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Paradise Haven, Idaho Territory 1874
If Rainelle Devonwood's mother knew what she was about to do, she would roll over in her grave. Grave.
That one word ripped at Rainee's heart, but she refused to cry in the presence of the strangers surrounding her. She lowered her head and pressed her fingers over her eyelids in hopes of holding back the flood of tears.
Oh, Mother, you would be astonished to know what I have done. But even you would understand why I did it. If only you and Father were still alive. Then I would still be at home, living without pain and suffering. But, Mother. I had to leave. I just had to.
In the small confines of the dusty stagecoach, only one thing gave Rainee a measure of peace about her drastic decisionher betrothed had assured her he loved the Lord. Otherwise she would have never gone through with her plans to marry a complete stranger.
The uncertainty of what was about to take place, and the constant cigar smoke from the gentleman sitting across from her, caused her stomach to become unwell. Rainee pressed her hand over her mouth and leaned her head out the window, silently praying the Lord would help her stomach's contents to settle and help to divert her attention elsewhere.
Dust crowded into her nose. That is not quite what I had in mind, Lord. She covered her mouth and sneezed. Her eyes started watering from all the dirt particles, but with her stomach still threatening to purge itself, she decided to deal with the discomfort a few moments longer. She blinked away the particles of debris from her eyes as she studied her surroundings.
Rolling green meadows disappeared into the forest at the base of the mountains. Blue skies stretched before her. Several yards away, a rabbit leapt high in the air and landed in the tall bunchgrass. It did the same thing three times. And each time Rainee giggled at its silly antics.
When her stomach stopped churning, she settled back into her seat.
The stagecoach hit a rut, yanking her body sideways and slamming her shoulder into the lady next to her. "I am so sorry, ma'am."
Sleepy eyes glanced at Rainee before sliding shut. How could the woman slumber through so much jostling? Rainee envied her.
Days and days of being jostled about, first on the train when she left Little Rock, Arkansas, and now even more so on the stagecoach heading to the Idaho Territory, were taking its toll on her overtaxed body. Rainee rolled her head from side to side, pressed her palm against her aching side, and shifted in the seat for the twentieth time in the past few minutes.
Horses' pounding hooves, jingling tack and squeaking leather were the only sounds she had heard for miles upon miles until Daniel, the stagecoach assistant, leaned his blond head near the window. "Only a few more minutes, folks, before we arrive at our destination."
A destination Rainee wanted to avoid but knew she could not because her very life and sanity depended on it.
Within minutes, she would soon meet her betrothed. Her betrothed.
She still could not believe she was about to be married.
To a complete stranger.
But then again, if Haydon Bowen turned out to be even half as nice as his letters had made him sound, with the help of God's grace and a passel of mercy, her life might not end up so dreadful after all. Anything had to be better than her current situation.
Or was it?
A horrid thought fluttered through her mind. What if the man she was about to wed was not the gentleman he had portrayed himself to be?
Merciful heavens, what had she done?
You ordered what?
Haydon Bowen's own words rang through his brain like the continual clang of a church bell. How could Jesse, his own brother, do this to him, knowing he never wanted to marry again? Knowing marriage to his deceased wife had been a disaster. The hour-and-a-half ride from his family's ranch in Paradise Haven to the stagecoach stop in Prosperity Mountain had done little to abate his frustration. Anger over Jesse's latest outlandish scheme clung to him like trail dirt on a sweaty body.
After reining his draft horses to a stop, Haydon pressed his booted foot on the wagon brake. He sat stone still, dreading the task before him, wishing he could forget this whole thing and hightail it back to the ranch. But wishing wasn't going to change a thing. He raised his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve.
Knowing he couldn't put off the unpleasant mission any longer, he hopped down from the buckboard. As he went to wrap the reins around the brake handle he heard the stern sound of a woman's voice coming from the direction of the stagecoach platform. "Unhand me this instant."
"Aw, I jist wanna little bitty kiss." The man's barely intelligible words slurred together.
