April 17, 2023 (Edwards and Williams)
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Katie Jo McAllister never considered herself a prim and fussy sort of gal. The gentlemen are more likely to ask her help in chopping down a tree than taking a turn on the dancefloor. But when Katie Jo stands up with her friend, Ciara O’Rourke, at her wedding, all gussied up, suddenly every man in miles is angling for an introduction. Even the area’s most eligible bachelor, Harry Yeager, who has ignored her for months, comes calling. How can she believe his intentions are sincere?
After being orphaned young and passed around among relatives, Harry Yeager is determined to start his own family. He has the claim, the cabin, and the income to support a wife and children. In an area with eight bachelors to every unmarried woman, finding the wife has proven problematic. But the sweet-natured Katie Jo McAllister just might be the perfect bride to rule beside him in his little frontier kingdom.
When danger comes calling along with a host of suitors, Katie Jo finds herself turning to Harry. Can he truly see the heart of the woman beneath all her finery, a heart that beats for him alone?
Seattle, Washington Territory, September 1976
It sure took a lot of work to be a lady.
Katie Jo McAllister glanced around at the busy Seattle street. Plenty of menfolk were going about their business, dressed like her in loose wool trousers and collarless flannel shirts. But every one of them stopped to doff their hats and smile as the few ladies walked past, skirts swishing and swaying like aspens in the breeze.
She lifted a hand to the slouch hat mostly covering her hair. The other ladies’ hair was curled around their foreheads and piled up to tumble down behind them in heavy braids and waves. That swung too as they walked. And every feller watched them go.
None of them watched her. Most probably didn’t even notice she was female. But if prim and fussy dresses dripping with bric-a-brac and hair hanging every which way would get Uncle Cole to see her as a lady, and allow her and Zeke to get on with their lives, she was ready to give any amount of work a try.
“Here we are,” Beth McCormick sang out. Now, she knew how to dress like a lady. Her dress was a pretty shade of pink, with flowers embroidered all over it, and it had extra skirts front and back draped in a darker pink, with gathers all along the hem. Under a hat trimmed in ribbon and flowers, her hair was the color of the gold Uncle Cole wished he could get the stream on their claim to spit out, and it fell down behind her like a waterfall.
Beth had insisted that Katie Jo and their friend, Ciara O’Rourke, come in to Seattle from the settlement of Wallin Landing to purchase gewgaws for Ciara’s wedding, which was less than a week away. One of the other ladies at Wallin Landing, Mrs. Nora Wallin, had made Katie Jo a dress for the occasion.
It was a pretty dress too. Katie Jo had picked out the blue gingham because it was the color of the sky on a summer’s day, like her eyes. But standing in Nora’s bedchamber with Ciara, gazing at herself in the standing mirror, Katie Jo had become aware of a distinct settling of her spirits.
“It doesn’t look good on me,” she had said.
Nora’s kind face had sagged. “Perhaps more trim?”
Nora liked trim. Her dresses boasted emboidery, lace, fringe, and double and triple skirts, for all she lived in a house on a wilderness farm and cared for the little ones of the settlement when their mas and pas were busy.
Ciara had studied her critically. “What you need is a corset.”
Katie Jo blushed now, remembering, as she glanced up at the sign over the door of the establishment they had reached two blocks above the waterfront. Mrs. Blanchard’s Selection was written in curling letters washed over with gilt. Painted on the glass window were the words For the discriminating lady of fashion and elegance.
That wasn’t her. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t be her. She just had to try. Anything to help her little brother.
She pulled open the door and held it wide to the tinkle of the shop’s bell. “After you, ladies.”
Smiling, Beth and Ciara stepped inside.
Katie Jo followed them. She’d been to the mercantile in Wallin Landing, and she’d come in to Seattle once or twice with her uncle for some piece of equipment, but none of the shops she’d ever visited looked like this one, all pink and white, like Beth’s skirts and the taffy candies her brother begged her to bring him. Forms shaped like a lady’s bodice were covered with corsets in white, cream, r black satin, the tops edged in lace and some with embroidery along the panels. One was even scarlet! She tried to imagine herself in it and failed.
