RANCHER WANTS A WIFE

Rancher Wants a WifeA marriage to save them both…

Among the responses Cassandra Hamilton receives to her advertisement as a mail-order bride, one stands out – Jack McColton’s. The last time she saw him, she was a carefree girl, but tragedy has made her a cautious woman. Jack is mesmerized by his new bride – Cassandra might bear the scars of recent events, but she’s even more beautiful than he remembers. What surprises Jack even more is that his new bride wishes to become a private detective. They both have pasts that are hard to forget, but under the cloak of night, can their passion banish the shadows forever?

From blushing bride to rancher’s wife!

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“Bridges delivers an enjoyable installment in her Mail-Order Weddings series as she wrangles romance, deception and attempted murder…All in all, this is an entertaining tale.” RT Book Reviews


Excerpt from RANCHER WANTS A WIFE

Copyright © Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.

Prologue

Chicago, February 1873

Mrs. Pepik’s Boarding House for Desolate Women

“What if my husband doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like him?” Cassandra Hamilton leaned forward at the crowded dining table, her blond braid falling over her shoulder, and lifted a heavy stack of letters from her would-be grooms. A dozen other chattering young women jostled to read the remaining scattered notes. All these men, thought Cassandra, interested in her?

“Don’t worry so much, my dear. Wedding jitters are normal. Especially since you’ll be our first mail-order bride.” The landlady, plump Mrs. Pepik, peered down her spectacles at Cassandra and patted her hand.

A nearby fireplace sizzled with the last of the ice-covered logs they had rationed for this evening. The warmth penetrated Cassandra’s cracked leather boots.

“You’re pleasant and wholesome,” the landlady continued. “He’ll like you. As for you liking him, fortunately you get to make the selection.”

Giggles of excitement erupted at the table. The sound was much nicer to listen to than the sadness and despair when Cassandra had first arrived.

She and the others here were all survivors of what everyone now, nearly a year and a half later, were calling the Great Chicago Fire. A catastrophe that had caused over three hundred deaths and left one-hundred thousand people homeless. Nearly one-third of the city.

But ever since Mrs. Pepik had come upon the idea of advertising ‘her young ladies’ as mail-order brides in the Western newspapers, the house had become a sanctuary of laughter and amicable debates. Cassandra, good with figures and calculations, had taken to organizing the household budget, finding any bit of work the women might do for extra income, and placing ads in the most cost-effective papers.

Mrs. Pepik stretched closer. “Now, Cassandra, which man will it be?”

A slender young woman in the corner spoke up. “I’d take the jeweler in St. Louis.”

“Oh, no,” another disagreed. “Take the reverend in Wyoming Territory.”

“How about the one who lost his mother in Idaho?” coaxed a third.

Cassandra’s closest friend and roommate, Natasha O’Sullivan, gave the best perspective. “Which man stands out the most for you?”

Cassandra took a moment, relaxed against the back of her chair, and decided that perhaps she was only suffering from last-minute nerves.

“The man from California.” She shuffled through the letters till she found his again. The one she’d been reading and rereading ever since she’d received it three days ago.

“But he sounds like he works too hard,” one of the women said.

“California,” Cassandra repeated. Of all the replies to her carefully worded advertisement, his clearly stood out.

“Because of all the sunshine?” Mrs. Pepik asked.

“Because I know him,” said Cassandra.

Feet stopped shuffling. Women stopped talking. Hands froze on correspondence.

Mrs. Pepik cleared her voice. “How is that you know him?”

Trying to ignore a new wave of apprehension, Cassandra proceeded to explain.

 

Chapter One

Napa Valley California, Late June 1873

“I urge you to reconsider.”

“Is this why you called me to your office? It’s too late. She’ll be here any moment.” Jack McColton removed his Stetson and ran a hand through his black hair, exasperated at the contrary advice he was receiving from his attorney.

“Don’t throw it all away, Jack.” Hugh Logan was more than an attorney. He was going to be Jack’s best man; a dependable friend Jack had come to trust in the three years since he’d been living and working in the valley. Hugh, in his mid-thirties and a few years older than Jack, rose from behind his mahogany desk to allow his tailor to chalk his new suit.

The tailor, a rotund man from eastern Europe who didn’t speak or understand English well, quietly pinned the gray sleeves.

