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Authors: Carolyn Davidson

Big Sky Rancher

BOOK: Big Sky Rancher
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What if he'd married not only a virgin bride, but an
ignorant
virgin bride?

“Jennifer?” He spoke her name softly, trying his best to reassure her. “Didn't your mother tell you anything about marriage?”

She tilted her chin up and slowly shook her head, her eyes wide with what looked suspiciously like fright. And well they might. She was pinned beneath a man almost twice her size. Yet she did not flinch from him, her body forming to his, softening against him, even as tears blinded her vision.

“Hell and damnation,” he blurted out, rolling from the bed. “I can't find it in me to force myself on a woman, no matter how horny I am. Even if that woman is my legal wife.”

“Do you mean that?” Jennifer asked hopefully, wiping at the moisture on her cheeks.

“I told you before, I don't say anything I don't mean…!”

Reading, writing and research:
Carolyn Davidson
's life in three simple words. At least, that area of her life having to do with her career as a Harlequin Historical author. The rest of her time is divided among husband, family and travel—her husband, of course, holding top priority in her busy schedule. Then there is their church, and the church choir in which they participate. Their sons and daughters, along with assorted spouses, are spread across the eastern half of the country, together with numerous grandchildren.

Last, but certainly not least, is the group of women who share Carolyn's love of writing: the Lowcountry Romance Writers of America. She is a charter member and holds her fellow members, due to their encouragement, partly responsible for whatever success she has achieved in the pursuit of her career.

Carolyn welcomes mail at P.O. Box 2757, Goose Creek, SC 29445.

B
IG
S
KY
R
ANCHER
C
AROLYN
D
AVIDSON

To the world's best agent,
Pattie Steele-Perkins

and

Mr. Ed, who loves me.

PROLOGUE

January 1868

H
E NEEDED A WOMAN
.
Not just any woman, he realized, but one who knew how to sew on buttons and mend ripped seams. In fact, he'd welcome just about any female of
any
description, so long as she came complete with a stash of recipes for edible food.

The thought that such a female might be persuaded to share his bed was a plus he couldn't ignore, given the current state of affairs—but in order to gain that benefit, he suspected a wedding ring would be required. And he would be hog-tied to a female, forever responsible for her, unable to do as he pleased, go where he wanted and act as he liked.

And that was the rub. He'd spent his life doing as he chose even though some of his decisions had not panned out well. In fact, his latest endeavor, fighting the great war on the side of the North, had gained him nothing but a gimpy leg and a sour disposition.

Traveling alone to the gold rush in Montana had earned him a starvation diet and the dubious distinction of involving himself deeply in the small community he'd landed in, ultimately becoming its mayor. The salary the town was willing to pay him was quite an incentive. For being a figurehead and keeping an eye on the town's growth, he received enough cold,
hard cash to feed himself, not to mention the respect of the townsfolk. Staking a claim had provided him with gold enough to build a house and gotten him a partner. All in all, he considered himself pretty well off for a wandering fella with no prospects.

Now, a woman was on the agenda. Not only was he desperate for decent meals, but his long suppressed, carnal needs were dominating his thoughts. No amount of cold stream water did the trick and it seemed that the only thing that would work was a wife. A warm woman would do much to blunt the harsh winds and the constant blowing of snow. And his house was ready and waiting for a female to lend her touch to his life. Between working his claim and tending his house, he was being split into too many directions.

A woman was
definitely
on the agenda.

The women available in Thunder Canyon were well-used and not interested in making their way in the world doing anything more strenuous than lying on their backs.

So he'd taken matters by the scruff of the neck and attempted to solve his problem. The letter he'd sent East had borne fruit, and the bride chosen by mail, from a list provided by the agency, seemed to fit his needs. Twenty-three years old, a homebody, skilled in the arts of keeping house and cooking.

Sounded like a done deal to Lucas. The money for her passage on train and stagecoach would be well spent, even if she turned out to be not as well qualified as her qualifications promised—even if her cooking left a bit to be desired.

Being a woman, she would surely come with all the feminine equipment necessary to keep him satisfied and to eventually provide him with a clutch of sons to carry on his name. His father, Toby O'Reilly, had placed great emphasis on pass
ing on the family reputation, such as it was since Toby had gained his own status by being the toughest saloon fighter in Ireland. And that fact didn't seem worth bragging about—as least as far as Luc was concerned.

