Violets mail order husba.., p.9
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       Violet's Mail Order Husband (Montana Brides #1), p.9

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  Chapter 22

  Violet heard the clock chime in the back parlor. She turned to Chuck. “We should go out for our walk before it gets too late.”

  Chuck nodded, and the other two couples passed communications silently to each other through their eyes. Without agreeing on it, all three couples rose from the table and drifted apart.

  Chuck and Violet meandered out of the dining room and back to the front door. Just outside the dining room, Chuck took her hand again, and her heart soared at the thought of walking out alone with him into the night world.

  They turned the corner into the front hall and ran face first into Cornell.

  “Oh, Cornell!” Violet exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were here.”

  “Where are you going at this hour, Violet?” Cornell rumbled.

  “We were just going out for a walk in the moonlight,” Violet explained. “By the way, I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure of meeting my fiancé. This is Chuck Ahern. And this is Cornell Pollard, my guardian.”

  Chuck put his hand out. “How do you do?”

  Cornell glared at the hand and at Chuck. “I don’t care to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ahern. I suppose Violet told you that already that I disapprove of your presence here.”

  “Yeah,” Chuck replied. “She told me.”

  “Violet,” Cornell continued. “As your uncle and guardian, I’m ordering you to go back upstairs to your room. Mr. Ahern, if you can’t leave Rocking Horse Ranch immediately, I’ll thank you to go back to the Fort House and stay there until you can leave. You aren’t welcome here.”

  “You’re in no position to order anyone to do anything,” Violet snapped. “You’ve had your way with me and my sisters all these years, and you’ll never order me to do anything again. Do you hear me? You are the one who should go back to the Bird House until you learn to speak civilly to us. This is our house, not yours.”

  “I think you misunderstand the situation, Violet,” Cornell replied. “I will be the one who decides who comes and who goes in this house, and I will also be the one who ultimately decides who you three young women marry. That is my right and my responsibility as your guardian. You may not value me as such, but that is my role and I intend to fulfill it.”

  Violet drew herself up to her full height. “It may surprise you to learn, Cornell, that Jake Hamilton, Rose’s fiancé, is a lawyer. He says you have no right to use our estate to control our lives. Once we marry these men, the estate will pass to them no matter what you say. You would do better to accustom yourself to that fact.”

  Cornell raised an eyebrow. “A lawyer, huh? Well, I have a lawyer, too, and I’m sure he’s a much better one than Jake Hamilton of God-knows-where.”

  “San Antonio,” Chuck put in.

  “Of San Antonio,” Cornell corrected himself. “Now go upstairs, Violet, before I take you there myself.”

  “You’ll do no such thing,” Violet shot back.

  “You don’t think so?” Cornell stepped forward and reached out to grab her arm.

  Chuck matched him by taking a step of his own forward, and he thrust his arm between Cornell and Violet to block the older man’s move. “Don’t even think of laying a hand on the lady, Mister. I don’t know you from Adam, but by God, as sure as I’m standing here, you won’t lay a finger on her or I’ll make you pay for it.”

  Cornell fumed and raged. “Pay for it, will I? I’ll show you!”

  Violet never saw Cornell move so fast. She never knew a man of his age could move so fast in the heat of anger. Cornell flailed his arms to one side, knocking Chuck out of the way. Chuck staggered backward and tripped over.

  Violet screamed, “Chuck!” but it was too late. Chuck pitched over and cracked his head against the corner of the wall where it turned toward the dining room. He grunted once and slumped into a pile on the floor. He didn’t move again.

  With Chuck out of the way, Cornell made another grab for Violet. His fingers locked around her arm, and he yanked her toward the stairs at the end of the hall. She shrieked as loud as she could in the hopes of rousing someone in another part of the house. She didn’t know if any of her sisters or their fiancés were still in the house, but even Rita would do. Let anyone come who could help her fend off Cornell.

  She tugged and wrenched at her arm, but he held her as tight as a vice. Pulling at it hurt worse than his iron grip, but her desperation to get free only made her fight harder. He hauled her down the hall to the foot of the stairs, fighting all the way. By the time they got there, cries of panic prevented her from making any louder appeal for help.

