Violets mail order husba.., p.5
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       Violet's Mail Order Husband (Montana Brides #1), p.5
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           Kate Whitsby
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  “Good for you, Iris,” Mick exclaimed. “That’s my kind of thinking.”

  Violet snuck a glance over her shoulder and saw Rose and Jake still staring at each other in silence. Neither made any move to join the conversation. If anyone but Rose sat in that back seat, Violet would have invited her into the discussion on Cornell and the Bird House. After all, hadn’t Rose mentioned the Bird House on the way to town? Come to think of it, Rose was the first one to mention getting rid of Cornell so she and Jake could live in the Bird House.

  Violet jerked around again and directed her eyes toward the road ahead of them. In the distance, the sign over the entrance gate to Rocking Horse Ranch peeked up between two hummocks of land. It gave her the perfect opportunity to change the subject. “There it is. Rocking Horse Ranch. You can just see the front gate from here.”

  The two riders gazed out over the range stretching toward the far horizon. “Nice piece of country you have here,” Mick remarked. “How much land do you have?”

  “We have fifteen thousand acres of our own,” Iris told him. “Plus we have the use of another ten thousand acres of unclaimed land adjacent to our southern boundary.”

  Mick whistled through his teeth. “That’s a good parcel. And how much stock?”

  “Five thousand head,” Iris replied. “About a third of that should go to the sale yards at the end of the summer. We haven’t had a decent cattle drive in a few years, what with being so short-handed. We should cut our numbers and build up again next year with higher quality stock.”

  Mick squinted at her out of the corner of his eye. “You really know your stuff, don’t you? I never heard that kinda talk comin’ outta the mouth of a woman before.”

  Violet laughed. “That’s our Iris. She gets into everything that doesn’t concern her. Do you know, Mick, she even orders the cowboys around? Pete Kershaw and Wade Jackson—they’re our ranch hands—they take all their orders from Iris.”

  “Well, someone has to take charge of the place,” Iris exclaimed. “If I didn’t go out and tell them what to do, Pete and Wade would have left us long since. You order Rita around in the house, Violet. This is no different.”

  “Except you’re a woman telling two men what to do,” Violet shot back. “And both of those men are old enough to be your father. And it’s cattle ranching, too! That’s men’s business.”

  “Anything having to do with my inheritance is my business,” Iris declared. “And when there are no men around to run the ranch the way it should be run, I have no choice but to step in and run it.” She glanced sidelong at Mick. “Once you men take over and we’re married, if you don’t want me getting mixed up in ranch business anymore, I won’t.”

  “Don’t worry about that,” Mick replied. “As long as there’s work to do, I’m sure we’ll be happy for another pair of willing hands to do it. But just wait a little while. Once we’re married, you might decide you don’t want to run the ranch anymore. You might decide you like it better in the house doing women’s things.”

  “Not likely!” Violet scoffed.

  But when she saw Iris’s embarrassment, Violet regretted joking at her expense. Iris bore the sole credit for keeping the ranch alive this long. She should apologize for her tactless remarks, especially in front of Iris’s future husband, but she never got the chance. The buggy rolled under the sign at the front gate and purred up the road toward the house.

  “There’s the house.” Iris pointed out the main house. “We’ll drive you over to the Fort House and drop you off. What time is it, Violet?”

  Violet fished around in her hand bag for a watch, but before she found it, Jake Hamilton’s smooth voice answered from the back seat. “It’s quarter to five.”

  Violet jumped in her seat and looked over her shoulder just in time to see Jake tucking a gold pocket watch into the breast pocket of his waist coat. He didn’t acknowledge her, but went back to looking at Rose.

  “Then we have a little time left,” Iris replied. “Once you get settled in, why don’t the three of you come on down to the main house for a little supper. We can have a meal together and get a little bit better acquainted.”

  “Sounds like a great idea,” Chuck answered. “I’m starving.”

  “Me, too,” Mick agreed. “And will Cornell be joining us?”

