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Buffalo Bend, Montana
April 29, 1876
Arabella Spencer huddled under the dripping eave of Bro-phy's Feed and Mercantile where the stage had let her off with her trunk. Rain had churned the deserted street into a quagmire of mud and manure. The muck had ruined her new kid-skin shoes and wasn't doing much for her disposition. After more than twenty minutes of waiting, she was wet, worried and getting madder by the second.
Charles, her fiance, had certainly known she was coming. He'd mailed her the tickets three months ago, with a promise to meet the stage and drive her to his new ranch. Only the thought of their wedding, and the fine home he'd refurbished especially for her, had sustained her on the grueling journey by train and stagecoach, all the way from Boston to Buffalo Bend. Now she was here at last, bruised, chilled and bone-weary, with Grandma Peabody's wedding dress packed into her trunk.
The bride had arrived. So where was her groom?
True, the stage had been delayed two hours by a broken wheel. But that was no excuse for Charles not to be hereespecially given that she had no place to get out of the rain. Brophy's Feed and Mercantile, which appeared to be the only store in this ramshackle excuse for a town, had long since closed for the night. There wasn't a hotel in sight, or even a restaurant; and the church at the street's far end looked as dark as a tomb.
Only the saloon across the street showed any sign of life. Lamplight filtered through gray sheets of rain. Occasional bursts of laughter and the wheeze of a concertina drifted over the drone of the storm.
Arabella shivered beneath her damp woolen traveling cloak. The thought of shelter was tempting. But she'd have to leave her precious trunk behind and wade through ankle-deep mud to cross the street. In any case, well-bred young ladies simply did not venture into saloonsnot even in a deluge fit to float Noah's ark.
A flicker of movement across the street caught her eye. Someone had just come out of the saloon. Was it Charles? Had he been waiting for her in that disreputable place?
But the man who stepped into the street was too tall and too broad-shouldered to be her fiance. Charles was of average stature. The figure striding toward her, wearing a bulky sheepskin coat, loomed like a giant against the roiling sky.
Arabella shrank into the doorway. If the man meant her harm, she'd have no place to run. But she could kick and bite and scream for all she was worth. If it came to that, she vowed, she wouldn't go down without a fight.
He stopped a pace away from her. Close up, he wasn't as huge as she'd first thought. But he was big enoughsix foot four, by her reckoning. His face was obscured by rain streaming off the broad brim of his hat.
"Miss Arabella Spencer?" His voice was like the rumble of an iron wheel over a graveled road. "I was told to look for a redhead, so I'm guessing you're the one." Staring up at him, she nodded.
"McIntyre's the name. I've come to fetch you to the ranch. Wait here, and I'll bring the buckboard around."
He thrust something toward her. Realizing it was an oilskin, Arabella seized it eagerly and wrapped it over her damp cloak. Before she could utter a proper thank-you, the man had melted into the rain.
Moments later he reappeared from behind the store, driving an open rig behind a team of sturdy bays. The back was filled with some kind of bulky cargo covered by a canvas tarpaulin. There was one bench seat in front, with nothing to shelter its occupants from the rain.
For heaven's sake, if Charles couldn't come himself, why couldn't he at least have sent a covered buggy?
McIntyre halted the horses, climbed to the ground and came around the riga buckboard, he'd called it, though it was more like a wagon, drawn by two horses instead of one. Hefting Arabella's trunk as if it weighed nothing, he slid it under the canvas in back.
"Where's my fiance, Charles Middleton?" Arabella demanded. "Is he all right?"
"Far as I know, he's fine." McIntyre's big hands caught her waist and boosted her onto the bench as if she were no bigger than a child.
"Then why didn't he come to meet me?"
"Spring's a busy time for ranchers. I had to drive to town for feed and salt, so he asked me to pick you up." He climbed onto the bench beside her. "It's a long ride. Too bad I hadn't counted on the rain, or on the stage being late."
