Saturday, June 28, 2008

An Arrangement Among Gentlemen by Jennifer Mueller

Late in the winter of 1916, a train rolled to a stop in the snowbound rail station in the middle of Alberta, Canada. The station was small, but of picturesque brick with a slate roof. Two men in heavy wool shirts and pants and thick fur coats stood waiting for the train. They looked nervous. No, on second thought, one looked nervous. The other looked furious.

"Please, Miss Olivia, let me help you down the steps?" The porter asked after several people had disembarked. The two men perked up at the name and watched as she took the porter's arm. The younger man watched not her face, but the foot that emerged from under the skirt that was lifted for descent. Once down the stairs, the porter handed her a stout silver-capped walking stick. Both men could only stare. Olivia had thick black hair and dark eyes that made her pale skin stand out. Under a full-length seal coat, she was dressed in the latest fashion.

The men walked over to the train. "Olivia Thatcher?"

She raised her eyes. They weren't black as they first thought, but a deep blue-gray that reminded them of a horrendous storm over the mountains. It didn't bode well for the present situation.

"Yes."

The older of the two men walked forward and offered his hand. "I'm George Garrett and this is my son, Cort. I'm glad you could make it in this weather."

"Funerals make no plans concerning the weather."

"I'm sure you won't find my son so much trouble we need to worry about funerals."

Her eyes flickered annoyance, and the storm in them grew. "I'm rather surprised, seeing as you arranged this fiasco that you wouldn't consider my being here as proof that my father died last month. I won't have his death thought of so lightly. Martin, could you show Mr. Garrett where my things are?"

George could only stare in disbelief at the way she had spoken to him.

"Of course, Miss Olivia. Come with me, Mr. Garrett. I'll have you out of here right away," the porter answered.

She was alone with Cort as they rounded the building. Olivia began to walk away to get some exercise after being on the train for so long. She had made it only a few feet before she began to fall. A strong arm caught her easily. She looked over and saw Cort clearly for the first time through her anger. He had longer, sun-streaked light brown hair, and a hint of stubble on a rugged and quite handsome face. He was tan and staring at her with bright green eyes. Olivia suddenly felt very uncomfortable with the position she found herself in and tried to pull away from him.

"Careful. This snow is slick if you're not used to it," Cort warned.

"It's not the snow. I suppose my father forgot to write that this stick isn't just for show. Not being able to walk much the last few days has made it worse than normal."

Cort ignored her attempts at leaving his side and slipped her arm in his to keep her from falling again. "We'd best walk a bit then. The ranch is another three hours by car in this weather." There was a strained silence as they made their way down the station platform.

Olivia opened her mouth several times to say something, but she finally had to force it out. "I'm going to get this out of the way now. If I don't meet your expectations, tell me now, and I'll head home, consider this a tour of your beautiful country, and inconvenience you no further. I have no intentions making either of us miserable with this blasted arrangement."

Cort started to smile, and Olivia's heart caught in her throat as she waited for an answer. That smile was disconcerting. He was either smiling because he approved or because he was glad she gave him an out. He stopped walking and turned to her. His hand gently traced her cheek, the calluses of his hands rough against her skin. Then he kissed her cheek gently in welcome.

"If you're worried about my expectations, never fear. You've already greatly exceeded them."

"And, if I remember the letter I read, all that means is I have a pulse and some semblance of looks," she snapped, annoyed. She was not one to be won over so easily, despite his looks. Or maybe it was that her heart betrayed her and pounded furiously in her chest. She only hoped he couldn't tell her voice had become huskier since his kiss, peck on the cheek that it was.

There was only that smile again. "My father did me a great injustice then, as he never met any of my women. Their semblance was anything but vague, and their pulses quite rapid." His hand found her wrist and searched out her own pulse. "Like yours is just now." He started walking again, half-grinning at her annoyance. Then the grin faded. "I'm sorry I shouldn't joke when you're still grieving your father."

"Thank you," she murmured.

"Your father's letter was rather wrong as well. Fine looking doesn't begin to describe you properly. Magnificent is what comes to mind."

"I'm a cripple." Olivia announced, as a matter-of-fact.

"Crippled is my mother who spends her time in a chair all day because it hurts too much to move. Do you mind my asking how you came to need the stick?"

She kept her face straight ahead. Her jaw tightened; she was not sure she could say it out loud, even after all those years. Then, to her amazement, her voice broke the silence. "I fell off a horse when I was eleven. That's not quite descriptive enough. It rolled on top of me with my leg pinned between it and a tree. My leg was shattered badly. They thought, after it happened, that they would have to remove it completely. I was back on a horse as soon as I was able. It was the only way I could get around. They told me I would never walk again. It took me two years to work up to just walking across the room. I'll probably always have this limp, slight though it looks after nine years. The main problem is my knee gives out quite easily. It's easier to walk with the stick than to fall on my face twenty times a day." The silence returned as the wind blew fiercely. Her clothes were not suited to the weather. Olivia pulled the coat around her tighter.

"I just can't figure out why a woman would have to have a marriage arranged. I can understand it even less now that I've seen you. You're not plain by any means, your eyes match, and your fingers aren't webbed."

"For that matter, why do you? If your experience is as well rounded as you claim, you should need it less than I." Olivia saw that one hit home, and Cort flinched.

"I was told only this morning that I was engaged. I thought my father had more respect for me. I guess I know how he feels about me after this."

"Then we're both thrilled with this arrangement, aren't we?" she snapped. His jaded father had written a reply without ever telling Cort of the decision, just as her jaded father had written the letter claiming she was in need of a knight in shining armor.

As they slowly made their way to the car, letting her get the full enjoyment of being off the train, they said little. Perhaps they both knew at that moment that, if they said much more, they would begin fighting over something that was neither of their faults.

"Took your own sweet time now, didn't you? We've got to get back," George snapped as they reached the car.

"Just shut up and leave us be, now that the damage is done," Olivia hissed as she climbed in. Cort was grinning, trying not to let anyone see. Somehow, from that small gesture, she knew she wasn't the woman anyone thought she would be: she was headstrong, opinionated, determined, even tough. It was best George learn early that she was able to take care of herself; if the look on his face at her tongue was any indication, he wasn't happy about the real Olivia Thatcher.

They headed out of the station and town without another word. Despite the bumps in the country roads before they were barely a few miles out of town, Olivia's head fell to Cort's shoulder. She was sound asleep. It was the end of a long journey, and coming from England was no small feat in these times of war. Even though the United Stared had threatened Germany against sinking neutral ships after the Lusitania, it was still not uncommon for them to be blown out of the water.