The loud bang of the heavy brass knocker roused Luke Chandler from a deep sleep. Flinching, he rolled over in bed and buried his face in his pillow, unwilling to acknowledge the disturbance. When the noise continued, he opened his eyes then slammed them shut again, blinded by a shaft of late afternoon sunlight. Christ. What time was it? “Just a minute,” he yelled, pressing a hand to his temple. His head pounded relentlessly, and his mouth tasted as though something had died in it. Knowing it was best to start another binge before the effects of the current one wore off, he fumbled for the bottle of whiskey on his nightstand, but it was empty. With a sigh of disgust, Luke tossed the bottle to the floor. He didn’t remember finishing it off. The knocking continued, loud and insistent. “Hold on, goddamn it. I’m coming.” He extricated himself from the tangled sheets and scrambled to his feet, remembering a second too late—as he so often did—that he only had one foot. He crashed to the floor, banging his head against the corner of the solid oak armoire. Cursing and humiliated, he offered up a fervent prayer that whoever had dared to intrude on his solitude would give up and leave him the hell alone.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice drifted down the hallway to the library he’d converted into a bedroom. “Is everything all right?” Everything was definitely not all right. How could he have forgotten, even for a moment, that he slept down here because it was so difficult for him to climb the damned stairs? How could he have forgotten that last night’s drunken binge had been an attempt to stave off the depression that came every year on the anniversary of the battle that had rendered him half a man? Today marked ten years since he’d lost his foot at Gettysburg. He groaned and levered himself to a sitting position. Grabbing his specially fitted wooden boot, he fastened it to his ugly stump with angry, jerking motions. He wasn’t about to let some meddling woman find him sprawled on the floor like an invalid. Ignoring his aching head, he stood and limped down the hall. Flinging open the front door, he surprised the woman on his porch in mid-knock. “What the hell do you want?” She took a few stumbling steps back, her big green eyes widening in alarm. He grinned, knowing he’d shocked her.
He reeked of whiskey, his clothes were rumpled and stained, and he hadn’t shaved in a week. But the damned church committee had probably sent her here, so it served her right. How many times did he have to tell these people he wasn’t interested in coming to their services? She cleared her throat. “Mr. Chandler?” He gave an abrupt nod, feeling no urge to put her at ease. Obviously a lady, she was prettier than most of the old bats they’d sent up here to preach at him about changing his sinful ways. A hell of a lot prettier. This one was young, maybe in her mid-twenties. Her hair was trapped beneath her drooping bonnet, but the beguiling tangle of eyelashes, which framed her emerald eyes, were dark gold. “Mr.
Lucas Chandler?” Her voice was soft, with a subtle drawl that brought to mind every proud Southern belle who’d cut him during the war. “Yeah. I’m Luke Chandler.” He shoved an annoying lock of hair off his forehead. “Who are you?” Her clear green gaze slipped from his face to his bare chest, which was visible between the gaping halves of his unbuttoned shirt. He hoped the sight wasn’t too much for her. It would be damned inconvenient if she swooned on his front porch. The thought made him chuckle. He’d worked hard to cultivate the image of crusty old hermit. Having a virgin faint on his porch could only enhance it.
She jerked to attention, raising her chin. “I’m Sarah Montgomery.” The name meant nothing to his alcohol-soaked brain. He raised one eyebrow in question. Lovely as she was, he wished she’d get to the point so he could send her on her way and go back to sleep. “Sarah Montgomery,” she repeated, her voice rising. He gave her a blank stare. Fumbling in her reticule, she pulled out a small stack of letters and handed him the one on top. “Your last letter said July 1st at one o’clock, did it not? You hadn’t arrived at the station by four, so I hired a man to drive me out here.” When he remained silent, she cleared her throat.
“Should I have waited? Is there a problem?” Luke glanced down at the letter she’d pressed into his hand. Stunned, he saw his name scrawled across the bottom. And the missive did indeed promise to pick her up at the train station in Milton at one o’clock, on July 1st. “What the hell…?” He shook his head, dumbfounded. “I didn’t send you this.” “Yes, you did.” She shoved the whole stack at him. “We’ve been corresponding for months. We’re to be married.” Despite the girl’s obvious distress, an explosive laugh escaped Luke’s lips.
