First Republic of Texas, 1813

“I need a woman,” Gerald shouted, slurring his words. his voice thick with drink. His sad brown eyes stared straight forward, but he could not make them focus on anything. He swayed unsteadily on his feet and put out a hand to keep himself from careening headlong into the wall. The nightly poker game he held covertly in the basement of the saloon he owned, The Buffalo’s Head, had just concluded, and Gerald’s barkeep, Hugh, was helping him to climb the stairs. With one arm draped around Gerald’s shoulders and the other supporting his waist, Hugh was doing most of the work.

At the age of forty-five, perhaps Gerald should have known better than to carouse all night, but the truth was, he had long ago given up on doing the sensible thing. As he leaned heavily into Hugh for support, Gerald allowed his head to tip forward, and his shaggy brown hair, oily and in need of a good washing, hung forward into his face. He ran a hand over his bloated cheeks, swollen from lack of sleep and the copious amounts of alcohol he had ingested throughout the evening.

Hugh grunted with the effort of hoisting Gerald. “Come on, Boss. You’re going to have to help a little,” the barkeep coaxed, his voice taking on an impatient tone as he urged Gerald to take the next step on his own.

“I need to find a wife,” Gerald grumbled, stating his mind a little more clearly, as Hugh had not responded to what he said before.

Hugh heaved Gerald up the last of the steps and then leaned against the rickety door frame that led to the basement. He took a gulp of breath and brushed his hands off on his dark pants. His deep blue eyes pierced Gerald, and even in his inebriated state, Gerald could tell that Hugh was unsure what to say next. Gerald belched loudly, not bothering to cover his mouth, then attempted to return Hugh’s steady gaze.

At that moment, he envied his friend. Not only was Hugh younger and stronger, but he was what most people would consider handsome. He was lean and wiry, with straight, long black hair that he kept combed to a silky sheen. His blue eyes could look right through a woman and leave her feeling all kinds of flustered. Gerald had seen it happen. They’d run into a lady on the street, and one look from Hugh would send her giggling into a cupped hand. Gerald smacked his lips in disgust. He’d never been able to make the ladies swoon like Hugh could, and that made him feel even worse about his current condition. Gerald stared down at his own heavy, weathered hands, knowing that in his heart of hearts, he just wanted a wife who would love him, even if he was old as the hills and practically saturated in beer and whiskey.

Hugh puffed out a big breath of air one more time and said, “What do you want a wife for? You think she’ll be able to haul you up those stairs?”

“No,” Gerald grunted. He hitched up his trousers and attempted to straighten the old pair of suspenders that were meant to hold up his pants.

Hugh gave a scornful laugh. “Then you think she’ll want to take care of you in a state like this?” His blue eyes danced with mirth, and Gerald felt almost like he was being mocked. He didn’t like the feeling.

Gerald shrugged, his shoulders feeling heavier and heavier by the second. “I don’t know, but it’d be nice to have a woman around. I think I’d like to have someone try to take care of me.” Without waiting for Hugh to assist him this time, Gerald took off in the direction of the bar. He shuffle-stepped across the dirt-covered wooden floor, carefully sliding his boots so he wouldn’t trip on the bottles and other leftover debris that were still littered about the place.

“That’s what you pay me to do, remember?” Hugh asked jokingly, but Gerald could tell that he was being sarcastic. He continued his long trek to the bar, and when he reached his destination, he slumped onto one of the roughly hewn wooden stools that were nestled beneath it.

Gerald shook his head miserably. He scratched his bristly brown beard. He remembered a time when it was a lustrous brown, but now, it was peppered with grey spots, showing his age. “I’m not foolin’ here, Hugh. I think if I had a lady around here, I might be able to change my ways.”

Hugh gave him a dubious look. “Really? You thinkin’ of sellin’ this place?”

“No,” Gerald snorted, tipping forward on the stool to rest his chin on the cool, nicely polished bar. “This place is my home. The only thing I’ve got in this world is the Buffalo’s Head Saloon.” He paused and scratched a bug bite on the back of his neck. “Someone will probably have to bury me out back.” He raised a thick eyebrow at Hugh.

Hugh put up his hands as if Gerald had drawn a gun on him. “Not my job,” the bartender said, moving around to the other side of the bar and grabbing hold of a white cotton dish rag. He began picking up beer mugs and shot glasses one by one, running the cloth over them.

“Exactly,” Gerald said miserably. “I’ve been alone almost my whole life. I think it’d be nice to have a wife. A good woman couldn’t make me sell this place, but maybe, with her help, I could give up some of my more . . .” He stopped and searched his mind for the right word. “. . . Nefarious habits.”

Hugh’s dark eyebrows sprang up his forehead. He glanced around them surreptitiously, as if someone else might be listening in on their conversation. “Are you talking about giving up the game?” Even though The Buffalo’s Head ran a significant number of games, everything from Faro to Roulette to Vingt-et-un, both men knew the game needed to cease. Gerald ran a poker game in the saloon's basement almost every night. In the cool cellar, where he kept most of his beer and imported liquor, he had also set up a table, and all the heavy gamblers in town made an appearance. This game was unlike the ones upstairs because these men would bet almost anything. Why, just last night, one of the gentlemen had bet a stake in a railroad during one of the last hands. The man happened to have a full house, so he won back his bid, but it could have been disastrous for the gentleman if he had lost.

 Gerald nodded. “A lady wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that. She wouldn’t want me gambling with our lives. . . our future. . .” He raised a hand and gestured around the bar.

 Hugh put down the glass he’d been polishing. He leaned across the bar, putting his right hand on the countertop for support. He stared at Gerald and asked, “Are you serious about this? You really think having a wife will help you clean up your ways?”

 “Couldn’t hurt,” Gerald said, lifting his chin up off the bar and pulling himself into an upright position. “Trouble is. . . can’t think of a lady in town who’d want to marry an old drunk like me.”

 Hugh quirked an eyebrow at him. “Don’t go saying things like that. You clean yourself up a bit. . . shave off their whiskers . . . lay off the drink . . . you’ll find yourself a wife.”

