Alarmingly Charming

by Debra E. Marvin
Based on Northanger Abbey

As travel companion to her condescending cousin, Philadelphian Kathryn Morton dreamily anticipates a week in the Wild West as the best cure for meekness. After a long rail journey and a steady diet of gothic dime novels, she shivers, despite the Texas heat, at the ghastly tales of the Austin Axe Murderer. Kathryn has little time to fret, given the competing attentions of quiet rancher Harmon Gray and elegant gentleman Jonathan Wellington. With her new-found confidence and her boundless imagination, she sets out to solve the mystery of Hyde Park Cemetery before another student flees Austen Abbey. Only then can she return home to her English-born parents as an independent American woman. A woman in love. But on the stormiest of nights, Kathryn learns that solving the mystery may destroy a future with the man she’s fallen for in a big Texas way.

Chapter 1

Austin, Texas 1887

Kathryn Morton turned the page….

We pulled the horses up near a small copse of woods, leaving Slim nestled like a snake between two boulders. The rest of us, including Jesse himself, piled large stones between the rails. At the mournful song of the whistle, we raised our masks, and I beheld the approaching locomotive’s smoke in the distance. My heart pounded with anticipation.

Kathryn pressed her forehead to the train window and peered through the spot she’d previously wiped clean. Wide, scruffy land filled the endless horizon. Now that she thought of it, those trees did seem rather menacing. She nudged her glasses up her nose and returned to the dime novel.

We set about to make a great noise, firing eighteen or twenty shots, as the train came to a standstill.

The rattling rock of the railcar slowed, though they were still out in the middle of nowhere. A sudden clatter of footsteps on metal, and her mouth went dry as the landscape.      

Train robbers.

On the roof.

One would shoot the coalman in cold blood. Then the driver, if he didn’t act quickly. The train would stop. Mask-wearing, six-gun toting, sour-breathed bandits bent on thieving and destruction would appear, disproving Mother’s insistence she’d surely be killed by Indians.

Kathryn’s foot tapped as fast as her wild heart. Why hadn’t she used the lavatory?

Cousin Jane, asleep beside her, remained blissfully unaware of impending doom. A faint glistening pooled at the corner of her mouth. She was too well bred to drool.

“Jane! Wake up!”

Another clink-clank. The robber might be Jesse James himself. No, she’d seen his death photo, and he had not looked well. Not well at all.

The railcar door flew open, intensifying the clackety-clack.

This was it.

Horrified, she faced the round, pink-cheeked conductor who paused by their seats.

He nudged his hat off his sweaty forehead. “Excuse me, miss, but we’ll be arriving within the half hour.”

Kathryn grasped the ruffles at her neck. “What about the bandits?”

The conductor cocked his head. “Are you all right, miss?”

Embarrassment warmed her face, and she moved her hand casually along her jaw. “Yes. I’m fine. Thank you.” He appeared relieved to move on.

Jane rubbed her eyes. “Put that dreadful story away before you scare yourself senseless.”

Kathryn complied. She always complied. Jane was five years her junior with ten times her spunk. Jane’s future held a year of finishing school in Austin. Kathryn was along as companion for propriety’s sake only—a brown mouse tagging behind a golden lioness. Jane was well able to take care of herself.

Cousin Jane fluffed the mounds of unnatural curls framing the only feature they shared—large amber eyes. “I hope you don’t expect to read during your entire week’s stay. I’ve heard there are many amusements around the city, and that we must avoid the riverfront.” She opened her reticule and checked her face in a tiny mirror. “Which only makes me more anxious to go. I find I quite adore adventure.”

“But your mother said—”

“Kathryn. Honestly.” Jane sighed and shook her head.

Kathryn pinned her straw hat into her topknot and watched the countryside pass. Jane’s frustration was just a reflection of what sat lumped inside Kathryn’s chest.

Mesquite and Mexicans, cattle and cowboys. The trip from Philadelphia to Austin had been worth all of Jane’s pitying remarks because she, Kathryn Patience Morton, would, in one short week, return home to her very proper Cheapside-born parents, a modern American daughter. Confident, brave, and independent.

She had no idea how she’d do it. But she’d try, by gum.

Well, she wouldn’t take any risks. And she’d be very careful. Caution never hurt. There was no need to be foolish, of course.

Last off the train, Kathryn followed Jane down two narrow steps onto the platform. With one quick motion Kathryn checked her hat and adjusted her bustle.

And then remembered to survey for prying eyes. Not that anyone looked at her when Jane was around.

