Authors: Annie Lane
homas drew back
hard on the horse’s mouthpiece, pulling the wagon through the front gate of his property just before nightfall. By the time he’d tethered the horses to the hitching post beside the stables and filled their troughs with clean, fresh water from the well, he couldn’t quite fathom what it was he was feeling. Other than being exhausted after a long day of traveling, his neck stiff and his eyes tired, there was something gnawing away inside him that just didn’t sit well in his gut. It felt like both sides of his heart were at war with each other, pulling and wrenching in opposite directions. He wasn’t sure what to call it, but it weighed down on him to the point that he wasn’t thinking right.
He climbed the front stairs two at a time and stood on the veranda awhile. One hand found the back of his neck and he rubbed the skin, kneading it harder and harder with every passing minute. Perhaps it was the fact that, as promised, Charlotte had talked non-stop the entire trip, not coming up for air until he dropped her off safely in front of the Calhoun’s diner just half an hour earlier. He’d stayed there for a while, making the appropriate introductions and all, but he felt mighty uncomfortable too, as all eyes were set in his direction all waiting for a reaction and the truth be told – Thomas enjoyed that about as much as he enjoyed being poked in the back with a hot coal.
If only Gabe had been there to greet them, things might have gone differently. Gabe could talk underwater with a mouthful of rocks, and he had a way of charming the ladies, something Thomas was yet to master, but as had become a recurring event lately, Gabe was still at the barn and nowhere to be seen. So, before he made a complete idiot of himself, Thomas simply offered a small wave, said his goodbyes and then headed for the ranch.
Part of him guessed Charlotte was just as nervous as he, and maybe that’s what had her so chatty, but there was another part of him that feared this to be her usual manner and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He wasn’t used to so much conversation flitting around in his head like a moth drawn to the light, turning itself inside out and upside down and round and round until it had nowhere else to go. He’d spent most of his life avoiding it in fact. As far as he could tell, once Charlotte arrived on the farm, things were never going to be the same and he wasn’t sure he liked that idea. But then again, he wasn’t sure he hated it either.
He needed to remind himself of why he’d sent the letter off in the first place. He needed to keep it straight in his head. Taking a wife was one thing … someone to cook, and to clean, and to run the house while he worked the fields. But all this other stuff, the pretty eyes and the silky hair and the accidental, or not so accidental, touching – well, that was something else altogether.
Charlotte’s delicate scent still hugged his clothes, surrounding him in every way possible and Thomas closed his eyes, trying to ignore the way his body reacted to the idea of her still being so close to him. Yes, maybe that was it. He just wasn’t used to thinking about another person and it was going to take some getting used to. It would all take time.
Thomas shook his head, figuring he still had a lot to learn about women … and people in general for that matter. He cursed a few words that he sure wasn’t proud of, but being that he lived all alone, he spoke his mind without fear of strife. He took a deep breath and let his head fall back on his shoulders. He stayed like that for a moment, finding comfort in the familiar chirping of crickets off in the distance and the gentle lowing of cattle just beyond the fence line.
But that wasn’t it at all. The feeling was still there, eating at him. It was something else altogether and the realization of the truth stung the back of Thomas’s eyes to the point that they watered. His stomach twisted up into knots as he recalled the look in Charlotte’s eyes when he pulled the cart away from the front of the diner. He’d dared to glance back at her once. Why, he didn’t really know. Maybe he wanted to know if she was watching him too. She’d done her fair share of that very thing on the ride into town. Thomas hadn’t missed it. But when he looked over his shoulder, Charlotte’s concentration wasn’t on him at all.
Her enormous blue eyes were wide, the whites of them visible from all the way across the street. Tiny little lines had settled right between her brows and she looked genuinely frightened for some reason. With her skin as pale as a ghost, Thomas figured it had something to do with her past, something he knew nothing about.
But he couldn’t get her expression out of his head. It did things to him that he wasn’t overly sure about. What he did know for sure … was that he never, ever, wanted to see that look on her face again and he’d do everything in his power to see it stayed that way.
glad to have Louise Calhoun’s portly arms surrounding her while they stood in front of the diner and watched Thomas pull away down the road. If she weren’t so tightly encircled inside them, she might just have stumbled on the sidewalk with the sudden flash of fear that rose up inside her and made her cheeks cold and clammy all at the same time. The clippity-clop of the horse’s hooves took her straight back to a time she didn’t care to re-visit and a terrifying mix of fire and ice raced through her veins. She was ten years old all over again.
Was she being left alone again? Deserted? Abandoned?
