Arthur Sharp had never been more nervous in all of his life. He sucked in a breath and stared at the double doors of the Dawson City Motel straight ahead of him. His future bride waited inside but he hadn’t yet summoned the courage to greet her. He ran his hand down the front of his collared flannel, ironed and starched to perfection. Dark green on light, it was his best looking shirt and just right for meeting a lady. There was only one chance to make a proper first impression. It’s why he’d spent all morning cleaning out the carriage, much to the amusement of his hired help. In all truth, no one back at his homestead had ever seen him clean shaven and washed. His work as a bounty hunter kept him on the road for long periods of time and he’d gotten used to being grubby. But with a woman around, such habits and smells would be unacceptable.
Hannah. Hannah DePuis.
He let the name ring off his tongue, remembering the picturesque blonde whose picture resided in his wallet. Deep set eyes she told him were blue. A smile that could warm the coldest day. Her letters, which smelled faintly of lavender and were written in neat cursive, spoke of a young lady who worked hard as laundress for a wealthy Seattle family. Her father was dead and she lived with her mother. She had twin brothers who would be turning eight-years old on Christmas. And her employer treated her well.
A proper and hardworking woman to help run the homestead. He hoped they could fare well together onward and forward.
He glanced up at the dull rays of light coming from the heavens. It rained a lot in the late part of the summer, muddying up the streets and socking in the town with gray skies. The winds were chilly and there was a need for wearing wool quite often, even if winter was months away. Gloomy. Always seemed to be these days. Hopefully having Hannah around would change all of that.
Arthur took off his hat and, with one last steadying breath, entered the motel. It wasn’t fancy. Then again, not much of Dawson City was. The hallway, cool enough to show the clouds from his breath, was dimly lit by candles and flickering oil lamps. A low-key piano tune sounded from the far end of the lobby, drifting comfortably in song amid the gentle chatter of conversing guests. Faded maroon couches, paired across from each other next to a row of narrow windows, created the room’s centerpiece. Rounded tables with stools lined the back wall, but it was difficult to see inside the smoky haze of an already questionably lit area. He blinked, squinting for signs of his mail-order bride, but no one matching her description appeared to be waiting.
For certainty’s sake, he dug out her picture from his pocket and stared hard at the youthful face.
The only blonde woman in the room looked to be twice Hannah’s age and she casually drank tea with a man who was surely her husband.
Arthur scanned the room, glossing over men in suits smoking out of tobacco pipes, a maid dusting the window sills in the back corner, and the young man who tended the front counter. His dark eyes locked with those of a brunette lounging in one of the couches. He studied her quizzically for a moment—and she, him—but he peeled his gaze away in search of the blonde he was expecting.
Perhaps she had yet to come down from her room.
“I beg your pardon,” Arthur said to the front desk clerk as he slid the photograph forward on the counter. “Have you seen this lady?”
The clerk, a young man of about twenty, picked up the photograph with a confused shake of his head. “Afraid not, sir. She doesn’t look familiar.”
“But she’s boarding with you,” Arthur insisted. “She’s been here for three days already. I’m supposed to be picking her up this afternoon.”
“I’ve never seen that woman,” the clerk said with a shrug. “Ever since the news of gold broke we’ve been getting a rush of guests. It’s just that most of them are men. I’d remember seeing someone as comely as her.”
Arthur frowned in confusion. “You’re certain, now? Maybe she came through here on your days off?”
“I don’t get many of those,” said the clerk in a jokeful tone. “Just a moment, sir. I’ll ask my manager.”
And with that he disappeared behind the back wall with the picture.
Hannah’s telegram had clearly said that she was staying at the Dawson City Motel on the main avenue. It didn’t make sense that she wasn’t around. The clerk had to be mistaken.
Arthur, certain that the matter would be resolved in short order, turned to scan the lobby once more.
This time the brunette at the couches was gone, and he caught a whiff of her musk perfume right beside him. Her gloved hand, petite and slender just like her stature, lightly touched his forearm. “Sir, by chance do you happen to be Arthur Sharp?”
She couldn’t have been a day over eighteen. Her eyes, smoky and narrowed with a mischievous twinkle, called to him from the cool depths of a blue ocean. Her rouged lips, full and pouty, smiled knowingly enough to bring out a pair of adorable dimples. A few strands of her shoulder-length ebony locks escaped the fashionable coil atop her head, framing her face and bringing out the soft curves of her features. Cream-toned lace made the frilly collar of her blouse, rolling down the front of her neckline in gentle waves. It matched nicely with her lavender gown the likes of which looked expensive. Tiny pearl studs adorned her earlobes and she wore a strip of dark purple satin as a choker. An attractive package, he admitted, but blondes were more his type.