She hurried to catch up as Jane marched toward the shade of the station. “Is someone supposed to meet us, Cousin?”

“Of course.”

A mustached young gentleman stepped forward, an older man trailing him. “Ladies, are you two by chance the Misses Radcliffe and Morton?” His gaze went to each as he named them, presumably advised of their descriptions. Miss Morton will be the dull one with glasses.

“Why yes, we are, sir,” Jane purred. “How ever did you guess?”

Kathryn studied the station architecture, trying not to stare at the man who dressed and spoke as any fine Philadelphian, and appeared to be in his mid-twenties. She felt Mother’s shove from a thousand miles away. A male with all his teeth? Perfect marriage material.

“There is no mistaking you have just come from the east, and”—he leaned closer—“quality always tells.” After directing the older man away, he removed his hat, bowing his oiled, unmovable dark hair over Jane’s hand. “I’m Jonathan Wellington. The second. My aunt, Mrs. Collins, has asked me to escort you back to the Abbey.”

“The abbey, sir?” Kathryn asked.

“Oh, yes, forgive me. It’s the name given the school by the girls. Now, let us be on our way.”

Jane opened her parasol and stepped in the direction of Mr. Wellington’s gesture, yet it was Kathryn whom Mr. Wellington’s direct gaze sought out so that he might offer her his arm. “Allow me. I’ve taken care of everything. Frank, my aunt’s handyman, will follow us with your trunks.”

She accepted his escort out of the station, though it made no sense. Jane was the beauty in the family, the one with charm, confidence, and—the great equalizer—money.

“It is but a mile’s ride, Miss Morton. Barely time to appreciate my new phaeton.”

The red-spoked wheels must have inspired his choice of ascot tie. “You won’t drive too fast, will you sir?”

Jane climbed into the seat, her tsk tsks finding their target. “Come along, Kathryn. Sit in the middle so I don’t have to worry about you.”

Bless Jane’s heart for not voicing the as you know how clumsy you are, dear.   

The space barely accommodated skirts and padding and bustles when she wedged herself between them. Mother would have an apoplexy at such intimacy. The buggy leapt forward, and he bent nearer. The coconut oil fragrance of Macassar Hair Tonic flooded her senses.

“It is best if you hold my arm, Miss Morton.”

She abstained until one particularly jarring hole lifted her off the seat while she held down her wind-blown hat. Emboldened, she slipped her hand around his upper arm. The increased pounding of her heart, faster than the horses’ hooves flying in front of her, made her woozy.

And that wouldn’t do.

Determined to be the new, confident Kathryn, she breathed deeply and returned his next smile.

Then it was over. With an abrupt stop in the Jeannette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies’ circular driveway, her grip fell away.

“Ladies!” The enthusiastic welcome preceded the tightly corseted matron bustling down the wide stairs. “How nice to have you here. My, you look just like your mother, Miss Radcliffe. How fondly I look back on our school year together.”

After introductions, Kathryn only half listened to her cousin’s dramatic recounting of their journey and instead focused on their hostess. Mrs. Collins, her warm dark eyes twinkling, appeared younger than Aunt Cassandra, and maybe a bit more fun. Her lovely English accent seemed unaltered by years in Texas.

At the handyman Frank’s arrival, Kathryn slipped away from the small talk, and despite his insistence, gathered her carpetbag. Her heart sank as she watched him hoist the weight of Jane’s immense trunk, given the decided impairment in his shoulder.

“Please, sir, can’t someone help you with that?”

He paused. “I’m fine, miss.”

Her stomach clenched with instant regret. Her fussing had embarrassed him. She pivoted and promptly collided with a cowboy.

“Oh!” In a futile attempt to cover her gaping mouth, the bag dropped at his feet. “Oh!”

He tipped his hat as he dipped to retrieve it, barely breaking his gaze. “Miss.”

She should not stare into such amused hazel eyes, or notice they were framed with dark lashes. She shouldn’t notice that his brows and what she could see of his hair at his ears and collar shone a sun-bleached light brown. And she most certainly shouldn’t stand there unable to speak or move.

Lizzie Bennet would say something clever. Fictional heroines always did.

He walked from the buggy to the building and placed the bag with the others on the verandah. Still she stood.

“Miss Morton,” Mrs. Collins called. “Come join us. You too, Harmon. Frank will take care of the rest, but I appreciate your concern.”

The handsome cowboy was already walking away. “Thank you, but I have to be getting back to the ranch.”

