Smoke River Bride(4)

By: Lynna Banning

The stationmaster laughed. “Thad? Nah. He’s gone kinda crazy over this wheat-growing idea, and once he gets his mind made up, he’s hard to move. Sure, he gets hot under the collar sometimes, but I’ve never seen him do anything mean.”

Leah turned back to her tea. Everything would work out. It had to work out; she had no place else to go.

The front door banged open and there stood Mr. MacAllister, snow frosting the shoulders of his jacket and dusting the wide brim of his gray hat.

“Come on, Miss Cameron. Time to take you home.”

Chapter Two

Mr. MacAllister snagged Leah’s gray wool coat off the stand and held it out to her. “Ready to head to my ranch, Miss Cameron?”

Leah stared at the tall, muscular man. She had not thought this would be so hard to do. To be honest, she had not thought at all; she was so grateful for a way to escape Madam Tang in San Francisco, she had seized the money Mr. MacAllister had sent and boarded the first train north. Now, facing the prospect of actually living with this man, becoming his wife, she was frightened.

“Are we not to be married first?” she asked.

“Uh, sure.” But now that he was facing it he had to admit he wasn’t over Hattie yet. Yeah, he needed someone to keep house and mind Teddy, but maybe he wasn’t ready for another marriage.

Still, she needed someplace safe, and she was educated. She probably knew some about the history of the world, and about books. Most of the Smoke River folks hadn’t been schooled past sixth grade, and he wanted Teddy to know about literature, about poetry. Maybe even Scottish writers, like Robbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

Well, hell, nothing came for free. If he wanted all these things for Teddy, he should be prepared to pay the price. And the price was marriage.

“Gettin’ colder outside, Miss Cameron. Might make better sense to go on home where it’s warm and discuss this further.” He stood with the wool coat draped over one arm, looking at her expectantly.

“No.” She said it quietly, but she meant it. It would not be best at all. She remembered the few days she had spent at Madam Tang’s in San Francisco. No male servant had been allowed near her. If a man touch you before, your price will be less. You are virgin. Virgins must be careful.

Leah clasped her hands in her lap. She was a stranger in a land she did not know, among people she did not yet trust. She must be extra careful or she would end up a concubine, not a wife.

“I cannot go to your home tonight. Not until we are married.”

“Huh?” His expressive brown eyebrows shot up. “You mean—”

“Yes, I do mean. I am sorry, but I cannot come before we are married. It would not be proper.”

His blue eyes snapped with impatience. “Proper! Hell, Miss Cameron, I’m just offering you shelter.”

Leah shook her head. “If I go with you now, there will be harm. Not of your making, perhaps, but…” She kept her voice calm, but her nerves had begun to scream. Would he change his mind about marrying her if she refused to do what he asked?

“Explain,” he ordered.

She sucked in a shaky breath. “I am an outsider in your country. I cannot afford to be compromised.”

“Compromised!” He snorted. “I don’t aim to do anything but feed you some supper and—”

“Please, Mr. MacAllister. I will eat supper at the hotel. You may come for me tomorrow and then—” she straightened her spine “—then I will become your wife.”

“I, uh, I didn’t exactly expect…I mean, it isn’t that I don’t want you to stay—I do. But, well, I wasn’t expecting to marry this soon. And I guess you did. Do.”

“Yes,” she said, her voice quiet. “I do.”

His face changed. Desperation faded into resignation, and then he nodded decisively.

“Okay, we’ll get married right away. Save your reputation and help me raise my son. More than I bargained for, but…like it or not, there it is. There’s an old saying out here—in for a penny, in for a pound. Guess I’m in for the pound.”

“Do you wish not to marry me because I am half Chinese?”

“No,” he said shortly. “There’s other reasons, but makes no matter now.”

She slid off the stool, lifted her coat off his arm and shrugged into it. “I will go now to the hotel.”

“What? Oh, sure, the hotel.” He looked as if he’d been hit over the head with a coal shovel. He rebuttoned his overcoat and started to pull on his gloves but stopped suddenly and peered down at her hands.

“You got any gloves?”

“No. I read a book about the West. About California. It said the sun shines every day.”

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