Of all the times to be late, this was the worst.
The instant Sam rushed out of the saloon, an acrid drift of soot and smoke wafting from the top of the street told him the train had already arrived. Damn. Being late was one more grievance to hold against his basically worthless attorney. If his attorney had kept a regular office instead of holding appointments at a table in the Gold Slipper, there might have been a clock that Sam could have kept an eye on. Of course, if he’d remembered to wear his pocket watch, he wouldn’t be in this pickle to start with. Some days turned sour the minute a man left his house. He’d had a lot of those days lately.
Dodging pedestrians and street traffic, giving up on the narrow boardwalks, he ran toward the depot. Plenty of time tomorrow to think about legal problems and attorney’s bills. Right now his most urgent problem came from the past.
And she was going to be furious that he hadn’t been waiting on the new platform when the train steamed into Willow Creek. Their reunion—he guessed he could call it that—definitely was not beginning on a positive note.
Sam’s steps slowed as he crossed Fifth Street and noticed only one person still on the platform. That answered his major question. He’d wondered if he would recognize her. Ten years changed people.
When he’d known Angelina Bertoli, she’d been as slender as a nail, and he could swear she’d been shorter. She had filled out considerably—and interestingly—but he would have recognized this older, more womanly version of the girl he remembered. In fact, and it annoyed him greatly, if he were meeting Angie today for the first time he would have been strongly attracted to her.
Striding forward, he noted details that awakened memory. The mass of reddish brown hair knotted on her neck beneath her hat. The wide sensual curve of her mouth. The smooth slope of her cheek. Her vitality. She had been so filled with curiosity and eagerness to experience the world. Now that vitality steamed and fizzed beneath the surface, giving an impression of movement although she stood still, clutching her handbag at her waist.
When she spotted him her gaze flared, then narrowed, and he remembered that her eyes were dark enough to seem almost black, but he’d forgotten how expressive those eyes could be. Once he had read tenderness in her gaze, and love. Had felt the wrench of watching tears form and spill. But until now, he hadn’t seen the dark beams of fury. Temper wasn’t a trait young women displayed to their suitors.
Her tone conveyed perhaps a 90 percent certainty that she recognized him, but the hint of doubt made him wonder what changes she noticed in him. He wore his hair long now, tied at the neck with a strip of leather. That probably surprised her. A life largely spent outside had weathered his features and etched lines that made him look older than twenty-eight. Maybe he’d filled out and grown taller, too. Hard to say. Possibly she’d expected him to wear a suit, as he had the last time they saw each other.
Actually, he’d considered wearing his suit, then decided on denims and a flannel shirt instead. Today’s meet- ing wasn’t about making a favorable impression. He could say his final good-byes in his everyday clothing.
Either he nodded to confirm or she decided on her own who he was. Later, when he reviewed the incident, he decided she wouldn’t have hit him unless she felt certain of his identity.
The embarrassing thing was that he didn’t see it coming. His attention was fixed on the bags, boxes, and trunks piled around her, and he was frowning, wondering why she needed such an excessive amount of luggage for an overnight stay.
Her fist caught him on the side of the head and knocked him backward. Astonishment widened his eyes as he worked his jaw and checked with his tongue to see if she’d knocked any teeth out.
He couldn’t believe it. She’d hit him in public, and she’d hit him hard. She’d struck with enough force to send him reeling and damned if it didn’t feel like one of his teeth might be loose.
Sliding a look toward Bennet Street, he swiftly scanned the traffic to see if anyone was watching. Gossip ran through mining towns faster than grass through a horse. By tomorrow everyone in Willow Creek would know that Sam Holland had offended a woman at the depot enough that she’d whacked him good.
“Years ago I promised if I ever saw you again, I’d give myself the satisfaction of breaking your jaw.” She waved a gloved hand in front of her waist as if it hurt. He hoped it did. “I regret more than I can express that your jaw doesn’t seem to be broken!”
