Montana Territory 1881 Snow. Savannah Knowles had never seen so much of it. It was everywhere-sifting through the air and clinging to the roof of the train depot and crunching at the platform beneath her feet. She gathered her courage, gripped her satchel by the patched handle, shivered inside her traveling coat and squinted into the last light of the April evening. She could see only the shadowed impression of dense forests through the downfall, but nothing more of her new home. A few men stood against the ticket station, veiled by the icy snow. Was her Mr. Brooks one of them, the man she'd come to marry? She lifted her chin, watching each scowling face or curious look, but no one moved toward her. He wasn't here yet, but he would be. She had faith in him. Of all the letters she'd received from her advertisement, his had been the most sincere. He was her last hope. She was out of options and out of money, which is why she'd come to this strange, rough country with its rugged mountains and unfathomable weather. A keen-edged gust of wind sliced through her layers of clothing, cold enough to freeze the insides of her bones. Goodness, she'd never felt such cold. Already she missed the sweet gentle warmth of a Carolina spring. Snow caught on her eyelashes and stung her face as she picked her way through the accumulation of snow and ice to the baggage car. Every bit of her ached with homesickness and with hope. "Hey, there, miss!" A gruff man barked out from the cavern of the opened railcar. "This one yours?" "Yes, sir." "Mighty fancy trunk for these parts." The railroader lifted his lip as if in distaste or something worse and tossed down her trunk with a careless heave. My books. She watched the precious container crash onto the platform. It skidded on the ice and tipped over to rest on its side- still in one piece. A stroke of luck. The finely crafted side of the trunk was snow battered, but the contents inside were safe at least, and not scattered over the icy platform. All that was left of her family's great library, collected for generations, the volumes with sentimental value too great to sell. Hard times had fallen after the War Between the States. Suddenly the biting wind hailing against her back seemed to lose its teeth. Before she could turn around, she sensed a tall presence behind her. Her stomach slid to her toes. Mr. Brooks? Could it be him? "Hope nothing breakable was in that." His gaze met hers and, despite the haze of snowfall between them, she felt a snap of recognition. Those dark blue eyes were exactly as he'd described them in his letters. Her pulse fluttered in her chest. She'd memorized his features from his self-description, and he'd been surprisingly accurate. He had a granite face, a square jaw and a serious expression just as she'd pictured, but he was taller than she imagined. Maybe it was his bulky coat and the shroud of snow, which made him look like a giant bear of a man, but it was him. Her Mr. Brooks. He'd come for her, just as he'd promised. Happy relief washed through her, warm enough to chase away every chill. At first sight, he looked as dependable as she'd made him out to be. "Nathaniel Brooks?" "Uh, yep. That's me." She couldn't breathe as he gave her a simple smile-sincere and respectful. Instead of greeting her, maybe taking her by hand or offering to carry the satchel she carried, he looked past her to the baggage man. "Hey, there, Roberts." Mr. Brooks spoke in a cozy, friendly baritone. "You got a bundle coming for my pa? Something from Savannah?" Oh, he had other business, too, she thought, a little disappointed, waiting patiently. Maybe he was preoccupied with that? The baggage man straightened and gave the small of his back a two-handed rub. "What kind of bundle?" "Pa said it was a surprise, but I'm not one for surprises. He ought to know that." The baggage man shook his head, ready to slide closed the cargo door. "Sorry, Nate. I've got nothing else for this stop. Just the woman. Good luck." "Just the woman?" He looked perplexed as he studied the other end of the platform. It was as empty. The only other passenger who'd disembarked had already left, and she realized the men who'd been standing in the shadows of the depot had disappeared, perhaps seeing nothing had arrived for them. But why was Mr. Brooks acting as if he didn't know anything about her? This couldn't be right. Shouldn't the man who proposed to her remember? Maybe she'd better try again. "Mr. Brooks? I'm pleased to meet you in person. I'm Miss Savannah Knowles." When he looked at her, no recognition sparked in his dazzling eyes. "You're from Savannah?" "No, that's my name." Why did he seem so confused? "I knew you wouldn't keep me waiting." "Waiting?" He looked at her as if he didn't understand the English language. "You're Savannah?" "That's right." This was not going the way she'd imagined. Her heart tumbled to her toes. Shouldn't the man who'd paid for her railroad ticket look less mystified? A knot tightened in her