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By Debra Cowan
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWest Texas, 1883
"Hello, Mr. Holt. No, Riley. I should call him Riley." Two hours after arriving by stage in Whirlwind, Texas, Susannah Phelps stood on the wide, dust-covered veranda of Riley Holt's large frame house. During the ride out here, she'd tried to think of the best way to start this conversation. Blurting out "I'm here to marry you" would not do.
Susannah felt like a mail-order bride who hadn't been ordered, and it didn't sit well. The October air was cool, but the sun, glaring down from a clear sky, kept the temperature from being sharp. She stayed warm with her blue wool cape and gloves. Red Texas dust hazed the air, coating everything with a rusty film and settling in the creases of her navy serge traveling skirt.
This was a lonely, isolated pocket of the plains.
Sprawled in the middle of browning pastureland, the white house with black shutters looked conspicuous and stark amid the red bluffs and short, endless grass. She'd never imagined Riley would have such a grand home; her expectations had been of a crude log cabin or a sod house.
For the third time since arriving, Susannah tugged at her bodice and smoothed her skirt, then paced the few steps to his front door. Sweat dampened her palms. She'd worn her gloves all day, but now they were too hot. She peeled them off.
A man named Matthew Baldwin had been kind enough to drive her from Whirlwind to Riley's ranch, the Rocking H, but his buckboard had added to the bruises on her derriere. Four days of travel from St. Louis by train and stage, combined with her pregnancy, had left her more than exhausted. Her legs and feet were swollen to the size of German sausages, and she really wanted to sit down. But, having made up her mind to accept Riley Holt's marriage proposal, she was ready to settle things.
Miss Elmira Wentworth of Miss Wentworth's Finishing Academy in St. Louis would fall to the floor in a dead faint if she knew what Susannah was about to do. This was the most unladylike thing she'd ever done.
Susannah glanced down at her belly. Well, not the most.
As always, the reminder of her disgrace brought searing memories of the horror and anger on her parents' faces. Her mother and father had actually let her leave St. Louis without saying a word! She'd eagerly agreed to Adam's plan to come to his friend in Texas. Not because she shared the man's desire to marry. No. She, like her brother, had thought their parents would relent before she left, would put aside their anger. They hadn't.
So here she was in Whirlwind, a dusty Texas town that might as well be on the other side of the world. She was the one who had been hurt in this whole mess, the one person whom everyone had turned on. Paul LaFortune, especially, had betrayed her. She'd loved him with all of her young, innocent heart. His talk of "their future" had seduced her, had had her believing his sweet, empty promises that he'd loved her as much as she'd loved him.
She'd given him not only her virtue, but also her heart.
She wouldn't be so foolish again. Wherever Paul was, things were probably perfect for him. She was the one who'd been banished, the one who was slinking away to an unfamiliar town to marry a stranger.
True, Riley Holt was one of her brother's best friends, and Adam trusted him implicitly, but Susannah had never met Riley.
She rested a hand on the barely visible swell of her stomach. She was just beginning her fifth month, and so far her condition had been concealed by full skirts and looser clothing. At first, the baby had been only an extension of the scandal that had disgraced her and forced her to leave St. Louis. But now the reality of this tiny life, and the enormous responsibility it brought, had sent her to Riley Holt's door. This trip was not just about her. She was all this baby had.
It was up to her to provide for her child's every need - food, a home, love and security. Even if it meant marrying a man she didn't know.
Miss Wentworth and her parents aside, Susannah had to go through with it. Squaring her shoulders, she knocked.
When there was no answer, she knocked again. Uncertainty tightened her already dry throat. Surely Riley was here. He had to be here.
Skirting the mound of baggage Matthew Baldwin had stacked before she'd insisted he leave her alone at the ranch, she walked to the east end of the veranda. The long stretch of porch that ran the length of the house was empty. Only a whitewashed windmill broke up the expansive acres of prairie grass. She certainly hadn't expected a windmill, usually rare in these parts. Down a soft slope, red long-horned cattle roamed.
Susannah walked back across the front and to the opposite end of the porch, her gaze skipping over a spring house next to the main house. A weathered but sturdy barn stood several yards away. A clang sounded from inside. She straightened.
Nerves prickled at the back of her neck and she balled her gloves in one hand. She returned to the steps, her lace-up travel boots clicking hollowly on the wood. After a slight hesitation, she started toward the barn. The clanging sounded again, sharp and metallic. She sucked in a deep breath and struggled to calm her nerves.
The pungent odors of animals and manure drifted to her. She wrinkled her nose and kept moving, despite feeling disconnected and a little lost.
Wide double doors were slid back, revealing the barn's hazy interior and another opening of the same size at the opposite end. Metal smacked metal twice, then was followed by a curse.
The husky baritone caused an odd flutter in her stomach, a flutter that had nothing to do with the baby. She stepped forward, out of the cool sunshine and into the dim barn.
After a moment, she was able to define the row of stalls on either wall, the slatted doors, bridles hanging neatly on each wooden beam that separated the cubicles. Saddles were draped over the stable walls, from behind which big, dark eyes stared at her.
Horses. She inched back against the door, curled her fingers around its edge. The sharp clang of metal sounded to her left and she turned.
A man bent over a pump, his back to her. Despite the shadows, she could see the span of broad shoulders beneath the white shirt. Even thinking himself unobserved, he seemed to command attention, filling the space with some undefinable aura of power.
Suddenly, as if he felt her presence, he straightened and turned, freezing when he saw her. He moved out of the shadows, holding a greasy wrench. His hard, even features were blatantly male, compellingly confident. Had Adam told her Riley was so big?
So ... intimidating?
Spurred by nerves and uncertainty, she blurted, "I'm here."
One dark brown eyebrow arched. "Uh, yes, you are."
Oh, bother. She hadn't once practiced saying that. Frustrated and uncertain, she rubbed her forehead. "I mean, hello."
Riley stepped into the light then, and she saw that his eyes were a piercing blue. "May I help you, ma'am?"
"I'm Susannah. Phelps?"
He grinned. "Are you asking me?"
"No! I am. Susannah Phelps, I mean." She gave a wobbly smile.
"Yes." Relief washed through her and she smiled more widely, dismayed to realize she'd crushed her gloves into a ball. "You received Adam's telegraph?"
"Yes." Still looking surprised, he tossed the wrench aside, then pulled a rag from the back pocket of his denim trousers and began wiping his hands. "What are you doing out here? How did you get here?"
Excerpted from Whirlwind Bride by Debra Cowan Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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