“Lady, you’re out of your mind. I need a wife like I need a hole in my head.” He’d been engaged once, before the war, but Christine had deserted him after they’d amputated his foot. She hadn’t wanted to marry a cripple. He couldn’t say he blamed her. The girl flushed. “This isn’t funny. I’ve come a very long way.” “I’m not trying to be funny.” With grim determination, he examined the handwriting once again.
“Damn,” he muttered, a niggling feeling of dread taking root in the pit of his stomach. He’d recognize that distinctive slant anywhere. His older brother, Matthew, was behind this. “Perhaps you’d better come in.” SARAH MONTGOMERY CONSIDERED Luke Chandler’s invitation with grave apprehension. Dear God. He wasn’t at all what she’d been expecting. His tender, funny letters had brought to mind a refined, lonely man. She’d hoped for a kind gentleman she could raise a family with. She’d thought he might need her.
This man, while obviously alone, didn’t appear to need anyone. And there was nothing refined about him. He was much younger than she’d thought, probably in his early thirties, and attractive—tall and broad-shouldered, with dark brown hair, smoky gray eyes, and striking features. However, his hair was long and tousled, the fine line of his jaw was obscured by a scraggly growth of beard, and he smelled like a brewery. “Come in.” He seemed irritated by her hesitation and opened the door a bit wider. She swallowed. “May I have your word as a gentleman that you won’t harm me?” “My word as a gentleman?” He laughed, a dark rumble of sound that sent shivers up her spine. “Certainly.” She glanced over her shoulder at the road.
The driver she’d hired was a mere speck in the distance. She had two choices. She could brave the dark and try to walk back to town, or she could stay here, with this man who’d lured her over a thousand miles with a few poetic words and now claimed not to know why she’d come. “Come in,” he said again. “I won’t bite.” Squaring her shoulders, Sarah took a deep breath and stepped past him. She hadn’t come all this way to turn tail and run. She’d known the consequences of offering herself in marriage to a complete stranger, and she’d already decided they couldn’t be any worse than the alternative. She found herself in an entrance hall, at the foot of a sweeping staircase that led to an upper floor. An intricate stained-glass window on the landing threw the oak floor and carved banisters into multicolored shadows.
The house was breathtaking, or would have been, she amended, if not for the air of disuse and heavy coat of dust covering every surface. He gestured with exaggerated grace toward an arched doorway to her left. “Shall we take tea in the parlor?” With an uncertain nod, she entered the room he’d indicated, only to find the furniture covered with dusty white sheets, as though it had been abandoned for years. She glanced over her shoulder, wondering what kind of madman would choose to live this way. That was when she noticed his halting walk. Her gaze traveled down his muscular thighs to find that while one foot was bare, the other was encased in an unnatural-looking black boot. Stunned, she realized he’d lost a foot. He stopped abruptly, a deep flush creeping across his sharp cheekbones. His expression was frozen and defensive, as though he expected her to say something hurtful. She wiped her face clean of emotion and sat on the edge a grungy covering that appeared to hide a sofa.
For a moment, he remained behind her, his gaze boring into the back of her head. Just when she thought she’d go mad if he didn’t say something, he shuffled forward and swept the sheet off a damask chair. Settling himself across from her, he waved the stack of letters. “Do you mind if I read these?” She shook her head. Why should she care? He’d written them. Hadn’t he? The only sound in the stifling silence that descended between them was the incessant tick of an ivory clock on the mantle. Sarah sat, her body stiff, every muscle aching from her long journey. Her hands trembled, and she locked them together in her lap so he wouldn’t notice. Dear Lord, what had she done? Back in Georgia, this had seemed like such a good idea. Luke Chandler’s ad for a mail order bride had caught her attention, then refused to let it go.
