September 9, 1888
Silver Wind, Colorado
"Not a man in sight."
Melissa Grayson let out a sigh of relief. She'd made it. She drove down Silver Street past Sizemore's General Store and the Lucky Chance saloon, then stepped down from her wagon in front of the Methodist church at the end of the street. She'd loop Arthur's reins over the fence post and with any luck she'd make it into the church before any of the single men in Silver Wind knew she was there.
A sudden burst of wind caught Melissa's bonnet. She shivered as she felt the unwelcome hint of winter curl around the back of her neck and tug at the ribbon tied beneath her chin.
At that moment the bell in the steeple began its Sunday morning summons to the three hundred permanent residents of Silver Wind, Colorado, and any miners or cowboys of a mind to attend services.
"Well now, will you listen to that bell, boys," a loud male voice called out from the saloon behind her. "It's time for church. Think I might just go. Been a long time since I heard any words from the Good Book. Morning, teacher."
Melissa groaned. She'd congratulated herself too soon. The voice belonged to the worst of her suitors, a miner who called himself Black Bart. She heard the laughter and the sound of the batwing doors as he and his fellow drinkers stepped onto the plank sidewalk that wandered crookedly alongside the buildings.
It was only eleven o'clock in the morning, but if the smell of whiskey had been gunpowder, a mountain lion would have picked up the scent and hightailed it out of town. Before she could get inside the churchyard, the miner stepped in front of her and grinned. "Morning, Miss Grayson. You remember me? I'm Bart Jamison. Folks call me Black Bart."
Melissa Grayson didn't respond. She knew him. Every woman in Silver Wind knew Bart. He'd been a nondescript, unsuccessful prospector until a dime novelist immortalized the real Black Bart, who was a silver-haired businessman and part-time stagecoach robber. At one time, he'd worked for her father. But that was before she'd come. She wasn't certain if the "black" attached to Silver Wind's Bart was because he was such a bully or because he was covered in dust.
Just what she needed. The city elders, including the preacher, had issued a stern warning the last time an argument ensued over her attention. Any more fighting over her and they'd have to take action. She'd stayed away from town hoping to avoid trouble, but this was Sunday and she always attended services on Sunday.
Melissa ignored Bart. She pulled her collar close around her neck and started forward. Two quick steps around him and she'd be inside the picket fence that surrounded the small churchyard. But before she could get to the gate, Bart put his hand out to prevent her from passing.
Suddenly a younger male voice called out anxiously, "Miss Grayson, we'd better hurry. We have to choose the morning hymn." The breathless voice belonged to the mayor's son, who appeared beside her.
"Thank you, Theodore," she said to her fourteen-year-old student, "but I'll be fine." In secret reassurance, she patted the recently acquired derringer she now carried in her reticule.
"Step aside, sonny!" Bart growled. "I ain't seen the inside of a church since I left Virginny. This morning the Lord's calling out to me long and hard."
"It ain't the Lord's call that's long and hard," one of the onlookers muttered and let out a chuckle.
Theodore Dawson pulled himself up to his full height of five feet and swallowed. "Mr. Jamison, I insist you let the lady pass."
"Go home, boy!" Bart growled and shoved Ted aside. He took Melissa's arm and stumbled into the churchyard. "Miss Grayson knows a real man when she sees one. Don't you, sweet thing?"
"Let her go!" Ted scrambled after Bart. Planting himself between the bully and the church door, he drew back and swung at the miner. Nobody seemed more surprised than Ted when his fist connected to flesh and a spurt of blood gushed from Bart's nose.
"Why you scrawny little . . ."
What had started out as a skirmish turned vicious, as Bart grabbed the boy by the throat and began shaking him. Before Melissa could intercede, a churchgoer jumped in and caught Bart's arm. A free-for-all was about to ensue right there in the entrance to the churchyard. If she didn't stop it, Ted could be injured. That would be another black mark on the town's tally of her troublemaking. No matter that Melissa was not responsible, her father's school could be closed and her promise to make his dream come true would be over. Grayson Academy would never be the finest boarding school in the West. In desperation, she reached inside her bag, snatched out the derringer, aimed for heaven, and pulled the trigger.
