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Chapter One

New York, New York
August, 1872

 “You want me to do what?” Cordelia West fixed her gaze on the man sitting across the desk from her. Dick Tuttle, the publisher of The Incredible Western Life Magazine, stared back at her.

“Miss West, do you work for me, or not?”

Cordelia sat up a little straighter. “I work for you as a receptionist, Mr. Tuttle, not a writer.”

The rotund man held up a finger, “Ah, but you are a writer, are you not?”

“Of poetry,” she said, wondering exactly where this was going. “I am not… I am not… I cannot write lurid tales of life in in the Western Frontier. You have men living in that area who do that for you already.”

This time, Mr. Tuttle’s finger waved back and forth as if he were admonishing an errant child. “Ah, but none of them can pose as a mail order bride. Think of it, Miss West,” here, he held out his hands in front of him as if to frame a newspaper headline, “‘I Was A Mail Order Bride’ by Cordelia West.”

This was getting to be ridiculous. Cordelia did want to try her hand at writing magazine articles, but not ones that seemed so… ludicrous. “Mr. Tuttle, there are several things wrong with your idea, which is, I believe, the scheme to send me to Colorado, to be the mail order bride of a rancher there. The first thing that is wrong is that I will not marry for a story.”

Her boss chuckled. “Well, the man I’m talking about is not looking to marry, either.”

Cordelia’s head felt as if it were spinning. “Then why is he looking for a mail order bride?” She stood and ran her hands down her skirt in an effort to smooth away the wrinkles. “I am going back to my desk, Mr. Tuttle. I believe the morning mail still needs to be sorted, and I am sure there are visitors to the office waiting for me to show them to the proper person in the office.”

The last part was probably not true, unless it was someone to whom Tuttle owed money, and there were a lot of them. They never had very many people visit the offices, and she knew the magazine was in dire need of advertising, and subscribers. A story like Tuttle was proposing would probably attract many readers, but she wasn’t the one to write it.

“Perhaps you should ask Mr. Tingley’s girlfriend. I believe she would do anything for money.” How she kept a straight face when she said, Cordelia had no clue. Tingley’s ‘girlfriend’ was really a prostitute, whom he paid for the pleasure of her company. She probably couldn’t string two words together to make a sentence.

Of course, Cordelia questioned her ability to write more than poetry, so she probably shouldn’t be judging anyone else’s literary skills.

“Miss West, please sit back down,” Mr. Tuttle said. “I approached this wrong.”

For a moment, she thought about saying no. But the idea of losing her position weighed on her mind. She had very little savings, and she needed this money to keep herself afloat. She didn’t want to anger her boss.

After she sat back down, he put his hands on his desk and leaned toward her. “Miss West, I have a friend in Denver, Coloardo, who knows of a man who lives on a ranch called the Four Fours. This man is looking for a woman to pose as his mail order bride.”

This was confusing. “Pose? Why is that, Mr. Tuttle? Is he in a fight with relatives for the land, and thinks having a wife will benefit him?”

“Nothing like that,” Mr. Tuttle said. “It seems that his father, when this man was born thirty some years before, made a pact with a friend of his that their children should marry. He even put it in writing. Now, the intended bride is on her way from England and will arrive in Denver within six months time. Her father wants his daughter married before he passes, and it seems he is getting up there in years. My friend’s friend thinks that if he were already married, it would solve the problem.”

Cordelia started to object, but Mr. Tuttle once again held up his finger. Too many friends of friends, for her, and it seemed a little confusing.

“It will be a marriage in name only,” Mr. Tuttle said. “We came up with the mail order bride angle because it would explain how you came to be on the scene so suddenly. He can say he sent for you many months before he received the letter from England, that the two of you are already married.”

It made sense, but that didn’t mean she wanted to do it. Marriage had not been kind to her. Well, almost marriage, she thought. At one point, she’d been engaged to William Blankenship. But Bill had been killed while covering a story out west, and she’d been left an almost-widow.

Cordelia shifted her gaze to the widow. The New York sky was overcast, with the threat of rain. “Mr. Tuttle—”

Before she could finish, her boss cleared his throat. “The man you will be supposedly marrying, Mr. Eli Bannister, is willing to provide you with a generous sum of money for helping him to overcome his difficulties.”

“How much money?” She couldn’t help but ask. Call her greedy, but building up her savings again would be nice.

“A thousand dollars upon your arrival, and a thousand when you leave.” Mr. Tuttle was smiling now. “Of course, I will also pay you for the story you write.”

