Juliette knew the signs of paranoia—intense fear, mistrust, hypervigilance—she just never thought those symptoms would apply to her. But as she walked out of the mercantile, her purchases tucked safely in a basket over her arm, something didn't feel right. Her spine tingled, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose as though she were being followed. Watched. Hunted.
Logically, there was no reason for it. No one was following her. In fact, no one was paying her any attention, but the feeling still remained.
Her head cocked to the side, her dark brown curls—which were left unpinned today—followed the movement. She took stock of herself, her surroundings, sifting through information about why she might feel this way. Perhaps it was all the recent changes.
Promise Creek was the best thing that ever happened to her. She never would have thought so after arriving a year ago, only to find out her fiancé had passed away, leaving a mess with his ten mail-order brides. But now, eight of the brides were either engaged or married, and this hyperawareness might be her way of dealing with all of it.
It wouldn't be the first time. After her brother had left, leaving her defenseless—
Juliette mentally slammed the vault door on those thoughts. She couldn't think about it, couldn't go back to that. Her brother’s escape from the authorities, her subsequent trial for aiding him during bank robberies—those were in the past.
She hadn't thought of her brother in weeks, now. Things had gotten so much better. Her life was as close to normal as possible, and she wanted it to stay that way. She enjoyed her life, full of books, Ivan's other brides, and their home.
Finding out Ivan had duped her could have beaten her. She could have curled in a ball, surrendered, and shut down, but she hadn't. What she'd found here had blessed and enriched her life, and she refused to let her past, and her criminal, bank-robber brother, ruin that.
With a deep breath, she blocked out the thought of being watched and stepped into the street. If someone watched her, let them. She wasn't afraid, and she had nothing to hide.
Ronan had asked for all of Ivan's brides and their husbands to meet at Cameron Grant's office in the bank to discuss their mine. The location was an unusual request, but Juliette wasn't too worried. Ronan updated them about the mine's profitability every month, and she assumed this meeting would be no different.
She took a deep breath of warm, summer air, and focused on things she enjoyed. It amazed her how life had a rhythm. The seasons changed here like they did in any other place; herds grew, women had babies, and families thrived, but there was something more. The town had its own rhythm, too. Miners arrived, miners left. Even after many of the mines had paid out, producing millionaires like popping corn, there were still opportunities. More gold was waiting to be found, and where there were opportunities, people flocked.
In a way, it amused her when she'd inherited a mine. Her brother had chased after money, had done illegal things to obtain it, but it had never really mattered to Juliette, as long as her needs had been met. And now she owned a paying mine.
All she truly cared about were her books now that her parents had passed. She had loved her brother once, but no longer. Any sympathy for the position he'd put himself in, the position he put her in, had died. If her brother had truly loved her, he never would have exposed her as he had. A loving brother would've protected her, would have kept on the correct side of the law, instead of leaving her open to the possibility that law-enforcement would scrutinize her, interrogate her, assume she was part of her brother's gang.
She huffed out a breath. And why was she thinking about her brother again? As soon as she was done with this meeting, she was going to go home, change into her favorite, threadbare gown, roll-on some thick, woolen socks, and re-read one of her favorite novels. Things were changing too quickly, and reading one of her favorite books would ground her.
She strode on the boardwalk, picking up her pace so she wasn't late. While the others had busier lives, managing their homes and soon-to-be-growing families, Juliette's held very little to occupy her.
With only her and Willow left at Ivan's house, there should be more chores to do, but there was very little to do after Sylvia, their housekeeper, was done. In truth, the woman ruled the house. At first, all of Ivan's brides had tried to help, but Sylvia hadn't allowed it. She had firm ideas on which things should be left to her, and the women had realized quickly that Sylvia got her way. Fortunately, the mine had always been profitable enough for the house's upkeep and Sylvia's salary.
Although she didn't have many chores, Juliette hoped she could fill her time babysitting once Clara, Olivia, Aria—and the others, as they became pregnant—delivered their babies.
Until then, she would continue courting, but Juliette believed that if she hadn't already found the right man to marry by now, she wouldn't anytime soon.
Arriving at the bank, she pulled open the doors and stepped inside. The polished floors reflected the furniture in the room, and the lemon scent filled her with a wave of nostalgia for her previous home.
"Juliette, you're right on time." Aria gave her a small hug and smiled at her.
Juliette looked around. "Am I the first to arrive?"
"Clara and Sawyer, Ronan and Olivia, Willow, Violet and Jimmy, and Rosalie and Tom are already in Cameron's office. We're still waiting on Sadie and Owen, and Asher and Belle."