Fate was not kind to her that day. As the church bell swung outward, the bullet hit the bell, ricocheted downward, and struck Theodore Dawson in the arm. Of all the men who didn't deserve a bullet, she'd shot her defender--the mayor's son.
Ted let out a yell and collapsed against the fence.
"Oh, Ted," Melissa cried out, and hurried to his side.
The minister, the deacons, and the choir rushed out of the church staring aghast at the drunken miners, and Melissa, kneeling beside the wounded boy.
"Miss Grayson, what's going on here?" the mayor roared, then caught sight of the blood on his son. "Ted?"
"It's nothing, Pa," Ted said weakly. "The bullet just grazed me. I'll be fine."
"How'd you get shot?" one of the townsfolk inquired and looked directly at Melissa, still holding her gun. "As if we don't already know."
"Every time she comes into town there's a fight," another added. "I don't care if she is the best-looking woman west of the Mississippi, I say to hell--pardon me, Brother Weeks--with her. Let's just run her out of town."
"No need," Bart said, and grinned. "I'd be obliged to take her off your hands."
"Now, now," the minister cautioned. "We must not defame the Lord's day."
"It isn't the Lord she shot," an angry female voice shouted. "It's Ted. I say, since she's taken to carryin' a gun, it's time we take action. Ain't no book learnin' worth lettin' her shoot up our folks."
Melissa looked down at her gun. What had she done? She'd only bought it to protect herself from men like Bart. "All I did was try to stop the fight. I didn't shoot at Theodore."
"That she didn't," Obie Kinder, an onlooker, observed. "She shot in the air but her bullet hit the church bell. Musta bounced off and caught the boy." He pulled off his cap and lowered his head. "She didn't mean no harm. It was God's will."
The mayor and the minister lifted Ted and walked toward the church, followed by the other worshipers. That was when the bell fell and cracked into two pieces.
Mayor Dawson shook his head. "I think you'd better come inside and have a seat, Miss Grayson. You've been warned, but you're as stubborn as your father--and he was the most stubborn man in Silver Wind. Built that school way out on his claim--even after we offered him the use of the church for it.
"Somebody get Sheriff Vance," Mayor Dawson said. "Doc, you come in and look at my boy's arm while the rest of us figure out what to do about Miss Grayson and the future of Grayson Academy."
Melissa tucked the derringer back into her reticule, straightened her shoulders, and entered the church. The onlookers moved to the side, forming a corridor of stern-faced townsfolk. Joan of Arc couldn't have been any more heroic. After walking the gauntlet, Melissa took a seat on the back bench as the elders met behind the altar. She couldn't believe none of the women would speak on her behalf, but then again, these were older women who bowed to their husband's wishes.
How could this have happened? All she'd wanted was to make her father's dream come true. Back East he'd tried to care for her and his fragile wife, tried and failed. Soon after her mother died, he'd closed his small private school, sold the last of their possessions, and left Melissa in a boarding school where she became both student and teacher while he went West to make a new start. Melissa had feared the worst. She knew he had neither the physical nor the practical ability to live a wilderness life.
To Melissa's surprise, he'd gotten lucky. He managed to stake a claim that produced enough gold to allow him to build a new school, and he planned to send for her in the spring. Then, before they were reunited, he came down with pneumonia and died. Only after she arrived did she learn that there was no claim. The only gold he'd found had washed down from the hills of the San Juan Mountains above Silver Wind. But he'd left her his dream, Grayson Academy. The school was the only thing she had left of the kind, gentle man who'd been her father. Now all that would be threatened because Western men had the manners of rutting buffalos and wouldn't take no for an answer.
