Gossip spread through the orphanage faster than fire in a hay barn. One by one, all the girls, now educated young ladies, were leaving and in typical Madam Wigg fashion: orderly alphabetical sequence by first name. Unfortunately, she'd reached the Ns and Quinlan's dormitory room could only be next.
"Can you hear her? Is Madam Wigg coming this way or not?"
Quinlan Clark had lived in fear for the last few months dreading this day, doubting there was any way to avoid the change heading at her like a steam engine. Madam Wigg was slowly dismantling her school, sending the orphans she had raised to teach into the world to spread education to children in need.
Rumors swirled about the school that Madam Wigg was dying, but Quinlan wasn't so certain. The woman was strong and healthy though a little doddering in her old age. Quinlan leaned closer to the door, a hand cupped around her ear, hoping the bell tolled for someone other than the girls she shared a room with.
"Shh. It's hard to hear." Phebe stood in front of Quinlan with one side of her face pressed against the closed entrance. "I'm sure it's her, and she's definitely coming this way."
Madam Wigg had a thing for order and she placed them in rooms A to Z and some of the orphans she'd even named in alphabet order. It was an easy way to know where each girl was located. When Quinlan arrived at the age of seven, she was already named, but she would never forget when Madam Wigg smiled and said, I was needing a girl with a Q name. And so began a nice, stable, quiet life minus screaming. And she didn't want the pleasant experience to change.
"Do you think it's our turn to be told about her illness and this whole mail-order bride thing?" Olivia's slender frame was crowded next to Quinlan. A worried look had crept into her brown eyes.
Nellie clasped her hands together as her lips began to tremble. "I hope not. I don't like the idea at all. It's... well, it's..."
The four had shared this room since they were children, growing up together, becoming more like sisters than roommates in the orphanage. Now at twenty-five, Quinlan hoped they were too old to marry. Marriage meant...she shuddered as the memories from her childhood flooded her.
Years ago, she'd come to the realization that she was fortunate to have been taken to the Wigg School and Foundling Home. And the thought of picking someone from a newspaper ad for a husband sent fear slithering along her spine like a snake, causing her to shake.
What if this unknown man was like her father?
Footsteps halted at their door.
Phebe stepped back, grabbed Olivia's hand and gave Quinlan a gentle shove, shooing the other three friends. "We need to sit on our beds. I think Madam Wigg is right outside."
A sharp, double rap against wood confirmed Phebe's words as the friends ran to their beds. Everyone but Phebe sat just as the door swung open and their mentor swept into the room like a queen, her hands holding a bundle of papers behind her back. What was in her fingers?
Terror seized Quinlan's chest. The rumors were true. They were being sent into the world she had avoided since she was a child. This was her safe haven, her place of peace, and Madam Wigg would soon force her to leave.
Phebe stood alone in the middle of the room, facing their mentor.
"I'm surprised to catch you eavesdropping, Phebe. It doesn't suit you at all."
Phebe tensed, her cheeks blushing as she gazed at Madam Wigg like she was confronting a student.
"I apologize, Madam, but it does have its uses at times."
Years ago, the girls had learned it was better to admit their faults to Madam Wigg when they misbehaved. The punishment was far less and she even kind of admired the fact you were honest about your wrong doings. It kept Quinlan from the study hall having to write she would never repeat her offense a thousand times more than once.
The older woman chuckled. "Yes, it does." She looked at the other three and nodded. "I've come to talk to all of you about a serious matter."
Quinlan feared she was going to be ill, right here in front of her mentor. Because the very thought of giving up her safe home left her terrified.
"You aren't really sick, are you?" Olivia blurted, then clamped her lips together when Madam Wigg gave an exasperated sigh.
Oh boy, Olivia was never one for glossing things over. She went straight for the jugular and wanted the truth of the matter. No one tried to fool her black-as-ink haired friend, because she would put them in their place in a heartbeat.
"I know you girls talk among yourselves, so I'm sure you've already heard about my illness. Which means there's no need to dwell on that." She pointed at Phebe and Quinlan. "Now, the two of you join Nellie and Olivia and have a seat. Then I'll explain what we're going to do about this little problem."
Why couldn't Madam Wigg at least confirm or deny or even tell them what was wrong with her? Didn't she know they all worried about her and would never leave her alone during this terrible time. Then again, the woman sometimes pushed them away when she felt they needed to be stronger and she was all about her charges being capable women.
"It isn't a little problem, Madam," Phebe interrupted softly. She sank down on the bed next to Nellie and frowned at her mentor. "If you're sick, we need to stay and take care of you, not go flitting off to secure new positions as if you didn't mean anything to us."
