Womanizing, hard drinking Sal Terranova is given an ultimatum by his parents to either change his carousing ways or get out. Furious at first, Sal packs his things, ready to go it on his own. However, his brother, Gino, changes his mind when he challenges Sal to a bet to see who can get married first. Sal accepts and begins his search for the future Mrs. Terranova.
Lulu Johansson has spent six months writing men in the hopes of becoming a mail-order bride since she can’t find a man in New York. She comes to the conclusion that she is boring and plain and, finally fed up, she takes action to become a new woman. As she begins to blossom, she begins writing to Sal, thinking that he sounds dashing and exciting.
A strong attraction begins as soon as they meet and they embark on a romance that they hope will culminate in a perfect marriage. When the road to happiness becomes rocky, they grow painfully disconnected and it looks like the rough road may lead to darkness. Can the joy of the holiday season bring them back into the light or is their romance doomed?
He was irritated when someone’s groaning woke him. Then he realized that he was the one groaning, which amused him a little. His head felt like someone was repeatedly pounding on it with a brick. Taking a few moments to get his bearings, Sal Terranova put a hand to his temple, massaging it in a futile attempt to alleviate the pain of his tremendous headache.
The room he was lying in was unfamiliar, but he recognized it as a bedroom. Looking around, he saw that he lie in a bed with a warm, feminine body lying next to him. The faint light coming in the window told him that it was almost daylight and he groaned again. Gazing at the woman through barely open eyes, he tried to remember who she was but couldn’t.
It didn’t really matter since he’d never see her again. Slowly, he sat up in bed, which intensified the throbbing in his head. Sal waited until it eased some and then stood up. He found his clothing and put it on quietly so he didn’t disturb the woman. Leaving the bedroom, he located the washroom and splashed cold water on his face, but it didn’t help much. Coffee. He needed coffee.
His coat was on the sofa in the parlor, but he didn’t remember coming home with the woman. Nothing unusual there, he thought. He put his coat on and went out into the pre-dawn of an early October morning. Where was his horse? Oh, at the stable downtown. That’s right. He recognized the street he was on now and began walking to the main thoroughfare in Helena, Montana. From there, he would walk another two blocks to get to the stable.
His head still hurt, but deeply inhaling the chilly air helped to clear the fuzziness from his brain somewhat. Coming to the main street, he turned left and went into the Blue Star diner, one of his regular haunts whenever he came to Helena on business.
Sitting at the counter, he waited while his favorite waitress, Brit Horner, served someone else. The middle-aged woman saw him and smiled.
“Well, there’s trouble if I ever saw it,” she said.
“Buongiorno, Brit. Come stai?” he asked.
She laughed. “You know I never understand it when you talk to me in Italian, but whatever it is sounds good. No wonder no woman can refuse you. If I were younger, you’d never get rid of me.”
Sal’s cocky grin was full of mischief. “I said good morning and asked how you were. And I’m not opposed to experienced, beautiful women such as yourself.”
“Maybe, but my husband would be opposed,” she said.
“Well, if you don’t tell, neither will I.”
“One of these days someone will plant you in the ground for that,” Brit warned him.
“Don’t worry; I’m dumb, but I’m not stupid. I don’t mess with married women.”
“Good to hear. What’ll it be, honey?” she asked.
She gave him a disapproving look. “Uh oh. Sounds like someone had a wild night.”
“So wild I don’t remember it,” he said seriously. “I’m gonna kill Turner for slipping me more of that mountain moonshine he makes.”
Brit brushed blonde hair out of her eyes. “You should stay away from him then. One of these days that stuff is gonna kill you, and you’re too young and handsome for that to happen.” She patted his cheek. “I’ll put your order in.”
Sal smiled as she moved away and looked around at the other patrons of the popular diner. The tables, chairs, booths, and counter were worn and scarred, but everything was clean and orderly. Nice floral curtains hung on the windows and a few pretty paintings hung here and there. The wooden floors sagged a little in places when walked on and the finish on them had been worn away where people walked the most.
The place might be a little run down, but the excellent food and reasonable prices kept people coming back. Not to mention the fun, attentive waitresses.
