Western Christmas Weddings
Three tales of Western Christmas brides engaged in holiday romance!
THE SHERIFF'S HOUSEKEEPER BRIDE
On the run for a crime she didn't commit, Eliza Flannery escapes apprehension by posing as a strangers his new housekeeper only to discover that he's the town's sheriff! But when the real housekeeper appears will Eliza find the forgiveness of the season or spend Christmas in jail?
HIS BROTHER'S BRIDE
Only a cold woman would marry a man she's never met, even if it was her husband's last request. But with her daughter to care for, Clara Justice agrees to marry the family's black sheep and be Nate's wife but she's not opening her heart, not even if it is Christmas.
When Ford Statler accidentally shoots a young widow who is cutting a Christmas tree for her little boy, Abby March falls under his care and protection. Now he's got more than he bargained for making a Christmas to remember for a widow and her young son. But will she let him offer her so much more?
Excerpt from WESTERN CHRISTMAS BRIDES anthology
Colorado City, Colorado – December 1859
As Nate Justice saw it, he had a choice between two equally bad alternatives. Either he could ignore his brother’s last request, or he could marry his widow.
Jacob would have done it for him and expected Nate to be capable of the same kind of selflessness. He rubbed a hand over his brow. He had no notion as how to be a husband, let alone husband to a woman as proper as Clara.
Only his love for his older brother could have induced him to make a proposal so contrary to his nature. Nate wanted to do the right thing, but this didn’t feel right. What was a respectable lady going to do in a rough and tumble mining camp where the only women within a hundred miles were whores?
Lord help him.
From his seat at an empty table in his saloon, Nate searched for answers in the worst of places – a liquor bottle. He spotted the old hypocrite who called himself Reverend headed his way. Just what he needed – a sermon from a drunk. The Padre spouted verse like a whale spouts seawater, but only as a means to achieve his goal; in this case he had his eye fixed on the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table. The man drank, whored, and gambled most of his waking hours, making him no different from the miners. The Reverend always absolved himself, and anyone else who needed it after a binge with some verse about man’s weakness and God’s mercy.
“I was told you abstained from spirits,” said the Reverend, taking a seat without invitation.
“On any other day you’d be right.”
“Then perhaps you would feel inclined toward company.”
Nate pushed the bottle at the man who did not wait for a glass. When he finished a long pull, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and made a sound of pure satisfaction. He maintained control of the bottle, gripping the glass neck as if it was a sinner in need of redemption.
“Bless you, son.”
“Oh, I’m just brimming with blessings.”
The Reverend gave a wary smile. “So I have heard. "
Nate glared at Charley, who’d obviously been gossiping again. His barkeep took up a glass and began polishing.
The reverend continued without noticing the exchange. "Perhaps I can do you a service in the near future.” The man nodded conspiratorially. “’Go in unto thy brother’s wife and marry her,’ sayeth the Lord.”
He had Nate’s attention.
“To marry your brother’s widow,” said the Reverend, nodding his approval. “It’s the honorable thing.”
“Well there’s a first time for everything.” Nate regained custody of his bottle with a forceful tug and took a swallow.
“You are modest, sir. I know for a fact you have a soft heart.” The Reverend leaned in, whispering, “I’ve seen you.”
Several possibilities ran through Nate’s mind, and he scowled. Hitting a minister would certainly not hurt his reputation, but he resisted.
The man continued, unaware of his peril. “You feed a stray cat out back.”
“How in hell do you know that?”
“I’ve slept in that alley a time or two.”
“That enough to get me into heaven, you think – feeding a cat? ”
“Well my son, that’s a fair question. Do you have anything on your conscience?”
Nate gave a wry laugh, and then pushed back his hat. “I don’t have that kind of time.”
His new friend reached for the bottle, his fingers creeping forward like a spider.
“Well then let’s stick to the present. I’m thinking of backing out. What do you say to that?”