 Gerald shook his head miserably. “No, I’m tellin’ the truth. You know there’s hardly any unmarried ladies in this town as it is. The ones who are left aren’t going to want to shack up with someone like me. I’ll never find a wife.”

 Hugh stretched a hand down the bar and picked up a newspaper. Gerald could tell it was a few days old, but that was usual around these parts. People bought papers then left them at the bar. Most patrons appreciated the gesture because they could then glance through the pages while drinking.

 “Whatcha got there?” Gerald asked. He was starting to feel sleepy. Usually, after a night like last night, one where he drank way more than he should, Gerald would just stumble up the stairs and head to the room where he slept. His eyes watered, and he used his fists to rub the vigor back into them.

 “Hold on a second,” Hugh admonished him, his blue eyes searching the lines. His curious expression lifted just a moment later, and he laid the newspaper flat on the counter between Gerald and himself. Hugh pointed a tanned finger at a spot on the page.

 “What’s that?” Gerald asked, scrunching up his tired brown eyes to get a better look at the small print. Realizing almost at once that it was no use, Gerald continued, “It’s no good. I can’t see straight. You’re going to have to read it to me.”

 Hugh bent over the paper and ran his finger underneath the words as he read. “A Kansas lady, aged thirty-five, with dark hair, soft brown eyes, and strong working hands, desires to meet an eligible man for marriage. He must be a kind man who will provide a comfortable home. Address with editor.”

 Gerald looked at Hugh skeptically. “What was that all about?”

 Hugh pointed to various spots on the page. “These advertisements could be exactly what you’re looking for.”

 “How do you figure?” Gerald asked, looking groggily from the page to his friend.

 “You said it yourself. . . there are hardly any eligible ladies in this town. The paper started publishing these advertisements a couple months back, and I’ve seen men picking up their new wives at the train station,” Hugh said enthusiastically.

 Gerald ran a hand over his beard again. “You think I could write something like that and attract a woman?”

 Hugh laughed. “I don’t see why not. You own a business, and it’s successful, with a fine reputation. The apartment you keep upstairs is clean, and with a woman’s touch, it might even be called cozy. As long as you don’t tell the lady that you have a tendency to drink too much and gamble away more money than you have, I’m sure someone will read your ad and agree to be your wife.”

 Gerald wasn’t so sure Hugh had the right of it. He wanted a wife, that was doubtless, but he didn’t know if he’d be able to use this means to secure one. “Seems like a lot of work, and I’m not such a great writer.”

 “That’s all right,” Hugh replied at once. “I’ll help you.”

 “What do you mean?” Gerald asked, letting loose another low belch. It was followed by a hiccup. Once he regained some of his composure, he spoke again. “You think you can help me?”

 Hugh laughed, and this time it didn’t have the typical irritated edge. “I’d like to help you. I can write the advertisement, and if the lady wishes to send you a few letters, I can even help you out there.”

 “Why would you do that for me?” Gerald questioned as he slowly rose from the stool. He placed both palms on the bar to keep himself steady as he moved.

 Hugh grinned broadly. “You’re my boss and my friend. I only want what’s best for you.”

 “You think having a wife is what’s best for me?” Gerald knew that he was the one who had initially suggested the matter, but now, thinking of truly taking a step toward making that future a reality, he felt uncertain.

 “Couldn’t hurt,” Hugh replied, his smile still lifting the corners of his mouth.

 “All right then,” Gerald said, slapping his open palm against the waxy bar. “You write me an advertisement, but make it a good one. I don’t want the lady to know about my gambling or drinking, so keep that out of it. I’d like a wife who’s willing to help out around here, keep me out of trouble, and it’d been nice if she was a pretty little thing, too.”

 “I’ll see what I can do,” Hugh said with a dark laugh.

Chapter 1

Vermont, 1813

 As she had done every Sunday for the past year and a half, Charlize Johnson packed a small picnic lunch and headed out toward the cemetery. Ever since her husband, Michael, had passed, she had observed this custom. She gathered the small tin pail she always used to carry a chunk of hard cheese, a couple of biscuits, and an apple, but today, she also dropped in a handful of letters. She had something new to discuss with her deceased husband today.

 The wind rushed forward to greet her as soon as Charlize stepped through the opened front door. Her sienna-brown skirts clung to her legs, and Charlize had to step back inside for just a moment.

Frightfully cold this morning, Charlize told herself as she went to the hall closet and pulled out her warmest garments. She tucked her hands into a pair of well-worn mittens and then yanked on her jacket. When she was ready to try going outside again, she glanced at her reflection in the looking glass that hung just to the left of the closet.

Charlize was a relatively small woman with creamy white skin dotted with hundreds of freckles. They covered her pert little nose, high cheekbones and even coasted across her small chin. Her heart-shaped face was attractive when she smiled, but she did little of that these days. Her most attractive feature, her green and yellow cat-like eyes, swam with unshed tears, and Charlize forced herself to look away from her own depressing image.

She pulled her warm hunter-green woolen coat more tightly around her midsection, and then she set off on foot toward the place where Michael was buried. As she walked, her long, curly, reddish-orange hair blew wildly in the breeze. She kept having to stop and swipe the strands out of her eyes. Even though these minor interruptions slowed her pace, Charlize didn’t mind. She did not relish the conversation she would have with her deceased husband today, for this was the day when she planned to say goodbye.

 The graveyard was not that far from the house. Her late husband, Michael, had not been a member of the family who owned the estate. Instead, he had been a faithful servant, working as a valet for many years, and so when he died in the carriage accident, the owners of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Callen, had insisted that Michael be buried near the family’s plot. Charlize could hardly refuse. She still worked for Mr. and Mrs. Callen as Mrs. Callen’s lady’s maid. Plus, having Michael’s grave so close gave her this opportunity once a week to go out and visit him.

