And Imagine Matthew Quinn's Surprise When ...
Nowhere, in the Washington Territory …
Matthew Quinn cautiously picked up the bucket of dirty water and carried the sloshing, smelly, vessel to the back porch of the mercantile. Once there he lifted the bucket higher, (careful not to spill) turned his face away in disgust, and dumped the water out. He closed his eyes when the subsequent splat resulted, lest he suffer any back splash, and waited before slowly opening one eye. He sighed in relief that he hadn’t spilled any on his boots, and turned to the door.
When had he become so fastidious? He’d never been this squeamish before he left for college. He’d studied science and doctoring for Pete’s sake! Had his hands in blood and guts up to his elbow at times, so why the aversion to some dirty water? He straightened his spectacles, stopped, and peered over his shoulder at the puddle in the street. Ah, yes … now he remembered ... Germs!
Ever since he read John Snow’s articles on the cholera outbreaks of Broad Street in London, he’d been horrified by them. The diseases, the fevers, the deaths, and of course the worst part, the epidemic proportions! Matthew cringed at the thought and went inside.
He set the bucket down, closed the door, and glanced around the kitchen of his family’s living quarters in the back of the mercantile. Not much had changed since he’d left. His parents had slapped a coat of paint on the place and had the front-sign re-done. Different curtains decorated his old room upstairs, and his mother used new china last night at dinner, but other than that, everything was right as he left it.
Nothing in town seemed to have changed either, in his four years away at school, and had he been gone, say, ten, he had no doubt the town would still be the same. He sighed, moseyed to the front of the store, and stopped up short. Something had changed ...
His mouth went dry, his knees became like jelly, and his gut twisted into a gigantic knot the likes of which he’d not felt in years.
She turned around, a vision of loveliness. “Matthew?”
Matthew’s spectacles slowly slid down his sweat covered nose, as his brain fogged with mixed emotions. How could he have possibly forgotten what this was like? Four years had passed since he’d seen her, and he was still tongue-tied in her presence! It wasn’t until his spectacles almost slid completely off, that he got his wits about him.
He pushed them up into place. “Hello, Char … Charlotte.”
She gave him a dazzling smile. “I heard you came back early from school, but I never did understand why.” She sashayed her way to the counter, her cream-colored dress making a swishing sound as she approached. He fought against a lovesick sigh as he watched her. “Boston is such a lovely city, why would you ever leave?”
He swallowed hard. “Be … Because,” his voice squeaked. “I wanted to come home.”
“To Nowhere?” she asked with a raised brow. “Why Matthew Quinn, what did they teach you in that fancy school of yours? You had a chance to get out of this town and here you are, right back where you started.”
He studied her. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Her chestnut hair and hazel eyes had him mesmerized. She’d filled out during his four year absence, the willow-thin of adolescence blossoming into the woman she’d become. She stood looking at him over the counter, her eyes slowly taking him in, and he wondered what she was thinking.
Clayton Riley …
Matthew’s shoulders slumped. Of course, what else would she be thinking? Not a day went by when the man’s name didn’t leave Charlotte’s lips in some form or fashion. Hadn’t he gotten married recently? Matthew arrived on the afternoon stage only yesterday. His mother had been so occupied cooking his favorite meal she hadn’t much time to catch him up yet. He thought he’d caught some mention of it that morning, but wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy getting fawned over by his mother, not to mention several of her matronly friends, when he went to work. Thankfully, she was preparing lunch, and the matrons who frequented the mercantile in the morning hours had come and gone. Only Charlotte was in the store, alone … with him.
“Has anyone told you what you’ve missed while being away?” Charlotte asked.
He shook himself. Was she trying to make conversation? It was usually the other way around. “No, not really. I got in yesterday. There hasn’t been time and …”
“Oh, well then!” she said as her eyes lit up. “Let me enlighten you as to all the latest happenings.” She leaned against the counter and stared up at him.
Matthew willed himself not to sweat. So what if the January winds howled outside, he’d never been able to remain cool and calm where Charlotte was concerned. “Do tell?”
“Oh yes, I’ll tell!” she laughed.
His eyes widened at the sound. Good Lord! She had to be the most beautiful woman in the world! “Well?” he croaked. “What have you to report?”