“Welcome, ladies,” called a tall woman with hair swept back like a raven’s wing from her face. Her dress too was covered with lace and beading and trim. “May I ask your brother to wait outside? My clients prefer their privacy.”
Katie Jo glanced behind her to see what feller had had the temerity to step into this lair of feminity, but she saw no one.
“This is our friend, Miss McAllister,” Ciara said, steel in her voice, as Katie Jo faced front again. “She requires a new corset.”
The lady’s lashes fluttered, as if she’d been swarmed by gnats. “Of course. Something in a durable cotton?”
That sounded practical. Katie Jo nodded.
Beth shook her head. “Durable, certainly, but Miss McAllister is a lady of some refinement. Satin covered, lace along the top. Comfortably boned. Sturdy laces.”
Katie Jo stared at her.
Mrs. Blanchard, or so she assumed the lady to be, nodded. “Certainly. This way, Miss McAllister, and we’ll get you measured.”
The thought of undressing in front of this lady was as horrible as getting stuck in the privy on a winter’s morn. Katie Jo fumbled in the pocket of her trousers. “Mrs. Nora already took my measurements.” She thrust the piece of paper at the dressmaker. “She thought it would be easier if I just gave them to you.”
Mrs. Blanchard took the piece of paper with two fingers as if Katie Jo had somehow dirted it, then studied it a moment. Her brows went up, and she gazed at Katie Jo so fixedly she wanted to turn and run out the door.
This is for Zeke. Uncle Cole is never going to let him go unless you can prove you are a lady grown.
Besides, she refused to let down her friends. She just smiled politely.
“Are these correct?” she asked, gaze now jumping from Ciara to Beth.
“Absolutely accurate,” Ciara said. “Miss McAllister has an enviable figure.”
“Which I’m certain you will know how to show to advantage,” Beth added.
For the first time, Mrs. Blanchard’s smile blossomed. “I most certainly can, and it will be my pleasure. I’ll just gather some material, and we can come to agreement on how she’d like it made.”
Beth held up a finger. “Two, if you please. Long stays and short. Miss McAllister’s maid has to take a day off on occasion.”
Katie Jo nearly snorted. Maid. Who did Beth think she was kidding? Anyone looking at her would know she was more likely to be a maid than employ one.
“Do I really need two of the contraptions?” she whispered to her friends as Mrs. Blanchard hurried off.
“Yes,” Ciara whispered back. “A lady can more easily deal with short stays when she’s alone.”
She wasn’t really alone on the claim, but she understood. Zeke would have been moritifed no end if she’d asked him to do up her stays for her. And Uncle Cole would have told her she was being a fool to wear them, if she’d dared to ask him for help.
Which she wouldn’t have. She was just thankful he’d agreed to allow her to go into Wallin Landing for a whole week to help at Ciara’s restaurant, The Wooden Rose Inn, and prepare for the wedding. She still couldn’t quite believe Ciara had asked her to stand up with her, but she was going to do her best to make sure she did her friend proud.
Hence the need for a corset. She’d never owned one in her life. She’d been twelve when Ma had passed, and Uncle Cole had sold her mother’s clothes to help make ends meet. As soon as Katie Jo had outgrown the dresses her mother had made for her, she’d been relegated to store-bought trousers and shirts, usually ones Uncle Cole no longer fancied.
“Whole lot easier,” he had told her. “You don’t have to fuss with seamstresses and the like, and they’re less likely to wear out or get torn. Besides, you’re not a lady yet.”
Ten years later, he still didn’t like to acknowledge she was a lady any more than he liked acknowledging that Zeke, now seventeen, was about old enough to be on his own too. Together, she and her brother did the bulk of the work to maintain the house and critters, while her uncle attempted to coax gold out of the creek. Uncle Cole had given up his own dreams to raise her and her brother. She understood the need to pay him back for his trouble. But it was time he let her and Zeke go.