Sunshine and fresh air poured in from the window, rustling the gauze drapes.

“I’m not throwing anything away,” Jack insisted.

“A new ranch. Two dozen horses. A veterinarian practice. Neighbors who would like nothing more than for you to marry one of their daughters.” Hugh’s red hair glistened from a recent cut at the barber’s.

“I was content to find someone in Napa Valley, but things don’t always work out the way you plan.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s time to throw away the plan.”

“I know this girl.”

“You mean you knew her five years ago.”

Jack, many inches taller and wider than his closest friend, shook his head. “I’ve got to go.”

“Reconsider, Jack. Take your time with this. Court her all over again. Then get married if you still want to. Maybe what she’s truly attracted to is that big ranch of yours.”

Jack scoffed.

“That’s the attorney in me speaking.” Hugh’s gaze flashed down to the tailor, who was kneeling and making his way around the edge of the waistcoat, giving no indication that he was intrigued by the conversation. Even so, Hugh lowered his voice. “You know it’s fair advice, Jack.”

It wasn’t that Jack didn’t appreciate it. He simply didn’t agree.

The ground outside rumbled. A team of horses pulling a stagecoach suddenly thundered past Hugh’s window. She was here.

Jack took a deep breath.

Mail-order brides weren’t uncommon in these parts. He didn’t know any personally, but he’d heard of some. There were so few women in the West, lots of men used any means necessary to procure a bride and start a family. Some of the women were desperate, Jack imagined, but some of them were adventurous and wished to travel West. It was less restrictive here than on the Eastern seaboard; lots of women owned their own property and ran businesses, or worked just as long and hard on the ranches and vineyards alongside their husbands.

He’d thought it all out in his mind from every business angle, and was convinced this marriage would work.

“See you at the wedding, Hugh.” He planted his Stetson back onto his head and strode out of his attorney’s office, trying not to let on that the words still bothered him.

#

Cassandra Hamilton peered through the stagecoach window at the vineyards rolling by and the occasional palm tree, worried at how very late they were, and tried to suppress her flurry of nerves. Would her soon-to-be groom still be there, waiting for her, or had he tired of it and left?

It was Wednesday afternoon at fifteen minutes past two – more than two hours behind – when the stagecoach finally pulled into the beautiful green valley and the town called Sundial. Cassandra slid out of the cramped seating into the awaiting crowd and searched the faces.

Normally, being outdoors under the blue sky and sun calmed her, but not today. She searched the assortment of faces for someone who might resemble the man who’d walked out of her world five years ago. Back then their relationship had been strained, for it was a time when she was engaged to someone else.

No Jack McColton.

Cassandra twirled around to study more faces. She was looking for someone tall, on the skinny side, with black hair. He was a veterinarian now, he’d written, working with horses in the vineyards, lumber mills, and ranches of Napa Valley. He’d studied veterinary science in Chicago and she’d often seen him with a textbook in his hands. He’d always had a love of animals, she recalled, more interested in the livestock people owned, than who might be knocking at the front door.

Searching the eager faces looking back at her, Cassandra dusted her threadbare skirts and adjusted her plumed hat to shield herself from the gleaming California sun.

So much hotter and drier than Chicago.

So much more hopeful and filled with promise.

So much more anxiety-inducing than she’d thought possible when she’d agreed to become a mail-order bride at Mrs. Pepik’s Boarding House for Desolate Women. In the return address she’d given Jack, she’d left off the desolate part.

No need to tell him how far she’d fallen.

She was here to start a new life with a man she had known to be hardworking and law-abiding. In choosing Jack over the other prospects, at least she was going with a known quantity. She knew his flaws as well as his strengths. Surely that was an advantage, wasn’t it?

But how well, really, had she known him? She hadn’t truly known what he was like behind closed doors for she hadn’t spent that much time with him alone, and sometimes a person’s behavior was totally different in private than in public.

“Cassandra?” said a deep male voice behind her.

In a stab of terror mixed with excitement, she wheeled around and nearly bumped into him.

She got an eyeful of a very broad chest wearing a neatly pressed white shirt and leather vest. Holding onto her hat, she craned her neck and peered way, way up.

