MEET JOHN from Alaska, and his wrong mail-order bride.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
“The bride you asked for has changed her mind, sir.” Sophie Mead Grant practiced saying it aloud, but the words still choked in her throat. How would he accept the news? With an anxious look at the crowds ahead, she hopped off the platform of the swaying ship onto the busy banks of Skagway, Alaska.
Her long skirts swirled about her ankles. Sophie set down her bags in the hot May sun. Clutching the torn advertisement that he’d placed for a mail-order bride, she peered at the scrawled name she’d stared at for the past twenty-two days at sea.
Swarms of passengers bumped her shoulders as they passed her on the docks. When she looked up again, a man the size of a statue was staring at her from twenty yards away. Fringed suede jacket, cowboy hat, shoulders the breadth of a doorway.
It was him. Had to be. Heat seeped up her neck.
“I’ve got shocking news,” she whispered under her breath, practicing her speech again. “Sorry, Mr. Colburne. John.” Her lips moved incoherently as his eyes held hers.
How disheartened would he be? Or…maybe this course of events would turn out in his best interests.
And hers. At one time, Sophie had let her father make her decisions for her. But no longer. Stepping onto Alaskan soil was her new breath of freedom. She’d be living her life for herself, from now on.
Your weakness is— The harsh words of her father rushed through her ears. You’re much too sympathetic. You must pull up your spine and do what needs to be done. Clearly you’re not suited to being a midwife.
Yes, she was. She straightened her posture in the blazing sunshine. She’d prove it to her father. She’d prove it to all the doubters. That she was stronger and braver than he ever gave her credit for.
She had to muster her nerve and simply tell John Colburne the truth. That the woman he was expecting wasn’t coming. With a fresh wave of resolve, Sophie picked up her satchel in one hand, her obstetrical bag in the other, and pressed toward him through the sea of bodies.
She ran her hand along her long skirt. The sun’s rays singed her face. The ocean mist lashed at her tucked-up hair. Flies no bigger than flecks darted up her nose. With a yelp, she tossed her bags to the ground and shooed the bugs.
“First thing,” he said, stepping to her side, “we’ve got to get you a proper hat. Bonnets aren’t enough to shield you from the flies and sun.”
Sophie lifted her face to get a good look at him. Dark blond hair, blue eyes and the rippling of muscles beneath his white shirt. My, he was a lot of man to handle. She flushed just thinking about a night alone with him.
Surprising her, he lowered his face, pressed his warm lips to her cheek, pulled away, then kissed her other cheek.
The lump in her throat solidified. Paulette Trundle didn’t know what she was missing.
“Pleased to meet you, Paulette,” he said incorrectly. “I’m John.” The fringes on his jacket swayed as he moved forward and crushed Sophie in a hug. When he stepped back again, he gave her a handsome smile. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
He believed her to be his bride, Paulette, but Sophie was an impostor. She fought for something coherent to say. “You’re much taller than I expected.”
He let out a soft laugh, and she rolled her eyes at her silly comment about his physical traits. Taller? Why not say more powerful and primal and brawny?
He had an easy way about him, a rhythm of speaking. She averted her gaze, pretended to swat at the flies and opened her lips to confess.
“Colburne,” shouted a deckhand from a lower gangplank. He was leading a horse from the bow of the ship. “John Colburne!”
Mr. Colburne wheeled around, like a tornado gathering thunder, and whistled in pleasure. “My mare!”
Hoisting both of Sophie’s bags with one hand, he leaped down the docks and motioned for her to follow. The deckhand with the horse nabbed him, while she was stopped on the docks by other disembarking passengers.
“So wonderful to have traveled with you, my dear.” Mrs. Rutledge, a woman Sophie had gotten to know on the ship, patted Sophie’s face. From a few steps away, Mr. Rutledge nodded. Carrying a small barrel of rum, he eagerly looked over to his other kegs to ensure they were being properly unloaded, next to the livestock.
Behind them, an old sailor also waited to say goodbye to Sophie, followed by the two middle-aged sisters who were here as seamstresses. Then the bearded Captain Waycott himself.
“The hotel’s that way.” The captain pointed to her right, reminding her of the fine hotel he’d recommended earlier, which she’d asked about in case her secret plans with Mr. Colburne didn’t turn out. “Straight down the main street.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, then hustled to catch up to Mr. Colburne, who was admiring his new mare by the lower banks.
She gulped a breath of fresh air. She was finally here. The icy mountains and the power of the ocean were much more magical than she’d anticipated.
The high peaks bore ice halfway down their slopes. Ocean waters swirled in a dozen hues of blue and green. The town itself looked charming—docks lined with sailors, fishermen, rich gold miners, shacks, shops and arriving throngs of European immigrants who spoke languages she didn’t understand.
She hadn’t told anyone on board the ship the private message she had to deliver to Mr. Colburne. Or why she had come to Alaska. Some things were confidential. Some things were easier to bear alone. Her whole life so far had been a testament to that philosophy.
Two more paces and she reached his side. Thankfully, they had a bit of privacy, with the ship behind them and the horse in front that blocked the view of passersby.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” He patted the mare’s flanks as the deckhand spoke with a passenger on the other side of the animal. The mare was a little lean from the rough voyage, but her coat was a glossy reddish-brown.
“A Thoroughbred,” he announced with pride.
“For your line of work?”
He frowned. “Well, yes…I mentioned it in my letter.”
Perhaps he’d mentioned it in his letters to Paulette, but not to her. Sophie crossed her arms over her jacket front and opened her mouth to finally, finally spill all.
