“Hi Camille,” Sherry called to her as she entered the adjoining room. It was the afternoon, and the place was quiet. “Really sorry about your mom. How are you feeling now?”
“It just seems so empty without her,” Camille answered. She was still finding it hard to even think about it. The look of sadness on her face told Sherry that.
“Come and have a quick drink with me,” Sherry offered. “I remember what it was like when I lost my mother.”
Camille went into the room and sat in a chair. The room was pretty in a faded and cheap sort of way. As many girls did, Sherry tried to make it almost a home and add some feminine touches. The house belonged to Sylvester Teckman, and so did most of the girls.
“I know he wants me to take over for my mom, but I just cannot do it. I will have to make a life somewhere else, I guess.” Camille felt the fear start to rise up in her throat again, and a tear squeezed out of her eye. Sherry came and gave her a hug.
“Don’t let him know you are thinking that. He will blow up.”
Camille nodded. She had been thinking along the same lines herself. Sylvester Teckman was a nasty and vicious man, and her escape from the brothel where her mother had worked would have to be a secret, and it would have to be soon, or she would be pressed into working for the cost of her rooms and that could never happen.
“The kitchen window is the only one without bars,” Sherry remarked.
“I am just so frightened. I have seen what he does to others who answer him back or don’t make enough money.” Camille shivered violently at the thought and felt the tears well up. “How on earth do you girls keep going like this? I am terrified of even thinking about it.”
Sherry gave her a twisted smile.
“Once you are trapped, there is no escape. Get out now, Camille. Do it tonight. I wish I could go with you, but I cannot.”
Sherry persisted in telling her she must escape, and, in the end, Camille thanked her and went to start packing in secret. She knew, in her heart, that it was now or never, and she had to run.
As she packed her only bag, her hands shook, and she felt the panic in her chest but taking deep breaths. She stood firm and knew it was the best thing to do.
Late in the evening, when the rooms were in use and the girls were making money for the evil man called Teckman, she carried the one bag she could manage. The money she and her mother had collected together was in a money belt under her clothing, and she headed for the kitchen window to the outside. There was nobody there, and by the last flickering embers of the stove, she headed for the window. It squeaked as it opened. She dropped the bag outside and then made to start climbing out.
“Going somewhere?” A man’s voice asked, and a dark shape stood up from the armchair beside the fire. Camille froze in terror, and for a moment, could not think at all. Teckman had found her before she could even step over the sill. He walked across and put a hand on her arm. She could smell the whisky on his breath as he leaned towards her. The pulse throbbed in her head, and for a second, everything went black.
“I am never going to get away,” she thought and was almost ready to give up.
“You need to pay me back for all those years of living under my roof,” he whispered into her face. She recoiled from the smell and the heat of his breath. “You will have to work it off, little Miss ‘too good to work, madam.’” He sneered, and she shook off his arm and came back to senses. He grabbed it again and pulled her across the room.
Camille recovered from the shock of his appearance, and without really thinking about it, she fought back. He grinned and tightened his grip. Camille had not grown up in a place where women were always in danger without learning a few things, and she stamped the heel of her boot into his foot. The slight loosening of his grip let her pull her arm away, and she made for the window. He lunged at her and grabbed the back of her skirt to heave her back towards him, but he had drunk quite a lot of whisky and was not quite steady. Camille used this to her advantage and pushed him away. Still, he came back again. She pulled the little dagger from her boot, and as he lurched close, she whipped it across his chest. He laughed.
“Not strong enough, sweetie,” he leered at her as she drew back the knife and jabbed at his face. It caught his cheek, and in desperation, she kept thrusting the little knife towards the man. He raised his hand to his face to feel the blood running and swore. She made one enormous effort with the knife and felt it go into his flesh. It went as deeply as the blade would allow, and she felt it scrape against the bone. The man howled like a wounded animal. She pulled out the dagger and threw herself over the sill. She landed on the bag, grabbed it, and ran as fast as she could in the dark. Even as she ran, she heard him shout that she would never escape.
Several streets and twists and turns later, she stopped to draw a few gasping breaths. The place was quiet, and she took a little time to make sure she was not followed. Then she straightened up, smoothed her hair, and tried to look like she was out on a normal walk to the railway depot.