Willow's name stuck out like a sore thumb in that list. And although she herself hadn't been listed, Juliette also felt odd. Like Willow, she wasn't part of a pair.
"Should I head back? Or would you like some company?" She hoped she didn't sound desperate. Although Willow was already here, Juliette had no desire to be surrounded by happy couples right this moment.
"Would you mind? I feel like I haven't talked enough with you in a while."
Whether Aria actually meant it, or she was just being kind, Juliette appreciated it. "It has been a while."
"What have you been up to?"
Juliette barely suppressed rolling her eyes. "What do you think I've been doing?"
Aria clucked her tongue. "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I miss the times spent alone. I love taking care of the children, but I wish I would have relished my time before I married a little more." She laughed.
Juliette knew Aria was busy taking care of her two stepchildren, a sweet boy and girl, for whom she'd nannied before marrying their father. And it wasn't long ago she'd announced her own pregnancy. Juliette was happy for her, and could tell how delighted Aria was.
Aria blushed, her cheeks flushing to match the color of her hair. "Oh, listen to me. I must sound so annoying. I never thought I would be that woman."
Juliette laughed. "I know what you mean. You have your hands full. I'm not surprised you dream of breaks. I would too, if I were in your position." She might dream of them, but she would be so happy to be married and have a family, she wouldn't care if she was exhausted or not.
Aria's lips twisted in amusement. "You're too kind."
"I'm glad you think so. So…" She peeked out the front window to see if anyone else was arriving. "Do you know why we're meeting here?" She frowned. "I just realized this is probably more convenient now with so many in town, married. So much closer than the house."
"I don't know. I'm not even sure Cameron knows. Ronan just asked that everyone meet here, instead." Aria leaned toward her and lowered her voice. "He didn't say why, at least not to me, but it sounded like there was something going on."
Juliette's brows furrowed. She’d thought the location was odd, but had passed it off as unimportant. She wasn't so sure now. What would Ronan tell them? "I'm intrigued."
"Me too. I hope there's not a problem." Aria chewed her bottom lip.
Juliette felt the same concern. "I think if there were, he would've said something."
"You're probably right. I shouldn't get worked up over nothing." She smiled sheepishly. "I tend to do that. The Irish, you know." She winked.
Juliette chuckled. Aria had the Irish disposition, as much as the looks. "Where's Cameron?" She scanned the interior of the bank.
"He went to the mercantile for licorice."
"For the kids?"
She blushed again. "For me," she said, laughing. "I seem to crave it at all hours, and I ran out."
"That's not that uncommon. Women in your condition crave all sorts of things. Some are much less appetizing."
"I've had a few of those cravings, as well," she grumbled. "I'm happy to stick with the licorice."
"It's probably for the best." Juliette patted her on the back. "I've read quite a bit on pregnancy. If you'd like, I can write down a few common complaints and concerns and bring the list to you."
Aria lit up. "Would you? That would be wonderful. I feel so silly asking the doctor so many questions."
"That's what he's there for. I'm sure he's happy to answer any questions you have."
Aria shrugged. "All the same, I would appreciate your notes."
"Then you shall have them." Juliette smiled, grateful she was able to offer Aria something that would comfort her.
Aria glanced out the window and smiled. "Looks like everyone's here. I guess we’re about to find out what all the fuss is."
Rosalie and Tom, Asher and Belle, and Cameron walked in. The latter leaned in and kissed Aria. "Is everyone here?"
She nodded. "Everyone else is in your office."
"Good. I'm ready to hear what this is all about." Cameron nodded for the other couples to go ahead of him, then escorted Aria and Juliette to the back of the building.
Juliette walked into the room, smiling at all the other couples, before taking a spot next to Willow. Her smile was a little self-depreciating. It was almost as though they stood in a wallflower corner, and they both knew it.
Ronan stood behind Cameron's desk, and watched as Cameron closed the door. "Are we alone?"
Cameron nodded. "I've sent everyone out on a break and locked the front doors. The bank is closed for the next thirty minutes, as you asked."
Ronan's face turned serious as he glanced around the room. "I appreciate you all coming. I know it was inconvenient for most of you to meet during the day, but it was necessary. As you've probably guessed, this isn't the ordinary update on the mine."
Tom spoke up when Ronan paused. "Is something wrong? Was there an accident?"
A flurry of concerns was voiced, and Ronan held up his hands for everyone to quiet down. "The mine is fine. No accidents, and everything has been running as expected."
The tension in the room decreased at Ronan's assurance. Juliette didn't believe any of them would overly care if the mine went bust, after all, they were already millionaires from their own mines, but it would affect Juliette and Willow. She was grateful being poor wasn't something she'd need to worry about.
