Melinda’s eyes shot open, though she did not move. The darkness of her room was complete and impenetrable. Lying there, it was nearly impossible to be sure her eyes were actually open. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she became aware of the small sliver of a moon reluctantly letting a little light past the soot-encrusted window. It took her a moment to make sense of what had woken her. A solitary figure sat on the other side of the bed, curled into a ball of misery, and covering her face as she wept.
“Margaret?” She shook her head to clear it of the last of the dreams and sat up.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry….” Margaret sobbed the words in great grasping heaves. She sounded as though her heart was breaking, and she clawed at her head, her head bobbing in what faint light there was, warm chestnut brown hair falling through splayed fingers and covering her face.
Melinda moved over and pulled Margaret to her. She wrapped one arm around her, looking for something in which to dry the tears, but finally allowing the girl to weep freely. “Try to think of it as an adventure. Colorado. Clean air, sunshine. It will be glorious. You’ll see.”
“And married to a stranger?” Margaret shot back with some heat. “Some…dirt farmer?”
“He’s hardly a dirt farmer….”
“Pig farmer then!” Margaret wailed. “I’ll be surrounded by the smell of swine and goats and whatever else leaves its…mark on the land.”
“He’s…” Melinda was about to explain that Margaret’s future husband wasn’t a farmer or rancher. He was a businessman, but that was rehashing old ground. Margaret knew all too well, having received more than one letter from her intended, so this was about something else.
“I know that you’re likely scared,” she kissed her twin sister’s head and held her tighter. “It’s a big adventure, going all the way to Colorado by train. It’s a long journey to take by oneself, but….”
“You don’t understand!” Margaret was inconsolable. “Aunt Rose only arranged the marriage because of Noah.”
Melinda shook her head, trying to follow that train of thought. “Noah Berman? What does have to do with….”
“I’m in love with him.”
If that cry hadn’t awoken the house, nothing short of dynamite would. She shushed her sister all the same, with a wary look toward the attic door. “Noah Berman? From the docks?”
“He’s a good man!” Margaret objected. “A hard worker.”
Melinda sat up at this, unconsciously mirroring her aunt when she did so. “And a hard drinker from all accounts.”
“He’s a good man!” Margaret pulled away and shot to her feet. She paced in the small room as best she could in the darkness.
“I meant no implication otherwise.” Melinda went back under the covers as the room was rather chilly. This was a sensitive area, obviously, and she needed to proceed with caution. “But what….”
“Aunt Rose arranged this…marriage, this slavery after she found out about Noah and me. She thinks he’s a worthless bum, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Margaret, if nothing else, you get a new start, an adventure with your own home and someone to take care of you!” She added under her breath, “someone who isn’t me.” Margaret was already continuing her tirade and didn’t hear that last part. Typical.
“You don’t understand! I am sure Noah will make a better impression on Aunt Rose. He just needs a little time. You’ll see. He’ll work hard, he’ll save up and we’ll be married. I know Aunt Rose will come to like him, even love him. He just needs a little time. Instead, she sells me to some stranger a thousand miles away!”
“Eleven hundred.” Melinda corrected her automatically. From the look on her sister’s face, even in the darkness she waved off the correction and tried again. “Margaret!” This truly was going too far. After the deaths of their parents, Aunt Lettie had done what had thought best for the girls, but in truth could hardly afford to feed and clothe the both of them. The idea of sending one out to make her way in the world was simply…expedient. At twenty-two, the girls were of an age to marry, and then some. “It’s hardly slavery,” Melinda said firmly, sitting up so that the blanket fell away again. “He sent money for your ‘expenses.’ That’s hardly the same thing. No one bought you. Exactly.” This was a weak argument. That Aunt Lettie had used the money to buy the cheapest train ticket she could and pocketed the rest made this something of a gray area. In point of fact, there was little arguing that her sister was sold to a stranger.