Camille knew the town where she had lived all of her twenty-four years well. She took the roundabout route to the depot and saw very few people out in the streets. The railroad depot was lit with oil lamps, and there was an engine steaming in the yard as men climbed over the huge monster and filled it with the water it needed to make the next leg of its journey.
“Thank the Lord,” she said under her breath and raced to the ticket office. She knew what the next depots down the line were called and bought a ticket. Racing out with her bag in hand, the man with the flag to start the train saw her coming, held the engine in place, and helped her up into a carriage.
“You just made it,” the man said.
“Thank you,” she answered and staggered to find a seat as he dropped the flag, and the engine started to chug its way out of the depot and into open country. It took some time for her heart to settle to a normal beat and for the reality that she had actually escaped to sink into her head.
“Oh, Lord. He will follow me,” she thought and pressed the fear away.
The other passengers were asleep in seats, and she knew that some would have booked sleepers and have a real bed. She tucked the bag under her seat, curled up her legs, and closed her eyes. It was the safest she had felt since her mother had died, and every turn of the wheels was taking her further away from Teckman and his vile business.
“I have to hang on to that. I have made it.”
When she awoke, it was daylight, and the train was coming to a halt. Camille stayed in her seat as the folks leaving the train were climbing down. Then, as some traders outside offered food, she went to the door and bought something to eat and drink. She found she was ravenously hungry and finished the lot. The train steamed off, and she bought more food at the next place and then tried to rest. The next stop was the one she had a ticket for and, she reflected, where she might start a new life.
“Surely, he would not find out where I have gone and follow me.” It seemed a bit far-fetched, and when the train huffed its way into the next depot at Grainston, she picked up her bag and walked away. On a quiet road, she found a lodging house and paid for a room.
“I will look for work,” she thought and enjoyed the pleasure of a comfortable house, food, and a feather bed. Life was beginning to look a little brighter, but she still worried about Teckman. Because of that, she decided to take the stage and move away from the railroad. She decided to change her appearance. She boarded the stage the next day as a young man and not a young woman.
Algie Sterling put a smile on his face as he stepped inside his sister’s house to collect his daughter. He was tired, and only the thought of keeping the people who relied upon him safe kept him going. Bess, his daughter, ran and clasped her arms around him. She was seven years old, pretty with a bubbly personality. He picked her up, and the day seemed better somehow.
“Hi, Uncle Algie,” Rafe, his nephew, shouted across the room. He came over with a smile on his face and carrying a large, carved wooden boat with tall, beautiful sails with both hands.
“Well, that is a special sort of thing. Where did it come from?” Algie knew well where it had come from because his brother-in-law had been waiting for it to be made.
“Mister Carnegie made it, and it floats and works. Come and watch.” The lad’s voice rose in excitement, and Algie put down his daughter and followed the lad outside. The house had a small lake in the yard. It was originally meant as a pretty feature but had long since turned into a playground for the children. In good weather, they could play in the water. It was not deep, and it was in this little patch of water that Rafe floated all sorts of things that he made or found. He could follow them into the pond to retrieve them, and it gave him endless hours of pleasure. Bess had always copied her cousin and was almost as excited as the lad himself. Eleanor, Rafe’s mother, and Algie’s sister followed them out, wiping her hands.
“This is a lovely boat,” she said, “Harry Carnegie makes a lovely job of his models, and they are true to life. They watched as Rafe adjusted the sails and set the little craft out into the water. The slight breeze filled the sails, and the boat made a perfect picture.
“Come and have a coffee before you take Bess home,” Eleanor suggested. “Has it been a hard day?”
“One of those ones that never seem to end,” Algie answered and was glad to sink into a seat. His sister gave him a coffee cup and a piece of cake. Her brother looked worn out, although he hid it well. When her husband, Harvey, came home, she would hear the details as he was the deputy sheriff.
“Missus Carter had an accident in the street with her small carriage. It fell over when the shaft broke. Unfortunately, Jim Maddison was trying to help, and it fell on him.”
“Oh, dear,” Eleanor exclaimed. “Is he okay?”
