The worn paper crinkled in her hands as Shannon unfolded the letters yet again. She smoothed them carefully against the blue of her skirt, a little afraid they might rip at the folds, but wanting to read his words again. Of course, she had both letters memorized by now, but there was just something special about seeing his handwriting.
My dear Miss Montgomery,
From your description, you sound ideal. I’ve always been partial to blonde hair and blue eyes, and I can tell you’re as beautiful inside as you are on the outside. Additionally, your eagerness to start a family will suit well with my goals, and I’m certain we will be well-matched. Once you reach the Montana Territory, you and I will be—
“You’re going to rip those, if you read them too much more.”
Shannon started in guilt, but resisted the urge to shove the papers back into her reticle. Instead, she glanced at her sister, seated beside her. Cora had been staring out the window since the train’s last stop, but now was looking down at Shannon with a faintly amused smile.
Cora always managed to make Shannon feel a little…well, little. Not only was she gorgeous, and significantly taller than Shannon, but Cora was well-traveled and well-educated, and had very clear plans for her life. Shannon’s dreams always felt little beside her sister’s. A husband. Children. Keeping a loving home. Small dreams. And maybe, finally, achievable ones.
“And if you rip them, you won’t have anything to show your children when they ask how you met their daddy.”
And somehow, despite their differences, Cora could make Shannon smile with only a few words. The older woman might not share the simple dream of a husband and children, but she never belittled Shannon for dreaming about it. Encouraged it, even.
“If I rip a letter,” Shannon quipped, “then I’ll save both halves. And I’ll keep reading both of them.”
Cora snorted. “You won’t need to read them, silly. You’ll have Mr. Ryan in person soon enough. He’ll be able to tell you such romantic drivel every day—and night.” She winked, a smile threatening her lips, and Shannon blushed.
She knew that, thanks to her painter friends, Cora was rather Bohemian in her approach to life—and love—but Shannon didn’t mind. Sometimes it was nice to have an older sister who could explain certain things. Like how, exactly, Shannon should go about achieving her dream of—ahem—having babies. Still, imagining actually doing those certain things was another story altogether. Especially doing them with a man she’d never met, and barely knew.
“I hardly think—”
Cora hurried to continue. “Of course, if everything goes the way we planned, Mr. Ryan won’t be spilling romantic drivel at night at all. He’ll be too busy with other concerns.” Her second wink was much more exaggerated, and she nudged Shannon with an elbow.
Shannon tried to roll her eyes at her sister’s outrageous teasing, but knew she’d blushed when Cora began to laugh outright.
Thanks to the ugly red birthmark which covered her left cheek and traveled up past her temple into her hairline, Shannon hated to blush. She was afraid it made her look like an apple, but unfortunately, the littlest innuendo from Cora—especially if it concerned matters of the opposite sex—could cause her to glow embarrassingly.
So when her sister continued to laugh, Shannon managed a convincing frown in her direction. “You promised you wouldn’t embarrass me in front of Mr. Ryan.”
“He’s not here, is he?” Cora nudged her again. “Besides, a little teasing about sex isn’t going to kill you.”
Oh Heavens! She’d said the S-word. “Cora, not everyone is as promiscuous—”
“Enlightened, thank you very much.”
Shannon sighed, giving up. “Please just don’t say such things in front of Mr. Ryan.”
“Why? If you want the children you’ve been talking about forever, you’re going to have to talk about all sorts of things with him, right? And perhaps, even manage to do some of those things.”
Swallowing, Shannon focused on carefully folding the letters once more to tuck them into her bag. “I know,” she said quietly. She did know. And truthfully, part of her was looking forward to becoming Mr. Ryan’s wife, in every way. He’d described himself as strong and successful, and she knew he was educated and polite from his letters. What woman wouldn’t find that attractive in a man?
One thing was for sure, Shannon was not picky about appearances. Mr. Ryan hadn’t told her anything about how he looked, and frankly, he could be ugly as sin, and Shannon wouldn’t say boo. After all, it wasn’t as if she’d been particularly truthful in her letters. She’d told him she was a blonde, yes, and petite...but never once had she mentioned the hideous birthmark on her face. The one which made it impossible to find a husband back in Texas.
And the whole reason she’d become a mail-order bride in the first place.
So no, she didn’t honestly care what Mr. Ryan looked like. He sounded like a good man in his letters, and that was good enough for her. She’d marry him and keep his house and have his babies.
Assuming he didn’t take one look at her and put her back on the train.
“Uh-oh.” Cora’s hand found hers. “You’re worrying again, aren’t you?”
