Violets mail order husba.., p.6
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       Violet's Mail Order Husband (Montana Brides #1), p.6

          
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Jake strolled across the porch and leaned against a post. “I could be tempted to go out, if you’re goin’. No sense bustin’ ourselves with work right away, especially if we’re gettin’ married on Friday. Might do to take a day or two to settle in first.”

“If the ranch is anywhere near as behind as you say it is,” Chuck added. “Then we don’t have any time to waste goin’ off huntin’. But I tell you what, I mean to have a look for myself and decide just what’s what. I won’t take anyone’s word on the state of things around here. I’ll look and see for myself.”

“No one’s stoppin’ you,” Mick replied. “But there’ll be plenty of time for work after we get married. I’ve been traveling for three weeks to get here. I’m gonna take at least a day or two off before I start crackin’ heads.”

Violet caught her breath at his words, but no one else seemed to notice.

“We should get down to the house,” Iris remarked. “It’ll be suppertime soon. We can talk about things then. You men’ll want to get settled in, and we’ve had a long day on the road.”

“That’s all right,” Mick replied. “You go ahead. We’ll be down to supper directly.”

“Before we go,” Violet interrupted. “I should show you around the house a little bit. There are some extra supplies in there to make your stay more comfortable.”

“Oh, right,” Iris replied. “I forgot. Violet arranged the house for your coming.”

“If you follow me….” Inside, she showed them to the wood stove in the corner of the main room downstairs. “There’s firewood here, and we always keep a box of matches and candles here on the shelf. I don’t know if you’ll need to light the fire. It’s been pretty warm here the last few weeks, and I’ve arranged with Rita for you three to take your meals down at the main house.”

“If it’s warm and we don’t need to cook,” Chuck replied. “Then I don’t see us needing to light the fire.”

“That’s what I thought,” Violet agreed. “But you never know. Just keep it in mind. And there’s a box of tinder here for getting it going.” She crossed the room to a wooden trunk built into the wall of the room. “In here, I’ve put some food stores, just in case you get hungry. You never know when you might want something between meals. There’s a side of bacon, a couple rounds of cheese, a loaf of bread, and a basket of apples from the cellar. That should keep you going. If you eat all that and you want some more, you let me know and I’ll fix you up.”

Chuck smiled at her. “Very practical. Thank you.”

Violet smiled back. “They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I figured we’d keep the way well cleared.”

The three men chuckled. “Of course.”

“Now then.” Violet stopped at the foot of the ladder leading up to the loft. “The beds are upstairs. I suppose Rose showed you, Jake. I won’t go up. You can find your way by yourselves. But you’ll find a supply of extra blankets in the bench at the foot of the beds. You shouldn’t need them, what with the mild weather we’re having, but like I said, you never know. If you need something else, you can tell me.”

“No one’s told you yet, Chuck,” Iris interrupted. “Violet runs this ranch. Cornell thinks he’s the one who makes all the decisions around here, but it’s actually Violet who decides who does what and when and where. She even keeps the books.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Chuck nodded to her. “It’s good to know my future wife knows how to manage a place. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Violet flushed with pride. “I’m only doing what I have to do. I feel the same way Iris does. This ranch is our inheritance, and I want to make sure we have it in good working order to hand down to the next generation. Cornell can only do so much. He can’t run the ranch with a woman’s eye for the small details. He can’t know how to run the kitchen for maximum efficiency. He can’t know all the things we could be doing for ourselves instead of paying for them in town.”

“Violet tells Rita what to cook for our meals and what ingredients to use,” Iris told them. “She even tells her how much soap to use in the laundry and how to make the soap. She mends all our clothes, and she does it so well that Cornell doesn’t even notice they’ve been mended. If he did notice, he would tell us to throw the clothes away and buy new ones.”

“It’s a waste of money,” Violet insisted. “Take a look at this dress.” She held up the skirts of her own dress. “Look at that seam. You would never know that dress had been mended.”