 As Charlize got closer to Michael’s resting place, her footsteps became lighter. Her ankle boots sank into the soft grass, and that made her sigh deeply. “That’s just another thing I’ll miss,” Charlize said as she lowered herself down to the squishy ground near Michael’s headstone. She sank onto her knees, making sure her skirts were tucked underneath her to help block out the chill. Michael tombstone was a simple granite rock, with his initials M.J. and the year of his death, 1812, etched into it. Charlize ran her hand over the cool stone, and stinging tears sprang to her green eyes.

 She used the backs of her hands to wipe away her tears before they could start falling in earnest. She needed to tell Michael about her plans today, and it wouldn’t do to break down already. She had to be strong. Usually, she sat at Michael’s graveside and ate her lunch while happily rattling off details about her week. On those occasions, Michael’s absence didn’t hurt so greatly. She felt like they were just having lunch, and she would tell him all about the new dress Mrs. Callen had bought or what Cook had prepared for dinner the night before. But today was different.

 About a month ago, Charlize had been flipping through one of the newspapers Mrs. Callen had tossed aside. She regularly did this, as Charlize had an active mind and liked to stay abreast of what was happening in the world. On that morning, her eye stopped on an advertisement. She didn’t regularly read such things, as she knew she was not likely to fall in love again. There had been only one man like Michael, and she wasn’t looking for anyone to take his place. But this advertisement made Charlize stop and think twice. It was simple and straightforward, which she liked. The man wrote that he lived in Texas and owned a saloon. He said he was lonely and felt like he could use a good woman with a kind heart to come to Texas. He wanted someone who wasn’t afraid of hard work but would also be happy to find a lifelong companion. That was the part that had appealed to Charlize. She wished she had a lifelong companion.

 Intrigued by the advertisement, Charlize wrote to the paper's editor, and once she received the man’s address, she wrote him a letter. Now, nearly a month had passed since she’d first spotted that advertisement, and she had exchanged three letters with a Mr. Gerald Garcia.

 Forgetting all about the lunch she packed, Charlize took off her mittens and put them in her coat pocket. She plucked the letters from the tin pail and smoothed out the first one. “Michael,” Charlize spoke quietly. “I need to tell you something.” She waited as the wind whistled through the nearby trees. “I read an advertisement about a month ago, and I’ve been writing to a man because of it.”

 Her hands shook. The wind was blustering mightily, and that might have been the cause of her tremors, but Charlize knew it was more than that. She was nervous. “Ever since you passed, I’ve been so alone. I try to find joy in the everyday chores and functions, but I’m failing. Some days, I feel so. . .” Charlize broke off as the tears swam into her eyes once more. “Hopeless,” she finished. The letter she’d been holding flapped noisily in the strong winds, and she refolded it and then tucked it back into the tin pail. She didn’t need to look at the letter to remember what it’d said. Just like the advertisement, it had been simple and straightforward, but at the end, Gerald had written something quite beautiful, and those words lingered in Charlize’s mind.

 His words were—Every day, I hope that I’ll wake up and be a better man than I was the day before. I hope that with each sunrise, I’ll get my second chance.

 “I don’t know this Gerald Garcia,” Charlize said shakily. Her hands still quivered, and so she stuck them in the pockets of her coat. She fished out the mittens and slipped them back onto her hands. “But I think he and I have a great deal in common. I hope that I will become a better person with each new day. I’ve just been so distraught since you left. . .'' Charlize bent forward and let the cool tombstone rest against her cheek. “I want a second chance, too. I want a better life. This . . . sadness. . . this longing. . . is not enough for me.”

 Charlize lifted her head away from the gravestone and wiped at her tears. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “I’ve been writing letters to this man, Michael, and in his last response, he proposed that I move to Texas. He says that he wants to marry me.” A funny little chuckle escaped her lips then, and Charlize rocked back on her heels. “I don’t know the first thing about running a saloon, but I didn’t know anything about working as a lady’s maid before I came here, either. I figure this might be my only shot to have something . . . more.”

 She placed her hand back atop the smooth granite. “Michael, I leave for Texas tomorrow morning. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about all this before, but I’ve come to say goodbye.” The wind kicked up powerfully then, and Charlize’s hair swirled about her face, sticking to her cheeks where the tears still clung. She used both hands to brush the strands back. “I won’t miss this wintry weather, but I will miss the green grass. . .” She stopped and ran her fingers through the lush blanket of grass that sat at the base of Michael’s headstone. “. . . and I will miss you.” Charlize stared at the rock, waiting for a sense of panic or maybe even a jolt of pain to grip her, but it didn’t come.

 “Thank you, Michael, for letting me go,” Charlize whispered. She extended her fingertips toward the gravestone and ran her hand down the smooth rock. Then, Charlize gathered up her belongings and stood once more. She looked around the cemetery at the family burial site that had been home to members of the Callen family for the last thirty years.

 “This won’t be my home. . . not anymore,” Charlize said, and then she strode off, without looking back.

Chapter 2

 Charlize couldn’t shake the jittery feeling she got as she boarded the train. She knew her trip to Texas would be a long one, and she would need to settle her nerves at some point, but as the journey began, she felt a tremendous sense of guilt wash over her. She wanted to go meet Gerald Garcia. She wanted to see his saloon, The Buffalo’s Head, and she wanted to allow herself a fresh start. But as she looked over her shoulder, she couldn’t help but think of Michael.

 Charlize wound her way down the aisle and found a freeseat next to a window. A man with a slim black mustache and a gaunt, almost sickly-looking face sat down primly next to her. As the train began rolling, Charlize gave the stranger a jittery smile, but he only responded by pursing his lips into a thin line.

Charlize shifted uncomfortably in her seat and lowered her head to say a quick prayer. Please, God, help me through this journey. As the train chugged along, Charlize did her best to relax, but the carriage became quite hot very quickly. Moving cautiously so as not to bump the grumpy gentleman on her left, Charlize peeled off her coat and settled it onto her lap. She fanned her face with her white lace handkerchief, but that did not help the heat abate.

Thinking she had no other choice, Charlize rose from her seat and began fiddling with the window. Thick, black plumes of smoke gushed from the engine, and when she tried to open her window, she was greeted by a lungful of sickening air. She coughed mightily and collapsed back into her seat. The man sharing her seat waved a newspaper in front of his own face, and then he did the same for Charlize.