“At the doctors. Harvey might be a bit late. We had to put a series of drunken gamblers into cells, and the day seemed to go from one crisis to another.”
“You and Bess can stay and eat here, you know. There is a big pot of beef stew in there.”
Algie was about to refuse her offer, but she saw the tiredness in his eyes.
“Please stay, Algie. It lets me help a little.” He gave her a smile that made him seem like the old Algie again, and her heart went out to the big brother she loved. She ladled out food and called to the children. “I have to do something,” she thought to herself. “Algie will never find another woman like Kate, but he might find a bit of happiness and someone to help him.”
As it turned out, Harvey finished with the work and arrived home as well. He told Algie that the place was quiet and Jim Maddison could walk with a crutch under his arm.
“The sailing boat is wonderful,” Algie told him. “If we find another one for Bess, we could go to the big lake in the canyon and see them there.”
“What if they blow away?” Rafe asked anxiously.
“We will attach fishing lines and let them sail. If they are too far, we can pull them back.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Harvey said.
“Where will I get a boat?” Bess asked.
“Well, as it happens,” her dad said with a twinkle in his eye. His daughter was the one bright spark that kept him going. “I saw an advert for a boat that winds up and then moves across the water as the spring unwinds.”
“A bit like winding up a clock,” Eleanor suggested.
“Can we send for one?” Bess asked.
“When we get home, we will find the advert and write the letter.” The little girl was keen to do that. She had been just a little bit jealous of Rafe’s beautiful sailing boat. They thanked Eleanor for the meal and set off for home, with Bess giving a little skip every now and then.
Eleanor cleared away and went to find a paper to see if she could see this advert as well. What she saw were adverts for mail-order brides, and it set her thinking. She sat back and really wondered if she could interfere that much in her brother’s life and then she decided that she could, found paper and pen and wrote an advert. She named no names in case people who knew then saw it but sealed the envelope to take it into town the next day.
She tucked it away as Harvey came and sat beside her.
“You look guilty.” She smiled and kissed his cheek.
“Maybe I am,” she said and made him laugh. Then she confessed to what she had done.
“Oh, Lord, Eleanor. Is that not just too much interference?”
“He will never do anything himself, and I know he needs help around the place and help with Bess.”
“I guess the woman can walk away if she does not want to be with him.” He smiled at his wife.
“And you are curious about his reaction,” she smiled back. “Neither of them need to take up the offer if they don’t want to.”
Camille had found a job when she arrived at the stagecoach destination. The one thing she did knew was how a saloon worked. Teckman had a saloon and gambling house as well as the brothel. Her mother had protected her from the worst place, but she had worked in the saloon since she was about fifteen.
“Wash those extra glasses, Cammie boy,” the barman called out, “And then go and help the cook.”
“Yessir,” Camille answered cheerfully and did as he asked. “She knew what was expected of folk working in these places, and she adapted to being a young lad. “In fact,“ she thought to herself as she collected the last few dirty glasses, “Nobody smacks you on the behind when you are a boy.”
At the end of one of her shifts, she found a journal that someone had left on a table. The saloon owner said she could have the small room at the back if she took half of the wages. She took the journal and the plate of food from the leftovers in the kitchen and retired to her own room. She was living a pretend life and staying in the back of a saloon, but she felt safer than she had in a long time. By the light of a candle, she read the paper and saw an advert that caught her attention.
“Maybe,” she said out loud, “as a married woman, I would be safe.”
It was not something she had ever considered, but the next day, she found paper and ink and wrote an answer to the advert. She and Eleanor corresponded for a little while. Eleanor had said that she was writing on behalf of her brother. The two women wrote easily to each other, and after some time, Camille decided to see what this man was like.
Eleanor sent some money to help towards the journey, and Cammie thanked his employer and said that his auntie had written and asked him to go and live with her, collected his wages, and set off on the stagecoach for a day’s journey into the unknown.
As the stage neared the destination, she was increasingly nervous, but Carterbar Crossing looked like a quiet place when they rattled up to the hotel in a cloud of dust. She took her bag, patted her clothes to shake off the dirt of traveling by stage, and walked up the steps. She went to the reception and asked if they could tell her where she could find Eleanor Johnson. The manager called across the room.