It’s not like they’d had a lot of other choices. Girls with no money had few places to go. That Aunt Lettie had taken them in, back when they were only sixteen, had been a kindness on her part which was not to be forgotten. They’d had to work hard for their keep, Aunt Lettie taking in mending and fine sewing to keep them all fed.
The problem had always been Margaret. Melinda had proved to be excellent at managing the household and putting meals on the table. But Margaret had been one to daydream and so be careless in her chores. She’d never proven adept with a needle either. Was it any surprise that Aunt Lettie had wanted to marry Margaret off and be done with her? Maybe the problem was Chicago. The suitors who had not been afraid of Uncle Dominic, Lettie’s stern and unyielding husband, had been lacking in…character. And Melinda had been stubborn, turning down any who might have sufficed. That she had become attached to this dockworker was appalling to say the least. Especially when Lettie had discovered those who wished to send for mail-order brides, sometime sent money instead of train tickets.
It was an unfair thought. As Melinda watched her sister’s hysterics as she recounted this history as if she were the helpless victim, she couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Aunt Lettie’s solution hadn’t been the best solution after all. If Margaret stayed in Chicago, what did she face but a life of poverty and want? To have a man of means wanting to marry Margaret was a coup of sorts. Maybe he was a stranger, but what Melinda proposed was a bleak and dismal future. Aunt Lettie had been able to circumvent this. It was true that the old woman was making a pretty penny from it, but did the girls not owe her somewhat for their upkeep these past few years?
“Margaret…” Melinda caught at her sister’s arm to stop her restless pacing. There was still one thing which bothered her greatly in all this. “You leave in the morning. You might have said something before this.”
Margaret whirled on her, eyes catching the light from the window and flashing dangerously. “To whom, pray tell? Aunt Lettie? She’s fixated on me spending the rest of my life with someone she wrote to from a newspaper personal ad. What kind of servitude does that create for me? I’m being sold for whatever sum she pocketed the moment my ticket was purchased.”
Which was exactly the problem, wasn’t it? Melinda scrambled to her feet, wincing at the chill of the rough floorboards of the attic where they slept. “If you cancel now, she’ll have to return the money, and I think she’s already spent some on rent and clothing. She’ll have an apoplexy, and you and I will pay the price.” Melinda stared at her sister in consternation. Why hadn’t her twin spoken up before now?
“Especially you,” Margaret whispered. “You do all the work for her and her family and everyone else around here. Melinda, you’re going to trapped here forever. You’re going to work yourself to death taking care of everyone else.”
“And you are going to have someone take care of you.” Melinda reminded her with a sigh of exasperation. “Which is exactly why I don’t understand why you want to throw all that aside for some…dockworker who can’t hold a steady job.”
Margaret thrust her aside and went to the window, leaning her face on the glass as though speaking to her reflection more than to her. “You know nothing of love!”
“No. I do not.” And she wanted to know. More than anything.
Melinda stepped back a half step, feeling for the bed behind her. She sank down, stunned. “What?” With the way her sister was standing, she couldn’t see Margaret’s face to determine if the girl was making fun of her or not. “Tell me you did not just say that!”
Margaret whirled, coming to kneel before her. She took her hands in hers. “It would be like we used to do when we were children. Remember we would trade places? You can be Margaret. I’ll be Melinda.”
Melinda was having trouble breathing. The idea was too…appealing?
She shook her head fiercely. “Are you insane? Do you know what will happen when Aunt Lettie discovers our treachery?”
“Why? If this pig farmer gets a bride, she doesn’t have to return my purchase price, you get your freedom, and I can take care of the house when you’re gone. That will give me time with my Noah and give him the chance to prove himself. I only need to buy enough time for Aunt Lettie to see how much better it would be if I could marry Noah. Then she’s shed of both of us.”
Melinda wavered. She had a suspicion Aunt Lettie wouldn’t be as pleased at the turn of events as Margaret made things sound. Melinda did a great deal of the work around the house…and would continue to do so. Aunt Lettie had made it quite clear she would not allow Melinda to marry. Not that there had been offers exactly. But her intent had always been to keep the more useful of the girls to help her in the work, and to eventually support her in her dotage, especially given Uncle’s sick spells.