Desperate to keep the fright clear from her expression, Charlotte brushed her hair back from her face and straightened her dress before anyone else noticed. But Henry didn’t miss a beat. Being Sheriff for so many years had taught him a few things about reading people’s expressions and he knew right then and there that something was on her mind.
“The little lady might need her rest, Louise. How ’bout you show her upstairs to her room. It’s been a long few days and I’m sure she’d appreciate a bath.”
“Oh yes, of course. It’s just so wonderful to finally meet you, my dear. Thomas has told me so much about you from your letter.” Louise stopped herself from laughing and then shook her head slightly. “Well, as much as Thomas ever talks about anything. You must come on inside at once. There’s so much to be done before the wedding. I’m so looking forward to being part of your special day.”
Charlotte finally dragged her teary eyes away from the street and focused on Louise as they headed inside the building. “Is he always so stand-offish? He barely said two words to me the entire trip.”
“What!” Louise gasped, jerking her head back. “Was he rude to you? I’ll tan the boy’s hide if I ever find out he didn’t treat you with the utmost respect.”
“You’ll be tanning nothin’,” warned Henry, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. “That boy doesn’t have a disrespectful bone in his body. He’s just one of those folks who if they don’t got nothin’ important to say, they just keep their mouth shut instead of wastin’ perfectly good air.”
As if on cue, Mabel Clay scurried down the road toward them. “Henry! Oh, Henry!” she cried, waving her umbrella in the air to secure his attention.
Louise glared at her husband. She snatched Charlotte’s bag from his hand and hurried inside the building. Right before she closed the door in his face she said, “I’m taking the child upstairs before she gets eaten alive by that ghastly woman. Don’t you dare call me out here again, do you hear me? Because I certainly won’t come!”
“But … no, please…”
That was the last of Henry either of the two women saw for close to an hour.
Charlotte set her things in the dresser and settled on the edge of the freshly made bed. There was something about the smell of clean sheets that always reminded her of her mother. The two would play hide-and-seek while the sheets caught the wind on the clothes line, providing the perfect place to duck in and out of, laughing and squealing and giggling all the while. Before she tucked her reticule under the bed, she made sure to take out her favorite handkerchief and slip it inside the floral pillow case.
“Oh, Heavens above, what I wouldn’t give to have a figure like yours,” said Louise, walking into the room behind her. She dropped two folded towels onto the end of the bed. A full-bellied laugh lifted all the way from her toes, filling the room with a sense of coziness. “Hubby too if the truth be told. I guess babies will do that to you, not that I have an excuse anymore. My Gabe’s almost twenty-four years old. Good-looking boy too, if I don’t say so myself. He’s a blacksmith now, fine one as well. Been making himself a killing ever since he started up his own business in a barn over by the school-house. He works late most nights; sometimes well into the morning too. Apparently, there just aren’t enough hours left in the day to get everything done. I hardly get to see him anymore, but he’ll be front and center on Sunday, count my words. He wouldn’t miss seeing Thomas getting married for all the tea in China. Speaking of which…”
Charlotte smiled at Mrs. Calhoun. She didn’t look old enough to have a son in his twenties, let alone one who was running his own trade, but she liked her well enough and was growing more comfortable with every passing minute. “Oh yes, a cup of tea would be lovely, Louise. I’ll help you.”
The two ladies busied themselves downstairs and made three cups of the sweetest-tasting tea Charlotte had ever tried, served up nicely in the finest porcelain setting she’d ever seen too. Louise even offered her one of those fancy sugar cubes she’d only witnessed in the swanky tea-houses back home.
“I hope Henry’s alright out there,” Louise thought out loud as she glanced toward the window, then she turned back and winked. “He can be an ill-tempered old lug at times, but I certainly do love him. I guess I’ll make it up to him later … it’ll only take a minute or two of my time.”
No sooner had the words left her mouth, when Henry marched back inside and threw his hat on the stand, grumbling beneath his breath as he kicked off his shoes. His tea had turned stone cold by that time and he tipped the entire thing into the sink. “That Mabel’s a foolish woman!”
“Henry!” Louise exclaimed. Though she knew no truer words had ever been spoken. “Don’t you worry yourself Charlotte; Henry wouldn’t have offered one single piece of information that she might deem fit to gossip about. Mabel Clay has a knack of spreading rumors like wild fire through the tumbleweeds.”
“Of course not!” said Henry, his pot-belly jiggling with every move he made. “All she knows is that there’s to be a wedding on Sunday and the whole town’s invited. That’ll keep her guessing for days.”
Charlotte didn’t know this Mabel character, but she could guess from the look on Henry’s face that she wasn’t someone she needed to be acquainting herself with in any great hurry. “Thank you so much for having me in your home, Sheriff Calhoun.”
