“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, that you were just as nervous as I was 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 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.