Nellie took one of Phebe's hands in her own and held on tightly. "That's right." A sheen of moisture glistened in her friend's eyes as she stared back at Madam Wigg. "We should be here to take care of you.
Why didn't the girls understand, Quinlan wondered. If Madam Wigg was truly sick and dying, she would never want her girls to see her weak and debilitated. The woman had a rigid, puritanical, stoical air about her that would never submit to letting others see her as being weak. Even in sickness. Didn't they remember when she had pneumonia the year before and forbade anyone but Cook and the doctor from entering her room?
The women chimed in agreement until the older woman held up a hand, her palm facing outward like a warning sign.
"I appreciate your concern. I really do. But I am still head of this school, and I say it's time you all stopped worrying about me and made your own way in this world." She set a stack of papers tied with a string on top of the lone table in the cozy-sized room. "The Bride's Bulletin is filled with advertisements of men looking for wives. Any one of them can give you a home and help you get started teaching. If you pick wisely."
That was the problem. Quinlan knew nothing about men and wouldn't know how to choose a man if her life depended on it and obviously, right now, it did. The only man she'd known had been ripped out of her life for good reasons. Since then, she’d avoided men.
"You girls haven't had a chance to do much choosing in your lives," Madam Wigg's voice softened as she looked at each of them, her eyes growing warm. "You had no choice in coming here, or in the work you were given to do. The only choice you've all made for yourselves was to stay and learn to be teachers.
“Now it's time for you to make another choice. This time to select a husband, so you can give something back to other children who need a teacher. Every child deserves to be educated and have an opportunity to do well when they grow up."
Quinlan completely agreed that every child deserved an education, even the poor, the downtrodden, the children of criminals. Everyone. But how did one go about selecting a husband when you didn't know what were good qualities in a man? How did you find someone who agreed with your desire to educate children?
Madam pointed at the papers. "Look those prospects over carefully, but don't select one with a mark by his notice. He's already been spoken for by one of the other girls. And once you've settled on one, don't forget to put your mark down too. I don't want to hear about any squabbles going on over some poor man no one has even met."
What could she do? Where would she go? Gingerly she picked up the newspaper and started to thumb through the pages, shocked by the number of lonely men in the world searching for a wife.
Madam Wigg turned and made her way back to the door where she paused. "Phebe?"
"You look the notices over and then come to my sitting room. I need to speak with you privately."
Quinlan scanned the many ads. She had one chance to get this right or find herself in the same situation as her mother. Remembering her history lessons, whoever she chose, he had to be from Texas.
Without another word, the older woman sailed out the door, leaving an anxious group of women.
Quinlan laughed out loud as she read the ridiculous requests of some of the men. "Phebe, come over here. You have to read these."
The papers were open on the table and all three of the other women were crowded around them, pointing at the notices covering every page.
"Oh heavens." Olivia blinked as she leaned closer, squinting at the small print. "This gentleman specifically mentions that he's looking for a woman with a strong back and good constitution."
This was why Quinlan didn't want a man. Her insides tightened at the memory of her father and the work he required of her mother. Why couldn't she skip the marriage part and just have her own children? What did she need with a man? "Sounds like he's mixed up a wife with a plow horse."
Nellie clasped her hands together and gave Phebe an uncertain look. "I don't know about this. However are we supposed to choose?"
Great question. How could she discern the abusers from the good men? And what if all men, even the good ones, could become a wife beater? A shiver rattled her bones.
Olivia shrugged at Nellie before putting an arm around Phebe's shoulders and drawing her next to the table. "Well, Phebe's only going to be looking for a gentleman from California." She gave her friend a questioning glance. "Unless you've changed your mind about that promise to your mama?"
Drawing in a deep breath, she straightened her spine and smiled at the women before she bent over the paper and ran a finger down the first page.
"Now. Let's see what we have here."
Quinlan sighed. There was no getting out of this. The time had come to pick her future or maybe her death.
* * *
"Son, I'm dying," Will’s gray haired mother said for the hundredth time. This was nothing new. She was always dying and yet, he feared one day she really would up and leave him and his father.
After dinner, they sat inside his parents’ small home. As he glanced around, guilt ate at him because he was here and his brother wasn't. David would have married and given her an heir.
"Mother," he said growling. The woman had a death wish. Either that or she found some new way to manipulate him.
"Well, I am. Maybe not today or even next week, but sooner or later this body is going in the grave." She paused, staring at him with eyes the same color as his brother’s. A deep shimmering blue or was that tears?
"As your mother, I would like to see you settled before I die."