“Why, that’s my pleasure, little lady.” He kissed his wife on the cheek and then walked up the stairs with a satisfied smile on his face, bidding Charlotte goodnight as well.
Louise nodded her head. “Oh yes, it’s the very least we can do. Thomas is a part of the family. He’s a sweet young man; he just has some trouble expressing himself. But that doesn’t mean that the words he wants to say aren’t hiding away inside there, just dying to get out. Promise me you’ll be patient with him?”
“He can be distant at times, and often has people thinking he’s not interested. But I’m betting he
Louise stood to clear the cups. “Come on upstairs with me now, Charlotte. I have a dress you can borrow and I’d like to try it on you. I wore it on my wedding day and I’d be overjoyed to see it worn again. It’s probably a little big in parts, but we can run it in here and there and no one will ever know the difference. Mabel might be a lot of things, some far too unsavory to mention, but she’s a mighty fine seamstress, one of the best in Conrad in fact. Have you given thought to how you’d like to wear your hair … up or down?”
“I … uh, I haven’t…”
“Don’t go getting yourself in a tizz about it. We’ve got days yet to decide. By the time we’ve finished with you, you’ll be fit and ready to marry the most eligible bachelor these parts have ever seen. He’s a fine man that Mr. Ackerman, don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. He had a rough old start to life, but he’s done mighty well for himself since and I can’t for one minute figure how he’s stayed single all this time.”
For the hours that followed, Charlotte and Louise stayed up sipping tea and talking about dresses and veils and receptions and hairstyles well into the wee hours of the night. They got to know each other as well as any two women could and Charlotte soon set to feeling much better about things.
Maybe she wasn’t alone after all.
he following morning
began like any other morning in the small town of Conrad, Montana. The cloudless sky was a vibrant blue and the sun was as golden as it had ever been at this time of year. High and full and making sure its presence was felt.
As Charlotte stood on the sidewalk in front of the waiting wagon, she wondered about a few things. She wondered how it was possible for the air to taste more pleasant here in the country. She wondered how the birds could sound more musical too – like they knew tunes no birds back in Seattle had ever heard of. She wondered how she’d never seen grass so green, or water so clear, or butterflies so vivid.
But what she wondered about the most, was how it had come to be that Mabel Clay was the one picking her up from
The Coffee Grande
this morning instead of Thomas.
Louise had tried to intervene and set things right, but Mabel wanted no part of it and refused to hear reason. By her logic, she would have Charlotte collected long before Thomas had finished his morning chores and still have enough time to make the round trip back to town before the surgery opened. “I certainly hope you enjoy living here, Charlotte. I’m a Conrad girl myself, born and raised so I know no different, but I’m sure country life will please you.”
“Well, thank you, Mabel. I hope so too. With Thomas working so hard out in the fields it’ll be nice to have someone to share recipes and patterns with. I’ve only ever had one real friend before and I’m hoping to make some more here in Conrad.”
“You already have, my dear,” said Louise, patting Charlotte’s shoulder as she helped her up into the front of the wagon. “We’re a tight little community and we keep an eye out for each other, without getting all up in everyone else’s business. Isn’t that right
Mabel faltered as she climbed into the driver’s side. She was halfway up on the step and halfway down, teetering there awhile as she took in Louise’s overly false smile. “Of course,
.” The smile she offered in return was just as sickly sweet, like thick, gooey syrup poured over a stack of flapjacks. “Why just this very morning I got talking to Mrs. Adams over by the town well, and never once did I mention that nasty rash she came in to see Doc Lawson about recently. I mean … she certainly wouldn’t want anyone knowing what ointment she’d been prescribed to clear it up … or worse still, where she needed to be applying it.”
Louise stood up a little straighter, concern flooding her expression. “Is it something to be worried about? Mrs. Adams is a beloved member of the congregation; if she’s in ill health then perhaps we should be concerned?”
Mabel narrowed her eyes. On any other day Louise would have scolded her for being such a busy body, yet here she was trying to impress Charlotte with her high-talking and her snooty manners. “I thought it was impolite to gossip,
Louise gritted her teeth so hard they made a snapping sound, like a dog about to take a nip at a bony ankle, and just when Charlotte thought a brawl might break out between the two ladies, Louise spun on her heels and stormed back through the diner doors, making sure to swing the ‘OPEN’ sign to its rightful position, all the while wringing her hands together and grunting so loud it sounded like she was moving furniture.