Like a practiced sleuth, Kathryn oh-so-cautiously watched from the corner of her eye—only to be caught when he glanced back.

Did cowboys no longer have bowed legs? This man’s legs…his…and his shoulders. There seemed nothing amiss. He disappeared around the massive gray stone building, and she’d taken two sleepwalker’s steps to follow before she saw him mounting the back of a beautiful dark horse. Such strength. And ease.

“Kathryn! Come along.”

“Be right there, Jane.”

Within the hour Kathryn was seated in a spacious double parlor with Jane, Mrs. Collins, Mr. Wellington, and two students, Eleanor and Isabella. The girls were agreeable company, thankfully, for in one week, she was to companion Isabella as far as Richmond on the return trip.

The second time she noticed Mr. Wellington’s blue-eyed stare, Kathryn surreptitiously wiped her face, sure she must be wearing crumbs from the imported tea biscuits she’d presented their hostess. She removed her glasses, wiped at her face again, and closed her eyes for a respite.

“Miss Morton, I do believe you need some rest.” Mrs. Collins’s tone was warm but did not invite argument. “Please, do not stay for our ramblings.”

“Thank you.” The moment she stood, Mr. Wellington was at her side.

He took her hand and bent over it. “Consider me your guide to our city this week. Nothing would give me more pleasure.”

“Thank you for your kindness.” Her digestive biscuit threatened retreat. Nausea often accompanied a case of nerves, but honestly, one would think she’d never had a gentleman’s interest before.

And they’d be right.

She tugged her hand from his and left the room, climbing to the second floor room she would share with Jane. At the top of the richly carpeted stairs, a broad window drew her, and she pushed the sheers back. Where had that cowboy gone?

Once behind the heavy oak door, she sighed at the gift of solitude. The spacious cream-colored bedroom offered a balcony, currently in shade. She removed her shoes and skirt, her petticoat and bustle, her stays and stockings, and lay on the canopied bed in her shift, the most luxurious comfort she’d had in a week’s time.

She stretched and wiggled, unable to hold back a smile. What would mother think of her now? Paid such attentions by a very polite gentleman, but thinking more of the rugged man who had stolen her ability to speak. Was he no more than a cowpuncher? Such a distasteful term. A drifter across an endless sea of brush and Texas dust, fighting in the name of justice and all that was good in the world?

If they were to fall in love, would she have to ride a horse? Drive a wagon? Carry a pistol, a rifle? Would she have to save the ranch? Or worse? Learn how to cook?

She sighed and closed her eyes to sleep.

The Indians’ war cries sent gooseflesh across her shoulders. Their horses pounded the parched earth, and her lungs burned as she ran for her very life. They were right behind her. She glanced back. She wasn’t going to make it. She stumbled but was caught up by a strong arm, in a blur of dark fabric and dark horse. He’d come for her! She sat behind Harmon, clinging to his muscular body as they out-ran the Comanche raiders. Their lead lengthened until they were at the top of a scrubby rise. The horse protested when Harmon pulled him up to a sliding stop. Dismounting before the dust settled, he swung Kathryn down into his arms. His hands lingered at her waist, even after her feet were solidly on the ground, and he gazed at her with those unforgettable hazel eyes.

“Miss Morton, are you all right?”

“I–I think so.”

“Then, I can wait no longer. I must know. Can you ever love me?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Cowboy.” Her eyes flew open. Mr. Cowboy?

Kathryn let her head relax again into the pillow, more convinced than ever that locomotive travel addled the brain.

“Kathryn!”

The brisk shaking of her shoulder proved she’d finally fallen asleep.  “Jane. Stop. I’m awake. What is it?”

“You must get ready.”

It took her a moment to rise and dress. Her cousin’s devoted assistance roused her suspicions.

“Do you have any idea of the conquest you have made, Kathryn?”

All that from just one of the cowboy’s glances? Could it be? Her heart drummed in delight.

“Mr. Wellington made no doubts of his interest in you.”

 Oh. That. She turned away. “I’m sure he is just being kind.”

“Don’t be silly.” Jane grabbed Kathryn’s shoulder. “This is it. The chance we’ve waited for, and I’m not going to let you ruin it.”

Kathryn pulled away. Breathe. Slowly.

She’d come here determined to make a change, and the first step was standing up to her cousin.

Only, not right now. Not when her head pounded at the thought of a suitor. Goodness sakes, she wanted a suitor—she’d long dreamed of a suitor. And now that he was here…

He didn’t suit her at all.

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