Once Upon a Mail Order Bride by Linda Broday




One


            Summer 1882

            Texas Panhandle

            The sudden bang of a heavy prison door echoed like a rifle shot down a long, dimly lit hallway. Adeline Jancy flinched as though struck, her hand clenching tighter around the letters from Ridge Steele, the man she’d agreed to marry upon release. In her other hand, she gripped a pitiful burlap bag that contained all her earthly possessions.

            A nearby door opened, and she blinked at the unaccustomed light, her eyes watering from the glare.

            For three long and dismal years, she’d lived in solitary confinement below the prison, in silence so complete that she could hear the twitch of a rat’s whiskers a yard away. She’d thought of this moment, dreamed about it for so long. Freedom. A chance to start over. But now that it was here, was she truly ready? Her knees buckled.

            The squeak of shoes met her ears, and a heavyset woman appeared.

            “Jancy, it’s me—Nettie Mae.”

            Now, the door to her cell no longer between them, Addie finally saw the face of the woman who’d brought her food each day. Middle-aged and gray-haired, Nettie had kind eyes. Tears gathered in her own eyes as she hugged her sole friend.

            Nettie kept talking, the first time Addie’d heard her speak louder than a whisper. “You gotta listen and listen good. Two men are waitin’ at the front gate to grab you when you leave the prison. I ’spect you know what they want.”

            Yes, she knew.

            Addie’d expected her release to be difficult and Nettie confirmed it. During the night, she’d played the scenarios over in her mind countless times. She might get shot, she might die. She might meet a fate even worse than death. But if so, she would face it with her head held high. Not cowering in fear.

            Gas lamps held in brackets lining the walls every few yards emitted loud sizzles that sounded like thousands of flying insects. An unpleasant odor permeated the air.

            “Mr. Luke overheard those men. He’s going to catch you before you reach the door and take you out the back way. You’re gonna be fine. I can tell Mr. Luke’s a right good man.”

            Addie’s heart pounded. Gonna be fine—if the warden didn’t stop Luke on his way in. If the ones waiting for her didn’t get wind of a change in procedure. If she and Luke weren’t spotted and followed. Her release involved too many ifs.

            She braced herself, determined. Now was not the time to panic. After all these years, she had to finally take control of her life. Sweat lined her palms. Her welcoming committee wanted what she knew—and she’d take that to her grave first. Ezekiel Jancy be damned! She’d defied him before and paid dearly. Everything she’d suffered was worth it if it meant that a small innocent stayed safe from Ezekiel’s iron will.

            Her pulse throbbed in her neck and she wet her lips. She took Nettie’s hands and wished with all her might to find words to express her gratitude. She forced air up to make herself speak, but not a peep emerged. Prison, trauma, and solitude combined with her rusty, weak throat stole her ability to speak. Before her stood the one person in the world she longed to thank, and she couldn’t utter a sound. She blinked hard and stuffed the letters into her burlap.

            “I know, child.” Nettie patted her shoulder awkwardly with one misshapen hand. “Save your strength. I’m glad I could help.” Nettie turned to walk away, and Addie reached for her.

            “You go on now and marry that handsome outlaw. Leave your memories at the door and have a good life far away from this hell.” Nettie sniffled. “I’ll die in here, but you’re getting out. Make every second you have left count for something good.” She gave Addie a little push. “Go. Mr. Luke’s waitin’.”