Written in 83 minutes. Sorry this final scene just wanted to be a bitch, and then people kept calling —
Elizabeth received a note shortly after breakfast that the ceremony was set for noon that very day. She stared at the letter, sliding her fingertips over Jason’s handwriting. He wrote in with clear, block letters — so different than the letters she’d thought were from him which had been written with loops and swirls. Another reminder of how little she really knew about the man she was going to take to husband.
“Mama?” Cameron tugged on her skirt. “We go outside?”
“In a little.” She perched on the edge of the chaise. “You remember Jason from last night? We met his grandmother and cousin?”
Cameron nodded. “New papa.”
Elizabeth exhaled slowly. “Yes,” she said carefully since Jason hadn’t denied the title when Cameron had asked his question the night before. They would be married. And if the universe was kind, there would be more children. Cameron might not ever remember being without a father.
Please, she thought, closing her eyes. Let this be the right choice. Let my son have a better life than the one I’ve given him.
“We’re going to the church in a few hours,” Elizabeth told him. “And Jason and I will get married. Then we’re going to live at his house. He told me it was a ranch which means there’s lots of outside.” A ranch meant land, didn’t it? There were none of those back in New York. Land and animals, and maybe a different view of the mountains that had captured her eye from the moment she’d seen them.
“I live outside,” Cameron decided. She smiled, slid her hands through his blond hair. Her precious little boy who was worth any sacrifice. She could do this. She could do anything to make him happy.
She washed Cameron and herself with the water delivered along with their breakfast, then dressed Cameron in the suit he’d worn the night before. His finest, she thought proudly as she straightened his jacket. She’d saved her pennies until she could afford the material, then had sewn until candles in their rooms were gone so that he would look his best in church.
Then she pulled out the best dress she owned, though it was several seasons out of date. She hoped that might not matter out here in Colorado. The fabric was a bit faded, and she’d had to trim the fraying ends of the cuffs a few times, but it still fit nicely and she thought she looked quite nice in this light shade of blue.
When the knock came just before noon, Elizabeth was ready — their things gathered and Cameron’s hair combed.
But it wasn’t Jason on the other side of the door — but the cousin. The cousin who had written the letters, sent the money, and made arrangements. He looked like Jason, though a lankier, less solid version with shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Uh, Miss Webber.” Dillon coughed. “Mrs,” he corrected. “Mrs. Webber.” He smiled. “Grandmother sent me to fetch you. She said it was bad luck for the bride and groom to see each other before the wedding.”
“Oh. Well—” Elizabeth nodded. “All right. That—” She stepped back to let Dillon and close the door.
“I’ll come back for your things after the ceremony,” Dillon continued. “Grandmother said not to worry about anything. You look nice,” he added.
“You not the papa,” Cameron said suspiciously. He looked at his mother. “You said the papa come to get us.”
“The papa—” Dillon repeated. “Oh, no, little guy.” He knelt down to Cameron’s level. “Your mama looks so pretty that we want her to be a surprise for your new papa, right? So I’m going to take you to him.”
“Mama always pretty,” Cameron said with nod. He jabbed a finger at his chest. “I best and handsomest. She said so.”
“Absolutely.” Dillon grinned, then got back to his feet. “And, uh, I think I owe you—” The tips of his ears went red, then spread to his cheeks. “I know I owe you an apology. For what I did. I just wanted him to be happy, but he wasn’t doing anything, and it was wrong of me to think he should just…not tell you.”
“You—” Elizabeth arched a brow. “You brought a woman across the country to marry him without a word and thought he should fulfill that promise by lying to me the rest of our lives?”
“When you say it outloud like that-” Dillon grimaced. “It just sounds bad. But your letters talked about how much you loved your son and wanted a good life for him, and my cousin deserves a family. He was so good with my nephew—” And then some of the life left his eyes. “He just should have a family. That’s all.”
“It’s all seemed to work out, I suppose, and it’s…sweet that you want that for him,” Elizabeth said. “I accept your apology.”
“Good. Good. It was a dumb thing to do, and it could have gone so wrong.” Dillon brightened. “But I knew Jason would meet you and it would be okay. And it is now. You got here yesterday and now today, you’re going to be my cousin and we got a new little guy as a bonus.” He held out his arm. “Shall I walk you over to he church now?”
