Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Evie

Book 3: The McCutcheon Family Series

Chapter One

St. Louis, Missouri, 1886

EVIE DAVENPORT hurried around the parlor, feather duster in hand. With a happy little skip, she flicked it gracefully back and forth over the walnut coffee table, then lightly fluffed the delicate glass beads dangling from the shade of the pink-and-white lamp atop the piano. A warm excitement swirled within her. A new girl was arriving today, coming all the way from Kentucky. A mail-order bride-to-be. How romantic. She always loved when a prospective bride knocked on the door for the very first time, her face aglow with excited anticipation.

Evie glanced at the stately grandfather clock and picked up her step. The house must be perfectly prepared when the new boarder arrived, particularly her bed, freshly made with ironed linens, and a vase of roses beside it.

Pulling the white cleaning cloth from her shoulder, Evie wiped the parlor windowsill, glancing at the roses in the garden, then moved to the mantel over the large fireplace. The burning knot that usually wedged itself in Evie’s heart whenever she dreamed about love wasn’t there today, and she knew why. She paused, closed her eyes, and leaned her head back against the parlor’s green-and-brown striped wallpaper. Lovingly, she ran her hand over her apron pocket, thinking about the secret posts carefully tucked away inside. She didn’t dare leave them about where someone might stumble across them, but carried them with her always.

Glancing to the doorway to make sure she was alone, she drew out the most recent, and for the hundredth time, studied the return address carefully printed in the upper left-hand corner. Chance Holcomb, General Delivery, Y Knot, Montana.

Her heart fluttered, and she suddenly felt warm and tingly. A thousand butterflies hatched inside her tummy and took flight. Why not, indeed, she thought, pushing a tendril of curly blonde hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. Evie was only twenty-two. She longed to be a bride, a wife, a mother. Even though her household duties kept her out of the kitchen much of the time, she did cook, a little—a very little. But she could keep a home beautifully, she reminded herself. No complaints there. She ran her finger lightly, adoringly, over Chance’s name, imagining his face from the vague description he’d sent. Tall, twenty-seven years old, cattle rancher, light brown hair, green eyes.

The sound of laughter in the kitchen startled her from her daydreaming. Today the girls were learning how to dress a newly butchered and plucked chicken. Passing the doorway of the large, bright kitchen, she stopped and glanced inside, aching to join the fun. Her heart sank at the disarray before her eyes. Earlier, she’d had the place spick-and-span. She’d taken extra time with the pie safe and cupboard, as well as the rectangular table in the alcove, polishing Mrs. Seymour’s fine furniture to a high sheen. The room had fairly sparkled. Now, trying to find one area that wasn’t a mess was a challenge. In addition, the back door to the vegetable garden and rose walk stood open like an invitation to any fly that might be passing by. Feathers fluttered on the warm spring breeze, dancing around the yard like baby lambs.

Heather Stanford, an orange feather stuck to her nose, stood back as she watched Angelina Napolitano, always a take-charge kind of girl, grip the poultry by a plump drumstick and stuff it into an earthen pot. Angelina clanked the lid down tight, flashing a triumphant smile.

“Very good, Angelina,” Mrs. Seymour said from behind her. “Remember, girls, you will want to baste your chicken with butter every ten to twenty minutes. It will keep it moist and turn the skin a nice golden brown.” The matron’s gaze roamed the room, touching the face of each young woman. Her brown hair, silver-streaked at one temple, was done up in a bun and her dress complemented her trim figure. “One of the fastest ways to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I can’t stress that enough.”

Mrs. Seymour, owner of the Mail-Order Brides of the West Agency, and Evie’s employer, ran a tight ship. She was tall and dignified, if not a bit weathered for her forty-some-odd years. Girls of high moral standing, with good domestic abilities, were her trademark. As a fatherless girl—an illegitimate child, Evie corrected in her mind—Evie herself could never be considered a proper candidate to be a bride. Mrs. Seymour avoided the subject assiduously, clearly wanting to spare Evie’s feelings. She knew she was different, and had taken the hint. At these thoughts, a small bubble of shame tried to steal away her happiness, but she refused to let it.

When Mrs. Seymour caught her eye, Evie quickly stuffed the post back into her pocket and smiled a bit too brightly. What would happen if the matron found out she’d taken the letters without permission? And—had gone so far as to answer them! She swallowed and took a deep, calming breath.