“So that’s how it’s going to be,” he said softly, staring at her snapping eyes and the fire blazing in her cheeks.
“Well, what did you expect?”
Since she was leaning forward and speaking through her teeth, furious enough to take another swing at him, Sam decided the prudent thing was to step out of range. “We’ll have time to talk about the past,” he said tightly. “But this isn’t the place. Where are you staying? At the Continental or the Congress?”
“I didn’t make any arrangements.”
“Then we have a problem.” His day was sinking from bad to disastrous. “The Morgan versus Fitzgerald fight is tonight and there isn’t a vacant hotel room in town.” Worse, he could see that his plans to attend the “fight of the decade” were fading by the minute.
She made a face of disgust. “Naturally I expected you to make the necessary arrangements after you received my telegram.”
Her scathing tone implied that even a low character like him should have been gentlemanly enough to see to her accommodations.
The spring day had begun cool and comfortable, but now Sam felt the sun on his face and back, as hot as the anger rising in his throat. “The time for expectations passed a long time ago, Angie. Coming here was your idea, not mine. I didn’t ask you to come, not this time.” He felt a kernel of satisfaction in seeing her jerk upright and blink hard. “Your father should have made your arrangements.”
“My father died six weeks ago,” she said sharply, scowling as if her father’s death was his fault.
Learning that Bertoli had died provided an additional petty sense of satisfaction. He’d outlived the bastard. His instinct was to spit and say good riddance, but he managed to restrain the impulse. However, he didn’t offer the obligatory and in his case hypocritical “I’m sorry.” Instead, aware they couldn’t stand here on the platform much longer without attracting attention, if they hadn’t already, he turned his mind to the problem of where she could stay. Unfortunately, he could think of only one place.
“I guess you’ll have to stay at my house,” he said finally, his reluctance plain.
“If that’s too objectionable, you could abandon me right here! Certainly you’ve done it before.”
She thought that he had abandoned her? Biting down on his back teeth, he stared in disbelief. One thing was already clear. He had been dead wrong to assume she hadn’t changed much. The Angelina Bertoli he’d believed he had known had been a sweet, compliant girl, a dimpled, smiling angel. Once upon a foolish time, he had believed that a cross word could not pass those lush kissable lips. He would have laughed and waved aside any suggestion that she might grow up to be snappish, wasp- ish, or ill-tempered. At the same time he would have denied that he could ever feel this much bitterness toward a member of the fair sex. As recently as this morning, he’d assumed they would be cordially indifferent to each other.
Stepping away from her, he flagged down a passing wagon and offered the driver four bits to haul her luggage to his place. After a minute of haggling, he and Albie Morris settled on six bits. Neither the price nor Albie’s curiosity improved Sam’s mood.
Now the question became where to take her. They had to talk, but he didn’t want to do it at home. None of the saloons were fit for decent women. And with so many people in town for the fight, even respectable places would be crowded.
“Now what?” she asked, watching Albie haul her luggage to his wagon, one piece at a time. “Be careful with the trunks!”
“There’s a place on the way.” Molly Johnson had mentioned the opening of a new bakery and pastry shop. If he was lucky few people would be in a pastry shop mid- way between lunch and supper. Of course, if he were lucky this problem with Angie would have been solved years ago. If he were lucky, he’d be a rich man with no legal difficulties, no worries, and no Angie.
But so far he hadn’t been especially lucky. When they arrived at the pastry shop, without having spoken a single word during the downhill walk, he discovered Mrs. Finn owned the place, a detail Molly Johnson had neglected to mention. There was no question now. Tomorrow his name would flutter across a lot of tongues.
“Howdy,” he said, lifting his hat. Through the back windows he spotted some outside tables. Taking Angie’s arm, he started toward the French doors, but Mrs. Finn stepped in front of them.
“ ’lo, Mr. Holland. Haven’t seen you in an age.” A bright smile grazed past him and settled expectantly on Angie.
