Chapter 1

Cottonwood, California 1875

Miranda Carmichael lifted her skirts and maneuvered up the few steps leading to the boardwalk in front of her family's mercantile. Without another option, she set the basket she was carrying on the ground and fished the keys out of her short waist jacket. The single metal key slid easily into the lock and Miranda pushed the door open with her hip, retrieving the basket as she swept across the threshold. A bell sang overhead and Miranda bustled into the empty store, her shoes clicking on the polished hard wood.

While she didn't like waking up early, she did like being in the store when it was empty. The large room that was usually filled with people and noise, sat quiet at this hour. Of course it wouldn't last for long, she knew there was only an hour before customers began to pour through her doors, so she got right to work. She began pulling sheets off the counters then heard a knock on the door. It was Daisy Engler, one of the clerks that helped three days a week. She let her in quickly and they worked together to get the store ready for opening.

"How was your night, Daisy?" Miranda asked as they straightened the Mason jars.

"Busy as usual," the woman answered. "Tommy got into the mud and made a huge mess! After I gave him a bath, the kitchen was covered in muddy water, which made for a late night clean up."

Miranda laughed, Daisy's son was always getting into a mess of some kind. Daisy was a few years older than Miranda and had been married since she arrived in their small town. Like so many others, they had ventured along the trail West toward the promise of gold. Her husband Tom spent most of his time in the gold mines, hoping to strike it big like so many other men. Daisy worked to ensure that there was food on the table for her family. "Sounds like you had fun."

"I have to admit, he looked adorable caked in mud," Daisy smiled. "When he went to bed and I was left to clean up the mess, it was less adorable."

When they were finished straightening the shelves, Miranda sent Daisy to the back room for a few items they noticed were missing. "We could use some more hand towels; I know there is a box of those in the back. You could also bring out some more candies; the jars are looking a little low. I think we're out of white wash; I'll have to put that on an ordering list for Daddy. Did you notice anything else?"

Daisy stood thoughtfully, "I think I could pull a couple more men's shirts for the shelves. There are some out, but I believe we have some other color selections in the back."

"That's an excellent idea. I'll start the coffee and wipe down the front counter. No matter what we do it always seems to get dusty!"

Both women began their respective jobs alone. Miranda set the coffee pot onto the stove to perk, and polished the counter on which so much business would be done. As Miranda watched Daisy restock the shelves; she noticed a man peering in the window, it was Mr. Harding. Checking the clock, she realized that it was time to open.

"Good Morning, Mr. Harding," she smiled, opening the door for him, while flipping the closed sign that had previously hung in the window.

"I sure am glad to see you!" the older man spouted. He pulled off his dusty hat as he entered, trapping it under his arm.

"And why is that? I'm sure Mrs. Harding wouldn't like to hear such a report!" she replied, waggling a finger at him.

The old man shouted with laughter, "Mrs. Harding knows how much I love her! I'm glad to see you this morning because it means you've made the coffee."

Now it was Miranda's turn to laugh. It was well known in this small town that the coffee was not fit to drink when her father opened the store. Somehow, no matter what he did, Daddy made it taste like dirt. Miranda had tried to show him how to make it properly numerous times, but it didn't seem to make a difference. She now opened the store three days a week to allow her father a little extra time with his pillow in the morning. Both the customers and her father seemed to appreciate those days each week.

"Well I'll take that as a compliment. It might be another five minutes before it finishes percolating. If you don't mind waiting, I'll be happy to pour you a cup when it's ready."

"Sure thing, darlin'. I'll just take a look at the tools while I wait."

"If you tell me your preference for cream and sugar I'll be happy to bring it straight to you."

"A bit of each will suit me just fine, thank you."

"Coming right up. Go ahead and look at the tools; I know we just got in a few saws that might strike your fancy. And, we just got some of those cinnamon candies Mrs. Harding likes so well."

He laughed again, "Don't let me leave without some of those. My wife would have my head if she knew you had them and I didn't bring any home. In fact, why don't you get me a half a pound and have them ready, just so I don't forget."

Miranda gave a quick nod and got to work as he walked to the far left of the store where a variety of tools hung on the pegged wall. She shoveled out an ample amount of cinnamon candies from the bin on the counter and put them in a bag. Weighing them after each scoop, she measured exactly a half pound of the sweet treats. After tying the bag, she noticed the coffee was finished, and grabbed a tin mug from the top shelf under the counter. Filling the mug with the steaming brew and adding cream and sugar, she walked it over to Mr. Harding, who was inspecting a saw.

She smiled and pressed it into his hands and he took a sip immediately. A smile blossomed onto his lips. "Miss Miranda, I think this coffee might even be better than my wife's, but don't you go telling her that," he winked.

"I wouldn't think of it!"

She stood there for a moment longer to see if he had any questions about the tools. Papa would certainly be impressed if she sold a saw before he even entered the store. He knew that she was more than capable to run the store on her own, but still believed that bolts of cloth and spools of ribbon were more her domain. From the side of the store, she heard the bell tinker and excused herself from Mr. Harding, who was too engrossed in the merchandise to notice.

Bustling back to the front of the store, she slowed down when she saw Harry Fisher saunter in. Her pulse quickened. While Harry Fisher was not the most attractive man she'd ever met, he was single. At this point, that was all Miranda could worry about. She was twenty two years old, and in her own estimation four years past marrying age. It was almost unfathomable that she could be in a town where there were eight men for every woman and not have a single one of them propose. Mr. Fisher was the man her eyes were currently set on. He was a hand on one of the nearby ranches, and came into the mercantile often enough. Miranda let herself believe that he had named himself the errand boy for Dusty Diamond ranch so he could see her more often.