More than two thousand dollars. Cordelia had never seen that much money at one time. It would mean she wouldn’t have to worry from month to month about paying for her room and board, or how she would pay for material for new clothing when hers became threadbare.

“You say this gentleman’s name is Mr. Bannister?”

“Eli Bannister,” Mr. Tuttle said. “Near Denver, Colorado.”

“Colorado.” Cordelia continued to think about the scheme. It would be the perfect way to practice her writing. But she could still see any number of problems that could arise from the situation.

In the end, it was the lure of money that led her to say yes.

“Excellent,” Mr. Tuttle said. “I will send out the necessary telegrams and await their answer. With any luck, you will be on your way to Colorado next week.”

Cordelia felt weak at the knees. When she’d woken this morning, she’d never thought something like this would happen. “Mr. Tuttle, make sure you inform Mr. Bannister that it will be a marriage in name only. There will be no physical contact, nor will I answer to him.”

The flicker of a smile lit up her employer’s face, and Cordelia frowned. She repeated what she’d said. “I hope you understand me.”

“I will put those words in the telegram,” he said. She expected him to say something else, but he didn’t.

Cordelia turned to leave the room. Behind her, she thought she heard Mr. Tuttle chuckle. It left her feeling uneasy, and she thought about changing her mind. But then she thought about the two thousand dollars.

She was a strong woman, who had handled the death of the man she loved, pulled herself out of depression, found a job and managed to take care of herself, even if things were tight from time to time.

While taking a trip to Colorado and posing as a mail order bride would be challenging, it would build her a fund on which to rely in the future.

***

September 20, 1872

“This is never going to work.”

Eli Bannister exhaled deeply and stared down the railroad tracks. The train was due to arrive at any moment, and it couldn’t get here soon enough. They would have little enough time to load up Miss West and her belongings in the wagon and get back to the Four Fours before it was dark. Traveling the mountain roads after the sun went down was dangerous.

“Eli, did you hear what I said?”

“I heard you, Stuart.” Eli glared at his cousin. “This is going to work. You’re the only one who doesn’t know that Miss West and I aren’t really married. The only way this won’t work is if you open your big mouth and spill the beans.”

Stuart chuckled. “What are you going to do if she’s ugly?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Eli balled his hands into fists. If Stuart didn’t shut up, Eli was going to knock him in the mouth.

“It’ll matter when you go to kiss her.”

“There will be no kissing, or hugging, no sex. This will be a marriage in name only.”

Stuart chuckled again. “Your housekeeper is the biggest gossip in the town. She’s going to tell everyone she knows that you and the new ‘Mrs. Bannister’ are not sharing the same bed. What are you going to do then?”

This time it was Eli who chuckled. “I’ve already thought of that. I’m giving her time to adjust to her new life before I take her to my bed.”

Stuart didn’t answer, and Eli wanted to scream, “Gotcha ya!” But after a few moments, his cousin opened his mouth again.

“What if the woman coming from England is pretty, and you want to marry her? What are you going to do then?”

Eli groaned. “I don’t want a wife, pretty or not. I thought you, of all people, would understand I’m married to the land my parents left me.”

“I would think you’d want a son to leave it to,” Stuart said, his voice serious this time.

“I do, but not right now,” Eli said. “It’s not the right time. Maybe when I’m closer to forty I’ll think about getting married, but when I do, it won’t be to some stuffy woman from Britain who’ll expect me to host balls and have afternoon tea.”

In the distance, Eli could hear the train whistle. That meant his future ‘wife’ was almost here. He was thankful for that, if for no other reason than to end this conversation with Stuart.

“You’re judging a book before you read it,” Stuart said. “The woman from England could be very nice, very pretty and might be a good wife.”

“You marry her, then.” Eli stepped closer to the tracks. Sure enough, he could see the train in the distance.

“Maybe I will,” Stuart answered. “Having a woman to snuggle up to every night might not be a bad thing.”

Eli might have agreed with him, but he didn’t want to distract himself. He had other things on his mind. All he wanted right now was for Miss West to arrive and for them to hightail it up to the Four Fours.

The train was closer now, the ground shaking under Eli’s feet as the locomotive neared the station. Above them, the mid-morning sky was a light blue with beautiful fluffy clouds. It was the perfect weather to welcome his new ‘bride.’ They had exchanged telegraphs earlier, and he was sure she was perfect for this little charade. She’d told him she had no interest in physical contact with him. He’d assured her that he felt the same.

His first responsibility was to the Four Fours, and that included keeping it away from any potential bride, who might get her hands on it if he happened to die. Stuart didn’t know it, but if something happened to Eli, the ranch went to him. At least that way it stayed in the family.