Haydon tied off the reins and headed around the corner of the depot to see what was going on. He rounded it just in time to see a petite lady in a frilly lavender dress kick some shoddy-looking man in the shin with the toe of her laced-up boot. It took Haydon so by surprise that he had to stifle a laugh.
"Ouch! Why you little" Filthy words poured from the scruffy man's mouth. He yanked the woman close to his sweaty, grime-stained body, his face a mere inch from hers.
The woman managed to jerk back and swing her unopened parasol in a wide arc, striking the man's head. That only served to anger him more, and he yanked her close again.
He'd seen enough. Haydon leapt up the wooden step, took five steps to cross it, grabbed the man by the back of his shirt and shoved him away. "You heard the lady. Unhand her. Now!"
The man landed in a crumpled heap, but quicker than the snap of a whip, he darted back and rammed his head into Haydon's gut. All air fled from his lungs. He doubled over and struggled to pull in a breath. His hat slid from his head and onto the ground.
The man punched Haydon's face, causing him to stumble backward. Sharp pain pulled through his nose, and his eyes watered.
His attacker lunged toward him, but Haydon sidestepped him.
The man slammed against the wooden planks face-first.
Haydon jumped on him, yanked his arms behind his back, and pressed his knee between the man's shoulders.
Squirming, the man tried to break free, but Haydon held him in a tight grip.
"Ben! Pack your things and get out of town now!"
Haydon's gaze jumped up to a tall man with a shiny badge splayed against a black leather vest.
"I warned you if you caused any more trouble, I'd run you out of town. I mean to keep my promise. Now get out of here and don't ever show your face around here again."
Haydon stood and hauled the man the sheriff called Ben to his feet. When he released him, the only way to describe what he saw in his beady eyes was evil intent. It tried to curl its way around Haydon, but he shook it off like he would a snake crawling on his hand.
"This won't be the last you'll hear from me," Ben hissed. He scooped up his sweat-stained hat and slammed it on his greasy head. "You an' yore lady friend'll be sorry you ever messed with me!"
"That's enough!" The sheriff aimed his pistol at Ben's heart and cocked it. "Whether you go peacefully or draped over a saddle makes no difference to me. The choice is yours." Wrinkles gathered around the lawman's narrowed eyes, and his burly mustache buried his lips.
Haydon swung his gaze between the sheriff and Ben, not at all sure that he and the lady weren't about to witness a deadly showdown at point-blank range.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Ben spat as he lifted his hands in the air.
The lawman gave a quick jerk of his head and gun, motioning Ben forward. The two of them headed down the boardwalk. Their boots clunked against the wooden planks, and neither of them looked back.
Haydon relaxed his shoulders for a full two seconds, until he remembered the lady. He let out a quick breath and turned toward her. Seeing her stooped over, he snatched up his hat and hurried over to her. "Are you all right, Miss?"
Like a well-trained woman of society, she rose gracefully and faced him. Having grown up with the socially elite, he recognized one when he saw one. And she was definitely one.
"Yes, sir, I am." Her lavender plumed hat tilted back, and she looked up at him. "Thank you for rescuing me."
Haydon's pulse throbbed in his ears and his breath hitched. Staring up at him were the most beautiful brown eyes he had ever seen, soft as a doe's hide. The color reminded Haydon of a whitetail fawn, complete with white specks. Thick but not overly long lashes spread across her eyelids. And that Southern accent. It skipped across his heart before drilling right down into him.
"Merciful heavens. Your nose is bleeding." She opened the little beaded bag hanging from her wrist, pulled out a lace hanky and raised it toward his nose.
He yanked his head back. "Don't soil your hanky." He reached into his inside vest pocket and removed his handkerchief, then pressed it against his nostrils, ignoring the pain the gesture produced. Confident he'd gotten all the blood, he folded his handkerchief and shoved it back into his vest.
"I am so sorry, sir, you were injured on account of me."
"Don't worry about it. I'll be fine."