“Can I help you?” he asked anyway, unsure as to how she knew his name.
She pulled out an envelope from her handbag. “Yes. Our mutual friend sent me.”
It was clear the envelope was intended for him, and so in his confusion buoyed by curiosity, he ripped it open and from it pulled out a small note. The paper, scented like lavender, possessed the same neat cursive writing he’d grown to appreciate in such a few short months.
I have enjoyed our correspondence immensely. Receiving your letters has brightened many of my dark days. However, I am unable to marry you as planned. My mother has fallen ill and there is no one to care for my younger brothers. It would be unpardonable of me to leave my family at such a fragile time. I have sent my close friend, Jewel Lattimer, to take my place as your wife on the homestead. She truly lives up to her name. May God bless your union with abundance and joy.
The letter shook in Arthur’s hand and his voice trembled just the same. “What is this trickery? I pray you tell me at once what is happening here.”
An entertained grin lifted the corner of her mouth. “It’s no hoax, mister.”
“Then where is she?”
“Back in Seattle like it’s made clear in her letter.”
Arthur’s arm fell to his side in defeat, his fingers closing around the paper. “I-I’m not convinced this is really happening.”
He cast her a side glance. She arched an eyebrow.
No. He couldn’t look at her. She wasn’t his Hannah.
Arthur walked a few steps away in order to better process the information. The laundress had shattered his illusions and daresay broken his heart. Had he known she would have pulled such a switch then he never would have shelled out the coin for her travels. And it hadn’t been easy making the arrangements for her to come in the summer like she pleaded.
That had also cost him extra. He resisted the urge to use the Lord’s name in vain.
“Sir?” The clerk’s voice lured Arthur back to the front counter. “I’m sorry to inform you that my manager does not recall your lady friend having rented a room here. Is there anything further I can help you with?”
Arthur did not respond right away. How he could he possibly tell the young man what had just transpired? If anything he would look like a fool for having fallen for the wrong woman. A trickster of a woman. The single decent one he thought he had found ended up being no different than all the others.
Shame reddened his cheeks. “I reckon I’ll be on my way,” he said with a terse nod. “Happy Saturday to you.”
And without giving the girl a second glance, Arthur stormed out of the motel.
He was partway across the street, almost to his carriage, by the time she caught up to him.
“Hey, mister! You can’t just abandon me!”
There was something about her tone that made him stop. A defiance he did not like. With a wrinkling of his nose marking distaste, he spun around to face the young woman who challenged him.
“And by what right do you disagree with my actions?”
“By that as you having an agreement with me.”
“I don’t even know who you are,” he proclaimed. “You can’t just come in Hannah’s place and expect me to honor something forced upon me.”
Her gaze narrowed. “So you mean to tell me that you aren’t the gentleman my friend spoke so highly of? Well, that’s a real shame.”
“What? I didn’t lie about who I am. You can’t throw my reputation out the window simply because you don’t like the consequences of your shady behavior and poor decisions.”
“Shady?” Jewel repeated the word as if it was poison. “How dare you talk to me in such a fashion?”
Arthur was without words. His head rattled with all manner of negative thoughts as to why Hannah had dumped him. But it went even further than that. They had agreed to marry. He had received her telegram from Seattle before her journey to the Yukon. To think that it hadn’t been her, but her friend, made him anger all over again.
“You are not my charge,” he said. “Tell Hannah I will not seek repayment for the money I wasted on her. Good day.”
He climbed into the carriage.
Jewel did not step any closer. Her head held high, neck stiffened, she said, “Fine. I’ll inquire about work at the brothels.”
She spun on her heels and weaved through the crowd back towards the motel.
He sighed. Massaged the bridge of his nose. Knew he’d be responsible if anything happened to her.
Arthur jumped out of the carriage. He intercepted her at the door.
“Wait,” he said, gasping for air. “You can’t do that.”
Jewel crossed her arms. “Oh, go away, mister. Go bother someone else.”
“Look, I was rude. Okay? I’m sorry. It’s just that I was expecting another person and you sprung this on me without warning. I’ve been corresponding with Hannah for months and she never mentioned anything about her mother being sick. You understand, don’t you?”
He desperately wanted her to. Looking straight into her eyes filled him with guilt. Mistreating her wasn’t justified, no matter how he felt about the situation. And truth be told he didn’t think it proper to leave a defenseless woman stranded in a place as dangerous as Dawson City without family, without friends or anyone to take her in.
“Of course I do,” she said, in a quiet tone. “It’s why I tried to soften the blow with a smile.”