“You could do a lot worse, you know.”
Rory Watson listened to his brother speaking, doubt in his mind as he stood at the fence looking at the shambles that remained of an old ranch cottage. He wondered if Chance had taken more of a knock to the head than they’d thought when Terror the bull charged him a few months ago and left him in the hospital with swelling of the brain.
“It’s got great bones and I’d have to call that character, the way it’s looking.” Chance pointed at the front awning and the elegant lean it had over the doorway, shading the rotting boards on the porch. “Seriously, it would clean up real good. There’s plenty of land so you’ll never feel hemmed in. The house is big enough for you and your lady if you get hitched again. And if you want a whole tribe of kids, you can add on.”
“You make it sound so easy.” The renovation would no doubt be the easiest part. He wasn’t about to tell his brother that and start yet another long drawn out conversation around his deceased wife and lonely existence, his self-inflicted punishment for being the one left alive. And certainly not when he already had something in the works.
“I thought you were ready to let go and start living again. Isn’t that why you came back home?” Chance directed his gaze to the old fence and picked at the petals of the pale pink rose rambling along the top wire.
“I am. Or at least I think I am. Some days it feels right, some days not so much.” He looked at the old house again and pushed open the gate, careful not to let it fall from its rusty hinges. To lower the risk, he leaned it back against the rickety picket fence. The path up to the porch was set with old, flat river stones which he could barely make out among the tall weeds, a poor excuse for what used to be the front patch of lawn.
He stepped up onto the porch, and the dry timber moved precariously under his weight. Rory glanced at his brother, still not convinced. “Needs a heap of work.”
“Sure it does. That’s why you’re getting it so damned cheap.” Chance rested his boot on the top step and leaned on the porch post. “We can all hook in and help out. Have this place looking like new in no time. Besides, it’s not as if you’re snowed under with dates on your days off, right?”
Rory turned and glanced at him, surprised at his brother’s optimism. “Right.” He couldn’t keep the disbelief from his voice. The setting was sure pretty though. Nestled in the shadow of the Copper Mountain, its two hundred acres ran along the edge of the Marietta River, the pine forest on the opposite bank. The other bonus was the closeness to town and to Chance’s ranch. Tyson, their younger brother, lived just down over the hill, his horse ranch butting up to the boundary line of this property. Rory could still commute to work as Marietta’s deputy sheriff and get away from it all to his own place when he was off duty.
Empty for the last two or three years, the old house stood shadowed in the cloak of neglect that shrouded the whole place. The windows were mostly intact, although a few panes of glass were broken. Paint had peeled from the timber boards, giving the building an unloved, almost ghostly look.
Down past the house, almost hidden under a creeper vine threatening to pull it to the ground, stood an old barn. It had looked sturdy enough on further inspection, as did the stables attached to one side. He could clean them up and so long as the roof was safe, he would be happy. It’d be nice to have his own horse again.
Around the back of the barn he’d discovered a pig pen and a chicken coop, both filled with someone else’s garbage and years worth of dead and decayed leaf litter. What appeared to be an old orchard lay hidden under knee high weeds and creepers covering mostly unidentified fruit trees struggling to survive.
But it was the amount of work needed on the old house that concerned him the most. Rory’s shoulders sank at the thought of cleaning the old place up while trying to hold down his demanding job in town. “I can’t live in that house like that.”
“I don’t expect you to. Get it fixed up before you move in. It probably needs rewiring and new plumbing anyway” He grinned and slapped Rory on the shoulder. “You have a home with us for as long as you like; you know that. I wouldn’t make you move in here until it’s been cleaned out anyway. Hell, if you don’t stay with us, you know I’d only get an earful from Callie. She loves having you around. I think she misses her sisters in Australia more than she lets on.”
“Are you sure I’m not in the way?” He looked at his brother for any sign of discontent. He’d thought of taking a room at the Graff Hotel when he’d decided to come home but he knew Chance would protest so he didn’t mention it.
“Of course not. I wouldn’t care if you stayed there forever, but you said you wanted your own place, so I figured you might like to see this one.” Chance stepped up onto the porch and pushed wide the partially open door. He ducked his head when a swallow flew out, its wings close to his face. “Sheesh, just about took ten years off my life. Wonder what other wildlife is living in here?”
