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Christine Rimmer New York Time Bestselling Author
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Christine Rimmer - New York Times Bestselling Author

Stranded With the Groom

Chapter One
by Christine Rimmer

“A mail-order bride,” Katie Fenton muttered under her breath. “What were they thinking?”

In Thunder Canyon, Montana, it was the first Saturday after New Years—and that meant it was Heritage Day.

The annual celebration, held in the big reception room of Thunder Canyon’s sturdy stone-and-brick town hall, included rows of brightly decorated booths, some serving food and others displaying endless examples of local arts and crafts. There was always a pie auction and a quilt raffle and, as evening drew on, a potluck supper and dancing late into the night.

Also, this year, the Thunder Canyon Historical Society had decided to put on a series of historical reenactments. In the morning, they’d presented the local legend of the great Thunder Bird, a mythical figure who took the form of a man every spring and met his mortal mate on sacred ground. According to Native American lore, their joyous reunion caused the spring rains to fall, the leaves and flowers to emerge and the grass to grow lush and green.

At two in the afternoon, there was the discovery of gold in 1862 at Grasshopper Creek—complete with rocks the size of baseballs, sprayed gold to look like huge nuggets.

And now, at four-thirty, it was time for the mail-order bride—played by Katie—arriving by train to meet and marry a man she’d never seen before.

Katie stood huddled on the narrow stage at the west end of the hall. Perched on a makeshift step behind a rickety cardboard mock-up of a steam engine and a red caboose, she kept her shoulders hunched and her head down so she couldn’t be seen over the top of the fake train.

Utterly miserable—Katie hated, above all, to make a spectacle of herself—she stared at the door hole cut in the caboose. On cue, she was supposed to push it open and emerge to meet her “groom.”

Outside, the wind howled. A storm was blowing in. Though the local weatherman had promised nothing much worse than a few flurries, most of the Heritage Day crowd had departed the hall the past half hour or so and headed for the safety of their homes.

Katie herself was more than ready to call it a day.

But unfortunately, this year for the Heritage Day revels, a local merchant had come up with the bright idea of providing free beer on tap. The beer booth was big hit. Certain of the citizenry had been knocking it back since eleven or so. They couldn’t have cared less that the predicted flurries seemed to be shaping up into a full-blown blizzard. They were too busy having a grand old time.

Out on the main floor, someone let out a whistle. Katie heard the impatient stomping of heavy feet on the old, well-polished hardwood floorboards.

“C’mon, where’s the bride?”

“Get on with it. We want the bride!”

“The bride!”

“The bride! Give us the bride!”

Katie cast a desperate glance toward the tiny wing area at the edge of the stage where sweet old Emelda Ross, one of the few members of the historical society who’d yet to go home, hovered over an ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder.

“The bride, the bride!”

“Wahoo, let’s see her!”

Katie gave Emelda a shaky nod. Emelda turned on the tape and two loud train whistles erupted: her cue.

Sucking in a big breath and letting it out slowly, Katie tugged on her 1880s-style merino wool frock, adjusted her bonnet and pushed open the cardboard door.

The beer drinkers erupted into a chorus of catcalls and stomping.

“The librarian!” one of them shouted. “Hey, the librarian is the mail-order bride!”

Another let out a whoop. “Hey, Katie! Welcome to Thunder Canyon!”

“We love you, Katie!”

“If your groom stands you up, I’ll take you, Katie!”

Lovely.

With care, so as not to knock over the train, Katie emerged to face the crowd. She smoothed her dress again, her nervous hands shaking. How, she wondered miserably, had she let herself get roped into this one?

With great effort, she forced a wobbly smile and waved at the beer drinkers, who obligingly clapped and stomped all the louder. She stared out over the seventy or so grinning faces—many of them looking downright woozy by then—and longed to be anywhere but there.

It was all dear old Ben Saunders’s fault. The high school history teacher had been the one to propose the mail-order bride reenactment. The historical society went wild for the idea—all except for Katie, who was lukewarm on the concept at best.

Since most of Katie’s fellow society members were well into their forties at least and the other two younger ones were already slated to play the legendary Thunder Bird and his mortal love, it was decided that Katie should play the bride.

She had tried to say no, but who listened? No one, that’s who. And now, here she was, alone in front of the cardboard train, a ludicrous spectacle for the Heritage Day beer drinkers to whistle and holler at.