His own fighting had been done reluctantly. In fact, the faces of the men he'd killed in the name of his country haunted his dreams. The people freed from oppression in the South didn't seem to be much better off than before—some of them starving because they had no money, land or future. Others had gone back to their former owners and formed alliances that allowed them to work for pay. Those were the smart ones, Luc decided.

But his own days of working for someone else were over. From now on, he was forging a life that included a home and family, in a place where he could settle down and look to the future.

And for that, he needed a woman.

CHAPTER ONE

May 1868

M
ARRYING THE FOUNDER
of a town in Montana had seemed like a fine idea back in New York. Such a man would surely have an air of gentility and a position of authority in the area, and be both wealthy and ambitious. Not to mention intelligent.

Lucas O'Reilly. The name itself was solid and seemed fit for such a man. Too bad he hadn't chosen somewhere else to locate his town. Maybe somewhere on the East Coast, very close to a big city, where civilization had a grip on things.

Thunder Canyon had sounded like an interesting spot—a scenic location, perhaps—in a huge area of the West. The reality was somewhat different, Jennifer Alston decided. A dusty thoroughfare met her eye as she stepped down from the stagecoach. The weather was warm for late May, but the road showed evidence of long-gone spring rains. The resultant ruts caused her to stumble as she took her first step on Montana soil. Not an auspicious beginning. She resolved to work more carefully, lest she break an ankle during her jaunt from coach to hotel door.

The odd assortment of men who watched from the wooden sidewalk were possessed of whiskers and unkempt hair, along with wrinkled and faded clothing. Their avid gazes remained fixed on her as she made her way up the single step to the
porch of the hotel, as if the men had gone months without catching sight of a female.

And perhaps they had, for not one decent appearing woman had made her presence known to Jennifer's discerning eye. Either they'd all stayed at home today or there was a definite dearth of female companionship. And she'd bet on the latter, if the looks directed at her were anything to go by.

The stagecoach driver plunked her single bag beside her and grunted a message of farewell in her direction as he turned back to his post. She began to understand his lifted eyebrows and skeptical look when she'd given him the name of her destination upon climbing into his vehicle.

Thunder Canyon. Sounding like a cross between a deluge making its way through two towering cliffs and a green way station where spring rains fell in abundance—it was neither. Instead she had come to a town wherein dwelt dusty, nondescript men and a few females of dubious distinction, even now leaning over the low balcony above the town saloon across the street. A sign hung over the door, announcing that Pete Jackson owned the place and that the establishment was now under new ownership. The caliber of women Pete hired could have been improved on, Jennifer decided, but at least their presence on the balcony gave her an idea of the quality of the female population.

She turned back from her survey of the opposite side of the road and reached for the doorknob in front of her. The hotel door opened easily, apparently well cared for by its proprietor, and she stepped into the small, barren lobby. Her valise bumping into her knee with every step, she approached the desk, smiling gamely at the gentleman there. At least she held hopes of him being a gentleman.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, and Jennifer smoth
ered a laugh.
Not much, I suspect.
The thought was frivolous but immediate and she swallowed her moment of panic as she found a smile for the desk clerk.

“I need a room,” she said. “For a couple of days, I suspect.”

“Is someone expecting you?” the man asked. “Is there anyone I can contact to announce your arrival?”

“I don't doubt but what the man in question will show up soon,” Jennifer said. “He knows I'm to arrive today.”

“Well, perhaps we'd best rent to you on a day-by-day basis then,” he told her, turning to pick out a key from one of the cubby holes behind him. “Room 203 is just beyond the head of the stairs, ma'am. If you'll sign the register, I'll carry your bag up for you.”

He turned the book around and handed her a pen, watching closely as she formed her name in clearly legible script.

“Jennifer Alston.” He spoke her name in a whisper and his gaze swept over her, as if he took a quick survey of her visible parts. “Are you one of those gals coming here to marry up with one of our menfolk?” he asked. “Seems like I heard your name over in the barbershop last time I was in there.” He grinned in remembrance. “Our Sally Jo sure does give a nice haircut and shave.”