“Let me go first. I’ll do my best to save you from anything big and scary.” Rory laughed and brushed past his older brother. Ragged blinds let slivers of light inside the otherwise dark house. Old furniture lay piled up in several rooms along with scattered belongings and years of garbage. Bird droppings piled on the floors underneath light fittings that made convenient perches. It looked as though whoever lived there last had just picked up their keys and walked out one day, leaving the house to nature to deal with.
“This is going to take some work just to clear out all of the stuff they left behind, to say nothing of the animals’ litter.”
“Not like there is much else to do besides work, is there? You could always bulldoze it down and start fresh. Be a shame though, there’s bound to be some history here and it’s not like you’re in a hurry or anything.”
Rory glanced back at Chance, his left eyebrow raised in question. He wasn’t quite ready to let on about the ad he’d placed in the paper looking for a wife. If Chance could go that route and find someone as nice as Callie, there was hope for Rory. Truth be told, it was the only reason he would contemplate doing something so stupid. It’d worked like magic for his big brother and his Aussie wife, it might just work for him too.
After ignoring the gentle hints from his work colleagues to sign up on a dating site, he’d chewed over the idea of following in his brother’s footsteps before finally biting the bullet. He was waiting to see if anyone else answered and then he’d make up his mind if he was going to go ahead with it. There was always the option to opt out if he got cold feet, but from the sound of her voice he was intrigued.
He’d watched how Callie and Chance fit together as husband and wife and the hole in his heart yearned to be filled with that kind of love and laughter again. Being faithful to his dead wife’s memory could only keep him warm for so long, and that time was quickly fading away. Rory wanted a flesh and blood wife in his bed, not a dream or a trip down memory lane.
From the time he’d met Callie, he’d been impressed with her go-forth attitude. Down on her luck after her parents were killed in a vehicle accident, she’d answered an advertisement Chance had placed in a magazine and travelled halfway around the world to marry a man she’d never met.
It worked for them, it could work for him too if he was half as lucky. He prayed he was because the time was right for change.
Chance nudged him and laughed. “Come on, don’t look at me like that. You know you can do this. Might get you out of the doldrums, too. Give you a new purpose in life. Then you could go about finding yourself a wife.”
Gina Taylor drove toward the small town in Marietta, desperately praying for her gas not to run out before she could get to the small cottage that was her only hope of a decent future. Her baby boy, Fisher, slept peacefully in his car seat in the back of the station wagon with bags containing their belongings piled up around him, chubby little hands gripped onto his battered toy dog.
It’d been a long arduous trip from San Francisco to where she was now, and one she didn’t want to make again anytime soon. They’d only stopped for toilet breaks and food along the drive just to stretch her legs and stop her dozing off. The eighteen-hour drive had been more than she’d bargained for, and Gina didn’t have the money for a hotel even if she’d wanted to stop. She wanted to get to her destination and see if she’d made the worst decision of her life or, by some slim chance, the very best. It’d been rash to take this man on his word but what choice did she have? Her savings had run dry. The part-time job had come to an end along with her ability to pay rent on the overpriced rooms in the tumbled-down shack she called home.
Her future had looked bleak until she picked up the day-old newspaper in the laundromat and scanned the pages while waiting for Fisher’s clothes to wash.
It was time for drastic measures and this would have to be the most outrageous thing she’d ever done. Even deciding to have Fisher and bring him up on her own hadn’t given her such a bad case of nerves as this trip had. Every mile she covered, Gina changed her mind. Did she do the right thing? Could this be the worst decision ever? Could she turn around and go back to nothing? She lifted her head as she heard movement from the backseat.
She glanced in the rear-vision mirror. Fisher made sucking noises with his lips, stirring, which meant he would need a diaper change and a drink, so another stop, hopefully the last, was on the cards.
They were just coming into the small town of Marietta, Montana, population 10,541. Plus the two of us, if things go to plan. She was almost at the address he’d given her. Another half an hour or so and they would come face to face with their future. It was too late to back out now even if she wanted to. Gina had made up her mind when she heard him speak over the phone after making initial contact through the mail, even after the grainy photo he sent made her heart buzz. He was very good looking and she wondered again why he would advertise for a wife rather than go on the usual dating scene.
