Marry Me


The rugged loner Jake Sullivan has finally returned home - to find a brazen, beautiful trespasser in his bed. Emily Bright intends to stay. But has Jake been saddled with an unwanted intruder...or blessed with a bride?

Avon · isbn: 0-380-81907-4

Marry Me
I've had the bones of this story for a long time, a bit of an idea about two people who lay claim to the exact same thing. But it wasn't until I was laying out the MARRYING MISS BRIGHT series that I realized how neatly this fit in. Emily, who has never had a real home of her own, has finally laid claim to one. Jake has returned to reclaim the one he lost at such cost. Her presence gives him only a moment's pause; she's not the type to stick, and all he has to do, he figures, is plop right down and wait for her to fail.

Emily refuses to acknowledge there's any side but the bright one; Jake no longer believes there even is such a thing. Opposites in so many ways, they never suspect that the other one might be exactly what each of them needs.

--Susan


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Marry Me
In the following excerpt, Emily Bright has awakened on her very first night in her new home to find a dangerous stranger beside her bed . . .

So this was terror, Emily thought numbly. How odd . . . though aware of her fright, she felt it dimly, from a distance, observing more than truly experiencing the tingling of her fingers, the tight knot in her belly.

How strange she'd never felt it before. She'd been sad, of course, and lonely; grieving or worried upon occasion. Not often, and rarely for long, but those emotions had been true and deep just the same. She'd never been truly terrified, however, for she'd always believed everything would work out just fine. And it always had.

She lay flat on the bed, absolutely still, and wondered how long she could survive without breathing. Long enough, she prayed, so that the intruder would never even realize her presence.

He moved silently into the room — there was more light behind him, thin and pearly, spilling a rectangle of moonlight on the floor. His steps were unerring, as if he could see better than she in the dimness. She kept expecting him to bump into something, the table, a trunk, but he didn't falter until he loomed over her in the bed.

"You're not sleeping," he told her.

As if a dangerous brigand cared whether he disturbed her sleep or not. Her thoughts churned wildly, scrambling to remember which corner held the collection of tools, pondering whether the rake or the hoe might prove a more effective weapon.

"I —" She tried to speak, managed only a squeak.

"Aw, crap, don't tell me you're scared." He was a shaggy as a great bear - wild fall of hair, thick beard, immense shoulders - with a deep grumble of a voice. "You think I would've knocked on the door I meant to strangle you in your sleep?"

Despite his looking ever so much like the sort who would do just that, that made an undeniable sense. "What difference does it make if I'm asleep? Or scared, for that matter?" The first, sharp bite of terror receded. Surely if this man threatened immediate danger he wouldn't simply be standing beside the bed glowering at her.

And so, she took her customary approach to dealing with a difficult person.

She talked.

"Which I am, by the way. Frightened, I mean. And I was sleeping." She wondered if it would be too obvious if she yanked the covers higher around her neck. "You still haven't explained why you care if I am."

"Frightened? Because women tend toward being even more unpredictable and unreasonable than usual when they're frightened, that's why. And sleeping? Because you're probably not going anywhere until you wake up."

"Going anywhere?" she repeated. Dulled by heavy sleep, her stomach still jittering with unease, she sat up — making sure the quilts were wedged firmly in her armpits - and pushed her hair out of her eyes.
"Yeah." He whacked his hand against the bedframe so hard it nearly sent her tumbling. "Get moving."
"And where, exactly, am I moving to?" A nice burn of anger shoved aside the rest of her fear. If he thought she'd be traipsing off anywhere with him, well, she'd just recalled exactly where she'd left that hoe, and figured it would look just fine wrapped around his skull.

"How the hell should I know where you're going?" If only he wasn't quite so large. Plotting a clear path around him was quite a challenge. "Do I look like I care?"

Deranged, she concluded. Or dead drunk, though he spoke quite well for someone with a brick in his hat. "Who are you?" she ventured. It was one of the first things she'd learned from Dr. Goodale in treating patients. Learn their name, and use it often, to retain both their attention and trust. Not that Dr. Goodale himself bothered very often, but Emily had employed it quite effectively.

His head jerked toward the door. "Move."

"Sir —"

"My name doesn't matter a damn. All that matters is that this is my claim, and I want it back."