As if that had been her fault! "Well, at least you got to spend a couple of hours in the saloon," she sniffed.
"Uh-huh. Had a drink and won fifty dollars in a game of five-card stud." His hands flicked the reins. The wagon plowed forward through the sticky mud.
Struck by a sudden realization, she stared at him. "Waityou were in the saloon when the stage arrived. You must've heard it stop, and you knew I'd be getting off. Why on earth did you leave me standing outside in the rain?"
He shrugged. "I was holding a royal flush."
"Of all the oafish, inconsiderate" Arabella squelched the rest of her tirade. McIntyre didn't strike her as any kind of gentleman. If a woman got on his nerves, there was no telling what he might do. She could find herself standing alone in the mud.
She resolved to hold her tongue for now. But she planned to have a word with Charles about McIntyre's behavior. Such insolence! The man should be dismissed from service at once.
They left the town behind. There appeared to be a road of sorts, but it was even rougher than the stage route from Laramie which, after five days of constant jouncing, had left her black-and-blue. The wagon swayed and groaned, its wheels lurching over rocks and sagging through puddles of mud. Rain poured down in a steady deluge. Peering out from under the oilskin, Arabella could see clumps of sagebrush on either side, but whatever lay beyond that was obscured by darkness.
At least the horses seemed to know where they were going. They plodded along at a calm pace, ignoring the rain that sheeted down their sides. McIntyre sat hunched over the reins, water drizzling off his hat and streaming down his sheepskin coat. His very silence was an affront, as if he didn't consider her worth the bother of polite conversation. Clearly, for whatever reason, the man didn't like her.
At least she could try to discover why.
"How long have you been working for Charles?" she asked.
"I don't." He didn't bother to look at her.
"You don't work for him?"
So much for asking Charles to fire the man. "You're a friend of his, then?" McIntyre didn't reply.
"You could say that."
"Then you'll be my neighbor, too! I suppose Charles told you we were going to be married."
Did McIntyre flinch beneath his coat? Maybe she'd just imagined it, Arabella thought as she waited for the response that never came. Where were his manners?
"Did you hear me?" she demanded. "I said Charles and I were going to be"
"I heard you." His voice was a growl. What was eating at the man? Arabella was tempted to give him a lecture in courtesy. But that, she sensed, would be a waste of breath.
She'd done her best to make pleasant conversation. But if her driver wanted to be rude, she wouldn't trouble him further. Instead she would pass the time as she had on the train and inside the dusty, rattling stagecoachthinking about Charles, their wedding and their future.
She had known Charles Middleton all her life. They'd grown up next door to each other in Boston. Everyone who knew them had assumed they'd marry one day. When Charles's aging father had died last year, his older brother, Frank, had inherited the family estate and ship-building business. Charles had used his own generous inheritance to buy a Montana cattle ranch complete with a two-story house, corrals and outbuildings, and a herd of five thousand cattle.
"I'll send for you next spring, dearest," he'd promised her at the railway station. "While we're apart I'll have a crew remodeling the house into a home to make you prouda home where we can raise our children and live happily for the rest of our days."
Charles wasn't the most reliable of menhis enthusiasm often overran his better instincts. But in this case, he had kept his word. After the tickets arrived, Arabella had passed the long winter days sewing her trousseau and planning her wedding. She wasn't sure what life would be like on a Montana ranch. But as long as Charles was there, she knew she'd be happy.
She imagined standing before the preacher, wearing Grandma Peabody's wedding dress and gazing up into Charles's tender blue eyes as she spoke her vows. I, Arabella, take thee, Charles
"Damnation!" McIntyre's curse shattered her reverie. The wagon had halted, the way broken by a four-foot drop-off above a flowing torrent of muddy water.
McIntyre purpled the air with half-mouthed curses. "Damn, blasted bridge is washed out. If we can't ford the creek we'll be stuck here waiting." Turning, he thrust the reins into Arabella's hands. "Can you handle a team?"
"I've driven a chaise."