What could he say? Every mother wished that their children were happy.
"What does that mean to you? After all, I'm at least staying home and not wandering the countryside any longer."
The word wandering was a nice term for what he had been doing. There had been a specific purpose to his travels. One his mother knew nothing about, and if she did, even at his thirty years of age, she might take the switch to him.
All his life, he dreamed of being a carpenter and now he was living that life, trying his best to forget the past.
"You need to find someone to spend the rest of your life with."
"Clara, leave the man alone. He'll get married when he's ready," his father said, sitting in his favorite chair, reading the newspaper.
A hrrmph resounded from his mother that warned her husband. For as long as he could remember, she made this sound whenever she disagreed with his father. Like an alarm bell, she always went ahead with whatever she and father clashed over.
"Just who should I marry? The girls I grew up with are all happily wed. Saloon women and the widow Harper are not my type. If you can conjure me up a pretty girl, I'd marry her," he said, instantly regretting his words. Because if anyone could find him a wife, his mother would.
She smiled in that famous way of hers that let everyone know she had a secret and was about to spill the beans. Why did it suddenly feel like he had been set up?
From behind her chair, she pulled a newspaper and he saw the headline. The Bride's Bulletin. Men seeking women.
A groan escaped his lips as his chest tightened. She'd hooked him faster than bait on a trotline.
With a snap of the paper, she held up the print. "Oh, I've done better than conjure someone up. I placed an ad in the newspaper for you."
His father dropped his paper and glared at his mother. "You did what?"
"Howard, I'm trying to find our son a wife, so we can have grandkids before they throw dirt on my grave."
Will gritted his teeth, furious she would take matters into her own hands. Yet, because of him, he was the only child she had left. Who did he expect to give her the grandchildren she so desperately wanted?
"You're interfering, Clara. When the good Lord is ready the right person will come along."
Jerking her head to glare at her husband, she said, "And I'll be six feet under."
"Well, at least he'll get some peace then."
Clara gasped and Will started to laugh. While his parents dearly loved one another, often times they were like two banty roosters pecking at one another. But the real argument was about to begin and he needed to step in before it grew serious.
"Howard, how can you say that. I love this boy."
"He's a man. Don't interfere."
A premonition scurried up his spine and Will got the feeling his father's ominous words were too late.
Will scowled at his mother, shaking his head afraid of what he would learn. "Tell me what you've done, Mother."
With another singeing glare to his father, she turned to Will and smiled sweetly. Oh no, he was in serious trouble.
"Look at these letters all addressed to you. Women who answered your ad."
"You mean your ad," he said, frustrated she'd gone so far.
Reaching behind the chair, she held up a stack of mail and he was shocked at the number of ladies who responded to her ad for a wife. If these gals realized who and what they were getting into, every one of them would run the other direction.
"What am I supposed to do with these?"
"Read these letters and decide which one would make you the happiest."
Like a letter would help him determine who to marry.
"Did you read them?" he asked, knowing his mother would not have missed the chance to choose his wife.
Without a doubt, he knew the answer as he stared at her squirming in her chair, trying so hard not to smile. "Of course."
"What do you think?"
A smiled graced her lips as she leaned toward him, her face lighting up as the words poured from her mouth.
"There's the girl named Quinlan. Yes, an odd name, but she's a teacher. And she wants to open a school and the Mckenzie girls - their children are all getting bigger now and this town needs a young, vibrant teacher." Barely able to contain herself, she all but bounced in her chair. "Think of it, son, your wife would be an educated woman."
Like that mattered to him. He'd gotten through school and his book learning just fine. Where he actually experienced life was on the trail chasing evil men and trying to keep other families safe from the tragedy his experienced.
"This would make me so happy. My last days on this earth would be spent with my grandbabies. Rocking them, loving them and watching all your children grow up. After losing David, it would please me to see our name carried on by your son."
A clenching pain gripped his stomach at the thought of the family line not continuing.
Loudly clearing his throat, his father said, "Son, if you haven't noticed, let me tell you, marriage is not easy. Don't let your mother push you into anything you don't want to do."
Will gazed around his family home. Many happy memories of his childhood and his brother resided in this home. So much of his life his parents didn't know about. So much that if they learned the truth, they would be so disappointed in him.
Someday the past would catch up with him, and when it did, if he had a family, maybe that would make up for his mother's disappointment in him. Especially after he let her down concerning his brother David's death.
Maybe this was the right thing to do. Not for himself, but for his mother.
"Quinlan is her name?"
"Yes, it's different but beautiful, just like I'm sure she'll be."
