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Authors: Mona Hodgson

Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance

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Nell had written about a new claw-foot tub Judson had added to their modest house, along with electric lights. She told them more about the landlady at the boardinghouse, and then she spent at least two long paragraphs describing the new and improved face of Cripple Creek. She wrote about the brick-and-sandstone town beginning to bulge at its seams, filling most every lot in the center of town and sprawling far up into the foothills. The wealth of gold being discovered attracted people from all over the country. Investors. Stockbrokers. Attorneys. Bankers. Railroad men. Entrepreneurs of all sorts, including someone who had recently opened an opera house and a businesswoman named Mollie O’Bryan, who was causing quite a hullabaloo.

A thriving city that offered comforts and culture. A place where Ida could learn the underpinnings of business and prosper with the city. A city other than New York or Portland.

Vivian held up the letter, her pinky finger pointed outward.

Ida, as the result of Judson’s work as an accountant, he knows many folks in business. Bankers. Investors. Brokers. He says you could have a solid job here in no time.

But Ida barely heard the last few sentences. Her mind had been racing from the moment she’d heard that there was a
businesswoman
in Cripple Creek. Ida knew she’d rather work for a woman. Working for a successful woman would be icing on the cake.

Ida rose from the chair. “Mollie O’Bryan,” she said, garnering stares from her sister and her aunt.

Vivian dipped her chin and raised a brow. “I haven’t finished reading yet.” She motioned for Ida to sit back down, which she did.

I hope you are well and you enjoyed the summer.
I miss you terribly. I know Kat does also. She said she’ll write again this week.
I’ll close for now. Judson is due home from the mine, and I have oatmeal cookies baking in the oven.
Forever your sister, with love,
Nell

Vivian folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope on her lap, then glanced up at Ida as if she expected an explanation for Ida’s outburst.

“I’ve finished school early,” Ida said. “So it works out that I can leave for Cripple Creek this next week.”

Unlike her sisters, she wasn’t going to Colorado for love or marriage. She had no intention of letting anything or anyone stand in the way of her ambitions. And she would succeed without the kind of compromise that men like Bradley Ditmer expected from her.

TWO

Cripple Creek, Colorado

22 September 1896

ucker Raines shouldered his leather bag and stepped off the platform onto the dusty road in front of the Midland Terminal Railway Depot in Cripple Creek. The streets weren’t that much different from those in Stockton—wide, packed dirt teeming with people, animals, and wagons. But the overpowering sounds of new construction were different. His mother had written him about the fires that had raged through the town in April, the devastation and subsequent renovation. Until her last letter, she hadn’t mentioned his father was ill.

Tucker pushed the felt hat back on his head. He wasn’t ready for this, and judging by his folks’ absence at the station, he surmised the feeling was mutual. He shouldn’t have come. But what kind of a son would he be if he hadn’t responded to his mother’s request?

He tugged her letter out of his jacket pocket. He wasn’t sure he had the will to face what the near future held, but he’d at least take the first steps. He shifted his hat to block the glaring sunlight and then reread his mother’s directions to their home.

Left on Third Street off Bennett Avenue—the main road through town.
Right on Warren Avenue.
Left on Second Street. Second cabin on the left.

He set off on Bennett Avenue, looking for Third Street. It’d been more than a year since his father had sold the icehouse in Stockton and left California for Cripple Creek. Tucker had never been to Colorado before, but given Cripple Creek’s elevation—nearly ten thousand feet—he hadn’t expected such sultry weather, especially in the second half of September. He peeled off his canvas coat and stuffed it into his bag.

Tucker saw a pine boardwalk where the first line of new brick and stone buildings began, many of them completed. Most, however, were still in various stages of construction. Considering the misshapen bulk of his bag, he decided it best to forfeit the wooden footpath and remain on the road, where he was less likely to block the way.

The sharp trill of laughter drew his attention to the gaggle of women who poured out of a mercantile and stepped into his path. They were all dressed for moonlight entertaining. Stilling his steps, he waved them by. The last one stopped directly in front of him, her blond hair swept to one side and her green eyes wide.

She studied his leather bag. “Looks like you could use a little direction, mister. And”—her brow raised, she fluttered her eyelids like hummingbird wings—“I’d be real tickled if you were going my way.” She swayed her bustled hips.

“I am if you’re headed for a camp meeting, ma’am.” He wasn’t, but if wishes counted for anything, he would be.

The young woman’s raspy giggle quickly changed to a snort. She slapped her chest above her low neckline. “Tagged me a traveling preacher, did I?”

“You did, ma’am.” He lifted his hat from the crown. “Tucker Raines.”

“I’m Felicia,” she said, slowly and softly, pronouncing her name
Feel-easy-a
. “Preacher, you ever need some real touchy-feely lovin’, you come see me.” She tilted her head to the left, toward the corner where the others had turned. “You can find me on Myers Avenue.” After a brief curtsy, she followed the crowd of women down the side street now edged with men.

When Tucker didn’t see any respectable-looking women out and about, he concluded Tuesday was Cripple Creek’s morning for the
other
women to do their shopping.

He saw the sign for Third Street and turned left, where Felicia had rounded the corner. He’d just dodged a one-horse carriage and was stepping around a fresh deposit when a voice as deep as a cavern called out his name. “Mr. Raines?”