 “Sorry,” Charlize said weakly, and the man gave her an annoyed grunt. He snapped his newspaper open and trained his eyes on the small print, completely ignoring her after that.

 Charlize slumped in her seat. She wished mightily that Michael was there with her. They had always talked about taking the trip out west. He would know what to do to combat this oppressive heat, or at the very least, he would come up with a way to open the window without letting all that awful black smoke into the cabin. Michael was like that—he always had a solution for everything. Thoughts of Michael flooded her mind, and Charlize reclined back in her seat. She couldn’t stop the memories from taking over.

 “My own land. . .” Michael had said with a glint in his clear blue eyes. “We’ll get us a spot of that free land. There will be tall trees with leaves that spread out wide.” He had stopped and lifted his arms at his sides. “There will be wildflowers all over the place. Little bursts of purple, blue, and yellow. I’ll pick you a bundle every day.”

 Charlize chuckled lightly. “Tell me more,” she teased.

“Alright,” Michael said enthusiastically. “I can see it now, my love. We’ll have fields spread out far as the eye can see. Our property will run all the way to the river.”

 “A river?” Charlize questioned with a funny laugh. “But you can’t swim.”

 “Of course I can swim,” Michael had replied, reaching out to drape an arm across his wife’s shoulders. He pulled her in close. “Have you ever known a man from Vermont who couldn’t swim?”

 “I guess not,” Charlize giggled, not sure what being from the state of Vermont had to do with a person’s ability to swim.

 “Besides,” Michael responded, the eagerness still apparent in his voice. “Living next to a river has little to do with swimming. We can fish and get fresh water from there. We’ll need it for the crops.”

 “The crops?” Charlize asked, her thin eyebrows rising. “You’re no farmer. What do you know about growing crops?”

 “A man can learn,” Michael answered, proudly puffing out his chest. It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons. The couple enjoyed their day off work by wandering the grounds of the Callen’s sprawling estate. No matter how many times Michael and Charlize went on these walks, they always found something new to admire. On that day, Michael pulled them to a stop underneath an apple tree. He plucked two apples from the heavy-laden branches and handed one to her.

 “If you say so,” Charlize said playfully, rubbing the apple on the folds on her brown skirt and then taking a hearty bite.

 Michael shined his apple on his tan-colored breeches, and then he chomped into the bright red skin of the fruit. “I was thinking we should start saving our money. Even though the government is just giving the land away, we’re going to have to pay a pretty penny to get out there.”

 Charlize nodded. “How long do you think it’ll take to come up with that sort of money?”

 “I can’t be sure,” Michael replied thoughtfully, taking a big bite of his apple and crunching noisily on it as he considered the prospect. “I know we don’t make a whole lot of money, but I also know that Mr. and Mrs. Callen are fair employers. They’ve never shorted us, and I guess we should be grateful for that. . . but to work our own land. . . to be our own bosses. . . that’s the dream right there.”

 Charlize had felt a wave of love wash over her as she listened to her husband. He was such a dreamer; he always had been. She’d have been content to stay on with Mr. and Mrs. Callen for as long as they lived, but that would never be enough for Michael. He wanted more. He wanted to be the master of his own destiny. She loved him so much that she was willing to go along with whatever plans he might concoct, and so she just smiled at him adoringly.

 “We’ll need money for the train. . . and we’ll probably need some travel clothes. . . No...” Michael scratched at his chin as he thought over his ideas. “Maybe we won’t take a train. Do you think you can drive a wagon?”

 Charlize laughed. “Why would I need to drive the wagon?”

 “I don’t know,” Michael replied. “It seems like a skill we should both have if we plan to go out west that way.”

 “Alright, honey. I’ll learn how to maneuver a wagon,” Charlize said, moving closer to her husband. She tossed aside the half-eaten apple, and she snuggled into his warm chest. “You just tell me what you want, and I’ll do my best to make it happen.” She listened to the steady thumping of his heart, and she felt perfectly content with her lot in life. If they went out west and got their own piece of land, so be it. She could be happy staying here forever, as long as Michael was by her side.

 “That’s the spirit,” Michael said joyfully. He threw the core of his apple on the ground and then hugged Charlize tight to him. “I know you can’t see it now, Charlize, but someday, we’ll be heading out into open country. We’ll leave behind these harsh winters, and we’ll go to a place where we’re greeted each day by a glowing sunrise.”

 Charlize wrinkled her brow. “You really think a place like that exists?”

 “I can’t be sure,” Michael returned. “But I’m hoping so.”

 “Me too,” Charlize whispered.

 A large man plopped down in the seat in front of Charlize, and his presence brought her out of the vivid daydream. She remembered that conversation with Michael like it had happened yesterday, even though it had taken place more than two years prior. Her darling husband had so looked forward to having his own property and seeing the sun rise high in a clear, blue sky.

 She shook her head despondently and turned to stare out the window. Black smoke rolled by the windowpane, smudging the glass and heating the interior of the train car. Charlize hated that she was going on this journey without Michael, but she also thought that this adventure was something he’d always wanted for her. He might not be too pleased to learn that she was planning to marry another man, but he would be happy that she was trying to start her life again. She hadn’t entirely given up hope that today could be better than yesterday.

 Charlize thought of Michael’s warm smile and what he might say if he were seated next to her right now, instead of the rude man, who still had his nose stuck into his newspaper. Michael would wrap his arm around her and lean forward to kiss her on the tip of her nose. He would whisper, “Adventure awaits,” and she would spend the rest of the trip cuddling against his side.

 But Michael, and his comforting words, weren’t there. Charlize knew in her heart that she would never find another man like her first husband. Even though she was moving to Texas intending to marry another, that fact didn’t change. Michael was one of a kind. He had touched Charlize’s heart in a way that lingered. He’d been gone for a year and a half, but still, she could feel how much he cherished and adored her.