“Eleanor, your friend is here.” The two women met and shook hands and then laughed and gave each other a hug.
“How lovely to meet you, at last,” Eleanor said.
“I am glad to be here,” Camille responded, and the two of them chattered as they walked towards Eleanor’s home. She noticed that Eleanor was expecting a baby. She asked how the woman was feeling.
“I am feeling fine, thanks.”
The children were at school, but Harvey was at home and said that he would go and find Algie.
“Oh, Lord, I am now so nervous,” Camille told her. She sat in a chair and tried to stop herself from shaking. It was a huge step to take, and the reality of it had suddenly hit home. Writing letters and traveling to a new life was one thing, but meeting this man was quite another.
The two men came inside, and Eleanor introduced Camille to her brother.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said and shook hands. Algie Sterling was town marshal, and he knew when folks were frightened. This woman was frightened, and he had no idea why his sister had introduced her. Camille was pretty with dark hair and green eyes. He liked the smattering of freckles across her nose, and her smile was beautiful, but why was she there?
Eleanor took a breath.
“If I am wrong, just say so, Algie, but I wrote an advert asking for a mail order bride for you, and Camille answered. I thought you needed help around the place and with Bess.”
There was a shocked silence as Algie Sterling took in what she was saying.
“You did what?” he exploded. “You asked for someone to marry me. Good Lord, Eleanor, what came over you?” He paced across the floor, his face filled with anger.
“She was trying to help you,” Harvey interjected.
“Help me? Help me? All she has done is embarrass both this woman and me here, Camille, was it?” he turned to Camille, and she shrank into the armchair.
“I am sorry if it upsets you. You need to make a life for yourself again. You need a woman around for Bess, and Camille is happy to work around the place until you know each other.” Eleanor tried to reason with her brother.
Algie stopped pacing and looked at the woman in the chair.
“I am sorry,” he said in a more controlled voice. “None of this is your fault. My sister has just taken leave of her senses.”
“I will just go,” Camille said and started to get up from the chair. Algie Sterling shook his head.
“My sister might be a crazy woman, but I cannot see you just walk away. You came here in good faith. Algie Sterling could see the fear Camille was trying to hide. He held out a hand. “Algie Sterling, town marshal.” There was something about this woman, apart from the fact that she was frightened of something, that appealed to him. Maybe she needed a new start, and maybe it had taken courage to come to a strange place. He could not just turn her away.
“Camille Coulson,” she answered and shook his hand. She was trembling.
Camille saw a tall, slender man with curly black hair and blue eyes. They crinkled at the corners when he smiled, and he had an air about him of a man that could be relied upon.
“Come and walk over to my house. You can stay and be the housekeeper for a while and see if you like the place.” He picked up the bag by the door, and she followed him.
“I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” Eleanor told her. She looked at her husband.
“It might still work,” he said into her hair. She looked up and smiled.
“I think so as well.”
Algie led the way into the main street and said that she might as well see where he worked because they had to pass the door. The office was in a bit of a rambling building. It had been added to as the town grew and had cells at the rear of the main office.
Algie held the door. A young man was inside and sitting at the desk. He did not appear to be working and leaped to his feet as the boss came inside. Algie nodded at him and introduced Camille.
“She is going to be my housekeeper and help with Bess,” Algie said. “This is Gabriel Jones.”
Gabriel held out a hand, and Camille shook it.
“Housekeeper?“ he looked at Camille. “This man is obsessive about neatness. Even the chairs have to stand in the same indentations in the rugs. If they are moved an inch, he can spot it. He will drive you crazy.”
Camille smiled a genuine smile for the first time since Algie had met her.
“Gabriel is a French name,” she said. “My mother was French.”
“Well, that is wonderful,” Gabriel answered and laughed. “My mother still is French and very proud of it.” He said something to Camille in French, and she answered in the same way. Algie shook his head as the two of them chatted in a language he did not understand.
“Sorry, Boss,” Gabriel said. “My mom would love to meet Camille sometime.”
“I am sure that she will,” Algie replied and told the deputy that he would be back shortly. He and Camille left and walked down the side of the office to another row of houses behind the main street.
