Mail Order Bride – Alice in Winterland: Clean Sweet Western Cowboy Romance (Seasons Mail Order Brides Book 3), p.1
Alice in Winterland
Seasons Mail Order Brides – Book Three
Sneak Peek — Spring Belle
Also by Annie Lane
Connect with Annie
for those who seek, surrender and forgive
Copyright Annie Lane © 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publisher.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
January 3rd, 1887.
Tears welled in Alice Hamilton’s eyes.
Even here inside her room, her cold cheeks stung from the frosty air. The seasons had only just traded places, winter no more than a few weeks old, but already the sky was blanketed in a rolling wave of heavy clouds that deprived the city of warmth. Seattle was famous for its near-constant cover of darkness, but the icy sleet that fell freezing to the streets was uncharacteristically early, and even the most hardened of locals sheltered under cover.
When Alice blinked, her long lashes overflowed with everything she had bottled up inside her. She placed the pencil down on the small dresser in her bedroom and glanced at the well-worn sheets of her notebook. It was close to being full.
Once upon a time she’d written in the pages daily, pouring her heart and soul out through her words and letting her feelings flourish. She’d had the romantic idea that maybe someday she would have children, and her children would find her diaries, old and dusty by then, and take them down and read them, and perhaps somehow they’d enjoy the sharing of these memories together. But those childish days had long since passed, and now, Alice knew better than to let her walls down. Trust was something to be earned, and not freely given without charge, even to those you most loved.
She had learned that the hard way.
Drawing her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders, she paused in thought for a moment and read over her entry once more, all the while thinking back on a time of happiness, a time before her life changed forever.
A happiness she believed she’d never feel again.
I can hardly believe that it’s been a little over three months since I arrived here in Seattle! While I am enjoying working in the Postal Office with dear Uncle Bert and getting to know the ins and outs of the busy city — I am still very worried! Dear Uncle B is none the wiser as to my TRUE reasons for being here — so I guess I must be doing something right. I sure don’t like deceiving him, but he accepted my ‘wanting a new adventure’ explanation, and all without batting an eyelid! I suppose a brave face sure goes a long way.
Ma, you’d be really proud of how hard I’ve worked. Uncle B and I have done so much planning and sorting and tidying! And he seems to take pleasure in my company too, which is really nice for a change. But then, I can’t help but worry about how he’ll cope once I move on.
And I will!
It is inevitable!
Alice looked up from her diary and sighed. With every bone in her body, she wished it wasn’t so. She looked out of the window at the busy street below, then settled back down to continue reading her diary.
I’m sorry, dear diary, that I haven’t kept you up to date, but so very much has happened. Trust me when I say there have been many bad days. Of course, Ma’s passing was the worst of them! I long for her cheer, her touch and especially her love. When she passed everything changed. Everything. Pa never recovered. He turned to the bottle and that’s when things completely fell apart. If he could get out bed, he spent more and more days at the saloon, even when he should have been at work. His boss didn’t look favorably on that, so within a short time he was laid off. Another really bad day! And the day he gambled away our home … well, that was just one more.
So, dear diary, where did it all begin?
Well, Ma was the one with the smarts in our family. She’d made something of herself. A teacher — a wonderful teacher she was at that — and I always aimed to follow in her footsteps. She’d planned and saved and dreamed of a future right from the very beginning, from well before I was even a twinkle in my Pa’s eye.
When dear Ma passed, I hoped and prayed Pa would learn to manage without her. But sadly, within six months he had lost his job by the bottle, and gambled our home away too.
Pa placed a bet on a horse race. He’d never done it before. Maybe it was his grief, and he couldn’t quite think straight. He said we’d double our savings. Guaranteed me it was a sure thing. Promised me a win. Swore he couldn’t lose. He lost.
Despite Ma’s best efforts, Pa and I still ended up broke, desperate and homeless.
Pa found some work as a farm hand, clearing out stalls and mending fences in return for a small wage. Thankfully, the owner’s wife took pity on us and kindly cleared out an area above the dilapidated stables for our accommodation. Then, for a short while, our circumstances were finally looking up again. We even managed to save a few dollars from every pay packet he earned, and combined with the extra money I made as an assistant at the local school, we were well on our way back to happiness.
Or so I thought.
Pa placed a bet on a horse race. Again, said we’d double our savings. Guaranteed me it was a sure thing. Promised me a win. Swore he couldn’t lose.
Again, he lost.
A week later Pa’s battered broken body was found slumped on the gravel in the alley behind the racing stables. Retribution had found him. It was always going to find him, one way or another, I guess. Poor dear Pa … another very awful day — but at least Pa is now with his dearest.
