Read The Bridal Veil Online

Authors: Alexis Harrington

Tags: #historical romance, #mailorder bride

The Bridal Veil



Alexis Harrington

Copyright © by Alexis
Harrington, 2002

Smashwords Edition

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Columbia River Gorge,

April 1880

Have you come a far piece,

Emily Cannon turned her eyes from the
view beyond the sternwheeler’s window to look at the rotund man
sitting on the bench seat across from her. He’d been trying to
engage her in conversation ever since she boarded in The Dalles.
She had done her best to discourage him but her short replies and
near-rudeness had not quelled his interest. Faint apprehension
began to grow in her chest.

Even though it was a cool, gray
morning, he mopped perspiration from his florid, beefy face with a
large, dirty handkerchief, bumping his bowler back to the crown of
his head in the process.

Yes, from

He looked impressed.
“Chicago! Say, I spent some time there, oh, about ten-eleven years
ago.” He chuckled, and wiggled his eyebrows at Emily in a way that
she found extremely vulgar. “I had me a hot time there, I can tell
you. Or maybe I
tell a lady.” He slapped his hammy thigh and
laughed harder.

Emily clenched her back teeth and
glanced around, looking for an empty seat. But the boat was filled
to capacity and her only chance to get away from this dreadful man
would be to go outside, where rain poured down on the

I’m sure the city looks
quite different, then, sir, since you last saw it. We had a fire
nine years ago. A four-by-one-mile area burned.”

You don’t say.”

A great many homes and
businesses were lost. Lives were lost as well.” She sighed slightly
and turned her head to look out the window again. “Or

The man extended a pudgy hand with
sausagelike fingers. “Allow me to introduce myself, ma’am. I’m Earl
Pettit. I travel these parts selling nails and fence wire. If you
need it, Pettit can get it. Har-har-har!”

With secret reluctance, she extended
her gloved hand. “How nice to meet you, Mr. Pettit,” she lied. “I
am Miss—Mrs.—I am Emily Cannon.”

And you’re on your way to
Fairdale. What takes you that way?” His knee brushed hers and she
pulled away, pointedly rearranging her skirts.

Disturbed by the man’s
increasing, and unwanted, familiarity, Emily groped around for an
answer that would put Earl Pettit in his place. She was traveling
alone, something respectable women did only when absolutely
necessary. She knew very well how she must be perceived by him, a
man, clearly
gentleman, and one who had not taken her subtle hints that she did
not wish to continue this conversation. A gentleman would have read
her cues of civil but short replies and disturbed her no further.
“I’m meeting my husband there.”

So there’s a Mr.

My husband,” she

Well, that’s a
disappointment. Of course—a fine lady like yourself wouldn’t be
unattached. But I was hoping to get to know you better.”

Emily gave him a wan smile but said
nothing more, for fear that she’d give away how frightened and
nervous she truly was. Turning back to the window, she watched the
slate-gray river churning alongside the steamboat’s

It hadn’t been a lie that she’d told
Mr. Pettit. But not exactly the truth, either. She’d come two
thousand miles to marry a man she’d never once laid eyes upon, a
man who was expecting another woman, and she had no guarantee that
he would be any different than this crude traveling salesman, with
his garish brown-and-red checked suit that was shiny at the knees
and stained with who knew what.

Hope, fear, and misgiving over her
decision had been at war in her heart for the entire week it had
taken to reach Oregon. Just as she could not escape Mr. Pettit’s
attentions, she would not be able to escape her future husband if
he turned out to be less than what she hoped.

Please, God, she prayed as the river
bore her closer to her destination . . . please
let Luke Becker be a better man than this one.


I’ve always loved you,
Belinda. Since we were kids. That will never change.”

Luke Becker sat on the edge of his
bed, staring down at a small, oval-framed photograph cradled in his
hands. The faces of the young wedding couple in the portrait,
captured forever by the photographer’s flash powder, were stiff and
maybe even a little frightened-looking. “I made promises the day I
married you,” he whispered. “But everything has gone wrong. Rose
needs help and so do I. I have to break those promises now.” He
gazed across the expanse of the quilt that Belinda had stitched
herself, at the snow-white pillowcases, at the

From the hallway, he heard his
mother-in-law. “Luke, if you’re set on doing this blame-fool thing,
you’d better get on with it!” With that voice, Cora Hayward could
freeze the water pouring from a pump spout in July. Then more
impatiently, “Luke, the day isn’t getting any younger!”

No one was getting any younger, he
thought. Sighing, he stood and carefully replaced the photograph on
the dresser. He checked his appearance in the mirror over the
washstand, tugged at his strangling tie, and decided he looked as
good as he was going to. Then, with a last glance over his
shoulder, he left the bedroom, closing the door behind


Fairdale! Next stop,

The crewman’s booming announcement sat
Emily Cannon bolt upright, making her bump her hat against the
sternwheeler’s window, and sent waves of terror and hope through
her limbs. This was it. This was when she would learn if taking the
biggest risk of her life—actually, the only risk of her life—would
also turn out to be her very worst mistake.