Ben himself was supposed to be her groom. Unfortunately, the history teacher had awakened that morning with terrible stomach cramps. He’d been rushed to Thunder Canyon General for an emergency appendectomy. And then, when the sky darkened and the wind came up and the first snowflakes began to fall, pretty much everyone from the society except Emelda had decided to go home. They made the plans and now Katie stood on the stage alone, shaking with nerves and stuck with the follow-through.

Since her “groom” was in the hospital, she’d almost succeeded in canceling this ridiculous display. But then, a half hour ago, an out-of-towner named Justin Caldwell had agreed to step in and take Ben’s part. Caldwell was a business associate of Caleb Douglas—Caleb being a local mover and shaker who owned half the property for miles around and also happened to be a second father to Katie. Caleb had ribbed the stranger into playing the groom. The poor guy resisted at first, but when Caleb kept after him, he couldn’t refuse.

And speaking of Justin Caldwell…

Where was he?

Frantically, Katie scanned the noisy crowd for her impromptu pretend groom. Good gravy. In a moment, one of the drunken men down on the floor would be staggering up to take his place.

But no—there he was.

He stood off to the left, at the edge of the crowd, wearing the ill-fitting old-time garb—complete with silly red suspenders and clunky nineteenth century-style boots—intended for the pot-bellied Ben Saunders. Katie met the stranger’s piercing blue eyes and a crazy little thrill shivered through her. Even in the ridiculous outfit, the guy still somehow managed to look absolutely gorgeous. She felt the grateful smile as it quivered across her mouth. If she had to make a fool of herself, at least it would be with the best-looking man in the hall. And beyond being handsome, there was the added attraction that he appeared to be sober.

“The groom!” someone shouted. “Where’s the damn groom?”

“Right here,” Justin Caldwell answered easily in a deep, firm voice. He took off his floppy felt hat and waved it high for all of them to see.

“Get up there and claim your bride!”

“Yeah, man. Don’t keep her waiting!”

Justin Caldwell obliged. He mounted the steps at the side of the stage and came toward Katie, his long strides purposeful and confident. When he reached her, he gallantly swept off the floppy hat a second time. Her over taxed heart raced faster still.

And then, of all things, he reached for her hand. Before she could jerk it away, he brought it to his full-lipped mouth.

Katie stood stunned, staring into those gleaming blue eyes of his, every nerve in her body cracking and popping, as he placed a tender kiss on the back of her hand.

The crowd went wild.

“That’s the way you do it!”

“Oh, yeah!”

“Way to go!”

His lips were so warm—and his hand firm and dry. Her hand, she knew, was clammy and shaking. Gulping, Katie carefully pulled her fingers free.

Caleb’s business partner nodded and put his absurd hat back on. He looked so calm. As if he did this sort of thing every day. He leaned in closer, bringing with him the subtle scent of expensive aftershave. “Now, what?” he whispered in that velvety voice of his.

“Uh, well, I…” Katie gulped again. She just knew her face was flaming red.

“Kiss ‘er!” someone shouted. “Lay a big, smackin’ one right on ‘er!”

Everyone applauded the idea, causing Katie to silently vow that next year, under no circumstances, would there be free beer.

“Yeah,” someone else hollered. “A kiss!”

“A big, wet, juicy one! Grab ‘er and give it to ‘er!”

Justin Caldwell, bless him, did no such thing. He did lift a straight raven-black eyebrow. “The natives are becoming restless,” he said low. “We’d better do something...”

Do something. His soft words echoed in her frazzled mind. “The, uh…ceremony…”

He smiled then, as if mildly amused. “Of course.” He suggested, “And for that we would need…” He let his voice trail off, giving her an opportunity to fill in the blank.

She did. “The preacher.” Her throat locked up. She coughed to clear it. “Uh. Right.”

“Get on with it!” Someone yelled.

“Yeah! Get a move on. Let’s see the rest of the show!”

Outside, a particularly hard gust of wind struck the high-up windows and made them rattle. Nobody seemed to notice. They kept laughing and clapping.

“So where is this preacher?” her “groom” inquired.

“Um, well…” Katie wildly scanned the crowd again. Where was Andy Rickenbautum? The balding, gray-haired retired accountant was supposed to step up and declare himself a circuit preacher and “marry” them, but Katie couldn’t see him among the crowd. Evidently, like most of the historical society members, he’d headed home.