“I’m not sure I understand how this happened,” Michael Corinthos, better known as Sonny, a neighboring rancher, offered as he shrugged into the uncomfortable suit jacket that completed his church outfit. “You weren’t betrothed yesterday.”
“I was,” Jason said, looking around his friend who had agreed to stand up with him as a witness for the wedding. “I didn’t tell you.”
“Yeah, yeah, a granddaughter of an old friend.” Sonny squinted. “Not sure I believe it.”
Jason scowled. “Not asking you to believe anything. It is what it is. And you’ll make sure everyone else knows it, too.”
“Right.” Sonny shook his head, then smiled as Jason’s grandmother swept down the aisle. “Good morning, Mrs. M.”
Lila nodded in greeting then turned to Jason. “Elizabeth is here,” she told Jason. “I offered to have Dillon escort her down the aisle, but—” She turned as Dillon joined them. “Is she ready?”
“She’s just adjusting the tie on the little guy. Says the only man going to give her away is the one she’s already got.” Dillon shrugged. “Works for me.”
“Little guy?” Sonny echoed. “Is there part of the story I don’t know yet?”
“She has a son. A four-year-old,” Jason added as Lila and Dillon went to sit in the front pew and he went towards the reverend. “Thank you for doing this today.”
Reverend Coates smiled gently. “If you’re ready—” He nodded at the organ player.
“Yeah, uh, go head.”
The sound of the pipe organ filled the small church and Jason took his spot, turning towards the back, unsure exactly what he was feeling — was it a desire to rush out the back door and disappear? Or maybe a renewed irritation with his cousin for starting all of this—
Or the universe for sending cholera to take so much of his family, leaving his grandmother to fret about her remaining grandsons—
Whatever he was feeling, it disappeared as Elizabeth came around the edge of the doorway, her hand clutched in Cameron, the little boy smiling brightly. She stood just at the end of the aisle, a bonnet secured over her brown hair—a shame, he thought idly, he liked her hair—and her deep blue eyes sweeping across the church.
“She’s not moving,” Sonny said, through clenched teeth.
“Shut up,” Jason muttered. She’d been a swirl of nerves since the moment he’d revealed the truth about the letters and how she’d ended up in Colorado. Had Dillon said something stupid? Had he made her feel like this was pity?
Worried that she was going to dart from the church, taking Cameron with her, and make a beeline for the train deport just down the road, Jason went up the aisle to meet her. “Are you all right?” he asked softly.
“I—” Elizabeth closed her eyes, her lips trembling. “I don’t want you to regret this,” she managed. She looked at him, and there were tears clinging to her lashes. “Promise me you won’t.”
“I won’t,” he said gently. “I know you wanted Cameron to escort you down, but we can go together, right?”
“Y-Yes.” Elizabeth nodded. He lifted Cameron into his arms, perching the boy on one side and reaching for Elizabeth’s hand with the other. “If you’re sure.”
You couldn’t really be sure of anything, Jason thought. His brother had certainly thought Caroline was the right wife, and that hadn’t turned out well. And he’d been sure that he wouldn’t need to have a family — his sister had always wanted a large family. As many as she could stand, she’d laugh, then bounce Michael in the air, the infant giggling. Jason had been sure that he’d have a lifetime with them, to watch his sister have her dream, to see Michael grow up tall and strong, his own person. He’d taken it for granted that they would always be there. That he’d have time to fix things with his father and grandfather—
There were no guarantees in life, he thought. Only promises. “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth nodded. “I’m ready.”
He’d been so kind when she’d frozen at the church doors like an idiot, Elizabeth thought. Surely that was a good sign. And he’d carried Cameron down the end of the aisle and set him down next to the dark-haired man with the suspicious eyes. Cameron had beamed up at him, and called him the papa again, and no one had even flinched.
Then they’d spoken their vows, Jason holding her hands. At the end of the ceremony, he leaned down and gently brushes his lips against her cheek.
