Thomas Greenwood arrives in town to fetch his newly arrived mail-order bride.

Thomas hesitated. It wasn’t proper for him to barge up into her room, but soon the right to see her even in the most private of circumstances would be his. What difference did a few hours make? Surely, Miss Jackson would not be offended if, in his eagerness to meet her, he brushed aside formal manners?

He set off up the stairs, the heels of his boots ringing with an urgency that matched the pounding of his heart. Room Four was at the end of the dimly lit corridor. He knocked on the door and snatched his hat down from his head, cursing the haste that had made him forget to stop in front of the mirror to tidy up his appearance.

He raised one hand to smooth down his unruly hair, as straight as straw and in the same golden color. Dust from the desert trail itched on his skin but he hoped the suntan from long days out in the fields would cover up any dirt on his face.

The key rattled in the lock. The door before him sprung open.

Thomas could only stare. Disbelief knocked the air out of his lungs.

In front of him stood a small woman, clad in a pale gray blouse and a frothing white skirt that looked more like a petticoat. Glossy black curls streamed down past her shoulders. Red lips, like strawberries ready for the picking, made a vivid contrast against the paleness of her skin.

“Miss Jackson?” he ventured.

“Yes?” She took a step away from him and measured him with a pair of wary hazel eyes.

Thomas felt his arm twitch as he fought the impulse to reach out and touch her, the way one might touch the petals on a bloom, or the carving of an angel in a church, or some other thing of beauty.

She was the loveliest woman he’d ever seen. And she would be his wife. She would share his bed. At that last thought, an altogether more earthly sensation surged through the lower parts of him, as forceful as a kick from a stubborn mule.

But will she cook for you, clean for you, nurse you in sickness, tend to the chickens, help with the farm work? whispered a voice at the back of his mind, but Thomas refused to pay any attention to it.

“Have you been sent by Mr. Thomas Greenwood?” the woman asked as he simply stood there, observing her in stunned silence.

“I am Greenwood.”

Miss Jackson appeared to hesitate. Her gaze flickered down to her clothing, then back up to him. She whirled on her dainty feet and darted back into the room, where she tugged at the rumpled bedspread, as if to remove it from the bed. Then she gave up the effort, let out a small huff of frustration and hurried back to him.

“You may come inside, Mr. Greenwood. We shall conduct our meeting here. I shall leave the door open.” She stepped aside and waved him through. Crouching in a graceful motion, she picked up a wooden wedge provided for the purpose on the floor and jammed it beneath the door.

Thomas nodded his approval at the precaution to protect her reputation. It had been the right idea to send for a woman from the East, instead of seeking a saloon girl who might wish to turn her life around. He wanted an educated companion. Poetry instead of ditties. Shakespeare instead of rowdy tales.

“Perhaps you could tell me a little more about the employment,” Miss Jackson said. She was clasping her hands together in front of her. Thomas got the impression she did it to stop them from shaking. He hunched his shoulders, trying to appear smaller, in case it was his size that intimidated her.

“Employment. Is that how you think of it?” He pondered the idea. “I guess it’s not far wrong. You’ll certainly be busy with the chores. Cooking and cleaning and such. It’s not a big place. There are no hired hands, so it will be just the two of us, until the little one comes along.”

Thomas lowered his gaze to the frills on her white cotton skirt and frowned, puzzled by the slenderness of her waist. He let his attention drift back up to her face and saw her eyes snap wide. Her pale skin had turned chalky white.

“A wife,” she breathed. “You are expecting me to be your wife.”

A nagging doubt, like the persistent buzzing of a bee, broke out in Thomas's head, but his overflowing emotions and his aroused body brushed aside all questions. In his pocket, the letter from the agency spoke of a plain woman, sturdy, well suited to life on an isolated farm. In front of him, a delicate beauty stared up at his face, confusion battling with terror in her huge hazel eyes.

Thomas nodded. “Wife. That’s what you’ve contracted for.”

“I…” She made a flicker of impatience with her hand, a totally feminine gesture that held Thomas enthralled. “I believe there has been a misunderstanding,” she informed him, her chin rising in a haughty angle. “Perhaps you might explain how I can extricate myself from this contract.”

