The Bad Man's Bride


When her priviledged world falls apart, Anthea Bright just builds a new life a life for herself. She knows the one thing she absolutely cannot afford to do is get involved with the town's most disreputable citizen, Gabriel Jackson... oops. Too late!

Avon · isbn: 0-380-80497-2

THE BAD MAN'S BRIDE won the Romantic Time's Reviewers Choice Award for Best Western of 2001 (posted 11.01.02)

THE BAD MAN'S BRIDE hits the USA TODAY list, debuting at #147! (posted 6.01.01)


Sometimes ideas are very simple when you first get them. I was a teacher once, and have always had a nibble of an idea about a teacher who gets involved with the guardian of one of her students. And then I had another bit about a woman who takes up an abandoned homestead claim, only to have the claim's original owner show up to want it back. Then one day -- thunk -- I realized the women had to have the same background, one of comfort and priviledge that unexpectedly fell apart, forcing them to take up these new lives. So why not truly give them the same background and make them sisters? It seemed such a clever idea. Until I started trying to weave the bits and pieces through three different books. All those background notes I put in one I was stuck with in the others. My simple idea was suddenly a lot more complicated.

And so, too, was the heroine's life. Her family is her first priority; she desperately needs to keep her job, one that she wasn't all that qualified for in the first place, and knows she's walking a fine line as it is. But then there's this guy, the one everybody in town thinks is the devil incarnate, only somehow he doesn't seem quite that irredeemably bad to her. And trying to keep it simple and safe is suddenly much harder than she'd thought possible...

--Susan


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October, 1885

Much to her heartfelt dismay, Anthea Bright really was in Kansas now.

And to think that it had not been long ago at all that she'd not only anticipated her residence in that state, but had deliberately chosen it. Her miscalculations weren't usually so, well, huge.

My dearest sisters:

I am delighted to be able to report to you that my first week on the job has vastly exceeded my dreams.

Anthea stared at the words she'd just neatly penned in her precise hand - her fourth attempt at beginning this necessary letter - and decided they weren't entirely a lie. After all, nightmares counted as dreams, didn't they? And, even in her worst ones, her imagination had proved too limited to envision the true disaster of her first week as the new schoolmistress of the Haven Township School.

I have eighteen students, ranging in age from five to sixteen, each of them bright and hardworking and imaginative.

Now that was even closer to the truth. Though the handful of blotched, misspelled, and downright inaccurate compositions stacked at one end of the rickety table that served as her desk attested otherwise, she'd collected ample evidence during the week of her pupils' fiendishly bright and imaginative tendencies . . . as long as their activities were bent toward making life as difficult as possible for their brand new teacher.

As to the schoolhouse itself, there are three large windows on each opposite wall, and, in the morning when I arrive, the room is flooded with cheerful sunshine.

Not through the windows, however. Thin boards covered four of them, and the other panes were so grimy, streaked with soot from within and mud from without, that no mere sunlight could burn through the coating.

However, plenty of light gained admittance through the wide gaps between the lathes in the wall, striping the old puncheon floor like a Hudson Bay blanket. She'd have to do something about those openings soon or her ink would freeze in its well once the weather turned cold.

Perhaps she should have tried penning fiction instead of teaching to generate income, Anthea thought with wry amusement. She hadn't suspected she had such a gift for enhancing the truth.

The resounding crash of the schoolhouse door against the wall made her jump. Her pen shot across the page in a streaking line.

The school building faced west, and bright spears of late-afternoon sunlight burst through the door, squeezing around a broad figure that seemed to take up the entire entrance. She squinted against the light, unable to make out any features except the outline of wide shoulders and great height haloed in dazzling gold.

"I -" Anthea swallowed hard, forcing formality and assurance into her voice. If she'd learned one useful thing in her first week of teaching, it was that a good illusion of confidence was nearly as effective as the real thing. "May I help you?" she asked, in tones well-learned at Miss Addington's Select School for Young Ladies. A very useful skill, that particular tone.

The low growl she received in answer might have been intended as a greeting or a threat. Her heart thudding hard, she mentally cast about for an available weapon and found none. She'd been assured upon her arrival that tales of the Wild West notwithstanding, Haven was ever so much safer than her hometown of Philadelphia.

The figure stepped into the room and the door slamming shut behind him. Her eyes adjusted slowly, the hazy outline sharpening.