She’d wanted so badly to leave all reminders of her old life behind her. Colorado. The very word had called to her. What better place to raise a family and begin anew? What would she do if he turned her away? She didn’t have enough money to return to Georgia. Even if she did, there was nothing to go back to. Her husband had been killed during the last days of the war, and her home was long gone. Her entire future lay in the hands of this drunken, brooding stranger. At last, he finished reading. He took an inordinate amount of time refolding the final letter, obviously stalling. “This is… very embarrassing.
” He raked a hand through his dark hair, seeming at a loss. “I didn’t write these.” She stared at him, keeping her face blank, hoping he couldn’t sense her desperation. “I wrote parts of them,” he clarified, handing the letters back. “But not to you.” “I don’t understand.” She’d never even considered the possibility that he might pretend he hadn’t sent for her. “For some reason, my brother has decided I need a wife.” He looked away, frowning. “He’s the one who corresponded with you, not me.
Although, parts of these letters sound familiar. He must have copied some of the passages from letters I wrote to… someone else.” A hundred questions flitted through her mind, but she held her tongue and nodded. “I see.” She didn’t see. She had no idea what he was talking about, actually. “I’m sorry about all this.” He tapped his fingertips on the arm of the chair. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? Do you need a ride back to town and a train ticket back to Georgia? Perhaps I could offer you some monetary settlement for your trouble?” Heat rose in her cheeks, and she blinked back tears of anger and shame. “That won’t be necessary.
I’m certain I can manage.” She surged to her feet and headed for the door, desperate to escape. But he was surprisingly agile despite his disability, and he grabbed her arm before she could go far. “Wait.” Sarah found herself trapped between his large body and the arched entrance to the parlor. Her breath came in harsh gasps, and she turned her face against the plaster, mortified by the tears streaking down her cheeks. She hadn’t cried for a very long time, but she’d been on the verge of tears ever since he’d opened the door. “Christ,” he murmured, his voice filled with helplessness. “Don’t cry.” He was huge, almost a foot taller than she.
The heat of his body seemed to burn through her clothes, making her light-headed with fear. “Please. Let me go.” “I can’t,” he muttered, his voice low and rough. She whirled to face him, terror rising in her throat. She drew in a breath of whiskey-scented air, wondering just how drunk he was. “I’m leaving,” she asserted, hoping he only saw her anger, not her fear. “You can’t make me stay.” His gray eyes narrowed. “Don’t be a fool.
It’s nearly dark. You’ll never find your way back to town.” She’d been poised to flee, certain she could outrun him, but his wry words made her hesitate. He didn’t sound threatening. “What are you suggesting?” “Stay the night. There’s plenty of room. You can sleep in one of the guest bedrooms upstairs. Tomorrow morning, I’ll hitch up the wagon and drive you into town.” He sighed and lifted his broad shoulders in a slight shrug. “It’s the least I can do.
You’ve come all this way.” Sarah searched his scruffy face for an ulterior motive, but she found nothing but resignation. She considered his offer for a long moment, drawn in by the prospect of a hot meal and a bed that didn’t move. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” He brushed a lock of dark hair out of his eyes. “No. Damn my brother’s meddling hide, I’m afraid you don’t.” “Then yes, thank you. I’ll stay.” He cleared his throat. “I think it’s for the best.
” They stared at each other for several long moments. Sarah swayed, overcome by frustration and exhaustion. She had a roof over her head for the night at least, but she had no idea what tomorrow would bring. The faintly annoyed expression on Luke’s face gentled. “You look as though you’re about to drop. Why don’t you go on upstairs and rest for a while? I’ll see if I can rustle up something to eat.” She nodded, grateful for the reprieve. It would be wonderful to close her eyes for a moment and loosen her stays so she could take a deep, unfettered breath. She would regain her strength. She had to.
All she needed was some time alone so she could pull herself together. Luke glanced at the small, ragged suitcase she’d left by the front door. “Do you have any other bags?” Heat rose in her cheeks. “No. It’s just the one. I can manage.” “All right then. I’ll see you in an hour or two.” Without a backward glance, her mysterious host strode away, disappearing through a door down the hall.