Excerpt

Buffalo Bend, Montana

April 29, 1876

Arabella Spencer huddled under the dripping eave of Brophy's Feed and Mercantile where the stage had let her off with her trunk. Rain had churned the deserted street into a quagmire of mud and manure. The muck had ruined her new kidskin shoes and wasn't doing much for her disposition. After more than twenty minutes of waiting, she was wet, worried, and getting madder by the second.

Charles, her fiancé, had certainly known she was coming. He'd mailed her the tickets three months ago, with a promise to meet the stage and drive her to his new ranch. Only the thought of their wedding, and the fine home he'd refurbished especially for her, had sustained her on the grueling journey by train and stagecoach, all the way from Boston to Buffalo Bend. Now she was here at last, bruised, chilled and bone-weary, with Grandma Peabody's wedding dress packed into her trunk.

The bride had arrived. So where was her groom?

True, the stage had been delayed two hours by a broken wheel. But that was no excuse for him not to be here - especially given that she had no place to get out of the rain. Brophy's Feed and Mercantile, which appeared to be the only store in this ramshackle excuse for a town, had long since closed for the night. There wasn't a hotel in sight, or even a restaurant; and the church at the street's far end looked as dark as a tomb.

Only the saloon across the street showed any sign of life. Lamplight filtered through gray sheets of rain. Occasional bursts of laughter and the wheeze of a concertina drifted over the drone of the storm.

Arabella shivered beneath her damp woolen traveling cloak. The thought of shelter was tempting. But she'd have to leave her precious trunk behind and wade through ankle-deep mud to cross the street. In any case, well-bred young ladies simply did not venture into saloons - not even in a deluge fit to float Noah's ark.

A flicker of movement across the street caught her eye. Someone had just come out of the saloon. Was it Charles? Had he been waiting for her in that disreputable place?

But the man who stepped into the street was too tall and too broad-shouldered to be her fiancé. Charles was of average stature. The figure striding toward her, wearing a bulky sheepskin coat, loomed like a giant against the roiling sky.

Arabella shrank into the doorway. If the man meant her harm, she'd have no place to run. But she could kick and bite and scream for all she was worth. If it came to that, she vowed, she wouldn't go down without a fight.

He stopped a pace away from her. Close up, he wasn't as huge as she'd first thought. But he was big enough - six-foot four, by her reckoning. His face was obscured by rain streaming off the broad brim of his hat.

“Miss Arabella Spencer?” His voice was like the rumble of an iron wheel over a graveled road. “I was told to look for a redhead, so I'm guessing you're the one.”

Staring up at him, she nodded.

“McIntyre's the name. I've come to fetch you to the ranch. Wait here, and I'll bring the buckboard around.”

He thrust something toward her. Realizing it was an oilskin, Arabella seized it eagerly and wrapped it over her damp cloak. Before she could utter a proper thank you, the man had melted into the rain.

Moments later he reappeared from behind the store, driving an open rig behind a team of sturdy bays. The back was filled with some kind of bulky cargo covered by a canvas tarpaulin. There was one bench seat in front, with nothing to shelter its occupants from the rain.

For heaven's sake, if Charles couldn't come himself, why couldn't he at least have sent a covered buggy?

McIntyre halted the horses, climbed to the ground and came around the rig - a buckboard, he'd called it, though it was more like a wagon, drawn by two horses instead of one. Hefting Arabella's trunk as if it weighed nothing, he slid it under the canvas in back.

“Where's my fiancé, Charles Middleton?” Arabella demanded. “Is he all right?”

“Far as I know, he's fine.” McIntyre's big hands caught her waist and boosted her onto the bench as if she were no bigger than a child.

“Then why didn't he come to meet me?”

“Spring's a busy time for ranchers. I had to drive to town for feed and salt, so he asked me to pick you up.” He climbed onto the bench beside her. “It's a long ride. Too bad I hadn't counted on the rain, or on the stage being late.”

As if that had been her fault! “Well, at least you got to spend a couple of hours in the saloon,” she sniffed.

“Uh-huh. Had a drink and won fifty dollars in a game of five-card stud.” His hands flicked the reins. The wagon ploughed forward through the sticky mud.

Struck by a sudden realization, she stared at him. “Wait - you were in the saloon when the stage arrived. You must've heard it stop, and you knew I'd be getting off. Why on earth did you leave me standing outside in the rain?”

He shrugged. “I was holding a royal flush.”

 


 

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2012; Harlequin Historicals, ISBN # 0-373-296916
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