It wasn’t long until Brit came back with his coffee, one egg, and two pieces of toast. He ate slowly, giving his stomach time to settle down and his head to stop hurting. As he ate, his blue eyes watched Brit serve customers as he thought about all the heck he was going to catch from his parents when he got home to Echo Canyon.
He was supposed to have been home from his business trip two days ago, but he’d stayed to have a little fun. He’d won money at poker, drank himself into oblivion, and had had the pleasure of female companionship—a good time indeed. Now it was time to go home and face the music before they sent his older brother, Nick, looking for him.
Finished with his breakfast, he paid his bill, gave Brit a nice tip, and headed for the stable. Although he dressed in jeans, a thick denim coat, and a white cowboy hat, there was no denying his Italian heritage. His black hair, blue eyes, strait, aquiline nose, and full, sensual mouth denoted his ethnicity. Sal’s quick temper was offset by his great sense of humor, generosity, and willingness to help others.
His business acumen was impeccable and he knew how to get the most out of a deal. As a result his father, Alfredo, usually sent him to Helena once a month to meet with some of their clients who didn’t want to travel to the little, out-of-the-way town of Echo. He’d begun helping to broker deals at the tender age of seventeen and now at only twenty-four, he was well known in Montana’s ranching business community.
Collecting his fine bay Quarter Horse, Roman, from the stable, he mounted and rode down the street to the road out of Helena that led home, waving to people he knew along the way. Brit had asked him one time why he didn’t just move to Helena. He’d considered it a couple of years ago, but the truth was that he’d miss his family too much, even though they were always at him about his wayward behavior.
“Roman, we’ll just go slow for a while just to make sure that I don’t lose my breakfast, ok?” he said, patting the gelding’s neck.
Roman whickered softly, making Sal smile. Looking up at the sky, he saw some clouds moving in and hoped that he’d be able to outrun any rain that might fall. Tapping his heels to the horse’s sides, he put Roman into a trot despite his earlier statement.
Sal had purposely timed his arrival home to be in the middle of the night so that he could avoid dealing with his parents right away. He wanted to get some sleep first since he’d rode so hard to make up a little time. Putting Roman away, he gave him some extra feed as a treat and went up to the sprawling, red brick mansion. It was a beautiful building with a second floor balcony and white wooden shutters.
He didn’t go in by way of the front door, instead choosing a side entrance that was close to his two-room suite. As he neared his suite, he thought he heard snoring from inside it. Stopping at the door, he heard it again and recognized it as his father’s snore. What was his father doing in his suite? There was only one way to find out.
Sal entered the suite, sitting his bedroll and saddlebags by the door. He lit a lamp and looked down at the man in his bed. He shook Alfredo’s shoulder.
“Pop, wake up.”
Alfredo started and rolled over to face his youngest son. “Well, he lives, praise God. I almost sent Nicky for you, but your mother said not to. Guess she was right. Where have you been, as if I don’t know?”
Sal said, “Business ran over a little, that’s all. I’m home now. Why are you in here? Did Mama kick you out?”
Alfredo couldn’t help returning Sal’s smile. That was part of Sal’s charm; it was hard to stay mad at him. “No, no. I just wanted to be here when you got home because Sylvia and I want to talk to you.”
“Ok. We’ll talk at breakfast,” Sal said.
“No, right now,” his father returned.
Sal’s black eyebrows drew down. “Now? It’s the middle of the night, Pop. Can’t it wait until breakfast? I’m exhausted.”
“This isn’t a request, Salvatore. Now come with me,” Alfredo said, getting out of bed. He put his robe on and belted it over his ample torso.
Knowing that he might as well get the reprimands out of the way, Sal followed his father up the back staircase and down the hallway to his parents’ suite. Going inside, Sal sat down in one of the wingback chairs in their sitting area while Alfredo lit a lamp and then went into their bedroom.
Alfredo sat on the bed, leaned over, and kissed his wife’s cheek. “Syl, the prodigal son has returned,” he said in Italian.
Sylvia sighed and sat up. “Finally. Let’s get it over with.”
“It has to be done,” Alfredo said.
