Mail-Order Brides of the West: Evie (McCutcheon), p.1
OF THE WEST: EVIE
The McCutcheon Family Series
Mail-Order Brides of the West: Evie by Caroline Fyffe
Copyright © 2013 by Caroline Fyffe
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locals, or persons, living or dead, is wholly coincidental.
All rights reserved
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, recording, by information storage and retrieval or photocopied, without permission in writing from Caroline Fyffe.
Cover art by Delle Jacobs
Proudly Published in the United States of America
Dedicated to my dear sister, Jenny Meyer, with love.
There are so many wonderful people to acknowledge in the creation of this book. First, my good friend and kindred spirit, author Debra Holland, for coming up with the idea in the first place, one that links our heroines to each other as well as to our respective towns in our individual series. Trudy Bauer to Sweetwater Springs in the Wild Montana Sky series, and Evie Davenport to Y Knot and the McCutcheon Family series—both towns set in the wilds of Montana. Working together has been a joy from start to finish!
My deepest thanks to Jennifer Meyer, Pam Berehulke, Leslie Lynch and Sandy Loyd for the developmental and editorial help. Also my fantastic beta reading team, for their sharp eyes, dedication and enthusiasm: Jennie Armento, Mildred Robles, Kandice Hutton, Lorna Samboceti Wren, and Mariellen Lillard. Thank you so much!
And, as always, to my delightful readers, who want a story bursting with love and romance, as well as a good horse, a gunfight now and then, and slow cowboy charm. You’ve filled my life with joy.
St. Louis, Missouri, 1886
EVIE DAVENPORT hurried around the parlor, feather duster in hand. With a happy little skip, she flicked it gracefully back and forth over the walnut coffee table, then lightly fluffed the delicate glass beads dangling from the shade of the pink-and-white lamp atop the piano. A warm excitement swirled within her. A new girl was arriving today, coming all the way from Kentucky. A mail-order bride-to-be. How romantic. She always loved when a prospective bride knocked on the door for the very first time, her face aglow with excited anticipation.
Evie glanced at the stately grandfather clock and picked up her step. The house must be perfectly prepared when the new boarder arrived, particularly her bed, freshly made with ironed linens, and a vase of roses beside it.
Pulling the white cleaning cloth from her shoulder, Evie wiped the parlor windowsill, glancing at the roses in the garden, then moved to the mantel over the large fireplace. The burning knot that usually wedged itself in Evie’s heart whenever she dreamed about love wasn’t there today, and she knew why. She paused, closed her eyes, and leaned her head back against the parlor’s green-and-brown striped wallpaper. Lovingly, she ran her hand over her apron pocket, thinking about the secret posts carefully tucked away inside. She didn’t dare leave them about where someone might stumble across them, but carried them with her always.
Glancing to the doorway to make sure she was alone, she drew out the most recent, and for the hundredth time, studied the return address carefully printed in the upper left-hand corner. Chance Holcomb, General Delivery, Y Knot, Montana.
Her heart fluttered, and she suddenly felt warm and tingly. A thousand butterflies hatched inside her tummy and took flight. Why not, indeed, she thought, pushing a tendril of curly blonde hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. Evie was only twenty-two. She longed to be a bride, a wife, a mother. Even though her household duties kept her out of the kitchen much of the time, she did cook, a little—a very little. But she could keep a home beautifully, she reminded herself. No complaints there. She ran her finger lightly, adoringly, over Chance’s name, imagining his face from the vague description he’d sent. Tall, twenty-seven years old, cattle rancher, light brown hair, green eyes.
The sound of laughter in the kitchen startled her from her daydreaming. Today the girls were learning how to dress a newly butchered and plucked chicken. Passing the doorway of the large, bright kitchen, she stopped and glanced inside, aching to join the fun. Her heart sank at the disarray before her eyes. Earlier, she’d had the place spick-and-span. She’d taken extra time with the pie safe and cupboard, as well as the rectangular table in the alcove, polishing Mrs. Seymour’s fine furniture to a high sheen. The room had fairly sparkled. Now, trying to find one area that wasn’t a mess was a challenge. In addition, the back door to the vegetable garden and rose walk stood open like an invitation to any fly that might be passing by. Feathers fluttered on the warm spring breeze, dancing around the yard like baby lambs.
Heather Stanford, an orange feather stuck to her nose, stood back as she watched Angelina Napolitano, always a take-charge kind of girl, grip the poultry by a plump drumstick and stuff it into an earthen pot. Angelina clanked the lid down tight, flashing a triumphant smile.
“Very good, Angelina,” Mrs. Seymour said from behind her. “Remember, girls, you will want to baste your chicken with butter every ten to twenty minutes. It will keep it moist and turn the skin a nice golden brown.” The matron’s gaze roamed the room, touching the face of each young woman. Her brown hair, silver-streaked at one temple, was done up in a bun and her dress complemented her trim figure. “One of the fastest ways to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I can’t stress that enough.”
