Duncan's Bride(4)

By: Linda Howard

* * *

Wanted: a wife.

She picked up the newspaper and read the ad again.

Naw. She wasn't that desperate. Was she? She needed a new job, a change of scenery, not a husband.

On the other hand, she was twenty-eight, old enough to know that the swinging life wasn't for her. Nor was city living, really, though she had lived in cities most of her life. As a child in Richmond, she had dearly loved the weekends when she had visited her grandmother in the country. Though it had been only a rural house, not an actual farm, she had still reveled in the peace and quiet, and longed for it when her mother had remarried and they had moved to New York. No, she wasn't desperate at all, but she was curious by nature and badly needed a diversion while she decided what sort of job she should look for, and where. It was like a first date. If it clicked, then it clicked. She had nothing against Montana, and wouldn't that be a wild tale to tell her grandchildren, that she'd been a mail-order bride? If, as was far more likely, nothing came of it, then no harm had been done. She felt far safer answering an ad from a Montana rancher than she would one from a freestyle urbanite.

Feeling a bit exhilarated from the daring of it, she quickly rolled a sheet of paper into her topof-the-line electronic typewriter, wrote a reply to the ad, addressed an envelope, put a stamp on it and dropped it down the mail chute. As soon as the silver metal flap swallowed the envelope, she felt a peculiar, hollow feeling in her stomach, as though she had done something incredibly stupid. On the other hand, she had had this same feeling the first time she'd gotten behind the wheel of a car. And when she'd ridden one of the super rollercoasters. And when she'd gone to college, flown for the first time, and gone on her first date. This same feeling had accompanied almost every first in her life, but it had never been a forerunner of disaster. Instead she had thoroughly enjoyed all those firsts. Maybe that was a good sign.

On the other hand... a mail-order bride? Her? Then she shrugged. It was nothing to worry about. The odds were that she would never hear from this Montana rancher. After all, what could they have in common?

* * *

Reese Duncan frowned at the New York return address on the envelope as he slit it open and removed the single sheet of typewritten paper inside. What would anyone in New York know about life on a ranch? He was tempted to toss the letter into the trash; it would be a waste of his time to read it, just as this trip into Billings to pick up the mail had been a waste of time. Today there had been only this one response to his ad, and from New York, of all places. But the overall response to the ad hadn't been exactly overwhelming, so he might as well read it. In fact, this was just the third answer he'd gotten. Guess there weren't too many women in the world anxious for life on a Montana ranch.

The letter was short, and remarkable in the information it didn't give. Her name was Madelyn S. Paterson. She was twenty-eight, had never been married, and was healthy, strong and willing to work. She hadn't sent a picture. She was the only one who hadn't.

She was younger than the other two women who had responded; they were both in their thirties. The schoolteacher was his age, and not bad to look at. The other woman was thirty-six, two years his senior, and had never worked at a paying job; she had remained at home to care for her invalid mother, who had recently died. She was plain, but not homely. Both of them would have far more realistic expectations of the vast, empty spaces and hard life on a ranch than this Madelyn S. Patterson.

On the other hand, she might be some small-town girl who had moved to the big city and found she didn't like it. She must have read his ad in a hometown newspaper that had been mailed to her, because he sure as hell hadn't wasted his money placing it in the New York Times. And he hadn't had so many responses that he could afford to ignore one. He would make the same arrangements with her that he'd made with the others, if she were still interested when he wrote to her.

He tapped the folded letter against his thigh as he left the post office and walked to his pickup truck. This was taking up more time than he could truly afford. He wanted to have everything settled by July, and it was already the middle of May. Six weeks. He wanted to find a wife within the next six weeks.

* * *

Madelyn almost dropped her mail when she saw the Montana address on the plain white envelope. Only nine days had passed since she had answered the ad, so he must have replied almost by return mail. In those nine days she had convinced herself that he wouldn't answer at all. She sat down at her small dining table and ripped open the envelope. There was only one sheet inside.

Miss Patterson,

My name is Reese Duncan. I'm thirty-four years old, divorced, no children. I own a ranch in central Montana.

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