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Paradise Haven, Idaho Territory 1885
This has to be a nightmare.
Standing in front of Michael Bowen at Paradise Haven's train station was the woman who claimed to be his wife. His eyes traveled up and down the length of her. Instead of a dress, she wore a red scarf draped around her neck, a black cowboy hat with a stampede string, black cowboy boots and brown loose-fitting trousers. In her hands she held a Long Tom black powder rifle.
A rifle? The woman was holding a rifle. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't pull his gaze away from the weapon that was nearly as long as she was tall.
Michael bore down on his teeth until he thought his jaw would snap. Even with her heart-shaped face, stunning smile and beautiful brown eyes, the person standing before him looked more like a female outlaw on a wanted poster than the genteel lady he had been corresponding with for the past five months. The woman he had fallen deeply and passionately in love with. The woman he had legally married sight unseen.
This woman was nothing like what he'd expected. Nothing. There had to be some mistake. There just had to be.
Suddenly, she lunged toward him and threw her arms around his neck. He stiffened and struggled to draw in even the smallest amount of air because she squeezed him so tightly. Dear God, have mercy on me.
"Oh, Michael! It's so nice to finally meet ya." Selina Farleigh Bowen pulled back and stared into her new husband's face. She knew Michael would be handsomeno one who wrote letters that sweet could not be. But even if he were uglier than a Kentucky toad, she'd still love him.
She took a second to study his face. Jaw, nice and square. Nose, straight. Eyes, breathtaking and smiling, the color of a sapphire necklace her ma once had when days were better. Lips, bow shaped. The man was so handsome. And he was all hers. "I just can't believe I'm finally here."
Michael stared down at her with wide eyes.
Her husband wasn't smiling, and he looked like he'd just swallowed a giant cricket. Her joy evaporated.
She took a step back and dipped her head sideways, wondering if she'd done something wrong or if he was disappointed in her looks. Maybe she shouldn't have grabbed him and hugged him like she had. After all, that was a mighty bold thing to do, but she couldn't help herself. She'd waited five long months for this day.
Still, maybe her boldness had upset him. She reckoned she'd better apologize. "I'm sorry, Michael. I oughta not tossed my arms about you like that. Forgive me iffen that was outta line."
He continued to stare, saying nothing.
"Bear got your tongue or somethin'?"
"Youyou can't be Selina."
Whoa. She wasn't expecting that. "What do ya mean I can't be Selina? Of course I'm Selina."
He tugged his gray cowboy hat off his head and ran the back of his hand over his sweaty forehead, then settled the hat back into place. "You can't be. The Selina who wrote me was " His eyelids lowered to the wood planks under his feet, but Selina still caught sight of the hurt in his eyes.
Quicksand plopped into her belly. "Michael." She waited until he looked at her. His expression was blank. "You said the Selina who wrote you was Was what, Michael?"
"She was " She was what?
The longer he stood there not saying anything the more skittish her insides got. "Tell me, Michael. She was. I mean, I was what?"
"Well, will you look at her? That's repulsive." Disgust oozed from a woman's voice as she passed by them.
Selina swung her attention to two young women standing about five yards away with their fancy dresses and matching hats with long feathers sticking out of them.
"Are you sure it's a she? Looks more like a man to me."
Selina caught sight of their faces.
They looked her up and down with a snarl on their faces. Jumpin' crickets. Did those women have their corsets in a twist or what?
"I can't believe she would be seen in public like that."
Selina had dealt with their type all her life. People who thought they were better than her just because they had money and could afford fancy clothes.
Selina narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and gave them her meanest stare while patting her rifle.
Their eyes widened. They linked arms and scurried off like a herd of scared mice stuck in a shack filled with cats. Worked every time.
Selina turned back to Michael.
His eyes followed the women until they disappeared around the train depot building. She wondered what was going through his mind. "Michael, would you mind iffen we found someplace over yonder so we can talk? I need you to tell me what was in them letters."
"What do you mean you need me to tell you what was in the letters? You wrote them." A frown pulled at his face. "What's going on here, Selina?" His voice was harsh and loud enough that people stopped what they were doing to stare at them.
"Whoa." She held up her hand to ward off the roughness of his words. "Just back up your horses, cowboy, and I'll explain everything. But not here. Come on." She tugged on his shirt sleeve. He balked like a stubborn mule, and she had to practically drag him all the way to the edge of the trees out of the earshot of others.
She sat down on a log and hoped Michael would do the same, but he just stood there, towering over her.
"Won't you please sit a spell? I'll have a crick in my neck iffen I have to keep lookin' up at you like this."
He lowered his backside onto the log but as far to the other end as possible.
He removed his hat and worked the brim of it into a curl.
Such a waste of a mighty fine hat.
Why, Pa would skin her and her brothers alive if one of them ever treated a hat like that. But she wasn't here to talk about that. "Michael, I don't know what the problem is, but I want you to know that I told Aimee to tell you that I had no book learnin' and that I couldn't read nor write because I had to help my pa raise the youngins after my ma took sick and died."
"What do you mean you can't read or write?" His shocked face made her want to find a rock to crawl under. She dropped her head in shame. "And who's Aimee?" he asked.
"You don't know?"
"No. Why should I?"