midsection. "You've come for me, isn't that right?" "For you? You're a woman, not a bundle." He knuckled back his hat with one gloved hand. He seemed to have no recollection of who she ought to be. She started to shake-from cold or nerves, she didn't know which. "This is Moose, Montana Territory? I did get off at the right station?" "Yes, miss." His gaze raked from the tip of her snow-covered bonnet all the way to her icy skirt ruffle. "Did my mother hire new help? Is that why you're here?" "Your mother? I don't understand. You don't know who I am?" The wind gusted mockingly, and her high hopes crumbled. You're a fool, girl, her grandmother's lawyer had told her. You're chasing after a paper promise, when I'm offering you a home with all the luxuries you could want- She closed her mind against the memory and the old man's vein-lined hands, the man who'd offered her marriage and payment of her grandmother's debts. Surely she'd not make a mistake in coming so far. "Maybe we're not talking about the same man. This Nate Brooks owns the feed store in town. He's-" "I own the feed store in town." "He's twenty-nine years old. He was born on New Year's Day." "That's me. As far as I know, I'm the only Nathanial Brooks in these parts anyhow. How do you know so much about me?" His face was hard granite. She would have thought him angry but for the pain she saw in his dark, kind eyes. "We've been corresponding." She clenched her teeth together to keep them from chattering as she tugged the envelopes, tied with a gold ribbon, from her pocket. She held them out with a shaky hand, feeling the beat of the snow against her face, hearing it against the arm of her coat as she waited a long moment for him to take the letters. The icy cold crept into the hollows of her heart. She'd come all this way with nothing to go back to and no other place to welcome her. Surely there had to be some explanation. Some misunderstanding of sorts and then it would come out all right in the end. But with the way the wind howled like a lonely wolf as it gusted around her, she wasn't so sure. The bear of a man took the letters. He knocked the snowflakes from the parchments with his leather-gloved knuckles and squinted to study the handwriting. "That's my name but not my address." "It isn't? I don't understand." "I didn't write to you." "Then who did? And why?" Her satchel slipped from her grip and hit the platform beside her with a muted thunk. "You proposed to me. I came all this way to marry you." "M-marry?" He choked on the word. No. No. No. It rose up like a wellspring from his very soul right along with a blinding panic. It was so dark, he could barely make out the familiar handwriting on the top envelope. The ink was beginning to smear from the snow, but there was no mistaking the truth. Not only did he know who'd written these letters, but also he could plainly see this woman had nearly traveled all the way across the country. What would prompt a delicate-looking woman to risk a trip all that way? Sure, a proposal of marriage would. He tried to think past the rush of horror pounding through him and-beneath the panic- the pain of his last and only intention to marry. It was the hurt Adella left him with, that was the reason for the panic, but this little woman didn't know that. The woman-Savannah-looked at him with pure hurt in her soft sweetheart's face. "I see that idea of marrying me horrifies you. I'll just-" "Wait." He bit out the word with venom she didn't deserve. Calm down, he told himself and took a single deep breath, which was hard to do considering he was still in a blind panic. Not all marriages were awful; he knew this. But after his experience, he wanted nothing to do with it. "Obviously I knew nothing about this-this-marriage offer. Without warning, a remark like that can scare a man." "I don't understand. Is this someone's idea of a practical j-joke?" Her soft voice broke on the last word. "I was so sure. The letters were so wonderful. Too wonderful. Maybe that's what fooled me. I wanted to believe-" The hurt and confusion so honest in her pretty blue eyes chased away most of his panic. None of this was her fault. "This is my father's handwriting." "Your father's?" She held up her hands in a helpless gesture, so small and alone. "I don't understand." How could she? He didn't have a chance to answer, for the train gave a loud blast of steam and churned on its way. The rumble of the powerful engine vibrated through the soles of his feet. He watched the cars pull away and the caboose slip out of sight. Pa had probably laid it on thick, judging by the fatness of the envelopes. Nate shook his head, and snow rained from his hat brim. How could his father-who was a decent man-do such a thing? A bundle, that's what his youngest brother had said. There's a bundle waiting for you from Savannah. He still didn't see how the "bundle" could be the pale, delicate-looking Southerner in front of him looking like a rose out of season. Not that he could see much of her