  “I doubt it,” Iris replied. “He usually has supper with us, but I think he’ll make himself scarce tonight.”

  “Good for him,” Mick muttered.

  Chapter 11

  Iris drove the buggy past the main house, around the barn, and up a small hill on the other side. She pulled to a halt in front of a log cabin perched on top of the hill. “This is the Fort House,” she told them.

  Mick surveyed the house. “Why do you call it that?”

  “I really don’t know, to tell you the truth.” She studied the plain little house. “My uncle named it that when he built it, and we’ve called it that ever since. I like to think he named it that because it looks like the old log stockades the Army built for their forts when the first settlers moved into the country. But that’s just a guess. I really don’t know.”

  Mick and Chuck dismounted in front of the high porch that ran along the front of the house. Mick grabbed the three trunks from the rack on the back of the buggy and threw them, one after the other, onto the porch with no more difficulty than if he were tossing feather pillows. He also unloaded several longer cases. Violet assumed they contained long guns—rifles and shotguns. Pete and Wade kept their guns in cases like that.

  Mick tied the two saddle horses to the back of the buggy.

  “Would you like us to show you around inside?” Violet asked.

  Chuck leaned against the porch. “You don’t have to do that. I’m sure you have better things to do. We can sort ourselves out. I’m just glad to find a place to stop and take a breath for a while. I’m in no hurry to get indoors just now.”

  Jake made no move to get out of the buggy. He and Rose continued their silent communion in the back seat, oblivious to everything around them. But as if by some silent cue, he shifted his weight and stepped down from the seat. “I guess I’ll have a look around inside.”

  Rose jumped down after him. She didn’t say anything, but Jake took her by the hand and the two mounted the steps to the porch. The next minute, they disappeared through the door into the cabin.

  “I’ll take the buggy and the horses down to the barn,” Iris announced. “There’s not much daylight left.”

  “I’ll come with you,” Mick swung himself up into the front seat next to her, and the buggy trundled away, down the hill to the barn.

  Violet watched the buggy roll to a stop in front of the barn, where Mick hopped back down and slid back the barn door. He stood aside as Iris drove the buggy inside with the three horses trotting after it on their lead ropes.

  Violet sighed and glanced at Chuck, who still leaned against the porch. He smiled and lowered his eyes when he saw her looking at him. Violet couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. She turned her shoulder to him and followed his gaze down the hill. “You can see the whole ranch from up here. You can see right through the back door of the main house, and you can see everything going on in front of the yard.”

  “Where’s your guardian’s house?” he asked.

  “Over there.” Violet pointed out an even smaller cottage on a distant hill to the north. Only the glint of the sun on its windows showed it was there. “It’s very private, the Bird House. You can’t hardly see anything of the ranch from there, and no one can see you. And you definitely can’t hear anything.”

  “It sounds ideal,” Chuck remarked.

  “Rose mentioned on the way to town this morning that she would like to live there with Jake,” Violet told him. “That is, if Cornell wasn’t there.”

  “Sounds like a good idea,” Chuck replied.

  “I still don’t like the idea of sending him away,” Violet remarked. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

  “I unders
tand, “Chuck replied. “He’s family, and family means a lot. But you never know. We’re all going to be married—when did you say it was? Friday? Something could happen between now and then that will clear the way for all of us to get what we want, even Cornell. It often works out that way.”

  “Do you think so?” Violet asked.

  Chuck nodded. “Don’t worry about Cornell. Everything will work out in the end. You’ll see.”

  Violet surveyed the ranch below her. Then she peeked sideways at Chuck again and caught him looking at her and grinning from ear to ear. Violet laughed in spite of herself.

  “What’s so funny?” Chuck asked, but before the words got completely out of his mouth, he burst out laughing himself. “Aren’t we a pair, giggling like schoolgirls.”

  Violet wiped the corner of her eye. “We’re going to be married. Can you believe that?”

  “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” Chuck dabbed his own eyes with the cuff of his sleeve.

  Violet composed herself enough to look him in the face without laughing out loud. “I’m….I’m glad you’re here.”

