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Angel Falls, Montana Territory, April 1884
Lord, what have I gotten myself into?
With the crisp April wind in her hair, Meredith Worthington braced her hands on her hips and glared at the mud-caked fender of their ladies' driving buggy. The vehicle was currently mired in the deep mud in the country road. Totally and impossibly stuck and she didn't know what to do. How would they get home from school?
This had never happened when she was at her finishing school back east. Then again, she never would have been allowed to drive a horse and buggy along the busy city streets. A lady was expected to be driven, not to do anything as garish as handle the reins herself.
"This is a fine mess I've gotten us into," she muttered, sloshing through the mud in her new shoes. "Me and my bright ideas."
"You wanted to drive." Her littlest sister rolled her eyes. "In fact, you insisted on it."
"Don't remind me." Not a request she'd regretted because she'd been wanting permission to drive for a long while, but why did this happen on her first day? She stared at the axle nearly buried in mud. Who knew the mud puddle would be that deep?
"I bet you miss Boston now." Wilhelmina, Minnie for short, hopped in the shallow mud at the shoulder of the road, making little splashes with her good shoes.
"Miss that place? Hardly. Finishing school was like a very comfortable, very pleasant prison." Meredith puffed at a hunk of hair that had fallen down from her perfect chignon, but the stubborn curl tumbled right back into her eyes. Much better to be home in Montana, even if she had to figure a way out of the very mud her mother had warned her against.
She winced, already hearing the arguments. Her independent ways were not popular with her family. If she didn't get the buggy home and soon, she feared she would not be allowed to drive ever again. And if she couldn't drive, how would she secure employment and get herself to work every day? Her dreams may be as trapped as her buggy.
"A prison? I'm telling Mama you said that."
"You will do no such thing," she informed her sister, who squished around in the ankle-deep mud quite as if she liked it. "If you don't stop playing and help me, we will be stuck here forever."
"Or until it starts to rain." Minnie looked up from making shoe prints in the soupy earth. "It looks like a storm is coming. With enough rain, the mud will thin down and we can get the wheels out."
"Yes, that's exactly what I want to do. Stand here in the mud and rain for hours." She tugged affectionately on Minnie's sunbonnet brim. "Any excuse to stay out of doors, I suppose."
"What? I like outside. I don't know how I shall ever survive when Mama sends me away to school." The girl wrinkled her freckled nose at the thought of the expensive and well-respected finishing school where two of their other sisters were currently attending. "Was it really like a prison? Is that why you don't want to go back?"
"No, I just didn't like feeling as if I were a prized filly being prepared for a contest. Everyone was set on getting married, as if that is all a girl can do." Her parents said that an appropriate match was the most important thing a girl could accomplish, and sadly, her mother was bent on finding her a suitable husband.
Forget suitable and appropriate. She wanted true love in her life, the kind that surpassed reason, a riot in the heart and soul, an eternal flame of regard and feeling that outshone all else. That would not be easy to find.
The cool wind gusted, reminding her she was about as far away from her dream as a girl could get. She swiped the curl out of her eyes again. Those rain clouds definitely appeared foreboding. She may as well concentrate on the goals she could attain.
She braced her hands on the buggy's muddy wheel well, ignored the muck that squished between her fingers and called out for Sweetie to get up.
"We are never going to budge it. Our horse isn't strong enough. We ought to unhitch Sweetie and ride her home. We can get Papa and Eli, and they can come pull out the buggy." Minnie grinned, proud of herself for solving their problem.
"Do you want to give Mama heart failure?" The girl, she feared, was a lost cause. "Our mother would never recover if her very proper daughters rode the countryside perched on the back of a horse for all to see."
The old gray mare gave another valiant try. The wheels rocked just enough to give a girl hope, but they could not escape the bonds of mud. Exasperated, she blew the lock of hair out of her eyes again. "Minnie! Why aren't you helping? Do you want to stand here all afternoon?"
