Janet Tronstad.

Wife Wanted in Dry Creek






After a few steps, Katrina felt the heels of her shoes suddenly go down into the mud.

Whats wrong? Conrad stepped over and steadied her arm.

I think Im stuck, Katrina confessed. When hed taken her arm, shed realized how tall he was. Of course, shed shrunk an inch when her heels slid down in the mud.

Conrad frowned. Hold on to your hat, he said as he scooped her up and settled her into his arms. There. Ill get you to the asphalt, at least.

You dont need to Katrina started, but he was already walking with her. Being swept off my feet like this is really quite romantic. You know, like those old movie stars. She was very close to him and it gave her a dizzy feeling in her stomach. His eyes were dancing with laughter.

If you want movie-star romance, here it is.

And with that, he kissed her.

JANET TRONSTAD

would never presume to tell anyone who they should marry. But she does admit to a little matchmaking between the pages of her twenty-some books. She has a series of contemporary and historical books set in Dry Creek, Montana (based loosely on the small Montana town where she grew up). Another four-book series, sharing the lives of four young women in the Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches, is set in Old Town Pasadena, California, where she currently lives. Janet is a full-time writer and, when shes not at her computer, she enjoys spending time with friends and family.

Wife Wanted in Dry Creek
Janet Tronstad

www.millsandboon.co.uk

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.

Proverbs 18:22

For my nephew, Orion MacDonald, with love and prayers that, in due time, he will find exactly the right wife. Meanwhile, of course, hes more concerned with his puppy. And getting through the second grade.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Epilogue

Letter to Reader

Questions for Discussion

Chapter One

Katrina Britton stood looking out the window of the only gas station in Dry Creek, Montana. The handful of houses she saw had their curtains drawn. It was supposed to be spring, but winter still had a grip on this tiny town. The ground was sprinkled with frost and dried mud was splattered on everything from parked cars to that little garden gnome sticking up in someones dead lawn.

In all her thirty-two years, Katrina had always liked winter. But seeing how lonely the gnome looked surrounded by all that withered grass made her eyes tear up so she blinked and concentrated on the window in front of her.

The ground wasnt all that was frozen. Twenty minutes ago, shed pulled off the I-90 freeway outside this town to take a call on her cell phone. When she finished the conversation, she knew her new photography business was as cold and lifeless as anything she could see out this window. In the past couple of months, shed fought against everythingher unsupportive boyfriend, her dwindling savings and her own doubtsall in hopes of landing this one big client that would jump-start her career as a freelance photographer. She wanted this more than anything shed ever wanted. And just when she thought it was hers, the client had said they couldnt use her photos because, although they were technically good, they lacked heart.

Lacked heart? How could they lack heart? Shed spent almost everything she had getting the perfect models to portray that illusive thing called heart.

Not knowing what to do after that call, she started the car again, only to have the muffler make a horrid noise and begin spewing out black smoke. She was forced to take the first exit she could find to get help. So, here she was. Her day was miserable and it was only eight-thirty in the morning.

She hiccupped and saw the man at the desk look up at her. In an effort to stop the tears from falling, she turned back and focused on the window. Eventually, shed need to decide what to do next in her life, but for now she just needed to breathe. Of course, a distraction would help her get through the next few minutes, but there was nothing more to see outside. Thats when she noticed that the large glass pane itself was amazingly clean.

Who does the windows? she turned to ask the man who was watching her instead of tallying up a repair estimate for her muffler.

I do them, he answered a little tentatively. Why, do you see a spot?

Shed grown up in a muddy town like this so she knew how hard it was to keep windows clean during the winter. I just think that whatever theyre paying you to keep them looking like this, its not enough. Youre doing a great job. She peered at his name tag. Conrad.

She would love to have someone tell her she was doing a good jobat anything. It would certainly make her feelings of failure a lot less right now. But he didnt seem to care if anyone appreciated his efforts. He grunted and turned back to the repair estimate he was filling out.

Well, Mr. Congeniality he was not. She studied him anyway because she needed to focus on something right now. His brown hair was cropped close, but not styled. His beige uniform had his name, Conrad Nelson, embroidered on the top pocket in orange thread. Shed guess he was in his late thirties. He was fit, but not buff. The shirt of his uniform was neatly tucked in and his shoulders were military straight as he sat in his wooden chair.

