Fletcher shook his head. Why would a man take on a woman he didn’t know as his wife? Marriage was forever. Or until one of them died, like his wife, Laura. Even though having a wife would allow him to bring his daughter home from his sister-in-law’s house where she’d been for the past several months, he couldn’t imagine marrying up with a woman with God knows what type of past.
“Do you see her, Sheriff?” Johnson wiped the sweat from his forehead as he scanned the women in the crowd, taking quick glances at a tintype he held in his hand.
“That might be her, there.” Fletcher gestured with his chin at a very pretty young woman standing at the top of the train steps. She had a tight grip on her satchel and looked nervous enough to be a mail order bride. But certainly a heck of a lot younger and prettier than one would expect.
Johnson glanced at the tintype. “Yep, that’s her all right.” He nudged Fletcher in his ribs. “Nice looking, eh? I’ll bet she’ll be a good one between the sheets.”
A flash of irritation tightened Fletcher’s lips. That wasn’t a seemly thing to say about one’s prospective wife. He almost felt sorry for the girl.
As they both watched, the woman grasped the railing and stepped down. She seemed to stumble and then righted herself. Fletcher found himself taking a step forward to assist her, but realized she was no concern of his. Johnson just stared at her and never moved.
Once she reached the ground and took a step forward, it became apparent that she had a limp. She struggled with the satchel and continued to scan the crowd, chewing her lip as she looked around.
“Johnson, I think you should go help the girl.”
“What the hell! She never told me she was a cripple.” Johnson remained in his place, staring at his bride, his face a mirror of distaste.
Shocked at the man’s comments, Fletcher said, “She’s not a cripple. She merely has a limp.”
“Well, I ain’t marrying up with no woman who limps. How the hell is she gonna help me in the store? And do her chores? And what about taking care of my two boys? They need a mother, not someone who they would have to nurse.” He shook his head, crumpling the tintype in his fist. “Nah. I don’t want her.”
Fletcher’s mouth dropped. “You can’t just leave her here. She came all this way expecting to get married.”
“Well, it ain’t gonna be to me.” He tossed the tintype to the ground. “You marry her. I’m going back to the store. And you can bet I’ll be writin’ that bride agency and tellin’ them I want a refund.” He stormed off, leaving Fletcher staring after him.
What the hell am I going to do now?
The crowd dispersed and still the bride stood on the platform, her satchel at her feet, her face frozen in a smile. Fletcher ran his fingers through his hair so many times it was a wonder his hat even fit on his head.
Damn that Johnson. To just leave her here with no care in the world as to what she would do. The train slowly pulled out behind her, and soon the only people on the platform were her and him. She looked at him expectantly, and he knew there was no way he could walk away.
Taking a deep breath, he walked up to her. She smiled brightly and extended her hand. “You are Mr. Johnson?”
Fletcher shook his head and wished himself back in his office, feet up on the desk, drinking another cup of bitter coffee “No. I’m not Mr. Johnson.”
“Oh.” She withdrew her hand and stared at him.
He cleared his throat. “Mr. Johnson…”
She nodded, apparently waiting for him to continue.
“Mr. Johnson.” He ran his finger around the inside of his shirt collar. “Oh, hell.” He reached for her satchel and took her by the elbow. “Let’s take a walk to the café and get some coffee.”
He had to slow his steps to accommodate her, but she had no trouble keeping up with him. Whatever had caused her limp, it was apparently something she’d lived with for a long time.
As they walked, he took in her appearance. Curly brown hair with red highlights had been pulled back into a very sensible bun at her nape. A few curls had escaped and teased her forehead and neck. When she’d looked at him before, it was with sky-blue eyes, curious and intelligent. A slight sprinkling of freckles across her nose gave her a youthful appearance, although the girl couldn’t be more than nineteen or twenty. In all, a very pleasant looking woman, with nice curves that he shouldn’t be aware of.
Once they settled into their seats at the café, he said, “I imagine you might be hungry from you trip, so order whatever you want.”