  Cornell put his foot on the first step to drag her upstairs, but the finality of the move jolted Violet out of her helplessness. She lashed out with her free arm and struck Cornell as hard as she could across the side of the head.

  He flinched in pain, but not enough to let go of her arm. Seeing some effect from her efforts, she reared back and struck again. Cornell roared in rage and brought his own arms up to protect his head, but too late.

  With one deafening bellow, he swung his arm with the hand at the end balled into a fist and clubbed Violet to the floor. The force sent her sprawling across the hall, and her shoulder knocked against a plant stand near the dining room door.

  Chapter 23

  She stared up at the towering figure of Cornell at the foot of the stairs, and she couldn’t even recognize him. Where was the kindly uncle who managed all their affairs so selflessly through their formative years? Where was the man she revered as a second father or grandfather? Where was the guardian she turned to for advice and protection?

  Cornell never turned his hand against any of the sisters before. Had he suffered some sort of apoplectic spell? Had he suddenly taken to drink? Certainly the sisters’ mail-order marriages couldn’t have driven him beyond his senses. But she didn’t stop to try to reason with him or find out the cause of his bizarre behavior.

  Something snapped in Violet’s mind. Her ability to rationalize deserted her, and her body took over her brain. She never could understand afterward what impelled her to act. Some force beyond her comprehension took control of her arms and legs and exploded out of her in a whirlwind of motion.

  Violet launched herself up off the floor with a violent screech, her teeth bared and her fingernails flexed like the claws of a wild cat. Her feet didn’t touch the floor as she sailed across the hall and hit Cornell with all her weight.

  She knocked him backward, and he landed on his back on the incline of the stairs. But Violet didn’t stop there. She leapt on top of his prostrate form, screaming her insanity to the rafters. She seized Cornell by the tufts of hair on the side of his head and slammed his head down again and again onto the stair underneath him.

  The first two times she delivered these blows, Cornell grunted in pain. He stared up at the banshee on top of him in terror, unable to rally his own hands to fight her off. The third and fourth blows drew whimpers of agony from him. His eyes rolled up in their sockets, and a wet dark patch stained the edge of the stair under his head.

  Violet couldn’t stop herself, even when she saw him losing consciousness in her hands. She wanted to drop his sweaty bleeding head and run from the house, but her body wouldn’t stop slamming him down, lifting him up, and driving him down again. Each blow sent a sickening shudder through her body. How could she ever rid herself of this memory?

  Cornell lapsed into hollow grunting underneath her and probably would have died on those stairs had Chuck not pulled Violet off him. Violet heard his voice in her ear, but she couldn’t make out the words. Cornell’s hair tore out in her clenched fists, but Chuck dragged her off him.

  The same mindless shriek still poured out of her mouth, and she kicked and scratched at Chuck’s hands and arms to get back at Cornell, but he held her until they retreated to the front door of the house.

  Cornell rolled onto his side with a moan and lurched up into a sitting position. He tried to speak, but only a muffled growl of pain came out of his mouth. He
leaned forward to get his feet under him, but fell back down onto the stairs. “You’ll pay for this,” he grumbled. “I’ll get you for this.”

  “We’ll pay for this!” Violet screeched. “You’ll pay for this! You had your chance to stay on good terms with us and this is how you act! I would have stood your friend through life and death, and this is how you treat me!”

  “You’ll live to regret this,” Cornell rumbled through gritted teeth. “I’ll see you thrown in jail for this, and I’ll see your sweetheart there driven out of the territory.”

  Violet went still except for her hard panting breath. “You better pack your bags, Cornell. Come Friday morning, you’ll never set foot in this house again, and if I never set eyes on your face for the rest of my life, it will be too soon.”

  She didn’t hear his answer. Chuck pulled her the rest of the way out of the house and slammed the door behind them.

  The lamplight of the front hall vanished behind them. The crisp night air and dreamy moonlight sealed the breach between the inner world of the house and the outside world of shadows and fantasies.