Something about him steadied her, though. His demeanor said he was a rock. She guessed he was a man who always quietly did his duty.

He pointed to the small sign by the door. This is my place. I take care of it all. Top to bottom, including windows.

Youre fortunate. She envied him; thered been pride in his voice.

I do okay. Moved everything here from Miles City a few months ago. Conrad paused to look at her some more. You need a job or something? Washing those windows wouldnt pay much, but

She tried to smile at him, but couldnt.

Im just passing through, she managed to say. When that didnt seem like enough, she added, This place is wonderful, though.

Actually, the town looked like it had sprung up in some ranchers field and would blow away if a good wind bothered to come along. The only thing that connected it to the outside world was that winding asphalt road shed driven into town. Across the street from the gas station, shed seen a hardware store and a little farther down was a caf?. That was it for businesses, unless she counted the small church.

She wished she could overlook that church, but it stood out. The old-fashioned white building had concrete steps leading up to the front door. Stained glass windows lined the side. If it had a steeple, the place would look almost like the church shed gone to as a child. That had been so long ago. Back then, she believed God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. Of course, she knew better now. If God was up there looking down at her life, it was only idle curiosity that moved Him.

She blinked. That bothered her more than it had in a long time. And made her feel like she had too much in common with that old garden gnome out there, standing isolated and frozen in some eternal winter she didnt understand. She blinked again. Shed always made do with what she had in life; she would again.

Just then she heard the faint sound of a sliding chair. She turned and saw Conrad reach into a side drawer of his desk, take something out and stand up.

Here. He opened the box of tissues and held it out to her. He didnt even look at her when he offered the box with the yellow flowers on it. She wondered how often women burst into tears in his office. She hated to look that emotional. Her boyfriendwell, ex-boyfriend nowalways walked away from her when she cried. And the tears had come too easily ever since the lump in her breast had turned out to be cancer. The doctor said the surgery had probably removed it all, but he wouldnt know for sure until six months had passed. She had four and a half months left until the final verdict.

I dont need anything. She lifted her head high, which proved to be the wrong thing to do as a tear lost its moorings and slid down her cheek. Well, she supposed she did need something. She reached out and took a tissue. Sorry.

Dont be.

I dont usually get so upset. She waved her hand in a vague way. Its just because of

Its okay, Conrad said and set the tissue box down on his desk.

Ive been fired. She didnt want him to think she was unhinged so she needed to explain there was a sensible reason for her tears. And she hadnt talked about the cancer with anyone since the one disastrous conversation with her boyfriend, so she wasnt going to mention that. Well, technically not so much fired as not hired.

She took a breath.

But Im doing fine, she added before he could say anything more about the window washing job. I have so much to be grateful for. Really.

Yeah, he said in a voice almost as phony as hers.

He clearly didnt believe her. Of course, I wasnt wild about having the muffler fall off. But my life is good, she said.

That might be a stretch. But she was at least trying to make everything right. After her surgery, she hadnt wanted to go back to her secretarial job, not when she craved so much more out of life. Over the years, shed taken a dozen photography classes so she decided to at least try to make her dream come true.

Conrad looked up and glanced at the wall where a calendar hung. He was probably only checking the date, but Katrinas heart stopped.

April 9, she offered quickly. Todays Saturday, April 9.

She felt the heat rise on her face. Shed forgotten she was pictured on this months page of that particular agricultural calendar. Last year, shed answered an ad in the paper for models. Shed only wanted to see what a professional photo shoot was like, but shed ended up being chosen to model for a Depression-era picture. The tractor was the star of the photo; she was in a distant farmhouse calling her husband home from the fields for dinner. Shed told herself she was far enough away that no one would recognize her.

Conrad looked up from his desk and opened his mouth to say something. Then he closed it again. He didnt say anything, but she noticed something had changed in his face. Maybe he was having a heart attack. He was white as snow. Well, not snow in general, but he sure matched the kind of gray that would be found in this town during winter. He was even slumped a little in his chair.

Just then the phone on his desk rang.

Conrad straightened himself and picked up the phone. Service station. Nelson here.

Katrina could hear another mans voice indistinctly on the other end of the phone.