“Sheriff whatever-your-name-is, I appreciate your offer to feed me, but I really would prefer to know about Mr. Johnson.” She wiped her upper lip with a handkerchief crumpled in her hand.
Just then the waitress, Molly, approached their table. “Good afternoon, sheriff. What can I get you and the lady?”
Fletcher looked at the bride whose name he didn’t even know. She smiled at Molly and said, “Coffee and any type of sandwich you have.”
“How about cheese?”
Molly scribbled in her pad. “Sheriff?”
“Give me the lunch special and coffee.”
Nodding, she hurried away from them, picking up dirty dishes from the table behind them.
“I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself. I am Sheriff Fletcher Adams. And your name?”
“Miss Julia Benson.” After a slight pause, she asked, “What happened to Mr. Johnson? I believe I saw a man standing with you who fit his description, but he left in a hurry. Was that him? Did he have an emergency?”
It would be so easy to agree to that simple explanation and escort her to the mercantile and let Johnson deal with her, but he knew in his gut the shopkeeper would only hurt this girl, who seemed as fragile as a young bird.
“He didn’t want me, isn’t that right?” The flash of steel in her spine as she straightened in the chair changed his opinion. This girl was not fragile, despite her appearance.
He nodded, cringing at the hurt in her eyes. Somehow he knew Julia had been hurt before. Perhaps many times. He hated to be a witness to it now, and he cursed Johnson once again.
“I see.” She fiddled with the napkin at her place. “I guess he was upset at my limp.”
Although it hadn’t been a question, he felt compelled to answer. “Yes.”
She nodded. “I knew I should have told him, but…”
Fletcher reached over and placed his hand on hers. “I can’t help but think you are better off.”
You are better off.
It was easy for the sheriff to say. He had a warm place to lay his head tonight, and this was certainly not his last meal. But it could very well be hers. She had no money, knew no one in this town, and even if she wanted to go back to Boston—or had the means to do so—all the girls would be gone by now. She was alone in the world.
She attempted a smile and nodded. “Yes. Better off.”
The waitress arrived with her food as Julia fought the stinging behind her eyes. She would not break down and cry in front of this poor man. He’d been dealt a lousy hand himself since that snake Mr. Johnson had just taken himself off and left the sheriff to deal with her.
Although her stomach had shut down, she forced herself to eat the cheese sandwich and drink the coffee. Who knew when she would eat again?
She supposed she could ask around town for a job. Perhaps she could find one where she could even eat and sleep. The only position she could think of that included room and board was a whore in a brothel. She’d starve first.
“Do you know of any job openings in Wickerton?”
The sheriff looked startled for a minute. “You plan to stay? Don’t you want to go back home?”
Now there was a suggestion. Being the oldest of nine children, her parents had been only too happy to see her leave the nest and take a job in Lawrence, a small town outside of Boston, where she didn’t take up space in their crowded home or eat their meager food. In fact, she’d sent a good portion of her salary home to help out.
No, there was no home to return to.
“Not really. My last home was in Lawrence where I worked in a sewing factory. But the business burned down, so most of us girls signed up with the bride agency.” She moved her plate aside. As hard as she’d tried, she just couldn’t finish the sandwich. Her stomach was in knots, and she was having a hard time tamping down the rising panic at her situation.
“I don’t know of any job openings, but then I haven’t been looking for one either.” Fletcher pushed the brim of his hat back and rubbed his forehead with his thumb and index finger. “I don’t suppose you have friends—other brides—in this town?”
She shook her head.
He cleared his throat. “Money?”
The tears standing in her eyes threatened to fall, so she blinked rapidly and shook her head again. Then drawing herself up, she pushed back from the table and stood. “I will be fine, Sheriff. There is no need for you to concern yourself with me.” She reached for the satchel and nodded. “Thank you for lunch. As soon as I find a job, I will reimburse you for the meal.” Turning on her heel, she stumbled for a second, then righted herself by gripping the back of her chair, then walked to the door.
