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Montana Territory, 1882
The January snow beat with a fury against Joseph Brooks as he reined his trusty bay to a stop in front of the train depot. Gosh, it was coming down so hard he couldn't see past Don Quixote's nose. The stallion picked his way to the hitching post and Joseph swung down, swiping the snow from his eyes. How was he gonna see his new bride in all of this? He would bump into her before he ever set sight on her.
Don Quixote blew out his breath, as if he were warning his master to be cautious. Joseph looped one rein around the log post and rubbed his buddy's nose. "Don't you worry. Sure, I'm a sight overeager, but I sure would like a girl of my own. Watching my brother so danged happy is about to do me in."
Don Quixote stomped his front hoof, as if he had an opinion about why brother Nate was so happy these days. Joseph gave his hat a good tug. The stallion wasn't wrong. Sure, his brother was happy; he'd married the most beautiful woman in Mountain County and he went to bed with her every night. Not to be disrespectful, but at twenty-two, Joseph sure would have liked to be able to do the same with his own gorgeous wife.
And soon he would. He plowed through the deep snow on the platform steps and felt the rumble of the train through the soles of his boots. Hadn't his ma and pa been real busy writing and receiving letters the last few weeks? That's exactly the way it had gone when they had found his sister-in-law Savannah. Ma and Pa had been the ones to bring her out to marry Nate. Nate hadn't known a thing of it. He thought he was picking up a package for the folksthat was until Savannah stepped foot off the westbound train.
And guess what? His ma had sent him to town to pick up a package. As he tromped closer he could see the faint splash of the train's red boiler through the snowfall. The westbound train. He wouldn't be surprised at all if an unbelievably lovely woman stepped off that train and into his arms. With no marriageable females his age in these parts, a person could understand why he was so eager.
"That you, Joe?" A voice called out from one of the package cars.
Joseph squinted. He could just make out a form in the shadowed compartment. "Howdy, Roberts. It's good to see the train is still running."
"So far." The baggage man swung into sight with a box under his arm. "You never know what's up ahead of us. The summit might be snowed over and we'll be backing down the grade to spend the night here."
"I hope you get through." It was a problem whenever the snow fell so hard: the trains stopped coming until the tracks could be cleared. He thought of the "package" likely to get off the train. Good thing she hadn't been stranded somewhere. He might not know anything about her, but he knew one thing. Ma wanted pretty grandchildren, so she was likely to pick out an awful pretty gal.
No complaint there. Joseph knocked snow from his hat brim. "Good luck to you, Roberts"
"Don't forget this." He gave the box he carried a toss.
Joseph caught it. A package. How about that?
"For your ma," the baggage handler explained. "Give her my respects."
"Sure thing." Joseph hiked the box under his arm. How about that for a coincidence? He hardly gave it much thought because he saw a slim shadow up ahead of him. The snow veiled her, but she was a petite, delicate lady with one of those fashionable ruffled skirts. She wore a bonnet that hid most of her profile from him. He knew it was her. Joy lit him up down deep.
Now, most fellas didn't go about letting their ma pick out a wife for them, but he had bought one of those heart-in-hand magazines not long ago and read all the advertisements from women looking for a new life. He had scratched his head, not knowing where to start. Looked like now he wouldn't have to puzzle it out.
"Howdy, miss?" He used his most polite voice. "Are you looking for the Brooks family?"
"Why, yes I am." She turned toward him in one slow swirl. He made out the sweet oval shape of her face, a delicate chin and a rosebud mouth before the snow gusted between them, leaving her once again veiled to his sight. If she was half as pretty as her voice, then he was one lucky man.
His heart rocketed around his chest. He fumbled for his hat brim, but his fingers felt stupid and he had to reach for it twice. He swept it off, using what manners he had. "I'm Joseph Brooks. I've come to take you in to town."
"Joseph." She said his name with a smile.
He liked how that sounded. His blood warmed just thinking of hearing his name on her voice in the dark of night. His chest filled with satisfaction. Gee, but this kept getting better and better.
"I read about you in your mother's letters."
"I expect you have." That pleased him. Ma was good at writing long-winded letters, so it had to be a good sign that this woman knew so much about him and was still glad to meet him. "I'm at a loss, miss, seeing as how I don't know your name."
"It's Clara. Clara Woodrow."
The snow thinned, allowing him a better glimpse of her face. Big, wide-set eyes stared up at him, unguarded and blueberry blue. A man could lose all common sense staring into those eyes.
Air lodged midway in his chest, and he felt the earth tilt. "That's a pretty name for a pretty lady."
"You are a flatterer, Mr. Brooks, but I shall forgive you." Her voice was gentle with a smile in it. "I can see I will have to have my wits about me whenever you are near."
"Yes, but I am harmless, I swear it." A cold arrow of snow slapped against his cheek. He shook his head, suddenly realizing he was standing in the middle of the train platform in a snowstorm. The rumbling idle of the engine, the crunch of pas-sersby in the snow and the bite of the wind had faded and remained in the far distance. All his thoughts and senses seemed held by her.
"Are those your bags?" he asked of the shadows slumped a few paces beyond. When she nodded, he squared his shoulders and did the manly thing: he took care of her. "Let me fetch those for you. I suppose you'll be staying at the hotel here in town?"
"The hotel? Why, no. I was led to believe Mrs. Brooks had a separate living area for" She hesitated. "For me."
"A separate living area?" He hefted up the two rather tattered satchels, careful not to drop Ma's package. "She must mean the maid's quarters."
"Yes, that's it."