He turned when he saw no one at the counter, and when his grey eyes met her own, he smiled politely. She tried to hide her blush by momentarily focusing on something out of place. "Good morning, Mr. Fisher." She said softly, still unsure of herself around the man she now believed was her only hope for matrimony.

"Good morning, Miss Carmichael," he answered tipping his hat to her before taking it off. "Looks like it is shaping up to be a lovely day."

"It certainly does, I enjoyed my walk this morning, despite the growing chill in the air. I fear it won't be long before I have to wrap a quilt around myself to make the walk to open the store."

"True enough, Miss." He rocked uneasily back on his heels, and looked toward the items that were stored behind the counter.

It was obvious to Miranda that Mr. Fisher had not come to exchange pleasantries. "What can I get for you this morning?"

"I wasn't really sent with a list this morning; the boys knew I was coming to town, so they asked me to pick up a box of three quarter inch nails while I was here. I suppose I'll take a cup of that coffee too, while I'm here."

She moved swiftly to the hot coffee and poured him a cup, fixing it exactly the way he liked, with two sugars and no cream, without him telling her. Surely he would notice her attention to detail. As he accepted the cup, he didn't make any comments about her thoughtfulness, so she climbed the ladder to the sixth shelf that held all of the nails. Grabbing the correct box, she lowered herself to the ground and tugged at her dress, which had risen due to her reach.

"Are you sure Ethel doesn't need anything for the kitchen? I know she goes through an awful lot feeding all of you boys up there."

"Not that I know of, Miss."

"Well, perhaps I should send you with some flour and sugar just to be sure? It wouldn't hurt to have extra, it would surely get used," Miranda pressed, walking toward the corner of the store where those things were kept.

"Thank you for your kindness, but I don't think I'll have room to take it back. I actually came into town to pick someone up from the stage."

Miranda suddenly noticed how nice he looked. He was clean shaven, his shirt was pressed, and his jeans lacked the usual coat of dust that proved his work on a ranch. "And who is it that you've gotten so dressed up for?"

"My wife," he admitted with more excitement than she had ever heard him speak with. She would classify Harry as a boring type of fellow, one that didn't talk much, or smile much, but was polite and considerate, which was what made him good enough for Miranda to marry. This sudden spark of electricity was most unlike him.

Miranda's otherwise wonderful morning came to a screeching halt. "His wife?!" her head reeled. Her eyes must have bulged out of her sockets in shock, and she did everything she could to keep her jaw from dropping. Pretending to look at something behind her, she quickly schooled her features, then turned back to face the gentleman who had just left her in devastation yet again. "I didn't realize you were married."

"I'm not," he shook his head. "I should have said my future wife."

"Oh, you've sent for a sweetheart?"

"No, not really, well not in the traditional sense of the word. I advertised in an eastern news paper for a bride. You have to admit, Miss Carmichael that pickings are mighty slim in these parts. So, I figured I'd try a lady from another part of the country. I received a reply two months ago, she's coming today."

Swallowing her tears, Miranda forced a smile, but her mind raced. "Pickings are slim in these parts? What does that make me? I'm not even worth picking."

"That's very exciting, Mr. Fisher," she said softly.

She rang up his order, which came out to a measly eleven cents. He rustled in his pocket for the change and deposited the exact amount in her hand. "When she gets here I might bring her in for a few things. We all know those city girls come to town sorely lacking in the essentials for western living. I see a pretty pair of boots over there that she might be able to use, but I guess I'm getting ahead of myself, I don't know what size she wears."

"Just bring her on in, we'll take care of her," Miranda said, trying to keep her feelings from the surface. Harry shot her a huge smile, then slammed his hat back onto his head, tipped it at her with an accompanying smile, and left with his nails.

"Daisy, would you mind tending the front for just a moment?" she called down the third aisle of the store, where Daisy was busy replenishing jars of peach preserves. Daisy acquiesced and bounced to the front quickly, leaving Miranda free to go to sneak out the back door for just a moment. She hoped a moment would be enough to compose herself; she had gotten quite used to this particular feeling.

She left without her jacket and pressed her back against the wall of the store. Taking in a deep breath of the cool air, she felt better already. It seemed that this always happened to her, being overlooked. Time and time again, gentleman in their small town would look past her and find wives elsewhere. Women came in on wagon trains and were swept up within six months. Then there was this new trend that included writing letters to complete strangers and asking them to come west. Even widows seemed to have a greater pick of the gentlemen in town. If a woman was widowed, she didn't remain single for long, even if she took a brood of children with her.

Both of Miranda's sisters, Beth and Lucy, were married at eighteen, and found their beaus far before that age. No matter how Miranda searched, she couldn't entice any man to declare feelings for her, let alone propose. Initially, she was looking for the most eligible bachelor within the town limits, handsome, honest and having a sense of humor would have been most appreciated. Since then, her standards had dwindled. Now, the only thing she was after was a single man who would treat her fairly, and give her the children she so desired. Even that didn't seem enough, perhaps she should advertise for a Mail Order Husband. "Who are you kidding? He would probably come all this way and fall in love with a girl who just arrived on a wagon train., who is dusty and in a dither, instead of me."

After pressing a careful hand to her chestnut hair to make sure every piece was still in place, she re-entered the store. Daisy was busy with another customer, so Miranda moved to the aisle where Daisy had been working. She got down on her knees and arranged her skirts, not wanting to be improper, and began to stack the shelf that was already laden with preserves. Staying away from other customers might keep her frustration at bay for now, and if she could get through today, she could sneak off to Lucy's house after her shift for a little sisterly comfort.

Here it is! I'm so excited to get this story started, and as always I would love your feedback! I know this chapter is a little long, especially for a first chapter, but I hope you still enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!