"Look, I made a smiling face." The girl grinned ear to ear, pleased with the imprint of eyes, nose and a curving mouth her shoes had made. "I don't recognize those horses. Do you reckon that's the new deputy? He looks in charge."
"What are you talking about?"
"The two horse and riders." Minnie pointed down the road.
Riders? Meredith peered over her shoulder, squinting through the weak shafts of disappearing sunlight. Sure enough, two riders ambled close on horseback, but her gaze found and stayed on only one of them. He wore a black Stetson, a black coat, denims and boots. Dark hair tumbled over his high forehead to frame blue eyes. Awareness crashed through her hard enough to wobble her knees. It was like she knew the man, as if she had known him somewhere before.
"Good afternoon, ladies." He tipped his hat, amusement curling up the corners of his mouth. "Looks like you have a problem."
A problem. Meredith opened her mouth, but nothing happened. No words, not a sound, not even air. Her entire head had gone blank, as if she had forgotten every word in the entire English language. She straightened, the mud sucking at her shoes and clinging to her skirts, and swiped at that curl with one hand.
"Yeah, we're stuck!" Minnie spoke up.
"So I see," he drawled, just short of mocking, as he dismounted, his boots landing with a splatter in the shallow end of the mud hole. "April is going out like a lion. We've been battling hard rains all over the territory."
"Where you are from?" They weren't locals. Angel Falls was a small enough town that she would have seen him before. His was a face she would never forget. Was he passing through or had he come to work on the new railroad grade up north?
"I'm from Virginia." Blue eyes twinkled handsomely as he plunged closer, disregarding the mud sticking to his boots. He gestured to the much older man still mounted behind him. "Braden is from Texas."
"You're both far from home." A strange skitter of sensation traveled down her nape. One of warning, or of something else? It didn't feel comfortable and she took a step back. Something felt out of place. Should she refuse his help?
He stalked closer, impressively strong. Even wearing a coat, he gave an impression of power and confidence. There was no mistaking he was a man who worked hard for his living. He had an edge to him. It was in the day's growth shadowing his granite jaw and the sense of worldliness he carried easily on his wide shoulders.
"I'm Shane Connelly." He tipped his black hat, revealing more of his face. What struck her most was the chiseled high cheekbones that gave him character. With his dark blue eyes, straight no-nonsense nose and hard slash of a mouth, he could have been a dime-book hero come to life. A down-on-his-luck man of principle who was capable of defeating any bad guy.
There she went, being far too fanciful again. The trouble was that she read too much. Was it her fault that men were better in books than in real life? He was obviously trouble on two feet, and she could well imagine what Mama would say if she were to learn she was accepting such a man's help.
"I'm Minnie." Her little sister spoke up, clearly interested by this turn of events. "Can you get our buggy out?"
"I plan to try." He swaggered over to inspect the front wheels and as he bent, his coat shifted, revealing an inlaid silver belt buckle and a gun.
She gulped. He was armed, a rarity for those riding these peaceful country roads. Proof the man was not as civilized as seemed.
"You managed to get the wheels wedged in good." He straightened, shooting her a breezy grin bracketed by dimples. "It might take some muscle to get this out. Good thing for you Braden and I came along."
"I suppose so." She took a step back, her pulse thudding in her ears as he approached. My, he was certainly tall and imposing. She bumped into the buggy's fender. She wasn't entirely sure she should let them stay. "Thank you for going to the trouble."
"Oh, we don't mind." He went toward her like a predator scenting prey, his Stetson slanted at a jaunty angle, his chiseled jaw rock-solid. He didn't blink. It didn't seem as if he breathed.
"But I do." If she was going to be a woman of independence, then she ought to solve the problem herself. After all, she intended to be driving her own buggy working for the Upriver School District this summer, God willing. She could not depend on a rider happening along to help her then, could she? No. Besides, she didn't like the look of these two strangers. With their trail dust and unshaven jaws, they could be anyone— drifters, thieves, escaped convicts from the territorial prison.