“But…I haven’t packed…I don’t…” Melinda tried to list all the shortfalls in the plan, but the list was too long, and she couldn’t figure out how to start. The fact that she would be traveling eleven hundred miles and spending the rest of her life with a stranger wasn’t an argument she could use on her sister, not after assuring her that such things were common. Besides, deep down, the idea held an appeal. It would be an…escape.
A chance to live her own life.
Margaret was always quick to pick up on Melinda’s mood. She let go of Melinda’s hands and flew about the room. “I’m packed. You and I are of a size. You take my clothes, I’ll take yours. We have few enough things. Personal items would only take a moment.” She grabbed at items on the bureau and flung them on the bed next to Melinda. “It would require a matter of moments to arrange it.”
Colorado. Eleven hundred miles from everything she ever knew. And the intended, one Reginald Dawson, was wealthy enough to appease even the avarice of Aunt Lettie. Such a man could afford servants, yes? Maybe more? Melinda was never one to pursue wealth, but the thought of no longer having to do the cooking and cleaning and washing and all the other domestic chores she had been doing every day since they’d arrived in the wake of their parents’ deaths….
No. It was madness. Insanity. And in the morning, her sister would be gone, Aunt Lettie and all the rest would still be there. Bread would have to be made, sheets washed, ashes shoveled from the fireplace….
And then there was one other thing. Margaret had beautiful long flowing hair, a trim waist, and the sort of figure that made men stop talking when she walked into a room. Melinda couldn’t compete with that. Her hair was dull to say the least, and while her figure was as trim as her sister’s, somehow clothes always hung on her strangely, as though they were themselves averse to being worn by the lesser twin. Her bridegroom would only be disappointed.
On the other hand, he’d never seen his mail-order bride either and Aunt Lettie would never spring for the money needed for a portrait. He wouldn’t know what Margaret looked like and thus, Melinda wouldn’t pale in comparison.
“You’d have to take over the housework,” she warned her sister. Margaret perked up, her excitement a palpable thing. She even bounced a little on the bed.
“It’s only fair. You’ve covered for me long enough.”
Yes, but this was simply because Margaret couldn’t cook a meal worth eating and always scorched the sheets when ironing. Well, couldn’t that be Aunt Lettie’s problem? Maybe it would only encourage her to allow Margaret her bridegroom all the sooner?
“Let me take over before you’re too old to find a husband. Please?”
“It’s the stupidest idea since Eve thought an apple was tasty,” she muttered, gathering the trinkets Margaret had flung onto the bed. “Where is your valise?”
“Then you’ll do it?”
Melinda growled under her breath. “Noah better be worth this. Yes, I’ll be Margaret.” She let out an “OOFF” as her sister slammed into her. Trinkets rained down on the floor in a noisy clatter. Something shattered against the floorboards.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you….”
“Alright! Alright. Strike a match. We’ll need lamp light to repack…and clean up that mess.”
Margaret fumbled in the dresser for one of the rare matches and carefully lit the wick of the oil lamp. Melinda watched as the room flared into light and then buried her face in her hands.
What have I done?
On the other hand, she’d given her dear sister a chance at happiness, true happiness. While a dockworker on Lake Michigan wasn’t really the profession she would have chosen for a mate suitable for her sister, it was Margaret’s life and her choice.
And maybe, just maybe, there was someone out there who would take care of her for once. Someone that could tend to the needs of one Melinda Bates….
NO. I better get used to this now.
She tried out the words cautiously. “Call me Margaret.”
Her sister whooped in delight, already half-buried in the valise where she hunted out her dearest treasures that she might replace them with what remained of Melinda’s.
This is madness.
Why then did it feel so right?
A week on a moving train is a tiring ride, even if there is little to do but read. Melinda had packed her precious books. These were her most important possessions along with her sister’s meager supply of dresses and bonnets, which she’d only taken after she’d pointed out the deception would be discovered too quickly should Margaret be seen wearing her own clothes at home. With any luck, Aunt Lettie would not realize the deception until Melinda was safely married.