She straightened, sighed, and picked at one of her gloves. “Of course you’ve already heard Clayton Riley got married.”
His heart sank. She appeared so forlorn when she said it. “No, I hadn’t.”
She let out a long sigh. “Spencer too, just last week, in fact.”
“Both the Riley brothers are married?” That was news. Clayton and Spencer Riley had been the most eligible bachelors in town for years. Now, both were out of his way! Matthew again smiled, broader this time.
Charlotte noticed and smiled back. “Recently, within a few weeks of each other. Too bad you missed Spencer’s wedding. It was quite nice. And Billy the deputy, you remember him? Well, he married the same day.”
“He did?” Matthew asked and straightened. Three weddings in Nowhere so close together was unheard of! “Who did he marry?”
Charlotte’s eyes darted to the floor. She slowly moved away from him. “Yes,” came out a sad whisper. Matthew saw her shoulders droop for a scant second, before she turned. “Yes, quite a bit of marrying has been going on around here of late, too bad you missed it all.”
“Too bad,” he agreed as he gazed into her eyes. He swallowed, and before he thought to stop himself asked, “What about you, Charlotte, Are you going to get married?” He had to find out! A lot could have happened in the last four years. Who knew how many men came to town in that time and decided to settle? His parents never cared for the Davis family, or to be more specific, Nellie Davis, and so didn’t mention them in their letters. But whom else had they mentioned? Drat it all! He couldn’t remember.
“I’m not sure if I’ll ever marry …”
His head shot up. “What?” he blurted. He’d been so busy trying to remember any mention of new settlers in the area, he wasn’t sure if he heard her right. A miracle in itself, he usually couldn’t pry his eyes or ears from her.
She shrugged, and he noticed the tiniest hint of tears. He studied her, his heart hitching at the thought of Charlotte growing old, alone and unwanted. Unfortunately, what things he had heard since his arrival involved Charlotte, none of them good. He decided he’d judge for himself if she was as bad as his mother said. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked after the Davis family last night at dinner … all that got him was an earful of Charlotte this, and Charlotte that, and this town would be better off without that Charlotte Davis…
She swallowed hard, straightened, and forced a smile. He knew it was forced by the way her jaw tightened. Matthew made a habit of studying every inch of her face, memorizing it every time he was with her as they grew up. A great sadness was now hidden within the tightness around her mouth, the furrow of her brow. He also remembered a great defiance, as if she shouted to the world, No! You’ll never break me! No matter how hard you try! Her one trait that annoyed people the most, but not Matthew. He deemed it a hidden strength of which she drew from when she needed it. Each time her heart was broken …
He’d witnessed Charlotte’s heart break apart piece by piece over the years, and before he went off to school. Her mother did the most damage, filling the girl’s head with ideas of marrying into the Riley family, and belonging to one of the biggest apple farms, if not the biggest in the area. Nellie Davis’s ambition had crushed her daughter’s heart one blow at a time, and Matthew often wondered if she hadn’t pushed Clayton on Charlotte so hard, would her feelings be the same for him? Or, travled elsewhere if left to their own devices?
“Are you planning to attend the Valentine’s dance?” she asked. She walked down the length of the counter and ran a gloved finger along the polished wood as she went.
Matthew’s eyes gravitated to her small waist. Visions of dancing with her in his arms flooded his mind. “I hadn’t thought about it. I’d … I’d quite forgotten about the dance.”
She turned to him, her face void of emotion. “I see.” She reached into her reticule and pulled out a list. Without looking at him, she walked along the counter and handed the paper to him. “Here’s what I need.” She slowly raised her eyes. “It’s nice to have you back, Matthew,” she said softly. She then glanced to the front windows.
He took the list from her as his heart sank. All the fight seemed to have gone out of her. Where could the spitting, fiery, minx he’d left four years ago be hiding? Maybe what his mother said was true, that Charlotte had become a prisoner of her own actions, and now, sad and lonely, she was a far cry from the girl he grew up with. She’d told him last night what sort of gossips the Davis women had become, not to mention conniving and underhanded when it came to getting what they wanted. He was familiar with how Mrs. Davis could be. He’d witnessed her antics all his life. But Charlotte didn’t start to become like her mother until she got old enough to catch the eye of the young men in town. At fourteen she’d been a beauty, and actually quite sweet, even though she had a habit of speaking out of turn, and didn’t hesitate to fight for something she wanted or believed in. It was her strength, and he remembered it well. But what happened to quell her fighting spirit?