"I asked you all to come here because I have big news. I should've stressed that there was nothing wrong, but I'll admit, a lot has been on my mind. You see," Ronan rubbed the back of his neck, "we found it. We found the mother lode."
A swarm of emotions filled Juliette's chest a second before the room erupted in cheers. Tom shouted and lifted Rosalie in the air, unable to contain his excitement. The rest of the couples embraced, laughing and hollering with excitement.
Juliette smiled and hugged Willow when the woman turned to her, but inside, it was hard for Juliette to believe it had actually happened. No one had believed Ivan's mine would pay out. There'd been a steady profit, but something like this, something this big, changed everything.
When things quieted down, Asher asked, "So, what's the next step? Where do we go from here?" He frowned. "And why don't you seem happy?"
Asher's words penetrated the mood in the room, and all eyes turned back to Ronan. "I am happy about it. But as most of you know, when a mother lode is found, it brings in all sorts of unsavory characters, people trying to take advantage, to steal. It takes time to harvest the gold, and while that's happening, things could happen. People could get hurt. We're talking about a lot of money, here."
Cameron nodded. "We can take care of ourselves, take extra precautions."
Juliette nodded as well, but felt an inkling of doubt. She knew how to shoot a rifle, but she hadn't had much practice. Maybe now was the opportunity to change that.
"Extra precautions will be necessary. At least in the short term." Ronan nodded to Sawyer. "Why don't you take over now?"
Ronan sat, and Sawyer took his place. "If you're wondering, I just found out this morning. It's very exciting. This is what we've been working toward all year, and this is what Ivan worked for his whole life. As Ronan said, we’ve been through this. We know what we're up against. But at least this time, we know what to expect ahead of time. We’re prepared, and we have the means to protect what’s ours."
Everyone nodded their agreement, but Juliette and Willow remained silent. There wasn't anyone around to protect them, and with the house so far away from town, it made the situation even more dangerous.
"While we'll try to keep this a secret for as long as possible, news like this tends to spread quickly. Especially once people find out how much gold there really is. And, as Ronan assures me, there’s a lot of gold. This could easily be the biggest find in Promise Creek. Once word gets out, people will come, and they won't care what they have to do to get a piece of it."
"We can do this." Tom nodded to everyone in the room. "No one is alone here."
The gravity of their situation weighed Juliette down. They may not be alone in their support, but on a day-to-day basis, Juliette and Willow would be very much on their own. How would they protect themselves?
The room began to rumble with conversation, suggestions, ideas, but Sawyer held up his hands, silencing them all. "There are many things we'll do to prepare, but there's one thing we need to take care of first." Sawyer looked at Juliette and Willow. "We need to make sure you two are safe."
"We'll be fine," Juliette said out of habit. She was used to having to put on a brave face. She'd been alone a long time, and she'd had to pretend she could take care of everything.
Sawyer nodded slowly. "You're right. You will be fine, because we're going to take care of you."
Willow cocked her head. "How?" It was the same question Juliette wanted to ask.
Sawyer looked at Ronan, and Ronan nodded his head, as if giving permission to continue. "For the married women, their husbands will be enough to protect them from being taken advantage of. However, with you two, there's more risk. You both own a chunk of the mine, and whoever you marry will also own it. When word gets out, there will be men who will try to force you into marriage to get their hands on your money."
Juliette inhaled sharply. She thought she knew the risks, that if desperate enough, people might try to hurt them, but she hadn't thought about the possibility of being forced into a marriage. The idea sent chills down her spine. "What can we do?"
Sawyer's stance widened. "You have two choices, and you and Willow can choose for yourself."
When Sawyer paused and took a deep breath, Juliette leaned forward. How bad were these choices going to be?
"The first option is to stay in town with one of the other married couples. I haven't asked who is willing, but Clara and I, or Ronan and Olivia, would be glad to have either—or both—of you stay with us. This wouldn't be a long-term solution. Just until we've cleared out the mine, but you'd have your own space and privacy. And more importantly, you'd be safe."
Juliette didn't relish the thought of staying with anyone. She wanted to be in her own home, surrounded by her own things, able to grab a book from her personal library when the desire struck. If she were in town, that wouldn't be possible. She didn't know much about mining, but she figured clearing out the gold would be time-consuming. Especially if they were trying to do it discreetly. "What's the other option?"
"We hire you a bodyguard. The money would come out of the general fund from the mine, and they would stay with you for the duration of the mining operation, or until you decide to take option number one. The choice is yours." Sawyer held up his hands, as if there was nothing else he could do.