Given no message had waited for her at any of the intervening stations, she figured she’d gotten lucky. Either that, or her aunt and uncle had not considered it worth their hard-earned money to fix the deception.
So it was, Melinda had buried herself in her favorite stories. She’d read and re-read them so many times, the pages were getting thinner, and the bindings cracked, but the sheer pleasure of reading sustained her on the journey. They also kept her mind off the unknown future that awaited her.
They spent the last few days climbing toward the Rocky Mountains, which had been a growing blue and gray smudge on the horizon for two days now. She hadn’t noticed the gentle incline initially until she realized it was harder to walk to the dining car than it had been at the start of her journey. A kindly, elderly gentleman in the dining car assured her she would get used to the rarified atmosphere and suggested she drink a lot of water to help her body adjust, but that made her require more frequent trips to the necessary to relieve herself, requiring more walking around which aggravated the feeling that she couldn’t breathe.
When the conductor announced Colorado Springs as the next stop, she found another reason she couldn’t breathe. He was going to meet her there. At the station. She had no idea how far Cripple Creek was from where she would get off. But whatever the distance, it was time alone with her husband-to-be. She wasn’t sure if the butterflies in her stomach were there because she feared his rejection or his acceptance.
She pulled her sleeves down, ruffling the fringes at her wrists and wishing she could do something more to prepare herself for this meeting. She felt drab and worn, her traveling suit having suffered greatly after a solid week of travel. Had she been traveling first class, she might have had her clothes brushed out at least. As it was, it had taken some begging and pleading to be allowed a damp cloth to wipe at the soot on her face and dab at the worst of the dust on her clothes. At least her hair was piled up under her hat where it couldn’t be seen.
She sighed as the brakes squealed, and the train lurched to a long slow halt.
She would have to do.
Not for the first time, Melinda wondered what he looked like. Granted, she’d spent the last week worrying about how he would see her, but now as her future waited on the platform on the other side of the glass, she couldn’t help but wonder what she was getting in for. As the train began to slow, she flashed on the old man in the dining car and wondered if he and Reginald were contemporaries. What if he’d lied about his age and was quite elderly?
Don’t be daft. She took herself in hand. His letters identified him as being twenty-seven years old. But then…there was no proof of that. No picture, no drawing, no…no sane person would do this. Was it too late to turn around and return to Chicago? Had Noah proven himself yet? How angry would Aunt Lettie be?
The train lurched to a halt.
Through the window, rough men in grime-encrusted clothing, mixed with weather-worn cowboys, and the occasional youth running errands and messages. Melinda scanned the throng that milled around the station, having to look twice before she realized that some of the women were dressed like men right down to their rough pants, shirts, and jackets. She gathered her reticule and book she’d been re-reading and rose. She moved as if in a dream, distant and seemingly not connected to her body. It felt as though stepping off the train would take her to more than a new life, but to a different world where everything she’d known would no longer apply. It was overwhelming and the only way she managed to keep from keeling over under the pressure was to float, as though she was somehow a foot or two above her body watching from a safe distance.
She stopped at the last step before she placed her foot on the wooden platform. Her trunk, Margaret’s trunk…her trunk had already been unloaded and stood on the platform waiting for her like the last rock to cling to before a waterfall. She stepped off the train and walked toward it, craving the familiar. Worst-case scenario, maybe she could hide inside it if things looked grim.
Well, maybe that was being a bit silly. He was only a man, after all. And from the letters she’d read, he’d seemed quite kind. There was nothing to be afraid of.
The sea of people flowed around her, the tide parting at the steamer trunk. The train blew its whistle twice and behind her the cars clanked and shook as the couplings stretched and strained. The train laboriously crawled away from the platform to continue the endless loop from city to city.
As the train puffed off into the distance, the people left the station. Whatever they had come to fetch had been gotten. Whatever they came to leave was already on the train and gone. In the wake of their passage, a young man in a new suit, clean, free of grime and dirt stood alone watching her.
