Mail Order Noelle by Kathleen Lawless

Chapter 1

From the shadows of the train station in Boston, Noelle crossed her fingers as she watched her brother, Theodore, walk her sister Merry to the waiting train after first delivering her oversize trunk to a porter.

Theodore gave his sister a quick peck on the cheek, then watched her board the train. Noelle inched further into the shadows as he turned, walked past her, and exited the station. The second he was out of sight, Noelle scampered to the train’s steps just as the whistle blew and Merry disembarked, passing her a ticket.

Merry gave her a heartfelt hug that nearly squeezed the breath from her lungs. “I will never forget this.”

“You better not,” Noelle said. “Be happy. You deserve it.” Noelle disentangled herself and jumped onto the train just as it started to move. Her last sight of Merry was her sister blowing kisses as the train chuffed out of the station.

Merry, the spoiled youngest in the family, tended to have a short memory when it came to things others did for her, taking for granted that everyone else would go out of their way for her. Today was somewhat different, yet Noelle couldn’t find it in her to feel badly if her sister believed Noelle’s actions to be totally selfless.

Inside an empty compartment, Noelle found a seat and pulled out her notebook and pencil as she prepared for the long journey West. By the time Theodore prepared to deliver her to the wretched man he’d picked to marry her off to, she’d be on the other side of the country and Merry would be happily married to a man of her own choosing.

Noelle squirmed as she tried to get comfortable against the hard seatback. As for Theodore’s acquaintance, Grant Chisholm, what kind of man, would ask, sight-unseen, for Merry’s hand? Noelle saw no reason for him to learn the sisters had pulled a switch. At least, not until it suited her needs. She pulled out her notebook and began to write.

* * *

Grant watched his paternal grandmother,aware she was nowhere near as frail as she pretended to be, although the death of his parents some years ago had knocked a good portion of the wind out of her sails. And even though she’d moved to Colorado to be near him, she insisted on maintaining her own residence on his ranch. He took comfort from the fact she was close enough that he could keep an eye on her. When he was here, that is.

She tapped the tip of her glossy black walking stick against the wood floor and eyed him in a way that made him feel he was still five years old and caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “You’re leaving again?”

“Only for a few days.”

She sniffed. “I certainly hope your upcoming marriage will put an end to all this galivanting.”

He felt himself soften. It would kill her to admit she was lonely when he wasn’t around, and he regretted the time he spent away, but certain needs overrode others.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” he said as he leaned in to kiss a papery cheek.

“With the young woman you plan to marry. Because if this is all a scheme to pacify an old lady—”

“Nothing of the sort,” Grant said. “Teddy’s new wife refuses to have the girls live with them any longer, so he was relieved when I told him my grandmama was insisting I settle down. He’s found someone to marry the oldest girl, who is apparently a bit of a handful, but the younger one is painfully shy, which put off any potential suitors.”

Eloise snorted. “What are you going to do with some quiet, shy mouse?”

Carry on with my life. At least that had been behind the idea.

“I expect she’ll be good company for you as you regale her with stories of the old days.”

“Hmmph,” the old lady said. “Why does it sound like you’re not planning to change your gadabout ways in the slightest?”

“Never fear. Two beautiful women to come home to ought to help curtail my business trips.” Maybe. Eventually.

From his Ridgemont ranch, Grant headed to the telegraph office, where a telegram from Theodore told him when to expect Merry. From there he rode to Denver. If all went well, he should arrive back in Durango in plenty of time to greet Merry Russell’s train.

* * *

Noelle disembarkedin Durango and looked around, but didn’t see anyone who twigged her one childhood memory of Theodore’s friend, Grant Chisholm, shadowy memories that included a tall, dark-haired man with a deep voice, wearing a cloak. But she’d been young at the time. All adults appeared tall in her eyes.

The porter dumped her trunk at her feet and stood waiting until she dug a coin from the change purse in her reticule.

Her temper rose as the platform slowly emptied around her. How dare he be late! Arrogant son of a—

“Miss Russell?”

Finally!

She turned, but the short, balding man who faced her looked nothing like her memories of Grant Chisholm. Could that much time have passed? No wonder Grant Chisholm needed to rely on the charity of friends to find a woman willing to marry him. At least he should be relatively easy to handle.

“I am she.”

The man’s face broke into a relieved grin. “I’m from the telegraph office. Mr. Chisholm sends regrets, stating he has been unavoidably delayed.”

Noelle wasn’t overly anxious to tie the knot, but being left here in some two-horse town in the back of beyond like forgotten baggage was really the end.

“What does Mr. Chisholm suggest?”

“I’m to escort you to the hotel. He’ll be along to fetch you as soon as possible.”

A reprieve.

“Did he happen to say how long his delay might be?”

“He did not say, miss.”

“Fine,” Noelle said.

The man started off, as if expecting her to follow.

“Excuse me.” She pointed to her trunk. “What of my things?”

