Violets mail order husba.., p.4
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       Violet's Mail Order Husband (Montana Brides #1), p.4
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           Kate Whitsby
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  Violet took charge. “Now if we can find Mr. Hamilton, we can get on our way. Hopefully we can get home before dark.”

  “Why don’t you ladies walk over to the hotel and find him?” Chuck suggested. “Mick and me will load our luggage onto your…is this your buggy?”

  “Yes,” Violet replied. “You can put everything on the rack in the back. And there will be room next to Rose in the back seat, too. Are you men happy to ride back to the ranch? It’s a long way but there just isn’t room in the buggy for all of us.”

  “That’ll be fine with me,” Chuck told her.

  “Me, too,” Mick chimed in. “It’ll be good to get back in the saddle after being on the train all this time.” He glanced back at Iris, and she blushed and smiled again.

  “Good, then,” Violet declared. “We’ll head over to the hotel and bring Jacob back. We’ll meet back here at the buggy.”

  The sisters started across the street toward the hotel, and Violet fell in step next to Rose. “Are you all right, darling? You’re not too concerned about meeting your groom, are you?”

  “I’m not concerned at all,” Rose replied. “Why would I be concerned?”

  “I just thought you might think the worst,” Violet explained. “When they told us he was over in the hotel saloon. I thought you might worry that he was….” Violet faltered.

  “Was what?” Rose asked.

  Rose’s big limpid eyes threw Violet into confusion, and she lost the sense of what she wanted to say. She flapped her hand. “Oh, I don’t know. He might be drinking or carousing or gambling. You know!”

  “I don’t think there’s much likelihood of that,” Rose replied.

  “I just didn’t want you to be worried,” Violet repeated. “After all, he could be fighting in there like….” Violet stopped herself in time.

  “You mean, like Mick?” Rose asked. “No, I’m not worried.”

  Violet let the matter drop, but she couldn’t banish her first glimpse of Mick McAllister from her mind.

  The sisters walked around the corner to the hotel and peeked into the saloon. About ten men occupied the big room, some leaning against the bar, some playing billiards, and some just chatting with each other. All but two wore the typical uniform of the Western cowboy, with heavy canvas pants, wide-brimmed hats, and boots. Nothing distinguished one from another enough to determine which man they sought.

  Chapter 8

  Violet hesitated at the swinging doors. “What do you want to do?”

  “We’ll just have to go in and find him,” Rose declared.

  “Go in….in there?” Violet shuddered. “I don’t think I want to do that.”

  “How else are we going to find him?” Rose asked.

  “I’ll go in with you,” Iris told Rose.

  “You’re not going in there, are you?” Violet gasped.

  “Why not?” Iris looked into the saloon over the tops of the doors. “What’s wrong?”

  “The place is full of men,” Violet explained. “There could be trouble.”

  “What’s wrong?” Iris asked again. “They’re only cowboys. They won’t hurt us. Come on, Rose.” The two younger sisters pushed the doors aside and strode inside.

  Violet hesitated just a moment longer, and then she hurried after her sisters.

  Rose and Iris walked up to the bar. Several of the men eyed them as they passed, and when they arrived at the front of the room, the bartender laughed out loud. “What can I do for you ladies?”

  “We’re looking for a man who just got off the train from Salt Lake City,” Rose told him. “We were told he was here. His name is Jacob Hamilton.”

  “Don’t know him,” the bartender shot back. “Can’t help ya.”

  “I’m Jacob Hamilton.” The voice came from behind them, but it sounded soft and timid.

  The sisters turned around, and only a mighty effort prevented Violet from gasping in surprise at what she saw.

  The man facing them was small and slight, almost as small as Rose herself. Far from the hard-wearing work clothes the cowboys wore, Jacob Hamilton wore a tailored black suit, snakeskin boots, and a dark red velvet waistcoat under his jacket. His brand-new black velvet hat covered dark hair combed back over his ears and curling up at the back of his neck. His black mustache swept away from his lips and pointed out toward the side of his face.