There had to be more to this man than he shared in their conversation. The deep, rich sound of his voice lured her into another time and place. One where she felt safe and secure. As a child, she’d sit for hours listening to her father speak in his slow, deep Southern drawl. A voice that could easily lull her to sleep if she was fretting.
Her future husband possessed the same voice. How incredibly risky to take on a man by the sound of that alone. She didn’t know what her father would think of it if he could see her now. In all reality, if her father was alive, she wouldn’t be in this position. He would have taken her in as soon as he’d found out her loser boyfriend was dead and she was pregnant, alone, with no money. Truth be told, he would probably have insisted she move back home as soon as she found out she was pregnant because he would have cared for her, unlike the man who put her in this position.
Gina pulled the car over at the first safe spot she came to. A small park was set back from the road next to an elementary school and she indicated and pulled over. The small park boasted a playground and toilets and appeared to be empty apart from an old lady sitting on the bench feeding the flock of birds flapping around her feet. Gina stopped the car, got out, and opened the back door just as her baby blinked his big brown eyes wide. He smiled at her in the way that melted her heart.
“Mama, up.” Fisher held out his arms and Gina undid the straps releasing the little boy from his car seat. She hooked him up on her hip and slammed the door before walking into the park. In a spot of sunshine, she crouched down on the grass and sat with her son on her lap watching the birds flutter around the old woman throwing bread crumbs to her feathered friends.
Fisher stood up and, without letting go of his toy dog, tottered over to the birds. They scattered and flew a short distance to the other side of the old lady. His face screwed up and he started to cry.
“Here, you feed them and they’ll come back.” The lady smiled and encouraged him to take the bread she held out. Gina sat back and watched as her son was patiently shown the best way to feed the noisy sparrows. When he threw the bread the little birds came back and he squealed in delight. Once the crumbs were all gone, the birds flew away, most of them into the trees in the park.
“Thank you for being so kind to him.” Gina stood and walked to get her baby boy.
“Now what would the world be if kindness disappeared? He’s a cute little thing. You passing through, are you?” Her dark eyes latched onto Gina as she waited for an answer.
“Uh, no. Actually I’m moving to town.”
“Well that’s good to hear. We might see you again, little one.” The old lady ruffled Fisher’s blond curls and waved a frail hand as she walked away, leaning on a cane with each step she took.
“Let’s get you cleaned up, my love, and find our new home.” She scooped her baby up and hurried back to the car to get a clean diaper and a drink. When they were done, she clipped him back into the car seat for the final leg of the journey. Gina checked the address again before turning back onto the road. She glanced at the Get ’n’ Go and the gas station, wishing she had the money to grab a coffee or put a gallon of gas in her car to see them safely through town.
On the other side of the train track, a large hotel stood proudly and behind it she glimpsed quaint shops bunched together with plenty of parking out front. They looked like they were still lost in another time where the pace of life was easier and less hurried. Perhaps she would be able to come back and visit them once her life was sorted out and she knew they were staying.
Gina drove slowly looking at as much as she could while not getting too distracted and lost. She paused at a crossing and waited for the way to clear before driving on.
She spied a diner which only made her feel hungry looking at it. But a glance at her gas gauge made her grimace, knowing she didn’t have the time or gas to dawdle in town. Her meager store of food in the back of the car would have to suffice. There wasn’t money for food they didn’t need. Once the gas gauge hit the empty mark, Gina estimated she could travel another ten to fifteen miles before her car came to a grinding halt. If she kept her speed steady and didn’t have to stop again, they might just make it.
She crossed over the river, headed out of town, and followed the directions Rory had given her to their new home.
A leaning sign post marked the road to her future and she sucked in a big breath before turning in. The butterflies in her stomach threatened to rise up and choke her. What if he was a creepy serial-killer type? How was she going to sleep at night until she got to know what he was like? She should never have gone along with this crazy idea of mail-order brides. So what if statistics proved that the majority of arranged marriages lasted longer than the heady rush of love and lust most people gave in to?
She had no choice but to believe the tales he’d told her over the phone. Desperate to have a home for herself and her baby, Gina had chosen to accept everything he said at face value. If she’d asked her boss to use the computer and Google her prospective husband, he probably would have deducted her wages and that wasn’t feasible right now. It will all work out, it has to.