"Well, if that's what she said, I had best get you home." He flashed her a grin. "Come with me. I have a horse waiting. It's too bad it's so late or I could hire a sleigh from the livery stable. Is horseback all right?"
"Yes, I am simply grateful that you have come, Mr. Brooks. I had fixed in my mind that I would have to ask directions of some kind soul and simply walk until I found your home."
"Walk? No, it's much too far. We live miles out of town."
"Then I'm doubly grateful you are here." She bowed her head against the resistant wind and followed the wide-shouldered, strapping Mr. Brooks through the drifted snow on the wide platform, a question troubling her. "How did you know I would be here?"
"My mother knew." He held out his hand. "Careful here, the snow is deep and it's hard to see the steps."
"Thank you." What a kind man. She was not used to this brand of treatment. Her gloved fingertips brushed his broad palm, and through the leather of his driving glove and the wool of her mitten, electricity jolted up her arm and straight to her heart. The step beneath her shoe felt strangely buoyant and she was glad for his steadying hand helping her to keep her balance.
"Are you okay there?" he drawled in his pleasant, smoky baritone.
"Y-yes." She had no explanation for what had happened. The moment passed and she was on the ground without remembering getting down the rest of the steps. All she could register was Joseph Brooks taking her by the elbow. He guided her through the hail of driving snow and into the wind shadow next to a big bay horse.
"Ma should have told me to bring one of the geldings for you."
Now that she was close enough without the snow between them, she could see he was charmingly handsome. The broad rim of his Stetson framed his rugged face to perfection. He had a high intelligent forehead, or at least she imagined so behind the fall of his longish brown hair. His eyes were dark and full of good humor. His nose was a masculine slope, not too sharp and not too big, just right for his granite face.
He would look imposing, she decided, if not for the warm ready grin that seemed to permanently shape his mouth. A dimple sat in his chin like a cherry on a sundae, topping off what was perfection. Not that she should be thinking this way about her possible employer's son.
At least, she hoped she had a chance for the job. Desperate was a word she didn't like to use, but with less then ten dollars in her pocket she could not be called anything else. She had come here on chance alone, and she wasn't the most optimistic of girls.
He hung the handles of her satchels over the saddle horn. "Do you know how to ride, Miss Clara?"
"No, sir." There had been no need living in Chicago, where she could easily walk wherever she needed to go. Walking was probably not something she could easily do here. There had been so many tiny towns along the railroad line through the western territories, she had done her best to imagine what it might be like to live in a place like this, remote and wild, surrounded by nature instead of people and buildings. Trees were everywhere she could see, tall, white-mantled sentries guarding the street.
"Do you at least know how to keep your seat?" His eyes had slight, pleasant crinkles in the corners as if he spent a lot of his life laughing. He must be the sort who looked on the bright side of things.
She liked that in a man. "Mr. Brooks, I have to confess. I've never been on a horse. I don't know how to drive, either."
"Then I shall teach you." He secured the satchels and package to his saddle. "You are going have to get used to riding and driving if you plan to spend any time with me."
"Then I'll look forward to it." Why she said such a thing, she couldn't rightly say, but he didn't seem to think less of her for agreeing with him. She wasn't flirting, although it felt that way when Mr. Brooks grinned at her. Surely the fine man was not interested in a housemaid or such a plain girl. She had no illusions about that. Her mother had told her often enough, and there had been Lars who
She tamped down that thought. Do not think of him, she ordered herself.
"Give me your hand." Mr. Brooks had swung up into his saddle and looked mighty imposing on the top of his powerful horse. He removed his boot from the stirrup. "Put your foot here and I'll help you up. We'll make a western girl out of you yet."
"How do you propose to do that? Surely there is more to it than horseback riding."
"Why, who knows? I just might have to marry you."
That surprised her. She gasped, not knowing what to say. Perhaps he felt this, too, this unusual and instant pull between them. She blushed furiously. "You must stop teasing. I'm not the kind of woman who just accepts any man's proposal."
"No, I don't suppose you are." He laughed, and the warm rich sound was as cozy as butter melting. He held out his hand. "Proposals aside, think you would like to come home with me?"
"I suppose. I need to stay somewhere." She tried to keep a straight face but somehow they were laughing together.
Snow tumbled against her face as she laid her hand against his palm. His fingers wrapped around hers, vibrant with strength and vitality. Longing filled her as she hiked up her skirt ruffles and slipped her toe into the leather stirrup. Suddenly she was airborne, the ground falling away and the snow blinding her. She settled on Mr. Brooks's lap, safely tucked in his arms. His grin was wide and tempting and her heart gave a little flip-flop.
This was not what she had in mind when he'd offered to share his horse with her. She shifted, but that didn't seem to improve the situation. Surely this was not the way to impress her future employer, by showing up in her son's embrace. Perhaps it would be prudent to push him away, but something prevented her. Maybe it was the worsening beat of the storm making it impossible to speak, or the howling wind that would drown out her voice.
A warm sweep of rightness wrapped around her. She had been lonely for so long, and what a relief it was to finally feel in safe hands. There was something about Joseph Brooks she liked very much. It was almost as if she knew him from somewhere before. She didn't, of course. It was quite an odd sensation, but not as strange as the rock of the horse's first step that jarred through her. She gasped and reached out for something anythingto hold on to.
Mr. Brooks. His arms held her tight and kept her from falling. "You're safe with me, Clara."
She didn't doubt that one bit. She blinked the snow from her lashes, leaned against the hard plane of his chest and felt the smallest seed of hope. The snow sharpened, driving at her like needles, and the wind blasted ice all the way to her bones. Let the wind blow, she thought, for here in his arms she felt as if no amount of cold or storm could diminish her chance for a new start.