Authors: Heidi Vanlandingham
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #Forever Love, #Victorian Era, #Western, #Fifth In Series, #Saga, #Fifty-Books, #Forty-Five Authors, #Newspaper Ad, #Short Story, #American Mail-Order Bride, #Bachelor, #Single Woman, #Marriage Of Convenience, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Inspirational, #Factory Burned, #Pioneer, #Tennessee, #Responsibility, #Twelve-Year-Old, #Brother, #Train Travel, #Chattanooga, #Groom Deceased, #Hotel Owner, #Little Girl, #Single Father, #Widower
Lucie: Bride of Tennessee is sixteenth in the unprecedented 50-book American Mail-Order Brides series.
Overwhelmed with responsibilities…
Struggling for a decent life after the death of her parents, Lucie Croft takes a drastic step in order to provide for her twelve-year-old brother. Accepting a mail order bride contract, Lucie and Alex catch a train to Chattanooga, Tennessee. She arrives only to discover her intended groom has died. Left with little choice, Lucie does whatever is necessary to survive.
Overwhelmed with fatherhood…
Sebastian McCord owns a profitable hotel but has no idea how to be a father to his little girl. When his mother appears with the bedraggled Crofts in tow, his interest is piqued far more than it should be. Finally convinced he needs help raising his daughter, Sebastian agrees to marry Lucie.
Two people overwhelmed by life…
Will they find love and create a family where there was none, or will life conspire to keep them apart?
Chattanooga, Tennessee, October 1890
Lucie Croft stared out of the window, the glass covered with a hazy film of ash and smoke from the locomotive’s smokestack. Occasional sparks of red-hot cinders hit the outside, leaving a darker circle of soot in its place. She fought an overwhelming urge to jump off the train as the landscape sped by and her new life in Chattanooga drew closer.
She sighed. Agreeing to be a mail-order bride had been a ridiculous idea. How was she supposed to find happiness with a complete stranger? But agreeing to marry an unknown man had been her only viable option. No matter where she and her brother ended up, she would make sure he was taken care of.
The man sitting next to her on the bench seat slowly tilted toward her. For the fourth time since he’d boarded the train in Knoxville, he’d fallen asleep. His body pressed against hers and his head dropped onto her shoulder. She scowled at the top of his balding head in disgust. How could anyone sleep so much?
To get her mind off of her own troubles, she glanced around the still-crowded car. Most of the people were well dressed with a definite air of wealth as they turned up their noses at the few who weren’t. A little girl lay curled up on the seat closest to the door, her head resting on the thigh of the man next to her. Lucie raised her gaze from the little girl’s to the man’s very handsome face. She couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between them. His brown hair was the same shade as the little girl’s. Their skin was lightly tanned.
They were definitely related, yet Lucie hadn’t seen a woman with them. She wondered if they, too, were traveling to Chattanooga, and if the little girl’s mother was already there waiting for them to arrive.
The man looked up from the paper he’d been studying and met her gaze. Her heart did a strange flip-flop in her chest, which seemed unnaturally tight. She fidgeted in her seat, but the pressure remained as she stared into his brown eyes.
“Lucie! Lucie!” Alex exclaimed, pulling her attention away from the man. Her brother’s eyes were bright, and excitement filled his voice. He pointed at the houses passing by through the train’s large glass window.
She raised her brows, loving his enthusiasm, inhaling the calming, wood-scented air. It would do neither him nor her any good if she became maudlin.
The man lying against her mumbled something then jerked, his elbow jabbing her in her side. She scooted closer to Alex, but what she really wanted to do was shove the bald man to the floor. She rubbed her sore ribs, mentally tallying how many times he’d done that—four or five at least. At this rate, she was going to be black-and-blue before reaching Chattanooga.
She bit back a sigh and rested her head against the back of the seat, not wanting Alex to see how worried she was. She forced her gaze on the narrow door leading to the next train car…but she wanted to look at the man again.
At nineteen years, she felt old and worn. She could only hope and pray that their new home was an improvement over the filthy tenant room they’d lived in. Eating real food would be a nice change as well.
She picked at her only dress, the baggy fit unbecoming. Alex’s clothes weren’t much better. Not only had he outgrown them, but there were holes in the knees and elbows, and he was missing a button. Even his shoes were too small, but she had no extra money to buy him anything new.