“Are you finished, Evelyn?” Mrs. Seymour asked evenly. It wasn’t that Mrs. Seymour was unkind. On the contrary, when Evie’s mother had died eight years ago, Mrs. Seymour had cared for her with all the devotion of a second mother. But as grateful as Evie was to her for her job and room and board, her heart ached for more. A home of her own. A man to love. Children in her arms. If she didn’t take matters into her own hands, she would likely be stuck here forever.

“Almost, ma’am. I’m going to make up the new girl’s bed right away, then all I have left to do is shake out the rugs.”

Prudence Crawford, a mean-spirited girl if there ever was one, gave a smirk, boldly looking down her nose at Evie. She had been at the agency for ten weeks, an unusually long time for a bride-to-be, and never missed the chance to make Evie feel small. Her black hair, pulled back in a severe bun, made her look older than her twenty-five years. After making sure her haughty look had registered on Evie, her eyes widened with false innocence.

How can anyone be so mean? Turning to go back to work, Evie stopped at the sound of Trudy Bauer’s voice. “The flowers you put in the dormitory yesterday were just lovely, Evie. Thank you so much. I hadn’t seen the pink ones until you brought them inside. They’re my new favorite.” Trudy smiled warmly.

Evie ducked her head. “I’m glad you liked them.” Trudy didn’t know, but she was her very best friend. Even though Trudy had only been at the agency for two weeks, the young woman had endeared herself to Evie in so many ways. She made her feel special. Appreciated. She’d gone out of her way several times to seek her out and chat over some amusing story. If Evie had ever had a sister, she’d want her to be just like Trudy, with her high spirit of adventure and bubbly personality. And, even better, Trudy took delight in volleying back a kind remark to each of Prudence’s mean ones. It had actually turned into a game of sorts, and everyone besides Mrs. Seymour noticed. Heather nodded and smiled her support, and Kathryn winked.

Evie hurried off. How surprised everyone would be if they learned she also had a handsome husband-to-be, waiting impatiently for her arrival—for no matter how modest Chance tried to come across in his letters, she knew by the things he said that no Prince Charming could be as sweet, or as handsome. Chance Holcomb, with a newly constructed home on a ranch outside the small, untamed town of Y Knot, Montana. At least, that’s what Chance had called it, giving her the opportunity to back out of the arrangement if it sounded too remote for her taste. Small was fine, but remote worried her a little. Anxiety tickled the back of her mind.

Evie’s least favorite thing on earth was black with eight legs. Large or small, it didn’t matter. Her fear of spiders was blind, uncontrollable. The spindly, evil-looking creatures terrified her.

“Here we go, sweetness,” her mother said, reaching out her arms as Evie lay sleepy-eyed in her warm bed after a midmorning nap. “I’m sure you’re as hungry as your roly-poly teddy bear.” Her mama’s smile suddenly vanished and her eyes grew wide. A shriek ripped from her throat! She shrieked again, sending Evie’s heart shattering into a million tiny pieces. What was wrong? Did her mother hate her? The door to the nursery banged open. The man she knew only as the Colonel rushed in. Her mother pointed straight at her. Had she turned into a monster while she’d been dreaming of strawberry pie?

It was her earliest memory. One that haunted her dreams every few months.

The Colonel reached out, his large hands getting closer. He jerked back, then came forward again. Scooping her hair between his hands, he threw something to the floor and stomped on it. She began sobbing uncontrollably. Then she found herself in the warm arms of her mama, clutched tightly to her chest. A black widow had crawled into her hair as she’d slept.

Evie took a deep, calming breath to settle her nerves, then descended the stairs into the basement where the laundry service had left the clean linen. After the spider incident, she used to pretend the Colonel was her papa, who loved her, and took care of her. If she let herself wonder about her real papa, it pained her deep inside, and her head ached. She would crawl under her blankets until the hurting went away. So, like now, she pushed the hurtful topic out of her mind, and turned to other, safer subjects, like Chance, like a new life in Montana, like a home of her own.

In his last letter, Chance had shared his desire for a wife, a partner, someone to help him build his dreams, their dreams. His few words were lovely, expressing his feelings better than she had at most times. He did say he hoped she could cook a few hearty meals, nothing fancy but staples to keep his belly full while working the ranch.

Guiltily, she snatched up the bedding and climbed back up the stairs. She’d avoided that issue altogether, and he hadn’t asked again, probably presuming her silence meant she could handle a kitchen just fine. He’d cautioned the territory was rough, and wild, but promised to take care of her to the best of his abilities. Chance had sent her passage money in his last letter. Her only concern was Mrs. Seymour’s reaction. Would the matron object? She wouldn’t stop her from going after all the arrangements had already been made, would she? She couldn’t possibly do something like that, or could she?

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