“I’ll get these things for you, Charlotte” he said gently. “Wait right here.” His heart went out to her. For the first time, Matthew noticed her melancholy, and realized she held something in her eyes he hoped never to see. Regret.
Matthew decided to find out if what his mother said about Charlotte was true, and anything else mentioned regarding the Davis family. He needed to find the Charlotte he knew. She had to be there, she just had to! After all, she was the reason he came home.
* * *
Charlotte watched as Matthew climbed a stepladder to get a jar off a high shelf. He’d gotten taller since she last saw him, a lot taller. She remembered when they were the same height, and tried not to laugh as she recalled the time she’d punched him in the nose. He didn’t cry out, he didn’t do anything except stare at her, his fists at his sides, until finally, he just walked away. She’d given him a bloody nose and Abbey told her the next day he’d been furious, but that he wasn’t about to hit a silly girl. He wouldn’t be a man if he did, and besides, his pa would tan his hide if he found out about such a thing.
She studied him as he busied himself behind the counter to fill her mother’s order. His shoulders had become much broader, his hair darker. A dark blonde when he left, it was now a golden brown, still thick and with a slight wave. She remembered having her hands in it while playing in the creek down at Mr. Johnson’s swimming hole. She’d tried to dunk him after he called her a silly name. He dunked her instead, and so she’d taken two fistfuls and pulled him underwater. He in turn had grabbed her ankles and yanked her feet out from under her …
“What are you smiling at, Charlotte?”
Charlotte glanced up. Mrs. Quinn, Matthew’s mother, stood on the other side of the counter and stared at her. “Nothing. Just thinking.” She approached the counter and stole another glance at Matthew’s new muscular physic. He wasn’t the gangly boy who went off to Boston four years ago. No, Matthew Quinn may have left Nowhere a boy, but he’d most definitely come back a man.
A very handsome man …
“Have you started on a dress for the Valentine dance, Charlotte?” Mrs. Quinn asked.
“Yes, Abbey and I both have. I’m making my own this year.”
“Well now, isn’t that nice. How does Abbey like being married?” Mrs. Quinn asked as she began to wrap some of Charlotte’s purchases in brown paper. Matthew hopped off the ladder and handed her a bottle of hair tonic.
Charlotte found herself staring at his hands. “She’s adjusting to it. Billy and daddy get along fine, but …”
Mrs. Quinn leaned forward. “But?”
Charlotte took a deep breath. “Mother … she hasn’t adjusted to Abbey’s marriage yet.”
“Oh, I see.” Mrs. Quinn smirked.
Charlotte caught sight of her curled lip, and turned away.
Matthew swallowed hard. He decided, as he searched for a bottle of Professor Pomadorie’s Hair Tonic, to ask Charlotte to the Valentine’s dance. From the sounds of things, no one else would escort her, which gave him the perfect opportunity.
She turned to him, her face softened. “Yes?”
“I was wondering … if you don’t happen to … have an escort to the dance…”
Mrs. Quinn’s eyes narrowed at his stammering just as Mrs. Riley burst through the mercantile’s doors. “She’s here!”
Charlotte and Matthew spun to her. Leona Riley, Clayton and Spencer’s mother, grabbed the counter to catch her breath. “Land sakes! I got the date wrong! She’s arriving now, this very minute!”
Mrs. Quinn gasped in delight and clapped her hands together. “Oh, Leona! How exciting!” She turned to Matthew and hugged him. He let go a small grunt as she crushed him to her chest, and eyed an equally confused Charlotte.
“Oh, just think! Another wedding!” Mrs. Riley said gaily.
“Wedding?” Charlotte choked out. “Who’s wedding?”
Matthew managed to peel his mother off him. “Yes, who’s getting married now?”
The matrons faced him, both with equally enormous grins. “You are!” they said in perfect unison.
Matthew took a step back and stumbled. “What?!”
“Now before you go getting upset, hear your mother out, dear.” Mrs. Riley consoled.
Matthew grabbed the counter if for nothing else, to squelch the sudden urge to wring his mother’s neck. “Mother? What have you done?”