Staring down at her tightly clasped gloved hands, she let out a small sigh. She was tired of trying to provide and miserably failing.
Alex tugged on her arm, again pointing to something outside. “Look, sissy—look at all the trees. And there’s mountains here, and the train looks like it’s headin’ straight for them. Are we gettin’ close to our new home?” He turned and gave her a big grin. “Do you think your new husband will let me have a horse?”
She chuckled. “From what Mr. Crenshaw wrote in his letter, he lives in town, so I think you will have to wait on the horse.”
“Figures.” His smile slipped then widened again. “Maybe I’ll find somebody my age who has one. Maybe even two!”
“That’s a good possibility. We’ll get you enrolled in school and before you know it, you’ll have lots of friends.”
His attention moved back to the passing countryside. “I know. Not worried ‘bout that much. Had me a ton of friends back home.”
Lucie followed her brother’s gaze, but the green and blue blur of trees and hills held no real interest. She wondered what her new husband was like. In his letter, he’d written that he was a businessman…but hadn’t stated what his business was. Other than his impersonal description of himself—slightly overweight with a full head of blond hair and mutton-chop whiskers—she knew nothing about him other than his name. Harold Crenshaw. Even his name didn’t stir any interest.
The train jerked and the constant
of the wheels slowed. “Sissy, we’re here! We’re here!”
“Shhhh. I can see that, and now everyone else in the car knows too.” She glanced at the handsome man in the seat ahead of her, the hint of a smile on his lips. Her heart did the strange flip-flop again, and she dropped her gaze to her brother’s small face.
He gave her a chagrined look, one side of his mouth raising. “Sorry. I’m just excited is all. We’ve never gone on a trip before. Papa always promised he’d take me on a train, but…”
She pushed the lock of light brown hair off his forehead. “I know.”
His shoulders drooped a bit. “He would’ve though.”
“Of course he would have. Papa
kept his promises, Alex. If our parents hadn’t died, many things would’ve been different.” With her finger under his chin, she raised his face. “Let’s look at this as a fun adventure, all right? I’m sure Mr. Crenshaw won’t mind if we explore the city together after we get settled in.”
Alex grabbed her hand, clasping it between his own. “Like we used to?”
“Like we used to. Deal?”
He gave her a wide smile, his eyes twinkling. “Deal.”
The train slid to a jerky stop and everyone rose, grabbing their belongings and heading toward the door. She waited until they were the last ones, then pulled her own small bag out from beneath the seat. She hugged it to her chest and stepped onto the wooden platform. Glancing behind her to make sure Alex followed, she walked through the wide arched doorway and into the station’s large interior.
Along the far wall were the ticket and baggage offices. To their left, she watched men enter another room while the women and children waited on the wooden benches in the center of the station. The man and the little girl were nowhere to be seen.
She led Alex over to an empty bench and sat, placing her bag beside her. “Mr. Crenshaw must be running a bit late, so we’ll make ourselves comfortable here until he arrives.”
“Do you think he’ll get here soon? I’m starving.”
She gave him a mock scowl. “I swear. What did you do with the two sandwiches you inhaled?”
“That was close to three hours ago! It’s almost time for dinner now.”
She shook her head. “Four o’clock is not almost dinnertime. I’m sure Mr. Crenshaw will arrive shortly, so you’re just going to have to be patient.”
He frowned and slumped down in the seat.
* * *
“Sissy? I don’t think he’s coming for us,” Alex said, his voice sounding small in the large room.
For the hundredth time, Lucie glanced at the clock hanging on the wall behind the clerk selling tickets. Eight thirty. Her stomach rumbled. She closed her eyes a moment then turned to face her brother. “I think you’re right.”
Two men walked to the ticket counter; the larger of the two turned and looked in their direction. He was tall and muscled without an ounce of fat, as if he did strenuous activity on a daily basis. His hair was still thick, though salt–and-pepper gray underneath his hat, but it was the long, droopy mustache that reminded her of a cowboy. At least the pictures she’d seen of them in newspaper articles her father had collected. He’d been fascinated by them, often referring to them as ‘those courageous men’.