Sheriff Vance huffed into the church. "What's going on up here?"
"Miss Grayson shot Ted," the mayor said, "and broke the bell."
"The teacher shot Ted? Why?"
"It was an accident," one of the onlookers called out. "She meant to shoot Bart."
The sheriff whirled around brandishing his revolver.
Reverend Weeks frowned. "Put that gun away, Sheriff. You're in the house of the Lord."
"Yeah," one of the church members said in a loud voice. "Besides, Vance is so blind he's liable to put a real hole in Ted."
The doctor pronounced Ted's injury a flesh wound and the mayor called the city officials to join them at the front of the church. Fifteen minutes later, after a heated argument between some of the members, Melissa Grayson was summoned forward.
"When your father died and left you the school, we welcomed you as the new teacher. But from the beginning, you seemed to be more interested in teaching our children art and poetry than reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic," the minister said.
"We tolerated that because we didn't want you to get married and quit or go back East," Alfred Sizemore, the storekeeper, added.
"Then," Ida Sizemore added, "we wished you would go back."
"And now you must," Reverend Weeks said solemnly. "Ted wasn't killed today, but he might have been. And you are responsible. The bullet came from your gun. The sheriff is ready to put you in jail."
Mayor Dawson cleared his throat, signaling an announcement. "After careful consideration, we feel that choosing a husband is the only way to stop the fighting over a woman who looks like you."
"I'm sorry, but I have no intention of marrying," Melissa said firmly. "I'm a teacher, like my father. That's all I intend to be."
"You have no choice. If you refuse," the mayor said grimly, "I'll have Sheriff Vance put you under arrest for attempted murder of my son. I'd hate to do it, but I will."
There was a collective gasp from the audience.
"But Papa--" Ted began.
"The shooting was an accident," Melissa protested.
"So you say," the mayor went on, "but the city council has decided that any single man interested in taking you as his wife will meet here three weeks from now to make an offer for your hand. It's marriage or jail."
Melissa stood, her mouth open, all the air emptied from her lungs. "But this is 1888. You can't mean to force me to marry?"
"We mean to do just that."
"Suppose I refuse?"
"It is your decision, of course," the mayor said, "but you must understand the consequences. I'd hate to see that fine school building go to waste, but even if the law rules that you don't have to go to jail, we will withdraw our children."
Withdraw their children? So far, she hadn't had enough students to pay for her efforts. "You'd give up your children's education in order to force me to take a husband?"
"We will. We don't mean to be harsh, Miss Grayson. We respected your father. He isn't here to keep an eye on you and we've decided to act on his behalf," Reverend Weeks said formally. He then added softly, "Ah, Melissa, this is best. In the West, a fetching woman like you needs a man to protect her."
Melissa studied the faces of her well-meaning accusers. They didn't approve of her. They were her father's friends, the mothers and fathers of her students, the people in town she'd come to know and count on. She knew she was a good teacher. She taught the basics, but there was nothing wrong with inspiring hearts or minds with a little art and poetry. In this cold, harsh place, the people needed something that warmed their souls.
As for how she looked, she couldn't help it that God had made her petite, with sky-blue eyes and unruly hair the color of warm taffy. She'd taken great care to be cautious about her dress and demeanor. And she hadn't accepted so much as a hand to hold from a man since she'd been in Colorado. How could the town turn against her like this? And what was she going to do?
"Let me see if I understand," she finally said. "If I marry, you'll send your children to my school?"
"Yes, we will." The minister's wife nodded. "With a husband to protect you, those heathens will leave you be. Though our husbands still think you should leave off all that poetry you make our younguns read. But," she whispered shyly, "we're working on that."
"I can pick any man I want?"
"You may," the mayor promised.
Melissa had no choice. She nodded her head. "Fine. I'll announce my choice three weeks from today."
Excerpted from The Mail Order Groom by Sandra Chastain. Copyright © 2002 by Sandra Chastain. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.