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by Beverly Jenkins
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As Loreli Winters stood listening to the farmer bending her ear, she wondered how much longer she would have to endure before she could politely excuse herself and slip away. The farmer's name was Henry Judson and he was a handsome brute: all brown eyes and muscles, but she, unlike the other women gathered in the grove behind the small church, had not come here to find a husband. Loreli had traveled to this small Black Kansas colony as a member of a wagon train transporting mailorder brides, but she'd signed on strictly for the adventure, not to be the wife of a Kansas homesteader. Her plans were to stay in town long enough to make sure everything worked out for the friends she'd made on the trip, then strike out West -- California maybe. In the meantime, she had this gathering to get through.
In preparation for this Friday afternoon event, Loreli had gotten all gussied up, put on her powders and paints, and hoped her flashy blue dress would keep the farmers away. Here, for the first time in a long time, the golden quadroon beauty she'd inherited from her mixed ancestry would not be an advantage. In the billiard dens and smoking cars where she plied her gambling trade, Loreli's looks had won her more hands than she could count, especially when the pigeon spent more time ogling her bosom than his cards. In the past, she'd never hesitated using her face or figure to its best advantage, but not tonight; tonight there'd be no flirting. Loreli's future lay elsewhere. She just hoped the farmers would understand.
Judson, still talking, had three little girls. Although Loreli found the daughters pleasant enough, she had no intentions of taking over the job of raising them. She sensed from their father's conversation that all he was looking for was a replacement for his recently deceased wife.
When Judson began expressing hopes that his new bride would be able to can vegetables as well as his late wife did, Loreli interrupted him with a winning smile. "Mr. Judson, I see someone over there I need to speak with. It's been nice meeting you and your girls."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Loreli had already walked away.
Loreli made her way through the gathering of sixty or so men and women and saw that everywhere she looked folks were mingling and smiling. The celebratory sounds of fiddling and happy voices drifted on the late afternoon air. The brides had picked out their prospective mates before making the trip by using the photographs and portraits provided by the men to the wagon train's organizer, Grace Atwood. The couples were meeting each other for the first time, and many were already lined up outside the small church waiting to be married.
Loreli threaded her way through the trestle tables set around the church grounds and nodded greetings in response to the familiar smiles beamed her way. The many trials and tribulations that had beset the women on the trek from Chicago seemed to have been forgotten. All the ladies had taken special pains to look their best; their hair was done, their dresses starched and pressed. The men were also decked out, in everything from fancy suspenders and fresh-pressed trousers to shiny new suits.
As Loreli shared congratulatory hugs and small-talk with the women, she asked after Belle, the young woman who shared her wagon, but Belle had already journeyed on with the man she would be marrying. That saddened Loreli because she'd dearly wanted to tell Belle good-bye. Loreli had taken the young woman under her wing during the journey from Chicago, and they'd become very close.
Loreli moved on to congratulate a few of her other friends and noted the interested eyes of some of the men standing nearby. She knew she was hard to miss in the low-cut blue satin dress that left the crowns of her shoulders bare, but because these men were here to marry women who'd become her friends, she didn't give any of the farmers more than a friendly nod in return. Loreli didn't want any misunderstandings.
In reality, though, she secretly wished to be one of the brides. She'd be thirty-five years of age come November, and on her own in life since the age of fourteen. She was tired. Tired of gambling dens, traveling, and having a life that discouraged roots, family, and peace of mind. Deep down inside, parts of herself yearned for the security of a farmhouse, a steady man, and a few kids, but her past life made fulfillment of that yearning impossible. What man wanted a wife whose occupation was gambling? None she'd ever met. Men wanted their women docile and of good character, and in society's eyes, she was neither. She decided she should just go back to her boardinghouse room, lest she be overwhelmed by her mood.
Loreli paused for a few moments to say farewell to Grace Atwood, the woman who'd organized the wagon train, then she headed back to claim the rented buggy she'd driven over in.
Beneath the tree by her buggy stood two little brownskinned girls. They looked to be seven or eight years of age. Both copper faces were framed by long black plaits that shot out from their heads at a cockeyed angle, as if the person who'd braided them hadn't much experience with the task of doing hair. There were red ribbons tied on the ends, however, and Loreli wondered if the little ones had done the braids themselves. She also noticed that unlike all the other little girls she'd seen at the gathering this evening, these two were not gussied up in starched pinafores and Sunday slippers; they were attired like boys in denim trousers, flannel shirts, and sturdy boots.
Excerpted from A Chance at Love by Beverly Jenkins. Copyright © 2002 by Beverly Jenkins. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.