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"I said no. Ain't no way I'm takin' a single woman on my train. Sell your wagon. Go back east where it's safe."
"Even if I wanted to, the others would raise all kinds o' Cain. They already voted, remember? The answer is the same now as it was yesterday. No." Joshua narrowed his eyes, resisting his natural instinct to remove his hat in the presence of a woman. Maybe if he were unfriendly, she'd go away.
Maybe not. She planted her hands on her slender hips and raised a dark, thin brow. She was actually more attractive than he'd first thought. Today she wore an expensive looking traveling dress like the women he'd seen in Boston. The dark indigo blue matched the color of her eyes perfectly. But right now sparks of fire lit those eyes.
"Mr. Reynolds, I'd like to discuss an arrangement with you. I'd appreciate it if you could find the common courtesy to allow me to ask a question before you give an answer." Crossing her arms beneath her bosom, she stared at him with much the same look he'd gotten from his teacher back in school when he'd put frogs in the girls' desks.
Her name was Adelaide Jennings--Doctor Jennings if she was to be believed. She stood all of five foot three; maybe an extra inch, if she was lucky. And she may as well have been the Queen of Sheba with her royal attitude. Wealth, education, and arrogance dripped from the soft-looking hands with manicured nails. The woman was as out of place in this dusty, old stable as a nun in a saloon. Clearly she was a spoiled little rich girl, and he wasn't about to let her think money was going to change his mind. She was alone,unmarried, and she obviously had no idea what she was trying to get herself into. "Miss Jennings--"
"Right. Dr. Jennings. I'm still not sure I believe that claim," he said. Her nostrils flared, and her lips thinned. Josh bit back a smile. This one was easily riled. "There's no amount of money that's gonna buy your way onto my train."
She took a deep breath and lowered her arms. "You said you couldn't allow an unmarried woman to travel with your train."
He nodded and turned back to his horse to finish brushing him down. Josh knew it was rude to turn his back on a lady, but his stomach was rumbling. The sooner he got rid of her, the sooner he could make a quick stop at the bathhouse and get some vittles over at the hotel.
"Well, what if I travel with a husband?"
His brows rose. Had she really found a husband that fast? Any number of men would marry her. Heck, half the unmarried men west of the Rockies were so desperate for wives they had started ordering them by mail. "You got a husband?"
"I want you to marry me."
His jaw dropped, but he snapped it shut and cleared his throat before answering. Without turning around, Josh kept his voice quiet. "Look Miss--Dr. Jennings, I'm right flattered and all, but...."
"Flattered?" A soft chuckle sounded behind him. He spun around in time to catch the flash of amusement in her eyes. "You misunderstand, Mr. Reynolds. I will pay you to let me borrow your name for the duration of the journey. I will legally be your wife, but in name only. That should satisfy the jealous women who claim that having an unmarried woman with the train is unacceptable."
"It's not just the women! The men know it's invitin' trouble to have a woman around who ain't spoken for. There's fightin' and arguin'.... "The woman's smile ended his argument.
"Oh, but I would be spoken for, Mr. Reynolds. Are you saying you couldn't protect your own wife from the lecherous intent of such men?"
"I already had a wife. Taught me a lesson I won't forget." Josh shook his head. "No. I will not make that mistake again."
"Oh, for Heaven's sake!" Throwing her arms in the air, she paced in front of him, the dust from the livery floor coating her shiny black boots. "I'm not asking for a real marriage. This will be a ceremony to please the others, in name only. And as soon as we arrive in Baker City, my father's solicitor will file the necessary papers to have the marriage annulled."
Josh pulled his hand down his face, attempting to wipe away the headache building behind his eyes. The woman was plum loco. "Why?"
"I beg your pardon?" A look of confusion replaced her impatient schoolmarm expression.
Something told him he wasn't going to like her answer, but he had to know. She'd been so adamant yesterday and here she was back again. "Why is it so important that you travel with this wagon train?"
"I'm sure you know that yours is the last one leaving this year. If I don't travel with your train, I'll have to travel on horseback. Alone. I believe it would be safer with your train, Mr. Reynolds."
"If you just wait another year or two, there will likely be a stage running all the way to Oregon."
Her jaw tightened, and a new emotion filled her eyes. He'd only met her twice, but he'd already discovered she would never be able to hide her feelings. Emotions played across her face and betrayed her thoughts. "My father doesn't have a year, Mr. Reynolds."
His gut clenched, and the pounding in his temples deepened. "What do you mean?"
"Papa is ill. That's why I became a doctor--so I could help him. If I don't get to him soon, it will be too late."