Six lonely years of scrimping and saving to send for a woman of his own, six lonely years of building up the homestead, hacking out a living from soil never tilled before, working until his fingers bled and his muscles cramped with fatigue, crashed over Thomas like a spring flood.

He’d paid for a wife, and he’d have one. This particular one.

“I’ve paid two hundred dollars to bring you here,” he said in a voice that was low and tight. “If you wish to break the contract and marry someone else, I’ll have my money back.”

His hands clenched into fists. Thomas hid them behind his hat, but he knew his anger showed, on his face and in his rigid posture. From the woman’s terrified expression and from the strangled gasp that left her throat he understood how much his tightly controlled outburst must have frightened her.

“I’ll wait downstairs,” he said, trying to appear calm. “You have one hour to think it over. Either you’ll find a way to pay back the cost of your journey, or you’ll marry me, just as you’ve contracted.” Thomas turned to go but paused to glance back at her over his shoulder. “Wear something else for the wedding,” he told her. “That skirt looks like a petticoat.”

He shoved his hat on top of his head and strode off.


Charlotte stared at the empty doorway and listened to the clatter of footsteps as her visitor stomped away in anger. “It is a petticoat,” she whispered to herself.

In her anxiety she’d forgotten to pay attention to her clothing, and her state of undress had only dawned on her when she felt Mr. Greenwood’s intense gaze on her.

She’d considered covering up with the bedspread, but it occurred to her that an unmade bed might appear even worse. And the towel hanging from the bedpost had been too small to be of any use. So she had chosen to brazen it out. A lady did not draw attention to her faux pas.

Charlotte cast aside the lingering embarrassment over parading in front of the man in her undergarments and gave in to the panicked thoughts that crashed around in her head.

Miss Jackson was a mail-order bride.

She was a mail-order bride.

The image of Thomas Greenwood formed before her eyes. He was a giant of a man, taller even than Papa, and broad in the shoulder. The wide cheekbones gave him something of an Indian look, but he had fair hair and pale eyes. And in those pale eyes lurked the steely edge of an implacable will. Not even a storm would make him yield, Charlotte suspected. Against him she had the power of a gnat.

She would have to marry him, unless she found a way to come up with two hundred dollars. Which she couldn’t, of course. She hardly had any money at all, and Thomas Greenwood knew it. Wear something else for the wedding. She huffed as she recalled the male arrogance in his tone as he issued the command.

What could she do? Should she make a confession? Explain her plight and ask for his help? No. Charlotte discarded the idea at once. The man wouldn’t believe her. He would think it a lie, an attempt to break the contract without reimbursing him the money he’d spent on her passage.

She pinched her eyes shut. The fear she’d hoped to have left behind tightened like a snare around her once more. She could feel Cousin Gareth’s greedy hands groping at her breasts, could feel his whiskey-soaked breath on her lips.

Once I bed you, youll have to marry me, and your money will be mine.

It had been drunken talk, but for once in his life Gareth had told the truth.

She had no money, no means to support herself, and she couldn’t risk being found. Her thoughts returned to the fair-haired giant waiting downstairs. Despite his formidable physique and blatant masculinity, there was something gentle about him, something kind and patient.

She imagined being married to him, facing him across the breakfast table in the mornings, sleeping curled up in bed against him at night. The idea filled her with a sense of relief, as if she had sailed into a safe harbor. It might work…it might be just the solution…if she managed to keep it a marriage in name only…

Charlotte squared her shoulders, as if to balance the heavy weight of responsibility that rested over them. She had no choice. She needed to protect her inheritance, both for her own sake, and for that of her sisters.

She would have to marry Thomas Greenwood and find a way to keep him from claiming his husbandly rights for a year. Then, once she turned twenty-five and gained access to her inheritance, she could get the marriage declared invalid and return home to Merlin’s Leap.


Charlotte clomped down the stairs, kicking up a racket with the heels of her leather half boots. Thomas Greenwood might be in a position to order her about, but if she wanted to retain some control of the situation, she would have to make it clear right from the start that obedience wouldn’t be part of her wedding vows.

She found him sitting at the table nearest to the exit, sipping coffee from a china cup that looked like a doll’s service in his hand. It occurred to her that he had positioned himself where he would have the best chance of intercepting her, should she attempt to make a run for it.

