The Thrill of Seduction

She cut a solitary figure and stood tall and proud, perfectly groomed in the middle of the grand reception of Sir Clive Tebbit’s home in Oxford.

Belinda Waltham had a drink in her hand. A classic wide bowl, long stem glass containing her third potent martini cocktail. She twirled it around in her palms with a weary expression.

The old man was a family friend. The Foreign Office had appointed Sir Clive as the new British Ambassador to Italy. That night, they were celebrating his nomination and impending departure. He was to take office in Rome the following week.

The problem was Belinda was fresh out of a three-month stint in prison, swiftly followed by a compulsory six-month stay at Dr. Stewart’s clinic, to learn to moderate her explosive temper. The temperamental disposition that had so often landed her in trouble with the law. For this reason, she had been out of her circuit of friends for a year, but it didn’t stop their tongues from wagging on her well-known shenanigans. Friends and acquaintances looked upon her as notorious, the outrageous member of her family.

The younger sister of Fergus Waltham, the Earl of Buckley, Belinda was of note for her antics in their social circle. Some would say shameful for it.

Upon her discharge from the clinic, Belinda had taken a three-month “refuge” as she called it, in the Scottish highlands. She stayed at one of Fergus’ estates. She’d longed to forget the vibes of the clinic and to eradicate the prison from her mind. The peaceful spot went a long way to urge her to consider what she aspired to do next in her life.

She became uncomfortable at the party, jaded. She’d been away from home and Oxford for too long. Belinda felt like a fish out of water.

On her release from the clinic, she had helped manage two orphanages. She dealt with the financial aspects of them. She was talented at obtaining hefty contributions for them, handling tradespeople to get the best for the children at the cheapest price. She made their budgets stretch. These were the children’s homes her father, the old earl, God rest his soul, had refurbished at a high cost to pull her out of prison, the reason the judge had commuted her jail sentence at Dr. Stewart’s clinic instead.

She felt empathy for the children, with their cause. Despite her wealth, she too had grown up without a mother and had a solitary childhood. She became the patron of the orphanages. She was skilful at making money for them out of donations from her wealthy family friends.

Perhaps I could dedicate myself to it fully. She had managed their finances for the last three months from the Highlands. She had spent a lot of time at the orphanages since she was back in Oxford, continuing her work. The children worshipped her. They were fun and she liked them all. Her mind drifted in and out of these matters as she sipped her drink, bored with the party, engrossed with herself.

Oxford had always given her a buzz, but she was not enjoying it anymore. It brought her to a recurrent drilling question instead. And now what? She had to change. She couldn’t behave wildly anymore; she didn’t want to. This question twirled in her mind the moment she left Dr. Stewart’s clinic. Three months in the depths of the Scottish Highlands hadn’t given her a full answer yet.

Fergus had asked her to work for him. She had agreed. Though, lately, she only felt happy when doing things for the orphanages, so maybe that was her answer. She didn’t know. She sighed. She had too many matters to sort out.

She glanced at two of her brothers, both at the party. The oldest, Fergus, was talking to an acquaintance. The other, Sebastian, was deep in conversation with the ambassador. He was joining Sir Clive in Rome next week. Sebastian was used to the eternal city, where he’d lived for the past two years as attaché under the previous diplomat, now returning to his work with the new ambassador.

She looked around the room.

Belinda had taken her sister-in-law’s place for this party, Fergus’ wife. She had agreed to Marguerite’s request as a favour and attended the party on her behalf. Her brothers, too wary of her erratic behaviour, had kept a close eye upon her.

I’m almost twenty-two, for God’s sake. Still… they have a point!

The girl talked to her godmother for a while, Trini, Sir Clive’s wife. Then she mingled but to no satisfaction. Belinda strolled the length of the reception room, weary and absorbed with herself, with another martini in her hand.

