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Idaho Territory, 1886
Nine men had replied to her "Groom Wanted" ad.
Leah Bowen couldn't believe she'd received so many that quickly. Her heart skipped as she fingered the envelopes that might very well hold her future and her only avenue of escape from the nightmares that plagued her.
"You, too, huh?"
"Twinkling stars above!" Leah gasped and whirled toward the sound of Jake Lure's deep voice. Her nose came within an inch of jamming into the napped wool shirt covering her friend's massive chest. Pleasant scents of springtime and sunshine floated from him.
Near the front door of Paradise Haven's post office Jake stood, looking over her shoulder at the posts in her hand. Most people were intimidated by his massive size, but she wasn't. Underneath that outdoorsy, muscular exterior was a gentle giant.
"Whatwhat do you mean, 'you, too'?" Leah glanced at the top envelope with the very noticeable masculine script and tucked them into her reticule. She tossed the end of her purple knit scarf over her shoulder and gathered the edges of the collar of her wool coat closer together.
Jake held up a packet of letters. "Got these in the mail today."
"Oh? What are they?" she asked with all the innocence she could muster.
"Same thing as that stack you just put in your purse."
"What? You mean letters?"
"Those envelopes you have aren't just any ole letters." One of Jake's eyebrows rose. "They're answers to your advertisement."
Advertisement? She swallowed hard. Did he know she'd placed an ad for a husband? "What are you talking about?" Leah hated playacting, but she had no choice. She refused to offer Jake any information concerning her personal ad. Just because he had mentioned how he wanted to place an advertisement for a wife during one of the many times she and Abby had visited him over the past eleven months didn't mean she had to confide in him that she, too, had wanted to do that very same thing. So how did he know? Or was he only speculating?
Jake cupped her elbow.
Her gaze flew to the spot where his large calloused hand rested, then back onto his face. "What are you doing?"
"Taking you someplace where we can talk without being overheard." Even through a whisper, his voice sounded deep.
Their footsteps echoed on the plank-covered boardwalk as he led her away from prying eyes to a more secluded place to protect her reputation, no doubt, for which she was extremely grateful though she still tried to look annoyed. Truth was she didn't want people getting the wrong idea about the two of them. They were friends and nothing more.
They'd become good friends after he'd slipped on some shale at the top of a hill on his place almost a year ago. He'd tumbled down and hit his head, leaving him with a bleeding gash on his forehead and rendering him unconscious. If Leah's brother Michael and his wife, Selina, hadn't found Jake that day, he may have died. Selina's kindness in doctoring him and making sure he had food and his needs were met changed Jake. He realized how wrong he had been for judging her for her lack of social graces and regretted his heckling. After that, he changed, and he had become the person to everyone else that he had always been to her.
Through it all, Leah had always believed that Jake was a nice man, a good man, even when he was heckling people. Years before, she'd learned that most people who teased others were either jealous or insecure or did it to protect themselves. Leah wasn't sure just why Jake had. But her friend Dottie Aimsley had once told her that she'd heard the reason Jake acted like that was because when he was growing up he himself had been ridiculed because he had a fear of crowds. Although Leah didn't know all the particulars of his phobia, hearing that had secured her compassion toward him, and the two had quickly become the best of friends.
And he was a handsome friend at that.
A man who could charm any woman. Except her, that was. Leah had her sights set on a different type of man. A man exactly like her late fatherbefore he had become a rancher. The mere thought of him brought the pain surging into her chest. She couldn't let it reside there, though. She had to evict it as she had so many times before or it would escalate until it became so bad she could barely breathe.
She sighed and blew out a long breath. It really was a shame Jake wasn't a city man. City men didn't encounter anywhere near the hazards farmers and ranchers did. She knew that for a fact because, even though it had been fifteen years since her family had moved from New York to the Idaho Territory, she still kept in contact with her friends back East and all of their fathers were still alive.
Marrying a farmer or a rancher who risked his life every day working with unpredictable animals and dangerous farm tools and equipment wasn't for her.
And Jake was one of them. Her father had been one of them, too. Getting away from city life and owning a ranch had been her father's dream. It was that dream that had gotten him killed.
Her heart felt the pain of his loss as if it had just happened yesterday instead of years ago. Her hand balled into a fist and pressed against the center of her chest as she tried to make the memories stop. But they came with even greater force. In desperation, her mind grasped backward through time to the father who had doted on her.