The three men examined the seam, and nodded their heads in mute agreement.

“This is a perfectly good dress,” Violet declared. “Why should I throw it away when it could be mended as good as new? And the laundry soap. If Cornell knew we used homemade soap for the laundry, he would tell us to use store bought soap instead. It’s just wasteful, and it’s our own money he’s wasting, too. He doesn’t care about spending our money the same way he would care if it was his own.”

“I agree with you absolutely,” Chuck replied. “A woman should do everything possible to safeguard the family economy. My mother made all our clothes, all our soap, mended all our clothes, and cooked all our food from homegrown ingredients. It’s the mark of a sensible, practical woman. And it’s everything I hoped my wife would be, too.”

Violet blushed to the roots of her hair. “It’s the least a woman can do to run her own household. We’re not royalty, although Cornell certainly would like to think we are.”

“And do you know,” Iris continued. “Violet sneaks Cornell’s clothes and mends them on the sly. That’s how practical she is. He doesn’t even know his clothes have been mended. That’s how far Violet goes to keep him happy. He thinks she’s his strongest supporter around here. He doesn’t even know she disagrees with him.”

The three men stared at Violet with new appreciation. “It’s amazing,” Chuck murmured. “That’s certainly going above and beyond the call of duty.”

Violet shook her head. “It is the call of duty. I wouldn’t get anywhere arguing with him about it. I’ve found that out too many times. If he doesn’t have the eyes to see that his socks are darned and his shirts mended, why should he get new ones? My word, he doesn’t even notice when they have holes that need mending!”

“Then I guess he can’t really express his appreciation for your efforts,” Mick pointed out.

“Oh, I don’t want him expressing his appreciation,” Violet exclaimed. “I’m very happy for him to remain in the dark. As I say, if he doesn’t notice, he doesn’t deserve new clothes. He doesn’t deserve new clothes, anyway, not at our expense. If I’m the one paying for his clothes, then by golly, he’ll get them mended when they wear out.”

“I’ll say!” Chuck agreed.

Violet looked at Chuck and found him studying her. When their eyes met, they both smiled and blushed and looked away.

Violet didn’t hear what the others said. She didn’t hear what Chuck said or what she herself said. They managed to separate somehow, maybe without speaking at all. Violet and her sisters strolled down the hill to the main house. Only about halfway down the hill Violet heard the door of the Fort House shut behind them. The men had watched them go.

Violet didn’t bother to try to talk to her sisters on the way back to the house. She didn’t even look at them. Her mind wandered away over the range under the pendulous moon. Chuck strolled at her side, his delicate fingers tickling the palm of her hand.

And then, when they came to the creek bottom under the poplar trees, he stopped and moved just a little closer to her. And all the while, her heart thudded in her chest until her legs wobbled underneath her. She saw his eyes, his face, his mouth, and his fingers caressed her hands.



Chapter 14





The three sisters sailed into the house, each floating in her own separate dream and smiling the same secret smile. Iris and Rose disappeared before Violet knew what became of them, and she knew better than to follow them. She ought to go to her own room and lie down for a while before the men came up for supper.

But some nameless misgiving induced her to seek out Cornell one more time before they parted for the evening. Maybe Iris had a point and she felt guilty about flouting his wishes. She just couldn’t let him go with their quarrel hanging over her head.

She tiptoed along the passage leading to the library. None of the usual hum of human presence emanated from the walls the way they usually did when Cornell held office in there. Maybe he’d already gone home to the Bird House for the night. Maybe he’d given instructions to Rita to bring his supper up there so he wouldn’t have to deal with any of the Kilburn girls at all. Maybe he just wanted some peace and quiet.

Violet stuck her head into the library, expecting to find it empty. But she cried out when she saw Cornell putting the last of his papers away. “Are you still up, Cornell? I thought you’d be sitting on the porch smoking your pipe by now. It’s late, you know. You’re not burning the midnight oil, are you?” Violet crossed the carpet to his desk.