She would have guessed that since her arrival six days ago she'd met nearly every resident of the small town. But not this one. She might have forgotten half the names and faces who'd dropped by the schoolhouse to pay their formal respects - and satisfy their ill-concealed curiosity - before abandoning their children to her inexperienced care, but she never would have forgotten him.

Even without the corona of sunlight, he was impressive. She wondered vaguely how he'd even managed to fit through the door. His old, copper-toed boots were as scarred as the floor upon which he'd planted them. A healthy coating of good Kansas dirt covered denim trousers faded to near white. His pale blue shirt looked as if it had been washed by someone who didn't know how, the sleeves rolled up over forearms sturdy as fence posts.

A black hat that looked older than he did rode low on his forehead, obscuring his eyes. A full day's growth of dark beard shadowed a jaw that was probably uncompromising under the best of circumstances and right now was set at a downright threatening angle.

She reminded herself - and once again, even more firmly, before she was able to get her voice to work - that a miscreant was unlikely to accost a small-town schoolteacher on a placid, sunny Friday in a schoolhouse that half the county passed on their way in and out of town. "May I be of assistance?"

He jammed those forearms over a chest that seemed hewn from granite. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The new schoolmarm looked exactly as Gabriel Jackson had pictured her.

Damn it.

A small, prim woman, as plain and ruthlessly proper as ordinary cotton gloves, with a neat little nose angled high and proud. A nose just like all the others that fine, upstanding ladies had been looking down at him all his life. She must have boiled her shirtwaist for hours to get it that blinding white, the collar lace so stiffly starched it had to be cutting a dent beneath that precise chin.

At his outburst, she pokered up immediately. Predictably. "Pardon me?" she asked with what he figured was deliberately exaggerated politeness, emphasizing his bad manners by contrasting them with her good ones.

"I asked what the -"

"Oh, I heard you perfectly well." Her chair scraped back as she stood, her back ramrod straight. Probably from the stick that ran all the way up her ass to her neck, he thought uncharitably. "I just didn't understand you. Though the obvious answer to what I was doing was writing a letter, happily undisturbed until you interrupted, I somehow doubt that is precisely the question you posed."

She bent to riffle through a stack of papers at her desk, as if dismissing his presence. The bow of her black sateen teacher's apron bobbed at the hollow of her back, right above the sharp protrusion of her bustle. Who had invented those things? Someone determined to make sure that a man didn't get even the slightest hint of the shape underneath? Someone as humorless as this woman, without a doubt.

"You the teacher?"

"Hmm?" She tugged out a paper, pondered it with a small frown of concentration. "What a clever deduction. Since I'm the only one here."

He sputtered. Something he couldn't recall doing in his entire adult life, but he supposed it was better than biting her head off. Though not nearly as satisfying, to his way of thinking.

She arched an eyebrow, coolly superior, and he had a vivid memory of that same look on another teacher's face, in this exact same schoolhouse, nearly twenty-five years before. He'd attended school for an entire week before deciding it wasn't worth either the trouble or the bruises he earned from the other students. Bruises which the teacher clearly had no intention of attempting to stop and which she, no doubt, had considered well-earned. For he was Gabriel Jackson, wasn't he?

He dropped his arms, hands fisting against his sides. He wouldn't let the same thing happen to Lily. He might have had no one to rescue him, but Lily had him. It would make all the difference.

The woman's gaze flickered briefly to his clenched fists before she focused them firmly back on the crumpled paper she clutched. Her skin drew tight around her mouth, across her smooth forehead, and he wondered if maybe she wasn't quite as unruffled and confident as she appeared after all. The thought pleased him immensely. Deliberately he stepped further into the room, knowing the bulk he'd gained since he'd last set foot here proved conveniently intimidating on occasion. Lord knew he could have used it then.

She took a furtive hop backward, just a little one, before she caught herself. She drew herself up - maybe she'd make chest high now, but Gabriel wouldn't bet on it - and stuck that delicate nose in the air. So she'd a bit of courage after all . . . or she'd simply been too sheltered, too protected her whole life to recognize trouble when she met it.

"Is there something specific you wanted?" she asked. "Or did you come by simply to snarl at me?"