His eyes widened at the sight of her trunk. He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “I’m not sure—I suppose I could—”

“Oh, never mind!” Taking matters into her own hands, she sought out the porter from before. Hopefully he’d remember her generosity.

Arrangements finalized, Noelle followed the man who had greeted her, her eyes narrowed. Grant Chisholm owed her already. And she fully intended to keep track as his debt mounted.

* * *

The hotelwhere her escort delivered her appeared relatively new compared to those she was accustomed to in Boston, but with none of the refinements she was used to seeing. She hoped she didn’t come to regret her impulsive move. It had been the editor at the Boston Herald who had suggested she get out of the city and head West to freshen her perspective on the railway takeovers around the country, spearheaded by the robber barons. But until she got her hands on her dowry, she hadn’t the means for the trip. Which is why she had offered to take Merry’s place.

Her hotel room was bare bones, minimal comfort, but at least it was clean. A soft knock at the door minutes later brought a maid with a jug of tepid wash water which Noelle made full use of, peeling off her things and sponging every inch of skin she could reach before she got dressed in a clean frock and underpinnings. She might as well take advantage of Mr. Chisolm’s tardiness to see what all the hoopla the so-called ‘Wild West’ was about. Perhaps she could expand her essay topics. Maybe even start a second nom de plume.

As she’d seen on the walk to the hotel, the town was nestled cozily between the sweep of several rocky, barren-looking mountains, randomly dotted with stick-like trees. A few of the buildings, like the hotel, had a wooden sidewalk out front, while others had nothing but dirt that would no doubt turn into a river of mud the next time it rained. A cool wind blew through the town from one end to the other, making her grateful for her warm, fur-trimmed cloak.

Several rough-looking men eyed her as they rode slowly past, rifles secured to the front of their saddles, smaller firearms riding their hips. She wondered if the area was as violent as she had heard. A part of the country where whisky flowed like water and life was cheap.

A faded sign in front of her read Tea Room, which sounded like an excellent idea to help ward off the chill. The first thing she saw when she stepped inside was an old woman near the back, wrapped in layers of colorful scarves. She beckoned Noelle over, as if she’d been waiting for her.

Curious, Noelle approached. The woman’s dark eyes were keen and sharp. After the two exchanged a look, the older woman patted the empty seat next to her, a move which set her many bracelets jangling.

“You look like someone seeking answers,” she said. “Luckily, you’ve come to the right place.”

A young girl scuttled over with a huge pot of tea covered with a woolen tea cozy and two teacups balanced on a tray. Without a word, she set them down and scuttled away.

Noelle sat, wondering if she might glean something of interest to her readers who followed her weekly essays in the Boston Herald, written anonymously, of course. Not even the paper’s editor knew who The Voice was.

“I don’t believe in readings,” Noelle said as the old woman poured steaming tea into the china cups. “No one can see what’s in the future.”

“How about the present?” the old woman said. She took hold of Noelle’s hand and peered at her palm. “You’ve come a long way.”

“My clothing gave away that part,” Noelle said dismissively. “Plus, no doubt you’re aware the train stopped here a short time ago.”

The old woman picked up the cup nearest Noelle and slowly drained most of the liquid back into the pot, turned the cup over in its saucer and spun it three times, before she righted it and peered inside.

Noelle bit back a smile and wondered how many people fell for such nonsense. “Aren’t I supposed to drink the tea so the leaves get left behind?”

“Not when you don’t believe.” The old lady peered into the cup. “I see a wedding ring.”

Noelle remained unimpressed. Most single women who moved West were here at the behest of a man seeking a wife.

“He likes women, your intended.”

“Don’t most men have a fondness for the fairer sex?”

The old lady squinted. “You have secrets of your own.”

Who didn’t!

“Be careful,” the old lady said. “He’s not who you think.” Her eyes narrowed. “Any more than you are the one he is expecting.”

A faint shiver chased down her spine.

“Who does he expect?”

“The one you traded places with.”

Noelle stood. This was getting creepy. “You need to practice your skills on someone else.”

“The two of you are well-matched, for he is a secretive one, your groom. He has a hidden agenda. Much like you.”

Noelle fumbled in her change purse and placed several coins on the table, telling herself she felt sorry for the old woman. Outside, it was starting to get dark and she hurriedly retraced her steps to the hotel, aware she was chilled from more than the wind. The old lady hadn’t known what she was talking about.

* * *

The congressman Grantmet with had at first been tight-lipped, but after a few glasses of very good whisky, the man’s tongue had finally started to loosen. The hours flew past with Grant reluctant to interrupt the flow of information coming his way. Information he would need to verify as soon as he could. But he believed it brought him one step closer to exposing the men responsible for his parents’ death.

When their meeting finally wound down, he faced a lengthy ride before he reached the hotel, relieved he’d had the foresight to have someone meet Merry at the train and escort her to the hotel. Once he got there, he’d have the desk clerk slip a note under her door, arranging a time and place to meet tomorrow. They’d say their vows, and with any luck be home tomorrow before the expected snowfall hit. He wondered what his new wife would have a hankering for as her Christmas gift.