“I am ready for the wedding,” Charlotte informed him. She tried to make her comment tart but the tremor in her voice emphasized her failure.

The man took in her clothing, nodded with approval at the green skirt she had put on. As a concession to the heat, she’d left off the matching jacket, and only wore the pale gray blouse he’d already seen upstairs.

As she felt his gaze on her, her breath stalled. He was a handsome man, around thirty, and Charlotte had little experience in being the subject of a bold masculine inspection. It made her tingle in an odd way, in intimate places, stirring up a new kind of unease that had nothing to do with fear.

“Have you packed?” her bridegroom asked.

“No. I thought we’d be staying here for the night.”

The night. Their wedding night. The idea made a blush flare up on her skin, adding to the heat of the room. She fixed her attention on the toes of her half boots, refusing to look up, but she could hear the scrape of the chair against the floorboards as Thomas Greenwood hoisted his muscular frame out of the seat.

“We’ll leave immediately after the ceremony,” he told her. “I’ll settle the account while you pack.”

Charlotte sneaked a peek at him as he strode over to the counter and reached into a pocket on his black suit. The care with which Thomas Greenwood counted out the coins into the open palm of the innkeeper suggested that his financial situation was scarcely better than her own.

A somersault of guilt pitched in her stomach. He must have spent all his savings on a wife. Instead of the sturdy helpmate of his dreams, fate had saddled him with a woman who knew nothing about farming. Her domestic skills didn’t extend beyond embroidering undergarments or composing weekly menus with the cook.

And she wouldn’t even be able to make up for those shortcomings by showing willingness in the marital bed, Charlotte thought with dismay, another fiery blush flaring up to her cheeks. All in all, Mr. Greenwood might end up feeling that from his point of view the marriage was a very bad bargain indeed.

He turned around. “Go on now,” he said. “Get your things.”

There was kindness in his tone, kindness and patience. It might be possible for her to navigate the storms that lay ahead, Charlotte told herself as she took the stairs back up to her room. A sense of honor stirred in her. Thomas Greenwood was providing her with a sanctuary at a time of distress. During the year she remained in his custody, she would have to treat him with the respect and courtesy he deserved.

The decision eased her tension and she flitted about the room, gathering up her meager possessions. Two sets of cotton drawers and shifts hung on the back of a chair, where she had spread them out to dry after washing them last night. She folded the flimsy garments, smoothing her hands over the wrinkled fabric.

As she bent to retrieve her leather traveling bag from the floor, her eyes fell on a shadow in the open doorway. Thomas Greenwood stood watching her, arms crossed over his chest, one shoulder propped against the door frame. A dark flush tinged his suntanned cheeks.

Charlotte swallowed the lump of nerves that clogged her throat at the possessive glint in his eyes. She jerked her attention back to the task of packing her belongings. A fiery blush surged all the way from her neck to the roots of her hair at the realization that he had witnessed her handling her intimate clothing. More than likely, he’d imagined her dressed in nothing else.

Her mind scattered. She tossed the bundle of undergarments into her bag, cramming them on top of the things already there—a book, a box of personal treasures, a nightgown, a pair of kid slippers and a white blouse. She added the silver-backed mirror and hairbrush from the top of the dresser and snapped the jaws of the bag shut.

“I’m ready,” she said, even though his heated gaze rooted her to the floor.

He cleared his throat and edged inside the room. “Is this all you have?”

“Yes.” Charlotte took a deep breath to ease her constricted lungs. “I only brought what I could carry, to make traveling on the train easier.”

“Did you send the rest as freight?”

“This is all I have.” She didn’t elaborate, merely grabbed the bag by the handle and set off marching toward the door.

“Let me.” He circled the bed in a few long strides and reached for her bag. His hand curled over hers, strong and warm. A shiver rippled along her skin. The reality she’d tried to push aside broke through her senses, and the truth of the situation turned her knees to water.

She’d be married to this man before the sun finished its journey across the sky. He’d be her husband, with the rights and expectations that went with the position. She intended to keep him from consummating the marriage, but how could she make sure? Despite the honor and decency she sensed about him, Thomas Greenwood might not have the patience to wait. He might simply take what he justly believed to be his.