"It's not what I want," he said. "It's what I don't want. I don't want this - " He shot a glance behind him, found nothing. He stared for a long moment, blew out a heavy sigh, and stomped back to the door, boot heels worn down to a thin slice of leather clomping hard on floorboards warped into waves a river would envy.

Heavens, Anthea thought, hoping what she suspected would be in vain that he wouldn't return. She'd been in town scarcely a week. What could she have done to offend that man so much? While it hadn't been an entirely successful week, still . . .

Though perhaps it didn't take much to offend him. He looked to be a permanently ill-tempered sort under the best of circumstances.

The door flew open again, as hard as the first time. Anthea winced, uncertain that the deteriorating structure could withstand such abuse.

He charged back in towing a small girl. Her head dipped down. Tangled hanks of hair hid her face and her arms wrapped tightly around her thin middle.

"This is what's the problem!" he snapped out.

Anthea slowly made her way toward the pair, giving herself time to consider. The child was one of her students, of course, the one who'd claimed a place in the furthest corner of the classroom, deep in the shadow cast by a boarded up window, as far away as she could manage from the rest of the students.

She hadn't whispered a word the entire week. Anthea had tried a few times without success to pry a few words out of her, until her attention was inevitably drawn back to more immediate matters. Like the fact that Charlie Skinner had managed to spark a fire - outside the confines of the old coal stove. Or that Olivia Cox had burst into blood-curdling screams yet again.

I should have tried harder, Anthea thought now, studying the skinny, quiet girl standing three feet from the man, her shoulders hunched, eyes fixed on the battered toes of her boots. A wide band of sharp-boned, pale shin showed between her sagging, grayed socks and the hem, a good four inches too short, of the same threadbare, soiled dress she'd worn all week.

Oh yes, she should have tried harder, Anthea thought with a guilty pang. But at the time, she'd been unsure whether the girl was even capable of a response.

Oh, the poor child! How could he let her go around like this? Anthea resolved right then to do better in the future, giving the girl as much help as she could. Since in Anthea's admittedly brief experience in Haven few men bothered to involve themselves in their children's schooling, except to complain endlessly about the cost of the already sparse budget, this awful man was likely all she had, and the girl needed all the help she could get.

She leaned down, trying to peer beneath the lank greasy blond curtain. "Hello," she said softly. "Is there something I can help you with?"

He snorted. Snorted! If she couldn't manage to instill a good grasp of geography and orthography in her young male charges, she vowed, she would at least make certain they owned better manners than this cretin.

Though it assuredly wouldn't take much.

"You should be helping," he said. "But you're not. That's why I'm here."

"I'm sure this would be much simpler if you could be a bit more precise about what exactly you are objecting to."

"Show her, Lily."

"Lily? Oh, so that's her name." Anthea said without thinking.

"You didn't even know her name?" he asked with a look that clearly indicated his opinion of a teacher who didn't even know the name of a student who'd occupied her classroom for an entire week.

"She wouldn't tell me," Anthea murmured. "I asked some of the other children, and they . . . well, Lily is not what they told me."

"I can imagine." He jammed that aggressive jaw even further forward. Anthea could only be grateful that those particular students were not in the schoolroom at the moment, for she doubted she could have prevented him from ensuring in a robustly physical manner that they never called Lily an unflattering name again.

"It's a lovely name, Lily," she said, watching carefully for some sign of response from the silent girl. "A pretty little flower, just like you." Her head lifted a fraction - not enough for Anthea to glimpse her face, but enough so that she decided Lily could hear and understand her after all. She'd wondered.

"Show her what you learned in school this week, Lily." His tone turned gentle and soft, the likes of which Anthea would never have expected to come out of that abrupt, scowling man.

Lily plucked at the hank of hair shielding her right eye, pulled it aside, and peered uncertainly at Anthea.

"It's all right," Anthea said encouragingly. "Go ahead."

Lily scuffled over to the makeshift bookcase Lily had fashioned out of two crates she'd found in the otherwise empty coal shed and a couple of boards that she suspected were supposed to reside on the north wall of the schoolhouse. It held only five books - four that Anthea managed to salvage when everything was sold and tucked into her suitcase before leaving home, and a spineless copy of Michel's Geography she'd unearthed from beneath the teacher's "desk."

