Authors: Megan Hart
Amber Quill Press, LLC
Copyright ©2003 by Megan Hart
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June 25, 1876
It's hotter than melting molasses and just as sticky
. Caitleen O'Neal shifted on her feet, hoping for a breeze and finding only more heat. She'd tried sitting, but the Lonesome, Montana train station had only uncomfortable wooden benches that threatened to scald her even through her heavy skirts. The air shimmered like water. Too bad she couldn't scoop it up in a glass and soothe her parched throat. She looked longingly across the wide, dusty street at the saloon, but dared not venture forth in search of something to drink. Even here in Lonesome, she doubted women were welcome in a bar.
Caitleen sighed. The name of the town suited her perfectly, because despite the shouting, bustling crowd surrounding her, Caitleen had never felt more alone in her life. She was a long way from East Frankton, Pennsylvania. Still, it was too late now to regret her decision, no matter how hastily she had made it.
Her housekeeper, Gerda, hadn't wanted her to come to Montana at all.
"You stay here, where you belong,” Gerda had entreated, wringing her hands while Caitleen packed her only trunk. “If it's marrying you want, why not find a husband here, Caite?"
Caite thought of how mothers and their daughters turned away when she entered the mercantile. How young men who might be interested in courting her stayed away, frightened by her father's reputation for losing money as fast as he got it. She had no chance at marriage in East Frankton—at least not with any man she'd truly consider.
"Your Da set it all up already,” Gerda continued. “You can stay here and—"
"Marry Drake Hammond?” Caite's lip curled at the very thought. “That preening, strutting dandy? No, thank you. I'll take my chances in Montana."
She'd met the man once. His hair was greased and shining, and hung down in a little tail tied with a ribbon that matched his bright suit. He was fairly tall, pale and strongly featured. Finely drawn brows hovered over his sharp, dark, darting eyes. His nose was long and narrow, his chin soft. Muttonchop sideburns curved over hollow cheeks.
Rounding out the picture was a fleshy mouth topped by a pencil-thin mustache. He was not an unattractive man, but something in his eyes and the set of his jaw marked him as one who spent much of his time pursuing the earthier pleasures.
"But, your Da..."
"My father has no say in what I do any longer,” came Caite's terse reply. “I am not chattel to be won at a poker game, no matter how much my father owes at the table!"
Caitleen still bristled at the memory. Desmond O'Neal had never been an attentive father, preferring his gambling to conversation with his only child. Caite knew it was because she reminded him too much of her mother who'd died when Caite was four. Knowing didn't take away the sting of every casual dismissal.
Her father had stepped off the boat in America with only his wits and charm to carry him. Despite his weakness for cards and the bottle, he'd managed to turn a string of tobacco shops into a small fortune. He was even able to woo East Frankton's most sought-after debutante, young Rose Halloran.
Rose's death had turned Desmond from a Blarney-tongued charmer to a churlish, maudlin man no longer able to resist the lure of liquor and gambling. Drake Hammond had been there to fulfill Desmond's every desire for “a couple of hands, and a wee drop to pass the time.” Now most of Serenity had been sold to line the dandy's pockets. All that was left, it seemed, was the hand of Desmond's daughter.
Still, she'd at least thought he loved her, even if he couldn't stand the sight of her. It wasn't until he'd flat out told her he'd lost her hand in a poker game that she realized he thought of her as nothing more than another piece of collateral.
Her father had casually told her of the upcoming nuptials over dinner, leaving Caite with no response. He'd lost the poker game, and she was what Drake wanted. She was to pack her bags and prepare to get married.
She'd packed her bags, all right, but not to become Drake Hammond's bride.
Instead, Caite had visited Pastor Jonas at the Baptist church and agreed to become part of his Baptist bride program. That she wasn't a Baptist hadn't seemed to bother the kindly pastor, who assured her that the man she was going to marry would provide for her very well. Jed Peters, a widower with one son, was a landowner, an upstanding member of his church, and well thought of in the community. Caite had signed the papers without another thought.
So here she was in her blue serge traveling dress, waiting for a man she had never met to collect her. Although she trembled inside, she was determined to appear calm. She did not want her new husband—husband!—to think her just a common, sniveling female.
"You must be Caitleen."
Caitleen whirled suddenly to face the voice from behind her and nearly lost her balance in the process. Strong arms reached out to steady her, and she found herself looking up, up into the face of the most handsome man she had ever seen. Forgetting her manners, she drank in the sight of him: strong, firm jaw, golden, sun-kissed skin, a tiny scar on one cheek that served only to enhance the perfection of the rest of his features. Black-as-a-starless-night hair swept back from his high brow and fell in careless waves to his broad shoulders.
And his eyes! Caitleen found herself unable to look away from eyes greener than fresh spring grass, eyes touched with just a hint of gold, eyes that very nearly matched her own.
"Do I pass inspection?"
She'd been staring. Caitleen swiftly backed out of the stranger's embrace and looked away. She smoothed her dress to hide the trembling of her fingers. Her cheeks burned, but she managed to keep her voice steady.
"You startled me, sir,” she declared, daring another look at him. Heavens, the man was gorgeous. Recalling the way he had just held her against him, her face flushed again. Then she realized he had called her by name. “How did you know my name?"
