Smoke River Bride(5)By: Lynna Banning
Again, he peered into her face, and this time his eyes softened into a blue like the sea. “I reckon you didn’t read about Oregon.”
“No. I never expected to come to Oregon.”
His face changed. The soft blue eyes grew distant, and the lines around his mouth deepened. His jaw sagged for a moment until he snapped it shut and thrust his brown leather gloves into her hands. “Life’s like that. Always what you don’t expect.”
A dart of sympathy pricked her. She had lost her parents, but he had lost much more—his wife, his partner in life. The mother of his son. Poor man. He was big and strong and probably fearless about things that would terrify a weaker person, but she saw how he ached inside in his grief. Inside, this formidable man was just like any other human being.
Leah pulled on the offered gloves. They were so large the fingers drooped at the ends and she had to curl her hands into fists to keep them from falling off.
They entered the hotel lobby together. It smelled of cigar smoke and coffee, and instantly all conversation ceased. In the unsettling silence Leah made her way to the portly desk clerk and laid her gloved hands on the counter. The clerk’s squinty eyes widened.
“I would like to engage a room,” she said.
“Sure thing, ma’am.” He did not look up, but kept his gaze on her oversize hands.
She began to tug off the gloves. “Only for tonight,” she added.
The shiny-faced clerk picked up a pen and absentmindedly turned the hotel register toward her. “If you’ll just sign here, ma’am, I’ll—”
He looked into her face and stopped short. “Just a minute, there. I’m afraid this hotel is full.”
“But it was not full two minutes ago,” she protested.
Thad strode over to the desk and positioned himself behind her. “No, it isn’t full, Sam,” he said in a flat voice.
“Sorry, Mr. MacAllister,” he mumbled. “We don’t cater to…to Celestials.”
Thad’s bare fist came down hard on the polished oak counter. He leaned over it and spoke in a tone as clear and hard as ice. “This lady is as American as you or me, and tomorrow she’s gonna be my—” he took a breath “—my wife. You’ll cater to her now, understand?”
The clerk goggled at him. “I h-heard ya, Mr. MacAllister, but—”
“How much is the room?”
“Dollar and a half,” Sam choked out. “But—”
Thad slapped four coins onto the counter. The clerk flinched, reached to one side and dropped a room key into Thad’s deliberately extended palm. “Third d-door on the right.”
Thad bent to retrieve Leah’s battered leather valise, grasped her elbow and ushered her up the stairs.
Instantly conversation buzzed in the smokefilled lobby. “My Gawd, didja see that?”
“Never thought a Celestial…”
“Hell, Thad’s bit off more’n he can chew this time.”
“Celestial or not, didja see her face? She’s downright pretty!”
Leah followed Mr. MacAllister down the musty-smelling hallway and waited while he unlocked the door to her room. He stood aside, and she edged past him.
The room was small, with one lace-curtained window overlooking the main street, a coverlet-swathed bed, a tall oak armoire and a washstand with a blue-patterned china basin and water pitcher. The place smelled oddly of both dust and furniture polish.
Mr. MacAllister shifted from one foot to the other and finally spoke from the open doorway. “I’ll be back in the morning, Miss Cameron.”
Leah turned toward him. “I will be ready, Mr. MacAllister.”
For a long minute he didn’t move. “One last thing I’ve got to say,” he grumbled.
She braced herself. She knew it! He didn’t want her. In the morning he would send her away.
“You do not want me because I am—”
“Nah, not a bit of it, Miss Cameron. Don’t you mind what people say. I—I’m glad you came.”
She studied the tall man in the beaver coat. His gaze seemed direct; laugh lines wrinkled the corners of his eyes and his mouth could change from a grim line into a smile in a single heartbeat.
She liked him. She couldn’t say why, exactly. He was gruff, his manners untutored, but she sensed a steadiness about him. He was like Father but not so disapproving. Father had always worried about her Chinese half, even though he had braved Third Uncle, Ming Sa’s guardian, to marry her mother. The Chinese did not respect the White Devils, but she knew Father had loved Ming Sa.
“I am glad I came, as well,” she said softly. And God knew she needed to belong somewhere safe, even if it was a farm on the rough, uncivilized Oregon frontier.