 She sighed discontentedly and continued to stare out the window. Charlize straightened her shoulders and let her light eyes observe every tree, flower, and body of water that floated past her window. She would go to Texas. She would journey for days, enduring the thick black smoke, the stifling travel conditions, and the snooty looks from other travelers. She would meet Mr. Gerald Garcia, and when she did, she would become his wife. Charlize firmly believed that she was meant to go west. It was what Michael would have wanted her to do.

* * *

 Gerald was an absolute wreck. He raced around the third floor of his building, a grimy, wet rag in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. His hands shook wildly, both from his nerves at preparing his home for the arrival of Mrs. Charlize Johnson, but also because he was making a radical attempt to wean himself off the drink. He hadn’t sipped even one beer in the last thirty-six hours. And while, yes, he had slept through most of those hours, even the daytime ones, he felt proud of himself for trying.

 “Take it easy, Boss,” Hugh said as he came out of the room across the hall. He was toting a broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other. Gerald had enlisted Hugh’s help in preparing the rooms for Ms. Johnson. From day to day, Gerald only spent his time in the one bedroom. It was a cramped little space. When the door swung open, as it did now, there was only a tiny strip of floor space that was left unoccupied. A slender bedframe sat in the center of the room, but it featured a thick, feather mattress. At Hugh’s insistence, Gerald had cleaned the yellow and blue sheets so that they looked and smelled fresher than they had in a very long time. The pungent soap smell filled the room, but the soft breeze that floated through the long, rectangular window helped even things out. There was a small night table, with a lamp set atop it to shed light on the place. And to the right of the window stood the only other piece of furniture, a weathered-looking chest of drawers. The clothing inside was also rather battered, which caused Gerald great distress. His eyes swept around his dowdy room, the rumpled clothing, and he panicked.

 “What if she doesn’t like it here? I don’t have much to offer,” Gerald said, turning to glance at Hugh.

 Hugh was busy sweeping the hall just outside Gerald’s door. “You’ve got plenty to offer. You own this entire building. If Mrs. Johnson doesn’t care for your bedchambers, she can certainly have her pick of any other room on this floor.”

 “I guess she could,” Gerald replied haltingly. “Or we could spiffy up the second floor, too, just in case.”

 Hugh shook his head and chuckled. “Don’t know that we’ll have the time to tackle all that. Plus, you’ve got paying customers who like to use those spaces on the second floor.”

 Gerald nodded, thinking over the matter. He spotted a dirt smudge next doorframe, quickly dunked the rag into the bucket, and scrubbed hard at the stubborn stain. “You’re right. I do need the money those people pay to rent those rooms. Maybe you ought to give Mrs. Johnson your room.”

 Hugh paused in his task and lifted his disbelieving eyes to Gerald’s. “No,” he said flatly.

 “But your room is the best one in the place,” Gerald argued, dropping his rag back into the tin pail.

 “That’s because I take care of my stuff,” Hugh replied defensively. “If we bothered to take care of the rest of these rooms throughout the year, we wouldn’t be needing to run around this morning, trying to get the place ready at the last minute.”

 “Well. . . I guess it is starting to look nicer,” Gerald said, glancing out into the hall. He craned his neck to try and see Hugh into the room opposite his own.

 “I’m sure Mrs. Johnson will like the place just fine,” Hugh said calmly. “I’m more worried about you right now. How are you doing? How long have you been without a drink?”

 Gerald waved his hand in the air dismissively, but he felt a shudder creep up his spine, nonetheless. Just thinking about a shot of whiskey made him want to drop his cleaning supplies and race downstairs toward the bar. Shoot, he didn’t even have to go that far. He always kept an extra bottle tucked in the top drawer of his bureau. He could just pop back in there and take a nip. “I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. I’m perfectly fine.” He tried to make the fib sound natural, but even he could hear the falseness in his voice.

 Hugh grunted. “Sure. You seem to forget that I’ve known you for a long time. I know when you’re lying, and I know when you’re fighting for a drink.”

 “I’ve got it under control,” Gerald said, raising his thumb to his mouth. He gnawed at a stubborn hangnail that was there.

 “Right,” Hugh huffed. “Well, don’t you even think about going for that bottle you’ve got stashed inside your dresser drawer. I already got rid of it.”

 “Got rid of it?” Gerald spat, his thumb falling away from his mouth. “What did you go and do a thing like that for?”

 “You said you didn’t want Mrs. Johnson to know about your addictions. The best way to keep a secret locked up is to remove all the evidence. What if she came into your room and looked through your drawers?” Hugh arched a knowing eyebrow at Gerald.

 “Pah,” Gerald scoffed. “She wouldn’t do a thing like that. What business would she have going through my drawers?” He glanced over at his chest of drawers, and his cheeks flushed with embarrassment when he imagined his new wife opening them and finding his messy clothing. Most of his shirts and pants needed mending, and some carried beer stains.

 “She’s going to be your wife. She’s probably going to at least take a cursory look at every object in this place,” Hugh replied smartly. He moved around Gerald then and began sweeping the dusty floorboards of his bedroom.

 “You don’t say,” Gerald said slowly, thinking of all the other places he had deposited bottles of whiskey, but also where he had hidden stacks of cash, as well as the deed to this property.

 “Come on, Gerald,” Hugh replied with a long groan. “You said you wanted a wife. We made sure we found someone willing to come out here. The woman is on her way, for crying out loud. You can’t tell me you haven't even thought of how married life is going to change everything around here.” He stopped moving the broom across the floor and stood next to the window, giving Gerald a demanding stare.

 “I’ve thought about it,” Gerald said nervously, and he really had. He had considered how nice it might be to have a wife many, many times over the last few years, but once he decided to take a step back from his gambling and drinking, he had lost track of all those other thoughts. Overcoming his addictions preoccupied all his time. His thoughts clouded easily now, even when he knew he should be focusing on the task at hand and the conversation he was having with Hugh. All Gerald could think about was rushing downstairs and getting a quick drink. He gulped mightily and licked at his dry lips.

 “Don’t worry,” Hugh said, slapping Gerald on his back. “We’re almost finished here. Then we’ll pop across the street to the mercantile store and see if we can’t find you some suitable clothes.”