Shannon nodded. She’d confessed her lie-by-omission to her sister on the day they’d left for Montana, but Cora hadn’t thought it a big deal. And, judging from the way she squeezed her hand now, still didn’t.
“Sweetheart, he won’t care. I promise. He’ll love you because you’re good and kind and sweet and ridiculously eager to please.”
Shannon’s lips curled slightly at her sister’s joking compliment. “You think?”
“I know.” Cora sighed. “But I also know you’re not going to accept my word for it.”
“We’re supposed to be married in town. When we arrive, I mean. Today.” Shannon was whispering, but couldn’t help it. She was just so nervous.
Cora squeezed her hand once more. “And you will be. And then tonight…”
Tonight, she’d officially become Mrs. Lucas Ryan.
Shannon swallowed. “What if he takes one look at me and decides I’m not worthy of him? What if he sends me—us—back home? I don’t want to live with Joshua anymore. I want my own house, my own family.”
Oh dear, she’d sounded quite pitiful there, hadn’t she?
But Cora merely smiled kindly. “Sweetie, you have to trust me. I’ve read Mr. Ryan’s letters too, remember? He’s a good man. A man who won’t judge a person based on appearance. And he’ll value you for what he’s read about you too, you know.”
Shannon prayed her sister was right. Maybe the fact she’d lied to her husband-to-be wouldn’t matter once they were married and settled. Maybe he truly would learn to look past her face, to her heart. And maybe, maybe, he’d learn to love her, just a bit.
Cora untangled her fingers from Shannon’s, then pressed them against the window of the train. “Are you excited to be living up here?”
It was an obvious attempt at changing the subject, but Shannon latched onto it gratefully. “I don’t think I care where I live, as long as it isn’t with our brothers. As long as I have my own home.”
“I don’t need my own home,” Cora murmured, staring now at the distant mountains. “I like being free. But this land…!” She took a deep breath, then pressed her forehead to the glass. “I can’t wait to try to capture it. It’s gorgeous.”
Cora was a talented painter and was lucky to have made some money on her travels to New York and Paris. She could afford to travel and paint as much as she wanted, and part of Shannon envied her. Didn’t envy the fact that she didn’t want a home, no… But maybe envied how easily her sister was able to achieve her dreams, while Shannon herself had been waiting for so long.
But she just swallowed. “I can’t wait to see your version.”
“I doubt I’ll be able to grasp it all on the first try, but I look forward to the attempt.”
Shannon doubted her older sister was even listening anymore, she was so focused on the landscape whizzing by. “It’ll be beautiful.”
“Blue” Cora muttered. “Blues and greens, I think. Pinks in the clouds, maybe?”
No, her sister had slipped into her own little world of paint hues and ratios. Shannon had appreciated having someone to chat with and take her mind off her worries, but it was probably for the best she’d lost her sister’s attention. She should use the time to prepare herself to meet her husband.
And to pray.
Pray he was as good a man as his letters made him sound, and he would be able to look past her face and into her heart.
Soon. So she could start the family she’d been dreaming about.
* * *
Lucas paced the tiny train platform outside of Black Aces, waiting for his bride to arrive and ignoring the occasional jokes Blake and Sam threw his way. The foreman and ranch hand had claimed they needed to come to town today, and had offered to help drive the buckboard and load up the future Mrs. Ryan’s trunks. But judging from the fact they were now lounging against the wagon and teasing him about “finally” having a woman, he suspected they were just here to collect fodder for later.
The problem with trying to run the ranch where you’d grown up was that, well, everyone knew you when you were growing up. Lucas had inherited his father’s spread four years ago and had worked hard to show the men he’d learned his father’s lessons and could handle Sunset Valley Ranch on his own. And for the most part, they respected him, he thought. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t tease him about stupid stuff.
Like the fact he was getting married today.
Married. His mother had been after him to marry since his father’s death, and it seemed wrong to be taking that step without her.
Unconsciously, Lucas’s fingers dipped into his pocket where he’d taken to carrying around his mother’s chain. She’d worn it for most of his life, and he’d gotten used to seeing the locket swinging beside her wedding ring and key around her neck. She’d begun wearing the ring on a chain because her fingers had swelled after his birth, and the locket was engraved with his initials. The key was to her lockbox at the bank, as far as he knew.
A train whistle, far off in the distance, jerked him from his musings, and he whipped his head around to peer eastward. She was coming.
He’d sent Miss Shannon Montgomery a train ticket himself, so he knew exactly when she was supposed to arrive. All he had to do was look for a petite blonde woman, traveling with her older sister, and he’d have his future wife.