Tucker turned around. He saw the two massive draft horses first. A man big enough to match the voice waved from his seat atop an enclosed wagon with a familiar business name printed on its side: Raines Ice Company. A boy peeked out around the man as he addressed Tucker again.

“You Mr. Tucker Raines, sir?”

“I’m Tucker.” He’d seen full-grown bears smaller than this man.

“Otis Bernard, sir.” The man stepped down from the wagon and extended a beefy hand the color of coal.

Tucker shook his hand. Even at six feet tall, Tucker felt like shrubbery beside an oak tree. The left side of Otis’s face drooped from his eye down to a permanent frown, sparking Tucker’s curiosity, but he was mindful not to stare.

Otis glanced up at the boy still seated in the wagon. “That’s my oldest son, Abraham. He’s been helping out with deliveries since your pa took sick.”

The boy removed his straw hat and dipped his chin in a greeting. He looked about ten and shared his father’s build, muscular in the upper body.

“I’m pleased to meet you both,” Tucker said.

“Pleased to meet you too, sir.” Abraham returned his hat to his head and curled his right arm to show a hillock of a bicep muscle through his plaid shirt. “I can lift twenty pounds without even breaking a sweat.” His dark eyes twinkled like midnight stars. “Know why?”

Tucker had an idea, but he shook his head anyway. That was what he had wanted folks to do when he was that age.

“Because it is ice cold.” Snickering, Abraham slapped his pant leg.

Tucker chuckled. Otis joined him, pride in his son lighting his face.

Tucker gave the boy a thumbs-up. “That’s a good one.”

“I’m afraid you’re in for it, Mr. Tucker. Only time this boy don’t tell jokes is when he’s with a fever.” Otis lifted Tucker’s leather bag off the ground and swung it up behind the seat on top of the ice wagon as if the bag were full of dried leaves. “Your mama sent us to fetch you. Hop in on the other side of Abraham, and we’ll get you there.”

Tucker wanted to ask why the boy wasn’t in school, but he knew there weren’t many schools, even in the West, that allowed Negros to attend with white children. He also wanted to know why his own mother hadn’t met him at the depot. Either his father didn’t know of the visit or he was too ill to be left alone.

Swallowing his unspoken questions, Tucker walked to the other side of the wagon and climbed up into the seat beside Abraham. “I liked your joke.”

“Thank you, sir. I wanna write jokes for vaudeville comedians like Dan
Leno someday. I heard some men talkin’ about him in the grocery. They said he’s so funny, he could make a lion laugh.”

Tucker admired his ambition and didn’t doubt the lad could do it, given a little age and polish. “I’d say you’re off to a good start.”

“Mama says practice makes perfect, as long as I don’t practice them all on her.”

A lopsided grin spread across Otis’s face as he gently flicked the reins and clucked his tongue, pulling the horses around and back up to Bennett Avenue.

“My directions say my folks live off Second Street,” Tucker said, wondering where they were headed.

Otis’s crooked smile disappeared. “They’re not home, sir.”

“Tucker. Please call me Tucker.” He’d come all this way, and they were out of town?

“Your pa’s in the hospital.” Otis slowed his speech, harmonizing with the cadence of the horses as they pulled the wagon up the hill on the other side of Bennett Avenue.

“For how long?”

“Been in a few days now. Since last Thursday.”

“My mother’s letter said he’d been having spells. She asked me to come, but she didn’t offer any details.”

“Heard he’s to go home this afternoon,” Otis said. “We were delivering ice the start of August when he had a bad coughing spell.”

“Seven weeks ago?”

Otis nodded. “Your father wouldn’t claim it, but he’d been draggin’… not really himself since last winter.”

Tucker felt a knot form in his stomach.

A large brick building was under construction on the next block. Otis guided the horses around the corner. “That there is the new hospital the
Sisters of Mercy are building.” He raised his voice over the din of stonemasons slapping bricks together.

“Last week your pa took to coughing blood.” Abraham spit out the last word, his eyes wide. “I saw it.”

Tucker looked over at Otis, trying to mask the fear that threatened to topple him. “Blood? He’s coughing up blood?” He didn’t know much about medical affairs, but he’d met his share of consumption widows at camp meetings.

Otis returned Tucker’s gaze and despite the light of the midday sun, Otis’s eyes darkened. “It’s not good, Mr. Tucker.” He paused and patted his boy’s knee.

“He can’t work anymore?”

“No sir.”

An elderly man wearing loose-fitting trousers and a wide-brimmed straw hat waved at them from outside The King’s Chinese Laundry.

“Be back by with your ice before lunch, Mr. Jing-Quo.” Otis waved, and then looked at Tucker. “He and his wife have an icebox in their place up top.”

But Tucker’s thoughts were elsewhere.
If not for this man, there would be no Raines Ice Company
. Tucker had liked him from the start, but that affinity was fast becoming an admiration.

Tucker himself knew nothing about his father’s business here in Cripple Creek. While he hesitated to show that ignorance to Otis, his need to know was greater than his desire to appear knowledgeable. Had to be, for his mother’s sake. He’d asked her plenty of questions about the business in his letters, but she preferred to talk about the town’s rebirth and the way the majestic mountains heralded the seasons. Anything but the situation with Tucker and his father, or the business.

“How many wagons and horses does he have?” Tucker asked.

BOOK: Too Rich for a Bride
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