With his jaw locked and his temples pounding, Seth turned his mount over to Russ, and after splashing water on his face, planted his hat on his head and made his way to his cabin. Meeting her in his office would be the best thing for everyone.
It was there, at his desk, that he got the first glimpse of her. Frowning, for it was a perplexing sight, he pushed his chair back and stood to get a better look out the window. Mirth was a good feeling, and when it bubbled up the back of his throat, he let it out. This he had to see in person.
Leaning in the open doorway, shadowed by the overhang, Seth watched the wagon roll to a stop several yards away. A chuckle still tickled his throat, and he covered it with a cough as people started gathering, catching their first glimpses of his wife.
She was holding a once-fancy umbrella the wind had reduced into a misshapen frame of sticks waving several haphazard miniature flags, and her hair was bushed out as if a porcupine sat on her head. The skirt flapping around her ankles sent up puffs of dust as she climbed down, aided by Ben Cutter, who gestured toward the cabins. Throwing her shoulders back, she started walking across the hard-packed ground.
Seth was biting the inside of his cheek, for she certainly looked the worse for wear, but then a frown formed, tugging hard on his brows. He didn’t remember her having a limp. Then again, they hadn’t spent more than a couple hours together, and most of that time had been used up with her father convincing Seth to say I do.
* * *
Millie’s backside was numb and her legs were stiff, to the point every step had her wondering if she’d become a walking pincushion. But head up, she started directly toward the man she knew to be Seth Parker.
He was the one smiling.
No, not smiling...smirking.
Holding in a great bout of laughter, she’d bet.
At her expense.
Frazzled, tired, weather-beaten and sore, she marched onward. Well, limped. The heel had broken off her boot back in Tulsa. Five days ago. On the other side of the world. For the first time in her life she felt as ornery as Rosemary.
A gust of wind caught her parasol, and this time Millie let it go. There was nothing left of it, anyway. People were gathering around, but she couldn’t care less. She needed a bath, a cup of tea and a bed. In that order.
Never in all her born days could she have imagined what it was like traveling in a buckboard wagon with no canopy, across land that was little more than a desert, with two men who ate beans for every meal.
Beans with no ginger. Everyone knew ginger helped eliminate human gases produced when people ate a lot of beans.
She hobbled onto the boardwalk, and without a pause in the clip-thud of her uneven footwear, she pointed toward the door behind her supposed husband. “Is that our house?”
The grin he held back made her jaw sting as her teeth clenched. She ignored it, and him, and crossed the threshold.
A rusted, mini parlor stove, a crude table with two chairs, a tall cupboard, two doors and a ladder leading to an open area overhead... The open door on the right showed a desk, so she went left.
“That’s Russ’s room.”
The stabbing sensation between her shoulder blades stopped her movements. With only one heel, standing straight was impossible, so, as crooked as a scrub oak, she spun around. “Who is Russ?”
“Corporal Kemper,” Seth said. “My assistant.”
“He lives with us?”
“No, he lives with me.”
Millie pulled in air through her nose until her lungs were full all the way to her chin, but it didn’t help. Rosemary would have an opinion on that, but Millie really didn’t. Letting the air out, she asked, “Where will I live?”
Her last nerve was gone, and she really didn’t know what to do about it. Not that there was a whole lot she could do. Between the train and wagon rides, her well of self-encouragement had gone dry. Finding the fortitude to pretend to be Rosemary was impossible. Yet she was here, had arrived and needed to regain her composure to make it through the next three months. Taking another breath seemed to be her only option. So she did that. Long and deep.
Mr. Cutter and Mr. Winston chose that moment to appear at the door with two of her trunks. Both men had done all they could to make the unpardonable journey across the most desolate land in the nation as comfortable as possible—despite their predictable but unfortunate reactions to the beans.
“Where do you want these, Major?” Mr. Cutter asked.
Seth moved away from the door, stepping into the room, which made the tiny space ten times smaller. She didn’t budge. She remained standing next to the little stove, which emitted a scent of creosote. Her nostrils would never be the same. They seemed to thrive on obnoxious smells now.