***

A man regarded her with interest from the other end of the room. She didn’t notice him, but he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. People staring at her was not a special occurrence. Belinda was used to the spotlight. When she entered a room, she was invariably at the centre of attention. Men and women found her attractive, irresistible. She was a stunning young woman, beautiful, like a goddess. No surprise, this fellow thought her gorgeous most of all.

She was a tall strawberry blonde. A real looker, with the family trait of pale blue eyes. In the past, every time those blue moons landed on him, they did something to his cock.

She was statuesque, but delicate. The face of an angel with a curvaceous body. He found her delightful, bewitching. Like admiring a fine painting, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

He struggled to imagine the things she did that had first brought her to his attention as a police officer. Her awful temper had landed her into trouble more than once. Oh boy, the curses that came out of that lovely mouth. Reconciling her character and personality with her looks was difficult. She was a handful, a little devil in an angel’s body. Sometimes, he hadn’t known how to deal with her. In his opinion, nothing a good spanking couldn’t have cured, but that was not his place.

On the other hand if she were mine… Well, good for her, she isn’t. Or she would have learned the hard way!

In his view, as beautiful as she was, when her temper flared, she was an ill-mannered, insolent, loutish girl, an immature young woman. She brought him to the edge once or twice, and if it wasn’t for his self-restraint, she would have known how much she had displeased him.

Chief Inspector Wendell studied her. He had not seen her for about six months. She looked divine that night, in a figure-hugging, mermaid, red lace dress.

He observed how the frock smoothed over the round curves of her hips enticingly. It ended with an elegant, small sweep train at the rear. The sleeveless, tight bodice with a deep V-neck at the front made her plump breasts stand out. He was sure, if a fellow stood close enough to her, he would count this a lucky night, thanks to her vertiginous décolletage. He scoffed. Wendell couldn’t deny the thought of another man looking at her bosom annoyed him.

When she turned, her almost backless dress gave him an astonishing ample view of her creamy shoulders and back, down to just above her lavish, pert bottom. God, I’d do anything to put my hands on that butt.

He had a glimpse of her stylish stilettos, in the same colour and material as her frock, with glittering rhinestones.

Belinda sashayed back and forth in the room aimlessly, as if she was gliding on a catwalk. Echoing the seductive look, he was sure, she was trying to convey. As if to say to men, ‘Fuck you, look at me, but you can’t have me!’ She was succeeding, too, if he had to judge by the expression on the faces of most men in the place. He muttered a curse under his breath.

He found high heel stilettos sexy. He had seen Belinda wear a few pairs over time since he arrested her almost two years ago. Wendell considered lace most attractive, and he loved a woman in it, and tonight she was wearing both.

It made her look dreamy, gorgeous, feminine, and so foxy. An enchantress! A sorceress enticing men to their own destruction! Dangerous, especially to him.

Another glimpse of her red stilettos and he calculated they must be at least four inches high. He was curious as to how she could walk on them with such grace. Jesus, she is tall! Almost as tall as him, but not quite; he was still a few inches taller, stilettos and all.

For heavens’ sake, stop staring at her, you fool. Damn, those brothers of hers are too indulgent with the chit. Who would allow her to wear a dress like that! They have mollycoddled her. God Almighty!

No wonder the trouble she got up to. If she was his girl… She would learn how to behave by hook or by crook!

Annoyed with himself for speculating about Belinda more than he should have, he spotted Delia, an acquaintance of his. The brunette had given him a certain sexy vibe all night.

Chief Inspector Wendell was a bachelor, a desirable hunk. A great catch, girls would say. A tall man, with a manly handsome face and a muscular, athletic body to whom most women would bat their eyelids to. A striking presence at thirty-four, he commanded more than his fair share of women, and he loved them all.

But Belinda, well, she was something else.

Better to stay away from her, he cautioned himself. So, he turned on his heels and moved towards Delia, to talk to her instead.

As the evening wore off, when she disappeared briefly on him, he could not resist and sauntered towards the Waltham girl.