She ignored the sheriff and continued on, swiping her cheeks as she yanked the door of the café open and limped down the boardwalk. No matter what, she had no intention of sitting there any longer, watching the pity in the man’s eyes. She limped, true. But she was no cripple and she didn’t need anyone’s pity.
Despite her injury that had never healed correctly, she’d always been able to take care of herself, as well as her younger brothers and sisters when she was at home. No one need feel sorry for Julia Benson. No, indeed.
She had passed no more than three stores when she heard rapid footsteps behind her, then a strong hand grasping her elbow. “Wait just a minute, there, Miss Benson. You can’t just storm away from me and think I’ll let you go. For no other reason than I’m sheriff of this town, and every citizen here is my responsibility.”
She tugged her elbow free, then turned to him. “I am not your responsibility, Sheriff. While I am grateful for your assistance and sorry for the trouble Mr. Johnson dumped on you, I can take care of myself.”
“Oh, really? And what is it you plan to do since you have nowhere to go and no money?”
“I will find a job.”
“And at the end of the week they will hand your pay to a dead woman because you will have starved to death.”
With the blood pumping through her veins, she narrowed her eyes, wondering why in heaven’s name she was mad at him. The old “shoot the messenger” deal, no doubt. “Perhaps I will find a job that includes meals.”
“And a bed?”
“Don’t even think about taking that sort of a job,” he growled.
“Why? Because I’m a cripple? And no man would want me?” Good Lord, what had gotten into her? She had always been sweet, friendly, and kind. Right now she felt like a shrew, which is probably how Sheriff Adams viewed her. Most likely he was thinking how smart Mr. Johnson had been to walk away from her. She wished she could walk away from herself.
“No. You are not a cripple, you have a limp. And you are beautiful, and any man would want you.”
“Not Mr. Johnson.”
“He’s an idiot.”
They glared at each other, passersby on the boardwalk eyeing them curiously as they walked around them.
“If you have no place to go, then I will have to lock you up in the jail.”
Her jaw dropped. “What! I didn’t break any laws.”
“No. But vagrancy is on our law books, and without a home, job, or money, you are a vagrant.”
Oh, the man was despicable. And to think she had been grateful because he’d fed her a cheese sandwich. She fisted her hands at her side and leaned in. “You would lock a woman up in jail for vagrancy?”
“Not if you allow me—rather the town—to put you up in the hotel for a couple of days until you decide what you want to do.”
“Do you do that for all the people who come to Wickerton and get stranded?”
“No. But we haven’t had a whole lot of women coming as mail order brides, being left at the station.”
She reared back. “Oh!”
“I’m sorry.” He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “I shouldn’t have said that. But I will tell you the town does allow money for a person in need to provide a place to stay and money for meals.”
A heated flush rose to her face. “I am not in need, and I don’t take charity.”
“All right. You can earn it.”
“You can work at the jail.”
“Oh, so now instead of being arrested and tossed into a jail cell, I get to clean the place?”
“Yes. You can also organize my desk. I’m not too orderly.”
“I accept.” She wasn’t so stupid as to pass up the sheriff’s offer. She could work for him for a short time while she decided what she was going to do next. At least she wouldn’t be taking a handout.
He grinned, making her heart do funny little jumps in her chest. “Fine. I’ll walk you over to the hotel and get you settled. You can report to work first thing tomorrow morning.”
The walk to the hotel was only a couple of blocks, but they spent the time in silence. She studied the sheriff under lowered eyelashes. He was just as she imagined a small town sheriff would look. Deep blond hair, tall, broad shouldered, slim waist, and with a gun belt low on his hips. His strong features taken separately wouldn’t be considered handsome, but the overall combination put him into that category.
He tugged on the brim of his hat as they passed shoppers and business people. Wickerton was a nice place from what she could see. The stores were doing a fine business, and the sheriff kept a peaceful town.
Once they reached the front of the hotel, he stopped her by touching her arm. “Before we go in, I thought I would mention there is one solution to your problem that we hadn’t considered.”
She looked into two mesmerizing hazel eyes and tilted her head in question.
“Why don’t you marry me?”COLLAPSE