Hope evaporated that Angie could depart Willow Creek before anyone learned who she was. Sam had known the Finns too long to insult Sarah Finn by refusing an introduction.
Anger burned in his chest. Whatever Angie had to say—and he hoped he knew what that was—could have been said in a letter. She didn’t have to come to Willow Creek, didn’t have to dredge up old pain and resentments, didn’t have to place him in an awkward position in front of people he knew.
Grudging every word, he introduced Sarah to Angie, then clenched his teeth and hesitated before he said, “And this is Mrs. Holland, my wife.”
Mrs. Finn’s look of astonishment told Angie that no one in Willow Creek knew Sam was married. The information spoke volumes. Everyone in her life knew she was a wife without a spouse, but Sam had avoided that particular humiliation. She gripped her handbag so tightly that her knuckles whitened inside her gloves.
“My, my,” Mrs. Finn breathed. Her startled expression turned to fascination as she studied Angie. “We have a wedding to celebrate.”
“I’m afraid not. Our tenth anniversary was yesterday.” If her reply embarrassed Sam, all the better.
Mrs. Finn’s mouth dropped and her eyes widened to the size of saucers. Very satisfying. Angie hoped that Mrs. Finn was a gossip and that Sam’s deceit would be widely broadcast.
“Bring Mrs. Holland a cup of coffee and one of those flaky things,” Sam said gruffly, waving a hand toward the pastry counter. “We’ll be outside.”
His hand on her arm was none too gentle when he jerked her toward the doors. So he was angry. Good. So was she, angrier than she had imagined she would be.
In fact, shortly before her father died, she had told Peter De Groot that she never thought about Sam anymore, that she forgot about him for years at a time. And it was true. She only recalled Sam when he wrote her father a rare letter notifying them that he had changed his address.
Until she stepped on the train departing Chicago for Denver, she had genuinely believed that her anger and pain had drowned in tears many years ago. But fresh resentment had grown with every click of the iron wheels, culminating in that appalling moment when she had drawn back her fist and hit him. That she had done such a thing scalded her cheeks with embarrassed heat.
She would have sworn on the family Bible that she had set aside that old promise long ago, that she would never humiliate herself by committing such an unthinkable act. She couldn’t believe that she had actually struck him. In public. Or that she had enjoyed it so much and wished she could hit him again. Thank heaven her mother wasn’t alive to hear about this.
“Was it necessary to tell Mrs. Finn our business?”
Oh yes. She wished she could hit him again. “Is our anniversary supposed to be a secret?”
Sam rocked back on the legs of his chair, staring out at the town, which sprawled steeply downhill in a ramshackle collection of small houses, shacks, and tents. Few trees shielded the buildings from the sun; most of the aspen and spruce had been cut to build houses and shore up mine shafts. The lack of trees and any attempt at prettification gave the place a raw new look of uncertainty as if permanency was by no means guaranteed. The surrounding mountain peaks also impressed Angie as daunting. She wasn’t accustomed to seeing patches of snow in April. Dropping her gaze, she inspected Sam’s stony profile.
Since he balanced his hat on his knees, she had a good look at his long dark hair. Men didn’t wear long hair in Chicago, and she wasn’t sure what to make of it. The single long curl at his neck made him look roguish and foreign. Adding to her feeling of meeting a stranger was the age in his eyes and lining his tanned face. He’d remained frozen in her mind at eighteen. Back then, he’d worn a mustache that she had thought very handsome. Now he was clean shaven and she could see the definition of his lips.
Oddly, she found this tanned, exotic-looking stranger secretly appealing. That thought was too disturbing to allow. She did not want to think about the shape of his mouth, or the width of his shoulders, or the chiseled angles of his profile, or the rich timbre of his voice, or anything else that might be remotely admirable or attractive.
Lowering her head, she pushed a finger at the croissant Mrs. Finn had placed before her. “I want a divorce, Sam.”