Mrs. Seymour, owner of the Mail-Order Brides of the West Agency, and Evie’s employer, ran a tight ship. She was tall and dignified, if not a bit weathered for her forty-some-odd years. Girls of high moral standing, with good domestic abilities, were her trademark. As a fatherless girl—an illegitimate child, Evie corrected in her mind—Evie herself could never be considered a proper candidate to be a bride. Mrs. Seymour avoided the subject assiduously, clearly wanting to spare Evie’s feelings. She knew she was different, and had taken the hint. At these thoughts, a small bubble of shame tried to steal away her happiness, but she refused to let it.
When Mrs. Seymour caught her eye, Evie quickly stuffed the post back into her pocket and smiled a bit too brightly. What would happen if the matron found out she’d taken the letters without permission? And—had gone so far as to answer them! She swallowed and took a deep, calming breath.
“Are you finished, Evelyn?” Mrs. Seymour asked evenly. It wasn’t that Mrs. Seymour was unkind. On the contrary, when Evie’s mother had died eight years ago, Mrs. Seymour had cared for her with all the devotion of a second mother. But as grateful as Evie was to her for her job and room and board, her heart ached for more. A home of her own. A man to love. Children in her arms. If she didn’t take matters into her own hands, she would likely be stuck here forever.
“Almost, ma’am. I’m going to make up the new girl’s bed right away, then all I have left to do is shake out the rugs.”
Prudence Crawford, a mean-spirited girl if there ever was one, gave a smirk, boldly looking down her nose at Evie. She had been at the agency for ten weeks, an unusually long time for a bride-to-be, and never missed the chance to make Evie feel small. Her black hair, pulled back in a severe bun, made her look older than her twenty-five years. After making sure her haughty look had registered on Evie, her eyes widened with false innocence.
How can anyone be so mean?
Evie ducked her head. “I’m glad you liked them.” Trudy didn’t know, but she was her very best friend. Even though Trudy had only been at the agency for two weeks, the young woman had endeared herself to Evie in so many ways. She made her feel special. Appreciated. She’d gone out of her way several times to seek her out and chat over some amusing story. If Evie had ever had a sister, she’d want her to be just like Trudy, with her high spirit of adventure and bubbly personality. And, even better, Trudy took delight in volleying back a kind remark to each of Prudence’s mean ones. It had actually turned into a game of sorts, and everyone besides Mrs. Seymour noticed. Heather nodded and smiled her support, and Kathryn winked.
Evie hurried off. How surprised everyone would be if they learned she also had a handsome husband-to-be, waiting impatiently for her arrival—for no matter how modest Chance tried to come across in his letters, she knew by the things he said that no Prince Charming could be as sweet, or as handsome. Chance Holcomb, with a newly constructed home on a ranch outside the small, untamed town of Y Knot, Montana. At least, that’s what Chance had called it, giving her the opportunity to back out of the arrangement if it sounded too remote for her taste. Small was fine, but remote worried her a little. Anxiety tickled the back of her mind.
Evie’s least favorite thing on earth was black with eight legs. Large or small, it didn’t matter. Her fear of spiders was blind, uncontrollable. The spindly, evil-looking creatures terrified her.
“Here we go, sweetness,” her mother said, reaching out her arms as Evie lay sleepy-eyed in her warm bed after a midmorning nap. “I’m sure you’re as hungry as your roly-poly teddy bear.” Her mama’s smile suddenly vanished and her eyes grew wide. A shriek ripped from her throat! She shrieked again, sending Evie’s heart shattering into a million tiny pieces. What was wrong? Did her mother hate her? The door to the nursery banged open. The man she knew only as the Colonel rushed in. Her mother pointed straight at her. Had she turned into a monster while she’d been dreaming of strawberry pie?
It was her earliest memory. One that haunted her dreams every few months.
The Colonel reached out, his large hands getting closer. He jerked back, then came forward again. Scooping her hair between his hands, he threw something to the floor and stomped on it. She began sobbing uncontrollably. Then she found herself in the warm arms of her mama, clutched tightly to her chest. A black widow had crawled into her hair as she’d slept.
Evie took a deep, calming breath to settle her nerves, then descended the stairs into the basement where the laundry service had left the clean linen. After the spider incident, she used to pretend the Colonel was her papa, who loved her, and took care of her. If she let herself wonder about her real papa, it pained her deep inside, and her head ached. She would crawl under her blankets until the hurting went away. So, like now, she pushed the hurtful topic out of her mind, and turned to other, safer subjects, like Chance, like a new life in Montana, like a home of her own.
In his last letter, Chance had shared his desire for a wife, a partner, someone to help him build his dreams, their dreams. His few words were lovely, expressing his feelings better than she had at most times. He did say he hoped she could cook a few hearty meals, nothing fancy but staples to keep his belly full while working the ranch.
Guiltily, she snatched up the bedding and climbed back up the stairs. She’d avoided that issue altogether, and he hadn’t asked again, probably presuming her silence meant she could handle a kitchen just fine. He’d cautioned the territory was rough, and wild, but promised to take care of her to the best of his abilities. Chance had sent her passage money in his last letter. Her only concern was Mrs. Seymour’s reaction. Would the matron object? She wouldn’t stop her from going after all the arrangements had already been made, would she? She couldn’t possibly do something like that, or could she?
