Our Little Secrets is the first book in Merry’s new Historical Romance series set in Montana in 1895.
Michael West swore he would never fall in love again. So when the beautiful and wily Charlotte steps off the train looking for a new life he jumps at the business opportunity she presents. Engaged forty-five minutes after meeting, married the next day, Michael thinks he’s found everything a respectable man should have. Except that Michael is as far from respectable as they come. They agreed not to ask questions about each other’s pasts, but when the past seeps into their present Michael suspects his passionate new wife is not who she says she is. Too bad he’s already fallen in love with her.
Charlotte Baldwin has a secret. She fled Philadelphia to escape the sins of her past but someone is following her. What better way to hide than by marrying Michael West, Cold Springs, Montana’s enigmatic shopkeeper? A new name, a new life, and a passionate husband is exactly what she needs to leave her sins behind. But when it comes to keeping secrets Charlotte may have met her match in Michael. When a connection neither of them expects catches up with them, the shocking revelation means Charlotte may have run right into the arms of her enemy.
No sin stays a secret forever….
Read the first chapter below:
Charlotte was out of her seat before the train came to a full stop. She’d had it with the beast. Thirty-two days of nearly constant travel was more than enough for a woman on her own to withstand. Especially in present company.
“Ooo!” one of the painted, preening girls packed in the train car squealed. She knelt on her seat to look out the window as the tiny town of Cold Springs, Montana rolled into sight. “Look at all the men!”
With a roll of her eyes Charlotte grabbed her carpetbag and started for the door. She pushed past the seats full of trollops who leaned out the train’s windows waving handkerchiefs and their bosoms at passersby in the frontier town, eager to get away from them and on with her life.
“Where do you think you’re going, dear?” Miss Helen, their ring-leader, hopped up to follow her. “The train hasn’t even stopped yet.”
Charlotte ignored the woman. She’d fallen in with Miss Helen’s lot in Denver, figuring there would be safety in numbers. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; a good idea she had paid for in the last week as Miss Helen tried to recruit her as a husband-hunter.
Charlotte reached for the door at the end of the car and threw it open as the brakes squealed. The train lurched to a stop. The jolt sent her and Miss Helen both stumbling out toward the guard-rail at the back of the train. Charlotte held her hat on with one hand and fumbled her carpetbag with the other.
“Easy there.” Miss Helen’s rouged lips parted in a smile. “You don’t want them to think you’re too desperate.”
“I’m fine, thanks.” Charlotte did her best to be polite. The woman had no idea what desperate was.
Miss Helen nodded to her carpetbag. “Want me to hold that while you-”
The station porter stepped forward to offer the passengers a hand down from the train and Charlotte took it. Once her feet were on solid ground she scurried to get out of the way of the storm of females that were ready to pour out of the car.
“Well hello Cold Springs!” Miss Helen trilled over the heads of the curious onlookers, flashing into action. “My name is Miss Helen and have I got a treat for you! Gentlemen, gather round!”
Miss Helen in her maroon and pink petticoats floated down the train’s steps, as audacious as any queen. Her painted face and startling red curls only just covered her true age. When she reached the platform she turned to gesture to the parade of ladies that followed her.
Charlotte took cover in the shadow of the station-house with a wince. A crowd was already gathering. She had more important things to do than watch the spectacle yet again.
“Gentlemen of Cold Springs, let me introduce you to the finest and most cultured ladies this side of the Mississippi.” Miss Helen spoke above the din of the station in a voice that must have been trained on the stage. “Fair young maidens come all the way from St. Louis to the frontier with the expressed purpose of making a few of you the happiest men alive.”
One by one the silly girls stepped down into the morning sunlight as if they too were on stage, stifling fake yawns and batting their eyelashes at the growing assembly.
“What, are they whores ‘r sumthin’?” The blunt question was followed by a chorus of rough laughter.
Charlotte could hardly blame whoever called out for their mistake.
“No, no, no!” Miss Helen pressed a hand to her ample chest and feigned shock. “Gentlemen, these women have come to you with a far nobler purpose in mind. They have come as humble frontier brides searching for husbands with whom to begin a new life!”
The unexpected answer raised a murmur of consideration from the folks on the platform, much of it humorous doubt. A few fellows seemed intrigued by the possibility. Most of the townswomen turned up their noses whilst secretly assessing the charms of their competitors.
“Let me make some introductions,” Miss Helen continued her pitch. “This fine lady is Sally.”
Charlotte didn’t have the time or the patience to watch the circus. She had a past to put behind her and her own new life to begin. Cold Springs looked like just the place to do it. She ignored the ongoing spectacle and scanned the platform. When she saw what she needed she acted.