  Chuck went serious. “Me, too. I’m….Oh, heck. I sound like an idiot for saying it, but I think you’re awful nice. I’m glad of that.”

  “I know just what you mean,” Violet exclaimed. “I’ve wondered so many times what you would be like, and now that you’re here and I’m seeing you in the flesh—well, I’m just so relieved and happy! I can’t put it into words.”

  Chuck reached out toward her, and the next thing she knew, she found his hand holding hers. “You don’t have to put it into words. Just so you know I feel the same way. I just can’t wait ‘til Friday.”

  Violet tried to answer, but she laughed for joy at the same time her eyes smarted with tears. This moment fulfilled all her deepest hopes for her mail-order marriage. She came up with the idea of getting mail-order husbands as a way to save the ranch. She never considered until this moment that she might marry a man she actually cared for.

  Yet here he was, standing in front of her. She could care for him—she could do so much more than care for him! She could dedicate her life to him, she could join forces with him and become so much stronger than they ever were alone. So this was what marriage was all about! And she never realized it before.

  Chapter 12

  The daylight lengthened into twilight, a pleasant breeze washed over the range, and the last birds twittered from somewhere out of sight. Chuck’s fingers slipped over Violet’s, and a surge of goose bumps shot up her spine and up the back of her neck. Would Rose and Jake come out of the house right now and find them holding hands? Wasn’t she supposed to be the proper older sister and set an example for her younger sisters? Somehow it never worked out that way.

  Violet tore her eyes away from Chuck’s face and took refuge in the view of the ranch. “Somehow, they’ve all managed to run off and leave us alone.”

  Chuck pretended to look around for the others. “I don’t think they’re thinking about us at all. I think they all wanted to get off alone, and I don’t blame them. Is there anywhere we can go to spend some time, just you and me?”

  Violet started back in surprise. “I hadn’t thought about that.”

  “I’ll be stuck up here with Mick and Jake,” Chuck went on. “And you’ll be stuck down there with Iris and Rose. When will we ever spend any time together?”

  “I’m sure we’ll all go off alone together after the service on Friday,” she replied.

  “I mean before Friday,” Chuck corrected her. “I don’t want to come to the altar on Friday without spending some time with you first. I’d die of loneliness.”

  “We aren’t going to the altar,” Violet told him. “Don’t you remember? The minister is coming out here Friday morning to marry us at the main house. I told you that in my letter.”

  “I remember,” Chuck replied. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we have three more days to wait before that happens. What are you trying to do—torture me?”

  “Of course not,” Violet replied. “If you want to spend time alone, we’ll find a way to do it.”

  “Of course I want to spend time alone with you,” Chuck told her. “Don’t you want to spend time alone with me, too?”

  “Sure, I do,” Violet replied. “I just need to think of a way to do it. Hey, listen. You’re coming down to the house for supper in a little while. Maybe afterward we can take a walk together. And look up there. There’ll be a nice bright moon. It’ll be a beautiful night for a walk. How does that sound?”

  “All right. You win.” His finger slid back and forth in her hand again. The skin slipped silky and smooth under his touch. The goosebumps prickled over her body again. If only she could find a way to be alone with him! So what if they weren’t married yet? They would be soon enough.

  But they weren’t alone now. Here came Iris and Mick out of the barn together, and the tread of footsteps on the stairs inside the house jerked Violet out of her reverie. She pulled her hand away from Chuck and stepped back. “Good, then. Until tonight.”

  The smile fell away from his face. Oh, what was she doing? He was right. Why couldn’t they just stay like this forever? Why did they have to put up a façade of propriety between now and Friday?

  Maybe Iris and Rose were right about getting rid of Cornell. She didn’t really want to share a house with anyone, not even her own sister, after she married Chuck. How sensible Iris was! She knew perfectly well that, after the wedding service, she would want to take Mick back to the Fort House—alone—and stay there and live there with him—alone. She didn’t want any interference from any of her sisters or their husbands, and she definitely didn’t want any interference from Cornell.