Had loved her.
Had made her feel special.
And fearless, even.
Oh, sure, after his death her older brothersHaydon, Jesse and Michaelhad tried to take his place. Tried to make her feel secure. But no one could take the place of a father. Especially in a little girl's heart. No one.
And no one could stop the nightmares that visited her on a regular basis since his death.
She'd learn to suppress the nightmares because she had to be strong for her little sister, Abby, and her mother, whose grief at that time had ripped at Leah's soul. Oh, if only she hadn't heard her father gasping for air as his lungs filled with blood or had seen his broken body crushed underneath that huge tree. But she had.
Leah slammed her eyelids shut to blot out the gruesome memory that chased her like a haunting ghost. In one shaky breath she willed her father's healthy face to come into focus, but only a shadowed image filled her mind. Time had faded his features until she could no longer see them clearly. And that scared her.
It was all Paradise Haven's fault. She despised and blamed the Idaho Territory for the loss of the one person she had loved most in the world. Moving back to New York would help the nightmares stop. Of that she was convinced because there were no phantoms there. Only fond memories.
Memories of better, happier times.
Memories of her father walking and talking and holding her until whatever was bothering her at that time disappeared. Father had made everything okay. Only he couldn't make this okay. Nothing would bring him back to life. This place had killed him.
New York was where she longed to be.
Getting there couldn't happen fast enough for her. Why she had waited this long she didn't know. But the sooner she moved, the better off she would be. And maybe, just maybe when she finally got there, those dreaded nightmares would end.
She blinked and yanked her attention upward and onto Jake. "What?"
"You okay?" His dark blond brows met in the middle. "I'm fine." Or she soon would be when she moved away from here.
The look on his face said he didn't believe her. "You gonna answer my question?"
"I just did. I said I was fine."
"No. Not that question. Still waiting for an answer to" he pointed to the stack of posts in her reticule "if those letters are what I think they are."
"I don't know. What do you think they are?"
He gave a quick glance around. No one milled about anywhere close to them. "Answers to your advertisement."
She studied his eyes, gazing at her from under his brown cowboy hat. His irises were a light silver-gray with a dark gray circle surrounding them, reminding her of a tabby cat she once had. A knowing look filled them. There was no denying it any longer.
"How did you know?"
"Put two-and-two together."
"What do you mean?" Panic and fear settled into her spirit, knowing that if anyone in her family discovered what she was doing and why, they would put a stop to it right away. It didn't matter that Haydon and Michael had gotten wonderful wives that way. There was no way they would let their sister traipse off to New York by herself to meet a complete stranger, even if she was twenty-four years old.
Jake's gaze slipped to the boards at their feet. "Truth is, Leah, I saw your advertisement when I looked through the papers for the one I'd placed. We obviously posted ads for a spouse at the same time."
Oh, no. He did know. Fear dug its claws into her chest.
"You don't look too good. You okay?"
She nodded, then changing her mind, she slowly shook her head. "No." She gazed up at him, imploring her eyes to show how much this affected her. "Please don't tell my family."
"You mean they don't know?"
"No. I didn't tell them. Please don't say anything to them, Jake. Promise me you won't." Desperation pricked her skin.
He ran his fingers down the place that once had a thick, dark blond mustache but now only held stubble and kept repeating the action. "On one condition." His gunmetal-gray eyes snagged onto hers.
"What's that?" Worry nipped at the heels of her mind as she waited for his response.
"That you'll help me pick out a wife." He held his own package of letters up, and his lips tilted into that normally lazy, crooked grin of his. The one that really was quite endearing.
"Are you serious?"
"Yep. Sure am."
"Why do you need me to help you do that?"
"'Cause. I don't trust myself. When it comes to women, I haven't had the best of luck."
Heat rushed to her cheeks. Turning down Jake's mar-riage-of-convenience proposal a couple months back had nothing to do with his luck with women but with her wanting to flee this place. "What makes you think I'll do any better?"
"You're a great judge of character, and you know me better than anyone else. Not only that Women seem to have a sense about these things. Men don't. So. Do we have ourselves an agreement or not?" He held his hand out for her to shake.
She stared at it, debating what to do, until she realized she didn't have any other choice. Having peace in her life depended on her moving. With a short nod, she clasped his hand, and gave it a quick shake before releasing it. "Agreed."