  His black eyes twinkled across the faces of the sisters until they finally rested on Rose. He smiled at her. “You can call me Jake. Everyone does.”

  Rose blinked her wide eyes and smiled back. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope the journey wasn’t too trying.”

  “Not at all,” Jake replied. “I enjoy travel. It’s good to see other parts of the country.”

  He and Rose kept smiling at each other as Violet struggled to hide her distress. This wasn’t the cowboy they hoped for. Jake Hamilton looked more like a professional gambler or bank employee. He didn’t even look old enough to be in this saloon. He looked all of fifteen at the most. Why, he didn’t even wear a gun belt! What good would this tiny, innocent dandy be to them on the ranch?

  Violet exchanged looks with Iris but from the very first moment, Rose and Jake only had eyes for each other. They took no notice at all when Violet said, “Shall we get back to the buggy and head home? Jake, I hope you don’t mind riding a horse with the others. There’s only room for four in the buggy.”

  Jake didn’t take his eyes off Rose’s face. “In that case, I’ll ride next to Rose.”

  Violet spun into a flurry of confusion. She couldn’t stop her mouth from working of its own accord. “Oh, that’s just fine! I didn’t think of that, but it makes so much sense. I’m sure the others won’t mind.”

  “I’m sure they won’t,” Jake replied.

  Jake waved his hand toward the door to usher the sisters out of the saloon, but a gnarled, callused hand clapped him on the back and a harsh male voice bellowed from behind him, “Hey, Mister Fancy Pants, I’m talkin’ to you!”

  Jake turned around and faced an enormous man nearly twice his size. Jake's head barely reached as high as the big man’s chest. The two looked comical standing next to each other. Jake’s crisp clean suit made a striking contrast with the other man’s dusty worn work clothes. Even standing at a distance from him, Violet noticed the bulging knuckles on the big man’s hands and the polished leather of his gun belt. His hair stuck out in tufts under his hat, and black dirt encrusted his fingernails.

  He had to stoop to get into Jake’s face. “I was talkin’ to you, Mister. Don’t you turn your back on me!”

  “I’m engaged with these ladies here, if you don’t mind,” Jake returned. “We’re just about to leave, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll bid you good day.” He touched the brim of his hat and moved to turn away again.

  “I don’t think so,” the big man thundered. “I was in the middle of telling you I could lick you any day of the week for insulting my brother over there.”

  Jake’s eyes flashed and he shifted his shoulders inside his jacket. “You were in the middle of telling me that, but you can’t lick me and I have more important business to attend to. So unless you have some idea of stopping me, I’ll go now.” He nodded once and looked away toward the door.

  The big man jabbed Jake in the chest with his thick sausage of a finger. “You’re not goin’ anywhere until I’ve had my say, Mister. If you don’t apologize to my brother over there, you’ll answer to me and suffer the consequences.”

  Jake narrowed his eyes. “I won’t apologize to him or to you or to anyone, other than these ladies here for your wretched manners. What do you propose to do to me? You think you can lick a man half your weight? You’re a bully and a coward, but I invite you to try. You think you can beat me in a gun fight? As you can see, I’m unarmed. But if you wait until I get my guns strapped on, they’ll be hauling your rotten carcass to the graveyard in a quarter of an hour. Now which would you prefer?”

  The giant stooped even lower, and the puffs of brea
th from his ragged mouth ruffled the hair on the side of Jake’s face. “You’ll be sorry for this, you fancy-pants….”

  He didn’t finish his sentence. With one swift movement, Jake brought his fist up hard under the large man’s chin. His teeth clacked together and his head whipped back on his neck. His eyes fluttered in his skull, and he crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust.

  The other patrons of the saloon turned around to see the commotion, but it ended as soon as it started. Jake studied the remains of his opponent at his feet, dusted off his hands, and turned back to the Kilburn sisters. “Ladies?” He waved toward the door again.

  Violet whirled away to hide her embarrassment. So Jake Hamilton wasn’t innocent after all. He was as much of a brute as Mick McAllister. Was her own mail-order husband the only one of the three worth taking home?