The train rolled into the station and those standing nearby held pieces of cloth to their mouth and nose to keep them clear of the steam. Once things had settled, Eli took a step toward the cars, wondering from which car Miss West would alight. She’d told him she would be wearing a light blue dress, that she had medium brown hair and big brown eyes.

In turn, he’d told her he was tall, almost six feet, and would be wearing denim pants, a blue shirt and boots. Of course many of the man standing on the platform wore the same thing.

It didn’t take him long to spot her. She hadn’t mentioned she was so attractive; she was plump, with large breasts and curvy hips, with an indentation above them that displayed her waist. She was looking around, a frown marring her pretty face. He took a step toward her and waved in her direction. “Miss West?”

The frown stayed in place as she studied him, but then she smiled. He must have passed inspection. She walked briskly as she approached him. Her clothes were not in the height of fashion, but they suited her very well.

“Mr. Bannister?” She inclined her head toward him.

“Indeed.” He held out his hand and she took it, her grip firm, almost like a man’s. That pleased him. “How are you, Miss West? It is a pleasure to meet you.”

She smiled, her humor evident. Before he could introduce his cousin, the man was beside them, sticking out his hand. Eli’s ‘wife’ shook her new cousin’s hand.

“We need to get going,” Eli said. “It’s a little ways up to the ranch, which is near Boulder, and we need to make it before the sun goes down.”

“I have two trunks,” she informed him, and he wanted to tell her that two was too many; one would have done the job. But he thought better of it; two would support the illusion that she was staying at the Four Fours for good.

They waited for the bags, and then loaded them into the wagon. It was a buckboard, and would not be the most comfortable mode of travel for Miss West, but Eli didn’t want to worry about that now.

Once they were travelling north, he saw her grasp the side of the wagon in an effort to keep from bouncing. “Sorry,” he said. “I imagine you’ve been sitting for quite some time.”

“Indeed I have, Mr. Bannister,” she said.

“Call me Eli,” he told her. “It will preserve the illusion that we’re married. I can’t very well go around calling you Miss West.”

“What about Mrs. Bannister?”

He chuckled. “Folks around here aren’t that formal. If I call you that, people will think there is something wrong with me.”

“I understand,” she said in her soft, Eastern accent. Eli hated to admit it, but he thought it was a pretty accent. It went along with the woman sitting next to him.

“Is the local priest expecting to marry us?” she asked him. “I wondered about that while I was on my trip.”

“No,” Eli answered. “He came by the Four Fours when he heard I was getting a bride, but I told him we’d been married by proxy in New York and that was legal and all. He told me we’d need to have another ceremony, but I put him off, and I can continue to do so until this is all over. Trust me, Miss West, this is going to work, and in a year’s time you’ll be back in New York, two thousand dollars richer. I’ve got the first installment of the money waiting in your room for you.”

“Thank you,” she said, as if she were embarrassed to talk about their financial arrangement.”

“Mr. Tuttle tells me you’re going to write a story about this when it’s done.”

“I am,” she said, sounding a little perkier. “It will be my first attempt at a magazine article. I may be asking you questions about the ranch and how it works.”

“It will be my pleasure to answer them,” he said. From the back of the wagon, Stuart snorted, and Eli fought the urge to stop the wagon and slug him.

“This is going to be interesting,” his cousin said. “I hope I don’t give too much away when I laugh like crazy every time the two of you are talking.”

***

Several hours later, Cordelia swore to herself that she’d never get on another moving vehicle again. A week on the train, and now this trip over bumpy terrain that made her whole body ache was enough to make her want to stay right where she was for the rest of her life.

But she had an obligation to keep, one that would change her life forever. The man sitting next to her was not what she’d expected. For one thing, he was handsome, more handsome than any man she’d ever met, including her late fiancé. It made her feel guilty to think it, as if she were betraying him. She hadn’t expected to feel any sort of attraction to Eli Bannister, but once she’d set her gaze on him, her stomach had fluttered, and the tips of her toes had tingled.

More intimate parts had also been involved in the lure she felt, but she’d managed to ignore it. Cordelia and Bill had remained chaste during their time together, although he had touched her breasts once or twice. She hadn’t allowed his hands to slip under the material, though, so she did not know what it felt like to have a man’s large hand on her breast. She couldn’t help but wonder that now.

Cordelia mentally chastised herself for allowing her thoughts to wander. “Is there anything I should know as your wife?”

“Such as?” He turned the wagon a little to the west. She wanted to ask him how much longer they had to travel, but she was afraid he would take it as a complaint, and she didn’t want to start their time together with that.