“A pretty street,” Camille tried to make a little conversation.
“But mine is behind them,” he answered and walked through a narrow pathway between the neat wooden dwellings. The house stood alone on quite a large patch of land. There was a barn behind it and a corral with horses grazing.
“It’s a lovely house,” she said truthfully. The man gave her a crooked smile.
“Truth is, Gabriel was right. I am really extra tidy. If I seem quite mad, it is just one of those things that annoy me.”
“Better than the other way,” she answered matter-of-factly. He led the way up the porch steps and opened the door. She stood stock-still.
“I told you, mad about tidiness.” Camille shook her head and stepped inside.
“It is wonderful,” she said. “If I had to make a room I liked, this would be it.”
“Really?” he asked, genuinely astonished. “Why?”
He closed the door and offered her a seat.
“I, I just like everything put away out of sight and private, I suppose.”
“Would you not like colored cushions and things?” he asked, thinking that it was impossible for a woman to actually agree with him.
“Believe me, your own private belongings and the right to close the door and keep people out is important.” He nodded, and the marshal in him wanted to follow the line of questioning. He hesitated.
“I know that you must have wanted to get away from something to answer Eleanor’s advert. You don’t need to tell me if you would rather not.”
She smiled, and Algie Sterling took in how pretty she was.
“I would rather not go into detail, but my mother died two months ago, and I had to make a new start.”
He knew that was not the full story but left it for the time being.
“That is hard. Our parents both died, but my sister was there to share the loss.” He stopped before saying anything about Bess’s mom and how she died. He fingered the scar on his cheek without knowing that he was doing it and asked her to come and look at the kitchen. The stove had the usual pot of coffee keeping warm, and he offered her a cup.
“Look at the rest of the house first, and by the time you are done, Bess should be home.”
She saw three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs as well as a large, tidy living room and a big kitchen. Everywhere was neat and almost impersonal, but Camille quite liked that. Then he opened his daughter’s room, and the color and amount of belongings made her laugh out loud.
“Your daughter disagrees with you?” Camile said as she stepped inside and took in the patchwork quilt, cushions, covers, and the collection of dolls that must have cost him a lot of money with their porcelain faces and exotic clothes.
“I spoil her, I know, but she does keep everything in one room.”
“Those dolls are hard to find and expensive,” she said, “but lovely.” They heard the door open and close and the sound of young feet running up the stairs. Bess threw herself at her dad, and he picked her up.
“Bess, meet Camille. She is going to help us around here for a while.” He put his daughter down, and Camille held out a hand.
“I love your dolls,” Camille told her. Bess pulled her over to the seat under the window where the dolls were sitting in a row. “This is Victoria. Then there is Maggie, Jilly, Morgan, and Chantal.”
Camille picked up Chantal.
“Is she French?” The little girl nodded.
“My dad sent all the way to France for her, and Gabriel chose the name.”
“Camille speaks French,” Algie joined in as the two were getting along so well. It was coming to dawn on him that maybe, his sister had seen a need that he had missed. His daughter did need a woman around. “Let’s have a coffee.”
“Aunt Eleanor sent cake,” Bess told them and put the dolls back on their window seat before skipping down the stairs. “She said to tell you that she was sorry.” The little girl ate some cake and then asked what he had done wrong.
“I was angry and lost my temper.”
The youngster nodded and looked the very image of her father with his dark curly hair and blue eyes.
“She was okay.”
“Will you two be fine if I go back to work for a little while?”
“Can I make a meal for when you come back?” Camille asked, and he said that would be good.
“Plenty of things in the kitchen. Bess will show you where everything is.” He put his Stetson on his head and walked away to work.
Bess and Camille did a tour of the cupboards in the kitchen, and Camille took her bag upstairs.
“Have you any more bags?” the little girl asked. Camille shook her head.
“I can make myself another dress when I have found some threads and materials.”
They went to make the meal, and as it was just about ready, Algie came back home. He had another man with him and asked if there was enough for one more.
“Yes, of course,” Camille answered. It was his house, and he could bring in whoever he liked. Bess helped her carry plates to the table, and the man was introduced as Haster Wiggins. He was an old school friend of Algie’s but had been working away.