Maybe Caleb, who’d gotten such a kick out of the whole thing, could help out and play Andy’s part….

But no. Caleb appeared to be gone, too. And Adele, his wife, who had taken in a teenaged Katie and raised her as her own, was nowhere to be seen, either. Now what?

At the Heritage Museum several blocks away, the society had set up a wedding “reception,” complete with finger food and beverages and an opportunity for folks to see up-close the artifacts of the life the mail-order bride and her groom would have lived. The idea was to lure everyone over there behind the “bride” and “groom,” in the museum’s prized refurbished buckboard carriage. They’d all enjoy the snacks, look around—hopefully make a donation—and then head on back to the hall for the potluck supper and dancing that would follow.

But without the fake wedding first, how could they hold a pretend reception?

A couple of the beer drinkers had figured that out. One of them yelled, “Hey! Where’s the preacher?”

“Yeah! We need the dang preacher to get this thing moving!”

What a disaster, Katie thought. It was definitely time to give up and call the whole thing off.

Katie forced herself to face the crowd. “Ahem. Excuse me. I’m afraid there’s no one to play the preacher and we’re just going to have to—”

A resonant voice from the back of the crowd cut her off. “Allow me to do the honors.” Every head in the room swiveled toward the sound. The source, an austere-looking bearded fellow, announced, “I’d be proud to unite such a handsome couple in the sacred bonds of matrimony.”

Someone snickered. “And just who the hell are you?”

The tall fellow, all dressed in black, made his way to the front of the crowd. He mounted the steps and came to stand with Katie and her “groom.” “The Reverend Josiah Green, at your service, miss,” he intoned. He dipped his head at Katie, then turned to Justin. “Sir.”

Someone broke into a laugh. “Oh, yeah. Reverend. That’s a good one….”

“He’s perfect,” someone else declared. “He even looks like a real preacher.”

Looking appropriately grave, the “reverend” bowed to the crowd. The usual whistles and catcalls followed. “Reverend” Green turned his gaze to the spindle-legged antique table a few feet from the cardboard train. “I see you have everything ready.” On the table, courtesy of the historical society, waited a Bible, a valuable circa-1880 dip pen and matching inkwell and a copy of an authentic late-nineteenth century marriage license.

Emelda, smiling sweetly, emerged from the wings. A smattering of applause greeted her as she got the Bible and handed it to the “reverend.”

“Ahem,” said the “reverend.” “If you’ll stand here. And you here…” Katie, Justin and Emelda moved into the positions Mr. Green indicated.

The man in black opened the old Bible. A hush fell over the crowd as he instructed, “Will the bride and groom join hands?” Caldwell removed his hat. He dropped it to the stage floor, took Katie’s hand and gave her an encouraging smile. She made herself smile back and didn’t jerk away, in spite of the way his touch caused a tingling all through her, a sensation both embarrassing and scarily exciting.

The fake preacher began, “We are gathered here together…”

It was so strange, standing there on the narrow wooden stage with the cardboard train behind them and the wind howling beyond the stone walls as the pretend reverend recited the well-known words of the marriage ceremony.

The rowdy crowd stayed quiet. And the words themselves were so beautiful. Green asked if there was anyone present who saw any reason that Justin and Katie should not be joined. No one made a sound. If not for the wind, you could have heard a feather whispering its way to the floor. Green said, “Then we shall proceed…”

And Katie and the stranger beside her exchanged their pretend vows. When the “reverend” said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” Katie had to gulp back tears.

Really, this whole weird situation was making her way too emotional.

“You may kiss the bride.”

Oh, God. The kiss…

It hadn’t seemed so bad when it was only good old Ben. But Justin Caldwell was another story. He was just so good-looking, so exactly like the kind of man any woman would want to kiss.

Truth was, Katie wouldn’t mind kissing him. Not at all. Under different circumstances.

Maybe. If they ever came to really know each other…

Oh, why was she obsessing over this? The final vow-sealing kiss was part of the program. It wouldn’t be much of a pretend wedding without it.

Almost over, Katie silently promised herself as Caldwell turned to face her. With a small, tight sigh, she lifted her chin. Pressing her eyes shut and pursing up her mouth, she waited for her “groom” to lean down and give her a quick, polite peck.