“Excuse me.” She gripped her bag, keeping her back straight, and walked away from Miss Helen’s show towards a middle-aged man with spectacles in shirtsleeves standing near the cargo car. “Could you help me?”
The man glanced up from his clipboard and surveyed her through round glasses. The faintest hint of surprise touched his otherwise bland expression. His gaze slid to the scene behind her as Miss Helen introduced her lovely ladies then back to her. He stood straighter. “I could try to help you.”
Charlotte smiled. Finally someone with some sense. “I have another bag in the baggage car. A rather large bag too. Could you fetch it for me?”
The man glanced right and left as though she were talking to someone else. The barest glimmer of a grin flickered across his tight lips and into his round eyes.
“Certainly,” he answered after a pause. He set his clipboard down on one of the piles of crates that was being unloaded beside him. “What does your bag look like?”
“Well it’s large. Rather old too. Mostly brown. It should have a tag on it that says ‘Charlotte Baldwin’.” She’d been meaning to use a false name since the incident in St. Louis but was never able to think of one when pressed.
The spectacled man nodded and started for the baggage car between the cargo and passenger cars.
“I see you making eyes at the delightful Minnie.” Miss Helen went on peddling her wares. The petite blonde beside her batted her eyelashes at a burly cowboy with a huge moustache. “You won’t find a sweeter soul this side of the Mississippi. And she’s an excellent cook. In and out of the kitchen.”
The blonde hooted with feigned embarrassment.
Charlotte rolled her eyes and glanced beyond the scene on the train platform. Western towns all looked the same to her: thrown-together buildings with tall fronts, dirt streets filled with horses, rough men, and a few harried women. Plains and mountains stretched out in all directions, betraying the miniscule scale of civilization in the wild. Every town the train had stopped in so far in Montana fit the same description.
The difference between Cold Springs and half a dozen others was Charlotte’s level of patience. She was through with traveling. Never mind that she’d had no friends and no job in Cold Springs to help start her new life. As long as she could put the past behind her things would work out. She’d decided the night before that wherever the train stopped next would be her new home, come what may.
She drew in a deep breath. The Montana air was as fresh as the life she was eager to start.
“Can I help you ma’am?”
She turned to find a lanky man in a stationmaster’s uniform standing behind her. “Oh … I …,” she stammered, twisting to look for the man who she’d sent to get her bag. “You’re the stationmaster?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He touched his hat. “Lewis Jones.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. I’ve just sent your assistant to fetch my bag.” She smiled.
“My assistant?” Mr. Jones goggled back at her.
“Yes.” She hesitated. “The man with glasses?”
“Here you go.” The man in question reappeared on her other side. “Charlotte Baldwin,” he read the tag aloud then set her beat up old bag between them.
“Thank you so much.” She reached for the clasp of her carpetbag to pay the man.
The stationmaster’s laugh startled her. “Hey, Mr. West, she thought you were my assistant,” Lewis Jones told the man as if sharing a bad joke.
“Oh dear.” She lowered her carpetbag. “You’re not…?”
“No.” Mr. West’s eyes sparkled behind his glasses.
Color splashed to Charlotte’s cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed-”
“No offense taken.”
“Mr. West owns the general store,” Mr. Jones explained. Then, as if to rub her mistake in, he continued with a snort, “He’s one of the richest men in town. And you thought he was a porter. Can you imagine?”
Charlotte made herself laugh along with the man, in spite of her hot cheeks. “That’s what I get for taking a chance, I guess.”
“Wait ‘til the boys hear about-”
“Thank you, Lewis.” Mr. West cut him off with a strained smile. “Could you help Oliver unload the rest of the shipment?”
“Yes, sir.” Mr. Jones snapped to do as he was told, leaving Charlotte alone to start her new life at the mercy of the man she’d just insulted.
* * * * *
“Now what I need to know is where I and my young charges can stay while we’re in town getting to know you all.”
Michael glanced from the dark-haired beauty who had thought he was a porter to the dreadful woman causing a spectacle further down the platform. At her direction the rest of the floozies formed a line and were smiling and flaunting their assets at Cold Springs’ finest. He ignored them. Seen one loose woman and you’d seen them all. He had a shipment to receive and a store to run.
And an unexpected distraction.
“I really am very sorry I mistook you for the porter,” Miss Baldwin apologized again. She was well spoken, he’d give her that. Her soft black hair was tied up in a simple style that framed pale skin, deep blue-green eyes, and rosy lips. Her perfect figure was concealed in a modest, elegant dress. She hadn’t bought a dress like that anywhere nearby and the brooch pinned at the collar was genuine ivory.
