Duncan's Bride(3)

By: Linda Howard

She stared at her desk. It was disgustingly and disgracefully clear. She could either stay at the office for the rest of the day or go home, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference either way. Odds were, no one would even know she had left, unless she stopped on the way out and made a point of telling someone. That was how often her phone rang.

There were advantages to being the stepsister of the owner. Boredom, however, wasn't one of them. Being idle was excruciating for her. The time was swiftly approaching when she would have to kiss Robert's cheek, thank him for the thought, but politely decline to continue with this "job". Maybe she should even consider moving away. The West Coast, maybe. Or Fiji. Robert didn't have any business concerns in Fiji. Yet.

She unfolded the newspaper and leaned back in her chair with her feet propped on top of the desk and her ankles crossed. The decision would wait; she had been working on the problem for some time now, so it would still be there when she finished reading the paper. She loved out-of-town newspapers, especially the smaller ones, the weekly editions that were more folksy gossip-columns than anything else. The Omaha newspaper was too large for that kind of coziness, but it still had a midwestern flavor to remind her that there was, indeed, a life outside New York City. The city was so large and complex that those who lived in it tended to be absorbed by it. She was constantly looking for windows on other ways of life, not because she disliked New York, but because she was so curious about everything.

She skipped over World Affairs – they were the same in Omaha as in New York – read Midwestern and local news, learning how the drought was affecting farmers and ranchers but creating a booming business for the slaughterhouses, and who had married or was intending to. She read the sale ads, compared the price of real estate in Omaha to that in New York, and was, as always, amazed at the difference. She was skipping around through the want ads when an ad in the personals caught her attention.

"Wanted: a wife for able-bodied rancher. Must be of steady character, want children, and be able to work on ranch. Age 25 to 35 preferable."

Those interested should contact said able-bodied rancher at a box number in Billings, Montana.

Madelyn was instantly diverted, her imagination caught by the ad, though she wasn't certain if she should be amused or outraged. The man was practically advertising for a combination brood mare and ranch hand! On the other hand, he had been brutally honest about his expectations, which was oddly refreshing after some of the personal ads she'd seen in the New York newspapers and magazines. There had been none of that slick "Sensitive Aquarian needs a New-Age Nineties woman to explore the meaning of the universe with him" hypersell that told one nothing except that the writer had no concept of clarity in the written word.

What could be learned about the rancher from that ad, other than his honesty? His age could be anywhere from fifty on down, but since he wanted children she thought he would be younger –

probably in his thirties or early forties. Also, that bit about children probably meant one could take the able-bodied part literally. If he wanted a wife of steady character, he probably wasn't a party animal, either. He sounded like a sober, hardworking rancher who wanted a wife but didn't have the time to look for one.

She had read an article several months ago about mail-order brides, and though she'd found it interesting, she had been put off by the impersonality of it all. It was evidently a big business, matching Oriental women with men in Western nations, but it wasn't limited to that; farmers and ranchers in the less-populated states had started advertising, simply because there were so few women in their areas. There was even an entire magazine devoted to it.

Really, this ad was the same in intent as the slick ads: someone was looking for companionship. The need was the same the world over, though it was often couched in more amusing or romantic terms.

And answering the ad was doing nothing more than agreeing to meet someone, like a blind date. It was a way of making contact. All relationships began with a first date, blind or otherwise. She folded the paper and wished she had something to do other than ponder the issue of social advertising.

She could go upstairs and pound on Robert's desk, but that wouldn't accomplish anything. Robert didn't respond well to force; he wouldn't disturb the smooth running of his offices just to give her something to do. He had offered her the job as a means of giving her a focus in life after losing both her mother and grandmother within a short length of time, but both of them knew that the job had outlived its purpose. Only an incurable optimism had kept her at it this long, hoping it would turn into something legitimate. If she pounded on Robert's desk, he would lean back in his chair and smile at her with his wickedly amused eyes, though his mouth seldom actually joined his eyes in celebration, and say, "The ball's in your court, babe. Serve it or go home." Yes, it was time to go on to something new. The shock of grief had led to inertia, and inertia was even harder to handle, otherwise she would have left over two years ago.

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