  What if Cornell was right? What if this whole enterprise exploded in their faces and they lived to regret getting these men to come live on the ranch? After Friday, they’d be married to these men, two of whom appeared to be violent scoundrels. In addition to being violent, Jake could be anything from a drunken dissipate or a dangerous villain. Chuck Ahern was the only one of the three Violet wanted around the ranch.

  Iris fell in at her side on the way back to the train station, and Rose and Jake walked after them, side by side. Violet kept her ear tuned to hear their conversation but to her amazement, they didn’t speak to each other at all. Once they reached the street outside, she stole a glance over her shoulder and found them still gazing into one another’s eyes, but without speaking. The same shy smile played across both their faces.

  Somewhere in the back of her mind, Violet recognized even then a fundamental similarity between Rose and Jake. Violet never met anyone quite like Rose before she met Jake Hamilton. When they gazed into each other’s faces, they seemed to Violet almost as though they were looking at mirror images of themselves. Yet they didn’t fall into effortless and intimate conversation with each other. Violet couldn’t understand them at all.

  When they returned to the buggy, they found Chuck and Mick already mounted on two of the horses the sisters brought and three trunks stacked on the rack in back of the buggy. Jake and Rose settled into the back seat, and Violet and Iris got into their places in front.

  Chapter 9

  Mick raised an eyebrow when Iris took the reins. “Would you like one of us to drive you home?”

  “I can drive.” Iris adjusted the reins in her hands. Then she cracked a smile. “Who do you think drove here to get you?”

  “I just thought you might like one of us to drive,” Mick muttered.

  “Besides,” Iris went on. “If you drive, Jake will have to ride, and I wouldn’t want to disturb the lovebirds.”

  “I guess not.” Mick wheeled his horse away. Iris clucked to the horses, and the buggy rolled up the street and out of Butte.

  Chuck and Mick rode alongside.

  “You mentioned you have an extra house you plan to put us in,” Chuck began. “Isn’t anyone living in it?”

  “We call it the Fort House,” Violet told him. “It belonged to my father’s brother. They built the ranch when they were young, and my uncle built the house when he married. But his wife died soon after, and my uncle abandoned the house. We’ve used it as a guest house ever since.”

  “So the three of us will stay there when we get to the ranch,” Mick asked. “Where will we live after we get married?”

  “Funny you should ask,” Violet answered. “We were just discussing that very topic on the way down to Butte. You see, the ranch has three houses, the Fort House, the main house, where we live now, and what we call the Bird House, which is another small guest cottage.”

  “That sounds perfect,” Chuck replied. “So we can each have our own house.”

  Violet flushed. “It would be. There’s only one problem. Our guardian, the executor of our estate, lives in the Bird House at present.”

  “You mentioned him in your letter,” Chuck told her. “Pollard, I think you said his name was.”

  “That’s right,” Violet replied. “Cornell Pollard. And he’s not just our guardian and our executor, he’s our great uncle on my father’s side, so he’s family. He’s lived in the Bird House ever since our parents died and he became our guardian.”

  “But after you get married,” Chuck pointed out. “He won’t be your guardian anymore. Then what will happen?”

  “That’s just what we were discussing,” Violet replied.

  “I think,” Iris put in. “That Cornell should find another place to live. If he isn’t acting as our guardian and executor anymore, we won’t have any use for him around the ranch anymore. He’ll only get in the way.”

  “That sounds about right to me,” Mick added.

  “I can’t believe you would be so unkind to a man who’s dedicated so many years to our well-being,” Violet exclaimed. “We can’t just turn him out into the street like an unwanted dog. He’s earned the right to a comfortable home.”

  “If you ask me,” Iris declared. “I think he’s earned the right to be turned out on account of the way he’s run the ranch into the ground these last couple of years.” She turned to Mick, who rode at her side. “You’ll be shocked when you see the state of the place. We’ve been running bare bones for years, and the place is on the ragged edge of collapse. And all because he wouldn’t listen to me when I told him something had to be done about it.”

  “You told him?” Mick’s eyebrows went up again.