He nodded, holding his gaze on the valley. “I figured. I’ve been expecting this for years.” Not looking at her, he reached for his coffee cup. “You’ll hear no argument from me. Go ahead and get one.”
Blast his hide, he wasn’t going to make this easy. She pressed her lips together and fought to control an outburst of temper and old grievances.
“I would have begun proceedings and then notified you by post, except I need your help. Actually, I need you to pay for everything.” This was not the moment to let pride block her path. Still, begging assistance was so hard that she couldn’t speak above a whisper. “I can’t afford to hire an attorney, nor can I support myself while I’m awaiting the final resolution.” Back in Chicago her father was rolling in his grave because she’d admitted her near destitution and made a plea for Sam’s assistance.
When Sam finally looked at her, his eyes were hard. That’s what she had remembered most, how blue his eyes were. Dark shining blue like the waters of Lake Michigan. Like twilight when the sky began to shade toward indigo. Or like blue ice, a comparison she’d never before had cause to notice.
When his silence began to unnerve her, she completed an explanation she had naively hoped not to make. She had foolishly expected Sam to step in and agree to do the right thing. She should have known better.
“My mother died a year ago, following a long and expensive illness. I didn’t know how expensive until a few weeks ago.” Letting a pause develop, she rolled a flake of croissant into a little ball, then carefully balanced the ball on the rim of her plate before she rolled another. “After Papa died, I discovered a basket of unpaid bills. Even our home was mortgaged.”
First Papa had sold the gig and horses, then the silver began to disappear. But she hadn’t suspected finances were a difficulty until Mrs. Dom stopped coming to clean. Once she had attempted to discuss the inconvenient changes, but Papa’s pride erupted in shouts. She hadn’t raised the subject again. Then Papa died and she experienced the shock of discovering herself nearly penniless.
“Do I understand this correctly? You want me to pay for the divorce and support you for—what?—a year until the divorce is final?”
“That doesn’t strike me as unreasonable.” Anger, swift and hot, scorched the back of her throat. Her head snapped up. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to remind you that you haven’t contributed one single penny toward my support during the ten years that we’ve been married!”
His mouth thinned into a line as hard as his eyes. “Maybe you need a reminder that your father made it abundantly clear that he would care for you as he always had. He didn’t want money from me. The only thing he wanted was for me to disappear. Or did he say that after you walked out on me?”
“Wait a minute.” Stiffening, she stared hard, feeling her pulse pound in her ears. “You can’t possibly be suggesting that I abandoned you?” It was unbelievable.
“You’re saying that you didn’t? We agreed we would tell your parents we’d gotten married, then we would go to the Grand Hotel. It was you who told me that your parents would be upset. I figured you would at least stand by me since you knew what to expect. Like a fool, I assumed we’d confront your father together, then leave. It never occurred to me that you’d run out of the room and vanish right in the middle of the worst of it.”
“That isn’t fair! I left the parlor because my father ordered me to my room!”
“For God’s sake, Angie. You were a married woman with your husband standing next to you.”
“I was sixteen and accustomed to obeying my father! You knew that. Why didn’t you take my hand and support me? Why didn’t you help me stand up to him? But you didn’t ask me to stay. You let me go!”
“I would have welcomed some support myself. Your father accused me of seducing you, of destroying your innocence. He told me I wasn’t good enough for his daughter and I would never amount to anything . . . and where were you through all that? Maybe he would have believed that I hadn’t seduced you if you’d been the one to deny it.”
“All you had to say was Don’t go! That’s all it would have taken!”
“How was I supposed to know that? You burst into tears and ran out of the room.” He shrugged. “I expected you to come back. Why wouldn’t I? We were married. We’d agreed to leave together and begin our lives. Instead, you disappeared and your father ordered me out of his house.” He leaned forward. “I waited outside for three hours. I thought for sure you would come.”
“I wanted you to rescue me before you left the house. You should have,” she said, her voice tight.
“Push past your father in his own house and invade his daughter’s bedroom? That sounds reasonable to you?” Making a sound deep in his throat, Sam shook his head and dropped backward in his chair.