with the snow falling with a vengeance, but she was shivering in the cold, too fine and lacking enough common sense to have worn warmer clothes to this high country. Nate flicked the gathering snow off the letters and handed them back to her, noticing the dark tips of her expensive traveling gloves. He didn't have to unwrap that cloak to know what he'd find beneath it: the fashionable clothes and shoes, with no expense spared. If his folks had gone to the trouble of bringing a bride all the way to Montana Territory, then couldn't they have at least tried to find one that wasn't just like Adella? What did a man who worked hard for his daily living have to offer a delicate lady? Not a damn thing. He swallowed the bitterness and debated what to do. It wasn't the woman's fault she'd come all this way on a false promise, and he couldn't leave her alone in the cold. "Why w-would your f-father do th-this?" She trembled so hard, her words trembled, too. "My parents have decided it's about time I marry." He began unbuttoning his coat. "The trouble is, we've had a difference of opinion-" "What kind of difference?" "I'm not partial to the institution of marriage." "Did your father write me thinking that you might change your mind once I arrived?" "It wouldn't surprise me. My folks have been talking about taking matters into their own hands. I didn't put much stock in their teasing. I didn't think they would actually find me a woman." She looked down at her shoes, and he hoped she wasn't trying not to cry. He didn't know how to deal with a crying female. He shrugged out of the heavy buffalo coat and saw there were tears in her eyes. He felt helpless. Too big. Too rough. Too... everything. She gazed down the empty train tracks. "I wish I w-would have known that sooner." "The storm's getting worse. We can't just leave you here on the platform. You look mighty cold." "Cold? Sir, this is hardly c-cold. This wind would fr-freeze the fires of H-Hades." "True, but you get used to it after a while. I reckon my pa didn't write about the weather here?" "N-no." She was shaking so hard, she could barely speak. It wasn't only due to the biting arctic temperatures. She lifted her chin, refusing to let this man know how crushed she was. She might not have much left, but she did have her pride. "I'm sorry to have troubled you. It was good meeting you, Mr. Brooks." "Now, wait one minute." He closed the distance between them, towering over her, blocking the brunt of the wind. "It's nearly dark. You shouldn't be wandering around town alone." He was close. Too close. She could see the day's growth dark on his jaw. She gulped, taking a step back. "Perhaps you could recommend a place to stay?" "Sure. I'll take you there myself." He laid his coat over her shoulders. "You look awful cold. Maybe this will help." The weight of the buffalo coat, the warmth from his body's heat and his pleasant, man-and-wood-smoke scent enveloped her. Overcome, she gaped up at him, touched by his kindness. He really was the gentleman she'd come to know from those letters. The bitter sweetness tugged like a lost dream in her heart. She slipped her arms into the coat's sleeves. "Thank you." "Can't have you freezing to death before we give my father the devil for bringing you out all this way." Emotion burned in her throat and she could only shake her head in an answer. Nate Brooks was perfect, just as she knew he would be. This wasn't how she'd imagined her journey would end. She wrapped her arms around her middle, but there was no comfort. Not from the wind or the cold or the realization that she had made a terrible mistake in coming. Still, she was a Knowles, and she had the ability to stand on her own two feet. The storm was getting worse. She thought of the handful of change at the bottom of her reticule, tucked in her satchel. It might be enough to get her a room for the night but little more. If only she had been able to keep her governess position through Grand-mama's illness; but in the end, taking care of her grandmother had meant more than the money. The plantation had been sold off in pieces, starting well before the war, but Grandmama's lingering illness had been costly. There was almost nothing left in the end. Now Savannah had nothing to fall back on. Nowhere to call home. No one left who cared. She watched Nate heft the trunk onto his shoulder as if it weighed nothing at all. The letters in her pocket, by contrast, seemed as heavy as an anvil. Watching him, it was hard not to think about the promises written in those letters and the stories of a large extended family with lots of love to spare. So many hopes she'd had. Maybe she had been a little naive, but she'd wanted to find a new family after losing hers. That was all. Now, she was alone again. "Follow me." He headed straight into the thick curtain of snow and nightfall. Into the unknown. Savannah lifted her skirts, grabbed her satchel and plowed through the ankle-deep snow before the storm could steal him from her sight.