As far as Charlotte was aware, the trip from town to Thomas’s property was only about fifteen minutes long, but with the way her ears were aching, it felt to take almost twice the time of the train ride itself. Mabel did in fact have the longest, pointiest, stickiest beak of any one person she’d ever met. The two women rode on Doc Lawson’s buggy – apparently his sister didn’t need it forthwith – or that was what Charlotte could gather from Mabel’s longwinded explanation. The fact that she’d only counted once when Mabel had actually stopped talking long enough to take a breath, made her think that she might not have made sense of anything the woman had said after all.
Where are you from?
What does your father do?
Can you milk a cow?
Are you in love with Thomas?
Do you want children?
Do you suffer indigestion?
The questions were a continuous loop that played non-stop inside Charlotte’s head. Some she just plain didn’t have the answers to. The couple had not yet spoken of children and the idea of falling in love was something Charlotte doubted Thomas was even capable of. He’d made that perfectly clear the previous day. He couldn’t even look her in the eye.
Mabel sighed, watching the folks pass by the traveling wagon with curious eyes, unable to do anything about it. She couldn’t exactly scamper off while Charlotte was still sitting right there in the cart beside her. She certainly wanted to though. She wanted to so bad that her fingers twitched with the anticipation of it all. Times had been quiet around Conrad of late and she hadn’t had the chance to set tongues wagging. Well, not as much as she was partial to.
Charlotte was never more pleased to look up, the trip taking altogether too long in her opinion, and finally see the double gates of Thomas’s property appear just up ahead of them. Mabel pulled the horse toward the left side of the drive and then followed the trail high up over the crest of a hill, coming to a stop in front of a mighty fine homestead made of hard-wearing timber and stonework nicer than Charlotte had ever seen before. There was barely a bloom to be seen or a potted plant by the door, but the yards were maintained and the stables off to one side looked as neat as a pin.
“Thomas!” shouted Mabel, making Charlotte jump. “Thomas, we’re here!”
When there was no movement about the house, Charlotte thanked Mabel for the ride and promised she would see herself inside without concern. She climbed from the wagon with a small hop, making sure not to catch her skirt in the wheel.
Mabel felt her shoulders slump. She’d been hoping she might have been invited inside, but since Thomas still hadn’t bothered to make an appearance, she couldn’t very well just welcome herself into his home without his consent.
She’d never seen the interior of the Ackerman property and she wondered some at what it might be like. Making a slow go of turning the wagon about in the opposite direction, Mabel finally had no reason to stall any longer, and flicked the reins. After another agonizing minute, watching and waiting, she finally steadied herself in the seat and headed back to town the exact same way she’d just come.
Charlotte looked all about the yard, taking everything in. She made her way closer to the house and then started some at the sound of clanging pots and pans. She wasn’t positive, but as her eyes narrowed and her ears strained toward the front door, she thought she heard Thomas laughing.
As far as she was aware he was the only person on the property, so maybe she was still dreaming. She’d dreamed a lot the previous evening. Images of Thomas had flashed behind her eyelids, over and over again. She’d heard his laugh in her dreams, but it didn’t sound as wonderful as the real thing. Husky, deep, masculine, yet somehow far more playful than Charlotte ever imagined Thomas could be.
But then it happened again, and Charlotte knew it to be true. Being that she hadn’t ever heard it before in real life – in fact she’d never even seen him smile – Charlotte stood there a while longer enjoying the sound. Thomas Ackerman had a really nice laugh.
“Aw, c’mon Rosy, don’t look at me like that,” said Thomas, his voice carrying out through the open window. “It’s a special occasion and all, so look away if you can’t bear to watch. I’ve told you a thousand times … you can’t just come sneaking in the back way like you own the place.”
Charlotte’s entire body became rigid.
She didn’t like the sound of that in the slightest. She felt like she’d just been punched in the gut. Before she could fully register the emotion behind it, she heard Thomas laughing again before saying, “I know you’ve always been my girl, Rosy, but Charlotte’s here to stay so you may as well get used to the idea.”
Anger raced through Charlotte’s veins and she had to take a moment to consider why it was she felt that way.
Could she be jealous?
She’d never felt anything like it before and the idea of spinning on her toes and running as fast as she could toward the hills sounded more appealing by the second. But her sense of dignity took over and she stood her ground, clearing her throat so as to announce her arrival. She planted her hands on her hips and called louder than she thought polite for any young lady, but she couldn’t hold her fury inside her a moment longer. “Excuse me, Mr. Ackerman, but if you plan on entertaining young ladies in this house while I’m in your company, then I will happily…”
Charlotte suddenly squealed and leapt a yard when Thomas threw open the front door. She jumped feet first up onto a wicker chair that was sitting right beside the stairs. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Thomas had a fork in one hand, and a bowl of beaten eggs in the other. Standing there beside him, nuzzling his leg with its filthy nose, was the fattest, hairiest, downright ugliest hog she’d ever seen.