They sat in steely silence, too angry to talk. What surprised Angie was how immediate the emotions felt. As if he’d abandoned her yesterday, not ten years ago. The shock and hurt and devastation were right here, right now, aching behind her chest. She’d been crazy to believe she could be indifferent to him. Being with him again triggered all the bitterness and pain that she had felt on that terrible night when she realized he had left without her.
Striving for calm, she willed her hands to stop shaking, irritated that she was only partially successful.
“There’s no point discussing that night.” All this time she had assumed that of course he knew the outcome was his fault. Not once had it occurred to her that he might blame her. She had a few hundred things to say about that, now that she knew, but good sense warned nothing would come of it. She hadn’t traveled all this distance to trade accusations. “I came to Willow Creek because I had just enough money to get here, meaning I had no choice. But it’s time. We made a mistake by not divorcing years ago. We need to correct that mistake.”
She waited for him to assure her that he would support her financially during the divorce waiting period. But he met her gaze and asked, “Why didn’t you file years ago? I’ve been curious about that.” When she didn’t answer, he frowned and said, “Angie?”
“I heard you.” Well, what difference did the reason make? “I thought my father would let me go west with you if he thought that we . . .” She hesitated, annoyed by how hard the words came. She wasn’t a foolishly modest girl anymore. “I thought he’d accept the marriage if he believed I might be with child.” In other words, without knowing what she’d done, she had let her father believe that Sam had indeed seduced her.
Nodding silently, Sam turned his gaze back to the valley.
“After a few months passed and it became obvious that I wasn’t pregnant, my father wanted the marriage annulled. But by then people knew I was married.” She might as well have worn a noose all these years instead of a simple gold ring. That’s how the ring felt, like a rope around her neck instead of a band around her finger. “My mother was horrified by the idea of a divorce and the scandal that would result. It was easier to explain your absence by saying that I was waiting for you to send for me. Eventually people stopped asking about my husband.” She placed another ball of rolled croissant on the rim of her plate. “Why didn’t you file for divorce? Every time an envelope arrived with your name on it, I prayed it would contain divorce papers.”
“A gentleman never files to dissolve a marriage. No matter what the circumstances, he allows his wife to request the divorce.” Sam pushed a hand through his hair. “That’s why I kept sending your father my address over the years. So he’d know where to mail the papers if I had to sign anything.”
Once Angie had lived in fear that he would humiliate her by being the one to instigate a divorce. But as she began to understand that her life would be one of loneliness and boredom, of watching other people enjoy their lives while the years passed her by, humiliation and scandal had seemed a small price to pay for freedom and another chance at living.
“Well,” she said finally. “So here we are, ten wasted years later.” When he didn’t say anything, she dropped the ball of croissant she was rolling between her fingers and wiped her hands on a napkin. “I imagine you’re as eager as I am to get on with your life.”
Sam looked toward the French doors. “This place would fare better if Mrs. Finn sold spirits.” He cleared his throat. “All right. Just so we’re clear, I want this divorce as badly as you do. In fact, I’m angry that you didn’t file years ago.” Finally he met her eyes. “We’ll get a divorce, Angie, but it may take a while. I wish to hell I could prove your father wrong by telling you that I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. But that’s not the case.”
Sunlight struck him full in the face, etching golden lines on his forehead and at the corner of his eyes. It startled Angie to realize that for a fleeting second, she was as attracted to him as she had been ten years ago. The boy she had fallen in love with had been replaced by a man she didn’t know, but this handsome stranger was hard enough, slightly dangerous enough, that something in her responded to his direct gaze.
Exasperated, she pulled her attention back to his voice and realized he was saying that he couldn’t afford to support her and pay for a divorce. Turning her head, she gazed at the mountainsides and evidence of working mines.
“In ten years of trying, you haven’t found any gold?”