She could only hope he’d be patient with her brother while she was gone. Zeke did his best to please, but it wasn’t his fault he’d been born puny. Any little thing overset him. And Uncle Cole wasn’t always good about standing in front of him, so Zeke could read his lips and understand what was expected of him.
The shop door tinkled again, and she glanced back in time to meet the gaze of Harry Yeager. Her heart plummeted to the soles of her sturdy boots, then shot up into her throat. Likely even he could hear it pounding as he sauntered closer.
Like her uncle, she might sometimes forget she was a gal, but when Harry was around, she was acutely aware she was female.
Maybe it was because he was such a male. That confident swagger, that drawling voice. He had hair the color of her mother’s mahogany chest she’d carried all the way across the Plains, and it waved around a strong-jawed face with a smile that could melt butter. When those dark brown eyes twinkled, she felt warm all over. He was taller than she was, which, she was coming to realize, was rare, and he was strong enough to swing a double-headed ax with precision. All in all, a gal could go all swoony in his presence.
It had been hard enough sitting beside him on the bench of the wagon as he’d driven her and Ciara in from the Landing this morning. Facing him here? Impossible!
She whipped around, tugged down on her hat, and prayed he wouldn’t pay her anymore mind than usual.
“Sorry to interupt, ladies,” he said from behind her. “I just wanted to let you know that the steamship is offloading passengers. It might take an hour before I have Miss Dennison and her things in the wagon.”
“Thank you, Harry,” Ciara said. “We should be ready by then.”
Katie Jo heard the shop door tinkle a third time as he must have left.
She hadn’t realized the sound was loud enough to hear, but Ciara put a hand on her shoulder. “You wait, Katie Jo. Harry’s going to be singing a different tune when he sees you in your new dress. He’ll forget all about Miss Dennison.”
Katie Jo shook her head. “Thank you, but I realized straightaway that I’m not what Harry Yeager is looking for in a wife. That’s not going to change with some new finery.”
But something inside her pressed upward, as if reaching for the moon. Maybe it wasn’t only Uncle Cole who she hoped would see her as a lady.
Harry Yeager whistled to himself as he strolled down the street toward the wharves. His wife could be coming in on that steamship. Beth McCormick might be the town matchmaker, and she’d picked out Jesse for the new schoolmarm, but Harry had something Jesse didn’t.
A powerful will.
Harry considered it a blessing, even if some called it a failing.
“He’s a headstrong lad,” his third cousin had complained to the town constable when Harry had run away from the backbreaking work expected of him at only nine years old. “But never fear. We’ll beat it out of him.”
So far, no one and nothing ever had. Not the various distant relatives who had passed him around after his parents had died when he was eight. Not the ministers and schoolteachers who had tried to settle his spirit with kind words or harsh reprimands. Not the plowing, milking, and wood chopping he’d been required to do to earn his keep. Not the employers who generally saw him only as another strong back.
Not even the first friends he’d found, after joining Drew Wallin’s logging crew.
“What would I have to do to convince you to let me bring home the new schoolmarm?” he’d asked his friend, Jesse Willets, last night as they’d sat at the table in the cabin they shared now that Ciara O’Rourke was turning their former home into the Wooden Rose Inn.
Jesse had eyed him. He was bigger than Harry and Kit Weatherly, the third member of the crew, nearly as big as the legendary Drew Wallin himself. He too hoped to find a wife in an area with eight and a half bachelors for every unmarried lady. “Mrs. McCormick asked me to collect her.”
“I remember,” Harry said. He put his elbow on the table and raised his fist. “Arm wrestle you for it.”
Jesse couldn’t resist a game. With his lopsided grin, he’d planted his elbow and clapsed Harry’s hand.
Oh, but Jesse was strong. Harry’s muscles, honed by years of hard work, protested the pressure. His fist moved over and out as Jesse shoved harder.