Well, dear diary, this is where it becomes even more complicated. The very next day two men turned up in the schoolyard, asking for me by my name. Thankfully, I had caught sight of them and overheard them through the open window. I don’t know what my Pa had done or even how much he’d owed them, but I didn’t wait to find out. Never in my life had I been so frightened, and never in my life will I forget them. The very sight of them scared the tears right out of me, my grief for Pa made to wait. The appearance of those men was burned into my memory. The first was tall, with a bushy, black beard that hung down low over his broad chest. The other man was stockier, thick around the middle, and his foot dragged a little behind him when he walked. I just knew they were after me. And I could not allow my fate to be sealed in the same
I collected up the few belongings I owned and placed them into Ma’s old carpet-bag. From beneath the bed I grabbed my jar of spare coins. I’d been saving it for an emergency, and as far as I could tell, I was looking at one square in the eye! By the end of the day I was on a stagecoach traveling north and…
Alice’s thoughts were suddenly snapped back to the present when there was the soft rap of knuckles tapping at her bedroom door. She startled some and spun around to glance at the clock. “I’m coming, Uncle Bert.”
“No hurry, Alice. No work today, so you might as well enjoy a lazy Sunday morning. Church don’t even start till eleven. You’ve earned yourself a rest.” Bert’s voice was barely more than a whisper and the velvety tone drifted through the wall, calming Alice’s racing heart. “I’ve just boiled the pot, care to join me in a cup of chamomile tea?”
It was her favorite, not kind Uncle Bert’s, and Alice smiled and closed her diary. She placed it back safely inside the top drawer and stood to her feet, straightening her dress and fixing her mop of blond ringlets so they didn’t bounce around so much. “Yes please, Uncle. That sounds wonderful.”
Bert nodded to no one but himself and the empty stairwell. “Cold old start to the day,” he grumbled under his breath. “I can smell snow coming a mile off … but I guess only time will tell.”
Sunday lunch had become somewhat of a tradition in the Calhoun household, and each and every chair was currently occupied. Henry sat at the head of the table, just like he always did, enjoying the fellowship and wonderful conversation the afternoon provided. After surviving another one of the preacher’s long-winded sermons, he figured all involved deserved a little reprieve and for once he chose to leave his sheriff’s hat hanging at the door.
Thomas and Charlotte Ackerman were also in attendance and had secured themselves the most coveted seats in the house — the two closest to the kitchen, where a toasty fire roared inside the old wood stove. Charlotte’s pretty pink gloves were folded neatly in half beside her plate and a matching pink bonnet hung from the coat rack. Her new outfit was a gift from Thomas after a successful trip to Great Falls some weeks back, and while Charlotte certainly wasn’t one to gloat, she’d never owned anything so fancy before, and thrilled in wearing her extravagant new accessories to church. She was the envy of every woman in town, though she wasn’t entirely sure what they coveted more —
her brand new gloves, or the handsome man her gloved hand was attached to.
Seated alongside the Ackermans were the Masons — Earl Senior, his son Junior, and his bride of five weeks, Beth. As far as Henry could tell, married life seemed to agree with all three of them and on more than one occasion he’d caught Earl and Beth holding hands right there at the dinner table. ‘Wouldn’t have happened in my day,’ he thought to himself, but what could he do? It was a modern world they were living in after all, and he wasn’t about to spoil their fun.
Gabe Calhoun mumbled a few words through his mouthful of food, and it seemed to his mother she was the only one who had heard it.
“You … you are what?” Louise Calhoun couldn’t believe her ears. She froze right there on the spot, balancing a dish of hot rolls in one hand and a platter of corn-on-the-cob in the other. Gabriel was Louise and Henry’s only child, and proprietor of the most successful blacksmith establishment in the town of Conrad, Montana — he sat back now in his chair with a satisfied smirk on his face.
Louise pursed her lips. “I’m waiting, Gabriel! I’m not going to ask you twice!”
The boy’s cheeks danced with amusement and a thrill of excitement ran through his veins as he nodded his head so there was no mistaking his intentions.
“You heard me, Ma … I’m getting married!”
Gabe’s best friend Thomas was sipping on his water just as Gabe spoke, and when the surprising words registered plain and simple in his head, a spray of liquid suddenly flew from his mouth, soaking straight through Louise’s fine linen tablecloth.
Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “You’re getting married?”
“Yep, you betcha,” said Gabe, grinning like a man who’d just struck gold.
“Well, that’s wonderful news. A little surprising, but still so very wonder—”
“I, uh … Charlotte,” garbled Thomas, water dripping from the tip of his chin. “Some help, please?” He nudged her arm with the back of his hand and gestured for a napkin, but Charlotte couldn’t tear her eyes away from Gabe, not for even a second, and when she inadvertently offered him one of her gloves as an alternative, Thomas frowned and wiped his face on his sleeve instead.