Well, this is our stop,”
Earl Pettit said, but Emily didn’t reply. Deliberately, she hung
back, waiting until he’d moved along before she left her

At last, when his bowler bobbed among
the other men’s hats among the passengers crowding their way toward
the deck, she straightened her own hat and gripped the handle of
her canvas Gladstone bag. The boat made its way down the Columbia
River, its steam engines rumbling beneath her. She got her feet
under her and tried to brush the wrinkles from her black crepe
traveling suit, but it was a futile effort. After a week on the
train journeying from Chicago to The Dalles, Oregon, and then hours
on this boat, she knew she looked rumpled and unkempt. And it was
so important that she make a good impression. Without the advantage
of beauty, sometimes a good impression was all that a lady had to

Almost without thinking, she once
again reached into her skirt pocket to touch the letter she’d
carried all these weeks and miles. It had become her talisman, and
she had hung her entire future on the pale-blue words written on
its paper.

Miss Cannon, I do not care
what you look like, or what you must do to speed your
departure—please come. We need you.

The last passage, written by a hand
plainly unaccustomed to holding a pen, had made up her wavering
mind in Chicago. It had given her the ideal opportunity to escape,
and perhaps the only offer she’d ever have to become part of a
family again. So she had embarked upon this chancy venture, hoping
for security, dreaming of fulfillment, and knowing that Miss Cannon
was expected here today. But now that her moment of reckoning was
at hand, one important fact nagged at her and sent shivers of dread
through her limbs.

She was not the

Emily made her way to the deck railing
and glanced down at the water slapping the sides of the hull.
Ahead, under low, mist-gray skies, a small dock came into view. As
the boat drew closer, she saw a collection of buildings perched on
the steep hillside, and above them a verdant forest. In fact, it
seemed to her that everything on this west side of The Dalles was
either gray or green. The swift-moving river and the sheer, rugged
cliffs rising above it were gray, the dense trees and vegetation
all shades of green. The air was clean and sharp. Nothing back home
was like this.

As the sternwheeler slowed and chugged
alongside the dock, crewmen threw out lines and dropped a rickety
gangway. A small gathering of people waited onshore, and Emily
sought out each face, seeking a man who had, in his letters, given
himself a description that would fit many men.

After edging her way down
the gangplank, she stood on the dock, uncertain, waiting for her
trunk to be unloaded and searching the thinning crowd. Above on the
main street, a rustic little town—and it
small and rustic to Emily’s
city-bred eyes—conducted its business. Standing on tiptoe, she
glimpsed a butcher shop, a striped barber pole alongside the next
storefront, a druggist’s, and what she thought could be a general
store. Chicago might have been built on a swamp as flat as a
pancake griddle, but with its multi-storied buildings and grand
edifices, it made Fairdale seem like little more than a quaint
smudge on the landscape.

The minutes ticked by, and a brisk
east wind still carrying a breath of winter flattened her skirts
against her legs and made her wish for her cloak. But it was packed
away in the trunk with the rest of the few precious things she
still owned in this world.

In his letter, Luke Becker had said he
would be here to meet her. She felt people’s stares—she should be
used to it by now but all she’d been able to learn was pretending
she didn’t notice. She forced herself to stand erect with her chin

She spotted a tall, gangly farmer and
almost stepped forward. But a smiling young woman, his wife, Emily
thought, caught up with him and planted a kiss on his mouth, then
linked her arm in his. Kissing in public, why it was scandalous
behavior but no one seemed to notice. He bent his head to hear
something she said and they ambled back up the muddy path that led
to the main street.

Another man, squat and round, with
short, carrot-red hair and a cheek full of chewing tobacco, began
to approach her and she held her breath, her heart thumping in her
chest. Oh, God, no . . .  But he passed her to
spit in the river and went up to saloon.

A crewman delivered her trunk, and
still she waited. One by one the gathering dispersed.

At last the only people left on the
dock were Emily, and a man with an impatient-looking young girl who
gripped a small bouquet. They all stared at each other. The man
appeared to be dressed in his Sunday best, a white shirt, a black
frock coat, and silk string tie. He looked uncomfortable in the
clothes, as if he’d rarely put them on. The child with him wore a
blue dress edged in yards of ruffles that seemed to engulf her. On
her head was a matching straw hat. After what seemed like an
eternity, he approached, taking the girl’s elbow to propel her
along with him.

Emily drew a breath and lifted her
chin. “Mr. Becker?”

The man nodded. He was so
handsome—tall, with dark, curly hair—that Emily was taken aback.
She hadn’t counted on such an attractive man, one who smelled of
bay rum and leather. Nothing in his letters had hinted at the
strong jaw, the straight nose, the mouth with its upper lip that
was a shade too narrow. He’d not written of dark gray eyes that
seemed to hold a hint of weariness that touched her own unhealed
grief. Looking at him, her own plainness and height bore down upon
her. And she saw them mirrored in his dumbfounded

Miss Alyssa Cannon?”
Obvious bafflement colored his question.

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