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REMINDER: I write long stories. Many chapters don’t have naughty bits, but those that do will be way more fun if you read the others, too! Also, although TT2 is a stand-alone novel, it takes place in the same family as Texas Trio, so you might want to read that one first!—Stefanie
When Brody arrived at the ranch-house Sunday morning dressed in his only decent clothing—a cheap, ill-fitting suit from the general store in town—all the ladies were assembled on the porch in a array of bright colored silks and satins, waiting for the carriages to convey them to town. Even Nanny wore ruffles, and Nanny always said she wasn’t a “ruffly woman.”
When the big ranch wagon drew up to the stairs with Jem at the reins, Colt jumped down first, his face as menacing as Brody had ever seen it.
“Colt,” Catherine began, “what in the—”
Colt held his hand up to her, something he did so rarely that Catherine stopped instantly, an expression of alarm settling on her brow.
“Put the children in the wagon, Cat.”
Cat did as he’d bidden, not asking why they weren’t taking the buggies as planned. Even Becky climbed in without comment, though her expression was panicked because she’d seen where Jem and Colt were looking.
Brody stayed at the foot of the stairs, pinned there by four angry eyes.
Clancy rode up behind the wagon, greeting the ladies one by one. “Miz Connor, Miss Becky, Ma’am, Miss.”
When everyone was in the wagon, Jem helped Catherine into the front seat, where she lifted the reins, and with a worried glance between Brody and her husbands, flicked the team into motion. Clancy nodded to Jem and nudged his horse after the women. Jackson and another hand waited at the foot of the hill to precede them. None of the women ever went anywhere off the ranch without an armed escort, even before the fence-cutting started.
Quanah had surrendered more than a decade earlier, and even Fort Griffin was closed, but central Texas would never be like Boston or Philadelphia. In the old states there was almost always some semblance of civilization within a few hours ride, while half the towns in Texas didn’t even have schools. Rustlers and ruffians were not uncommon, and Catherine’s husbands weren’t taking any chances with the safety of their womenfolk.
Jem, who was also dressed for church, pointed toward the back of the house. “Office, Easton. Now.”
Brody went, wondering how the hell they’d found out about the swimming hole. It couldn’t have been Becky, and who else would know? Surely she hadn’t told her sister? The back of his neck prickled where their stares drilled into him. If they were going to kill him, Brody told himself, they would have done it already, right? Maybe they didn’t want anyone to see . . . . Shit, shit, shit!
What the hell was going on?
Inside the cabin, no one sat. Kendall and Wilson faced him, all three men standing in the center of a building that felt too small to contain this amount of rage.
No one spoke. Kendall’s ears and throat were dark and his jaw worked.
Finally, Jem reached inside his coat.
“Shit!” thought Brody again.
But he drew out a sheaf of papers instead of a weapon, and Brody exhaled.
He realized his relief was ill-founded only a second later, when Wilson read aloud, “Easton you didn’t mention you spent it on ships and dockside property. You said your wife died in childbirth, but didn’t mention the child wasn’t yours—”
Brody interrupted, loudly furious. “Shut your mouth this instant!”
Jem raised a brow at the thunderous response.
Brody went on, his jaw tight. “I apologized for speaking ill of your wife. I will not listen to you escort ataşehir malign mine.”
There was a long, tense silence before Jeremiah answered mildly. “I apologize.”
Brody nodded, his shoulders dropping.
Brody’s anger had the paradoxical effect of cooling Colt’s boil to a moderate simmer, and he spoke for the first time since they’d entered the office. “Why in hell would you want us thinking you ain’t nothing but a simple ranch hand like all them others? Seems to me your business concerns would be a good thing when offerin’ yourself up as husband material.”
“It seems to me that money shouldn’t have a damn thing to do with marriage,” Brody glowered.
“Ahh,” Jem nodded, comprehending. Brody didn’t want a mutually beneficial business deal; he wanted a love match, and he thought he’d found it in Jeremiah’s young sister-in-law.
He and Colt exchanged a look, with Colt flicking an eye at the sheaf of papers in Jem’s hand.
Jem looked down.
“What else?” Brody prodded, wanting it all out in the open. He’d planned on asking Wilson and Kendall for Becky’s hand in marriage after dinner today. If he was still alive, he still planned on asking, though perhaps not today.
“Minnesota,” Jem answered.
Brody nodded again.