“I wasn’t looking. I’ve only been in Willow Creek for two years. Before that I prospected for silver, with only minimal success. And in between times I worked construction in Colorado Springs.”
Try as she might, Angie couldn’t help thinking that in the end, her father had been correct. Sam hadn’t amounted to much.
His face colored slightly as if he’d guessed her thoughts. “I’ll hit the jackpot and someday soon. I feel it in my bones. Meanwhile, I manage to put food on the table and a roof over my head.”
“You don’t need to sound so defensive. I didn’t say anything.” But she wanted to, because she wanted to hurt him as he had hurt her. Which was stupid after all this time. She drew a deep breath. “So when do you think you can afford a divorce?”
“I don’t know. Even if I hit the jackpot tomorrow, there’s another obligation that has to come first. Getting a divorce is not my first priority. In fact, you could say it’s far down the list. I have other responsibilities, Angie. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”
Every small speech seemed to be followed by a lengthy silence. During this one, Angie thought about all the years of waiting for her life to begin. She’d been unrealistic to hope the waiting would end when she saw him again, to hope he’d readily agree and she could leave here tomorrow with enough money to start over.
Covering her eyes so he wouldn’t see the tears of frustration and disappointment, she asked, “What am I supposed to do while I wait for you to find gold?” Gold that he’d already failed to find in two years of searching. “Where will I live? Where can I go?”
After another silence, he swore softly. And he avoided most of her questions. “I can’t afford to set you up in a separate residence.” Before she could protest or express the alarm she felt, he raised a hand. “Believe me, I wish I could. But I’m saving every cent I can. So—and I hate this as much as you’re going to—I guess you’ll have to live with me until I can afford to correct our mistake.”
“That’s appalling. Completely unacceptable.”
“If you have a better solution, just say so.”
She didn’t. Neither of them had any money, and money was what they needed. The result was that she would have to delay beginning her new life. Battling tears, she struck the table with her fist, knocking the little balls of croissant off the rim of her plate. Angrily, she brushed them away from her lap.
“Do you know what it’s like to be married but not a wife? To sit by and watch friends marry and have children and be happy?” Her eyes burned and her voice trembled. “Other women ran households and raised children while I sat in the parlor and embroidered endless numbers of pillowcases and napkins. I used to linger by the front window in late afternoon and watch the carriages drive past, carrying ladies home to their families and husbands home to dinner. I envied them so much it hurt. And it hurt to end an evening out by watching husbands and wives go home together while I left with my parents. I’ve waited so long, Sam. How much longer do I have to wait for a life worth living?”
“I can’t answer that,” he said, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead. “I’m sorry how things worked out. If I could change everything I would.”
Not for the first time, Angie wanted to twist the gold ring off her finger and fling it as far from her as possible. Her wedding ring had brought her one hour of happiness and ten years of misery.
“There’s no other solution? None at all?” Despair trembled in her voice. “We have to live together for some unknown length of time, and there’s no alternative whatsoever?”
Standing abruptly, he tossed some coins on the table. “I’ll stay out of your way as much as possible. And don’t worry. Your honor is safe with me.”
That concern hadn’t entered her mind. Now that he’d raised the subject, a rush of pink colored her cheeks. She didn’t know whether to thank him for reassuring her or take offense that he thought it necessary to state something she trusted was a given.
He looked down at her while settling his hat. “I’m no happier about this than you are. I’d hoped you would arrive, announce you were seeking a divorce, then leave before anyone in town knew who you were. Instead I now have another mouth to feed, another person to support. I know that doesn’t sound gentlemanly. I know you think I owe you, and maybe you’re right. But your timing is off by several years and I can’t help resenting that. It’s also hard not to resent that I wasn’t good enough ten years ago, but now when you need someone to feed and support you, you show up here expecting me to do it. Suddenly I’m good enough.”
“I never said you weren’t good enough! That was my father.”
“But you believed him, or you would have come west with me.”