“Well, I won't be happy if my intended husband has bandied my name about town,” she said. “I'm a woman of culture, with a background above reproach, and I deserve to be spoken of as a lady.” Especially by a lady masquerading as a barber, and shaving men, to boot. Jennifer wondered if a bathtub stood in the back room of the woman's establishment, offering the chance for a man to bathe away his dirt and perhaps luxuriate in a shave even as he soaked.

“I'm tryin' to think who mentioned you,” the clerk said,
rubbing his chin and looking afar, as if the answer might appear in front of him.

“I mentioned her name.” A deep voice at her right elbow took Jennifer by surprise and she turned to face an angry man, dark hair ruffled by a strong wind or perhaps long fingers. It was definitely a job completed by a chronic gesture of impatience, she decided as his right hand lifted to shove a lengthy wave from his forehead. A strong nose, high cheekbones and
darkly
impatient eyes met her sight, and she winced as she considered the man, hoping against hope that he didn't answer to the name of Lucas O'Reilly.

It was not to be.

“Hey there, Luc,” the desk clerk said. “It
was
you that mentioned the young lady, wasn't it?” He stuck out his hand and it was enveloped by a fist the size of a full-grown musk-melon, Jennifer noted. The two men shook hands and then eyed each other.

“Your young lady was just renting herself a room,” the clerk said. He turned to Jennifer then. “My name's Harley Fedderson, ma'am. Sorry I didn't introduce myself earlier.” Waving the room key by a short length of twine, he nodded toward the staircase. “I'll just carry your bag up now.”

“Like hell you will,” Lucas O'Reilly said. “She doesn't need a room here. She'll be living at my place, soon as I can get her over to the preacher's house. He said he'd be home today, and he's probably waiting for us now.”

Harley shrugged and Jennifer sniffed as if she'd caught the scent of something sour and unpleasant. She lifted her chin, aware that her reaction right now to the haughty giant in front of her might forever set a precedent. And then the man smiled. More than a congenial gesture of welcome, it was a twisting
of mobile lips that made her think of a cat about to pounce upon an unsuspecting prey.

“I may want to rethink this whole idea,” she said. “I reserve the right to change my mind about marrying you, sir.”

“I don't think so,” he murmured, his mouth curling into a smile more suited to a man faced with a luscious bit of pastry.

Jennifer felt a giant fist clutch at her stomach as she faced Lucas O'Reilly. “You have no rights over me,” she told him, even as she wondered at her own recklessness in challenging the man.

“Ah, but I have,” Lucas said, his eyes roving over her navy-blue traveling suit and seeming to find it wanting. “I have in my possession a letter stating that you would arrive in Thunder Canyon today, prepared to marry me and move into my home.”

She felt the buttons tugging across her bosom and recognized, not for the first time, that she should have allowed a bit more fabric in the bodice of the jacket. Sewing a wardrobe for this occasion had been a huge undertaking, one she'd shared with her lifelong friend, Sheila Burnham, and the suit she wore now had been the last item on the list of clothing she'd felt necessary for this trip.

Now she wondered why she'd ever thought traveling clear across the country to marry an unknown man seemed like a fine idea. She immediately squelched her regrets. She'd had no choice. Not really. Not with her brother-in-law hot on her trail, his grasping hands ready to snatch at her, his portly body set to crush her beneath himself.

Once Alma died, Kyle Carter had made it his business to plot a seduction of his dead wife's sister. And Jennifer had no intention of being involved with the unsavory man. Not only was he repulsive to look at, his breath was foul and he apparently had no concept of bathing on a regular basis.

Now the man beside her bent closer and she caught a whiff of peppermint as his warm breath touched her cheek. His hand gripped her elbow and she recognized the latent strength he held in check. Should she foolishly attempt to escape his grasp, he would no doubt exert whatever force was required to bend her to his will.

She would not give him the pleasure of watching her wince in pain, should those honed fingers tighten on her flesh.

“Ma'am?” Lucas said, pulling her a bit closer. “Shall we leave now?” He bent to pick up her valise and turned her toward the front door. Her feet tangled as she was thrown off balance and he caught her up against his side, the hand gripping her elbow snaking from there to settle around her middle, long fingers pressing into the curve of her waist.