Fine, they did not look that disreputable, but there was something amiss about Shane Connelly. "I'm not used to being beholden to strangers."
"Then you might want to keep the buggy wheels up on the grass and out of the mud hole next time."
"And risk turning over in the ditch?" As if she hadn't thought of that for herself. She didn't remember asking for his advice or for the way he bent to inspect the rigging. "I know how to drive."
"I see that." A friendly smile flirted along with his dimples. A hint of kindness, not meant to make her feel chastised or defensive.
She wanted to be defensive for some peculiar reason. "For your information, my cousin was blinded and her parents killed when their buggy overturned. I was trying to be prudent."
"Then the mud was the right decision." Good humor beamed across his granite face, softening the lean planes and hard angles and turning his eyes an arresting midnight blue.
"You have a smear on your face."
"I do?" She gulped, watching as the distance be tween them began to vanish. He stopped a hand's breadth from her. My, but he was close. As he unfolded a clean handkerchief from his pocket, time screeched to a halt. Something deep within her shouted to turn and flee while she could, but she did not move as the piece of muslin brushed against her cheek.
Should it surprise her that his touch was gentle? She'd never been this close to a man her parents did not know. Her cheek tingled from the dab and scrape of the cloth. He folded his crisp white handkerchief and rubbed again at her cheekbone, close enough that she could smell the rain on his coat. Near enough that she could see the individual stubbles of his unshaven jaw and the threads of gold in his breath-stealing blue eyes.
Should she be noticing such things? Aloof, he tucked the handkerchief into his pocket and took several steps back. Now that he was not so near, the breathless feeling should go away, shouldn't it? Oughtn't her pulse rate return to normal?
"I had best see to your buggy, miss. You need me to carry you over to the grass?" His baritone held a smiling quality as he took another step back, his gaze never leaving her face.
An odd feeling, being peered at like that, as if she were something worthy to be looked at. Vaguely she remembered the buggy and her little sister somewhere nearby watching, cleared her throat and tried to do the same with her cluttered mind. "No, I'm not afraid of a little mud."
"A little? You look like you were in a rolling contest with a pig and won. No offense, miss."
"None taken." Why was she laughing? She looked down helplessly at the drying mud on her light yellow silk overskirt. Mama would definitely get the vapors when she saw this. "I feel as if I should lend a hand. At this point, I cannot get any muddier."
"Don't be too sure." He knuckled back his hat, revealing dark brown hair that was thick, untamed and a little too long for decent fashion. "I was wrong about you. At first look I mistook you for a vain, helpless miss, but you are clearly a country girl."
"Surely I am at heart." There was no way he could know how wrong he was. She worried that no matter how hard she tried to be otherwise, she would always be Robert and Henrietta Worthington's daughter, expected one day to be the perfect wife living an impeccable life of giving parties, raising well-mannered children and upholding the family's fine reputation. She feared her dreams of teaching children would never be realized.
"It'll only take a moment to hitch up." He whistled to his horse.
The wind gusted, batting the troubling lock of hair back into her eyes. She swiped at it, wondering how she must look standing in the mud with her hair a tumble and her skirts spattered enough to hide the intricate shirring and stitching and expensive satin hem. Easy to see how he could mistake her for a country girl, which she truly longed to be. Her friends, Fiona, Earlee and Kate, were country girls and some of the best friends a girl could have. She wanted nothing more than to be like them.
The spotted bay gelding trotted obediently forward, nose outstretched, nickering low in his throat in answer to his master. Shane took a moment to stroke his horse's nose, and Meredith remembered his gentle touch. Another shiver slid down her spine imagining being taken up in his arms. If a girl were to lay her cheek against his broad chest, she might feel safe and sheltered. Maybe even treasured.
There she went, spinning daydreams again.
"Are you coming, Braden?" Shane knelt to squint at the buggy's rigging, his horse nibbling at his hat brim.