 Gerald glanced down at his shabby apparel and began nodding his head begrudgingly. “It seems you’ve thought of everything.”

 “I’m trying. I want this to work out for you, Gerald. I really do. I just hope you’re ready to meet this Mrs. Johnson because she’s set to be here any minute now,” Hugh said cryptically as he bent over and swept the dirt into the dustpan.

 “I’m ready,” Gerald snapped, straightening his shoulders and rolling his neck to try and loosen up the tense muscles. “When Mrs. Johnson gets here, I’ll be there to greet her.”

Chapter 3

 Charlize waited for the man sitting on her right to gather his belongings before moving. The train had pulled into its final station a few moments before, and Charlize felt giddy with excitement. She was anxious to be out of this train and in the open, fresh air, but she wanted to do things right. If she grabbed her things in a hurry and rushed outside, she might give Mr. Garcia the wrong impression. She was happy to be here in Texas, and she would willingly be his wife, but she wasn’t trying to race down the aisle.

 The snobbish man next to her extracted his suitcase from the overhead compartment and then twiddled with his razor-thin mustache. He looked at Charlize with a curious expression. She thought for a moment that he might offer to collect her trunk for her, but if she had hoped for him to be generous, she would have been disappointed. With a swift nod of his head, the man hefted his own suitcase and then strode off down the aisle.

 Charlize harrumphed. “Here’s hoping the men in the west are much more gallant,” she said to the train car that was emptying steadily. Sliding out into the aisle, she took a firm hold on the heavy wooden trunk. She might have brought too many belongings, but when she had told Mrs. Callen she planned to leave, her former employer had loaded her down with keepsakes to remind her of Michael and Vermont and extra dresses that might be more appropriate to the Texas climate. Mrs. Callen, as a parting gesture, had even given Charlize a beautiful parasol. It was white and pale pink, a perfect match for the travel jacket Charlize was now wearing.

 All the other passengers grabbed their luggage and moved toward the exit, so Charlize filed into the long line and waited her turn. The conductor stood at the foot of the stairs, and when he offered Charlize his hand, she accepted it. She clutched the handle of her trunk firmly with one hand and held just as tightly to his hand with the other. She’d come all this way, and she didn’t want to fall flat on her face now.

 “Welcome to Texas, Miss,” the conductor said quietly as she took her last step down the stairs and planted her foot firmly on the platform.

 “Thank you, Sir,” Charlize returned, and for the first time in days, she felt a genuine smile light up her features. She walked across the sturdy wooden platform, and as she moved, she let her eyes adjust to the brightness. The morning sun was casting a warm glow across the entire scene. Charlize lifted her skirts delicately and scurried toward the train depot. She placed her trunk on the ground and then opened her parasol. Gazing around, she felt excitement pulse through her veins. She’d made it to Texas. All she had to do now was find Mr. Garcia.

 She swung from the left to the right, thinking over the description he had provided her in his last letter. She knew that he wasn’t a very tall man, but he promised to wear a white Stetson hat. As she glanced about the crowded train depot, her heart plummeted. There were white Stetson hats everywhere. She pursed her lips and thought of other details Mr. Garcia had mentioned regarding his appearance. He said he had a long beard, but planned to trim it before she arrived, so she knew he wouldn’t be clean-shaven. Her eyes darted around the place, looking for someone with a beard, but that point also offered very little help, as many men in the area had brown and gray facial hair.

 Charlize bit down on her lower lip, thinking over the situation. She was sure she had told Mr. Garcia when her train would arrive. And, even if she couldn’t pick him out of a crowd, she was sure he would be able to spot her. As she nervously glanced around the train depot again, she realized that her ginger-colored hair would make her stand out from the crowd. Even though she had it pinned up in a rather fashionable style, and the parasol was shading her from the sparkling sunshine, she knew she didn’t look like the rest of the women here. The ones from Texas were easy to identify as their skin was very tanned, and they all had the good sense to wear bonnets or broad straw hats.

 The ladies who had just arrived on the train, like Charlize, were all dressed in neat travel suits, but even amongst that number, Charlize’s flaming hair set her apart. All the women from the train had dark locks or wispy, honey-colored hair. Charlize spun around, observing everyone in her path, and thinking that if Mr. Garcia were indeed here at the train station, he would be able to find her with ease.

 That brought a sinking feeling into the pit of her stomach. I did tell him I was coming today, didn’t I? The thought rattled Charlize to her core. Her whole life had moved so quickly since she decided to accept his proposal that she was suddenly doubting whether she had written to him about her arrival. But no, Charlize remembered clearly. He had offered to pay for her train fare, and she had told him exactly which trains she intended to take and where they would be stopping along the way. The train had mainly run to schedule, so Mr. Garcia should have been around here somewhere.

 “Miss, can I help you with something?” Charlize heard a peppy voice ask, and she spun on her heel to see who was speaking to her.

 “Yes, please,” Charlize responded. She took a moment to observe this person who had come to her rescue. A pretty woman with curvaceous hips and a heaving bosom stood directly in front of Charlize. Her brown skin glowed in the warm sunshine, and her straight brown hair glinted as it reflected the sun’s rays. Her deep brown eyes looked kind, and Charlize felt herself relax at once. The woman was dressed in a long black skirt, with a white, spotless apron sitting comfortably around her waist. She was carrying a handful of fresh-baked loaves of bread, and instinctively, Charlize felt the need to offer her assistance.

 Charlize quickly folded her parasol and dropped it next to her trunk by her feet. She held out her hands to the woman and said, “Maybe I should be the one offering to help you.”

 The woman gave a quick, barking laugh. “Help me? Can’t nobody help me, darling!”

 “Well, but your arms are full, and I could. . .” Charlize started to say, but she stopped herself before proceeding. She didn’t know this woman. If the lady didn’t want to hand over her belongings, she certainly couldn’t force her to.

 “Trust me, I’ve got it covered,” the woman replied, and she bobbed her head in Charlize’s direction. “My name’s Annabethsada, but all my friends call me Anna.”