Those familiar deep brown eyes flashed at her with curiosity. Her first impression was that everything about Jack McColton was incredibly dark. Tanned skin, black hair, black eyebrows, black leather vest, black cowboy hat. And no longer thin. His shoulders were as wide as forever. Obviously, his work on the vineyards had seasoned his physique.

He reminded her of a Thoroughbred racehorse, muscled and built for speed. Her pulse tripped over itself in response to his powerful presence. Wavy hair, longer than the men wore in Chicago, touched his collar. A sheen of moisture from the heat of the sun dampened his brow. He was clean-shaven, but already a dark shadow underlined his firm jaw and cast shadows in the dimple of his chin.

“Cassandra,” he repeated in a rich baritone. “Good to see you.” His studious eyes flickered over her. “You look lovely.”

Why did the rhythm of her breathing still break around him? Why had it always been like this? She nodded and smiled in a confusion of emotions.

She hadn’t realized how parched her mouth was. “Well, I…Jack…this climate certainly agrees with you.” Clumsily, she extended her arm for a handshake at the same time he held out a bouquet of pink wild roses.

She took the flowers, mumbled a thank you that got muffled when he leaned forward, planted a large warm hand on her wrist and pulled her forward over the roses in an awkward semi-hug that two distant relations might share. A wonderful display of strain and discomfort. It had been the same between them when she’d been engaged to his cousin, Troy.

Only now she was engaged to Jack, and all the witty and charming things she’d practiced she would say on their first meeting flew out of her head.

“Sorry you got delayed,” he said. “The coach is never on time.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize,” she said, still flustered. “Thank you for waiting.”

“How was your trip?”

“Long and dusty. But it is exciting to see this part of the country.”

“I almost didn’t recognize you.” He gave her another one of those sweeping glances that seemed to sum her up.

In her efforts to recall what he might look like, she’d forgotten that she herself had been on the heavy side, with an oily skin problem, last time they’d seen each other on the night of their terrible argument. Perhaps her plain looks was what had kept him at a distance. But if he’d had any decency at all, if he’d thought of her feelings in any way, why had he packed his things and left in the middle of the night?

Not a word goodbye.

A flash of anger heated her face. She was surprised by it and tried to hide it. She thought she’d feel a hundred different things when she saw him again, but never suspected she still hadn’t gotten over the callous way he’d left. Those buried feelings of betrayal surged up now and stung her in the face. She didn’t wish to be resentful. What she’d hoped to be when she arrived, fantasized on being, was a pleasant and optimistic bride.

Blazes, I’ll try my best.

“Looks do change,” she said. “I guess we’ve both done a lot of growing up.” She smiled faintly and tried to keep the curl of accusations out of her tone.

Perhaps what she was truly indignant about was the circumstance she found herself in – no way to support herself, no family to help, relying on the mercy of a man to marry her.

The artery at the base of his dark throat pulsed. He seemed to sense her discomfort as he watched her. “And how is Troy?”

Her lashes flicked as she averted her gaze. “Fine, I suppose. In England somewhere, last I heard.”

She hadn’t spoken to that turncoat for five years, either, but how would Jack know that?

All she’d told him in her letters, when he’d asked, was that their engagement had been over for quite some time. Was Jack testing her with the question, wondering what her feelings were for Troy?

Or was Jack testing the strength of her new-found loyalty to him? He frowned, as if trying to read any residue of leftover sentiment he might witness on her face. She pressed her lips together and tried to express nothing. My, how good she’d become at that game.

The moment stretched and stretched. Then two young ladies walked by, whispering something about him with admiration in their tone. Jack didn’t pay them attention; his dark eyebrows flickered at Cassandra. He rubbed the tense muscles in his jaw, and tilted his mouth in an expression of friendliness. “Welcome to my valley.”

There went her nerves again. She couldn’t get enough of looking at the new Jack. Goodness. Wasn’t he handsome? Perhaps he knew it. Perhaps this new confidence she sensed in him came from being aware of how he was perceived by the women around him. How could she feel both angry and attracted to him at the same time?

What had she gotten herself into?

She focused on what the future with him might bring, and gave him a cheerful nod.

“Nice to be here, finally.”

“Yes, finally,” he said, as if he were thinking about something more. She swooped down to inhale the perfume of the roses, hoping the color heating up her cheeks didn’t show.

Finally, after all these years, Jack McColton would be taking her virginity.

(…continued…)

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