Jem continued. “One Broderick Murray, foster-son of May Murray, school-teacher, wanted in connection with the death of a storekeeper, Francis Elkins, and the related robbery of Mr. Elkins’ store. The warrant made out as though the boy killed the store-keeper to rob the store, but our investigator,” Jem indicated the sheaf of papers, “reports that the death occurred four days after the beating death of the boy’s mother.”
Jem paused. “—who was also raped before being killed.”
Brody’s nostrils flared, his chest heaving as his hands fisted. “Yes.” He nodded resolutely. “To all of it.”
Jem prompted, “And . . .?”
Brody shifted his shoulders and tipped his head from side to side, trying fruitlessly to rid himself of the murderous tension that had engulfed him at the mention of Frank Elkins. He drew a deep breath, intentionally relaxing his hands. “And Becky knows the worst about me. I haven’t tried to hide my past from her.”
” ‘Cept your money,” Colt rasped, his voice less vehement this time.
Brody gritted his teeth. “Yes. I’ve already had the pleasure of meeting several young ladies—in San Francisco and elsewhere—who didn’t think my manners or conversation were up to snuff—until their daddies gave them a lecture about Easton you had to love that in a man.
Everyone went back to their books and card games and love letters and forgot about Brody—after stealing the suit, of course.
Brody was furious.
If Kendall and Wilson thought they could prevent him from marrying Becky, they could think again! One thing about having money: it meant you could do whatever you damn well pleased. He’d have her if it meant he had to hire an army to get her. Hell—he damn near employed an army already—an army of brawny, well-paid sailors and dock-hands that would mop the range with these lazy cowhands!
He kicked Bear, hoping to ride his temper into submission while working up a sweat. That didn’t work because the damned horse wouldn’t gallop! Even Rowdy and Penny would run, dammit.
Still . . . Bear slowed to his natural plod, unperturbed by Brody’s temper . . . if they thought . . . Brody frowned down between Bear’s dusty ears . . . wait . . . Kendall and Wilson hadn’t tried to prevent him from marrying her yet, had they?
Brody dismounted, draping Bear’s reins around the pommel and whipping his hat against his leg, stirring up dust. He started walking: he kadıköy escort had a better chance of working up a sweat on foot than on horseback if the horse was Bear.
Bear followed along like a faithful old hound-dog. Damned horse.
Kendall and Wilson hadn’t refused to let Brody marry Becky because he’d never gotten around to asking for her hand, had he?
An hour later, Brody was still walking, still talking to himself, and still riled up.
And if they did say no?
He frowned. If they said no, he’d tell them about the swimming hole himself. They’d probably have him whipped—hell, no—those two brutes would want to whip him personally! But they couldn’t refuse to let him marry her, knowing he’d taken her virginity.
Brody grimaced, stomping along a gravelly path and paying no attention to his surroundings. Telling Becky’s brothers he’d been intimate with her wasn’t something he wanted to do, not because he feared the whip—his uncle had done worse than that to him—but because he didn’t want anyone—including her family—to think ill of Becky.
The path narrowed ahead, but Brody was stomping along, not paying attention. He stomped around a curve and—too late—realized there was no more path to be had. He slid straight for the same patch of quicksand Becky had been trapped in. Windmilling his arms, trying not to land on his ass, his hand bumped into something and he clamped down hard. His leather-soled boots could find no purchase on the steep pile of gravel, so—supporting most of his weight with his hands—he clung to Bear’s halter and let the horse pull him back up.
Half a mile downstream, he sat on a boulder while Bear drank his fill in the narrow creek. As much as he cursed the horse’s stubborn refusal to move fast, Brody was grateful for Bear’s even temper. Most of his other mounts would have panicked with two hundred pounds of cowboy hanging unevenly on one side of their head. Not Bear. He’d backed up the narrow path with barely a flick of the shaggy brown ears. Not even a whinny, until Brody straightened out the bridle and gave him a pat on the neck.
And it would have served him right if he’d drowned in that particular patch of quicksand.
He’d blackmailed her into a relationship. What kind of man was he? Having forced her into walking out with him, he couldn’t even be honorable, could he? No! He’d mauled her in semi-public places—not once but three times—and taken her virginity. He might have made her pregnant, and the hell of it was, if he ever had the chance to make love to her again, Brody doubted he’d be able to resist the temptation.
If Kendall and Wilson didn’t take a whip to him, Brody should sure as hell pay someone else to do it.