***

Sweet Jesus! Not that damned police officer! At Sir Clive’s party? What the devil is he doing here? He is a dish, though. The black tuxedo fits him like a glove! Lord, when did he turn so handsome? Oh my, my… Huh? Um… this sexy? How did I miss his good looks?

She hadn’t… she would have known the man, gorgeous as he was, anywhere, if truth be told. Her pulse rising, she was suddenly hot. Her weariness vanished as if by magic.

But he infuriated her. That man had a talent for making her feel small and silly, an idiot. Nothing he said, oh, no! It was the way he looked at her, as if chastising her all the time. She would like to kick his ass. That’s what!

Her friend, Erin, was right. He looks like a model rather than a police officer, in that tux, without doubt!

But he had the knack of making her cross, and her temper rose in a jiffy when he was around. He annoyed her. She wished to punch his smug, handsome face. She always reacted to him that way. She didn’t even know why. So she kept looking straight ahead. Everywhere but at him. When men were concerned, it was an art for Belinda to look nonchalant and disinterested.

Dear God, he is coming my way! What the blast does he want?

“Good evening, Lady Waltham. Nice to see you. You look dazzling.” He inspected her for a second and beamed. His large hazel eyes lit up.

Blast, such an attractive grin… Why am I confused? What’s there to grin at when you arrest a person? No! She had never seen the damn man smile before, she was sure of it. Boy! When he smiles, his eyes twinkle. He was tempting. The broody bastard!

Those eyes flickered like stars. Her skin prickled.

Sweet Jesus! He has that commanding attitude… She loved he could be commanding without making an effort, with just a look, without a word. A natural confidence that demands attention. Bloody hell… so handsome, the arrogant beast!

She exhaled, rather annoyed at herself for having those lascivious thoughts about him. Belinda tried to dismiss him. She reckoned she felt this way because she’d not had a boyfriend for almost two years. So, she was easily susceptible to a masculine charm. That was all.

She glanced imperiously about her, like she hadn’t recognised him or heard him, to lift the edge off her unwanted thoughts about him.

He took her behaviour in the wrong way instead, as if she was huffing at him.

When she kept staring ahead without acknowledging him or deigning to respond to him, he felt he should add something. “Lady Waltham, it has been some time, six months, I believe. You may recall, I am—” he said, still smiling, trying to clarify who he was in case she had forgotten him. He was not some man trying to hit on her.

She knew, sometimes, she had that effect on him.

Belinda 1 – Wendell 0! She smirked to herself! Still, it didn’t stop her from getting cross with him.

“I know who you are, inspector,” she blurted out, irritated, tough, interrupting him, “And God knows, it has not been long enough since I last saw you.” Not what she wished to say, but she couldn’t restrain herself. Oh, me and my big mouth, she stressed. Fergus is right when he says I should count to ten before I speak.

“Lady Waltham—-”

“I got rid of the ‘lady’ bit when you sent me to prison, inspector, remember? No one calls me ‘Lady Waltham’ anymore. ‘Miss’ thank you! Why do you think I’ve been standing alone for most of the evening? Ha? Because my friends don’t wish to associate with a person who spent three months in prison. Or with one who spent six months in a clinic learning behavioural attitude, specifically mine. An idiotic discipline if you ask me, anyway.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“All thanks to you, Inspector…” Why had she said that? It wasn’t fair! She should stop talking. Belinda, stop, she told herself.

“It’s Chief Inspector to you.” He was calm, his tone even and clear, although he wasn’t enjoying her arrogant temper tantrum and her voice was going up a notch with every word. He had to master his self-control to sound like this, but his eyebrows crunched and he stopped smiling.

“Chief?” For a moment, he annoyed her even more, and she forgot her best intentions to stop talking.

“Yes, Chief!”

“And what do I care? No! If you ask me, no matter how long it is since I last saw you… it’s not long enough, I guarantee you. You robbed me of my freedom and my friends,” she spat, and her beautiful mouth assumed a thin line. Her blue moons darted a dark scowl at him, as if he were her worst enemy.