She glanced in the rear vision mirror and watched as Fisher talked to his dog, the jumble of words going a short way to soothe her frazzled nerves. It was for the little cherub in the backseat that she had packed everything they owned into the station wagon and driven overland to a place she’d never been to before, to make a new life.
Gina saw a property up ahead, its roof peeking out through the trees, and wondered if it was her new home. How was he going to respond to her arrival today? Four days ahead of their agreed time and she hadn’t let him know, too scared in case he changed his mind. She’d be okay, she had to be. Her and her baby’s future was at stake here and she had to make this work.
Before she got a good view of the house, her car missed and hiccupped. “No, no, no!” The light on the gas gauge flashed at her and, with a final cough, the car died. With no option left to her, Gina scooped Fisher out of his car seat and slung her handbag over her shoulder before she started walking up the dusty road. They passed overgrown paddocks, the fences broken with twisted wires pulled down by weeds to lay useless on the ground. As she puffed up to the top of the rise, the cottage she glimpsed earlier came into full view. Overgrown and untidy, the garden was a mess of plants and weeds, its small fence almost laying back down on the overgrown lawn, partly held up with the rambling pink rose bush growing wild. The gate was the most upright part of the structure. She doubted it would withstand a strong wind.
Gina caught her breath when she drew close enough to see the cottage properly. What had looked like brown paint was in fact bare timber. The old white paint had peeled from most of the wooden boards and lay blown over the porch like sad confetti flakes. She stood at the gate, anger building in her chest as reality set in.
The trip over here had been a sham. There was no home to go to; nobody waiting to meet her. What had possessed her to take the timbre of a man’s voice as proof he would be someone she could trust? Desperate times had seemed like she needed to take desperate measures. She was no longer sure of anything. Now there was the question of what she was going to do. With a small child, and enough food to last them three or four days tops. Don’t forget that she had no money, no gas in her car, and nowhere to go; she was well and truly stuck.
How dare he lie and have me driving half way across the country to arrive at…at this bloody run-down heap of a place that deserved no more than a match and a can of gasoline. I’d made a promise for this? Gina stamped her foot in fury, making Fisher start.
“Sorry baby, but seriously, how low can you get? The damn mongrel, lying…” She bit her tongue, lest she swear in front of her child. He would pick up a new word in a second and as much as Rory might deserve to be railed at, it wouldn’t come from her boy.
Right, get yourself out of this one then, Gina.
She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. It was no better than what they’d left behind but in all truth it probably wasn’t any worse either. Funny how the impression she’d gotten of Rory didn’t lead her to believe they would live in anything like what she stood in front of now. “Welcome to our new home, Fisher.” Rory’s photo showed a different house, she knew it did but that might have been because he thought she wouldn’t come to this dump. Let’s see what you can salvage from this stuff up.
There wasn’t a car in the driveway which probably meant he wasn’t home or they had the wrong house. She pulled her notebook from the handbag and checked the number on the letterbox against it. Yes, this—as much as she wanted to think otherwise—was the right house. With any luck Rory would be at work and she would have a chance to investigate before he arrived.
Used to seeing the best in everything, she paused and looked around knowing she’d need all the enthusiasm she could rally for this blunder. The garden was a mess, overgrown plants that should have been pruned had pulled down the front fence, their winding tendrils holding it fast. That would hardly keep Fisher in the yard but still it was a big improvement on what she’d left behind. That garden was only a concrete slab. “Let’s go and have a look inside, my little man.”
She held onto him and walked down the garden path, burrs clinging to her skirt as she passed. The first step on the veranda groaned when Gina placed a foot on it and she tested it out by pressing on it firmly before placing her trust in the old timber. “They could use replacing. And a decent lick of paint wouldn’t go astray.”
A worn armchair sat outside, faded from the sun and covered in dust, the armrests frayed and tufted. She glanced at it, wishing it was clean enough for her to sink into. A cup of tea, a comfy chair, and a book sounded like the perfect way to watch the sun go down after that mammoth drive. Sadly, that wasn’t about to happen. Not without a major spruce up first.