  Violet gazed around her at the open range awash in crystal moonlight. All of a sudden, Chuck’s hand enfolded hers, and she opened her eyes as if recognizing for the first time where she was. His touch, his presence, his essence grounded her and cleared her thoughts of everything that just happened.

  “Are you okay?” Chuck asked.

  Violet shuddered. Finally, she nodded. “I’m all right. How about you? You had a hard fall. I thought you might be hurt.”

  Chuck rubbed the back of his head. “I’m all right. I blacked out for a minute, and when I opened my eyes, he was trying to pull you up the stairs. I saw you hit him, and he knocked you over. The next thing I knew, you were beating the ever-loving tar outta that man.” He shook his head. “Boy howdy! I wouldn’t want to be him right now.”

  Violet stared down at her hands. Bloody hair was still tangled around her fingers. “I’ve never done anything like that before. You have to believe me. I don’t know what happened to me. Something made me do it. I don’t know what.”

  “You don’t have to explain,” Chuck told her. “I saw what happened. If it comes to explaining anything to anyone, we can both vouch for each other. He struck the first blow when he knocked me down. And you hit him in fear for your own safety. You attacked him only after he hit you back. It was all self defense.”

  “I don’t know what on earth made Cornell act like that,” Violet remarked. “I’ve never seen him so crazed.”

  Chuck cocked his head on one side. “No? Hasn’t he ever done this sort of thing before?”

  “Never!” Violet declared. “He’s always been the most mild-mannered gentleman you could imagine. I just don’t understand it.”

  Chuck rubbed his chin, and the two of them began walking away from the house, out onto the range. “I guess he was a mild-mannered gentleman as long as he had his way around here. As soon as you ladies started standing up to him, making your own decisions and telling him where to stick it if he didn’t like it, he lost control. Sounds to me like the mild-mannered gentleman was just a mask he wore to hide his other side. This was the real Cornell we saw tonight.”

  “Don’t say that!” Violet cried. “I just can’t believe it! I’ve loved him and looked up to him all my life. I can’t believe this is the real Cornell.”

  “How do you explain it, then?” Chuck asked

  Violet shook her head again. “I can’t explain it. Maybe he suffered a psychotic episode, or an attack of brain fever, or….or….I don’t know, or anything.”

  Chuck gazed out over the pasture. “You might be right. But it doesn’t change the fact that he attacked us. Whatever the cause, he’s dangerous. We’ll have to look out for ourselves and we have to warn the others about him. They could be in danger from him, too, if he’s that worked up about us getting married against his wishes.”

  Chapter 24

  They reached the corner of the fence where two pastures joined. Chuck leaned against the fence and turned his face up to the moon.

  Violet sighed. “Thank you for what you did in there.”

  Chuck’s eyes snapped back to her face. “What for? I didn’t do anything.”

  “I mean,” Violet explained. “For getting me out of there. I appreciate the way you stepped between Cornell and I, and I’m grateful you pulled me off of him when you did. I hate to think what would have happened if you hadn’t been there.”

  “You don’t have to thank me,” Chuck told her. “If I hadn’t been there, none of this would have happened. Besides, you’re the one who beat the stuffing out of him. I was lying on my face on the floor. Who knows what Cornell would have done if you hadn’t been there. I should be thanking you.”

  Violet giggled. “Do you really think so?”

  “I tell you what,” Chuck replied. “Let’s forget all about it. We’re here to get to know each other better before we get married on Friday. I thought we agreed we weren’t going to talk about Cornell anymore, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. Let’s just pretend like it never happened and go back to being happy to be together.”

  Violet looked up at the stars. “It isn’t fair to you, but I don’t think I can ever forget it. I wish I could. I wish I could pretend it never happened, but it did. I don’t know what to do about it, but I don’t think anything will ever be the same, especially after I told him to pack his bags. Now all of us are against Cornell. I was the last person to back him, and now I’m not. Things could get ugly.”

  Chuck took her hand and pulled her closer to him. “I hate to tell you this, darlin’, but things are already ugly. He just attacked both of us, and you smashed his head against the stairs. It doesn’t get any uglier than that.”