“I’m still working, Violet,” Cornell replied. “Have you and your sisters just come back from town with those men of yours?”

“Yes.” Violet blushed in spite of herself. “They’ll be staying in the Fort House until Friday, but I guess I already told you that.”

“You told me,” Cornell replied. “I just didn’t want to believe you’d go through with it.”

His tone snapped her out of her dream and brought her back to earth with a crash. “Of course we went through with it. Did you really think, after we went to the trouble of getting these men out here, that we would back out on our plan?”

Cornell sighed. “I guess I only hoped.”

“You should know us better than that by now, Cornell,” Violet told him. “You should know we aren’t given to flights of fancy or idle threats. When we make up our minds to do something, we do it, especially when we believe it will serve the best interests of the ranch and our future.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Cornell admitted. “I just hoped you wouldn’t. So, what are they like, these men? Are they everything you hoped they would be?”

The blood rushed to Violet’s cheeks and her eyes blazed at the memory of Chuck outside the Fort House. “They’re everything we hoped they would be. I think they’re going to be perfect for us. You’ll see, Cornell. The ranch will be so much better off with them here. We all will be.”

“No, I don’t think so, Violet dear.” Cornell put the last of his papers away, came around his desk, and positioned himself in front of her. He crossed his hands in front of himself and furrowed his brows at her. “I think you will live to regret this decision, and I wouldn’t be doing my duty to your family if I let it happen.”

Violet didn’t like his tone at all. She wouldn’t let him see how much his manner frightened her, so she straightened her spine and set her teeth for the next round of their argument. “There’s nothing you can do to stop it now. They’re right out there in the Fort House, and we’re all getting married on Friday, come hell or high water.”

“I don’t think that will happen, Violet,” Cornell insisted. “I think I can still make you see the light before Friday.”

“I don’t want to see the light,” Violet declared. “Not your light, anyway. And neither do Iris or Rose. You’ll just have to accept it.”

“I won’t accept it,” Cornell told her. “And I still have a few arrows left in my quiver to convince you.”

Violet froze. “Like what?”

“I’m still your guardian and your trustee,” Cornell reminded her. “I still hold the purse strings of your fortune, and I still have the power to consent to these marriages. I can use the power vested in me by your late parents to stop you from marrying these men.”

Violet shuddered. He didn’t really mean to make this situation as unpleasant as all that, did he? “What are you saying, Cornell? You don’t mean that…” Violet trailed off.

Cornell pointed his finger into Violet’s face. “I’m holding you personally responsible for this fiasco, Violet. Your sisters would never go through with a plan like this without your encouragement. If anyone takes the consequences for this, it should be you.”

“What consequences do you mean?” Violet could barely form the words to ask.

“I’m still sole trustee of your estate,” Cornell reminded her. “I still have the power to decide which, if any of you, inherits your parent’s fortune. If you prove yourself unworthy of it, perhaps you shouldn’t.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Violet gasped. “You wouldn’t disinherit me on the very eve of my wedding day!”

“Wouldn’t I?” Cornell sneered. “I can and I would, if you persist in this disastrous scheme of yours. I don’t see why the fortune your father worked so hard for should be squandered on some dirty cattle puncher.”

“You haven’t even met Chuck,” Violet retorted. “How do you know he’s dirty? Why don’t you come to supper now and meet him. I think your fears would be assuaged if you did. You’ll see he’s a good man who will do the ranch a lot of good. And I’m quite certain I’ll be very happy married to him. Come and see for yourself.”

“I wouldn’t stoop so low,” Cornell shot back. “I don’t have to meet him or see him or the other two to know what they are. You said you were marrying cowboys, and that’s all I need to know. They aren’t worthy of the Kilburn family fortune, and I’ll make sure they never see a penny of it. And neither will any of you, if you go through with these marriages.”