“I know nothing about your family,” she said.

“As a mail order bride, you wouldn’t,” he countered.

“On the contrary, I believe we would have discussed family in great detail during the exchange of letters. But in any case, I’m asking now. Do you have family?”

“He has me,” Stuart said from the back. “I have a sister, and my mother is still alive, although they live in Denver proper. We stayed with them last night, but we told mom we were here to get supplies, not to pick up Eli’s bride.”

“I see.” Cordelia wondered why they’d kept the information from Stuart’s mother, but she wasn’t sure it would be polite to ask. “In any case, what about you, Eli? Will I meet your parents tonight?”

“Not without going to heaven,” Stuart answered for his cousin.

“I’m very sorry,” she said to Eli.

He shrugged and shook the reins. “They’ve been gone a while. As have my three brothers.”

Cordelia’s eyes widened. “You’re the only one left?”

“I am.” He didn’t provide any more information, and she wasn’t sure it would be a good thing for her to ask. Maybe after a few days she could bring the subject up again, see if he would tell her more. She was sure there was a story behind their deaths. In an effort to change the subject, she asked how the household was run.

“I have a housekeeper,” Eli said. “She cooks and cleans. She and her husband stay in a little house not too far from my house. You can help if you want, but I told her I expected her to stay in charge of everything until you’re settled in.”

A smile touched Cordelia’s lips. “In other words, you don’t want me to take over, because I won’t be there that long.”

He shrugged. “I think you’ll be here at least a year.” He sounded like it didn’t really matter to him. “I have no clue when the woman from England will arrive.”

“Does she have a name?”

He flicked the reins again, as if he were agitated. “Yeah, but I can’t remember it. I’ll look it up when we get to the house and get you settled.”

Thinking about the woman from England once again brought the subject of Eli’s parents to the forefront. She wanted to ask him once again what had happened, but she kept her mouth shut. She wasn’t sure he would appreciate her being so nosy on her first day.

They rode in silence for a while, and finally drove through the gates of the Four Fours. The grass was green, and there were tall trees and mountains in the background.

“What sort of ranching do you do?” she asked.

“Cattle,” he answered. “We also have a farming area where we grow potatoes.”

“In this region?” She was shocked to hear this news.

“Yup.” He steered the horses to the right. “We’re almost there. Mrs. Dunlap will be waiting, with food and all sorts of questions.”

He stopped the wagon. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold band. “I hope it fits.”

Cordelia hadn’t thought of a wedding band. It made things seem so real that she almost refused to take it. But in the eyes of everyone she was about to meet, things were real. She was Mrs. Eli Bannister. She would have to answer to that name, and remember to accept kisses and hugs from her husband.

With a slightly shaky hand, she took the band from him and slipped it onto her left hand. It was a little snug, but she managed to get it all the way on her finger.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Bannister,” Stuart said from the back. And then he laughed.

Eli picked up the reins and got the horses moving again. She knew they were getting very close, and she was ready for the journey to be over. What she really wanted right now was a hot bath, a cup of tea and a bed where she could lay down and sleep for a while.

“I hope there is nothing planned for the evening,” she said.

“Mrs. Dunlap will have dinner ready around six,” Eli said. “That’s usually what time I get back from working in the fields.”

Cordelia made a mental note of that time for future reference. Of course, if things went well, she would be working in the kitchen with the housekeeper to get her ‘husband’s’ meal on the table when he got home from work. She glanced up at the sky, wondering what time it was now. As if he could read her mind, Eli told her it was almost two.

“After I get you settled, I’m going to go check on things. I’ll be back in time for dinner.”

“All right,” she said. She was ready for some alone time, where she could allow herself to examine her surroundings after she napped. Hopefully she’d have time to write in her journal, too. She was determined to keep accurate notes so that she would have a great basis for her article. But she needed to make sure they sounded authentic, in case someone got hold of the book and read it. It wouldn’t be good for their secret to be exposed in that manner.

Keeping the fact that they weren’t really married a secret was going to be harder than she’d thought it would be, but if she was careful, Cordelia was sure she could pull it off.

They rounded a corner and a house came into view, a large, two-story white clapboard house with a huge porch around the front. It was much bigger than what she’d expected, especially since Eli didn’t have any family.

But he’d had family at one point, she reminded herself, parents and three brothers. And they were gone now. As the wagon neared the house, a small woman burst out the front door. She wore a gingham dress and there was an apron tied around her waist.

Mrs. Dunlap, Cordelia thought to herself. This would probably be the one person who would be hardest to fool. Cordelia would have to put on quite an act for this woman.

And it was show time.

 


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