Now, as they drove towards his ranch, a few miles out of the town proper, he’d told her, Elizabeth reminded herself that in exchange for his kindness, she’d be the best wife. She’d figure out how to be a better cook, his home would be sparkling, and there would never be a single of hole or frayed—
And then she realized that the building in the distance was the house. Her throat tightened. It wasn’t the three story mansion she’d visited the other night, but it was a large home. With an open porch that swept around the house—and there was a stone fence with an arch they drove under.
When he’d said ranch, she’d expected something more rustic, she realized. Something that…something that looked like the crude illustrations in the dime novels she’d read as a girl in the circulating library back home.
But this was…this was something more. He pulled the wagon in front of the house—a set of stables were set maybe fifty feet away from the house with training yards. Beyond that, there was a barn — and she could see cattle in the distance. Horses. This was a large ranch. An estate some might call it at home.
“Are you ready?” he asked. “Alice has been looking forward to meeting you and Cameron.”
“Alice—” Elizabeth squinted as Jason leapt nimbly down. He lifted Cameron over the side, making sure to clear the wheel, then held out a hand for her. He helped her down, careful to keep her skirts from getting caught in the wheel. “Who…who is Alice?” Did he have a daughter? She thought frantically. Was that why—
“Mister Jason!” A cheerful booming voice came from behind them and Elizabeth turned to see a tall woman, with a stocky build, and short curling hair standing at the top of the stairs. “It’s about time.”
“That’s Alice,” Jason said, with a sigh. “She still greets me like I’m a child. When I left home, my grandmother insisted on sending her with me,” he added. “She’s the housekeeper.”
“You won’t have to lift a finger,” Alice said as she bustled down the stairs, her smile growing wider. “And this must be little Master Cameron. Hello, young sir.” She stuck out her hand to Cameron who was still looking everywhere with fascination. He shook her head. “And—” If possible, Alice’s face lit up even more. “You’re the new missus. I just about gave up on this boy giving me babies to spoil—”
Jason grimaced, but there was humor in his eyes. A housekeeper, Elizabeth thought faintly. “Hello,” she managed.
“Come in, come in. You must be worn out after all that traveling, and then the boy gets that ring on your finger without even bringing you to see your new home—”
“I’ll get the bags,” Jason said, releasing Elizabeth’s hand. “Alice will take care of everything.”
“Of course.” Elizabeth took a deep breath. Housekeepers didn’t do everything, she thought. She could still find something for her to do, some way to keep Jason from regretting taking a chance —
But inside the house, she felt still more echoes to her childhood. What a piece of civilization she hadn’t expected, she thought, sliding her fingers over the smooth bannister of a sweeping staircase that climbed to the second floor. The floors were a smooth wood, and wallpaper adorned the rooms, light and airy as large windows in the sitting room opened up to a view of a small body of water, the mountains in the distance.
It was a beautiful home that wouldn’t look out of place in Port Hamilton, she thought, turning in a small circle.
“Jason told me you came from New York, so I hope you’ll be comfortable here. Mister Edward built the best for his Lila,” Alice told her. “He loved her so very much. Wasn’t happy about Mister Jason moving out on his own, but Missus Lila handled everything. Not much he won’ do to make her happy, even build this place just the way she wanted.”
Not much he won’t do, Elizabeth thought, even marry the stranger his cousin dumped on his doorstep.
“Now, don’t you worry about anything. You won’t have to lift a finger,” Alice continued. “I take care of the cooking, see to the cleaning—you’ll be pampered like a princess. I’m so very glad you’ve come to stay,” she told Elizabeth.
She nodded, just a short jerking motion, then forced a smile at Cameron who had gone to a window to look at the horses. “Mama, look—” he pointed. “The papa has horses.”
“He trains some of the best horses in the region,” Alice told Cameron. “The name Jason Morgan is getting known for it. Or was until Missus Lila made him take that sheriff job last year. To keep him close,” Alice confided.
“Can I go see the horses?” Cameron wanted to know. “Please, Mama—”
“Not—Not right now.” Elizabeth needed a moment. Needed to gather herself, and think.
“You must be exhausted. Mister Jason—” Alice swept out of the sitting room where Jason was coming in from the stables, having put up the wagon and horses. He had Elizabeth’s bags in his hand. One in each. All she had in the world. “You should take the missus to wash and clean up. I’ll show the little master to his room so he can see everything Missus Lila sent for him.”
