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Bounty Hunter's Bride
By Carol Finch
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFort Smith, 1870s
"Oh, my God, what have I done?" Hanna Malloy whispered apprehensively as she stepped off the steamboat that had transported her upriver from New Orleans. She stared at the gloomy, overcast sky, which promised another spring rain shower at any moment and listened to the drone of insects that swarmed near the river. In dismay, she surveyed the muddy frontier outpost of Fort Smith. This was her salvation? This was the answer to her prayers and her reward for six months of careful planning to seize control of her future? What in heaven's name could she have been thinking!
"Want some help with them bags, missy?" Hanna stepped away from the foul-smelling miscreant who'd approached her while she was lost in thought. The shaggy-haired man with beady gray eyes flashed her a smile that was missing two front teeth.
"Thank you for your kind offer of assistance, but I can manage on my own," she replied.
The short, pudgy brute eyed her carpetbags covetously, glanced this way and that, then lumbered off. Hanna had the unmistakable feeling that if there hadn't been dozens of river boatmen, cowboys fresh from trail drives, gamblers and railroad workers bustling around her, the man would've snatched her bags and taken off at a dead run.
Hanna gulped and glanced uneasily around her. She wasn't in the best of company at the moment. Indeed, in all her twenty years of existence, she'd never been in such bad company without the protection of a chaperon.
A sense of panic and disillusionment very nearly overwhelmed Hanna. For moral support and a sense of comfort, she clasped the golden locket - a childhood gift from her mother - that hung around her neck. Inhaling a bracing breath, she strode past the abandoned, stone-walled garrison that had been built on a sandstone bluff overlooking the Arkansas River.
"Oh, Lord," Hanna muttered as she hiked toward the frontier town set a mere hundred yards from the eastern border of infamous Indian Territory - where thieves and murderers were reported to run rampant. There were no paved avenues, no luxurious hotels, no fashionable boutiques and no lights to illuminate the mud-caked streets. There were, however, Hanna noted, amazed, a string of thirty saloons, a newspaper office, one bank and several shops that provided basic necessities. Dozens of wagons, hacks and saddle horses waited beside the uneven boardwalks.
She'd planned and schemed, hoarded her monthly allowance and used the funds her departed mother had set aside for her wedding trousseau for this? Sweet merciful heavens! Even in her modest-priced lavender gown Hanna looked overdressed and out of place in comparison to the few women she passed on the street.
Hanna squared her shoulders, hitched up the hem of her dress and marched determinedly forward. She had to remind herself - repeatedly - why she'd turned her back on her aristocratic lifestyle, sacrificed all the opulent luxuries in New Orleans and left her father's handpicked groom at the altar. She, who had what most women aspired to, had climbed out the window of a church filled to capacity, and made a mad dash to the riverboat that would deliver her to the precious freedom she'd craved - dreamed of - for years. For the sake of independence, she'd have to learn to adjust and accept life on different terms than what was familiar.
Hanna stepped onto the uneven boardwalk in front of a saloon to avoid the heavily rutted mud street. Tinkling piano music, masculine laughter and the smell of cigar smoke greeted her as she passed one tavern after another, to reach one of the ramshackle hotels in the offensive frontier town.
When a drunken ruffian stumbled from one of the saloons and rammed her broadside, Hanna clamped her arms around a rough-hewn post to prevent herself from being catapulted into the mud. Her carpetbags swung crazily from her fingertips.
"Well, what have we here?" the man slurred, licking his lips and leering at her through bloodshot eyes.
Thunder boomed overhead, signaling impending doom and threatening Hanna's firm resolve. If she had any sense at all she'd reverse direction and hightail it back to the river to catch the next steamboat to New Orleans and the familiarity of life as she knew it. The thrill of reaching her personal promised land had been dashed, replaced with disillusionment and uncertainty.
"Why don't you `n me find us a room and git better `quainted?" the drunkard suggested, in what she presumed to be his most seductive voice. It fell miserably short of the mark.
Hanna shivered with repulsion and pushed herself away from the splintered post. "Excuse me, sir," she said stiffly. "I'm on my way to meet my fiancé." That was a half truth, probably one of many she'd have to tell before she got where she was going.
Before the scruffy-looking man could grab her arm, Hanna sailed off at a fast clip, praying she could reach a hotel before she was waylaid again. Even in her haste she noted she was attracting entirely too much attention from the men who milled about on the boardwalks. Sweet mercy! The ratio of men to women in this town must be so lopsided that males salivated at the mere sight of a female, Hanna decided. She made a mental note to purchase another gown that downplayed her femininity the first chance she got. All this unwanted attention was making her nervous and spoiling her attempt to maintain a low profile.
The last thing she wanted was to find a string of men trailing behind her. She'd endured quite enough of men and their hidden agendas - not to mention their more obvious intentions toward her person. Because of her wealth and position in New Orleans society, she'd dealt with more than her share of gold diggers and opportunists who were anxious to attach themselves to her family's fortune. And her father, damn him, had paraded a string of handpicked suitors past her, then finally delivered his ultimatum when she kept stalling and found fault with every one.
The thought of her domineering father stiffened her resolve and brought her chin up to a determined angle. Despite the crash of thunder and the sudden downpour that formed a curtain of rain along the overhang of the porch roof, Hanna assured herself that she had what she wanted. Now she was in control of her life and her destiny.
The sacrifices she'd made to reach Fort Smith, the hardships she might face during her exodus, were worth every trial and tribulation. At long last she was free of her father's control. He was not making another decision for her, not dictating to her ever again. This was her declaration of independence from Walter Malloy, the powerful, influential shipping magnate who believed that his only daughter was a pawn to be played to his advantage.
Walter believed that money could buy anything and that every man had his price. During the steamboat ride upriver, Hanna had made a pact with herself that she would turn her father's cold-blooded philosophy on him, to ensure she broke his control over her forevermore. She'd abandoned all attempts to please him, to earn his love and respect. She had spent years trying to gain his attention and approval, but he seemed loath to spend more than a few moments looking in her direction before turning away. In his eyes she would never be the beloved son he'd lost to illness.
Therefore, Hanna had left her life of sophistication, refinement and elegance behind, to find herself a husband. Her idea of the perfect mate, not her father's. Hanna had mentally listed her qualifications for an ideal husband. He would be an intimidating man himself - not one easily cowed by her father's booming commands, nor easily swayed by bribes, which bent so many people to her father's fierce will.
Hanna glanced up to note the wooden sign that indicated she'd reached a hotel. If she were in New Orleans she wouldn't have set foot inside such a shabby establishment. But this wasn't New Orleans and she wanted nothing more than to take refuge from the rain and the crowd of men that swaggered along behind her. She was tired of being ogled, and weary from her journey. Not to mention the emotional turmoil she'd undergone after her father announced that she would wed whom he decreed, when he decreed and where.
Excerpted from Bounty Hunter's Bride by Carol Finch Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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