“You’re more lovely than I expected.” He stepped closer, surprising her. She swallowed hard at the daring look in his eyes. Her stomach contracted. Before she could resist, he swooped down and kissed her lips.
His kiss was magic. She hadn’t been kissed like this in…she’d never been kissed like this. The kind of kiss where a man didn’t give a care who was watching, just rolled her up in his arms and kissed her with all the longing he’d been building for months. Untamed. Wild. Free. Like Alaska itself.
It had been so long since she’d been kissed at all.
But this kiss wasn’t meant for her. Her conscience flared.
When they parted, she had a feeling that her eyes had been closed longer than his. When she opened them, he was looking at her with the side of his lips turned up in good humor. He tilted his head as if trying to read what was going through her mind.
The brim of his hat put his eyes in shadow. “Now, what’ve you got to say for yourself?”
“I’m not Paulette.” Her lips were dry. Her nervous stomach turned inside out and sideways. “My name is Sophie Grant.”
His smile receded as the bad news sunk in.
“Damn. I am sorry for that kiss.” Stunned by the news that this pretty woman was not his intended bride, John swung around to search the docks for the right woman. He frowned. “Where’s Paulette?”
He peered down again into Miss Grant’s enticing green eyes, over the sprinkling of blond hair scattered about her forehead and a damp residue of ocean mist on her cheeks. Her lips were rosy from the sun, tinted from the voyage.
His embarrassment mingled with a sense of confusion. This was not Paulette, and Paulette Trundle was the young woman he’d promised to marry.
“I do apologize,” he repeated.
“No need. I won’t tell anyone.” Miss Grant blinked up at him. She was dressed in a pretty blue wool suit that molded to her shapely curves. He cleared his throat and stepped behind the mare to get a closer look at the faces in the crowd. Lots of men in all shapes, sizes and financial status, but no single women.
“When I saw you step off the ship, I assumed…” He looked down at her gloved fingers and saw that she was clutching an ad for Mail-Order Brides. “I don’t understand. Do you know Paulette?”
“A little. We stayed in the same hotel three days before the ship left Seattle.”
“Please. If you’d be so kind, point her out to me.”
Miss Grant touched his sleeve. “She’s not coming.”
His full attention riveted to the smooth curves of her face. “What’s that?”
“It’s weighed heavily on my heart the entire voyage.”
He watched her lashes fall, her mouth struggle for words as his heart thudded. “What has?”
The young woman yanked at her bonnet, then surged ahead with her words. “Paulette never boarded the ship. She decided she couldn’t go through with it, I’m afraid. To marry you.”
John blinked. He looked away and rubbed his jaw. He peered down again at Miss Grant, but there was no smile to belie her comment, no mistaking what she’d said. The horrible news rippled up his spine and made his mouth go dry.
Seeking a moment to gather his thoughts and hide his embarrassment, he spun away from her and the mare. He found a spot next to the gangplank, where it overlooked the docks and the swarm of workers.
The gold rush and influx of settlers had brought him to a place he loved, Alaska. But he didn’t wish to spend the rest of his days surrounded by nothing but men.
He took a good look around. Men who worked the sea were pulling on ropes and nets and unloading crates. Farther out on the docks, old fishermen snoozed in chairs, adolescent boys raced along the pier, men in their thirties and forties bartered with each other for incoming supplies. John spotted only five or six bonnets in roughly a hundred cowboy hats and sailor’s caps.
Miss Grant spoke quietly beside his shoulder. “The chief officer has a letter for you from the agency. And one from Paulette. Explaining everything.”
“And there he is,” she said, pointing to the officer. “Sir, over here!” Sophie flagged him down. The young man in uniform dodged past two crates filled with chickens, confirmed John’s name, handed him two envelopes sealed with wax, then darted back to the ship.
John said nothing. His pride prevented him from explaining his sense of loss and loneliness to Miss Grant.
The few decent women who did arrive here were snatched up faster than the hot strike of a match. He’d been so focused on his livery stables the past year, rising with the birds in the early morning, going to bed with the late call of wolves, there’d been no extra time to pursue the fairer sex. No time to dine a woman, take her dancing, or any other such extravagance. He’d finally vowed to make time, and then a neighbor had recommended the possibility of a mail-order-bride from the Dreamer Valley Bride Agency.
He’d traveled to their main office, fifty miles away in the Yukon town of Dreamer Valley. They’d kindly placed two newspaper ads for him in Seattle and Vancouver, two of the nearest coastal cities that had plenty of ships heading to Alaska. He’d gotten to know Paulette from a few letters they’d exchanged. Her character seemed strong and understanding.
He lowered his head, chafed with hurt pride and disillusion.
Silence grew between him and Miss Grant. It muted the calls of the sailors working around them, and the stomping of hooves as his mare was led away.
His mare. John waved his arm at the deckhand. “See to it she gets to my main livery by the hour!”
John turned back to the young woman. His skin bristled, knowing she was witness to his intimate humiliation. He wasn’t the type of man who normally went about ordering a wife, and he’d had his doubts at first, too. He should have followed his gut from the beginning. This would be the last time he would jump into such a hasty arrangement. Seeing the pity in Miss Grant’s eyes made his stupidity all the harder to bear.
“Thank you for the news,” he said gruffly. “Good day.”
He turned to walk away, but she called out. “There’s more to tell you!”
Good grief. What more? He stopped in his tracks, swung around and frowned.
She’d gone pale. “There’s no obligation required on your part. I believe the agency spells it all out in the letter.” She hauled her bags up to her waist, as if ready to turn and run at any moment. She peered up at him and hesitated.
“What is it?”
“If you agree…if the circumstance pleases you…the agency sent me as replacement.”