As if she'd timed her statement for the most dramatic moment, brilliant rays of the setting sun filtered in through the open doors. Her sable brown hair shone like warm honey, and wetness glistened in the corners of her midnight blue eyes. She bit her lip and stared at him, silently begging him to help her.
Josh stifled a groan. He closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Fine." She moved passed him, calling over her shoulder, "Have you seen the livery attendant? I need to purchase a horse."
He let his head fall back, mumbling a curse and a prayer in the same breath. "Wait."
Addie's stomach fluttered. The Justice of the Peace began the ceremony, and she silently assured herself she wasn't making a mistake. I have to trust him. She had no choice. Her father was dying, and her heart ached with the knowledge that she wouldn't be able to cure his consumption. Hermann Brehmer had written a dissertation a few years ago entitled Tuberculosis is a Curable Disease. His recommended therapy of fresh mountain air had helped, but it hadn't cured her father's illness. The information available on this horrible disease was still too limited. Years of study had only taught her how to keep him comfortable in his last days.
She'd suffered the hateful treatment of the other students, all young men who adamantly believed that a woman simply wasn't intelligent enough to be a doctor. The professors tolerated her presence only because her father had paid almost twice the tuition fee for her to attend. They, too, had tried to discourage her, force her to quit. But she'd proven that she couldn't be beaten. She'd graduated. She was a doctor. For all the good it did her.
Now she stood next to this stranger, entering into a sham marriage so that she could reach her father in time to say goodbye. Everyone she'd questioned before the wagon train arrived had said the same thing. Josh Reynolds was a good man. Respectable. Dependable. Trustworthy. She prayed they were right. Her gaze lifted to the tall, rugged man standing next to her. He seemed solemn, resigned--nothing like yesterday at the livery. He'd tried everything to dissuade her, yelling and cursing about the hardships and dangers on a wagon train, frightening her with tales of suffering and death. In the end, he'd agreed to marry her and 'protect a foolish woman.'
Addie jerked her gaze to the Justice of the Peace and bit back her usual correction of Dr. Jennings. "I'm ready." The man nodded and began reading, his words slow and monotone. She peeked at her groom again. Deep, coffee-brown eyes met her own. They held a touch of resentment, but beyond that his thoughts or emotions remained a mystery. Her gaze skimmed his features. He looked so different. Yesterday, his square jaw had been covered in several days' growth of thick, dark whiskers. Today, he arrived clean-shaven, his sun-bronzed skin smooth except for a small scar on his left cheek. His dark, wavy hair was trimmed and clean though it still brushed the top of his collar.
"So long as you both shall live?"
Mr. Reynolds responded in a low, deep rumble. "I do."
It occurred to her that he was a handsome man, but so unlike the men she was accustomed to seeing in Boston. This man was stronger, more virile, not to mention taller. He towered over her by head and shoulders. And his demeanor was different too. Mr. Reynolds had an air of inherent confidence, not the abrasive arrogance of the men she'd endured through her years of medical school. He was direct and bold, even intimidating at times. Now and again his behavior bordered on uncivilized, and he could be rude and crass. But he was handsome, indeed, his body the perfect example of the male form at the age of about twenty-five, maybe a little older. Somehow the textbooks hadn't depicted muscles of his proportion for the biceps. Her gaze lowered to take in his broad chest and narrow waist. Thick denim material encased hips that tapered to impressive quadriceps--
"Both shall live?"
Addie's thoughts skittered to an abrupt halt. She swallowed hard. "I do."
"By the power vested in me by the good people of Fort Laramie, I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride."
Panic filled her momentarily, but she chastised herself for being silly and offered her cheek. He didn't bend to kiss her. Puzzled by his hesitation, she searched his eyes. A sinful gleam replaced the irritation she'd seen before.
He lifted a callused hand, placed his index finger below her chin, and tilted her head back. Warm breath mingled with her own as he lowered his head and whispered, "He gave me permission." His lips brushed hers tenderly. Without thought, her eyes drifted shut. His scent--leather, soap, and man--filled her nostrils. He pressed his mouth firmly over hers. Her heart skipped a beat and began racing. The world melted away, and, for a brief moment, time stopped.
He broke the kiss and left her breathless with tingling lips and foggy senses. She opened her eyes and found him staring down at her, a smug grin accompanying the wicked gleam still in his eyes. Her temper flared but quickly turned to embarrassment at finding her hands clinging to the front of his shirt.
"Well, then," the Justice of the Peace broke in, "if you'll both sign this ledger, we'll be finished."
Thankful for the distraction, Addie grasped the ledger and signed her name. Blast the man, anyway. Why had he kissed her? And why, for goodness sake, had her reaction been so intense? It was just a kiss, after all. He'd touched his lips to hers. It was nothing....
Nothing like anything she'd ever felt before.