  “I suppose not.” Violet said, blinked the sting of tears out of her eyes.

  Chuck pulled on her arm again. “Look at me.”

  Violet surveyed the ground at her feet. “I’m sorry about all this.”

  “Look at me,” he commanded again, and this time, she peered into his eyes. The moon reflected off the shining surface of his eyes, and his nostrils flared not so very far from her face. “Listen to me, Violet.”

  Had he called her by her name before? Where were they, anyway? Were they in the middle of the pasture, with the Montana frontier stretched out for miles in every direction? Was she Violet Kilburn? Was she Violet Ahern? Did it really matter anymore?

  “Listen to me,” Chuck continued. “This was not your fault. You don’t have to apologize for anything. You’ve done everything anyone could to stop this from happening, and what you just did to Cornell is the same thing any sane person would have done. I would have done it myself if he hadn’t got the jump on me. If you ask me, you’re a flamin’ hero.”

  Violet burst out laughing and touched the corner of her sleeve to her eye. “Do you think so?”

  “Absolutely,” Chuck declared. “You saved both of us, and I’m delighted to find out what sort of a woman I’m going to marry.”

  “Really?” Violet squeezed his hand.

  His mouth cracked into a broad grin, and the moon shone on the surface of his teeth. “Really. Now, honestly, can we stop talking about Cornell for just a little while? I didn’t come out here to talk about him and I’ve had about all I can stand of him for now.”

  Violet laughed again. “Okay.”

  Chuck pushed himself off the fence. “Where should we go? Do you know a place we can sit down together?”

  “I know a place,” Violet told him.

  “I hope it’s not the barn,” Chuck remarked. “Mick and Iris could be in there, or Jake and Rose, or even Mick and Iris and Jake and Rose.” He pretended to look around the ranch. “Where can a person get off alone around here?”

  “Don’t worry,” Violet assured him. “Where we’re going, we will definitely be alone.”

  “Are you sure?” he asked.

  “I’m sure,” she replied.

  “How can
you be sure?” he asked.

  “I’m just sure,” she replied. “Trust me. No one will be there.”

  Chuck shook his head. “All right. I guess I have no choice but to trust you.”

  “No one will be there,” she repeated. “But if they are, we can just go somewhere else. I can guarantee you, Mick and Iris and Jake and Rose will be together, wherever they are.”

  “That’s for certain,” Chuck muttered.

  They came around the corner of the field, and the house swung around to the other side of them. Violet led Chuck a little further and then he looked right and left as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Here?”

  Violet smiled. “Yes.”

  “Are you certain?” he asked again.

  “Listen,” she told him. “No one will be in here. They’ll be off together somewhere. They definitely won’t be here, because they’ll want to be alone. They’ll be too worried about someone coming. They won’t be here.”

  Chuck glanced up at the Fort House. Its windows stood cold and dark in the moonlight. The house was deserted. “All right. Let’s go in.”

  Chapter 25

  They tiptoed up the steps to the porch, and Violet opened the door. The interior yawned black and empty, and she took the first step into the front room. Chuck followed. Violet heard his breathing behind her. The house hung still and silent all around them, blocking out the light of the stars and moon. She took a few more steps and put out her hand to feel for the table.

  When she felt it, she groped her way further into the house to the shelf next to the wood stove. She let her fingers walk along it until she found the box of matches that always stayed by the stove. She took out a match and struck it. Just next to the matches, a candle stood in a pewter candleholder. She touched the delicate flame to the wick, and a fragile halo of light spread through the room.

  Violet took the candle back to the table. The light cast ghostly shadows around Chuck’s eye sockets and cheekbones. He breathed again in the dark. “It sure is quiet,” he whispered.

  Violet snickered. “You wanted to be alone. Now we are.” They listened to the heavy silence. A square of white shone onto the floor through the open door. Other than that, only the candle lighted the room. Violet took Chuck’s hand. “Come sit down. I’ll light another candle or two so we can see better. But I don’t think there’s any chance of Mick or Jake coming back here, not for a while, anyway.”

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