"That'll have to do. Hold the horses steady till I get back." He vaulted to the ground and strode off into the storm.
Arabella peered through the murk. Fear uncoiled in her stomach and crawled up into her throat. McIntyre was probably looking for a shallow place to cross. But the water looked fast and deep, and so wide she couldn't see the far side of it. What if he lost his footing and was swept away? What would she do out here alone if he didn't come back?
Minutes crawled past. The horses danced and snorted. She gripped the reins hard, praying the skittish beasts wouldn't bolt. She didn't want to die out here in the cold, dark rain. She wanted to make it to the ranch, marry Charles and spend happy years raising his children.
The sound of the water was a dull roar. Was it deep enough to drown a man? Panic ran an icy finger up her spine. "McIntyre!" Her shout was lost in the storm. "Where are you?"
"Right here." He appeared on the far side of the wagon, tossed the branch he was holding into the back and climbed onto the seat. His trousers and boots were coated with mud.
"Did you find a way across?" she asked.
"Nothing sure. The smart thing would be to wait here till morning. We'll have daylight then, and the water should be down."
"Oh, no!" Arabella responded with a horrified gasp. "We can't possibly do that! Think of my reputation! Think how Charles will worry! We simply must go on!"
McIntyre exhaled raggedly, shaking his head. "I had a feeling you'd say that. There's a place upstream that might do for a ford. But if you get a soaking, don't say I didn't warn you."
"I'm soaked now!" she huffed.
Without another word he took the reins, backed up and swung the team to the left. The wagon lurched over rocks and crashed through clumps of sagebrush, stopping fifty yards upstream at the crest of a sandy incline that sloped down to the swollen creek.
McIntyre studied the roiling current. "We'd still be better off waiting for daylight. I know what you're thinking, but this is Montana, not Boston. Nobody here's going to give a damn about your precious reputation. As for your virtue " His eyes flickered toward her, and when he spoke again his voice was dry and cold. "Lady, you've got nothing to worry about there."
Arabella's chin went up. "Believe me, if you did give me any cause for concern, my fiance would have you shot." Something between a snarl and a curse rumbled in his throat. "What the hell," he snapped, "let's go."
His big hands urged the horses down the bank. Stopping them at the water's edge, he handed her the reins. "I'll be going ahead to test the bottom and lead the team," he said. "All you'll need to do is hold on and keep them from moving too fast. All right?"
Arabella nodded, feeling a vague chill of fear. The water looked swift and deep. Maybe she should tell McIntyre she'd changed her mind. But the idea of admitting he was right stuck in her craw. And the thought of Charles, waiting with open arms, sealed her resolve. She held her tongue as he stripped off his coat, lifted the branch from the bed of the wagon and swung to the ground.
Without a backward glance, he walked to the head of the team and placed himself between the two husky bays. Even next to his horses, McIntyre looked powerful. He glanced from one animal to the other, as if reassuring them. Then with a voiced command Arabella could barely hear, he urged them into the flooded creek.
Knee-deep, then hip-deep, he eased forward. One hand held the branch, which he used to probe the depth of the creek bed in front of him. The other hand controlled the horses, moving from one to the other. Arabella gripped the reins as the wagon swayed into the current. McIntyre was trusting her with his life, she realized. If she let the horses bolt they could drag him under and trample or drown him.
The water was over the wheel hubs, but the spring-mounted bed of the buckboard wagon remained dry. Arabella thought of Grandma Peabody's silk wedding dress. She had wrapped the precious garment in oilcloth, but little good that would do if the trunk slipped into the creek and washed away. She willed herself to focus on holding the horses. They were making slow but steady progress. Now, through the rainy darkness, she could make out a stand of willows on the far side. They were almost there.
"Whoa!" McIntyre's shout rang out above the rush of the current. Arabella jerked back on the reins, but not fast enough.
As the wheels rolled forward, the rig sagged toward the right front corner and groaned to a halt.