If Murphy had taken her twenty dollars and shown her to the wrong land, she was going to wrap that hoe around his neck instead. "If you'd just sit down, I'm certain we can sort through this."

"Nothing to sort through."

At a loss, she simply sat there, squinting at him through the gloom. His hair was dark and wild, blending into the night, streaming around his shoulders and into a heavy beard. All she could see was the hot glitter of his eyes when he turned his head and the moonlight caught him.

Well, if he wouldn't sit down, she certainly was not going to remain on the bed any longer, craning her neck to look up at him. She swung her legs to the floor and stood, only to discover she was still forced to look considerably up.

"Mister, it's late, it's dark, and I'm tired. If you insist this is your claim, either your locator or mine made a terrible mistake." She sighed, just thinking about making the trek back to McGyre. She'd so many plans for tomorrow. "There's nothing for it, I suppose, but to return to the land office and check the numbers."

Marry Me"I don't need to check any numbers. I lived in this place for six damn months and built every stick of it with my own hands. I know my own claim when I see it."

"Oh, dear." Sympathy, rich and bittersweet, welled instantly. Those were his books. His shirts, hanging over her bed. "I'm so sorry. But you understand, the government recorded it as abandoned, and I paid my fee and filed on it yesterday. It's fully legal."

"Yesterday." He spat the word out. "Then you've hardly had time to become attached to the place, have you? Should be no trouble at all for you to move on."


She had to think. She knew the legalities were completely on her side. But there was legal, and there was fair.

And then there was what she could afford to do, which was something else entirely.

"It really doesn't seem wise to attempt to sort this out in the middle of the night, does it? I'm sure that, in the morning, everything will be simpler."

Impatience simmered around him. He jammed his arms over his chest, glaring at her. "Wouldn't take much for me to just haul you out of here and be done with it."

"No, it wouldn't." Charming was clearly beyond his reach, but a bare minimum of politeness shouldn't be. She could understand why he — wrongly, she reminded herself — considered this land his, but she'd never understood rudeness. "It would take a bit more for me to fetch the federal agent who deals with claim jumpers, but I imagine then I'll be done with it, too."

He just barely held himself in check. "All right then. The morning." He hooked the nearest kitchen chair and dragged it close, flopped into it, and kicked his feet up on the foot of the bed.

"You're not planning to stay here," she said, aghast at the idea.

His voice lightened with something that, in another man, might have been amusement. "Don't tell me you'll expire from the shock of sharing breathing space with a man for what little's left of tonight."

"I've spent the night with a man before," she said staunchly. And it wasn't even much of a lie. "Several, in fact." They'd mostly been comatose at the time, and barely capable of lifting a finger, much less anything else, but Emily didn't see why that should disqualify it.

"I'll bet."

Emily clamped down on an automatic protest. It'd be utterly foolish to allow him to spur her into ruining her own reputation just for the pleasure of calling him wrong. But his loftily superior skepticism just dared her to contradict him. And Emily had never been good at resisting a dare.

"Fine. You stay." She plopped back down on the bed. The bed that he claimed to have built, that he'd slept in for many nights . . . the thought lodged itself firmly, big and brazen, at the forefront of her brain. Oh, she was going to sleep ever so well after realizing that! Shed be tempted to go ahead and hash the whole thing out right now, the late hour be damned, except that he'd be too pleased by her capitulation.

So they just sat there, her on the bed, tense, stiff-backed, hands tucked between her wedged-together knees, fervently grateful she'd fallen asleep fully dressed; him, apparently comfortably settled into what she'd considered a seriously uncomfortable chair.

"So this is what we're going to do until sunrise? Sit here and glare at each other?" she asked him.

"You can do whatever you want." The door was still open, shades of gray and moonlight washing through, but he'd pulled the chair to the side, into the shadows. She couldn't make out his borders, so he was just vague forms in the dark, denser and firmer than the gloom cloaking him, but she thought he might have shrugged.

"And you're going to . . ." She trailed off leadingly. And futilely, for all she received in response was silence brushed with the whispering sigh of the wind.

It went against her nature to let the conversation lie between them. She liked to prod, to ask, to learn. The most cantankerous of Dr. Goodale's patients rarely held out long against her cheerful interest. And, despite this man's exceedingly cantankerous nature, there was plenty to be curious about. She longed to know why he'd come here — then and now - and why he'd left. And why he'd left so much behind.