“Not a problem.” He smiled. “I’m sure it was an easy mistake to make.”
He picked up his clipboard, scanning over the packing list. His eyes only made it halfway down the page before flickering back to Miss Baldwin. She studied the platform and the town beyond it with a resolute expression.
“You haven’t seen beauty until you’ve seen Katie,” the garish Miss Helen talked up another of the girls.
Michael begged to differ. He studied Miss Baldwin. She had her carpetbag open now and was sorting through its contents. Her lips were pressed in a perfect pink line of determination. There was no reason at all that he should find her more interesting than his work.
“You aren’t going to….” He nodded towards the others.
“Oh no.” She glanced up and shut her carpetbag, arching an eyebrow. “I don’t need that kind of attention.”
He closed his mouth and stood straighter. “That’s very … confident of you.”
“There are days, Mr. West, when confidence is the only thing I’ve got going for me.”
A lopsided grin tweaked the corners of Michael’s mouth. If this poised beauty expected to find a husband amongst the miners and cowboys of Cold Springs she was out of luck. Not one of them was up to the challenge.
“Do you want me to bring the wagon around, Mr. West?” Oliver asked as he jumped down from the train’s cargo car.
Michael continued to appraise the enigmatic woman in front of him until she noticed him watching her. “Yes,” he told Oliver. “See if you can flag down one of the Jones boys over there to help you while you’re at it. Tell them I’ll pay them a dime each to help with the shipment.”
“A dime?” The woman nodded her approval. “For that kind of money I’d help you myself.”
“Would you now?” He tucked the clipboard under his arm, work forgotten.
“Certainly. Are you hiring?” She kept a straight face but there was a sparkle in her bright eyes.
One of her light-skirt companions laughed at something and half the men on the platform laughed with her. It served to underline her question. His grin broadened. “As much as I need help at the store, I don’t think I could afford you.”
“I thought you were one of the richest men in town, Mr. West.”
It had been so long since a woman had flirted with him that he’d forgotten how to flirt back.
“Alright, you’ve got me there,” he chuckled. What was wrong with him? He should go back to work or run as fast as he could.
He checked to make sure no one from town was listening. “I just need to make sure all of the crates on this packing list are here. Oliver can handle the rest. Then can I take your bags somewhere?” he asked out of sheer mad compulsion to find out who she was and what she was doing there. He glanced past her to the others. One of the young women actually lifted the corner of her skirt to show off her calves. “Do you know where you’ll be staying?”
“I have no idea,” she announced with a flash of excitement in her eyes. “I’ve been on that train for so long the only thing I know besides my name is that I don’t ever want to get on a train again.”
“And your name is Charlotte Baldwin.” He nodded to the upturned tag on the bag between them.
“My friends call me Charlie.” She held out her hand.
“Charlie.” He set his clipboard down and took it. She wore kid gloves with pearl buttons. Not cheap. Charlie Baldwin most definitely wasn’t from anywhere nearby. “How far have you come?”
“Philadelphia?” A twinge of bittersweet longing pierced his gut. “That’s a long way.”
“Yes.” She made light of the distance. “But I’m here now and I intend to start over, starting now.” She glanced over her shoulder at the train.
“You do?” It was just a coincidence, he told himself. Anyone could be from Philadelphia. “Why in God’s name would you want to stay here?”
She shrugged. “Who wouldn’t want to build a new life in a town as homey and picturesque as this?”
Her question was followed by a gunshot from the heart of the town’s main street and a round of screaming from the silly girls disbursing off the platform. Charlie whipped her head around to find where the danger had come from, hugging her carpetbag.
“Cowboys,” Michael explained with a shrug. “Someone is probably drunk.”
“But it’s eleven in the morning, at least it is if that clock is right.” She nodded to the large clock built into the thick stone edifice of the bank.
“They’ve had a late start today,” he replied with a straight face, a twinkle in his eye.
She pinned him with a dubious glance. Her anxiety melted and a chuckle bubbled up from her slender throat. She raised a hand to her mouth. “Oh dear.”
Michael’s long-suppressed desire to be charming flared to life. He made a half-hearted attempt to squash it. She was just another newcomer. A beautiful, intelligent newcomer with winsome eyes and a figure a man would have to be dead not to notice. Instinct couldn’t have chosen a more inconvenient time to flare. Then again, a devilish part of him argued, if she had come to town to find a husband….
“Miss Baldwin. Charlie,” he found himself asking against his better judgment, “Could I buy you lunch?”
“As long as you have enough dimes,” she grinned.
“I’m sure I could find some,” he replied. “Let me just get Oliver situated and I’ll show you the town.”
This was either his lucky day or the beginning of pure disaster.