The Bartender's Mail Order Bride

By: Cindy Caldwell

Chapter 1

“He doesn’t even know I exist.” Nutmeg Archer ran her hand alongside the stalls in the barn as she watched her brother brush the white mare, Regalo.

Hank’s hand moved in long strokes along the horse’s back and reached its tail. He set the brush down and looked around for a different brush among the set stacked on the windowsill. “Mh-hmm.”

“I mean, really, the last year since he’s been here, I’ve practically fallen in front of him every chance I got and nothing. Not one thing.”

Hank turned toward the wall, his eyes searching the rack of bits, bridles and horse tack. “Right.”

“Am I that awful, Hank? I know I’m not as pretty as Clara, but I’m not that horrid, am I?”

“Yes,” Hank said as he reached up for his favorite bridle.

Meg whipped her head toward her older brother, her blue eyes flashing as her strawberry blonde pigtails flipped behind her.

“Hank Archer, did you just say yes?” she said, her hands on her hips.

“What? Uh, no?” Hank asked, startled away from his horse preparations by her raised voice.

“Ugh,” she said as she plopped onto a barrel in the corner and folded her arms across her chest. “You’re not even listening to me, are you?”

Hank tipped his hat up and leaned against the stable wall as he set down the bridle he’d pulled out. He smiled at his sister, his laugh lines crinkling around his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Meg. Truly, I am. But no, I wasn’t listening too much. Who are you talking about? Who is he?”

Meg let out a big sigh. She’d never told anyone how she felt about Sam Allen, the bartender at the Occidental who’d been a friend of Hank’s for several years. And with Hank’s level of interest, she couldn’t decide if she should start now.

She and Hank had always been close—but she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear his teasing about such a delicate matter as her feelings for Sam Allen. If she actually did tell him that her heart sped up every time he entered the room or her palms glistened when he spoke, she’d likely never hear the end of it.

She’d only brought it up because now that she’d heard Sam needed a bride—and quick—and had put an ad in the Groom’s Gazette to find one, the clock was ticking and she knew things weren’t going to go in her favor.

Hank picked up the brush and started on the other side of Regalo, his strokes falling into a rhythm.

“Maybe you should talk to Clara about this. I mean, she’s a woman.”

“Well, I hope so.” Meg laughed as she threw her braids back over her shoulder. She wondered if maybe the reason she was invisible to Sam was because of her simple manner of dressing. Besides the fact that she’d worked on the ranch for the most part after she’d finished her schooling, she hadn’t had the chance to learn much about “womanly” things from her mother before she’d died. As the oldest daughter in the family, there’d been no one to teach her after that, and her skills in that area were lacking. Clara had offered to help, but they hadn’t had the opportunity yet.

“You know what I mean,” Hank said, his eyes narrowed at Meg. “I certainly don’t know what to tell you, especially if you don’t want to even tell me who you’re pining for.”

“Well, thank you anyway.” Meg slowly walked toward the house, wondering how she might make her feelings known before he accepted one of the mail order applicants.

She was still lost in thought as she reached the porch and almost ran into Clara on her way out.

“Oh, goodness.” Clara laughed as she tied her bonnet under her chin. “You’re a million miles away.”

“Yes,” Meg said as she sat on the porch swing and started rocking.

“Anything I can help with?” Clara rested her hand on Meg’s shoulder.

Meg smiled at the thought of how nice it had been to get to know Clara since she’d married her brother. It had been a bit of a rocky beginning, but she felt grateful that Clara had cast such a friendly, maternal feeling over the household—something they hadn’t had for quite a while, since their mother died.

“No, I’m hopeless.” Meg cocked her head sideways at Clara. “Where are you off to?”