Broke the rules and took an extra five minutes for about 25 total minutes of writing time. No spellcheck or editing.
Charles Town, Arizona Territory, 1876
It was a quiet day in town, and that was the way Jason Morgan, sheriff of Charles Town and its surrounding environs liked it. In the late spring, most of the town’s citizens were preoccupied with putting up crops to get them through the hot summer and cold winter or looking out for the cattle and sheep that would bring in the extra money.
They weren’t making much trouble in Ruby’s Saloon or at The Benson Lodge, and they were leaving him alone.
Until his erstwhile cousin, Dillon Quartermaine, burst through the door, his shiny gold deputy’s badge pinned to his cambric blue shirt. “Jase, we got a problem at the train station.”
Hell. Jasoon sat up, let his booted feet drop from the desk to the floor and sighed. “What? Cargo didn’t arrive? We don’t like the cargo that showed up? Fugitives?”
“Uh…” Dillon removed his Stetson and scratched at his sunny blond hair. “Uh, I guess cargo showed up that no one wanted it.”
“And that’s my problem?”
“Well…the cargo is…” Dillon swallowed. “Human.”
Jason stared at him for a long moment, and the vision of kicking off early and heading out to spend the weekend at his ranch house faded.
At the Charles Town Depot, Elizabeth Webber sat on a cold wooden bench and stared straight ahead. Her portmanteau sat beside her on the ground, stuffed with her most precious belongings, and inside the depot sat her trunk with all her clothing and mementos.
She had uprooted her entire life in San Francisco on a hope and a prayer.
And now she sat at a train station with no money for a return ticket and no where to go even if she had been able to buy a ticket.
So she sat, her hands laced together in her lap, the sun burning into the side of her dark brown traveling dress. Sweat rivulets slid from the tendrils of her brown curls rapidly loosening from the neat knot she had arranged as the train had pulled into the station.
She heard the boots inside the station—two more sets than just the one station master. Muted voices. Likely the station master was becoming alarmed.
He had been present when Elizabeth’s fiance had shown up. And when he’d left her, spitting at her to go back to where she came from.
The door opened and in the corner of her eye, she saw a well-built man in denim and a dusty jacket step out onto the wooden platform. A brown Stetson was angled over dirty blond hair, and a star was pinned to the shirt under the jacket, peeking out as he closed the door and stood there.
“I hear you’ve had a bad day, Miss.”
A bit surprised by his opening salvo, Elizabeth turned to meet his eyes and her eyes skittered away just as quickly. They were too blue, too kind. She couldn’t look at him.
“I’ve had worse.” And that was the simple unvarnished truth.
“Fair enough.” He gingerly sat at the other end of the bench, angling himself to face her. “Jason Morgan, Sheriff.”
Her shoulders slumped a bit and she looked at her hands, made sure the gloved hand with the hole in the palm was hidden. “I suppose the station master would like me to leave.”
“Well, I’m not saying that’s not part of the reason he came for my deputy, but honestly, I think he’s just concerned. He, uh, said there was some trouble earlier.”
“Trouble.” Elizabeth snorted. “A man puts an advertisement in the paper. Says he wants a wife. Wires money. A woman gives up her employment. Her lodgings. But when she arrives, he just…” Hysteria bubbled in her throat. “He walks away.”
“You might not believe me at the moment,” Jason said slowly. “But you’re probably better off. Richard Lansing is a bit of a….” He grimaced. “Let’s just add any adjectives. Uh…” He removed his hat, placed it in his lap. “What exactly…was the problem?”
“I’m—” She closed her eyes. “Too late. He wired another woman money and she arrived first.”
He muttered something under his breath. “I’m sorry to hear that, Miss. Can I help you make arrangements to go back?”
“To what?” she demanded, more to herself than to him. “Did you not hear me? I gave up my employment. I have no home to return to. My family is—” She closed her eyes. “We lost everything after the war and my father never recovered.”
He nodded. Likely it wasn’t the first time he’d heard such a tale. “All right. Can I help you take your things to our lodge? Caroline Benson would take good care of you—”
“No, thank you. I’ll just…” She pressed her lips together. Sit here and rot before she accepted a man’s help. Took another man’s word. “I didn’t even want to marry him much. We didn’t even write.”
“He has a daughter.” Elizabeth clenched her fists more tightly. “I wanted…he wanted a mother for his daughter.”
“Ah. Molly is a cute kid. Lost her mother to influenza a year or so back when it swept through town.” He scratched his forehead. “You got experience with kids?”
“A little.” Her abdomen clenched. “I wanted more.”
“Well, then maybe we could help each other.”
She slid a glance at him, her eyes hot. “I don’t know who you think I am—”
“Well, as to that, Miss, we haven’t exactly been introduced.” He offered a half smile. “Jason Morgan,” he repeated. “Guardian to my brother’s son, Michael. I’m all right at the fatherhood thing, but I work in town during the week and I don’t pay him as much attention as I ought. Fact of it is, he’s seven and could probably use some mothering.”
“Elizabeth Webber,” she admitted on a shaky sigh. “What…exactly are you suggesting?”
“Well, I’m not in the market for a mail order bride,” he admitted. “I hope that don’t hurt your feelings.”
“God.” A rush of air exploded out in a huff. “I don’t think I will ever answer another advertisement.”
“Wouldn’t blame you. I could use a…” He scratched the back of his neck. “They have a fancy name for women who look after kids and houses?”
“Yeah, that’ll do it. Until you get yourself back on your feet. Make some plans.” Jason got to his feet, held out a hand. “Let me take your things to Caroline Benson. We’ll put you up for the night. On the house, courtesy of Charles Town and in apology for the asshole who left you here.”
“I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for me to remain,” Elizabeth admitted, but allowed him to pull her to her feet.
“Well, you don’t have to take the job with me,” Jason told her. “Maybe Caroline will know something else you could do. Or we could ask her mother, Bobbie. Just…” He hesitated. “I can’t leave you sitting here like this, and not just because Julian Jerome wanted me to move you along.”
“Maybe just one night,” Elizabeth allowed. A good meal and night’s sleep would put her right again and she could decide the next step.
It was unlikely to stay here with the appealing sheriff and her nephew, but it wasn’t as though she had any other answers at the moment.
She allowed him to make arrangements for a porter to deliver the trunk to the hotel and watched as Jason lifted the heavy portmanteau without a care. “After you, Miss Elizabeth.”
Gathering her skirt in one hand, she started down the Main Street, hoping she wasn’t making another dreadful mistake.