Read an Excerpt
Montana Territory, April 1884
"The town of Moose, next stop!" The blue-uniformed train conductor strolled through the rocking passenger car with the ease of a man used to riding the rails. Sparse gray hair poked from beneath his cap as he grabbed the bar overhead, stopped in the aisle near her seat and offered her a fatherly smile. "Would you like help with your satchel, miss?"
Willa Conner straightened her spine, clasped her hands together in her lap and shook her head slightly. As nice as it sounded to have the kindly man's help, she was used to doing things on her own, especially since her husband's sudden death. If marriage had taught her anything, it was to never rely on someone else.
"Thank you, but no." She offered what she hoped passed for a polite smile, but the edges of her mouth felt tense and stiff. The train was already slowing, and the great shadowy expanses of forested foothills and mountainsides whipping by the window were not flashing by quite as fast. Moose, Montana Territory. She was almost there. Terror beat in her chest with bone-rattling force, but she set her chin and hoped her fear did not show. "I can manage."
"All righty then." He tipped his cap to her and moved on, offering help to the pair of older ladies toward the back of the car.
The whistle blew a long blast, nearly drowning out the ear-splitting squeal of the brakes. Willa perched on her seat, looking beyond the haze twilight made on the window glass to the break in the trees. She caught glimpses of a tiny log shanty, a sod stable and split-rail fencing before the trees closed back inher first peek at the outskirts of the town she would be calling home.
Maybe I have made a mistake. She laid her hand on her reticule, thinking of the letter within. A written proposal from a stranger, from a man she had found through a newspaper advertisement. He'd sent her a train ticket and so she'd come to marry a man she'd never met. As her ma used to say, beggars can't be choosers, and her heart skipped a beat as if threatening to fail. She was a widow with no family and nowhere else to go. She had no more choices. Penniless and alone, she only had this door open to her, the only path in a cold and lonely world.
What would he be like? She grabbed the seat-back in front of her as the train jerked to a slow, screeching stop. As she'd wondered and fretted all the way from South Dakota, she tried to imagine what kind of man would propose to a woman sight unseen? A desperate one, that's what. One who could not convince any woman able to set eyes on him to be his bride.
Fear gripped her as she hauled herself to her feet with what strength of will she had left. Would he be cruel? A drunk? Did he work hard, or was he a laze-about? Terrible visions flew into her head as she hauled her satchel from the overhead rack by one strap, pulled on her wool coat and followed the fresh sweep of chilly air to the open doorway.
"You take care, miss." The conductor seized her firmly by the elbow. Her shoe hit the step and then she next made contact with the icy boards of the platform. He released her before she could thank him, turning to aid someone else off the train.
A tiny snowflake brushed her cheek, icy against her skin. She shivered against the wintry world where strangers hurried by to greet one another warmly, where families were reunited gratefully or hugged desperately, about to be torn apart.
"Excuse me." A man bumped her shoulder on his way to board the train, marching past her as if she were nothing more than a bench at the edge of the platform.
Feeling out of her element, she stumbled farther into the shadows, clutching her satchel's grip in both hands. Which man was Austin Dermot? She searched the faces of every male on the platform. Several were in the company of wives and family, so she didn't wonder about those. Mr. Dermot was a bachelor. When a shadowed figure paced in her direction, her pulse stalled. Was that man her betrothed?
He was short of stature and the bald skin of his head reflected the light from the train's windows. His eyes, the color of coal, reflected no kindness. His rough hands curled naturally as if used to being balled into fists.
She shivered, fear clawing around her insides like talons. Please, not that man. Please don't let it be him. Air caught in her lungs, making it impossible to breathe as he stalked nearer to her. To her relief, he marched past her, casting a sneer in her direction.
"Willa?" A baritone voice rumbled behind her, low and deep and as richly warm as buttered rum. The only soul who would know her name in this unfamiliar place had to be him. It had to be her husband-to-be.
She pivoted on her heels, unable to stop the hope taking root in her heart. A man with a voice like that might not be unkind. Another snowflake struck her cheek as she faced him. He was cloaked in shadows, a tall man with brawny shoulders. Her entire being jittered with a rapid-fire tremble. Her throat went dry. "Mr. Dermot?"
"Call me Austin."
She still couldn't see him. He stood between the bars of light from the train windows, lost in the twilight. She caught the impression of a burly man, which made sense since he owned a livery stable and did heavy work. This was the moment of truth. If she wanted to change her mind, it would have to be now.
"Let me take that for you." Was it her imagination, or were notes of kindness layered in his voice?
She hoped so. Before she could collect her breath, he lumbered out of the shadows and into the wash of light. Golden lamplight bronzed him, illuminating the thick brown fall of his hair, bluebonnet-blue eyes, high cheekbones and chiseled rugged face.
He was handsome. That completely surprised her and her mind shut down. She had been prepared for anythingunfortunately none of it good. She had learned to expect the worst, which had generally been the way most things in her life had worked out. So, what was wrong with this handsome man that he had to settle for a mailorder bride?
His hand clasped around the grip, taking the satchel from her. He smelled pleasantlyof hay and wintry wind, soap and manand his irises had light blue sparkles in them that lit when he looked at her. "The train doesn't stay here for long. We had best make sure we get your trunks from the baggage car."
"I don't have any trunks." She swallowed, wondering for the first time what he might see when he looked at her. She smoothed a patch in her wool overcoat. "Everything I own is in the satchel."
"Is that right?" Realization etched compassion into the hard planes of his face. Maybe he felt sorry for her poverty, or maybe he was attempting to hide disappointment.