“I know.” She rose from the bed and preceded her husband out of the bedroom.
Sal rose from his chair. “Mama, you look more beautiful than ever.”
Normally Sylvia would have smiled at his charming statement, but she was too angry with him at the moment. “Sit down, Sal,” she said, avoiding him when he tried to kiss her cheek.
Clearly confused, Sal backed off and returned to his chair. Something serious had happened. “What’s wrong? Is there an emergency?”
Alfredo nodded. “You might say that. You’re the emergency.”
Sylvia said, “We’ve warned you time and time again what would happen if you didn’t change your ways, Sal. Mr. Brentwood stopped in while you were away and said that he saw you out last month with a woman he knows is married and that it was clear that it was much more than friendly. He knows her husband. He didn’t say anything to the man, thank God, but he said that he was having second thoughts about staying in business with us if that was the kind of son we’d raised.”
“What? I never see married women, Mama. That’d be stupid. I don’t wanna get involved in anything like that. Who is this woman?”
“Felicia Garrison. Blonde, petite, dark eyes?”
Sal remembered the woman. “She never mentioned that she was married, Mama. She lied to me. I asked her if she was seeing anyone and she said no. She wasn’t wearing a ring, either. So you can’t put the blame on me.”
Alfredo said, “It doesn’t matter now. The damage is done. We can’t afford to lose Brentwood and you know it. He’s one of our biggest buyers. We’re starting to make real profits again and losing his business would be a major setback.”
The ramifications of this weren’t lost on Sal. “I know that. I’ll talk to him, tell him it was a mistake. She was drunk and I saw her home and that was it. He’s not gonna ask her and he’s not gonna say anything to his pal, either.”
“That’s a lot of lying, Sal. You have to stop that, too. If you go telling him that and it comes back that you’re lying, he’ll drop us for sure. Earnest is just waiting to snap up Brentwood. Do you want that to happen?”
“Of course not. I’ll take care of it,” Sal said.
“No!” Sylvia said. “You won’t talk to him. You’re going to reform first; show him, and everyone else, that you’ve become a decent man. You’re twenty-four now. It’s time to be settling down and acting like a respectable man. We’re not going to let you bring down our business and ruin this family’s reputation with your carousing, gambling, and drinking.”
“Hey! I’m decent, Mama,” Sal protested. “I’m not out killin’ people or anything like that. What I do in my private time is no one’s business.”
Alfredo said, “Sally, you’re a very intelligent young man, who’s got a gift, lots of gifts, in fact, so I know that you have to understand how your actions can hurt our family and our business. So it’s gotta stop! No more excuses, no more lies, no more sleeping with whores and married women.”
“I’m a grown man, Pop. You can’t tell me what to do.”
Sylvia said, “If you’re a grown man, start acting like it. Sal, I love you so much, but you think you can still act like you did when you were eighteen. You need to grow up. Really grow up.”
“So what do you want me to do? Work, go to church, and go insane from boredom?”
Sylvia said, “No. The only Catholic church close enough is in Billings. No, you’re going to get married, settle down, have some children, and help us keep our business going. That’s what you’re going to do.”
Sal stared into his mother’s dark eyes and then laughed. “Get married? No, I’m not. I’m not ready for that. I’ll cut down on the drinkin’ and all that, ok?”
“No. You’ve promised that before, but you haven’t kept that promise. You’re getting married or you can forfeit your inheritance and you’ll have to leave,” Sylvia said. She wept inside, but it was for Sal’s own good that she and Alfredo were doing this—and for the welfare of their family.
Sal was utterly stunned, but he knew his parents, and from the expressions on their faces, they were dead serious. “You mean you’re gonna cheat me out of what’s rightfully mine, what I helped rebuild if I don’t get married?”
“Let me remind you, Sal, that it was ours to begin with, so the inheritances aren’t yours until we’re gone,” Alfredo said. “There’s no cheating you out of anything.”
Sal conceded that point. “Fine, but I helped make a lot of the deals in the past five years, so don’t I deserve anything for that? If you’re gonna kick me out, you can give me my share of the profits and I’ll go. I’m not gonna be strong-armed into getting married!”