Catherine glided across the thick carpet to where Jem sat reading in the corner of the parlor.
The house was quiet now, all the servants off to their cabins, Becky off to her room, and Colt upstairs tucking the boys in bed. Lily had fallen asleep on the floor with Topper and been carried up earlier in the evening. Topper was sleeping at the foot of her bed, as usual.
“Yes, wife?” Jem moved his hands aside as he lowered the book so Catherine could sit in his lap.
She took the invitation and settled against his chest with a sigh. Jem put the book on the side table and wrapped his arms around her, inhaling the fragrance of her lavender soap.
“Jeremiah, what happened this morning?”
“Ahh, Catherine,” he sighed, leaning his head back. “This having-a-sister business is hard work. Colt and I were unprepared for the arduous nature of the task.”
“Jem?” Normally she’d prod him into a confession, maltepe escort bayan but not today, not as agitated as her husbands had been this morning.
Catherine, Becky, Nanny and the children had been away most of the day, attending the picnic and socializing with other farm and ranch families from the area. Arriving home just before supper, everyone had been tired and quiet, even the children, who were seldom quiet. Becky had been pleasant and mild-mannered—again, a rare event—and hadn’t asked any questions. Nor had Cat. But her husbands’ ferocity had faded.
“Should I order some black baize for Rebecca’s mourning garb?”
Jeremiah chuckled, his chest rumbling under her cheek. “No, Catherine. We let her suitor live.”
“White gauze for bandages, then?”
He hugged her until she squirmed, laughing, and turned her face up for a kiss.
“Unharmed,” he answered, with a tone of finality. “Now, what does the book say we should be trying next?”
Cat smiled, allowing herself to be distracted. “The BOOK,” she said, “says that the woman is more likely to conceive if deprived of—” She lowered her voice. “—intercourse for an entire season.”
Jem snorted, scooping her in his arms as he stood. “Well, that’s not going to work at all.”
Brody thought he should stay away until at least the middle of the week, so he went up to the house on Monday. Even knowing how angry she must be—no, especially knowing how angry she must be—he couldn’t stand being away from Becky.
Only Catherine and Jem were on the porch when he arrived—Mrs. Connor seated and Wilson leaning against a porch column. Jem watched Brody walk up the long hill to the house and stop, hat in hand, at the foot of the steps.
“Ma’am.” He nodded to Mrs. Connor.
“Good evening, Mr. Easton,” she greeted him with no hint of animosity in her tone.
Brody didn’t have time to mull that over, though. He turned to meet Jem’s gaze. Jeremiah studied him calmly. “Glutton for punishment, aren’t you, Easton?”
Brody didn’t know what to say to that.
Jem jerked his head toward the door. “She’s in the kitchen.”
She wasn’t alone. Louella and Margaret were both there, washing up the dinner things and getting a head-start on tomorrow’s work.
Becky was seated at the table with a basket of napkins to hem, but she jumped to her feet as soon as he entered. “Oh! Br—Mr. Easton! I was wondering where you’d been.”
“Miss Connor.” He bent low over her hand, amazed that she seemed more excited than angry. He frowned. Had he been right not to tell her about the money? “Will you walk with me?”
“Yes, of course.” She glanced at the women, but there was so much to do—she couldn’t justify tearing one of them away. “Shall we look at Catherine’s roses?”
“Yes, of course.”
Becky darted a grateful, happy look at Jem as they passed, and he almost snorted. Worrying about her beau sure made for a sweeter sister—maybe he should threaten Easton’s life more often.
Other than an oblique reference to his health, Becky said nothing about the scene Sunday morning while they walked.
Brody was confused by her apparent lack of concern, until she made mention of the library and he realized she was wondering the same thing he’d wondered—if Jem and Colt had somehow discovered their dalliance.
They hadn’t told her about the money! A hundred questions rushed through his head at once, with a hundred and one possible explanations, but he pushed them all aside.
Becky didn’t know he’d deceived her, she wasn’t angry with him, and he was ecstatic. He couldn’t imagine what her brothers’ motivation was—unless they were husband-hunting on her behalf—but he didn’t need to know. He was grateful, and he’d let it go at that. He evaded Becky’s questions, but that wasn’t difficult to do: she seemed to feel the same way he did. They walked and talked for an hour about nothing special—the clouds, the season, the evening breeze.
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