Easy now, Conrad said as he put his hand over the receiver and looked up at her in apology. Sorry, but this is my uncle. Itll only take a minute if

Katrina nodded. She was more than happy to leave. She turned and walked into the repair part of the gas station and shut the glass door behind her. She hadnt had a chance to tell Conrad that the car belonged to her sister, Leanne. Her sister had asked her, begged her really, to come for a visit. It had been bad timing, though. Katrina arrived at Leannes place yesterday, just in time to listen to her sister fret about why her husband, Walker Rain Tree, hadnt come home the night before.

This morning, Leanne had asked her to take three-year-old Zach and six-year-old Ryan with her for the day so she and Walker could have a serious talk without them around. It seemed this wasnt the first night Leannes husband had been gone and then refused to explain why. Katrina didnt want the boys to witness that kind of a quarrel either, so she said yes, and now the boys were asleep in the back of her sisters car. Leanne had insisted Katrina take her old car in case she wanted to take some of the back roads. That way, Katrina wouldnt risk damaging her leased Lexus.

On a whim, Katrina had promised the boys a quarter for each photo she took of them today. They had been excited about earning money so she expected theyd be up soon. Even with all of the delays, they should be home at Leannes in time for an early dinner.

Conrad waited for the woman to walk out of his office before he put the phone back to his ear. Now, start at the beginning.

He had to admit he was glad she was gone. His whole face relaxed. For a while he thought he might be hallucinating, but his uncle Charley would bring him back to reality.

Is she still there? the older man asked a little unnecessarily in Conrads opinion. His uncle was looking out the window of the hardware store across the street. There was no way a person could leave Conrads gas station without being in full sight of anyone looking out that window.

Yeah, shes still here, he answered anyway. Did you happen to get a good look at her?

Elmer said she has really long black hair and is pretty.

A whole group of older men sat inside the hardware store and kept their eyes on the comings and goings of Dry Creek. Elmer had underestimated her beauty, Conrad thought. Pretty was too tame a word to describe her. She was leggy and walked toward the beat-up old car with her long hair swinging with every step she took. She had warm brown eyes and creamy skin. Even wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, she was too exotic for this place. He hadnt given much thought to her apart from that until he saw the tears in her eyes. Thats when all of the pieces fell into place and he recognized her.

Conrad remembered his uncle was waiting. Yeah, she is that.

Is she acting peculiar?

In what way?

Well, nervous. Is she anxious to get away from here?

She might be a little impatient, but lots of people are. He didnt know how to go about this, but he knew a man needed to lance a boil if he wanted it to heal. The thing is she looks like someone in a picture I have and

Aha, his uncle interrupted in triumph. Elmer told me shes probably on one of those wanted posters you keep on that bulletin board of yours. The sheriff called and asked us to be on the lookout for an old gray car with a dent in the right fender. Somebody stole it down by Pryor. On the Crow Indian reservation. Even I could see her car is gray. And banged up, too.

Conrad closed his eyes. No one would steal that old car she was driving. Not unless they were drunk or too blind to see it clearly. I dont think shes wanted for anything. Thats not where I saw her. He drew a deep breath. I know its not her, but she looks like the woman on the calendar.

What calendar?

You know the one I showed you.

There was a moment of absolute silence.

You mean the woman youre going to marry? Uncle Charley finally asked in a hushed tone. That calendar?

Conrad didnt know why he hadnt seen the pitfalls last week when hed used a page in his calendar to make a point with his uncle. No, shes not the woman Im going to marry. Im just sayingoh, I dont know what Im saying.

The fact that he had not wanted to have a serious discussion with his uncle about his love life was the reason he was in trouble now. Last Wednesday the older man had come over to show Conrad what hed put in the church prayer bulletinWife wanted for my nephew.

A prayer didnt get more public than that. Or more embarrassing.

Conrad knew he should have sat down right there and assured his uncle that he would get married eventually, in his own time. But he was in the middle of rebuilding a tractor engine for the Redferns and they needed it soon if they were going to plow the ground they were leasing in time to get a crop planted. So hed tried to stop his uncles crusade the quick way, by pointing at the calendar on the wall and announcing that he had already picked out his future wife. It had been a joke, of course. Just a way to avoid the awkwardness of a conversation he didnt want to have.

