“Are you cutting a shine with me?” The young woman rattled the section of newspaper across the table at her companion. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “You? A mail order bride?”
Clara Stapleton felt the skin of her face and throat heat. Her eyes darted about the cafe, and she prayed to God that the nearest patrons hadn’t overheard Emma Whitman’s loud proclamation. None of the half dozen other habitués paid their table any mind, either having missed the implications of Emma’s words or perhaps being too polite to exhibit a response. Clara’s stomach quivered with a mixture of relief, excitement and quiet audacity that she even considered this controversial topic. The idea of searching for a husband via matrimonial agencies smacked of desperation. Confident that the occupants of neighboring tables remained oblivious, she snatched the newspaper from Emma’s hand. “Hush!” She leaned over the table to scold her best friend. “Keep your voice down!”
Emma glanced around the small establishment, the impish joy on her round face extinguished by sudden concern. The expression didn’t last long as she too judged there had been no witnesses to her outburst. A familiar mischievous light returned to her brown eyes, and her bow mouth creased to allow the dimples a speedy return. She mimicked Clara and leaned close across the detritus of their afternoon tea. “Are you serious? Searching the advertisements for a husband?”
Clara’s butterflies intensified. The revelation of her intentions to her dearest friend somehow brought her purpose into sharper focus. Her scheme was no longer an amorphous wondering in her mind now that she’d dared speak the words aloud. For a brief moment she entertained the notion of naysaying herself, of capitulating to Emma’s delighted question with a negative. To do so would conjure a prevarication between them, something to which they’d promised one another as children they would never fall prey. Such a lie would chip away at the foundation of their closeness and eventually destroy that which Clara held so dear. She pressed her hand against her trembling stomach. “Yes, Em. I’m serious.”
Emma flounced backward in her chair, eyes wide, smile turned incredulous. Her fingers worried her napkin ring, the silver flashing reflections from the sunlight that splayed across the tablecloth. She studied Clara for a long moment. “I must say, Clara, the idea never occurred to me.” She gazed at the newspaper clutched in Clara’s hand and lowered her voice. “But it sounds positively wicked!”
Relief briefly overrode all other concerns, and Clara wondered why. She and Emma had supported one another through dozens of escapades throughout their shared childhood, some undertakings more questionable than not. Why wouldn’t Emma throw her full support behind Clara for this cockamamie idea? She returned Emma’s smile. “It does sound wicked, doesn’t it?”
Emma reached across the table and wiggled her fingers at the newspaper until Clara returned it. She carefully straightened out the wrinkled pages, shuffling through them until she found the one with the title “Matrimonial News.” Her eyebrows rose as she noted Clara’s careful selections marked on the newsprint. “I see you’ve found some creditable entries.”
Clara’s cheeks burned. She used her napkin to fan herself. “There are a few that seemed…appropriate.” Her discomposure wilted under a stronger sense of exhilaration, and she scooted her chair closer to Emma’s. They both perused the advertisements, and Clara pointed at a circled entry as she spoke. “This gentleman seems nice enough. Land owner, successful farmer and relatively young.” Another. “And this one is a widower with a pub here in Boston.”
Emma scowled at the adverts. “Yes, but the land owner is in Georgia. His property is no doubt still war-torn even after all these years. Do you want to marry a man whose family may have been slave owners? He’ll probably have you singing the ‘Bonnie Blue Flag’ at your wedding.” Before Clara could respond, Emma skipped to the second example. “And a pub owner? Really?” She glared with stern intent at her best friend. “You don’t know the first thing about running a tavern. What he needs is a workmate as well as a wife. Do you believe you’re capable of pouring busthead and ale for hundreds of drunken men?”
“I’m not certain,” Clara said, more unsettled by Emma’s use of the slang for whiskey than by her argument.
“I am certain. Neither of these men is suitable.” Emma returned her brisk attention to the paper, rapidly scanning the pencil marks her friend had used to accentuate possibilities. “And this one? Alaska? There’s nothing there except smelly old miners and snow!”
Clara eyed the advertisement as she groped for the proper words. “To be honest, that one is my favorite.”
Emma gaped at her. “Your favorite?” She read the advert aloud, ducking her head closer to the newsprint and lowering her voice when Clara hissed. “Matrimonial – A worthy man, age 34, seeking a well-educated younger woman for marriage in the Alaskan District. A trapper by trade, I am industrious, clean and even-tempered with thirteen hundred acres of homestead and need a help-mate and loving wife.” She let the paper fall to the table and rounded on Clara. “A trapper? In the mountains of the Alaskan territory? Are you moonstruck? When was the last time you spent a night out-of-doors?”
A little riled, Clara returned Emma’s unrelenting gaze. “He has a homestead.”
“A hovel, perhaps.” Emma sniffed disdain as she retrieved the advertisements once more. “It would be easier to learn how to sling drinks in a pub.” She peered at the trapper’s advert. With an air of disgruntled reluctance, she pursed her lips. “Thirteen hundred acres isn’t something to sneeze at, I suppose. It’s a wonder he claims to be a trapper rather than a gold miner. And thirty-four seems a bit old.” She turned the paper, as if looking for more information on the backside. “It doesn’t say he’s a widower. Why hasn’t he been married before now?”
