Smoke River Bride

By: Lynna Banning

Chapter One

The day Leah arrived in Smoke River it was snowing. She stepped off the train from Portland and peered into a cloud of swirling white flakes, unable to see a foot ahead. Her feet were freezing inside her black leather slippers and she could think of nothing but reaching the squat whitewashed station house and folding her blue fingers around a cup of hot tea. She stumbled blindly forward, lugging her small valise.

A white mountain loomed in her path, and before she could stop, her face smacked into something furry at nose level. It turned out to be the beaver trim on the front of a man’s jacket. A large man, taller than her father by at least six inches.

“Sorry, lass,” he rumbled.

She clutched her floppy silk hat and looked up. Through the mist of falling snow she saw a man’s square jaw and a trim mustache that reminded her of Father’s. He was tall and broad-shouldered and towered over her like a sturdy tree. Instantly she lowered her eyes as she had been taught.

“Might watch where you’re goin’,” he grumbled.

“And the same to you, sir,” she said before she could stop herself. She should not have spoken out like that. Her mother would have scolded her.

She moved to step around him, but a large, long-fingered hand encased in a leather glove gripped her arm. “You just come in on the train from Portland?”

“Yes, I did.” She pulled out of his grasp and resumed her path toward the station house and the prospect of hot tea.

“Did you see a woman, maybe with red hair and a Scots burr, on the train?”

She turned to face him, and this time she did meet his eyes. He was good-looking in a craggy sort of way, with steady, sky-blue eyes that seemed to look right through her. “I was the only woman on that train, sir. And I do not have red hair.”

“Ye’re not Scots, then?”

“I am half Scottish. Of what interest is that to you?” She could almost see her mother’s scowl for being so forward.

“None, I guess. I’m waitin’ for my new bride. She’s supposed to be comin’ from San Francisco, but I’ve never laid eyes on her before, and I wouldn’t recognize her.”

Leah’s heart dropped into her ice-crusted shoes. Oh, no. She was the woman he was waiting for. He thought she would be a Scottish woman because of her name, Cameron. She swallowed twice. Such a mistake was a very unlucky sign.

Ten days ago she had replied to a notice in the San Francisco newspaper. “Rancher with young son needs wife. Educated, honest, hardworking.”

Mr. Thaddeus MacAllister had answered immediately and enclosed the train fare. He had never seen her, and she had never seen him.

And we are to be married in twenty-four hours!

She couldn’t do it. She’d thought she could marry a man she had never seen, but she just couldn’t. What had she been thinking?

She had not been thinking, of course. She’d just had to escape the ugly situation she’d found herself in. Now she thought she would be sick all over this man’s beaver jacket, and that would be even more unlucky.

The tall man bent toward her. “Her name is Leah Cameron. Do you know her?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, her voice resigned. “I do know her.” She drew in a big gulp of air and let it out slowly. “I am Leah Cameron.”

His eyes widened. “What? You don’t look Scottish to me!” He brushed back her silk bonnet and scanned her face. “Don’t look Scottish at all!”

Leah raised her chin but kept her eyes lowered. “I am half Scottish, as I said. My father’s name was Franklin Cameron. He died of cholera a month ago.”

The man grabbed her by both arms and pulled her forward until her nose grazed a jacket button.

“And the other half?”

“The other half is…” She reached up and pulled her floppy hat completely off so he could see her face.

His eyes went even wider. “Good God, you…you’re a Celestial!”

“I am half Chinese. My mother’s name was Ming Sa. She is now dead, as well.”

He kept staring at her, his mouth hanging open. Finally his jaw clicked shut. “Look, miss, I placed my notice because I need a…well, a wife. I never figured you’d be a…a foreigner.”

“According to the Immigration Authority, I am not a foreigner. My father was an American citizen, a missionary living in China, so I am American, too.”

“Well.” The man cleared his throat. “I never expected this. I mean, you.”

Not a good sign. “You mean you expected me to be a white woman. Caucasian.” It wasn’t a question. She knew how the Chinese were regarded in the West. The tales she had heard of the treatment of “Celestial” railroad crews made her cringe.