Charlotte screamed this time, making the pig and Thomas flinch in unison.
Thomas shook his head, chuckling under his breath. “I was hoping to introduce you two a little later, but I guess now’s as good a time as any. Charlotte Bates … please meet Rosy. She’s like a part of the furniture ’round here. She’s as harmless as the day is long, but she’s got the social graces of … well, a pig, I guess. Watch the bottom of your skirt if you don’t want her peekin’ up your petticoats.”
Charlotte gasped and wobbled on the chair, almost losing her balance. Thomas’s eyes grew wide and he dropped the bowl clean from his hands, the sticky yellow mess spilling all over the porch. While the pig moved as fast as she could, licking up every last drop, making noises Charlotte had never heard before, Thomas rushed to her side and offered his hand, helping her carefully back to the ground.
“She doesn’t bite, Charlotte. Don’t be afraid of her, she’s in the family way, so she’s a little slow on her feet. We’re expecting … uh,
expecting the arrival any time now.”
Charlotte, still shaking some and watching the pig waddle around the porch, licking her lips and searching for crumbs, didn’t know exactly what to think. Rosy’s stomach was thick and round and ballooned out on each side of her body. She looked fit to burst at any moment, but it didn’t conjure up any sympathy from Charlotte. She cared for pigs about as much as she did for babies. So a combination of the two was a right mess if ever she’d seen it.
“Don’t be rude, Rosy … come say hello?” urged Thomas.
But the pig wasn’t having any part of it either. She lifted her snout so high in the air that Charlotte could see all the way to the back of her nostrils. Then she gave Charlotte the once over in a very deliberate move. Once she was satisfied, she simply turned her back, trudged through the house and swayed out through the side door until she was in the yard again.
“You keep pigs?” Charlotte asked, still a little out of breath.
“Not pigs, just one pig … Rosy. And before you question my sanity, yes I know how reproduction works. It sure does take two to make a litter … but Earl’s American Yorkshire,
, took a fancy to Rosy the very first time they met and they ain’t ever looked back, it was love at first sight or something equally as crazy. We’re going to split the litter in half and raise the piglets by hand. Junior’s beside himself with excitement.”
Charlotte narrowed her eyes. “Snog …
Thomas tried to cover his amusement but he couldn’t hide it for long. He laughed again. He hadn’t wanted to. But he couldn’t help it. Junior had named the pig a few years back and it still tickled his fancy from time to time if he gave it too much thought.
Charlotte couldn’t explain the way her smile grew at the sight of him looking so happy all of a sudden. She guessed he was just as selective about who he shared his laugh with as he was with his smile. She should have been angry with Thomas for leaving her to deal with Mabel all on her own, and for having a pig inside the house that rattled her so bad, but she couldn’t stop the warm feeling she felt spreading through her.
“How did you sleep Charlotte? I sure hope you got some rest after your long trip yesterday. I appreciate you coming such a long way to meet me, just so you know.” Thomas walked the few paces that separated the two until he was standing right in front of her. “And I won’t have you traveling around town with Mabel again, don’t worry about that. From now on you’ll use my wagon for anything you need in town. It’s at your disposal for the rest of the week. I’ll give you a quick rundown on the workings of it all and then you can be on your way. Feel free to come and go from the ranch as you see fit.”
“Thank you, Thomas.”
“Hope you’re hungry? I’ve made enough breakfast to feed a small army. Come on inside now before the bugs set to biting your arms and the heat settles into your bones.”
The size of the house surprised Charlotte. The porch was wide and the wood was strong and sturdy. It looked out across the open plains beyond. The glare from the sun was bright, but when she squinted, Charlotte could still see some way off into the distance. A herd of cattle were corralled together under the trees and she found herself caught up in the beauty of it all, allowing herself a moment to gaze out in wonder across the paddocks.
“It’s a mighty nice view. If you’d like, we could eat our breakfast out here. The pantry’s run down some, but I’ve done the best I could with what was there.”
Charlotte turned at the sound of his deep voice. Thomas stood with both hands gripping each side of the doorframe. He was staring at her and she felt herself blush before she spoke. “I’m more than capable of preparing the meals for you Thomas, after all, isn’t that why I’m here? I’m a decent cook if nothing else, and besides … there’s only one chair.”
Thomas nodded, but got to thinking almost immediately that he would have to rectify that situation. “It’s the least I can do Charlotte.”