  Even though she knew in her heart Iris was right, Violet still couldn’t resign herself to support their plan to serve Cornell with his marching orders. She just couldn’t bring herself to remove the last remaining obstacle to all three of their couples living alone together in their own houses.

  To Violet’s eternal gratitude, the cabin door swung open and Rose and Jake came out onto the porch. At the same time, Mick and Iris strode up the hill and stopped right in front of Chuck and Violet. Thank goodness she’d let go of his hand before they came!

  One passing glance at her sisters showed Violet they’d each shared a moment of connection with their future husbands the same way Violet had with Chuck. All six of them wore the same bewildered smile on their faces and the same smitten blush on their cheeks. Did she look that way, too? Violet felt the burning heat in her face and knew she did.

  Mick climbed up onto the porch. He selected one of the long cases from the pile of luggage and laid it out on the floor. He unclipped the latches and threw back the lid. He took a polished shotgun out of the case and inspected it. He raised the butt to his shoulder, pointed the muzzle down toward the ground, and sighted down the barrel.

  Then he set the shot gun aside and took out first one and then another lever-action rifle. He gave these the same inspection. When he finished, he stood all three guns against the wall in the corner of the porch.

  The three sisters watched him, Iris in admiration, Rose detached, and Violet frozen in astonishment. So this was the man her sister planned to marry? A man who unpacked his guns before everything else? Jake and Chuck watched him, too, and his actions gave Jake an idea. He dug out a small square case from the stack of trunks and bags and opened it on the bent-wood chair at the back of the porch.

  Violet gasped in surprise when he lifted out a gun belt bristling with bullets and buckled it around his waist. The hand grips of the two pistols hanging on either hip gleamed with inlaid ivory and silver enamel. Jake adjusted their position on his hips and drew them one after the other. He hefted them in his hands, flexed the hammers of both guns under his thumb, and then slid them back into their holsters.

  The gun belt made him look different to Violet. It made him look….what? What was different about him, with a gun at his waist? Yet the minor addition to hi
s wardrobe changed him in Violet’s eyes. She couldn’t understand it, but her estimation of him shifted. Her first impression of him at the hotel saloon had been grossly incorrect. He wasn’t small or weak or inexperienced or soft. Jake Hamilton was not a man to be trifled with. Violet was never more certain of anything.

  Neither Rose nor Iris nor Chuck showed any sign of disturbance at the men getting out their guns. Was Violet exaggerating the significance of it? After all, they’d wanted cowboys and cowboys was what they got. Still, something told Violet these were no ordinary cowboys handling the tools of their trade. Mick looked more like an outlaw getting ready to rob a bank.

  And Jake? She didn’t know what Jake looked like. He didn’t look like any cowboy she ever saw. He looked like a coyote or a mountain lion stalking its prey. Violet knew nothing about him, but she was quite certain he could wield those guns with deadly accuracy.

  Chapter 13

  “I don’t suppose you ladies know what sort of good huntin’ there is around here,” Mick asked.

  “I’m sure I don’t,” Violet replied.

  “I do,” Iris cut in. “There’s deer and elk and moose down here on the range all the time, especially in the fall. You know how it is. If you go up into the mountains, it’s even better. There’s bears, cougars, and wolves. And, of course, there’s birds. You go down to the river, you’ll have no end of birds of all kinds.”

  Mick squinted at her. “You don’t go huntin’, do ya?”

  Iris blushed. “No. I don’t have time. But Pete and Wade go when they have a day or two off.”

  “Hmm.” Mick turned back to unpacking his cases. He took out bandoliers of small caliber bullets and boxes of rifle cartridges. He sorted them all and laid them out by size. “Maybe you and me can go for a ride up there, Chuck.” He nodded toward the mountains behind the ranch.

  “You go ahead. I want to have a look at things around the ranch.” He caught Violet’s eye and glanced away.

  “How ‘bout you, Jake?” Mick asked. “You fancy a little bit a’ huntin’ before you get stuck into work?”

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