Here's the rest of chapter one:
Laura looked at the image reflected in the mirror of her hotel room. Dusty streaks covered her face and several tendrils of hair hung loose from her bun.
She shook her head at her appearance. What a fine way to look when meeting her future husband. Dipping the cloth into water, she studied her reflection, reliving the scene of her arrival.
What must he think of me? The minute after we met, I scurried off into the hotel, leaving him alone on the porch. I declare, I didn’t realize how nervous I’d be. Coming to Salvation to meet a man I promised to marry, sight unseen, seems ludicrous now. People don’t marry that way. But she’d had no where else to go, not even her native Virginia. All her family was dead and after what Ebner Moody had done, she couldn’t stay in Colerain.
Uncle John suggested she look at the Matrimonial Gazette and find a man of interest. It was her uncle’s dearest wish to see her married before he left for his reward.
At the same time, she’d been seized by panic at the thought of him dying. She’d been alone once in the world and she never wished to be so again. Though she had money enough to go anywhere she wanted, the thought of not belonging to someone filled her with terror; no matter she was a grown woman. Visions of those years in the Lexington Home for Orphaned Children during The War Between the States had scampered across her memory.
Knowing she wanted a husband for more reasons than just to please her uncle, she’d flipped through the catalog. Texan David Slade, sheriff, rancher and widower with one child was a man of great interest. Not only would she have a ready-made family, she’d have a lawman to help her should she be in need of it. Besides, it would be good, she’d thought, to return to the South.
She fisted her hand around the wet cloth. Though she didn’t want to keep secrets from her future husband, he was a stranger. She needed to be sure he was trustworthy before she told him how much her inheritance was worth. The five thousand dollars she’d owned up to was a pittance of the true amount. She’d tell the sheriff the truth before they married in a few months—after she was sure he wouldn’t waste it away as Ebner would have, if he’d succeeded in forcing her into a marriage.
And she’d tell Sheriff Slade her other secret as well. Mercy. Weariness swept over her and she gripped the edge of the water stand. Men didn’t like surprises. How would the sheriff react when he learned she was a trained doctor, and not just a midwife?
A tentative knock on the door broke into her thoughts. Sheriff Slade stood in the hall, his hat in his hands. He was a very fine specimen of a man. He’d not been able to send her a picture of himself, but he’d written he was an average man with average looks. What an understatement. With brown hair and pensive blue eyes, he took her breath away. He stood six feet tall and his broad shoulders and chest stretched the seams of his shirt and vest. Mountain of a man. The phrase popped into her head as she looked at him. Would he be just as immovable?
“Miss Ashton, I’m sorry I had to leave before the stage left, but I was called away on business.”
Frankly, she’d been relieved not to see the sheriff standing on the porch when she escorted Mrs. McGuire back to the stage. It meant she’d have a while yet before she had to face him.
“I’m sorry, too, sir, for leaving you so abruptly after we met. I don’t know where my manners went.”
He smiled then, for the first time, and his eyes crinkled. “I image, ma’am, you were just as nervous as me about meeting.”
She smiled back. “True. One has to wonder about the wisdom of agreeing to marry a stranger.”
His smile faded and lead dropped into her stomach.
He turned his hat in his hand and stared at his feet. “Ma’am, I’d hoped it wouldn’t have to be like this, but there’s something we need to discuss.”
Laura’s breath caught in her lungs. He didn’t like her. He was going to send her away. She’d be alone in the world.
“I…can I not change your mind, sir?” she whispered.
“I’m afraid not, ma’am. If I had an alternative, I’d suggest it, but the fact of the matter is the preacher changed his circuit route on us. I expected him to come in two months, giving us time to get to know each other. But he came early and he’s leaving tomorrow.” His hat made another complete turn in his hands. Blue eyes rose to meet hers. “The fact is, Miss Ashton, we have to get married tonight, before he leaves town.”
Her knees buckled. Strong arms gripped her and held her upright.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you and honest, ma’am, I wouldn’t force you into a marriage if it weren’t necessary. I don’t know when the preacher will be back and I learned last week that the Jacobs, they’re the people who have been taking care of Ginny and the ranch for me, are moving to Wyoming in a few days. That means I need to move out onto the Lazy S. I’ll need you there, too, so you can look after Ginny.”
His hands were strong, comforting. She wanted to lean into his solid form, forget the horror she’d barely escaped.
“It wouldn’t be proper for you to live there without benefit of marriage,” he said.
She licked her lips. Thoughts whirled through her mind. There was much she needed to tell him. She fisted her hands on his shirtsleeves. “I need—”
“Ma’am, I know you must be worried about the marriage bed, but I won’t take advantage of you in that way.” His fingers gripped her. “I need you only to care for my house and my daughter. I’ll expect nothing more of you.”
Intimacy between a man and his wife had been the furthest thing from her mind, but he must have taken her hesitation for fear.
She met his gaze and wondered at what he saw. She knew she looked a mess, with her hair sticking out of its bun and dirt still streaked across her face. Was it any wonder he had no desire to bed her?
She should tell him everything, but if he refused to marry her, what would she do? If the preacher wasn’t coming back to town for months she’d be alone. No friends, no family. No one. She swallowed to wet her throat. “I’d be honored to marry you this evening.”
His fingers dug into her arms. Had he expected she’d refuse his offer? She forced down a hysterical laugh. She was frantic to stay in Salvation, to have a family, to not be alone in the world.
He nodded and dropped his hands. “Fine. I’ll make the arrangements. We can be wed in the hotel parlor. Will seven o’clock be good for you?”
That would be just enough time to bathe and ready her dress.