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Sourcebooks Publishing January 28, 2020
When three young children show up on outlaw Tait Trinity’s doorstep, he knows he can’t help them―a wanted man has no business raising kids. And yet he can’t bring himself to turn them away. At a loss, he sends for the mail order bride he’d been writing to, hoping the demure dressmaker will be the answer to his prayers.
Melanie Dunbar is nothing like the bride Tait was expecting. She’s rough and tumble…and hiding an ulterior motive. Dangerous men have taken her sister hostage, and if Melanie wants to see her alive, she’ll have to betray her new husband. There’s only one problem―the more time she spends with Tait, the more she comes to care for him. Yet as the noose begins to tighten, Melanie will have to make a terrible choice: save her sister…or the man she loves.
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Tait and Melanie sat down on the sofa and he glanced into her tired eyes. “We’ll keep this short. What time would you like the wedding tomorrow?”
“Doesn’t that depend on the preacher?”
“Right. What if we go over to talk to him right after breakfast and set everything up?”
“I’d like that. It won’t take me long to prepare. I’m a simple woman with quiet tastes.”
He wanted to say that suited her, that she wouldn’t look right in an elaborate dress with her hair piled high on her head like he’d seen with some highfalutin’ brides. But he didn’t. When she smothered a yawn, he pulled her to her feet. “Let’s get you to bed.”
They made the short walk to her room, her hand tucked around Tait’s elbow. He unlocked the door. “I’ll see you around seven o’clock for breakfast?”
“I’ll be ready. I had a lovely evening, Tait. The children seem so well behaved.”
Thank God she hadn’t come earlier that morning when they’d been running around like rabid coyotes. He smiled. “They do have their moments.” He went inside and lit the lamps then went to her and took her hand. “Thank you for taking a chance on me.”
“We have a lot to work out in our marriage, but I feel very confident that we’ll manage.”
Tait widened his stance. “Do you mind answering one question that’s been on my mind?”
Melanie glanced down at the floor. “What would you like to know?”
He stared at her for several heartbeats, his focus on every facial expression. She seemed wary, too careful with her words. Maybe marrying a complete stranger would do that, but was that the only reason? “Out of all the men in the West, why did you choose me?”
She lifted her guarded gaze. “I liked what you said in your letters. Especially your honesty about your crimes. You didn’t try to make excuses or sugarcoat anything. You admitted the truth straight out. I knew if you could do that, you’d be a man who wouldn’t run from anything. That you were someone who’d stand and fight against all odds.”
“No use trying to pretend something I’m not.” Tait yearned to touch the curve of her cheek, but he kept his hands by his sides. It had been so long since he’d had anything but hardness in his life. “What do you want from this marriage, Miss Dunbar?”
The questions rattled Melanie, but she kept her voice steady and tried to face him openly. She’d anticipated this last question, but the intensity of his gaze when he asked it had caught her off guard. She raised her chin and dredged up a tear. “Call me Melanie, please. I want a home. A family. A space to grow a garden.”
But even as she said the practiced words, she realized there was more truth to them than she liked to admit. She used to hide outside the big, fancy homes when she was a little girl going from town to town with her father and sister. The bright lights had shone through the windows like glistening diamonds. She’d huddle in the darkness and watch the mother setting food on the table, hugging her children, the family laughing together, and wish like hell she could trade the life she had for that one. Of course, that dream hadn’t come true. It was stupid to wish for something so far-fetched anyway.
A small voice in her head whispered that nothing was hopeless. Maybe that was true for some, but not if your name was Melanie Dunbar.
Soft lamplight bathed her room, yet it seemed far too bright. He would see too much. Memories brought trembles to Melanie’s hands, and she wished for a strong drink from the flask in her pocket.
“Are you all right?” His quicksilver eyes fixed on her, his gaze penetrating her thoughts.
“Couldn’t be better.” She tacked on a smile for extra measure.
“I can give you the home, the garden you yearn for.” Tait’s voice was soft as he took her hand. “I confess I was woefully unprepared for marriage this soon, so I have no place for us to live, but I can start work on one next week. You can design it however you wish. It’ll be yours.”
Melanie’s breath caught. Her dream of having a real home and family peeked through the deluge of broken promises. All those nights spent huddling in the dark and the constant fear of being caught might soon be put to rest. Except now she really couldn’t afford to believe in any of it. Despair, lies, and disappointment had left deep, permanent scars.
“How will we pay for it?” She lifted her brows, her eyes wide. Another practiced gesture. She might as well get started on her task.
“I have enough—honest money I’ve made.” He fished a handsome gold timepiece from his pocket and flipped it open. “I should go.”
She glanced down at her small hand in his, curled so contentedly, and pulled away, reminding herself that despite his pretty words, she couldn’t trust him. He was no gallant knight in shining armor. Tait Trinity answered to no one and likely killed anyone who stood in his way.
“I have a question of my own.” Melanie lifted her chin and boldly met his eyes. “What do you want, expect, from this marriage?”
Tait ran his fingers through his hair. “When I first started writing you, I wanted an enjoyable way to pass the time. It seemed harmless. But when I sent for you with the marriage offer, I wanted your help with the children.”
“I want someone to share my life with—the sunshine, the storms, and the days when everything seems just about perfect.” He moved close and lowered his head, his deep sigh ruffling the hair at her temple.
“Do you plan to keep robbing trains?”