“You run the largest saloon in Colorado City, so I’d say you do not shirk from responsibility, nor lack the funds to adequately provide for a woman. I’ve seen you over at the Bella Rouge, meaning you obviously enjoy female company on occasion, but keep no steady woman.” He took another slug from the whiskey. “So this must be personal. Does she have buck teeth?”
“I’ve never seen her. All I know of her comes from my brother’s letters. He loved her, and in his eyes she was singular to her gender – a woman of virtue. Now I’m dragging her to a dirty mining town where the only minister is drunk every day before noon. She deserves better than a saloonkeeper for her husband, don’t you think?”
The minister sat back, dragging the bottle to his side. “A valid point. She undoubtedly will be the only female in town not inclined to charge by the hour.” He eyed Nate. “You could pull up stakes.”
“Location won’t solve my inadequacies.” Nate stared at the man. “Any chance you’ll remember this conversation tomorrow?”
The Reverend shook his head. “Doubtful.”
Nate reclaimed his liquor bottle.
“I got her acceptance right here.” Nate pulled the letters from his breast pocket, splaying them as if they were a deck of cards. He drew out the first. “This one is from my brother asking me to see to his family.” He slapped an envelope on the table before him as if discarding. “This here is from her saying my brother passed.” Another discard.
Nate paused to draw in a breath. The lump remained lodged in his throat as he again fought the overwhelming sense of loss. Word reached him seven months past and still he couldn’t get his mind around the truth.
Jacob was gone over a year.
His older brother loved him and with his passing, Nate lost the only person in this world he cared about.
“And that one?” prompted the Reverend.
“From her. She asks my help. My brother’s death left her without means, and she has a young daughter.”
“A child – here?”
Nate propped his elbow on the table and rested his chin on his fist. “Can’t account for my own stupidity.”
“Overwhelmed by grief no doubt.”
“Never thought she’d have me. She must know of me from my brother. Only shows how desperate she is, because yesterday I received her reply. She’s coming here, especially at this time of year, I cannot fathom.”
December meant snow and more snow up in the mountains. The settlements at higher elevations were nearly in accessible, and it was a foolish man who tried to breech the passes now.
The Reverend’s bushy brow lifted. “Perhaps she has no other option.”
“That’s true. If she did, she’d have taken it.”
The Reverend pointed at the final correspondence, asking a question without words.
“This?” Nate held up the final letter. “Evidence of my low character.”
He lay the envelope upon the others.
“My withdrawal of the only honorable proposal I ever made to a woman.”
His drinking partner pointed a bony finger at the damning evidence. “You haven’t sent it yet.”
The Reverend’s smile did not comfort. “Did you include funds with your original communiqué?”
“Then I suggest you resign yourself, my son--for she has likely already crossed the Mississippi.”
The whiskey rolled in Nate’s stomach as the truth of the words struck him in the gut.
“Now, now, my son. A woman will bring order to your chaos.”
“From what I’ve seen, women generally have the opposite influence.”
“Do not judge all women by the ones who have wronged you. Just remember your mother’s love.”
“She’s the one I was thinking on.”
Nate saw the surprise on the man’s face and wished he could take it back. Not that it wasn’t true; his mother was coldhearted, the perfect match for his father with his exacting standards of morality. Damn and damn again. He remembered too late why he quit drinking. Any notion that struck his mind popped out of his lips like a soap bubble rising from a washtub.
Nate stood. “Keep the bottle, Reverend.”
“Bless you, my son. And remember, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
A boy skidded into the saloon, eyes searching as he blinked in the dim light of The Lucky Strike. Clumps of snow stuck to his woolen socks, round as moth balls.
“You can’t be in here, boy,” said Charley.
“There’s a lady at the station. Everyone’s there. Where’s my pa. He’ll want to see this.”
Clara Justice took charge of her carpetbag and trunk from the stage driver. Her daughter bounced up and down in excitement at their arrival. Clara’s first inclination that something was amiss came when Kitty stilled. She glanced up to see a circle of men forming about them.
