Petaluma, California—August 2, 1875
Soft hands. Far smoother than her calloused palms. With hands like those, the man couldn’t have worked a single day in his life.
Honor Cahill squeezed her eyes shut. Stop it. You asked for this.
If she’d had more time, perhaps someone better would have replied. Someone more suited. She shook her head. This Eastern-bred dandy was the only one to answer her Matrimonial News ad, and she had no time to waste. This all had to be accomplished today.
She stared up at the stranger before her. His brown eyes narrowed in response, his thick dark hair falling in soft waves across his forehead. At least he was handsome.
Honor adjusted her grip on his sweaty palms. The preacher’s voice droned on like the buzzing of a bee until, finally, it landed.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”
A vise cinched tight around her chest. She was someone’s wife. And her husband was nothing more than a stranger in a fine suit.
An uncomfortable stillness swelled as Ashton Rutherford leaned in. Honor drew back, and the preacher arched a brow. Her stomach knotted. Oh, botheration. She inhaled deeply and, heart pounding, pecked him on the lips. When she pulled away, he lingered there for an instant, then straightened, an amused grin painting his mouth. The preacher and witnesses—all strangers—stared.
Her new husband chuckled. “My bride must have a few wedding day jitters, Reverend. I’m sure she’ll kiss me more soundly in private. Won’t you, sweetness?”
Heat leapt to her cheeks. How dare he—
A perplexed smile flickered across the man of God’s face. “Um, congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford.”
Mrs. Rutherford. The weight of the name descended like a shroud. She’d never dreamed she’d marry. Her…backwards Honor Cahill. And it had all happened so suddenly. Surely, there had to be another way to save her beloved ranch.
Honor huffed. No sense kidding herself. There was no other way. She tugged at her dress, smothered by petticoats and corset. A lump swelled her throat.
The deed was done. No turning back.
Her new husband shook the preacher’s hand, and after signing the marriage certificate, they excused themselves. His hand at the small of her back, he guided her toward the church door and out into the late morning sun. Honor shielded her eyes.
“So, sweetness, where are we off to now?”
“My name is Honor Cahill. I expect to be called that.”
“Rutherford.” He smiled.
Honor stilled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your name is Honor Rutherford, sweetness.” The cleft in his chin deepened.
“Call me that again,” she hissed.
His brows shot up. “Call you what? Rutherford, or sweetness?” Oh, but he and that stupid cleft in his chin were mocking her.
Honor drove the heel of her boot onto his instep, and he howled.
“Call me sweetness again, and I’m liable to shoot you.” She strode to her wagon and climbed aboard. “Now get your sorry hide over here or find your own way to Rancho Regalo de Esperanza.”
His young bride knew her mind and wasn’t afraid to say so. A far different quality than he was used to.
Ash hobbled to the side of the wagon. At least they’d had the foresight to load his trunks before the impromptu ceremony. That chore would’ve been more difficult with his recently-acquired limp. Now they could get on to Rancho whatever-she-called-it and figure out what to do next. After one brief stop.
He clambered up beside her, reaching for the reins. His new bride turned a heated blue-eyed gaze his way, and he stilled, hands in mid-reach. “You don’t want me to drive?”
Annoyance flitted across her pretty features. “Do you know where you’re going?”
“No, but you could direct me.” Sweetness.
She snorted. “I’ll drive, thank you very much.”
“Then by all means, Mrs. Rutherford. Proceed.” He grinned at her clenched teeth. “Although I have one brief errand to run before leaving town.”
“You couldn’t have run your errands on Saturday? It’s several hours’ drive to Santa Rosa, where we have a four o’clock appointment.”
An appointment? She’d said nothing of that previously. At least there would be time to discuss it on the drive. “I’d like to stop by the telegraph office and send the news of our nuptials to my parents. Not something I could have done previously.”
His bride’s face softened, and her cheeks paled. “You have family?”
Ash nodded. “Mother, Father, and three sisters—one older and two younger.”
“Oh.” She turned the wagon toward the heart of town. “How do you expect this news to be received?”
“Not well.” Ash chuckled. “Father will be livid, and Mother, wounded.”
“Why would you agree to marry me if it would hurt your family?”
“I’m tired of having every detail of my life planned for me.” As the only son, his father had dictated his friends, courses of study, and career path. Despite his protests, he’d been groomed to become just like Father. He wanted to make his own way in the world, and that didn’t include returning to Philadelphia.
He eyed his bride, a smile playing about his lips. Her Matrimonial News ad had said she was a woman of some means. She was handsome enough, with delicate features and mounds of light brown curls arranged atop her head. Her only flaw was her sun-kissed complexion, though the color looked fetching on her.
“What?” She shot him a sidelong glance. “Have I got dirt smeared on my face or something?”
Ash couldn’t help but laugh. “No.”
“Then quit gawking at me like I wallowed in pig slop. You’re making me uncomfortable.”
Wallowed in pig slop? He faced front again, chuckling. Yes, she had spunk. The very opposite of every woman Father would have paraded before him upon his return to Philadelphia. Each would have been from a wealthy family, hand-selected for her father’s status or wealth, and each would have carried herself with perfect comportment, just like Mother. Any one of them would make a proper wife, but he’d seen the cold, loveless marriage his parents shared. If he was to be relegated to such a union, he wanted the selection of a bride to be his choice. By marrying the spirited Honor Cahill, he’d assured it was.
Certainly, he could have chosen not to return to Philadelphia without marrying Honor, but Father would spare no expense in finding him and persuading him to return. By marrying her, it provided an unequivocal reason to remain out west. His bride’s home was here, and she had no desire to leave.
She turned down another street and stopped in front of the building on the far end of the little road. “There’s the telegraph office.”
“Thank you.” He climbed down. “This shouldn’t take long.”
Ash stashed the marriage certificate, the edition of the Matrimonial News with her ad, and their brief letters in the nearest trunk, then stepped into the dismal little building. The telegrapher offered a dull greeting as Ash retrieved paper and pencil and wrote out his brief message.
Not returning to Philadelphia. Married a woman of some means. Residing near Santa Rosa. A.W.R.III
As the telegrapher took the message, Ash gripped the wood counter. There was no doubt Ashton Wendell Rutherford, Junior would become furious at the abrupt message. Ash was prepared to deal with the consequences, as well as the guilt his mother would serve him. What gnawed at him was the idea of his beloved younger sisters, Lucy and Eliza, finding out that he had broken his promise to return home soon.