Although he’d told himself it wouldn’t matter what she looked like, part of him was secretly glad his bride was a blonde—he’d always been partial to the hair shade. Unfortunately, there weren’t any blonde women—or any woman—available to marry in these parts. And although Lucas was only twenty-two, he very much needed to get married.
So he’d sent away for a bride, and had appreciated the things Miss Montgomery had told him about herself. She was accomplished, and polite, and well-reared. She’d not only do well as his wife, but as the mistress of a successful cattle ranch.
Or rather, a cattle ranch which would be successful, just as soon as its future was assured by Lucas’s marriage. Lucas’s marriage and subsequent heir-begetting, at least.
The train whistle blew again, closer this time, and he swallowed. He was getting married, and if everything went well, the heir-begetting would happen that very night. And then, according to his mother’s reasoning at least, Sunset Valley’s future would be secure, and the rustling would cease.
“You’re making me dizzy,” Matthias Blake called out from where he lounged by the wagon. “Calm down. She’ll be here soon enough.”
Lucas paused to shoot his foreman a scowl, but the older man just chuckled.
Sam jabbed Blake in the side with his elbow. “He’s probably worried about the beddin’ mor’n’ the weddin’!” he chortled.
Blake smiled and met Lucas’ eyes with the agreement to drop the subject. “I think it’ll be alright,” he said quietly. Surely.
Lucas needed that surety. He sank down on the back of the wagon bed with a sigh, grateful for his friend’s support. “Did you get those supplies we needed from Gomez’s mercantile?”
Blake crossed one booted foot in front of the other and crossed his thick arms in front of his chest. “Yessir. Although prices have gone up since Mr. King waltzed his way into town demanding rent. But we’ll make it through, no problem.”
The other man was probably Lucas’ closest friend, even though he was technically Blake’s employer. Blake had been the one to help him navigate owning the ranch, and had never once indicated he thought Lucas was too young or too inexperienced. They still had a ways to go, but Lucas was glad for the man’s support.
Staring at the not-so-distant column of smoke which marked the train—and his bride’s—arrival, Lucas swallowed heavily. “You ever been married, Matthias?”
Blake shook his head sharply. “Never. Haven’t seen a lot of use for it either, in all my thirty-three years. But maybe now you’re getting married, some things’ll change around the ranch…”
Lucas shrugged, not sure he was ready to admit how badly he wanted things to change. He needed things to change, and not just because he was lonely. When he was married and had a babe on the way, the rustling and threats to the ranch would cease.
All too short a time later, Lucas stood, shifting his weight from foot to foot while the few passengers disembarked. Black Aces wasn’t a big enough stop for anyone to get off and stretch their legs, so the only people climbing down from the train were—
A petite blonde woman and a taller brunette. That had to be Miss Montgomery and her sister, Cora! Lucas strode toward them as the porter handed down their trunks. Sam and Blake jumped forward to help—about time they did something useful—but Lucas had eyes only for his bride.
And when her eyes met his for the first time, he halted, and she blushed slightly and turned away. Not so far he couldn’t see her, but she turned her face just enough so he couldn’t see most of her expression. The tall woman said something to her, but Miss Montgomery shook her head once, a look of panic on the half of her face he could see.
Her worry—what was she worried about?—hit Lucas like a punch to the sternum, and he suddenly very much wanted to make things better. He was moving toward the women again before he was even aware of it. All he could think of was the need to make her feel better.
Unfortunately, he reached the pair without any clear idea of how to make her feel better. Or even what was wrong. But once he stood in front of her, he couldn’t not try.
So Lucas yanked off his hat and reached for her hand. Maybe it was forward. Maybe it was presumptuous, but he did it.
He reached for her hand, and his world changed.
Because the moment the callused skin of his fingers touched her smooth, delicate palm, a warmth shot up his arm, and he knew. Knew that, somehow, he’d found his match.
That warmth traveled through his chest and he told himself he was only aroused because he knew what was coming that night, but it was a lie. This woman, whom he hadn’t even met yet, aroused him.
And judging from the way her lovely sky-blue eye—the one he could see—widened slightly, then flickered downward, she felt it too. A lazy, confident grin crept across Lucas’s face.
Oh yeah, this was the woman for him.
He hadn’t needed the confirmation, but her choked whisper was welcome.
“I’m Lucas Ryan. Welcome to Montana Territory.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ryan.”
She shifted slightly, as if to include her sister in the conversation, but Lucas wasn’t ready to invite others into their private moment just yet. So he squeezed her hand, and her gaze flew to his.
Her whole gaze. She’d turned to him, and he saw her whole face. She really was lovely, wasn’t she? Her blonde hair had been pulled back under her bonnet, but wisps escaped to frame her heart-shaped face in such a way that made Lucas’s fingers itch to smooth them back. She had a pert little nose, wide eyes under delicate arches of her eyebrows, and plump lips which were currently parted slightly in surprise.