No. This was his chance. Ever since his parents had died, he’d been looking for a family. He’d found one in the Wallin kin, but he wanted one all his own. A wife, children. Home.
Jesse blinked and stared down at his arm, pinned to the table, with Harry’s on top. “You won.”
Harry released him, arm aching worse than if he’d felled a dozen trees in one day. “Looks like it. Thanks, Jesse. I promise not to propose until she’s at least had a chance to meet you.” He grinned. “But not much beyond that.”
So here he stood. On the edge of the wharves, watching small boats bobbing in on the tide as they crossed the blue-gray waters of Elliott Bay from the San Francisco steamer. One step closer to having a family again.
He frowned, counting heads in the two closest boats. All men, if those hats were any indication. Then again, he knew of a female who wore a man’s hat.
His mind conjured the image of Katie Jo McAllister in that lady’s shop. For one moment, when their gazes had brushed, he’d thought he’d seen something like admiration in her look before she’d spun and put her back to him. He hadn’t thought of Katie Jo McAllister as having those kinds of feelings, especially not toward him.
He had to appreciate her grit, though. He understood enough about what went on in such shops to know ladies were pinned and prodded every which way to fit into their dresses. He wouldn’t have wanted to let some stranger measure him and possibly find him wanting. He was done with that part of his life.
“Mornin,’ Harry.” Mr. Bartholomew, the young assistant harbormaster, nodded from his booth at the top of the wharves as Harry drew up next to him. “You expecting something from San Francisco?”
Harry grinned. “Yes, sir. Miss Alice Dennison. The new Wallin Landing schoolteacher.”
Bartholomew frowned down at the manifest he must have been given and scratched his clean-shaven chin. “Funny. I don’t see a lady on the list.”
Harry frowned as well. “Let me see.”
Bartholomew handed over the paper, dark brows high and nose higher, as if he scented a story in the making. Harry ignored him to scan down the list. Not a miss, missus, or Dennison was in evidence.
“Must be some mistake,” he said, shoving the paper at the assistant harbormaster. “She telegrammed to say she would be coming on this boat.”
Bartholomew shrugged and tapped the pages on the edge of the booth to straighten them. “Happens all the time. Some ladies like San Francisco too much to continue to Seattle. Look at Miss Williamson. She only lasted a few weeks before hightailing it south.”
Harry had looked at Melinda Williamson, sister to Ada, who had married Scout Rankin. She was beautiful, charming, and sweet-natured. But there had been something about her, a fragility, a fascination with her own needs to the exclusion of all else, that had kept him from pursuing her.
Beth said he was too picky, but a man had to have some standards in a bride. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for one that was pretty as a picture, clever—but not so clever she’d think she was better than him—and strong, so she could help him prove up his claim. And if she could cook as well as Ciara O’Rourke, well, that would be a real blessing.
It wasn’t as if he had nothing to offer in return. His claim was one hundred and sixty acres abutting Lake Union, in an area that was sure to grow as Seattle expanded. His two-room cabin was about finished. All he had to do was lay down the plank flooring, dig a well, and put in a pump. And he had a good job, for good pay, in a settlement worthy of calling home.
A lady could do worse.
For some reason, Katie Jo came to mind again. Sometimes, when he could see up under that slouch hat, he would swear she was pretty. She was clever enough to take care of herself, and she didn’t act as if she was better than him. She was plenty strong. She helped Ciara clear the tables and wash the dishes at the inn. She might even have learned a thing or two about cooking.
But Katie Jo McAllister had spent a lot of time with Beth and Ciara lately. She might have her own ideas about courting and marriage. He’d tried courting multiple times over the last two years, and every gal had chosen a different groom. It was enough to make a feller wary of opening his heart.
Which made a stranger like the new schoolmarm a safer bet than Miss Katie Jo McAllister.
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You can learn more about some of the real-life Seattle pioneers in my article.
And remember the other books in the Frontier Matches series: