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Montana Territory, 1882
"Miss, I don't want to have to put you out of the hotel." The kindly clerk gripped the bill in both hands, keeping his voice low in the hallway so it would not carry to the other guests in nearby rooms. "I can take it up with the Brooks family, if you'd rather. I know you came to marry one of their sons."
"No, please don't trouble them." Humiliation. Mortification. Defeat. All those emotions and more tangled up in tight painful knots, making it hard to think. Melody Pennington took a deep breath, straightened her spine and set her chin. She had been foolish to run away from her comfortable Boston home to escape a difficult problem. She had landed in another one the moment her foot touched down on Montana soil. The man she had come to marry had fallen in love with someone else—no, she didn't fault him for that. The heart had a mind of its own, and she wanted Joseph Brooks to be happy. But being stranded in this small mountain town with what little was left of her money was a serious concern.
"I will pay the bill, Mr. Owens." She snatched her reticule off the edge of the bureau, tugged open the strings and eyed the paltry sum within. "If I give you half…?"
"Sorry, miss. I need the payment in full. If you can't pay, then you will have to leave. It is hotel policy."
"But I have nowhere to go." She knew no one in town, save for the family she had been corresponding with, and their help was no longer an option. It would not be right to expect it to be.
Nor was it right to shortchange the hotel or put this kindly man's job in jeopardy. What were her options? She had fretted about nothing else the past few nights and days, worrying about what she should do, where she should go and how she was going to pay for all of it. She firmed her chin, determined to stay positive. This would work out for the best, surely. "Please, if you let me stay, I will find a way to pay you. I can give you my grandmother's pearls as collateral."
"Now, that don't seem right. I do not want to take a remembrance like that." Troubled now, the clerk's face was wreathed with concern. "I know you are in a pickle. Truth is, times are tough all over. But the hotel's owner does not make exceptions. I'm sorry for it."
"You have nothing to apologize for." Goodness, folks tended to be awfully nice in this part of the country. Back home she could not imagine a businessman apologizing for wanting his rightful compensation. She counted out the last of her bills and handed him the thick fold. "That is all I have. It's almost the entire sum. I will pay you the rest, I swear to it."
"I believe you, miss. I can see you mean well. I don't want to have to put you out on the street. It's raining like a cow—er—well, best I not say that in mixed company. Beggin' your pardon, miss." He slipped the cash into his vest pocket, blushing. "Sometimes I forget myself. My wife is always telling me I'm a bit coarse."
"I find you very charming, Mr. Owens. As for me, I don't mind a little rain." It was hard not to like the kindly man, who was about the age her father had been before he passed away. She ignored the streak of pain deep in her heart, the one she always felt when she thought of his loss. She liked to think Papa was watching over her. What would his opinion be of the dilemma she found herself in? Well, there was a boardinghouse in town. Perhaps she could find accommodation there. "Let me put my things together and I will be on my way. Thank you for your hospitality, and truly, do not worry. I will make good on the rest of my debt."
"That won't be necessary." A deep baritone—not the clerk's friendly tenor—boomed from the shadows in the hallway. Gabriel Brooks strode into sight—a big hulking man, brawny and intimidating, dressed all in black.
Every time she saw the Montana Range Rider, a territorial lawman, air caught sideways in her throat. Her palms went damp. She thought of her favorite heroes in her most beloved books—why, this man was a Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff all rolled up into one muscled, black-eyed mystery. Gabriel was Joseph's older brother, an affirmed bachelor and the last man she wanted to know of her financial problems.
"My family will pay for her stay." Gabriel tugged a few large greenbacks from his billfold. "It is the least we can do. I do not approve of my mother finding mail-order brides for us without our knowledge."
His emphasis rang with bitterness, and she feared by the harsh look he tossed at her that he did not have a favorable view of young women seeking the shelter of marriage. A trickle of shame dug deep, and she stared hard at the floor. She could easily slip into despair, but where would that land her? She had to stay strong and positive; it was the only way to face her uncertain future. Finding her happiness was the only option that mattered. She had to forget the nightmare her life had become in Boston and the disappointment of lost opportunities here. The last thing she could afford to do was to let one disagreeable man's speculated opinion of her steal any of her strength.
"I would not have come all this way if I had known your brother knew nothing of me." She wanted to reassure the rugged, proud man as he handed over money to the clerk. She grabbed the bills out of Mr. Owens's hand. The poor clerk certainly appeared surprised at her actions. "Thank you, Mr. Brooks, but please take your money back. I will settle my own debts."
"Oh, you will? With what?" He stared with disdain at the money she held out. He might not realize how his deep voice thundered, echoing in the hall and in the pleasant room behind her. He might not know how intimidating he was, towering over her, all six feet plus of hard, chiseled, darkly scowling male.
"I heard you admit that you cannot pay for your stay here.
You wanted to depend on my family's generosity. That's why you came on last week's train."
"You could not be more wrong, Mr. Brooks." She boldly tucked the bills into his coat pocket. "I do not want your family's money. In particular, I do not want your money."
"What kind of game is this, Miss Pennington?" His hand curled around hers, trapping her fingers against his at his pocket.
"What game?" she asked. Maybe he didn't realize how powerful he was, or that his hold on her hand felt bruising. "I am not that type of lady, I assure you."
"I take no stock in a woman's assurances."
"Then you have not met a lady like me." She tried to pull away, but he was strong, his touch too hot. There was simply too much of him, making her pulse speed and her breath catch in her throat. "Let go of me, Mr. Brooks."
"A woman takes money from a man. She doesn't return it. At least, that is something I have never seen. Not once in my life as a lawman."
"Then this is an exceptional day for you, isn't it?"
"I do not like your tone, Miss Pennington." He released her, and she stumbled back across the threshold. "Any woman who would marry a stranger is suspect. What is wrong with you that you could not find a worthy husband in Boston?"
His question boomed in her ears, echoed in the hallway surrounding them and tugged at her buried secrets. Heat scorched her face and horrible images swam in front of her eyes. Derrick in a red-faced rage, smashing his fist into the wall an inch from her left ear, throwing a chair at her head.
"I have returned your money, so I owe you no explanations. Since I am not marrying your brother, I no longer have any connections to your family."
"Then you would be wrong. My mother has invited you to supper." He swept off his hat, revealing his face to her. The lamplight adored him, glinting boldly in his thick black locks, a little too long for decency, and caressing his strong features that were too rough to be conventionally handsome. His eyes were midnight-blue, his nose straight and unbroken, his high cheekbones like carved granite. His mouth was lean but generous enough that on a man with a gentler personality it would be a wickedly intriguing mouth that with a single smile could dazzle every female for miles around.
It was his jawline she liked best. The square strong cut of it proved that he was a man of integrity. He radiated honor and strength. His unfriendly nature did nothing to detract from the way his black duster, black muslin shirt and trousers clung to the muscled contours and lines of his body to perfection. She had never seen such an attractive man, nor one who disliked her more.
"I am here to escort you to our ranch house." He frowned and deep lines bracketed his mouth—lines that would have been dimples if the man were capable of smiling.
"I am sure that's not appropriate." Mary Brooks had visited her days ago with an apology. It seemed the woman felt responsible for the misunderstanding, and yet she had not shown any signs of remorse. Melody had fallen in love with the motherly woman immediately; the mother-in-law she would never have. She did not want to let anyone know how disappointed she was about that. She squared her shoulders, determined to face the intimidating Gabriel Brooks and somehow make him understand. No meant no. "Your mother is a dear, but as I'm sure you'll agree, it's not right that I accept her offer."
"I did not say I approved of the invitation." A muscle tightened in his jaw, perhaps a show of his displeasure. "I am only the messenger."
"So you think I should decline, too?"
"What I think doesn't matter. My mother's heart is set on having you as our dinner guest." He dismissed her darkly and yanked the folded bills from his coat pocket. "Mr. Owens, the matter of the bill is settled. Come along, Miss Pennington. I have no time to waste waiting for you, fine Boston lady or not."
"I am not going anywhere with you, Mr. Brooks." She planted her feet and glared at him. "Nor will I allow you to pay my bill. I will not be beholden to you."
"Truly? That would displease you?" He arched his brow darkly and dropped his hat back on his head.
"Yes, it would."
"Then, Owens, keep my money. Come on, fancy lady. My horse is waiting in this cold weather without a blanket."
"I do not understand you." She studied him with her wide blue eyes, the exact color of lapis. Her lush, rosebud lips puckered into a puzzled frown.
Perhaps she was unaware of the effect that would have on most men. With her porcelain skin, delicate heart-shaped face and those golden wisps of hair spilling down from her braided topknot, she was the most beautiful female he had ever seen. Something so out of the ordinary and beyond what was real in this rural mountain town that she might as well be a tropical bird landed here by mistake. Anyone with eyes could see she did not belong here. No doubt she would be leaving as soon as she batted those curly lashes and got someone to pay for her ticket home. Women like her were princesses, used to getting what they wanted.
"I am not going anywhere with you, Mr. Brooks." She looked frail and lonely standing in the doorway. As a lawman, he had learned to read small details for the truth. Now he saw the strain around her eyes and the tense line of her exquisite jaw. The shadows of hurt that she tried to blink away in her eyes. She looked lost, as if she had no one at all to count on. Not at all the demanding princess he hoped she would be.
The last thing he wanted to feel was sympathy for her. It would be impossible to dislike her then. He bristled. "I don't have all day. Grab your coat and come with me."
"No. I would rather not. I have my reputation to think of. We would be alone. Without a chaperone. Please give your mother my apologies."
"I do not intend to disappoint Ma. Do you want me to carry you down the stairs, through the door and out into the rain? Or would you rather walk under your own power?" He gave her his best look, the bad one that startled most outlaws into complying and sent decent women running for safety.
Melody Pennington did not run. She wordlessly fetched her coat from the wall peg. "Just so we are clear, I do not like you. In fact, I was prepared to be civil to you, but you have changed my mind. Not another word to me, you understand? You are not to touch me."
"Excellent." Mission accomplished. Gabe wasn't proud of it, but what choice did he have? He knew his mother, and she wasn't going to stop in her quest to marry off all her sons. His two brothers were attached, thanks to her, and that meant he was next.
Marriage? Not on his life. He growled at Owens, "What are you standing there for? Why are you grinning like that?"
"Because that's how it started with me and my wife. The sparks flew for us, too." The older man backed toward the stairs. "Good luck to you, Gabe. Looks like there will be another Brooks wedding in the offing before long."
"Like hell there will be." He tore the coat from Melody's hands and held the garment for her, fighting the powerful surge of anger strumming through his veins. He was not falling victim to his mother's schemes. If it took every bit of strength he owned, he was going to make sure Miss Melody Pennington hated him and would continue to hate him. He was not marrying some fancy city princess.
"I will reimburse you." The lady's soft alto voice was like music, lovely and sweet. She smelled like budding roses and impossible dreams. She was all honesty—he could see that clearly as she turned to him, her graceful hands buttoning her expensive coat. "Gabriel, I know you are only trying to protect your family. But I didn't come here to hurt them. I came to love them. Since that is not possible, I don't want to cause any harm."
Disliking the woman was going to be harder than he thought.
"Follow me," he barked, and headed for the stairs.