But asking would be pointless. He still hadn't even given her his name. Nor asked hers.

What an interesting few days she'd had, she reflected. She'd lied to her sister, quit the city of her birth, traveled halfway across the country, chosen her new home and been summarily delivered to the middle of nowhere. And now this, a stalemate with a stubborn stranger.

He sat with complete stillness, blending easily into the night, and she could almost pretend he wasn't there. She closed her eyes, tried to sink into the idea.

Except she could hear him breathing. Even, deep, a steady pulsing rhythm beneath the whoosh of the wind. She found herself breathing in the same cadence, as if her lungs responded to his control rather than her own. No, not there — not with him - breathe now . . . and now. Not then! Now! Try as she might, she couldn't keep from falling into the pace he set; it was like purposely trying to dance off beat, when the music kept slipping into your bones and your heart and leading you into the insistent rhythm.

In . . . out. So deeply. So even.

Why, she thought vaguely, was she even trying to fight it?

He stayed in the shack as long as he could stand it.

It'd probably been a good thing, Jake decided, that the girl had been there when he arrived. She'd distracted him enough that the memories hadn't had a chance to whack him all at once. If they had, maybe he'd be halfway back to Chicago by now, looking for another bottle.

But then she'd fallen asleep, not five minutes after she stopped yapping. Just closed her eyes and toppled right over on the bed like she hadn't slept in weeks. Like the presence of a strange man, one who wanted her gone, didn't give her a moment's pause.

And that's when the memories arrived. So many, so fast, spinning out from every corner, crawling up from the floor, dropping down from the ceiling. Reeling out from every corner of his brain, pressing in on him until it felt like he might suffocate under them all.

And so he'd fled the pitiful excuse for a house that he'd worked so damn hard on. He stood in front of it, hands on his hips, sucking in air like he'd just ran all the way from McGyre. The air even tasted different out here. Sometimes, in Chicago, when he'd breathed in the thick, sour air, he tried to summon exactly what this air had been like and he'd never gotten it quite right. Even so, it seemed utterly familiar now, the snap of cedar and tang of sage, the sweet dust of grass, a faint tinge of animal musk.Marry Me

Coming back here might have been a stupid idea. For a long time, he'd believed he'd rather go anyplace on earth, no matter how dismal — and hell, too, if it came right down to it - than here. But he'd given up everything for this place, lost too much of himself here. He'd battled the urge to come back, tried to drown it, and finally gave in. He'd win something out of this place, by damn, prove it up. Sell it or keep it, he'd decide when the time came, but he wouldn't be defeated by this cursed quarter section. He refused.
He didn't figure the girl'd be much trouble to dislodge. Her type was easy to recognize, and just as easy to dismiss; the only thing he couldn't figure was exactly what had lured her here in the first place. But then lots of people, young or foolish or both, who'd believed the rosy propaganda spread by the government and railroads and came west without having a clue what they were getting into. He should know; he'd been one of them. And, while it had only been two years ago, he come a good long way from young. Foolish remained to be seen. But if that term still applied to him, it wouldn't be the same kind of foolish. No more of that new and bright optimism that had made him believe that everything'd be all right, that he could make it all right.

He knew better. Oh, damn, he knew better now.

Reg snuffled off to his left, dipped his head and cropped another mouthful of grass. Jake had given the gelding his head. As long as there was food nearby, the horse wouldn't wander far; it always took determined encouragement to get him moving. Jake dragged his pack from the horse's back and dropped it on a bare patch on ground a few feet away.

He hadn't brought much with him. He didn't know whether thieves had found the place or whether supplies and equipment remained in the shack, and he hadn't wanted to waste his money on by doubling up. It'd taken three months of unloading freighters at the docks, three hard, sweaty, nasty months to save up the little he had, and it'd take careful use to see him through the winter and pay the fees next spring. No way he was waiting the five years up it'd take to prove up the cheap way.

He plopped down and nestled his head on the pack. The ground was hard and cold beneath him, but that didn't make much difference to Jake; he probably wouldn't be sleeping much anyway. It was the one thing he missed about drinking: sleep. Not that the kind of rest he'd found after downing half a barrel of whiskey was particularly restful, anyway, but at least it was some, a lot more than he'd been managing since.