She studied him for a moment, and he squirmed under her scrutiny. "Would you happen to be Mr. Bowen?" Her drawn out words, mixed with a tremor, snapped Haydon back to reality. No matter how beautiful she was, she was still a woman. The last time he had fallen for a beautiful woman, not only had he ruined her life, but also his.
He slammed his hat onto his head and stepped back. "Yes, ma'am. I'm Haydon Bowen."
She daintily clasped her skirt and curtsied. "It is a pleasure to meet you, sir. I am Rainelle Victoria Devon-wood. But please call me Rainee."
He knew his eyes had to be popping out of their sockets, but he couldn't help himself. This little beauty placed an advertisement for a husband? Someone who looked like her and bled confidence? His eyes narrowed. What was wrong with her that no one had claimed her for his own? She's a woman, Haydon. That's reason enough.
Slanting her pretty little head, she blinked several times before her eyes snapped onto his. Innocence clothed her face, making her even more of a threat.
This was going to be a lot harder than he thought. Why did she have to have eyes that penetrated the very depths of his soul, connecting with that spot he had purposely kept shut off for years?
He broke eye contact with her. He didn't want her or anyone else invading that private place. Nor did he want her coming home with him. Think, Haydon, think fast. Maybe he could buy her a one-way ticket home and set her up in a hotel here in Prosperity Mountain until the next stagecoach came around.
He scanned the mining town. Several men stood in front of the saloon with their arms crossed and their legs spread, gawking at Miss Devonwood as if they hadn't eaten in days and she was a fresh piece of meat. Prosperity Mountain was definitely no place to leave a lady without an escort. Women were scarce around these parts, and too many men were less than honorable. From what he had experienced, the place overflowed with raucous silver miners and thieves who wouldn't hesitate to steal a person's silver or something even more valuablea woman's virtue.
With a sideways glance, he battled with what to do. Frustration toward Jesse for putting him in this mess seeped through his mind again like a deadly poison. His brother should be dealing with this. Not him. But that wasn't going to happen. The sight of Jess unconscious on the floor of the barn slashed through Haydon, and he detested Jess all the more for making him so angry he had lost his composure, and flanked his horse. Haydon knew better than to touch a horse's flank; spurring that tender spot between a horse's ribs and hips was bad enough, and yet he had not only kicked it without meaning to, he had also hit it hard enough that it caused Rebel to rear and knock Jesse unconscious. Haydon still felt badly about that.
With Jess injured, it was now up to Haydon to do what he had to do to keep this woman safe. No gentleman would do anything less. And if Haydon was anything, he prided himself on being a gentleman. Most of the time anyway.
His chest heaved at the idea of being in such close proximity to the flaxen-haired beauty on the long ride back to the ranch. It was the last place he wanted to be. But he would not leave her here, not even to save himself the trouble.
Rainee locked her knees to keep them from giving out. What kind of ruffians filled this desolate land anyway? Why, if Mr. Bowen had not come along when he had, she did not know what might have happened to her. Just thinking about it made her shudder.
As he stared forward, Rainee took the opportunity to study him. Her gaze landed on his arms.
Arms that had easily plucked away her attacker.
Mountainous arms that drew her attention and admiration.
Rainee knew she should look away, knowing if her mother were here, she would reprimand her for her blatant impropriety. But she found she could not help herself. Nor did she want to. The bulges beneath his pale blue shirtsleeves captivated her attention as did the width of his broad shoulders and chest.
Her eyes moved to his firm jaw, and she watched in fascination as the muscle in his jaw worked back and forth. Something about the strength of it set her heart all aflutter.
"Do you need anything before we go, Miss Devonwood?"
She whipped her gaze up to his eyes. Warmth rushed to her cheeks. From the icy tone of his voice, he must have seen her gawking at him.
Perhaps he was agitated because of her blunder in telling him to call her by her Christian name. That was far too forward of her, even if this man was to be her husband. Would she ever learn?
How she despised all those ridiculous rules of etiquette and propriety. Aristocratic rules her British father insisted they follow and her Southern mother had taken pride in enforcing. But, she refused to distress herself further about her social blunder because there was nothing she could do about it now anyway.