It wasn’t until she glanced down, fixing her gaze squarely on his chin, that Lucas saw the large red birthmark on her left cheek. When she blushed, it was hardly noticeable, but reminded him of the strawberry mark he had on his arm, and the way it blended in when he’d been in the sun too long.
He wondered if that’s what she’d been hiding when she stepped off the train.
Mentally, Lucas shrugged. He had a lifetime to prove she didn’t have to hide from him. The way his body had reacted—was still reacting—to her said she was gorgeous just the way she was. He couldn’t wait to get to know her; to see if she was as beautiful inside as out.
This time, when he squeezed her hand, he pulled slightly too, so that her gaze snapped back up to his at the same time she was forced to take a step closer. He inhaled deeply, appreciating her faint floral scent in the May air.
Could she feel the warmth between them? Is that why her skin was so flushed? Why she swallowed suddenly—he couldn’t help studying the skin not-quite-hidden by her lace collar—or why the pulse in her wrist hammered so frantically?
Lucas’s grin grew. He sure hoped so.
you’d call me Lucas, Miss Montgomery. Since we’ll be married soon.”
Her nod was hesitant, but she didn’t drop his gaze. This time, when she swallowed, her tongue darted out to moisten her lower lip, and Lucas’s breath caught. Did she know how enticing she was?
“Lucas.” She inclined her head slightly, her voice hesitant. “And you should call me Shannon.”
“And you can call me Cora.” The taller woman didn’t bother to hold out her hand, but placed hers on her hips—
Was that a man’s shirt she was wearing? It was too big, too flowing on her, for certain. And she wore the reform bloomers, which had gone out of style decades ago, tucked into tall boots, as if she were about to climb on a horse or a bicycle. With her brown hair lying in a girlish braid over one shoulder, and her smile a bit too wide, she was a study in contradiction. Lucas supposed Cora Montgomery might’ve been considered handsome, but as he compared her to her sister, he was quite pleased he was contracted to marry the pretty Montgomery daughter.
But he didn’t let his thoughts show. Instead, he brushed his thumb along the inside of Shannon’s palm and nodded respectfully to her sister. “Miss Cora, welcome to Montana. I hope the journey was pleasant.”
His soon-to-be sister in law waved dismissively, then turned to the mountains, inhaling deeply. “Train travel has come a long way in the last decade, I’ll agree. I’m glad to be here.” Her gaze—the same shade as Shannon’s—flicked over their clasped hands, and she smiled. “Thank you for allowing me to visit.”
In one of Shannon’s letters, she’d requested permission for her sister to live with them for an undisclosed amount of time. Lucas couldn’t see the harm in the request, since there were so few marriageable women in the area. Of course, now that he’d met Cora Montgomery, he couldn’t imagine who’d want to marry her, but she was welcome to stay in the ranch’s guest room as long as she wanted.
So he just nodded and smiled in return, before turning back to his bride. Shannon was gazing down at where his thumb was making lazy circles against her skin, looking a little shocked.
At the warmth between their skin? At the instant connection they’d shared? Or did she not feel it at all?
That connection had set Lucas at ease, but maybe it made her uncomfortable. Whatever it was, it meant he was a heck of a lot less nervous now than he’d been before the train rumbled into the station.
So he smiled confidently and lifted her hand to his lips. Her eyes widened at the gesture, but she didn’t look away. “My dear Shannon, Reverend Trapper is waiting for us at the church. Would you like me to find you someplace to freshen up before the wedding?”
He’d expected a blushing agreement, and perhaps some thanks for his manners. But instead, she took a deep breath—he managed not to peer at her blouse when she did so—and lifted her chin.
“If it’s all the same to you, Mr. Ry—Lucas, I would prefer to marry you quickly and see my new home. Presumably I can freshen up there?”
His grin grew. Oh yes, she’d do well as mistress of his family’s ranch. “I like the sound of that.”
The train blew its whistle and began to pull away from the station, but the Montgomery sisters’ trunks were already loaded into the wagon. Cora and Blake stood ready to act as witnesses to the ceremony, so there was no reason to delay.
Lucas jammed his hat back on his head, offered Shannon his arm, and asked “Shall we, Miss Montgomery?”
Her movements were hesitant when she snaked her hand through his offered arm, but he saw her inhale deeply right before she met his eyes. “Yes please, Mr. Ryan.”
“Alright then,” he whispered. They’d head for the church…just as soon as he could tear his gaze away from her gorgeous sky-blue eyes. “Let’s go get married.”