“My father died,” he told Camille, “and I had to arrange the funeral. It is over now.”
“I am sorry,” Camille answered. “My own mother died two months ago. It is a horrible time.”
“I will start back for Grainston tomorrow, but it was good to chat with Algie again.”
The two men sat at the fire when they had finished the meal and talked over old times. Camille cleared away and found Bess outside in the garden. The two of them considered whether a seat or two would be good outside to enjoy the sunshine. They were laughing about changing things around and what her dad would say about that.
Algie and his friend came out to say Haster was leaving. They stood on the steps. The woman and little girl did not see them immediately, and Algie noticed how much they were enjoying themselves. He felt a little jerk inside his chest that remembered what it was like to have a woman around the place. He felt an attraction to this person that he had not felt since he met his wife. He fingered the scar on his face again and pushed the thoughts away.
“Bess,” he called, “Come and say goodbye to Haster.” The two came over, and Haster held out a hand. He shook hands with both of them, and Algie told him to come back soon for another visit.
The man waved and walked away.
“Dad,” Bess started, “can we have some seats in the garden, please?”
“You could choose where to put them,” Camille said with a smile, and he knew she thought that he would have to make it tidy. He gave her a genuine smile, and Camille smiled back as an instant reaction. There was a second where they both looked at each other in silence, and then he agreed to find some seats for the garden.
“I wonder when the windup boat will arrive,” Bess added as they went inside.
“A windup boat?” Camille asked. They told her about the trip to the lake and that Rafe already had a sailing boat. Algie went to bring the journal and see if he could find the advert. He showed them the piece. Camille read the pages of the journal that he was not using. While reading, she went white and fainted. She slipped to the floor and lay there. Bess shouted with horror, and Algie rushed around to pick up Camille.
“Get her a drink of water, Bess.” The little girl came back, and Camille managed a few sips.
“You okay?” Algie asked anxiously and was still keeping a steadying arm on her shoulders. She could feel the warmth of his body through her shirt, and despite being shaky, it sent a sort of tingle through her shoulders.
“Don’t know what came over me,” she said. “I don’t normally faint.”
Algie pulled across the paper that she had been reading and scanned down the items.
“Did you read something that frightened you?” he asked. It was a reasonable question, but he saw the white color take over her face again, and she shook as if she was going to faint again. He held her close and kept her upright. Camille could not help but lean towards this man that was trying to help her. There was no way that she could explain the article about her friend that she had just read. Sherry was dead. It was there in black and white. She read the details.
Sherry Garland, who worked as a barmaid at the Golden Goose, had been brutally killed, and the law was at a loss to know why. They had no suspects at the time the article was written.
“It is my fault,” Camille kept the horrifying thought to herself. “He killed her for helping me.”
“Saved by a Serendipitous Love” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Brought up in a house of ill repute, Camille Coulson had a rough childhood with her mother as her only protector. When she passes away, Camille knows she must run away in order to avoid a grim fate. In despair, she answers an ad for a mail-order bride and travels to meet her betrothed… only to realize that he has no idea about her. Confused and running out of hope, she is relieved to at least be hired to look after his daughter. For once she can see a break in the clouds and in time she is touched by the man’s gentle and caring heart. Yet the closer she gets to him the more she worries about him discovering her awful past… Can she even dare to hope for a fairytale ending after all?
Ever since his wife was killed by bandits, Marshal Algie Sterling has thrown himself into keeping his town and his young daughter safe. With the pain of loss overwhelming his life, he has no desire to even think about marrying again. When Camille appears at his door expecting a wedding, he is baffled, unaware of his meddling sister’s ploy… Seeing her fear and anguish though, he can’t help but offer her a job instead. Soon he realizes he is drawn to her grace and kindness and before long his feelings become undeniable. Even so, her mysterious past keeps him from letting his guard down completely… Could she hold the key to a part of his heart he thought was forever locked though?
Fate might have brought Camille and Algie together but ghosts from the past come back to haunt them in unimaginable ways. With his old wounds still open and dangerous forces suddenly putting everything she holds dear at risk, they will both face life-changing choices. Will they find the courage to help each other and maybe even find true love in the process?
“Saved by a Serendipitous Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.