“Sent for him?”Jason repeated. Then looked at Elizabeth. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Yes.” She smiled. “I’m fine. But the wagon was dusty. I’d like to—”
“Yeah. Okay.” He took her arm and led her towards the stairs. “I’m sorry,” he said as the went up the stairs, keeping his voice low so that Alice, on her way behind them with Cameron, couldn’t hear. “There’s really no way to prepare you for Alice.”
“No, I understand.” She managed another smile as he led her down a hallway and pushed open a door. It was a sprarsely decorated room — with a double bed, a dresser, and a table with a porcelain bin and pitcher for washing up. Her stomach pitched. Was he putting her in a guest room?
“I’m sorry,” Jason said closing the door. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I never spent a lot of time in here. There’s not much. Um—you can do whatever you want to the house. I mean—”
“This is your room,” Elizabeth said, as relief swamped her. “I just—”
“Yeah, I don’t really need a lot,” he continued, setting the bags on the bed. “My grandmother really did the house, but left this for me.”
“Right.” She curled her hand in a fist at her waist. “You’re very lucky to have someone like her. Who cares so much.”
“I know. And Alice—she, uh, lost family in the epidemic, too,” Jason said. “A husband and a son. So if she’s…she comes on strong. But I can talk to her—”
“No, no. She’s wonderful. It’s all—it’s a wonderful home,” Elizabeth said quickly. “It’s just…not what I was expecting. No wonder you didn’t look very hard for a wife.” She said the final part, meaning it to be a joke, but it came out a bit more shaky than she meant it to. Of course Jason hadn’t looked for a wife. What need did he have? He had a grandmother who decorated his house, and a housekeeper who took care of him better than any mother Elizabeth had ever known—
Jason came over to her, took her hands in his, then stared with confusion as he slid one finger tip over the glove on her hand. He gently pulled it off, and her cheeks flushed. “You stuffed it,” he said. She yanked her hand back, curling it back into a fist.
“I—I wanted it to be…” To fit the one pair of gloves she owned. So that no one would notice. Why did he always see it?
“You don’t have to.” He tugged off the other glove, set them both on the dresser near them. He met her eyes. “I didn’t look very hard,” he told her, “because no one interested me.”
Interested. He’d told her he was attracted to her, and she hadn’t really known what to do with that, but of course, she’d forgotten another reason a man might marry. Especially one out West where men outnumbered women.
“Then I am very fortunate,” Elizabeth said, “that I was not ill-featured.” She smiled again, but he just tipped his head.
“You are beautiful,” he acknowledged, releasing one of her hands and raising his own to her face, sweeping his thumb across her jaw. “You’ve looked in a mirror, so you know that to be true. But there are pretty women here, too.”
Oh, well, then—
“When you opened the door yesterday and decided that I was not good enough for you,” Jason said, “because you thought that I thought badly of your son, you had my attention.”
“You enjoy women yelling at you?” Elizabeth said, her eyes searching his. He’d told her that before, but she hadn’t believed him.
“For all you knew, I was the man who wrote those letters and was now rejecting a little boy I had promise to love as my own. And you were angry enough to reject me first. Because you fight for what matters.”
“I thought that my cousin was right,” Jason continued. “I would do anything for my grandmother. And almost anything for him,” he added and she smiled at that. “Because they matter to me. I know something about taking care of family.”
If this was supposed to make her feel better, it wasn’t quite working but she appreciated that he was trying. He would do anything for his family, and he had. And he’d been kind enough to try to convince her that it was more than pity that had caused him to offer for her.
And she could do far worse than a handsome, kind husband who only needed a wife to have someone in his bed. Love at first sight only happened in dime store novels.
She leaned up to press her lips against his, softly and a bit shyly. She had little experience to draw upon, and it had been years since she’d initiated intimacies. Lucky for her, Jason was happy to take up the reins. His hand slid around to cup the back of her neck, his other arm around her waist to pull her closer. She had a second chance, a miraculous new start, and she was going to make the most of it.
Jason would never, ever regret marrying her, and she was going to be the best wife she could be.