He strode from the room, encountering his brother, Gino, who was only a couple of years older than him.
“What’s all the yelling about?” Gino asked.
“Ask them,” Sal said, going down the backstairs and into his suite. He went to his closet, took out a couple of suitcases, and put them on the bed.
Gino had followed him. “You’re leaving? You just got home. Now where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet. They gave me a choice; get married or get out. Guess which I picked.”
Gino’s blue eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
Sal glanced at him. “Brentwood.”
“Oh.” His tone of voice told Sal that he knew what had happened. “Hey, they’ll calm down. You don’t have to leave.”
“No, they won’t calm down. Not this time.”
“Ok, so you get married. What’s wrong with that?”
Sal fixed him with a hard stare. “Do you wanna get married, Gino?”
“Yeah, but there’s no one around here except the prostitutes from the Burgundy House and I’m not marrying any of them. Mama would have a heart attack,” Gino said. “Besides, who knows what they might have. No offense to them or anything.”
Sal stopped packing. “You’re ready to get married? You’re not much better than me.”
“I’m nowhere near your level of depravity, Sally. C’mon, don’t leave. Who’s gonna gang up on Nick with me?” Gino asked, smiling.
They looked at each other and laughed at the idea of their little eighteen-year-old sister, Giavanna, ganging up on anyone. She might start out angry, but five words into an argument her temper cooled and she couldn’t stay angry. Especially not with her brothers.
“So what do you want me to do?” Sal asked.
Gino was known for his quick thinking under pressure. “If you get married, I’ll get married, too. In fact, I’ll bet you that I get married before you do.”
Sal put his hands on his hips. “You’re making a bet with me that you can get married before I can?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m better looking, smarter, and I know how to treat a lady right.”
“I know exactly how to treat a lady,” Sal said with a grin.
“You just made my point. I said a lady, not the sort of women you normally deal with, Sal,” Gino said.
“Now you sound like them. The sort of lady you’re talking about doesn’t do the things I normally like to do with a lady,” Sal said.
Gino shook his head. “There are other things to do with women than that. Would you want some guy treating Vanna like that?”
“Any guy touches Vanna and I’ll kill him,” Sal said.
“But it’s ok for you to do it to other women? Listen to yourself,” Gino said.
“Hey! I don’t sleep with virgins and I don’t make any promises, either. The women I’m with know that ahead of time. Some like it, some don’t, and those that don’t go on their way and there are no hard feelings,” Sal said.
“Maybe on your part. Did you ever stop to think about their feelings?” Gino asked.
“Why are you picking this fight with me? It’s the middle of the night, I just got kicked out, and now this!” Sal said, starting to pack again.
Gino stopped him. “Ok, ok. I’ll let that alone for now. Are we gonna make this bet or not?”
“Just wait a second. If either of us backs out once we make the bet, we have to pay the other a thousand bucks,” Sal said. “There’s only one problem.”
“There aren’t any women around here, remember?” Sal rubbed a hand over his face and sat down on his bed. “I’m so tired.”
A smile spread over Gino’s handsome features. “We’ll do what some of the other guys around here have done. We’ll advertise for mail-order brides.”
Sal saw the potential in that and smiled. “Great idea. Then I can advertise for the kind of woman I want. Like a custom order.”
Gino laughed. “You mean as long as she’s Italian and Catholic, right?”
A mutinous expression settled on Sal’s face. “No. I get to choose. Not you, not them, not no one. If I’m getting married, I’ll damn well choose the woman I get married to. I’m not having someone else pick her out for me. It’s either that or I will leave.”
Gino said, “Ok. You work that out with them. We’ll put the ads in the paper tomorrow and the race will be on.” He held out his hand to Sal.
Neither of the brothers could resist a bet and the light of battle showed in their eyes as they stared at each other. Sal shook Gino’s hand and swore that he heard a death knell somewhere as he did. The deal done, Gino went to bed, leaving Sal sitting on his bed with the suitcases. Too tired to bother putting them away, he shoved them onto the floor, blew out his lamp, and flopped back onto the bed, dropping off in less than a minute.