The peck didn’t happen. Warily, she opened her right eye to a slit. Caldwell was looking down at her, apparently waiting for her to look at him. When he saw she was peeking, one corner of that full mouth of his quirked up and he winked at her.

A ridiculous giggle forced its way up in her throat and almost got away from her. She gulped it back, straightened her head and opened both eyes. At the same time as she was controlling her silly urge to laugh, the man before her reached out his hand. He did it so slowly and carefully, she didn’t even flinch.

He took the end of the bow that tied her bonnet under her chin. One little tug and the bow fell away.

Gently, he guided the bonnet from her head. Her brown curls, which she’d hastily shoved in beneath the hat, fell loose to her shoulders. Justin—all of a sudden, she found she was mentally calling him by his first name—tossed the hat to Emelda and then, with tender, careful fingers, he smoothed her hair.

Oh, God. Her throat had gone tight. She felt as if she would cry again. This pretending to get married was darned hard on her nerves—or maybe she had a little natural-born performer in her, after all. Maybe she was simply “getting into” her part.

Their formerly boisterous audience remained pin-drop quiet. How did people in the theater put it? The phrase came to her. She and Justin had the crowd in the palms of their hands….

Justin braced a finger under her chin and she took his cue, lifting her mouth for him.

His dark head descended and his lips—so gently—covered hers.

That did it. The Heritage Day revelers burst into wild applause, sharp whistles, heavy stomping and raucous catcalls.

Katie hardly even heard them. She was too wrapped up in Justin’s kiss. It was a kiss that started out questioning and moved on to tender and from there to downright passionate.

Oh, my goodness! Did he know how to kiss or what? She grabbed onto his broad, hard shoulders and kissed him back for all she was worth.

When he finally pulled away, she stared up at him, dazed. He had those blue, blue eyes. Mesmerizing eyes. She could drown in those eyes and never regret being lost….

“Ahem,” said the “reverend,” good and loud, gazing out over the audience with a look of stern disapproval until they quieted again. “There remains the documentation to attend to.”

Katie blinked and collected herself, bringing a hand up and smoothing her hair. Justin turned to face Josiah Green, who had crossed to the spindle-legged table. He picked up the old pen and dipped it in the ink and expertly began filling out the fake marriage license. “That’s Katie…?”

“Fenton.”

“Speak up, young lady.”

“Katherine Adele Fenton.” She said her whole name that time, nice and clear, and then she spelled it for him.

“And Justin…?”

“Caldwell.” He spelled his name, too.

They acted it all out as if it were the real thing, filling in all the blanks, signing their names. When the “reverend” called for another witness besides Emelda, one of the guys from down on the floor jumped right up onto the stage and signed where Josiah Green pointed.

When the last blank line had been filled in, Green expertly applied the sterling silver rocker blotter. Then he held up the license for all to see. “And so it is that yet another young and hopeful couple are happily joined in holy wedlock.”

As the clapping and stomping started up again, Emelda stepped forward. She waited, looking prim and yet indulgent, her wrinkled hands folded in front of her, until the noise died down. Then she announced that, weather permitting, there was to be a reception at the Heritage Museum over on Elk Avenue. “Everyone is welcome to attend. Help yourself to the goodies—and don’t forget that donation box. We count on all of you to make the museum a success. Just follow the bride and groom in their authentic buckboard carriage.”

Evidently, the crowd found that suggestion too exciting to take standing still. They surged up onto the stage and surrounded the small wedding party, jostling and jumping around, knocking over the cardboard train and almost upsetting the antique table with its precious load of vintage writing supplies. Laughing and shouting, they tugged and coaxed and herded Katie and Justin down the stage steps, across the main floor and out into the foyer.

Katie laughed and let herself be dragged along. By then, the crazy situation had somehow captured her. The day’s events had begun to seem like some weird and yet magical dream. Her lips still tingled from the feel of Justin’s mouth on hers. And she was pleased, she truly was, that her little reenactment, skirting so close to disaster, had ended up a great success.

In the foyer, the crowd surged straight for the double doors that opened directly onto the covered wooden sidewalk of Old Town’s Main Street. They pushed the doors wide and a blinding gust of freezing wind and snow blew in, making everyone laugh all the louder.

“Brrrr. It’s a cold one.”

“Yep. She’s really movin’ in.”

“Gonna be one wild night, and that’s for certain.”