She’d loved the tales he’d told her—driving great herds of cattle across the nation, battles with storms, heat, and Indians. Most likely, some reporter had a vivid imagination and fancied himself a fiction writer. But still…the stories had been riveting.
“Why is that man staring at us? Have we done something wrong?”
Lucie glanced at her brother’s worried face. “Of course we haven’t. We have every right to sit here for as long as we want. We’re not causing trouble. Why do you ask?”
“He’s walkin’ this way, and he’s wearin’ a badge on the left side of his vest. The man from the train—the one with the little girl—is with him.”
She threw the stranger a quick frown but lowered her gaze back to her brother. “Maybe he’s looking for someone?”
Staring at the locomotive sitting on the far side of the depot shed, she sighed. From the way they were focused on the two of them, she had the feeling the two men were looking for her and her brother.
The low, gravelly voice startled her, and with a smothered yelp she twisted around in her seat. Standing beside her was the sheriff, his bright silver star now plainly visible right where Alex said it was. It was hard for her to tell his age from his weathered face, but she liked the way his eyes crinkled at the outer corners when he smiled. If that was what he was doing. She couldn’t really tell since his mustache covered most of his mouth. The man from the train didn’t look very happy as he stood quietly behind the sheriff.
“Sorry ’bout that. Didn’t mean to give you a scare. Name’s John Gurley. Would you by chance be Lucie Croft from Massachusetts?
“I am,” Lucie responded in a small voice. “Have we done something wrong?”
He shook his head, his dark gray eyes twinkling. “No, ma’am, but I do need to have a word with you.” He glanced around the station. “The man at the ticket counter said you’d been here a while. I’ve sat on those benches, and, after about an hour or so, you quit feeling your backside, if you know what I mean.”
Her twisted stomach relaxed, and she couldn’t stop the corners of her mouth curling up if she’d wanted. She liked the man’s frankness. “I would have to completely agree with you there, sir. We’re waiting on someone. Maybe you know him? Mr. Harold Crenshaw?”
He stared over their heads with a frown, his shaggy eyebrows giving him a fierceness that belied his gentle manner. “Well now, ma’am, that’s what I need to discuss with you.” He motioned to the man behind him with a quick twist of his head.
The younger man stepped forward. She pressed her fisted hand against her midsection, her stomach clenching at the rumble of his deep voice. He was even more handsome up close.
Two fingers long fingers tugged on the brim of his hat. “Ma’am, I’m Sebastian McCord. I own the McCord Hotel a few blocks from here. I would like to offer you and your young friend there a meal.”
She sighed. “I suppose you’re right. We are both hungry, but I don’t have enough money to buy two meals. Mr. Crenshaw only sent enough money for the train fare.
Alex tugged on her sleeve. “Please, sissy. I’m
She smiled. “Yes, I know you are. You haven’t let me forget it, have you?”
His cheeks turned pink, but he shook his head. “I just didn’t want you to forget, that’s all.”
She stood and picked up her bag, which the sheriff took from her. It looked so small in his large grasp and followed the two men from the station.
“Where are you taking us, sheriff?”
“Please, call me John.”
She hurried to keep up, almost jogging after the men’s log stride as they headed down a paved street. They passed a huge, red-bricked building sporting a fancy front façade and two balconies with a matching balustrade across the rooftop. The yellow light emanating from the large windows was bright and cheery in the growing dusk.
“What’s that place?” Alex asked.
“That’s the Read House. Right nice hotel, but costly. The McCord’s one block over,” Sheriff Gurley answered.
They rounded the corner of another building and crossed the street. The McCord Hotel was impressive. The outside was covered in a dark wood, reminding her of an old drawing room turned inside out. It, too, had bright yellow light pouring through two large windows onto the wooden sidewalk. As they walked through the front door, she glanced down, noticing two strange half-windows on either side that disappeared below the walkway.
Stepping inside, she was even more surprised. The same dark wood covered everything from the walls to the square tables filling the room, as well as the huge bar at the far end. The heady scent of cooked meat and fresh bread filled her nostrils. Her stomach promptly let out a loud growl.
“This is…beautiful.” Lucie said, her voice disappearing in the room’s noise. Most all of the tables were surrounded with people eating, and all but three of the barstools were also occupied. In the distance, she heard the tinny notes of a piano playing.
“Thank you,” Mr. McCord said. “I think so too.”