Kitty huddled in her mother’s skirts until she all but disappeared.
“What do they want, Mama?”
Clara didn’t know, but their owl-like stares and utter silence lifted the hairs on the back of her neck. She glanced from one dirty face to the next. Their menacing continence and growing numbers caused her to retreat through the icy ruts in the road toward the stage until her backside bumped up against the icy wheel.
One of the lot stepped forward, dragging his ragged felt hat from his greasy hair.
“I’ll give you five penny weight if I can touch your hair.”
Her eyes widened in alarm as she saw other men drawing out little sacks and glass bottles filled with gold nuggets. Her daughter’s fingers dug into her thigh as she tightened her grip.
Clara straightened her shoulders, preparing to defend them. “You will do no such thing.”
The man frowned, but did not retreat. “What about a sniff?”
“Nor a sniff either. Instead you will tell me where I may find Mr. Nathaniel Justice.”
A murmur rippled through the assemblage.
“She means Nate,” said someone to her left.
“You his sister?” asked a man with a beard streaked with gray.
These were miners, so she thought it best to establish Nathaniel’s claim upon her immediately.
“He is my betrothed.”
Jaws dropped in astonishment, and she heard several groans. She swallowed her mortification. Here she was, engaged to a man she knew of, but had never met. Jacob said he was a good man. His father likened him to the devil. Who was right?
Clara did not think her breathing could be any more rapid, but now it came in frantic little pants. She closed her mouth in an effort to tamp down her panic.
“If you’re looking for a husband, you could do better. Man’s got the temper of a riled buffalo, ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying. Nearly shot my partner yesterday.”
The distinctive click of a trigger drew complete silence.
“And I’ll shoot you today if you don’t step aside.”
The topic of conversation appeared. She stared at the scowling face of a man who did not resemble her late husband in any way. The dark stubble on his chin added to his imposing demeanor. He spoke to the crowd.
“Disperse, before I lay someone out in the street.”
The men stepped back a few paces, widening the circle. She longed to go to this imposing man. But the very quality that sent the crowd into retreat also kept her from moving toward her protector. His dark hair seemed a counter point to the light blond of his older brother. She stared into his eyes, expecting a familiar warm brown and saw instead cold steel-blue. This man stood tall and solid as a chestnut tree, glaring at her like the devil himself. What had she done?
She swallowed back her apprehension, remembering her purpose. Jacob left her with nothing but fond memories. The good people of Catskill, New York, knew what she was. There were no proper proposals on that front, though she had already fielded several improper ones. After her husband’s death, his parish wasted no time in reclaiming her home. Nathaniel’s proposal gave her a choice between returning to the life she narrowly escaped or marrying a stranger. When forced to pick, she chose the devil she did not know.
She turned her attention on her future husband.
It appeared that Nathaniel did not like the speed with which the mob complied with his order to disperse, so he aimed his cocked pistol at the nearest man. It was then she noticed Nathaniel’s companion. He was smaller and slighter with worried eyes that darted about the crowd.
“Gentlemen,” he began, raising his voice to be heard, “a free round to the first twenty men in The Lucky Strike.”
There was a hoot and a cry as men charged down the street, leaving a wide path of beaten snow in their wake before finally disappearing into a saloon.
Nate watched them go and then holstered his pistol. “Should have let me shoot Kingston. The man is nothing but trouble.”
“And you’d be an expert on that,” said his companion, who then turned to Clara. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Justice. I’m Harvey Winkleman, Nate’s partner at the hardware store. Welcome to Colorado City.”
She reached to accept his hand and found hers shaking.
“A pleasure,” she murmured.
“And you know Nate, of course.”
She was about to shake her head when she considered that her brother-in-law might not have told this man of the circumstances of their arrangement. Did he even know she was widowed? The image of her husband rose in her mind. How could it be a year already since she last heard his laughter? She knew she would never find a man with a kinder heart. Jacob forgave her for her past and offered her a chance at respectability.