CHANCE HOLCOMB let the door of the mercantile slam behind him, then strode down the boardwalk, frustrated as all get-out. The fifty-pound crate of nails he’d ordered, as well as hinges and other hardware, hadn’t come in for the third week in a row, bringing the construction of his house to a screeching halt. Something about a labor problem in St. Louis. He stopped, stepped back, and let several women breeze past, politely touching the brim of his black Stetson.
He glanced around. Y Knot was quiet. A few horses stood in front of the saloon, another at the leather shop next door. A puff of wind picked up some dirt from the middle of the street, forming a small dust devil. The swirling funnel twirled away, zigzagging as it went.
After years of riding for the McCutcheon spread, Chance had finally taken part of his lifelong savings and most of a modest inheritance received two years ago from an aunt in Boston—an aunt he didn’t even know he had—and purchased a tract of land he’d been looking at for ages. Not a huge spread, but enough to get a man started. Then he’d gone out looking for something special to raise there. If he couldn’t compete with the Heart of the Mountains on quantity, perhaps he could in quality. Give the ranchers, and the stockyards in Cheyenne, something different. Something they’d never seen before. A little friendly competition was good for the soul.
Keeping just enough money back to build a house, a barn, and a couple of outbuildings, he’d traveled to Wyoming to inquire about a breed of cattle he’d heard about some years back in a saloon there. The Charolais. From France. They were large boned and wide-eyed, and the meat, low in fat, was considered superior overseas. If he could be one of the first ranchers to breed them, and later cross them with Herefords, he just might be able to make a decent living—perhaps even more.
It took some doing, but he’d finally located the rancher with the pretty French wife he’d met way back then, who was breeding Charolais. Now ten fine-looking blonde heifers and one breeding stock two-year-old bull had the run of his acreage. All ten heifers were in calf to the original rancher’s bull, and would begin calving at any time. A sense of pride ran through Chance just thinking about it.
It would take a handful of years and a lot of hard work until his herd was large enough to begin cross breeding. Until then, he’d keep all the heifers, sell off the bull calves good enough for breeding, and castrate the rest for market. It would be a slim living for a while, but if his idea panned out—no, when it did—he felt in his gut ranchers would come from far and wide. Buy into his foresight of the rapid-growing, easy-calving bovine. When he needed the Hereford bull for crossing with his stock, he’d go to the McCutcheons.
He closed his eyes. It wouldn’t be long before there were ten light-colored calves roaming in the pasture, eating grass, and butting heads. Was Evie an animal lover? What would she think of the—
“I got your bride mended. Any time you want to pick her up…”
What did he just say? Chance snapped straight. Looked around.
Mr. Herrick had stepped out of the leather shop and was looking at him curiously. “Are you asleep on your feet, son? Maybe you need to stop burning that midnight oil. I said your bridle is ready anytime you want to pick it up. It’ll cost ya two bits.”
Chance laughed. “That’s a steal. I’ll be over later. Any news from Trent?”
“Nope. Still waiting on a letter.”
A moment passed. What could he say? The old man shrugged and a look of hurt crossed his face, then he shuffled back through the door.
Through the plate glass window, Chance watched as his friend went about arranging the saddles, bringing them closer to the glass. The leather smith and his son, Trent, had befriended Chance and his father when the two of them had first ambled into Y Knot, back when it was just a one-street town. When Chance’s father passed on, Mr. Herrick made it a point to seek Chance out, check on him.<
The bell in the tower clanged four o’clock, bringing him out of his reverie. He needed to get back to the ranch. He’d promised Evie a house. She was counting on it. It was one of the stipulations of the agency. If a man wanted a wife, he had to have a house, not a tent or ramshackle shack, to bring her home to.
If not for the nail debacle, he’d now be putting the finishing touches to that house. Per his request, Berta May had sewed up some lacy curtains for the kitchen window, and a thick coverlet filled with goose down for their bed. Problem was, he didn’t have a place to put them yet. He wanted the house to feel homey. Welcoming. Right now the place didn’t even have a roof overhead. Still, he’d been living in the half-finished structure, his bedroll on the floor next to the expansive bed frame he’d crafted from twenty-year-old lodge pines growing on his land, their land, just for Evie.
The corner of his lip lifted. The agency had another stipulation, too. No consummation of vows for at least a month, a sort of get-to-know-each-other time. Unless, of course, both parties chose to forgo that stipulation. A man could only hope.
He shook his head, then started down the boardwalk toward the livery to pick up his horse and wagon. Mr. Lichtenstein, proprietor of the mercantile, had assured him he was doing absolutely everything possible. Each week that the order came back incomplete from St. Louis, the merchant felt worse. He assured Chance if there were any nails to be found, he would find them. They just won’t get here in time for me to fulfill my commitment to Evie. I hope she likes looking at the stars.
As he walked, mulling over his problem, he passed a few strangers standing in front of the saloon, then Dr. Handerhoosen, going into his one-room medical building. He’d promised Evie a place where she’d be safe and warm before the winter set in. Told her the house was done—because he believed it would be. The building plan crinkled loudly when he clenched his fist in irritation. Lying, even unintentionally, was not a good way to start a marriage.