He studied her for a moment. His face was serious and a glint in his eyes flashed at her. And there it was again. That look! Chastising her. As if to say, ‘You silly girl! Brat!’

Then he came close to her, way too close, invading her personal space. She could sniff his scent, a manly, invigorating whiff, so fresh and exciting. He smelt divine.

Wendell leaned over to her. She gasped. His lips touched the curve of her ear.

“You did that all by yourself, sweetheart. You were the one who battered your ex-boyfriend’s expensive Ferrari, not me. The criminal damage was all your doing. The judge had no choice. He had warned you, and he sent you to prison. Grow up, girl, and own up!”

“Fuck you! You are a bully and a beast,” she cursed. She made to move away from him, but he grasped her arm, restraining her movement and jerking her back to him.

“At least you are aware now of who your real friends are. I don’t know what sort of company you keep, Miss Waltham, but trust me, a genuine friend does not abandon one in need. If you ask me, you lost nothing. They were not your buddies to begin with.”

“Get off me.” She launched a fiery scowl at him, struggling to free herself.

People were starting to stare at them, and she could see Fergus’ eyebrows knitting at her. The man will get me in trouble!

A curse as black as the night tumbled out of her mouth directed at him with all her vitriolic resentment, knowing full well he was right.

His grip on her got harder and tighter. He stood straight as a pillar, towering over her in his full height. She could feel the pressure of his palm on her arm.

“You are lucky we are at a party, Miss Waltham. I was just saying a friendly hello to you, that’s all. If you swear at me again… see this?” He paused for effect, raised his large hand an inch in front of her nose while she jerked her head back.

“Pfft!”

Leaning over, his lips brushed her cheek, then veered to her ear. “My firm hand will land on that pampered, beautiful ass of yours, I promise you. Am I clear?” he continued, undeterred, in an ambrosial tone, the one he used for women in his bed.

“Go away! You frigging idiot!”

“I’m warning you. I’ll bet no man has spanked you before. Um? Am I right, Miss Waltham?”

Her head snapped up to him. Her breath hitched. Their eyes locked. He astonished her. He held her stare with an amused smile. She gulped, flushed, and lowered her eyes. “Leave me alone.” She moved her arm, trying to get away, but he kept a strong grip on her.

“Have they, Belinda?” he purred. The sound of his voice was pure smoothness with her name on it, raising her temperature. His tone took a mellifluous, silvery murmur. She’d not heard him this way before. It was tantalising, alluring. It drew her to him, like a moth to a bright flame, chiding and teasing her. Her nipples got hard and pert in an instant. In that dress and that material, with her plunging neckline, he couldn’t fail to notice.

His grin broadened. “Answer me, have they?” he insisted, nonchalant, steadying his grip on her arm. She was sure he was marking her with his tight hold, and somehow, it pleased her.

Her stomach did a somersault as his hazel eyes roamed over her body, up and down. His silky, warm baritone and the talk of a firm, large hand on her backside made her pussy clench. It did some warm-up exercises, and her sweet centre drenched in no time.

She gulped, and her skin prickled. “No,” she whispered, to her own surprise. Somehow he’d forced out of her an answer to his question that she had no intention to reply to. It amazed her she had. She turned scarlet.

“I tell you, if those boyfriends of yours spanked you instead of indulging you when you were naughty, we wouldn’t be here. You think about that. You take care, Miss Waltham,” he said as his lips brushed the curve of her ear, over-pronouncing the word ‘miss.’

He let go of her arm and turned to go. He halted after two steps and did a U-turn back to her. “And you are right! With that mouth on you, as beautiful as it is, we cannot call you a lady. I agree.” He turned and walked away from her.

Her jaw dropped. What the fuck! She stood there, barely breathing, still as a statue, as if a cyclone had just hit her. She released the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.