The tiny shack squatted not twenty feet away, a box plopped on a wide stretch of stubbornly flat land, looking no more permanent than if he'd emptied one of the crates he unloaded at the docks and plopped it down in the middle of Montana. He'd sweated every nail he'd put into it, worried over it, tried his inexpert best, conscious every instant that it would be his and his wife's first home. But he'd had to rush because the thin-walled tent he'd temporarily pitched wouldn't suffice for long.

Moonlight wasn't kind to the old place. Old. He'd built it barely two years ago, but it was indisputably old, the roof sagging, the door loose, the tarpaper peeling like birch bark.

I'm sorry, Julia. It was as close as he ever got to a prayer, the refrain he murmured every night, the words he rose to every morning.

I'm so sorry.

The sound awoke her, a deep heavy rumble that vibrated the bed, her chest. For a moment Emily thought she was still on the train, chugging across the countryside through the night, the car swaying over the track.

She opened her eyes to dense and gloomy gray. Awareness came in stages: not the train, but her new house. And the man — oh, darn! That obnoxious man.

"Sir?" Had she just plopped over and fallen asleep while he stared at her? How embarrassing, if not surprising. Years of being called into the clinic in the middle of the night had taught her to fall asleep, suddenly and deeply, when given the opportunity.

"Sir?" she tried again, a bit louder. But maybe, blessedly, he'd slunk off after all. Maybe the fact that the claim was legally hers had finally sunk in. Though he hardly appeared the kind to capitulate easily. And even less the sort who cared much about legalities.

Marry MeStill no answer; she heard nothing but the wind and the rain and the . . .

Rain. "Shoot!" She blasted out of bed, tumbled out of the door, and burst into the storm.

Gray hazed the sky, hinting that morning approached if the clouds hadn't blotted it out. The curtain of water rippled when the wind picked up. It wasn't a violent storm, filled with rage and destruction. Instead, it was just wet, cold, and drenching, dousing the supplies she'd considered safe in the yard.
She briefly considered grabbing a blanket to drape over her head, but there seemed no point considering she'd already been soaked. Better to keep dry things dry.

She dashed toward her small, precious cache of supplies. And tripped right over a lump on the ground.
"Ouch!" She skidded on the slippery grass, right into her rump. Swiping her burning palms on her green-streaked skirt, she rolled over, and realized in horror exactly what had tripped her.
He sat on the ground a foot from her, for all appearances comfortably settled despite the chilly rain pouring over him, one knee pulled up, his wrist resting on it.

"Oh. It's you." She swiped at the rain dripping off her eyelashes, realized it was futile. "I didn't realize you were there."

"Obviously."

"You okay?"

He stared at her so long she had to work not to shift under his regard. Finally he nodded. She waited, until it became clear he'd no intention of saying more.

"I'm believe I'm all right as well," she told him, making no attempt to hide the censure in her voice. After so many years with the doctor, she should be accustomed to rude men. But instead she'd never understood what a few simple manners would cost them. When she married, she'd long ago resolved, her first requirement in a husband would be impeccable politeness.

"Figured you were." He nodded in the direction of her boxes. "Best be getting your stuff in."

He said it like he considered her too stupid to drag her things in out of the rain. "I fully intend to," she said, and went to do just that.

This was going to be almost pathetically easy, Jake thought as he watched her struggle to get a good grip on a rain-slicked crate. She dropped it three times before she maneuvered it through the front door.Marry Me

If there was ever a woman less cut out for the plains than Julia, it was this one. She'd sat there on her butt, a poor, pitiful kitten some heartless person had pitched out into the storm, her hair matted down around her shoulders, eyes all big and curious and wounded. The rain plastered her clothes to her, soaking down all the frills and ruffles, which made her look half the size she did dry.

She whipped back out of the house again, head down, arms pumping as she went back to her pitiful stack of supplies. Grabbing the handle of a case in both hands, she heaved and lifted it all of maybe three inches off the ground. After pondering for a second, she started backing toward the house, rear stuck out like she was wearing a bustle even though she wasn't, dragging the case behind her.