 “Annabethsada . . . that’s a lovely name,” Charlize said, smiling politely at the woman.

 The woman quirked a slim eyebrow at Charlize as if she wasn’t sure she was being told the truth. “Never had anybody say that before. That’s why I just ask people to call me Anna. Mama was half-delirious after giving birth to me, and I think she just mumbled a bunch of names all at once. Pa didn’t question her, though, so I ended up with a name longer than that train.” She nodded her head toward the large locomotive.

 “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Anna,” Charlize said, tipping her head respectively. “And thank you for offering to help me. How did you know I needed help?”

 Anna chuckled and adjusted the bundle in her arms. “A lady. . . pretty as you . . . looking around the train depot like you were. . . I figured you were searching for your man.”

 Charlize felt a deep red blush creep up the back of her neck. She knew that in just a few seconds, the apples of her cheeks would be brightened by the same hue. She touched her high cheekbones to try and hide her embarrassment. “I was supposed to meet a man here today. We’ve been corresponding for some time now, and we arranged for my arrival this morning.”

 Anna snorted. “That’s just like the men in these parts. They say they want a fine lady, but they wouldn’t know how to treat her properly if their lives depended on it.”

 Charlize allowed herself a small chuckle minutely. “Perhaps you could help me,” she said slowly. “I’m looking for Mr. Gerald Garcia.”

 Astonishment crossed Anna’s face as her mouth dropped open into a slight oval shape. “Mr. Gerald Garcia, you say?”

 “Yes,” Charlize replied, nodding her head enthusiastically. “He’s the owner of the Buffalo’s Head Saloon.”

 Anna gave a quick snort and then responded, “I know who he is.”

 “Oh, good,” Charlize said, resisting the urge to clap her hands together happily. Finally, she felt like she was getting somewhere.

 Anna gave her a critical look, her right eyebrow arched high on her forehead. “I didn’t know Mr. Garcia was looking to settle down.”

 Heat flooded Charlize’s face once more, and this time she dropped her gaze so that she was staring at her trunk and parasol. “I guess you could say we have a peculiar arrangement. I answered an advertisement in the paper, and we’ve been writing each other letters.”

 Anna shifted the loaves of bread in her arms. “I know that’s pretty common nowadays. . . I guess I’m not surprised that Mr. Garcia would go in for something like that. Does he know how pretty you are?” Anna asked, and that question caught Charlize completely off-guard.

 Her hands fluttered to cover her cheeks once more, but she dropped them when she saw the pleased smile on Anna’s face.

 “Thank you for saying so, Anna. I’m sure I told Mr. Garcia what I look like, and I’m just praying he won’t be disappointed.” She glanced around the platform again. That couldn’t have happened, could it? Mr. Garcia couldn’t have looked at her and ran in the other direction, could he?

 Anna chuckled good-naturedly. “Let me drop off these loaves of bread at the depot for the work crew. When I’m done with that, I’ll help you find good old Mr. Garcia. I’d rather like to see the look on his face when he gets a load of you.”

 “Thank you again,” Charlize replied, and she stooped to pick up her trunk and parasol. She tucked the parasol under her arm and followed Anna dutifully into the conductor’s office.

 While Anna chatted animatedly with the railway workers, Charlize allowed her eyes to travel around the office. It was a tight space, cramped by the number of people crowded into it. A large desk stood in the center, with stacks of used tickets spilling onto every available space. The office walls were whitewashed, but they were covered by dozens of maps. Each map was highly colored with bright red and yellow, traced green lines. As Charlize glanced around the room, and the time kept slipping slowly away, she began to feel an overwhelming sense of disquiet. She was grateful to Anna for agreeing to help her, but she couldn’t shake the negative thoughts making her stomach churn. Foolish, that’s what I’m being, Charlize thought as she waited demurely for Anna to finish her conversation.

 Just then, the man Anna had been chatting with laughed uproariously, and it brought Charlize out of her reverie. She needed to get out of here. It was clear to her now that Mr. Garcia was not coming to the train station to collect her and she needed to decide what to do next. As she had not been really listening to the conversation that was going on around her, when Charlize finally raised her voice to ask a question, all eyes in the room turned toward her.

 “Does anyone know how I can find the Sheriff’s office?” Charlize asked, lifting her head as she struggled to sound confident.

 Anna furrowed her eyebrows. “The Sheriff’s office? Why do you want to go there?”

 “I think I need to try to locate Mr. Garcia, and I think the Sheriff will be able to help me,” Charlize replied, trying to keep her nerves from infiltrating her voice.

 “You don’t need to go bothering the Sheriff,” Anna said, flipping a lock of dark hair over her shoulder. “I said I’ll help you find Mr. Garcia, and I aim to do just that.”

 “No, please,” Charlize protested. “You’ve been so kind already. You stay here and finish your chat. If one of you would please just point me in the direction of the Sheriff’s office, I am certain I will be able to find my way.”

 “If you’re sure,” Anna said, eyeing Charlize seriously.

 “Absolutely,” Charlize responded, giving Anna a weak smile. She felt the corners of her mouth twitch, and so she gathered all her courage and did her best to strengthen the grin.

 Anna didn’t look convinced by Charlize’s theatrics, but she began giving her the directions, just the same. Charlize thanked Anna for her help and wrapped her hands tightly around her belongings one more time.

 As Charlize started to leave the office, Anna caught up to her. “I just can’t let you head out there all alone. I’ll come back and talk to these boys tomorrow. I want to walk with you today.”

 “You sure?” Charlize asked speculatively. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

 “Don’t think twice about it. You’re not a bother at all. I just think of this as something I’m doing to help out my new friend,” Anna said, giving Charlize a winning smile.

 “Alright,” Charlize replied. “Just tell me where to go.”

Anna pointed to the left, and without another word, Charlize moved in that direction.