"She's a teacher."
The town did need an educator in the school. The old one had left Zenith, Texas.
What did he have to lose? After all, he was lonely. And he wanted children. The house he built felt empty and his bed even lonelier. Marriage would make his mother happy. Could he protect them and keep them safe?
He hadn't kept David safe.
Why not do something that would please his mother? After the loss he'd given her, didn't she deserve for him to fulfill her wishes and make her happy?
"What do I need to do?"
Springing up from her chair like a seventeen-year-old, instead of fifty, she threw her arms around him. "I'm thrilled and you're going to be so happy. Best of all, we're going to have grandchildren."
Will hugged his mother as he stared at his father, who shook his head at him. "I hope you know what you're doing. You could have to put up with someone like this for the rest of your life."
Will smiled. Sure, his father acted like his mother aggravated him, but without a doubt, they cared for one another and were happy. Now, would his union be the same? Or would this be penance for David's death?
* * *
Quinlan stood on the platform at the train station. Tears streamed down her cheeks. This was not what she wanted, but no one could stop what Madam Wigg had put in motion. This was her fate. She hugged each of her friends, her sisters, goodbye. "Promise you'll write," she said to Phebe.
"I will," she responded holding a hankie to her nose. "As soon as you reach Texas, you write me a letter so I know the Indians didn't get you along the way."
"Nothing is going to happen. I'm more concerned about train robbers," Quinlan said, thinking she couldn't wait to meet an Indian.
For years, she had studying their history, and while most people thought of them as savages, they were here when the pilgrims arrived and somehow the white man took their land from them. It was perfectly normal for them to hate white people, but still she wanted to meet and maybe even visit a village. She only hoped they would allow her to learn about their ways, which fascinated her.
"There is that," Olivia said, ever the practical one of the three and probably the smartest. Whatever man she married would have a full-time job keeping up with her. And that was the part that Quinlan knew she would miss. Watching her friends’ lives change.
Nellie twisted her hands. "We've got to go. As much as we don't want to leave each other, our trains will soon be departing and Madam Wigg will be most upset if we miss our scheduled train."
Quinlan threw her arms around Olivia. "Don't forget me."
"How could I," she said sniffling. Olivia seldom cried, so Quinlan knew she was hurting.
"May you each find happiness and love and have many babies," Quinlan said her voice shaking. The sound of a train whistle pierced the air.
"Love you," Nellie said, walking swiftly toward her future.
Why couldn't Quinlan be as confidant as they seemed?
"Safe travels," Olivia said as she picked up her suitcase and blew them a kiss before she headed to her new life.
Phebe stared at Quinlan. "You going to be okay?"
"Yes, I think so," she said, not really certain what marriage would bring.
"Remember, Will is not your father. Give the man a chance," she whispered against her shoulder as she hugged her one last time.
Trusting a man she'd never met and would soon marry would be hard.
"I'll try. You better go before we both dissolve into a blubbering mess," Quinlan said, the sobs seconds away.
"I hope you find happiness," Phebe said before she turned and hurried down the platform, the smoke from a train swallowing her.
Loneliness washed over her like a tidal wave as Quinlan stood beside the tracks, waiting for the train to arrive that would carry her to her destiny. The sun shone down brightly on her and she prayed this new life would not be a return to her childhood.
* * *
Will watched as the train pulled into the station, his mother, dressed in her finest outfit, stood beside him. His father shifted nervously behind them. What in the hell had he done? Why did he agreed to marry some woman from out of state that he'd never seen? Why did he let his mother guilt him into taking this next step?
Like a fool, he stood there with the bouquet of blue bonnets and Indian paints his mother handpicked for Quinlan, wilting in his hands. The Texas heat could be blistering and flowers didn't exactly last long in the sun. Would his new wife from New York, of all places, enjoy the hot summers?
"Oh my goodness, I can hardly contain myself. Today is your wedding day, and I'm about to bust a gut, I'm so excited."
"Clara, calm down. You don't want to frighten the girl away," his father said in his soothing voice that pacified his mother and sometimes would even relax him.
Dabbing her hankie at her eyes, his mother said, "I'm so happy for you. I'm going to be a blubbering mess all day."
"How can you be happy for our son? You haven't even met the girl yet."
Like a lightning bolt had struck her, his mother turned on his father giving him the evil eye. How would his new wife accept his very trying parents?
"Quinlan, I know, is just going to be perfect. Her letter was the best one of all he received. Not like that girl, Sally, who worked in a saloon."
The engine came to a stop and let off the steam as the bell clanged announcing the train's arrival. Will's heart felt like that engine only it couldn't discharge the pressure and would soon explode.