You are no prize, Willa. The words swirled up from the past. She shut out her late husband's voice, but she could not deny the truth of his words. She might not be a prize but neither was she a disgrace. She lifted her chin and gathered her dignity. "I did not exaggerate. In my letter I said I had nothing to bring to the marriage."
"You are enough."
His kindness was unexpected. Her throat burned, and she looked away. The earlier hustle and bustle on the platform had died out, families reunited with loved ones had gone on their way and only one couple bid a tearful goodbye as the conductor tossed a trunk into the baggage car. An icy wind drove snow before it in falling waves.
"Looks like there's a storm on the way, which means we had better head for the church." He held out his other handit was big and well-shaped with long blunt fingers and a wide-callused palm.
If she took his hand, their deal would be set. There would be no turning back. She pressed her hand to her still flat stomach, torn. Her every instinct screamed at her to run. She had made this mistake before in marrying Jed. But if she did not marry Austin, where would she go? Who would hire a pregnant woman, and alone how would she provide for the baby once it was born?
Willa swallowed hard, knowing she had no real choice. She laid her hand in his, realizing he was much larger than she'd first thought. His fingers engulfed her hand as they closed around her, but it was gentleness she felt as he led her along the platform.
"Is the reverend waiting?" Cold panic slid through her veins.
"He is. I didn't tell him your story." He paused at the steps leading down to the street. A faint haze of lamplight drew him in silhouette. He towered above her, making her feel small and protected from the drive of the wind. He kept a good hold on herin case she slipped on the iceand continued speaking. "It wasn't my place to say anything, although I think Reverend Lane has his suspicions. He's agreed to marry us, unless you've taken one look at me and changed your mind."
"Me? No." She couldn't afford to do that. Austin Dermot may be a complete stranger, but he was her salvation and much more than she expected, perhaps much more than she deserved. She'd never had anyone escort her down a set of steps before or protect her from a driving arctic wind. "Have you?"
"Changed my mind? Not a chance." A smile shone in his voice as the darkness swallowed him. He was a faint impression in a background of snow and night as he helped her into a covered buggy. A horse blew out his breath, as if impatient standing in the cold.
"There now, we're almost on our way," Austin rumbled low to the horse as he untied him from the hitching post. "No need to get huffy."
The horse snorted, and Austin's roll of brief laughter was the warmest sound she'd ever heard. A man who laughed was not what she had prepared for.
"That's Calvin. He's never been one to withhold his opinion." The buggy swayed slightly as the large man settled onto the cushioned seat beside her. Not a crudely made cart behind an ox, as she was used to. Not even a more serviceable wagon, but a fine buggy.
Oh, he is definitely going to be disappointed in me. In the light of the church, when he would be able to get a good look, he would change his mind then. As the buggy rolled smoothly to a start, she knew the tables had turned. She'd spent a good deal of her journey worrying about the man. Now she was the one in question.
"We're a small town but a friendly one." He held the reins lightly, talking with ease as if he picked up strange women at the depot and drove them to church all the time. "Let me correct that. We're a very small town. Five whole blocks, as you can see."
"Oh, my." Five blocks? She couldn't see much in the evening storm, only the hint of a roofline and a glimpse of a second-story lamp-lit window that blinked out of sight as they rolled on.
"You're disappointed." His voice knelled with understanding, as if he were not surprised.
"Not at all." He truly didn't understand, did he? She swiped snow from her eyelashes with cold fingertips. "I'm used to small towns. I like them. I'm only afraid this is a great deal more than I am used to."
"More?" They drove out of the reach of the town's main street, where tall trees threw them in deep shadow.
"The nearest town to my husband's South Dakota farm was just a mercantile, a tavern and a stage stop." She felt the wave of unhappiness begin to crest and she banished all memories from her mind. Jed had been a man with great faults. She had been young and naive, marrying at sixteen and expecting a fairy tale. Reality had driven that notion from her mind, and the blame had been hers alone. Marriage was hard work, it was often a disappointment and took patience to bear.
She blew out a small breath, determined to find the inner strength to endure marriage again. To do that, she would think of the positive. She would have a roof over her head, a home to keep and after the thaw she would plant a garden where flowers bloomed. "Is your house far from town?"
"On the outskirts. I have one hundred acres. Never wanted to be a rancher, but I like the solitude. I built the cabin myself."
"Wonderful." She had spotted many such dwellings in her life in South Dakota and on her journey here. Small, often crudely made but snug against the elements. It sounded like heaven to a woman who had spent more than a few nights homeless. "The views must be lovely. I have never seen such beautiful country. I sat transfixed at the window most of the train ride."
"It is rather pretty." He reined the horse to a stop.
The hint of a steeple rose up against the faint illumination of the veiled sky. Light burst into existence as a door flung open wide and a man in a dark coat and white collar gestured with one hand.
"Hurry up out of the storm, Dermot!" the reverend called out.
"Got to blanket my horse first. Can't have him standing for long in these winds." Austin hopped to the ground, his friendly voice rumbling as he exchanged a few words with the minister.
Nerves fluttered inside her. At least she hoped it was anxiety and not the nausea that plagued her each morning and lasted throughout much of the day. She took small breaths, wishing she had something to nibble on, something to put into her stomach. She swept snow off the seat beside her and swung her feet around.
"What do you think you are doing?" Harsh words admonished her. Austin broke out of the shadow beside her, but his rugged face wasn't pursed with harsh displeasure. A merry light twinkled in his eyes. "You wait for me to help you down. If you are to be my wife, you will have to let me be courteous to you."
"Oh, I" She fell silent, her tongue refusing to work, her mind going blank. The back of her eyes burned as she placed her hand on his palm. Her knees shook as she hopped onto the running board and landed on the ground with a jolt.