“You can’t disinherit all of us,” Violet pointed out. “What are you going to do? Take the money for yourself?” She meant the question as a joke, but the minute the words passed her lips, a terrible chill froze Violet’s heart. He couldn’t, could he? He wouldn’t! Wasn’t he supposed to be their guardian, the executor of their trust? How could he even suggest such a thing?

“I can, and I will.” Cornell squared his shoulders and his spiny eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead. “I suggest you go to supper and tell these men that the wedding is off, and that you and your sisters have decided to marry different men. That’s what you’ll tell them, if you don’t want to wind up on the street.” He compressed his lips on the last word.



Chapter 15





Violet pulled herself up and hardened her heart to him. For the first time in her life, he didn’t frighten her. “And I suggest, Cornell, that you think twice about opposing these marriages. Do you know what Iris and Rose talked about on the way down to Butte today, and what she and the men talked about on the way home? They talked about packing you off, out of the Bird House, out of Rocking Horse Ranch, and out of our lives, after we get married.”

Cornell’s eyebrows flew up, but he kept his composure enough not to show his shock any other way. “Is that so?”

“Yes, it is,” Violet told him. “I spent both trips doing everything in my power to defend you and keep a place for you here. But I see no reason to do that if you threaten me or make life unpleasant for our husbands.”

“They aren’t your husband’s yet, Violet,” Cornell growled.

“No, but they will be,” Violet declared. “You may be absolutely certain of that. We will marry these men on Friday, whether you like it or not, and even if you do plan to take our money for yourself, all of our fortune will pass to our husbands the day we marry them, no matter what you say or do.”

Cornell didn’t reply. He only pressed his lips together more firmly than ever. Was that a hint of concern in his eye? Oh, please let it be so! Please let her words strike home!

Violet’s words came out of her mouth like molten iron. She’d never heard her own voice so hard and piercing before. Was she really saying these things? And to Cornell’s face, too! She never thought she’d live so long.

“If I was in your position, Cornell,” she said. “I’d make an effort to be very polite and generous, not only to these three men, but to me and my sisters, too. Your future rests in our hands, and it wouldn’t take much to tip the balance of power away from you. If that happens, there’s nothing I can do to protect you, and it’s you who’ll be out on the street.”

Violet fixed him with one last withering glare before she turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. She slammed the door behind her, but immediately ran away, down the passage, and up the stairs to her own room, where she slammed her own door and locked herself in.

She threw herself down on her bed, buried her face in her pillow, and screamed as she’d never screamed before in her life. She screamed out all her vile thoughts about Cornell. She screamed all her worry about the future of the ranch and for the well-being of her sisters. Last of all, she screamed in excitement and exhilaration at the thought of Chuck. The thrill of pleasure scorched up her arm from the fingers he’d touched and spread through her whole body.

Was this what it felt like? Was this what a man could do to a woman’s body? Could a thought throw her into a ferment of anticipation at seeing him again, talking to him, touching him. Heavens above! How much more incredible would it be to live with him, to hold him, to lie next to him every night of her life!

Oh, she couldn’t stop screaming from thinking about it! Did her sisters know? Is this the way Iris felt when she left the barn with Mick? What had they talked about and done in there? Had he touched her hand and spoken soft words to her and smiled into her eyes the way Chuck did to her? And Jake must have done the same thing to Rose in the Fort House. That’s why they all smiled so foolishly and couldn’t stop smiling?

Did every woman in the world feel this way when she got close to a man? So this was what all the fuss was about! Violet always thought all that romantic fairy-tale nonsense about finding your prince and living happily ever after was just a childish story. But here it was, coming true for her and her sisters.

Please, God, don’t let anyone hear her screaming like this. But she couldn’t stop. Tears of excitement and raw emotion wet her pillow. She only stopped screaming when the pain in her throat overcame her agitation and she couldn’t scream any more. Maybe she’d destroyed her voice, and everyone would know she’d screamed her head off because she couldn’t talk anymore.
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