Mail-Order Christmas Baby

By: Sherri Shackelford

CHAPTER ONE

Train Depot for the Wells Fargo Delivery,

Valentine, Territory of Montana

October, 1880

“That is not my delivery,” Sterling Blackwell declared. The hat sitting low across his forehead did nothing to disguise the flush creeping up his neck. “Who put you up to this?”

Heather O’Connor pressed a hand against the hitch in her chest. Sterling usually sent one of his cattle hands into town when he had a Wells Fargo delivery, which suited her just fine. He was a reminder of a time in her life that she’d rather forget.

She’d come to Valentine, Montana, to serve as a teacher four years ago in an effort to start over someplace far away from Pittsburgh. Her living conditions had not been ideal. Following the war, she’d been sent to live with an aunt and uncle. The family was barely eking out a living in the gloomy steel town, and the moment she’d turned sixteen, she’d begun her search for an escape. At seventeen, she’d accepted the job of schoolteacher in the remote mining town of Valentine, Montana.

Sterling’s older brother, Dillon, had fetched her from this very same depot on her first day in town, and she’d promptly developed an embarrassing infatuation with him. Dillon’s father had not been amused. The Blackwells owned the largest cattle ranch in the area, and Mr. Blackwell’s leadership had kept Valentine flourishing after the gold panned out. Dillon’s father wasn’t going to stand idle while his son courted a penniless, orphaned schoolteacher. With his father’s encouragement, Dillon had enlisted as an officer in the cavalry.

The familiar pang of humiliation settled in her chest. Dillon hadn’t even told her in person. He’d sent her a letter instead. A few terse paragraphs making his lack of feelings embarrassingly clear. She’d learned her lesson well over the years. In love and relationships affection was never equal, and she always seemed to wind up on the losing end.

The Wells Fargo employee, distinguishable from the townsfolk crowding the train platform by his round green cap trimmed with gold braid, squinted at his manifest, then lifted his chin.

“No mistake, sir.” The freckle-faced young man extended his paperwork and pointed. “The recipient for this child is listed as Mr. Sterling Blackwell of the Blackwell Ranch, Valentine, Montana. I’ll need you to sign here.”

The attention of the growing crowd swiveled toward the delivery in question. A young child perched atop an enormous wooden crate. The afternoon sunlight had chased away the chill of the October day, and the child’s coat was unbuttoned, revealing her frilly dress. Clad in a pink frock with a matching pink eyelet lace bonnet tied beneath her chubby chin, she merrily gummed the edges of an envelope.

Mrs. Dawson, the local purveyor of all things scandalous and salacious, gasped and pressed a handkerchief against her lips. “Has the whole world gone mad? That child is hardly weaned. What sort of person sends an infant through the post?”

Heather guessed the babe’s age to be somewhere between two and three years. She hovered in that awkward phase between baby and child, babbling words that made little sense to anyone but herself.

“I’m not signing for anything.” Sterling flinched and stumbled backward, as though he’d been speared. “This is obviously a mistake or a…a prank or something.”

Heather’s stomach dipped. She knew little of Sterling beyond what his brother had conveyed during their fleeting time together. Their pa had been a fierce and unyielding man, and both brothers had fought with him over the years. Mr. Blackwell’s unexpected death had brought Sterling home two months earlier. He was as handsome as ever, and now that he owned half of the Blackwell Ranch, he was the most eligible bachelor in town.

Against her better judgment, her gaze swept over him once more. Given his looks, he could have been penniless and the girls would still swoon over him.

The tall rancher had dusky blond hair, blue eyes that seemed to melt into gray, and the muscular build of a lumberjack. As if that weren’t enough, he possessed an intriguing cleft in his strong chin. The embarrassing twinge of relief at having worn her best dress that day meant nothing—a temporary attack of vanity. Her brief, disastrous involvement with his brother had rendered her immune to his handsome face.

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