The sky was lightening up in the east, nudging at the edges of the dark clouds. At this rate the rain'd be over by the time she got all her junk inside.

And then she stopped in her tracks, dropping the case where she stood. Hands on her skinny hips, she stared at him through the pulsating waves of water, her mouth puckered up like she was pondering something. Then, her mind made up, she headed for him with the same direct line and determined step she'd taken towards her boxes.

He planted his feet, resisting the urge to turn and run before she reached him. While he'd never claimed much knowledge of women — far from it — even he could recognize one with a plan on her mind. And he figured he wasn't going to like any scheme hatched in that pretty head.

Pretty. Now, why'd he called her that? It wasn't something he'd cared much about one way or the other, not in a long time. But she was, he realized when she took up a position a few feet in front of him with all the resolve of a general claiming the high ground. If one was partial to delicate, fine-boned, cream-skinned, huge-eyed females, and he guessed he was, considering he'd noticed and all. He'd thought he'd gotten that out of his system once and for all. Well, he'd just have try harder.

"I've got a proposition for you, mister . . ?"

Mutely, he returned her leading question with a glare. He didn't want to know her name, didn't want her to know his. That would apply a level of connection, however shallow. The first step toward a relationship, even just a slight one, and that was the last thing he needed.

She frowned. "Mister, then." She almost gave up at that; he saw her waver, but then she squared her shoulders, firm, sharp rounds under thin green cotton nearly black with moisture. "I've been thinking. I could use some help moving all of my things inside before they float away. And it certainly can't be comfortable out here for you. So what I suggest is, you could help me lug in a few things — you look like you could take most of it in one load." She smiled at him, winsome, practically flirty, and he wondered if he looked like he could be flattered that easily. And led about by it so simply. "And then you could share the roof, just for tonight."

Unbelievable. If he'd wanted out of the rain, did she really think she could have kept him out? But there she stood, with her little drowned kitten face and cheerful smile — just what did she have to be so happy about, all things considered? Nearly every woman of his acquaintance would be complaining a blue streak by now, but she clearly didn't have enough sense to know when she was beat.

All in all, he figured, it'd be doing her a favor, to send her back to her nice, neat, warm life before this place did her any permanent damage.

And so he shook his head slowly.

Her smile never wavered. Maybe even widened a bit.

"Your concern is very kind, but, truly, I don't think there's much danger to my reputation out here. Who'd know? And, even if they did, well, I've been assured that some of the usual rules of propriety must bow to practicality in the West. It'd be understandable, wouldn't it? And I'm obviously in no danger from you."

The raindrops hit his skin and shattered, leaving him tingling and raw. For a man who'd spent a fair amount of time benumbed, trying his best not to feel anything, the sharp edge of sensation was brutally new.

"I like the rain."

"Oh." Her brow furrowed; not unhappy, just puzzled. "You could help me move everything inside anyway. Just to be polite."

It was a wonder she'd made it to Montana whole. It had to be pure, blind good fortune that kept her from falling prey to every confidence man, thief, and plain old rogue west of the Mississippi.

"It'd be pretty stupid of me to help you, wouldn't it, given that I'd rather you lost everything and had to give up sooner rather than later. I'd have a shot at getting a crop in this year, if I could get started soon enough."

That earned him a glare, as effective as that kitten hissing at a battle-scarred old tomcat, and he almost laughed.

Almost.

"You're going to be sadly disappointed if you pin all your hopes on my giving up. I realize you don't know me, but you'd be wise to trust me when I say that I'm not the quitting kind."

"Really." Yeah, he'd bet she'd had to persevere a whole lot in her life. He wondered what had been her biggest challenge. Learning to embroider? Being forced to waltz with a partner who kept stepping on her toes? He jerked his chin in the direction of her drowning supplies. "If you'd kept moving, instead of trying to charm me into doing it for you, you might have most of that stuff inside by now."

Now, that comment she hadn't appreciated at all. If she could have, he was sure, she'd have flounced off. Probably flounced real well under normal circumstances. But her petticoats must have soaked up a washtub of water, and so she just spun and squished off.

Marry MeSo he just stood in the rain and watched her scurry frantically back and forth between her cache and his house. And he wasn't one bit guilty about it.

Damn it, he wasn't.

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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