Mail-Order Brides’ First Christmas, book 12
1890, Bear Valley, CA
Rancher Gibson Bartleigh travels to Pine Knot to investigate how his younger brother was swindled out of his mining claim. He finds the suspect, businessman Bernard Heinrik, at a poker table and squares off opposite him. Gib goads the man into betting big, staking the mining claim and then ends up with the winning hand and retrieves the deed. Goal achieved, he heads back to the hotel, planning how he’ll leave in the morning and arrive triumphant in Redlands at the family home in time for holiday festivities.
Mail-order bride Trudel Andersen traveled from Los Angeles to Pine Knot to meet up with her fiancé, Mister Heinrik, with whom she’s been corresponding for several months. But he’s a day overdue in meeting her. She waits in the hotel lobby with her lace-making materials and her little dog, Butterscotch. Released from the orphanage two months earlier, Trudel has been on her own and terrified she will always be so.
When Gibson realizes he’s the cause for the lovely lady’s misfortune, he’s stuck with a dilemma. If he confesses what he did, he’ll have to offer the woman a ride back to where she came from. Propriety demands they marry, and both agree it’s only for the duration of the trip. But will forced proximity deepen the relationship into something more?
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His stomach rumbled, reminding him he’d skipped the noon meal so he wouldn’t lose his chair at the high-stakes table. He descended the wooden steps that bowed under his weight and stepped onto the path that had been packed down through the snow drifts at the side of the street. A breeze chilled his neck, and he flipped up the sheepskin collar on his long, woolen-lined coat. Sunlight faded fast in the mountains, and only the tips of the firs to the west blazed with golden light.
Jogging the last few steps to avoid a buckboard, Gibson reached the hotel, stomped his boots on the bristly mat, and pushed open the front door. Warm air that smelled of cooking meat greeted his nose, and he couldn’t hold back a grin. Elton’s claim was secured. If Gibson left tomorrow, he could drop in at his mother’s birthday celebration in Redlands before traveling west to his small ranch in Walnut Valley.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Bartleigh.” Bill Walters, the hotel clerk, lifted the gate on the pass-through then scurried around the end of the polished registration counter.
“Afternoon, Walters. Is the restaurant open yet?”
“Just fifteen more minutes, sir. Perhaps you can help me with an urgent matter, first.” His lips pursed under a thin blond moustache, and his gaze shot to the left and back.
Gib shrugged out of his coat and tossed it over his arm. “What’s that?”
“Well, sir, a woman arrived yesterday, and she’s asking after Bing Heinrik.” Walters cupped a hand at the side of his mouth. “Says she’s his fiancée, and he was to meet her here this morning.” With each sideways roll of his eyes, the clerk’s head jerked. “But I haven’t seen him at all today. Someone mentioned he played in a game with you at Two Pistols. Is that true?”
At the mention of his poker opponent, Gibson froze. Heinrik’s words—“delivery of a package…cut workload in half…life will be easier”—flooded his brain. His jaw tensed. He’d thought the braggart meant a new piece of logging machinery when he’d really been talking about a wife. With a slow move, he turned toward the grouping of upholstered chairs around the potbellied stove.
There sat a small woman with brown hair, her head bent over a pair of knitting needles. At her feet curled a scruffy bit of a dog and at the side of her chair stood a pile of various-sized luggage.
His gut clenched. Bing’s exit at a dead-run out the back door now made sense. He wouldn’t be coming to claim his bride.
At that moment, the woman looked up, and her body stilled, her eyes rounding. Then she scooped up the critter and dashed across the foyer. “Is this the man, Mr. Walters? Can he help us find Mister Heinrik?”
Of all the dumb luck. Gib did his best to keep a straight expression.
“Miss Trudel Arensen, I present Mr. Gibson Bartleigh. And yes, he’s the one you’re waiting on.” Introductions complete, Bill ducked his head and returned to the registration counter, suddenly intent on straightening the keys in the cubbyholes.
Out of habit, Gibson pulled off his hat. “Pleasure, ma’am.” He couldn’t help but stare. Her widened eyes were a clear blue-gray, set into a heart-shaped face with the perfect bow mouth.
“I’m looking for my intended, Mr. Bing Heinrik. We have an arrangement, um…” Her chin dropped, and she stroked the small dog’s fur several times before squaring her shoulders and looking up. “You have a kind face, and I feel I must trust someone.”
Him, a kind face? If the woman only knew. Shaking his head, Gibson held up a staying hand. This situation was not his business. “Probably I’m the wrong—”
“A mail-order bride, that’s what I am. There, I said it aloud.” Her cheeks bloomed a bright pink, and she bit at her plump lower lip.
An action that should not be as intriguing as it was. He focused on her words. What kind of woman traveled by herself to meet a complete stranger? He had two younger sisters, and if one of them ever suggested becoming involved in such a dangerous arrangement, he would put a definite stop to such foolishness.
What should he do? Knowing the truth of the situation as he did, letting her continue talking felt wrong.