There was no easy answer to his accusation, so she didn’t attempt to offer one. She had plenty to cope with merely handling today’s problems. Yesterday’s unanswered questions would have to wait. She suspected the questions would come up again and again.
Not giving him a chance to hold her chair, she rose quickly and walked to the door, leaving him to follow. Mrs. Finn watched them curiously as they passed the pastry counter. Mrs. Finn couldn’t have overheard anything they said, but she had lingered by the windows, observing angry expressions and gestures.
“Which way?” Angie asked, pausing in the street.
All the streets ran downhill from the depot, she had already noticed that. And she had noticed this was Carr Street, one block off Bennet, which appeared to be the main thoroughfare. None of the streets were paved. There were no lamps at the corners of the side streets. And if Willow Creek had a street crew, they should be reprimanded. Flies buzzed around mounds of horse droppings that appeared to have accumulated over a long period. Someone nearby was burning trash, and the pungent fruity odor pinched Angie’s nostrils.
Suddenly she missed Chicago with an intensity that was sharp and visceral. The small wooden houses on either side of Carr were shacks compared to the neat brick homes on the street where she’d grown to womanhood. Weeds and wildflowers ran rampant in yards, where she was accustomed to seeing neatly trimmed grass and beds of cultivated flowers. In Chicago men didn’t wear long hair that made them resemble pirates from a bygone era. Bakery shops carried a larger selection than only croissants and frosted buns. Chicago was civilized and it was home. Tears of homesickness glistened in her eyes, and she decided she hated it here.
“This is it,” Sam announced in a flat voice.
They halted before a one-story structure smaller than the carriage house behind her home in Chicago. The only thing in the house’s favor was that it looked sturdy and didn’t appear quite as thrown together as the houses on either side. But the size dismayed her. They would be bumping into each other every time they turned around.
Slowly, she walked around the pile of luggage Albie Morris had dumped in the dirt yard and stood silently while Sam opened the door.
Outside, the planks ran vertically from ground to roof. Inside, the planks were placed horizontally. A pitched ceiling had been finished with canvas for weatherproofing.
A glance identified two bedrooms—thank heaven—opening off one main room that served as kitchen, dining room, and parlor. Leaving Sam to bring her things inside, Angie stood in the center of the room and looked around.
Flowered curtains at the window over the sink surprised her. As did a cloth on the table and the vase of dandelions. And the braided rug. These efforts to soften the bleak lines of stark necessity were unexpected, particularly in the residence of a bachelor as ruggedly male as Sam. Dust she would have expected; the tidiness she had not.
After fetching the last of her trunks, Sam walked past her to the sink. “This place isn’t a tenth of what you’re used to, but there’s inside water.” He indicated the pump handle at the sink. “And the walls are tight. There isn’t a square foot that isn’t insulated with newspaper this thick.” He indicated half an inch. “The stove burns evenly, and there’s a root cellar out back.”
His expression indicated that he expected her to say something. But what? What could she say about a three-room house that had little more to offer than shelter from the elements? Where did one bathe? Where did one sit in the evenings? How did the occupants get away from each other to enjoy a little privacy? She doubted he wanted to hear that if she had to live in this tiny primitive place very long, she’d go crazy.
The back door slammed open and two small girls spun into the room like miniature whirlwinds, their soiled and shapeless dresses flying around dirty, sagging stockings. They flung themselves at Sam.
“You’re home early!”
“A man left a pile of baggage outside but Mrs. Molly said we couldn’t touch anything.”
“Girls?” Sam smiled at them, made an awkward attempt to smooth down their flyaway tangled hair. “Girls! We have a guest.”
Now they spotted Angie and instantly went silent and shy, standing on either side of Sam, leaning against his legs. They inspected her with twin sets of gray eyes that had turned curious and wary.
“This is Angie. She’ll be staying with us for a while.” He lifted his head and met Angie’s wide eyes. “These are my daughters.”From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Bride of Willow Creek by Maggie Osborne. Copyright © 2001 by Maggie Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.