Clara glanced at Nathaniel. He looked as if forgiveness was in short supply as he watched the last of the crowd enter the large cabin with the false front. She took the opportunity to study his profile as she tried to still her quaking. Clara always thought Jacob had a pleasant face. His younger brother could only be described as imposing. If not for his scowl, she was certain he would easily be the most handsome man she had ever seen. An unaccustomed flutter erupted within her. She straightened, surprised at her reaction to him.
Harvey noticed her daughter then and squatted down before her. “Hello, darling. Aren’t you prettier than a bug’s ear?”
Clara glanced from Harvey’s smiling face to Nate’s dark glower and wished their roles were reversed.
“What’s your name, darling?”
At six, her daughter knew her manners, but instead of giving Harvey a curtsey, she turned to hide her face in her mother’s skirts. Clara could hardly blame her. She felt inclined to do the same.
“This is Katherine. We call her Kitty,” Clara said, just then remembering that there was no longer a "we."
“Well, I’m happy to meet you both.”
Her daughter continued to cower behind her, and Clara felt the hairs on her neckraise. She turned to Nate who pinned her with a cold stare.
His assessment of her person sent a shiver down her spine. At first she thought it was fear that caused her reaction, but as the skin on her arms began to pucker like gooseflesh she could not account for her emotions. He stepped closer and leaned in her direction. She bit her bottom lip as she waited for his first words.
They struck her with the unmistakable odor of whiskey.
“I have a reverend waiting at my store. If you aim to get married, you best make it quick. I drank enough to put down a bull elk.”
Her eyes widened in astonishment as he listed and then righted himself. Was he actually proposing to wed her in his present condition? Memories assaulted her. Bickerfield drank. He drank hard and then beat her. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. She was desperate, but not so desperate that she would give herself to another beast. She would be better off on the streets of Colorado City.
She thought of the crowd of men and shuddered. Perhaps not.
From somewhere deep within she found the courage to confront him.
“Mr. Justice, I have some knowledge of spirits. If you are a drunkard, please say so.”
Harvey sprang to his partner’s defense. “No, ma’am. I actually never saw him drink before today.”
Her brow knit in confusion, but she would not be distracted. “Judging from the encounter I witnessed, you are a man who tends toward violence. Is that correct?"
She drew a breath and plunged ahead, ignoring the hammering of her heart. "Do you find it necessary where women and children are concerned, Nathaniel?"
Nate looked thunderstruck. She did not think it possible for him to look more angry until he spoke. His words spat out at her like a curse. “You must think very little of me to even ask such a thing.”
Somehow she held her ground. “Still, I ask it.”
Harvey shifted uncomfortably and then busied himself with her trunk, hauling it through the nearest door.
“I don’t beat women.” He glared at Kitty. “Or girls.”
She gauged his answer for sarcasm, but found none. Could he be trusted? Jacob believed so. His father did not. He so despised his youngest child that when he passed five years ago, he left Nate nothing. She glanced at Nathaniel’s fine coat. It did not appear that he suffered from the lack.
The stage pulled away leaving her with this stranger. Her daughter’s hand gripped hers as Clara debated her narrowing choices.
“You best decide,” he said.
“I’m afraid,” she admitted.
His eyes widened as if this shocked him. And then he shocked her by smiling.
Her breath caught as she stared. The smile transformed his face, making him seem momentarily kind. She leaned forward in wonder.
“Me, too,” he admitted.
She straightened. Him, too? He was afraid – of what – her? Impossible. No one could be less intimidating.
“I don’t understand.”
His smile changed into a roguish grin. “Why do you think I’m drunk?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I’d never have the guts to marry you sober. So if you’ve a mind to, you best marry me quick. I can only stay this drunk so long. Sooner or later I’m bound to pass out.”
“But you didn’t know to expect me today.”
He reached into his breast pocket. “Just got your acceptance.”
She stared at the familiar envelope she had mailed three weeks prior to her departure.
“Not for me there isn’t.”
©Jenna Kernan, September 2017