The snow swirled so thick, the other side of Main Street was nothing more than a vague shadow through the whiteness. The horse, a palomino gelding, and the buckboard were there, waiting, the reins thrown and wrapped around one of the nineteenth-century-style hitching posts that ran at intervals along Main at the edge of the sidewalk, bringing to mind an earlier time.

Katie herself had requested the horse, whose name was Buttercup. The mare belonged to Caleb. He kept a fine stable of horses out at the family ranch, the Lazy D. A sweet-natured, gentle animal, Buttercup was getting along in years—and, boy, did she look cold. Icicles hung from her mouth. She glanced toward the crowd and snorted good and loud, as if to say, Get me out of this. Now…

Really, maybe they ought to slow down here. The snow did look pretty bad.

“Um, I think that we ought to…” She let the sentence die. She’d always had a too-soft voice. And no one was listening, anyway.

The revelers herded her and Justin into the old open, two-seater carriage. It creaked and shifted as it took their weight.

“Use the outerwear and the blankets under the seat!” Emelda shouted from back in the doorway to the hall foyer. A frown had deepened the creases in her brow. Maybe she was having her doubts about this, too.

But then Emelda put on a brave smile and waved and the wind died for a moment. Really, it was only two blocks west and then three more northeast to the museum. And, according to the weather reports, the storm was supposed to blow itself out quickly.

It should be okay.

Justin brushed the snow from a heavy ankle-length woolen coat—a tightly fitted one with jet buttons down the front and a curly woolen ruff at the neck. He helped her into it, then put on the rough gray man’s coat himself. There was a Cossack-style hat for her that matched the ruff at her neck. No hat for Justin, and he’d left the silly, floppy one back in the hall. But he didn’t seem to mind. There were heavy gloves for both of them.

They shook out the pile of wool blankets and wrapped up in them. Justin pulled on his gloves and Josiah Green handed him the reins.

“Bless you, my children,” Green intoned, as if the marriage vows he’d just led them through had been for real.

“Thanks,” Justin muttered dryly. “Looks like we’ll need it.” He glanced at Katie. “Okay…” He had a you-got-us-into-this kind of look on his handsome face. “Where to?”

“If you want, I’ll be glad to take the reins.”

“I can handle it. Where to?”

Even if he didn’t know what he was doing, it should be all right, she thought. Buttercup was patient and docile as they come. “Straight ahead. Then you’ll turn right on Elk, about three blocks down.”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

She forced herself to raise her voice and repeated the instructions.

Justin shook the reins and clicked his tongue and Buttercup started walking. Her bridle, strung with bells, tinkled merrily as they set off, the beer-sodden townsfolk cheering them on.

The wind rose again, howling, and the snow came down harder.

A half a block later, the thick, swirling flakes obscured the Hall and the knot of cheering rowdies behind them. A minute or two after that, Katie couldn’t hear their voices. All at once, she and this stranger she’d just pretended to marry were alone in a whirling vortex of white.

Katie glanced over her shoulder. She saw nothing but swirling snow and the shadows of the buildings and cars on either side of Main.

The snow fell all the harder. It beat at them, borne by the hard-blowing wind. Katie huddled into the blankets, her cheekbones aching with the cold.

Buttercup plodded on, the snow so thick that when Katie squinted into it, she could barely see the horse’s sleek golden rump. She turned to the man beside her. He seemed to sense her gaze on him. He gave her a quick, forced kind of smile—his nose was Rudolph-red, along with his cheeks and chin and ears—and then swiftly put his focus back on the wall of white in front of them.

For a split second, she spied a spot of red to the side—the fire hydrant at the corner of Elk and Main. Wasn’t it? “Turn right! Here!” Katie shouted it out good and loud that time. Justin tugged the reins and the horse turned the corner.

They passed close to the fire hydrant. Good. This was the right way. And as long as they were on Elk Avenue now, they’d literally run into the museum—a sprawling red clapboard building that had started out its existence as the Thunder Canyon School. It sat on a curve in the street, where Elk Avenue made a sharp turn due east.

The palomino mare slogged on into the white. By then, Katie couldn’t see a thing beyond the side rails of the buckboard and Buttercup’s behind.

Good Lord. Were they lost? It was beginning to look that way.

Hungry for reassurance, Katie shouted over the howling wind, “We are still on Elk Avenue, aren’t we?”

Justin shouted back, “I’m from out of town, remember? Hate to tell you, but I haven’t got a clue.”

 

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