What the hell is that supposed to mean! Does he mean… or… uh, what the fuck!

What had just happened! She was damp down below and humiliated. Her insides clenched, her nipples were pert, and she had goosebumps. How had this man aroused her with a few words… that included “ass” and “hand” while treating her like a damn fool.

The worst part was she would literally roll over for him and lie with her legs open in a blink of an eye if he asked her. Would I? No, that’s wrong! Lord, what a shambles! Give me strength. I’m an idiot! Perhaps she deserved his chastisement. To offend the fellow like this. Cursing at him. Blast! What possessed her to behave so insolently? All he wished to say was hello. She felt ashamed of herself and she was soaked, her skin tingling.

And when did he become a Chief Inspector?

Belinda sighed and told herself she would never grow up. He was right about her so-called friends, too. She knew that better than anyone. Those daddy and mommy’s boys and girls were too afraid to consort with the scandalous Waltham girl.

Sweet Jesus! He was right on so many levels that she wished to burst into tears. Her lips trembled, but she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. She couldn’t forget the silky voice that raised her temperature, though. He had never used that tone with her before. He had always been professional. The vivid image he planted in her mind, that of his hand on her backside, spanking her, made her hot and giddy. Her heart beat violently against her ribcage. Well… the vision sent her pussy into overdrive.

Bloody hell! Suddenly, she felt so ashamed of her behaviour towards him, she wished to say ‘sorry’ to him, she resolved. Belinda had been an outspoken brat with the man. Her brothers were accurate. She should count to ten before speaking.

She would plead insanity and apologise to Wendell. Chief Inspector, no less. How old is the fellow?

She didn’t wish him to go with the idea she was an idiot. Belinda was certain he deemed her a stupid girl, anyway, for the things she had done in the past. Now, she had confirmed his belief. She longed to be a different woman, a mature person, to put her silly behaviours behind her and turn a new leaf. She had promised her dad on his deathbed, God bless his soul.

Her father even extracted a promise from her to marry a good man. Great job, there weren’t any! Besides, she wasn’t the marrying kind. No, no! No husband will lord over me, thank you! But she needed to act grown up. It was about time she did. The police officer was correct on that point, too.

Something about Wendell turned her on, aroused her. She could still feel her damp pussy. She hadn’t had that tingle for ages. So, she marched towards him with a strong desire to apologise to him and to be forgiven. The moment he glanced at her, he went the other way to talk to someone. Is he trying to avoid me?

She tried again a little later, but the same thing happened. Yes. He wouldn’t speak to her! And she couldn’t blame him, either. He wasn’t happy with her. Why would he be? After the horrible things she said to him, she would run in the opposite direction, too, if she were him. She was a resolute girl, and so, she resolved to apologise to him by hook or by crook, to show him she wasn’t the jerk or the brat he assumed she was.

The same thing occurred a third time, and as he dodged her again, she realised it. He would not talk to her anymore, ever.

She hated the idea of him leaving the party like this, thinking she was a silly girl. He didn’t deserve her bitter remarks; he was doing his job when he arrested her. She had caused all of her problems herself; he was correct about that, too. She needed to speak to him, say ‘sorry’ to him.

Her friend Erin, at the clinic, teased her, telling her the inspector had the hots for her. Erin was mistaken. It didn’t look that way. The man despised her now. He had no intention to talk to her. Besides, the brunette he was speaking to was all over him. He seemed to enjoy the woman’s attention.

No doubt after the horrible scene with me, he is revelling in the advances of a rational, beautiful girl. Not a fool like me! Should I forget about this? Ignore him? Get on with the party? She chewed her lower lip, struggling to decide what she should do.

Forget about Wendell, Belinda, if you know what’s good for you. Her inner voice told her… Oh, bother! When on earth had she ever listened to her inner side? Never! She was a creature of impulse!

***

Oh, hell! she thought now. Oh, why! Why had she listened to her sister-in-law.