* * *

 The two women chatted amiably as they sauntered through town. Charlize was relieved that Anna had agreed to accompany her, as even though the walk was a short one, she felt uncomfortable in this new place. The streets were crowded with people on foot and riding on horseback, and as they walked, about a dozen wagons streamed past them, kicking up dust. The congested dirt road was lined with shops, but from a quick glance around the area, Charlize came to realize that most of the storefronts were saloons and beer halls. She thought of the Buffalo’s Head Saloon and hoped that it was nicer looking than some of the ramshackle places they were passing.

 Just as Anna motioned toward the Sheriff’s office situated in almost the precise center of town and currently off to Charlize’s left-hand side, a man wearing an ankle-length, dusty, black leather riding jacket came racing across the street. He skidded to a halt right next to Charlize, and she caught her breath at his proximity.

 “Hugh, what are you doing trying to scare a body like that?” Anna scolded, putting her hands onto her hips and giving him a cold stare.

 The pulled himself upright and gave her a charming grin. “Sorry about that, Miss Anna. Didn’t mean to startle you.” He reached up and respectfully touched the black leather hat that sat atop his head. He then swept it off his head, revealing a curtain of dark black hair. Charlize met his deep blue eyes, and she felt like he could see straight into her soul. She felt that familiar blush start to ease up her neck, and so she ducked her head bashfully.

 Anna swatted him impishly with the back of her hand. “Judging by the looks of you, I’d say you’re on an errand from Mr. Garcia.”

 Hugh tipped his head back, letting his long locks flow behind him as he laughed. “My looks have nothing to do with it. I’m guessing you’re here because you’re escorting Mr. Garcia’s friend on over to the saloon.”

 Anna scoffed. “I wasn’t planning to take her that far. She wanted to go see the Sheriff. Thought he might be able to track down Mr. Garcia. I was just trying to help her out.” Anna tipped her head toward Charlize then. “Charlize, this is Hugh Trejo. He works over at the Buffalo’s Head.”

 “Mrs. Johnson,” Hugh said, fixing her with his deep blue eyes. “I’ve been anxious to meet you.” He reached forward and grasped her hand. He lowered his head so that his lips just barely brushed over her knuckles. “It is my great pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

 Anna laughed loudly. “Look who’s got manners now? Left the poor girl stranded at the train station all day long, but you show up acting like a proper gentleman now. I’d say it’s too late to make a good first impression.”

 Charlize wasn’t sure she agreed with Anna. She appreciated that her new friend was trying to bring some levity to the situation, but Charlize strongly believed in second chances. It was that idea that had brought her out west, after all. And, judging by the way Hugh was gazing at her appreciatively, she might be compelled to forgive and forget all that had transpired before, as long as Mr. Garcia had a good reason for leaving her at the train station for so long.

 “I sincerely apologize, Mrs. Johnson,” Hugh said smoothly. He still had not released his hold on Charlize’s hand.

 “Thank you, Mr. Trejo,” Charlize replied at once. “But do tell me, why were you delayed? I was rather frightened when I exited the train and did not find Mr. Garcia waiting there for me. If it hadn’t been for Anna’s kindness, I might have still been stranded there.”

 Hugh dropped Charlize’s hand, turning his gaze toward Anna. “Then, both Mr. Garcia and I are greatly indebted to you, Anna.”

 She chuckled and swatted at him again playfully. “You best watch out for this one, Charlize. Mr. Garcia might be the one who owns the business, but it’s Hugh who runs it. He could charm a snake with all that pretty talk.”

 “I’ll see what I can do,” Hugh hissed flirtatiously, and now Charlize giggled along with Anna. A niggling thought stuck with Charlize, though. Hugh hadn’t answered her question about Mr. Garcia. Feeling emboldened by the light-hearted conversation, Charlize decided to voice her concerns.

 “Mr. Trejo. . .” Charlize began, but he cut her off at once.

 “Please, call me Hugh,” he said, giving Anna a wink first and then turning a dazzling smile on Charlize.

 She felt her heart skip a beat, so Charlize took a moment to regain her composure. She cleared her throat. “Fine . . . Hugh. . . please tell me what is keeping Mr. Garcia. I’ve had a long journey, and I wish to see him.”

 Hugh’s smile vanished, and his eyes darkened. “I regret to inform you that Mr. Garcia has been detained. He has asked me to come and find you, though. He wishes for you to stay the night in a hotel.”

 “A hotel?” Anna asked, voicing the same concern that Charlize was feeling.

 Hugh nodded stoically. “We’ve a mighty fine hotel, just across the way. I’ll take you there and get you settled for the night.”

 “But what about Mr. Garcia?” Charlize asked, unable to keep the disappointment at bay.

 “Just stay one night in the hotel, Mrs. Johnson. In the morning, I’m sure Mr. Garcia will be in better shape and will be more than happy to welcome you to town,” Hugh replied, and then his eyes slid over to Anna’s. Charlize noticed the two of them share a significant look, but she had no idea what passed between them.

 Reluctantly, Charlize acquiesced. “Fine, I’ll stay in the hotel.”

 “Good,” Hugh said, and without asking her permission, he bent at once to pick up Charlize’s trunk and parasol. Then, he turned toward Anna. “Thank you for your help here today, Anna.”

 “My pleasure,” Anna returned, giving Charlize a bright smile. “And don’t be a stranger now, Charlize. You stop on over to the bakery and see me anytime. My Ma and I run the shop over on Front Street.”

 “They make the best peach pie in town,” Hugh added, and Anna’s smile stretched wider.

 “If she can’t find the place on her own, you bring her on over, Hugh,” Anna ordered, and Hugh responded with just a simple nod of his head. Then, he began walking away from the Sheriff’s office toward a three-story adobe building that sat across the street. Charlize gave Anna one last long look, and then she turned to follow Hugh. The hotel looked lovely, with white walls and the wood trim painted green. The entrance was also painted a bright green color, making Charlize think of the grass back home. She smiled wistfully.

 Even though it was nice meeting Anna, and Hugh seemed like a pleasant and helpful sort of man, Charlize had been prepared to meet Mr. Garcia, the man she was meant to marry. Disappointment clouded her thoughts, and as Charlize followed Hugh toward the hotel, a sick sense of loneliness overcame her.

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