  The color mounted into Iris’s cheeks, and she brought her eyes back to her driving. “That’s right. You might think it’s a little out of the ordinary for a woman to take an interest in the workings of a cattle ranch but it’s our legacy. Do you understand? Once I realized how desperate the situation was, I had no choice but to get involved, to salvage it in any way I could.”

  “I understand,” Mick replied.

  “You’ll see when you get there,” Iris continued. “You’ll see why I had to do something—anything. And everything I’ve tried to do, Cornell has worked against me. I almost think he’s gone out of his way to thwart me, just to drive the ranch into the ground.”

  “But why would he do that?” Violet broke in. “He has no reason to do it. He has financial control of the whole enterprise. It’s to his advantage to make it a thriving concern.”

  “Not if we get married, he doesn’t,” Iris shot back. “He knew all along that, one day, we would grow up and control of the ranch would pass out of his hands. Once that happened, he no longer had any reason to make the ranch work.”

  “But he has nothing to gain by ruining the ranch,” Violet protested.

  “There is one thing he could gain by it,” Iris replied. “He could use the ranch to prevent us from getting married. He probably counted on the fact that, as women, we wouldn’t be able to run the ranch ourselves. He probably wanted to put himself in a position where we would have to rely on him to run our enterprise for us.”

  “I can’t understand why you would hold such a vindictive opinion of Cornell,” Violet exclaimed.

  Iris turned to Mick. “You see? We’ve had this conversation morning, noon, and night for months, and we never come to any agreement about it. But you’ll see when you get there. You’ll see why we had to get you men out there to help us. We’d lose our entire legacy if we didn’t.”

  Chapter 10

  “This Cornell sounds like a scoundrel,” Mick growled.

  “He is,” Iris replied.

  “He is not!” Violet cried. “He’s our closest relative and our guardian. I refuse to listen to anyone saying a bad word against him.”

  “You tell her, Chuck,” Iris called across the buggy. “You’re the only one who can talk sense into her.”

  “But didn’t you mention,” Chuck replied. “That this mail-order marriage was your idea? It sounds like you’re going along with Iris on this.”

  “It was her idea,” Iris told him. “When I told her how the
ranch was suffering from lack of cowboys, she came up with the plan that we should marry some. You would all gain a share in the operation through marriage to the three of us.”

  “It sounds like a pretty good deal to me,” Mick replied.

  “Of course it wasn’t all about business, you understand,” Iris went on. “Just about anyone we married would be enticed by a share of the ranch. So we might as well marry cowboys who could help us manage it properly, if you see what I mean.”

  “Oh, I understand your point,” Mick replied. “I think it makes good sense. And I’m happy to be on board. If we do decide to give this Cornell rascal the boot, I’ll be right there to lend a hand.”

  “No one is giving Cornell the boot!” Violet yelled. “And that’s final!”

  “You have to admit, it might come to that,” Chuck put in.

  “Over my dead body!” Violet snapped. “He’s already distraught about us getting mail-order husbands—and cowboys, too. He wanted us to marry up, you know, into wealthy families with prosperous, educated sons. We’ve dashed all his hopes to the ground by getting you men out here. The least we can do is smooth the way for him by leaving him comfortably situated in the Bird House until he dies—which won’t be too much longer, I imagine.”

  “He could make things very difficult for us in the meantime,” Iris pointed out. “He’ll make a point of sticking his nose into everything, meddling in all our affairs, and arguing with us over every business decision, even when the business no longer concerns him. You know perfectly well he will, Violet. You’re only defending him because you feel guilty about flouting his wishes. You’ve never done it before, and you feel bad for doing it now.”

  Violet crossed her arms over her chest. “I do not!”

  “But that still leaves the question,” Chuck added. “Where are we all going to live?”

  “Mick and I will take the Fort House,” Iris declared. “I’ve already told Violet and Rose this, and I’m putting my foot down on it. If Violet absolutely refuses to send Cornell packing, then you and Rose can wrestle over the main house. I don’t care. I’ve told you what I think we should do. If you won’t do it, I’m not going to put myself out to accommodate Cornell.”

 
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