Juliette's mind reeled over her options. She'd either lose her independence by moving in with another couple that would no doubt be sick of her company once the mine was cleared, or she'd lose her independence by having a man she didn't know, babysitting her. Neither option sounded ideal. "Do you truly believe we'll be in danger on our own?"
Sawyer nodded. "There are too many other factors. Anything could happen, anything could go wrong. If we knew exactly when the information will leak, you'd be fine to be on your own. But these things tend to happen when you least expect it, and it's better to be prepared." Sawyer looked between Juliette and Willow. "I know this isn't ideal, and I'm sorry it has to happen. But we have to protect you."
Logically, Juliette knew he was right. Two women alone would never be able to hold off determined, greedy men.
Willow stepped forward. "I appreciate your concern. While I like to think I can take care of myself, this is actually more convenient for me. You see, I've decided to open up a new business, selling dresses." The rest of Ivan's brides cheered, knowing how talented she was. Willow blushed, pleased with their praise and support. She waved her hands to quiet everyone down. "I'll need to meet with my clients, measure them, order more fabrics, and all of that will be easier to do while I'm in town. Besides that, I'll be sewing my fingers off, so I shouldn't be in the way."
Clara shook her head and stood, taking Willow's hand in hers. "You would never be in the way. I hope you'll stay with me, I'd love to have your company." She patted her rounded stomach unconsciously.
Juliette hadn't realized that with Clara's time nearing, and being unable to leave the house more and more, she might be lonely. Juliette should've realized that before, should have stepped in and filled the need. She promised herself she'd be more aware in the future, especially as the others had their babies.
Sawyer took the center of attention again as he smiled. "Congratulations, Willow. Everyone here is excited for you, and I'm assuming just the people in this room will keep you busy enough."
Everyone laughed at Sawyer's joke, but Juliette saw the truth there. There were nine of them, let alone the other women in town. Willow would have her hands full.
When the laughter died down, all eyes turned to Juliette. She tried not to squirm under the heavy gaze.
"Juliette? What do you want to do?" Sawyer asked.
Juliette realized she was twisting her skirts with her fingers and promptly let the fabric go. "I'm grateful for your protection, but I would rather stay in my own home."
Before anyone could speak, Olivia put her hand on Juliette shoulder. "We understand, dear. I think most of us would choose the same thing." She gave her a reassuring squeeze.
Sawyer nodded grimly and looked over at Ronan before saying, "We understand as well. I wish this wasn't necessary, but hopefully it'll be over soon. Anticipating your desire to stay in your home, Ronan already contacted a bodyguard and he's here in town."
Ronan spoke up then. "He was the first person I contacted after we made the discovery at the mine. Luckily, he was only a few towns over and able to come immediately."
Juliette wondered what would've happened had she decided to stay with someone in town. But if the man had already been close by, it wouldn't have taken him too far out of his way.
"That is lucky," she said softly, but deep down, she still wished for another option. "How do you know him?" Then a thought struck her. "Am I going to be safe with him? Besides Sylvia, we’ll we be alone at the house." She looked to both Sawyer and Ronan for an answer.
Ronan nodded firmly. "I've known this man for a long time, and I know which skeletons are in his closet. Just to be certain, I had his background checked. He'll know how to keep you safe, and, more importantly, you can trust him. He'd never hurt a woman."
Juliette didn't know what to think, but she trusted Ronan, and if he said she was able to trust this man, she would. Besides, what choice did she have?
She took a deep breath, and nodded. "All right. I'm ready to meet him."
"Okay." He looked to everyone in the room. "In the short term, this might be a little hard, but it's going to pay off. Soon, this is all going to be over. We just have to hang in there." A huge grin broke across his face. "Congratulations, everyone."
Everyone clapped and cheered again, and a new round of embraces started, and while Juliette smiled and gave out hugs of her own, she couldn't help but wonder what her new guard was going to be like.
Sawyer and Ronan came over to her. "I'm going to go get Devon now, if that's all right," Ronan said, leaving once he got her agreement.
Sawyer rested a hand on her shoulder. "I'll be here the whole time as well. If you change your mind for any reason, or don't feel comfortable with him, we’ll send him away and figure something else out."
Juliette was touched over how caring Ronan and Sawyer were. She wasn't either of their wives, she wasn't even family, but they were taking the time to look out for her, to care for her. Not even her own brother had done such a thing. "Thank you," she said softly. "I don't know what I would've done without both of you. Without everyone." She looked meaningfully to the others who were filing out of the room, their heads together as if they were conspiring how they would spend their money once the mine was cleared. A hollow ache filled her as she watched. That's what she wanted, someone to share things with. Soon, she'd have the means to go, to do anything she wanted. She just wished she didn't have to do them all alone.