Shes really here? Your wife? His uncle sputtered, his voice rising.

Dont get excited. Its not good for your blood pressure.

Well, I can hardly believe it.

Thats because theres nothing to believe. Its just that someone who looks like the calendar woman is here.

When he said it out loud, it didnt sound so bad. The problem was Conrad wasnt sure this woman looked like anyone else. Hed never seen anyone like her in town before, not even when folks from the Miles City rodeo spilled over into the Dry Creek caf?. He took another look at her. For one thing, those strappy black high heels she wore would jump-start a dead mans heart. Women around here didnt wear shoes like that.

Still, maybe its a sign, Uncle Charley said hopefully.

She just needs to get a new muffler on her car.

If he had to pick some woman to make his point, Conrad wondered why he hadnt chosen an ordinary woman who really existed in his world. Maybe someone like Tracy Stelling, who cut his hair once a month at the Quick Clips in Miles City. Shed grown up on one of the ranches near here and, although shed left for a dozen or so years, shed returned, looking subdued and grateful to be home. Hed have a chance with someone like that. Hed even been thinking of asking her out to dinner so he wouldnt be lying if he said he was considering Tracy for a wife.

Every relationship needs to start someplace, his uncle said.

Thats the whole point. There is no relationship. Shes just passing through. And shes not even the real woman. I mean the woman I thought she was.

He looked over at the calendar again. The woman was wearing a deep red dress with a white apron and holding open the door of a rundown farmhouse. The woman stood defiantly as if she was trying to fight off some crushing despair. He hadnt noticed until she was standing at his window, looking out and blinking back her tears, that her profile was the same as the calendar woman.

Conrad? You still there? his uncle asked.

He swallowed, but he couldnt talk. The calendar woman had reminded him of the feeling hed had when hed been five and his mother had died from pneumonia. Just the way she stood there holding that door, hed known shed shared the same feeling as him at some time in her life. Theyd both screamed at the wind, even when no sound was coming out of their mouths.

Im just thinkingwhat if she did steal that car? his uncle continued. A thief could be dangerous. Knives. Guns. That kind of thing. Not that the sheriff said anything about the suspect being armed, but you never know. You need to be careful.

Dont worry about me. Im fine, Conrad said, hoping it was true.

I could call the sheriff and have him check the woman out, his uncle persisted. We should at least get a license plate number.

If it would make his uncle stop asking questions about the woman, hed give him the numbers to Fort Knox if he had them. He looked down at the work order hed just filled out. The plate number is SAQ718.

Hed had to go back into the service bay to write down the number because the woman didnt know it. Of course, lots of people didnt know their license plate numbers. That didnt mean they were driving stolen cars.

Say it again so I can write it down.

SAQ718. But I just dont think

Well, youre a good judge of character, his uncle muttered, contradicting everything hed said up to this point. Youre probably right about her. It wouldnt hurt to talk to her, though. Find out a little more about her.

Shes got two little kids in the backseat sleeping.

Oh. His uncles voice turned flat. Shes married then?

To his surprise Conrad felt an echo of the older mans disappointment. He hadnt quite realized that. I suppose thats what it means all right.

Now this, he told himself, was the reason it was foolish to put that prayer request out there. It was bound to be discouraging to everyone involved. He trusted God with his very soul, but when it came to finding a wife, all Conrad could remember were the few days in junior high when PE class became dance class. A boy, or a man, had to ask the question and hope for a dance even if he knew the woman would rather spit in his eye than say yes.

And the churchhe couldnt bring the whole church congregation into this. Thered be advice given and awkward questions and, worst of all, expectations. No, a man needed to find his own wife. His friends couldnt do it for him.

Ive got to go, Conrad said in a hurry. Shes coming back over here.

Now? his uncle asked. Hold onIll be there.

NoShes my customerIll Ask her to dance, he almost said, but stopped himself.

Ill bring her some coffee, his uncle said. Dont worry about a thing.

No Conrad protested again, but the phone was already dead.

He wasnt equipped for this kind of thing. Hed always figured that, if he married, it would be a dignified, orderly thing. If only hed spoken directly to his uncle instead of making a joke, then he could have told him that he intended to ask Tracy out. Hed always thought that, if he got married, it would be to someone comfortable and safe like her.





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