This is my husband?
For a moment, Melinda forgot how to breathe. He was handsome, tall, and had a straight back and thick brown hair. He replaced a pocket watch into his vest and straightened his hat. It was a Stetson like nearly all the other cowboys wore, but this one was black and showed little sign of wear. It sported a silver band around the base, giving it a fresh, unblemished look. She would wager the few coins in her carryall that it had never seen a trail or even a cow.
Melinda gripped the handle of the steamer as the stranger strode up to where she waited. He looked as though he would have been perfectly at home on the deck of a rolling ship as the rigid platform of the station. He had a way of gliding as he walked, his gait smooth and unhurried.
Melinda stood. She nearly corrected him before realizing this was her name now. Somehow, she managed a shy nod. “Yes. Are you…Reginald?”
The man nodded and removed his hat. He sketched a quick bow and held out his hand. She expected a handshake at best, considering the rough crowd that had occupied the platform, How could she have thought to have more? He took her hand under her fingers and brought them to his lips. He did not kiss her hand but bowed over it in old-world sophistication and let go again.
“You are as lovely as I had hoped.” He smiled at her then, but it still felt…businesslike as though he were delighted by her appearance, but it wasn’t important. He looked around a bit and signaled for a boy to come with a conveyance and take the steamer chest to the front of the depot.
“There is a minister standing by to perform the ceremony,” Reginald informed her. “You have a room at the Antlers Hotel. I thought you’d be tired from your journey, so I took the liberty of hiring you a maid to help you get ready.” He seemed to belatedly realize that she was no longer following the path her luggage had taken and turned back to her with a puzzled look.
“You’re…you move quickly.”
He watched her for a long moment before finally speaking. “I don’t understand your confusion. You did travel all the way here to marry me. That was the arrangement, was it not?”
“There are scant resources in Cripple Creek, at least when compared to Colorado Springs. The minister is set. I have arranged dining, and so on. I intend to return to Cripple Creek with a bride, not a fiancé. Are you, or are you not prepared to marry me?”
Are you, or are you not prepared to marry me?
The words repeated in her head. Well, was she? If not, she traveled across the country for no reason whatsoever. Worse, but she would be betraying her twin. That was the deal.
He is someone who will take care of you.
The thought gave her some hope. He did not seem cruel in his questions. He had arranged for her every need, and if anything, he had a hint of doubt in his eyes as he asked, as though he feared the answer. Was he worried that she would let him down?
“Yes.” Melinda cleared her throat and resumed walking. “I was just…overwhelmed for a moment.”
Reginald said nothing but he did extend his arm. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and allowed herself to be led. It was a nice feeling. Tucked in next to him like this felt companionable. As though she wasn’t going to have to face life alone so long as he walked with her.
She caught her breath and tried to smile when she noticed him looking at her. A hotel, a maid. Considering the way he looked, clean, pressed, and shaved in a place where so many were not. He was a man of means. Whether it was Margaret or Aunt Lettie or some guardian angel which had brought her to this point, it did not matter. She was here, and even if the air was thin, everything felt so strange yet beautiful. As though everything was going to work out. Melinda thanked whatever powers that be that made such a match for her.
“So, we are going to a hotel?” she asked, lifting her head to survey the buildings which lined the street opposite the station. What had he called it? The Antlers Hotel? She did not see one with such a name.
“Yes. I had rather thought you would wish to freshen up.”
Melinda winced. She truly had tried to avail herself in her best before getting off the train. All week long she had worn the same dress while traveling, to better save the fresh one which she had carried in her valise. Everything else she owned was in her trunk, which had been quite out of reach in the baggage car. Perhaps she did look a bit rumpled. The meager accommodations she had enjoyed, had not allowed for space to hang out her dress properly to get the wrinkles out. “Travel is rather difficult upon one’s attire,” she agreed amiably, trying not to let show how overwhelmed she felt. She’d had more than a week on the train to worry and second guess her actions, but now that she arrived, it all seemed to be moving so fast.