With one more tentative glance at her father, Lily carefully pulled out Anthea's copy of Pilgrim's Progress. She straightened visibly, squaring her fragile shoulders, and balanced the book gingerly on her head. One grimy hand held aloft, ready to catch the book if it tipped, she inched one foot forward, then the other, making her way across the floor with an awkward, vigilant grace that somehow suited her.

She shot Anthea a hopeful look, pride mixed with disbelief, which nearly broke Anthea's heart.

"Oh, Lily, that's wonderful! Perfect. Even Miss Addington would have to approve your posture. It took me a month to learn to walk across the floor without the book sliding off, and I had the crushed toes to prove it."

"Miss Addington?" His scowl said he wasn't at all sure he wanted to know.

"Of Miss Addington's Select School for Young Ladies," she informed him. "I was tutored in deportment and posture by Miss Addington herself."

He made a sound of distinct disgust. Anthea was so accustomed to hearing Miss Addington spoken of in tones of such unequivocal respect and downright reverence that she found herself gaping.

It was yet one more example that nothing was the same in Kansas.

"She needs to learn to read." His frown brought his hat even lower on his brow, shielding his eyes completely. It was most unfair that he could see her expression so easily while he effectively hid his from her view. "She needs to learn to add, to write. Useful things, and you -" Perhaps she should be glad she couldn't see his eyes after all, Anthea decided, for she had no doubt that at the moment they held an accusatory glare. "You're teaching her to balance a book on her head! Of all the useless, stupid, worthless -"

"Stop it. Please."

To Anthea's surprise, it worked. The man snapped his mouth shut, cutting off words that likely would have blistered what remained of the paint off the old walls. She tried to recall exactly how she'd achieved such an effect - if it worked on him, surely it would work just as well on Theron Matheson on Monday.

"Lily, would you do me a favor? There's a jar of gingersnaps one of the students brought me on the table in my soddy." Anthea suppressed a shudder at the mention of her soddy. Originally delighted to discover that she'd have the original schoolhouse as her home instead of having to board with local families, she'd been completely unprepared for the reality of a house built entirely of dirt — dirt floor, dirt walls, dirt ceiling held back only by a strip of dirty muslin. Perhaps it would be as warm as advertised come winter, but Anthea remained unconvinced that the entire structure wouldn't come washing down upon her head in the first healthy rainstorm. "I don't want to waste them, but if I eat them all myself, I'll have to alter my clothes by week's end. Could you rid me of some, do you think?"

Lily looked to the man for permission, and, at his curt nod, she fled for the door as if she couldn't wait to escape. Anthea didn't blame her one bit.

"Does she talk?"

"Sometimes. Not often."

Gabriel cursed himself for not having had the sense to send Lily out himself. Of course she shouldn't been standing there, with her big ears and bruised heart, while he and her new teacher argued about her future education.

It only served to underscore the truth he'd always known: he was simply not fit to raise a child. He'd no experience. Nor any inclination, if it came to that. If there'd been anyone else . . . but there wasn't, and it was no use wishing it. If there was one thing his life had taught him, a single lesson hammered home mallet stroke after mallet stroke until it was finally pounded into even his thick head, it was that there was absolutely no use in wishing.

"Now. If you'll remove your hat." Anthea linked her hands over her apron, pearl white skin against sheeny black fabric, proper as a nun.

"My hat?" What the hell did she care about his hat? Something about her, cool control layered over quick pride, kept him off balance, halfway between anger and unwilling fascination. Lord knew he'd never met her like before.

"Yes. I don't allow them to be worn in my classroom."

"Oh?" The fascination won out. "In case you hadn't noticed, ma'am, I'm a few years past the schoolroom."

"It's of no matter. I can hardly expect the boys to be held to standards of deportment the men of Haven can't manage, can I?"

Where was this female from? Boston? New York? Philadelphia? Someplace where men minced around in spats and expensive tweeds, hands soft as a woman's, more manners than muscle.

Well, she wasn't there anymore, was she?

He watched her mouth curve up, verging on a smile as he lifted his hand toward his hat. But when he merely jabbed the brim with his thumb, tipping it back a few inches, that promised smile veered down into a disapproving frown.

It was an expression he figured that the children in her classroom were already very familiar with.

Shifting his weight to one side, he hooked his hands in his pockets and commenced to stare her down. He didn't expect it would take long.

"So? You gonna make me stand in the corner now?

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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