Gina knocked on the door. “Hello.” She reached for the handle, turned it and waited for someone to reef it out of her hands but nobody did. She pushed the door open and looked down the gloomy hallway. “Anyone home? Hello.”
The only noise she could hear was the drip of a tap coming from a room at the other end of the house. The room to the right of the front door appeared to be a lounge. An old settee sat in front of a fireplace, old newspapers and magazines piled high leaving virtually no room for anyone to sit. Tattered curtains hung at the windows, shading out the afternoon sun. The cobwebs laced across the dirty glass and she shuddered.
The stillness of the house made her feel braver, knowing she wasn’t going to suddenly come face to face with the man who’d brought her all this way. At least for now she would have time to investigate her new surroundings. If he was on day shift, Gina calculated she’d have about three hours before Rory arrived home. Plenty of time for her to settle in and formulate a plan.
She turned to the other room that faced the road. The bedroom. Prickles ran up her skin but she pushed the sudden wave of panic down. An old wrought-iron bed sat in the middle of the room, its checkered blanket covered in dust. A yellowed pillow lay on the floor.
“Just as well we brought our own bedding, Fisher. This is disgusting. I think I like ours better.” She chucked him under the chin and watched him chortle with laughter.
A box sat on the end of the bed. When she peered inside, it was to find a pile of clothes folded and remarkably neat. Coat hangers where thrown in a heap on the bed. A wardrobe stood open, its shelves now bare apart from a dusty pair of boots lying in the bottom. Had he decided to clear out his clothing to give her space? How incredibly Christian of him.
“Let’s go and see the rest of the house, shall we? Then we can start unloading the car.” That’s going to be fun, hiking everything up the hill on my own. Why oh why did I agree to this?
Because you had no choice, that’s why. Stop moaning and get over it, Gina. Make the best of a filthy situation.
“Oh my goodness.” She stood in front of the stove. Caked in baked-on grime, the ancient enamel monstrosity glared at her from its position in the avocado-green kitchen. She turned and took in the whole space. An old wooden table took up the middle of the room, its three mismatched chairs tucked under to give the owner room to move in the kitchen. Gina reached for the folded newspaper, her hand brushing against the empty soda can and a screwed-up lunch wrapper. Seems as though someone doesn’t know how to clean up after himself.
Red pen caught her attention. In the corner of the front page, someone had drawn a heart with an arrow through it. Her name was inked inside the heart. So she did have the right place, the right person. That was good news at least. But what troubled her the most was the absence of Rory’s name along with hers. It would seem she was going to have to work harder than she thought to win this man over.
The dripping grated on her nerves, distracting her from the childish doodling and she reached over to turn the tap off properly, only to find that it must have a worn washer and water continued to drip into the sink.
“I could fix that—if I had a washer, that is.” The overhead cupboards held a mixed array of dishes that didn’t match. She reached for a cup, checked that it was clean, and put it under the dripping tap. “Waste not, want not.” The whole kitchen needed a good scrubbing down. It was a pity she didn’t have any ammonia in her car. She’d bleach every single surface. Typical bachelor’s home. Only the bare basics and none too clean.
On the counter, a bucket of cleaning goods, scouring pads, and rags stood ready for use as if someone had decided today would be a great day for cleaning but thought better of it and walked off without putting it away. She looked for the fridge but could only find the dirty mark on the floor where it had once been. Maybe he was in the process of buying a new one. She could always hope.
The house was certainly old and in bad repair but still it didn’t seem to be the end of the world. What they’d left behind was probably worse. She lifted her head and looked at the ceiling. At least there were no water marks to show her it leaked like their previous home did every time it rained. Thank goodness for small mercies.
“Okay, almost done with the tour. What’s this room then?” Gina pushed open a small bi-fold door and stepped into a bathroom. The same avocado green had been used in there as well. “Fashion statement, not.” Dirty towels were heaped on the floor in the corner of the room, musty with mold marks. They’d obviously been there for a long time. This man was going to need to learn a thing or two about cleaning up after himself. Gina didn’t mind working hard but there was no need for laziness. Rory was an adult after all.
She shuddered when she spotted the dirty ring around the bath and the rusty stain from another dripping tap. You would have thought he’d have fixed the washers ages ago. How hard could it be?
End of Excerpt