The distance from the station to the hotel proved to be not far at all. All the same, Reginald had hired a coach to bring them in style. This too was further evidence of his obvious wealth. It should have reassured her. Instead, it only made things worse. She was unaccustomed as to how one addressed a coachman and earned a strange look from her intended and the driver when she thanked him as they arrived at their destination.
To make things worse, the hotel itself was elegant, brand-new with all the latest accommodations. There was even steam-heating in the rooms and though it was a warm summer day, Melinda was suitably impressed. Perhaps too much so. Her smile became strained the more she was surrounded by porters, bellhops, and the lady’s maid which appeared as if by magic out of nowhere.
The maid busied herself with drawing a bath for Melinda when she arrived. Hot water steamed from the tap without any sign of fire or another way to generate the heat for it. Melinda found herself wanting to linger, to soak away the trip and perhaps let the heat work some magic on muscles too unaccustomed to activity. At the same time, she was unsure how long she had to get ready. Her fiancé seemed an efficient man. For all she knew, he had a church full of guests waiting on her. In her mind, the bridegroom and minister both were already positioned to begin the ceremony, wondering why Melinda was not already halfway down the aisle.
Not Melinda, she reminded herself firmly. Margaret.
With a groan, she sank down in the tub until only her nose was above water.
“Let me drown and be done with it,” she moaned, then sat up abruptly, sending water cascading out onto the floor in a violent waterfall likely to drench the residents of the room below her. “I did not just say that. Ignore me. Tell me you have found my dress in my trunk.”
The girl, if anything, winced. “I have.”
That did it. Melinda stood up, accepting the towel which the maid wrapped around her almost absently though ten minutes before she had been horrified to bathe in front of this stranger. Almost as one, she and the maid went over to the bed to examine, rather dubiously, the crushed creation which her sister had left her as a wedding dress.
Which wasn’t a wedding dress at all. Apparently, Margaret had thought better of letting her sister take the dress she’d painstakingly created under Aunt Lettie’s watchful eye. This was not the shimmering gown with embroidered flowers and butterflies along the hem and neckline which Melinda had secretly envied for months now. No, this was her own ‘best’ gown in pale yellow, right down to the place on the sleeve she’d darned after catching it on the garden gate last spring.
Melinda’s mouth went dry. She clutched the towel about her and considered that given how thick and plush the towel was, and the way it was large enough to wrap around her completely, that it could be arranged into a better wedding gown than…this.
Melinda glanced at the maid and looked away when she saw the pity in the girl’s eyes. Melinda’s lips compressed into a thin line. “It will have to do,” she muttered, wondering if this would be the last straw. Reginald had seemed somewhat put off by her already. There was no denying the way he’d hesitated before walking over to her. She would not blame him if he turned tail and ran back up into the mountains where he’d come from after seeing this.
“When Two Souls Defy Destiny” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Melinda’s twin sister may be utterly in love with a local man, but her family is set on her becoming a mail-order bride. As Melinda is saying her final goodbyes to her beloved sister, a brilliant yet risky idea presents itself. Melinda will take her place on the train instead, allowing her sister to stay in town and have a chance with her love. By the time their ruse is discovered, Melinda will be walking down the aisle with her future husband…
What could possibly go wrong with such a perfect plan?
Reginald Dawson started out in life with nothing and built a fortune from the goldfields in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Now, with a large hotel and success within his grasp, he is on the brink of having it all. When he posts an ad looking for a wife, he only has one thing in mind: to find someone sweet and genteel to be his companion and partner in life. With a lady of refinement at his side, even his tainted past could be overlooked, right?
The problem is, lies have a way of being exposed…
Both Melinda and Reginald have their fair share of secrets and neither is what the other expected. Melinda’s daring new husband seems to have a sinister secret in his past and Reginald’s perfect wife turns out to be a feisty suffragette. With danger looming and past mistakes catching up to them, can they even dare to imagine a chance at true love?
“When Two Souls Defy Destiny” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.