“You won't be taking the room, I assume,” Harley said, as if he saw money taking flight along with his erstwhile guest.

“You got that right, Harley,” Lucas said. “She's got a nice feather tick waiting for her. A lot more comfort to offer than your skinny, miserable mattresses.”

Harley looked taken aback, but only shrugged again, as if he would not stand up to the man in front of him. And that seemed a wise choice, Jennifer thought. Lucas O'Reilly looked to be a formidable opponent. She might be wise to take note of that fact herself.

The threshold she had crossed only ten minutes earlier awaited, Lucas's hand holding the door open for her as he ushered her from the hotel. They stepped out onto the sidewalk where a multitude of watching men appeared to know Lucas, heads nodding as they muttered words of greeting to the tall, dark-haired dolt by her side. A man who had possessed her as easily as he might have claimed a stray puppy.

A short, sharp nod of his head was the only reply Lucas seemed willing to offer, but the men watching their progress seemed to expect no more, only stepping back to make way for the man and woman to walk past them toward a waiting farm wagon.

“You don't have a buggy?” Jennifer asked, eyeing the sturdy wooden vehicle in front of her. A rough, splintered board seemed to be where she would sit, its surface just about even with her forehead, and she could see no step upon which to lift herself to a level placing her within reach of the rough seat.

She needn't have worried, for within the space of two seconds, she was lifted by two strong hands and plopped unceremoniously upon the wooden board. Looking down at the road was a new experience when a narrow, hard board beneath her bottom was her only support. She was dizzy, gripping the edge of her seat, watching as Lucas stalked around to untie his horses from the hitching rail.

He cast her one long glance as he lifted himself onto the makeshift seat beside her, and then the reins were snapped over the broad backs of the matching pair of horses. They set off in tandem, their big feet kicking up dust as they headed toward the end of town she had not seen previously.

The view from the stagecoach had been none too inviting, and the other end of the small community offered no more than the part she had traveled earlier. A motley collection of storefronts met her gaze on either side of the road. Just where the buildings began, the street split in two, curving around a green area where children played on the patch of grass and watched wide-eyed as the farm wagon passed by. A town square, she suspected, but certainly not of the caliber of the one in the midst of New York City.

Ahead of her, a series of buildings that might have been private homes stood side by side. Fences fronted the houses and gardens were sprouting between the road and the front stoop of many of the dwellings. Why the owners had chosen to forego grass for rows of radishes and beans was a question she set aside for now. The fact remained that vegetables were obviously of more importance than grass and flowers.

Thunder Canyon was definitely not New York City.

A small, white structure sat at the end of the row of dwellings, a church from all appearances. Beside it was another house, probably the parsonage, she thought, and was proved right when Lucas pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the white picket fence. At least some soul within these walls had a smidgen of culture, for grass fought with weeds for supremacy in two rectangles of green separated by a gravel path.

Jennifer braced herself as Lucas approached, lifting his arms to her. “I can get down alone,” she muttered, fearful of his hands clutching at her middle once more.

“No doubt,” he said. “But you're not going to. Now lean toward me, ma'am.” Without giving her a choice, he gripped her waist, his fingers holding her fast as he lifted her from the seat. Caught off balance, she fell smack across his broad chest and felt her breasts flatten against him, then she slid the length of his body. He stood her on her feet, looking down at her with a new and different expression in those blue eyes.

She caught her breath, gazing around in desperation, as if there must be some haven she could claim, a bit of shelter from the storm invading her life. The presence of Lucas O'Reilly was one offering peril, she feared. Living with this arrogant man would be the epitome of disaster, for he would surely demand that she obey his rules, would certainly expect
her to occupy his home and then supply all of his needs, beginning with the cooking and cleaning of said household and continuing on to satisfying his masculine desires.

Hopefully he would be willing to wait for the accomplishment of
those
details until she was able to get herself in order and above all, to get used to having a big, hulking man in her life. Hulking? Perhaps not, she decided. Big, certainly. Threatening, definitely. But in a primitive, graceful manner, more suited to a wild animal who prowled in search of a mate.

BOOK: Big Sky Rancher
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