There was really no point vying for her attention. He’d clearly lost her. His wife was a hopeless romantic, and with the whiff of a wedding suddenly in the air, he knew it would be hours before her eyes lost that dreamy, loved-up sheen.
Beth Mason’s red hair spilled down over one shoulder in a long braid, the end tied together tightly with an emerald ribbon — the exact same shade of green as Beth’s eyes — and it shone so beautifully in the dimly-lit room that Earl struggled to keep his thoughts focused on the conversation at hand. He finally tore his eyes away and glanced over at his friend. “Uh, yeah … congratulations, Gabe!”
Junior kept his head down the entire time, not seeming fazed either way by the announcement, and continued to scarf down an extra helping of carrots. What did he care anyway? Eight-year-old boys weren’t much fazed by matters of the heart, and for the most part, the constant stream of chatter that filled the room simply drifted and floated up, somewhere high above his head, until it finally wafted out the window and headed for the hills.
Henry cleared his throat. “And who exactly do you plan on marrying?”
Of course, Gabe knew his father would be the first to ask that question. It was just the way of things. Henry’s mind worked like a good clock, and he rarely let emotion hinder the process. But Gabe enjoyed working his father over sometimes. He liked to keep him on his toes — rile him up until he looked fit to burst, and then let him down easily.
“With all due respect,” said Gabe, “you’re the lawman among us, Pa … why don’t you figure it out and get back to me when you’ve come up with the answer.”
Gabe knew full well that his father didn’t enjoy being toyed with this way, especially not in front of guests, but it was entertaining if nothing else.
Louise creased her forehead once she realized what was happening. “Gabriel William Calhoun, you’ll watch your manners!”
Thomas chuckled. “Come on, Gabe, don’t keep us in suspense. Who’s the lucky lady?”
Gabe didn’t answer at first, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats just a while longer. With his prolonged silence, anticipation hung in the air and finally, when he figured they couldn’t take it anymore, he sighed. “I honestly don’t know. I sent off a letter a few weeks ago for a mail order bride, and I’m still waiting on a response.”
Louise’s eyes flew wide open.
There were very few things Gabe could have said to her in that moment that might have shocked her more…
— one might be if he was planning to enlist a group of bandits and rob a stagecoach.
— another might be if he wanted to join a monastery and take a vow of silence.
— but as it was, Louise couldn’t hide the displeasure that seeped all the way through and around and about her body. “Please, Gabriel — tell me you didn’t?”
Gabe smiled and folded his arms. “I sure as heck did. Wrote it out myself too! I’m just waiting on the Seattle mail to arrive so I can take my pick.”
Charlotte sat up a little taller. “Did you say Seattle?”
Gabe nodded. “Yes, I saw your Mrs. Fredrick’s advertisement in the matrimonial newspaper. I caught Mr. Brewer flickin’ through the thing last time I was in the Mercantile.” He chuckled then and snatched a bread roll off the plate. “Shoulda seen him jump when Mrs. Brewer caught him lookin
“He’s after a second wife?” mumbled Thomas. “I’m quite satisfied with one.”
But Gabe ignored Thomas, tore off a hunk of bread between his teeth, slowly chewed on it for a bit, and then swallowed before he continued. “I reckon that Mrs. Fredrick must be doing a roaring trade. The line-up was just about out the door.”
Gabe peeked over at Earl then and raised his brows. He knew he was pushing his luck but he was enjoying himself far too much to stop. “You’ve been strutting around like a rooster and now every bachelor in town wants to get hitched. I sure do hope there’s one of them pretty little ones left over for me.”
Still not entirely comfortable with the way Gabe admired his wife, Earl simply lifted his chin and reached across to cover Beth’s hand again. He loved the way her silky skin felt beneath his own, soft and warm and perfectly smooth. “Might not be wise to use those exact words when you first meet the young lady.”
Louise grunted. “Certainly not … and being likened to leftovers is hardly flattering.”
Junior shoved down the last spoonful of carrots and blinked up at Louise, holding out his empty plate. “Yes, please Mrs. Calhoun. I’d love some.”
Beth giggled. “No, sweetheart, Louise wasn’t offering more food. It’s just a figure of speech. If you’re still hungry you can finish off what’s on my plate. Seems my appetite still hasn’t quite returned to full strength. I’m just not feeling myself lately.”
Junior nodded gratefully. The way his lips curled up at the corners was the spitting image of his father — kind, loving and faultlessly handsome — and Beth’s heart melted when his adorable little dimples sank further into his chubby cheeks. Since the catastrophe over by the creek, Junior had scarcely left Beth’s side and their two hearts had come together with such a bond that nothing — not even a Prairie rattlesnake — could break the precious union.