"I'm Jed Peters,” the man said, not smiling. “I'm here to take you to Heatherfield."
"Jed Peters?” Caitleen repeated, slightly dazed. This handsome man was going to be her husband. “Goodness, I'm so glad you are here. I was certain you had not received the telegram, and I would have to stay in the hotel until—"
"You brought all this?” Jed interrupted gruffly, sweeping his hand to indicate her one trunk.
"I only brought one trunk, Mr. Peters,” Caitleen protested gently, still recovering from the discovery she was to marry the most beautiful man she had ever seen. “I brought my clothes, and—"
"I reckon after the wedding you'll be buying all new clothes,” Jed interrupted.
Caitleen frowned at his brusqueness. “I'm not expecting to buy anything. I brought everything I shall need."
"The wagon is over here,” her future husband said impatiently, as if she had not even replied. “We've got a long trip ahead of us. Reckon we might as well get started."
Without waiting for her to follow, Jed picked up her trunk and began to carry it away.
Pausing only a moment to watch in helpless admiration as the muscles of his back and arms work as he lifted the heavy trunk, Caitleen hurried after him. She did not protest as he hefted her trunk into the wagon bed with no regard for its condition, although it contained her only belongings. He'd seemed disgruntled enough she had brought it. Perhaps she'd offended him by bringing her own possessions. Perhaps he had planned to give her an entire new wardrobe. How generous was her bridegroom?
"Get in the front,” Jed ordered roughly, swinging himself up onto the bench seat and gathering the reins.
Caitleen stared, daunted, at the high wagon seat in front of her. She was used to climbing in and out of low carriages, certainly, but this wagon stood nearly as high as her head. She looked at the high seat, then down to her cumbersome skirts, then back up.
"I am afraid I do not see how...” she began timidly.
Jed glared down at her, disgust plain on his face. He rolled his bewitching green eyes in clear exasperation. Suddenly, he leaned over the edge, grasped her firmly around her waist, and hoisted her onto the seat next to him. For just one moment, his hands rested on her waist. He quickly pulled away.
"You'd better get used to climbing in and out yourself.” Jed clucked to the horses to get the wagon started. “We don't have footmen at the ranch, and I sure don't have time to cater to some prissy lass from back east who needs waiting on."
Caitleen began to reply, thought better of it, and snapped her mouth shut. She was caught between outrage and despair. He had formed a bad opinion of her without even giving her a chance. She was no prissy lass. The longer she thought on the subject, the angrier Caitleen became. Soon, she was silently seething, determined to show Jed Peters she was not what he had thought.
"How long is the trip to Heatherfield?” Her light tone belied her anger.
"Two or three days, depending on the weather,” Jed replied tersely.
"If it rains, we could get bogged down in the mud,” Jed explained with the strained patience usually reserved for lackwits or especially annoying children. “If it stays clear, we should have no problems."
"Are you expecting rain?"
"God Almighty,” Jed exploded, turning to look at her for the first time. “I didn't expect you to be such a chatterbox!"
"A chatterbox!” Caitleen retorted, unable to check her temper any longer. “I was only trying to make conversation, Mr. Peters!"
But Caitleen had begun to boil over, and there was no stopping her now. “Just who do you think you are, Jed Peters? You have not spoken one nice word to me since we met. You have been nothing but surly and ill-mannered. You treated my trunk as if it were a hay bale, and ... and ... and you were rough with my person!"
Caitleen turned to stare at the man beside her. To her surprise and dismay, he was smiling.
"See? What did I tell you? A chatterbox,” he remarked to the air.
Caitleen glared at him with narrowed eyes. He ignored her, instead turning back to the horses and urging them on. Caitleen turned away, still seething.
But mercy, that smile!
She had never seen a man so handsome.
Her one beau, Billy Worthe, had been attractive in a puppyish sort of way, but nothing like this. Jed's smile stretched across his face, white teeth gleaming, eyes twinkling. If he smiled like that all the time, she would probably fall in love with him right away. And him so annoying, too! It would just be my luck, she raged silently, to fall in love with a man like that. He infuriated her. How could she have agreed to marry a stranger?
She consoled herself with the thought that, as surly as Jed Peters may be, he was no scoundrel like Drake Hammond. At least, she didn't think so. He certainly was no dandy. She took in his homespun trousers and shirt, and the faded but well-made jacket he wore. His hat was battered and dusty, pulled down over his eyes to shade them from the intense sun. No satin waistcoat and golden pocket-watch for Mr. Jed Peters. He hardly seemed the type to keep a string of mistresses.
Then Caite thought of his grin, and the tiny smile that had touched her lips faded fast. With a grin like that, he'd be irresistible to the ladies. She reminded herself the pastor had assured her Jed Peters was an upstanding citizen. Certainly Pastor Jonas would not have sent her to an adulterer. Still, the good preacher could not know everything about everybody. What if he had been wrong about the handsome Jed Peters?
After they had ridden in frigid silence for another few miles, Jed risked a look from the corner of his eye at the woman sitting so stiffly beside him. A glance was all he could afford himself. If he let himself stare at her ...
She was the most breathtaking woman he had ever met. He had thought so the moment he'd spied her on the platform. Slender and shorter than he had expected. Heck, who was he kidding?
than he expected. No more than twenty years old.