“Matthew, you know I love you …” she began. “And after all, if things worked out so well for Clayton and Spencer …”
Charlotte gasped. “You got Matthew a mail order bride?”
Mrs. Quinn turned to her. “Yes, but this is none of your business, Charlotte.”
Charlotte’s mouth opened in shock. “Excuse me? In about ten minutes the whole town will know.”
“Only if you go around telling everyone!” she snapped back.
“Mother, I’ll ask you not talk to Charlotte that way.” Matthew interjected.
“Oh Matthew, you stay out of this,” his mother said as she waved him away.
“Stay out of it? You ordered me a mail order bride without me telling me, and you’re asking me to stay out of it?”
“I was talking to Charlotte,” she said in a huff.
Charlotte gasped again. “Well, I never …” She turned to Matthew. “I’d like my purchases, please.”
He gathered them up and was about to hand them to her, when he remembered what he was doing before Mrs. Riley burst through the door. “Charlotte, may I …” he looked his mother right in the eye before turning back to her. “Escort you to the dance?”
“Matthew!” his mother cried. “You are not taking that … that … I got you a mail order bride!”
“Without asking me!” he retorted.
Mrs. Quinn spun to her friend. “Leona! Do something!”
“Oh, dear! My boys didn’t make such a fuss!” Her eyes darted back and forth in recollection. “Well… maybe a little… but they understood what drives a mother to do these things.”
“What? Have you gone out of your mind?” Matthew’s voice cracked on the word mind, which made him wonder. Did his mother and Mrs. Riley not think he had one? “I appreciate the thought, but, you just can’t go ordering a mail order bride without consulting me first.”
“Matthew, dear,” Mrs. Riley began. “You might be upset now, but these things all come out right in the end. Why, by the time you’re married, I’m sure you’ll be head over heels in love!”
Matthew’s mouth flopped open. “In love?”
Charlotte slowly backed away from the heated argument. She’d had quite enough at this point. Then …
“Heaven only knows if this town has any decent women left in it to marry!” Mrs. Quinn added. “Except maybe Charlotte here, but one can hardly call her de …” She clamped her lips in a hard line. “I … I didn’t mean …”
“Mother …” Matthew warned.
“I’m sure you did mean it.” Charlotte said. “I know what you think of me, Mrs. Quinn.” She turned to leave.
“Wait!” Matthew called after her. He ran out from behind the counter to where she stood. “Charlotte, my mother didn’t mean what she said.”
She looked up at him, her eyes full of regret. “You’ve been away a long time, Matthew.” She let go a heavy sigh. “Your mother’s right.”
Matthew stared down at her in disbelief. “What?”
“Every town has their Harpy, Matthew,” she told him then set her eyes on Mrs. Quinn. “I guess that makes me the Harpy of Nowhere.”
“Charlotte, I did not call you a Harpy.” Mrs. Quinn stated.
“Enough!” Matthew bellowed. He glanced from one face to the next. “Women!” He turned to Charlotte. “You! You’re going to the dance with me.”
Charlotte’s face lit up.
“I mean, may I escort you to the dance?” He then spun on his mother. “And you! I don’t care who this woman is you thought I needed. I am perfectly capable of picking out my own bride! So whomever she is, send her back!”
The door to the mercantile closed with a loud thud.
Everyone turned. A beautiful girl stood in front of it, a satchel in her hand. She swallowed hard and gave Matthew a tentative smile, and why not after witnessing such a tirade? “Ma … Matthew Quinn, I presume?”
Matthew stepped toward her. “Yes …” She was stunning, and he couldn’t help admiring her beauty as she shivered by the door. But was it from the cold, or his temper tantrum?
“I’m Seq … Rose. Rose Smith. Your mail order bride.”
He froze, speechless, and stared at her like some kind of idiot. He sensed, more than saw the satisfied smirk on his mother’s face, as Mrs. Riley gasped in delight.
Charlotte looked the girl up and down, glanced to Matthew, and headed for the door. “It appears you won’t be escorting me after all, Matthew.” With that, she walked right up to Miss Smith and said, “Welcome to Nowhere.” She then stormed out of the mercantile, and quite possibly, out of Matthew’s life, forever.