"Do you see her?"
"How would I know what she looks like," Will said, wishing his mother would put the brakes on her happiness.
"She's going to be beautiful," she said.
Why would a gorgeous woman become a mail-order bride? Wouldn't most women have men clamoring to marry them. Will didn't think a beauty waited him. He would settle for a nice woman who tolerated his mother, because he knew the next thing out of his mother's mouth would be why weren't they pregnant yet.
"Look over there," his father said. "That young woman looks like she's searching for someone. Do you think that's her?"
"Let's go ask," his mother said already in motion. His father clamped his hand on her shoulder and pulled her back.
"No," he said in a firm tone that meant no argument. "Will is going to introduce himself and ask if she is Miss Quinlan. Then the youngsters need a few moments of privacy before Will brings her over to us. Do you understand, Clara?"
She huffed loudly. "Yes, but hurry. I'm anxious to meet my new daughter."
Oh, the woman had gone from being just a daughter-in-law to a daughter and she had yet to be introduced.
"Wait here," Will said grateful to his father for giving him a few moments alone. As he strolled toward the woman with honey blonde hair that hung down the middle of her back, she gazed at him with the greenest eyes he'd ever seen, lashes lowered demurely. If this was Quinlan, she was nothing like what he imagined. Oh no, she was so much better.
The beautiful woman gave him a tentative smile when he walked up to her. Like a tremor from an earthquake, his insides rattled, but he didn't want to appear weak. So he stepped up to her. "Are you Quinlan Clark?"
The lady's full lips turned up in a beaming smile that reached inside his chest and squeeze his lungs. "Yes."
"Will Adams," he said, taking her trembling hand in his. Would this be where their journey began? Somehow it seemed like a monumental moment in his life.
"Nice to meet you," she said, biting her lip.
"Hopefully you had a safe journey," he said.
"Yes. Long and tiring, but very boring."
A grin spread across his face at her comment. "Were you wanting some excitement on the train?"
"Coming across the plains, I hoped I would at least see some Indians or buffalo. All we saw were tumbleweeds."
The woman had no idea what she wished for and he was thankful she'd arrived without any incidents. A tiny little thing, he would need to protect her. "Do you have a trunk?"
"Yes," she said. "The conductor said they should be unloading them soon."
Will glanced over to where his father and mother were yammering at each other and knew his father would not be able to hold his mother much longer.
"See the older couple standing over there talking rapidly?"
"Yes," she said, pushing her luscious curls off her shoulder.
"That's my parents. They wanted to be here to meet you and witness our marriage."
"Oh, how nice," she said, her voice tense.
Already he could see that she had gone from being relaxed to nervous, but then again meeting the family was always nerve-racking. And his especially.
"Before we talk to them, I must warn you, my mother can be a little overbearing. When she becomes too much, please tell me. There's not an evil bone in her body. She just gets a little too enthusiastic and sometimes doesn't think about the other person's thoughts or feelings."
Quinlan's lips drew together in a frown. "We'll both need to be patient with one another. I've not had a mother in years."
Then he realized his mom was sneakier than he ever thought. His mother had chosen her, knowing Quinlan was an orphan. This made perfect sense now—his mother would not need to share her grandchildren with any other grandparents.
Staring down at his petite wife whose full mouth and tempting lips would hit him just about right, he smiled. How lucky could one man get?
"We're not married yet and you may change your mind between here and the courthouse. Let's make a promise to one another right now, that my mother cannot come between us. If she gets to be too much, you'll say something. And I’ll give you my word, as your husband, I will do my best to keep my mother from causing problems between us."
With a tilt of her head, his bride-to-be gave him a reluctant smile. "I have a request of my own. My parents were not a good example of a loving couple. In fact, I have no idea what a happy family life is like. If I don't react like you expect me to, please be patient with me. My family fell apart when I was seven."
What had gone on in her family that caused it to break apart? Yet, he liked how she warned him up front she didn't have good role models. Now, if only he could be the understanding man she obviously needed.
"It's a promise. I'll do my best. But I'm also a man, and you, my dear bride-to-be, are absolutely stunning. We'll take it slow and get to know one another."
A sigh escaped from her full lips. Like a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders, she seemed to relax.
Taking her hand, he placed it in the crook of his arm. "Now, we better go meet my parents, so my poor father can release my mother. He's been holding her back to give us some time."
Quinlan smiled at him and his heart melted. This woman would soon be his wife, which made him the luckiest man alive. Now, he had to safeguard her and not let anything happen to her, like what had happened to David.