Smoke River Bride(2)By: Lynna Banning
Leah watched his expelled breath puff into a foggy white cloud. “Yeah,” he muttered at last. “I guess I did expect you to be…well…” His voice trailed off.
Heavenly Father, he would send her back! She could never return to San Francisco. Not now.
“Wait,” she said. “I can cook and clean and care for a child. I have had experience at the Christian mission orphanage in Canton. And I can sew and embroider… .”
But she could not return to China. Never. Third Uncle would lose face, and besides, there was no longer any place for her there. In China, she was not half Chinese, she was half White Devil. She no longer knew where she belonged.
She watched him look away, then back to her. “It’s not that I think you’re not qualified, miss. But—”
“You need not explain, Mr. MacAllister. It is clear that you no longer want me.” She had half expected such a reaction, but now what was she to do?
She hefted her valise and started moving slowly toward the station house entrance.
He caught up with her in two strides. “It’s not that you’re a Celestial, not exactly.” He lifted the suitcase out of her hand and fell into step beside her.
“Then what is it, exactly?” She sneaked a look at him.
His mouth tightened. “Aw, hell, I don’t know. The folks here in town might not—”
“Would you protect me?”
“Well, sure, but—”
“Mr. MacAllister, I cannot go back to San Francisco. It took me eight days to escape from my host lady. She was a very bad woman. I will not go back.”
He pulled open the door of the station house just as the train gave a high, throaty toot and chuffed on down the track. “Come inside, miss. You look like you could use some—”
“Tea,” she supplied without thinking. “Yes, please.”
He frowned down at her, then stamped the snow off his boots. “You might let me finish a sentence now and then, Miss Cameron.”
“Oh! I beg your pardon, Mr. MacAllister. Father and my teachers always said I was impulsive and outspoken. They were right.”
His rust-brown eyebrows waggled. “You’ve been to school, then?”
“Of course. I can read and write in two languages. My father headed a mission school in China. I was educated there until…” She bent her head.
He waited. “Until?”
Leah clenched her jaw until the urge to cry passed. “Until Mother and then my father died of cholera. Papa saw to it that I was well educated.”
“Aye, I can see that. You talk right proper.”
“Me, I know farming—cattle, and this year I’m trying some wheat. Nobody in these parts grows wheat, but…Let’s see, where was I? I know how to build a barn and a house and I can read and write. That’s what I want for my boy, and more.”
He guided her to a stool at the counter. “Tea for the lady,” he said. “Coffee for me, with a shot of—Aw, skip it, Charlie. Just coffee.” Charlie was the manager, the telegraph operator and the ticket seller for the small Smoke River station.
The short balding man leaned over the counter. “This yer, uh, new bride?”
Thad purposefully cleared his throat. “Mind your own business, Charlie.”
“Hell, ever’body in town knows you sent away for…” He focused on Leah’s face and his voice trailed off. “Oh, I see.”
“Oh, you do?” Thad challenged.
“Yeah, I do,” Charlie said quietly. “Won’t be easy, Thad. Good luck to ya.” He clomped over to the black potbellied stove in the center of the small reception room and tossed a small log into the fire.
Within minutes the room was toasty warm. Leah sent the stationmaster a grateful smile, stood up and shrugged out of her ankle-length wool coat. Thad stood, as well, grasped the coat and strode off to hang it on the coatrack by the door. When he turned back to Miss Cameron, the floor tilted under his boots.
Jehosephat, she was a looker! She wore some kind of silky blue-green trousers and a matching long-sleeved tunic with frog loops down the front. But what he noticed most was how the smooth fabric curved over her breasts and hinted at her hips. She was small and slim, built like a China doll, but she sure looked womanly.
And she’d come to Smoke River to be a bride and run a home? Hell, she looked too delicate to hang out the laundry, let alone boil sheets and dungarees in a tin washtub.
“Listen, Miss Cameron, you sure you want to live out on a ranch? To be honest, it’s a hardscrabble life out here in the West, and some years it’s harder than others. Summers can be scorching, winters are—”