"Aimee's my friend who wrote them letters for me."
"I can see that. I'm a mite confused myself because Aimee was supposed to tell you that she was writin' for me. Must have slipped her mind." At least Selina hoped that was why Aimee hadn't told him.
"Well, she didn't."
"What did she tell you then?"
"The letters said that your father was dying and that was why you answered my advertisement. When I mentioned that I didn't want someone to marry me because they needed a place, you.Aimee.suggested we correspond a time in order to get to know each other. Then after a couple of months if neither one of us cared for the other, we would find someone else. But the more I wrote, the more I fell in love with."
"Finish what you were fixin' to say, Michael. You fell in love with who? Me or Aimee?"
"II don't know. The woman in the letters?" He placed his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. "Only now I don't know who that person is."
"Me, neither." She hated having to admit that. "There's only one way to find out. You got them letters with you?"
"Would you mind fetchin' them?"
He stood. "They're in the wagon. I'll be right back."
Selina had a sick feeling as he walked away. If her doubts were right, Aimee hadn't told Michael everything Selina had asked her to. And if Aimee hadn't, then her best friend had done not only Selina wrong, but also Michael.
But surely Aimee wouldn't have done such a wicked thing. Her friend loved her and had always treated her kindly. Unlike those other rich folks she'd worked for who had treated her worse than an unwanted critter. Her friend had even rescued Selina when Aimee's brothers had tried to drown Selina in the river. If Aimee hadn't shown up when she had, she wasn't at all certain she would be here today.
Still, she couldn't help but wonder if Aimee had tricked them. If so, did that mean Selina had up and hitched herself to a man who loved someone else? Namely her beautiful friend Aimee?
Michael took his time walking to the wagon. He needed to get his thoughts together. He had a hard time believing the woman sitting on the log was his bride. The word bride stuck in his throat like a chicken bone.
For years, Michael had prayed for God to send him someone like Rainee, his first real crush, but Selina was nothing like Rainee. His sister-in-law was a woman he admired and respected. She was the epitome of femininity, a Southern belle who was educated and smart, beautiful inside and out, genteel yet strong, feisty but sweet, able to hold her own when need be and a real survivor. Everything he wanted in a wife.
Tired of living alone at the age of twenty-seven, with women still scarce in the Idaho Territory, he had decided to take out an advertisement. After all, it had worked for Rainee and Haydon.
If only it would have worked for him.
If only he would have taken the time to get on that train and head out to Kentucky to meet Selina before actually marrying her by proxy. But he couldn't be spared.
The coming of the railroad had made getting feed and supplies much easier. Because of that, he and his family had purchased more property and livestock.
Even with the extra hired help, Michael was needed to tend the cattle and hogs, the apple, plum and pear orchards, the hay, wheat, oat and barley fields. His absence would have put too much burden on his family, and he had refused to let that happen.
He thought his heart had been in the right place at the time, but now he was stuck with the consequences of that decision and had no one to blame but himself. With a heavy sigh, he retrieved the letters from behind the seat of the wagon and headed back to Selina.
Her cowboy hat now rested against her back. Sunshine glistened down on her head, exposing rivers of copper and blond streaks flowing throughout her molasses-colored hair. Her skin was flawless.
Her teeth were even and white and her striking, rich, coffee-colored eyes held a million questions. Questions he didn't know the answers to.
No denying the woman was beautiful, but none of that mattered. She wasn't what he had wanted or prayed for. Of that he was certain.
He lowered himself at the opposite end of the log from Selina. Without looking at her, he tugged at the string around the parcel and opened the first letter he'd received from her. He practically had it memorized. Neat penmanship and feminine curves looked back at him, mocking him with their precise, dainty script. Script filled with lies and deception.
"This is the first letter I got from you. 'Dear Mr. Bowen. My name is Selina Farleigh. I'm twenty-five years old, five-foot-three inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes. I am responding to your advertisement because my father has taken ill. You see, the man my father works for provides our lodging. Once my father passes on, I will have to leave as I will no longer have a home.'"
"That's not true," Selina interrupted him. He glanced at her.
"It's true about my pa taking ill but not that other stuff. No wonder you said you didn't want someone to marry you because they needed a home. Well, I didn't need a home, and Aimee knew that. My pa owned a place in the hills. Wasn't much, but my brothers own it now. I could've stayed there with my brother and his wife."
"Why did you answer my advertisement?"
"I let Aimee talk me into it. My pa's dying wish was to see me hitched to a good man. Pa said he could die in peace knowin' I was happily married and far away from Bart."
"A fella back home who wanted me to marry him." She scrunched her face. "No way would I have married Bart even iffen he was the last man on earth. Somethin' about him gave me the willies. Pa didn't much care for him none either. Said he drank too much moonshine. So when Pa found out about the ad and how Aimee was encouragin' me to write to you and all, he agreed. Said he wanted me to have a better life."
She looked away. "'Course, when he found out you were a pig farmer, he said it wouldn't be much of a better life but at least I'd be far away from the likes of Bart and would always have food to eat. That made Pa feel a whole heap better. Plus, he knew I never wanted to marry a rich man."
Michael's attention snagged on that last comment. Why didn't she want to marry someone rich? What was she going to say when she found out she already had? Did he even care?