Hannah by Peggy McKenzie

Chapter 1

Angel Creek, Montana Territory

November 1871

The stage rolledinto town and Hannah Patterson was glad to see the end of this torturous journey. If she’d have known just how hard it would be to ride the steamship to the end of the line and then to be jolted along the bumpy road in the drafty old stagecoach this time of year, she might have reconsidered the whole deal.

“Are we’re almost there?” she asked the only other passenger on the stage and the reason her space was so cramped. The man sitting across from her was large. Very large. If she had to guess, he must be six foot, three or four. It was hard to tell with him sitting, but with his legs tangled in her skirts, it certainly felt that way. And it didn’t help that he’d sat nearly the whole way from the steamboat dock with his heavily bearded face tucked inside the neck of his coat and his hat pulled down over his eyes. She wasn’t surprised when he didn’t answer. He’d been full of nothing but grunts and grumbles each time she’d tried to engage him in conversation. But she really wanted to know when this painful experience would be over. She tried again. “Excuse me. Sir. Do you know how much longer this awful trip is going to be?”

He made a sound that resembled a dog growling when a person got too close to their food bowl.

“Well, you don’t have to be rude about it. I simply asked a question,” she huffed. The long trip was making her irritable. It wasn’t as if it was the man’s fault she was on this journey; although, he could have been a little more courteous.

A fortifying intake of air for patience, and she puckered her mouth to speak when her gruff and grumpy traveling companion thumbed his hat off his face and glared at her with the most remarkable crystal blue eyes. She was so surprised by his unusual eyes, her brain barely registered he was actually speaking to her this time.

“I can tell from your accent that you aren’t from around here, so let me give you a little bit of sage advice. Might help you out on down the road. Around these parts, when a man is sleepin’, it’s best to let him be, especially if he’s a stranger. It’ll be a lot less troublesome for you—and him. But to answer your question, I have no idea how much longer we’re gonna be in this rattling death trap. So, here’s another suggestion: Settle back and catch a few winks. It’s sound advice. Take it.” And without another word, he pulled his hat back over his face and went right back to ignoring her.

“Well, you don’t have to be so rude about it.” She huffed under her breath at the man’s extraordinary rudeness. A sound rumbled from underneath his hat and if she didn’t know better, she’d swear he was chuckling, but he didn’t seem to have the temperament for levity, so she was certain she was mistaken. Men were so…so…exasperating.

She prayed the man she had agreed to marry was as calm and as even-tempered as he claimed to be in his letters. It had been one of the main sticking points of their agreement, and she wouldn’t budge. But he had assured her he was a most reasonable man. He’d better be telling her the truth or this arranged marriage was gonna be hell on her nerves.

The agreement had specified that he wanted a woman who could cook, clean a house, wash his shirts without rubbing holes in them, warm his bed on occasion, and move to Montana. Children were optional. She just wanted someone with reasonable expectations, that could provide a warm house and keep her in an adequate amount of food and clothing. Children were wanted, but not required. And although she wasn’t thrilled about having to leave Charleston, she knew a man moving to that postwar city would struggle to find a job, so they had agreed she would be the one to move. She’d spent nearly her last dime to ship everything she had salvaged from her sister’s home. It just made more sense at the time, but at this moment, she really wished she could reconsider this whole decision.

The stage bumped and rattled its way down the frozen rutted road. Hannah could swear her teeth were going to crack at any moment. Just when she thought she couldn’t take another bounce, she heard the driver yell to the horses and the stage slowed. “Oh, thank goodness, I don’t think I could take another minute of these horrible, rutted roads.”

The grumpy man across from her pulled his dirty boots from around the hem of her skirt where he’d propped them during the ride from the steamboat wharf. He sat up and pulled the hat from his head giving Hannah a second look at his black head full of curly hair that connected with his bushy black beard. If he was handsome underneath all that fur, there was no way to tell at present. Not that it mattered she reminded herself. Not even if he were the most handsome man on earth. He was too rude to be likable.

The stage slowed, rocking back and forth as the horses settled to a complete stop. Soon, the driver opened the door and set a step below it. “Angel Creek. It’s the end of the line for tonight. Those of you going on, you’ll find the hotel just down the street. They have good food and clean beds. The stage leaves bright and early at seven a.m. If you’re late, you’re gonna be here in town for a while. The next stage doesn’t come through for at least a week, maybe longer depending on the weather.”

The stage door was open and she started to chill. Before she could rise, her companion was up from his seat filling the narrow aisle. “You’re gonna need help with those shoes of yours. Another piece of advice, if you’re gonna live in these parts, you might wanna invest in more practical footwear.” He stepped out and turned back around to assist her.

“Thank you, kind sir. For both your assistance and your unlimited advice. However, I think I can manage quite well in these—” Just as she grabbed one hand on the coach’s door frame and started to step down, she caught her boot heel against the strap of her traveling bag. Unable to dislodge it in time, she lost her balance and fell headlong out the stagecoach door and straight into the arms of her grumpy rescuer.