“He’s no older than some of the layabouts rooting around for companionship here,” Clara argued. She and Emma had both had their fill of the local men who had taken it upon themselves to woo them. The majority of those allegedly eligible bachelors was too old, too young or had neither the stability nor financial fortitude to begin families. Those men that would have been acceptable already had wives or had located connubial prospects far away. The last thing Clara wanted was to succumb to the sublimely wearisome businessmen who’d come knocking at her father’s door. She craved something different, something provocative. She tapped the Alaskan’s advert. “And he’s already an accomplished tradesman and land owner.”
“Both excellent points.”
Emboldened, Clara continued. “I’ve also heard that the countryside there is absolutely stunning. Crisp freshwater springs, Olympian mountains and deep forests.” She stared into the distance, inadvertently falling into a daydream. “Fish fairly jumping out of the rivers and lakes, elk and moose wandering right up to your home. Pristine air…”
Emma cocked her head at Clara. “But…Alaska. We’d never see one another.”
Clara’s fantasy popped. Aghast, she snatched Emma’s hand, holding tight. “Yes we will! I’ll come visit and bring my family. My children must meet their godmother, of course. And my best friend.” She smiled. “And you must come visit me as well. Perhaps I can convince you and your future husband to join us there.”
“Perhaps.” It was Emma’s turn to blush, her dimples turning a delightful shade of red. The man she’d always wanted for her future husband was no secret to either of them. Clara’s brother, Bradford Stapleton, currently attended Harvard University as a student of law. Emma had become enamored of his gallant good looks and bright blue eyes when they were children.
The vision expanded in Clara’s mind. She and her jaunty husband stood on their porch, overlooking the majestic scenery of Alaska while their children played in the yard. Emma and Bradford, arm in arm, coming abreast of a slight rise, waved greeting as they led Clara’s many nieces and nephews to their new home.
“Will there be anything else, young ladies?”
Flustered by the interruption, Clara blinked up at the new arrival at their table.
The proprietor of Huckleberry Above Persimmon, Mr. Tally, hovered at her elbow. His pronounced girth was swathed in a pristine apron, and he grinned at the two young women as he wiped his hands on a towel.
Emma was quicker to her senses, folding the newspaper with alacrity in order to block the nosy restaurant owner from discerning the topic of their interest. “I believe not, sir. Thank you.”
Faint disappointment brushed across Mr. Tally’s face. Clara didn’t know if it was due to his inability to learn what they’d discussed or the realization that they were finished with their meal. Gossip about town suggested that he had wandering hands.
Taking Emma’s cue, Clara located her handbag. “How much do we owe, Mr. Tally?”
The owner’s dissatisfaction faded, replaced with rapacity. “The ‘tally,’ if you will,” he chuckled at the oft-repeated play on his name, “is twenty cents. Unless I may interest you in a serving of baked apples? They’re hot out of the oven and most delicious.”
Clara extracted a coin purse, and carefully selected a quarter. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary, Mr. Tally.” She proffered the coin. “The beefsteak was quite filling.” Mr. Tally bobbed his head as he accepted payment. While he fished in a pocket for change, she smiled and patted his forearm. “Please keep the remainder.”
“As always, the service was excellent,” Emma cut in, preparing to rise.
Mr. Tally hastened to assist them from their chairs. He peppered them with inconsequential chitchat until the women found themselves on the front step of the restaurant.
“Next time it’s my turn.” Emma used the reflection in the front window to adjust the gray felt sailor hat she’d donned for their outing. When all was to her satisfaction, she turned to her friend.
“Certainly.” Clara linked her arm through Emma’s and they strolled down the busy sidewalk.
“So, you’re certain then?”
Clara squeezed Emma’s arm. “Yes, I am.” She watched the bustle of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys rumble past, the clouds of dust left in their wake. Freshly cut wood lashed to a cart went by, the scent of pine drifting through the air. The sidewalk was crowded with people— mostly men on business—but the occasional woman or two had chosen this fine day to shop or enjoy their afternoon tea in style. Clara would miss the flurry of activity in which she’d been raised, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of her hometown.
“And you’re set on the Alaskan?”
“Yes.” Clara smiled.
Emma made a moue. “I can’t change your mind?”
Clara stiffened. “I must confess that I’ve already written him.”
“What?” Emma pulled back, mouth and eyes wide. “You did not!”
Unable to speak, Clara nodded. She didn’t know whether Emma would take her precipitous action as daring or a betrayal of their friendship. Emma’s quicksilver emotions could sway in either direction.
Emma’s expression teetered between dismay and awe, finally settling on grudging admiration. “You are a little hussy, aren’t you?” she asked in a whisper, a puckish grin upon her face.
Her acceptance nearly caused Clara to swoon as relief flooded through every muscle and nerve. Her eyes stung with the unshed tears of uncertain stress. The one constant in her life had been Emma. Hurting her was akin to hurting herself. Now that Clara had vaulted the obstacle of Emma’s opinion in this matter, she realized how foolish she’d been. Of course Emma would support her in this endeavor, foolhardy or no. Such had been the way of their friendship throughout their lives. They loved each other more than their own siblings and parents. Clara doubted she’d ever be able to discover that depth of adoration with a man. If such was the case, she could at least live a life surrounded by natural beauty.