“Oh, please say yes!” Marguerite had pleaded earlier on in the evening, Belinda recalled. The thought flashed through her mind as she stood there like a statue after the debacle with Wendell.

“I’ve hardly slept for the last three days. The baby kept me up for half of the night,” her sister-in-law went on and slumped in an armchair in the blue room. She was exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment.

Belinda’s expression softened, her face lit up at Marguerite, and she smiled. “Why can’t Fergus help you with sweet Gus? Don’t pamper my brother too much.”

“He does! He had the baby the other half of the night,” Marguerite said and chuckled. “I’m exhausting my husband, and not in the way I would like to. Gus is teething… I know Olivia is happy to help at any time, but I cannot run her ragged. Fergus doesn’t mind having Gus to let me sleep. He is such a good father. Tonight, I’ve given him the night off for the party. Please, say yes, Belinda, you’ll go for me? Trini would love to see you.”

“I have nothing to wear!” she argued, lifting her brows, not fancying going to it.

“Bella, you own a wardrobe that is the envy of half the fashion houses in Europe. Get dressed in something lovely and sexy. Who knows, you may find yourself a new boyfriend. While I’ll relish an early night. I’ll tell your brothers you’ll go for me. Besides, it is nice for you to go out with them. You’ll enjoy it.”

“Only because I love you, Marguerite. I don’t fancy going to those celebrations anymore, and you know it. Besides, I can have the baby any time you want, I told you.”

“Thank you, darling. I may take you up on it. So it’s a ‘yes’ then?”

“You do realise, since I’ve been back from the Highlands, people have shunned me. At the last two parties, hardly anyone talked to me. It was as if I was an infectious leper. They don’t wish to mix with a woman who’s been to prison.”

“Oh, don’t worry about them, Bella. You are a lovely girl. It’s their loss! You know men. Well, they don’t like to have their cars battered,” Marguerite teased her. She was referring to Belinda destroying her last boyfriend’s car to smithereens with a baseball bat. The fellow had cheated on her. So, his car had been unrecognisable as a Ferrari when Belinda had finished with it, hence the criminal charges that sent her down to prison.

“You laugh all you want! But I tell you, it’s true, they are avoiding me. You know they call me the ‘scandalous Waltham girl!’ Some of them are afraid to be seen with me.”

“Oh, ignore them, Bella. They are silly people. They’ll soon get over it. You’ll see.”

“Who’s silly?” Fergus asked, darting his eyes from his sister to his wife as he entered the room.

“Oh, darling, Bella will go with you and Sebastian to the party. Olivia has Gus for the night, and I’m off to bed.”

“Is Lucy with her, too?”

Fergus also had a daughter, Lucy, from a previous relationship. Olivia was the children’s nanny, she would look after them that night.

Belinda adored her brother’s children. She was so close to Lucy, and now baby Gus enthralled her.

“Yes, she has both of them, the sweet girl. So, tonight, nothing will separate me from my sleep. I have a date with my bed,” Marguerite stated with a satisfied smile on her face.

“Not even I?” Fergus brushed his wife’s lips with his, then thought better of it and gave her a full on, delicious kiss.

She put her arms around his collar, and he murmured an endearment in her ear.

“Not even you, darling!” Marguerite said, caressing his cheek.

“Sir Clive won’t need both of us. Trini will be happy to see her. As long as Sebastian and Bella attend, I could stay and we—”

“Oh, gross! Get a room!” Belinda rolled her eyes at her brother.

They laughed.

“You must go to the party, handsome, you know that. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” Marguerite winked with a mischievous smile at her husband.

She wasn’t a party animal. So she was glad she had dropped out of the festivities and asked her sister-in-law to attend the celebrations instead.

Belinda was at the party as a favour for her with all her good intentions. Instead, the evening was turning out to be trouble now!

Fuck, fuck, fuck… She wasn’t sure who she was silently swearing at, herself or the damn police officer!

Buy on Amazon Barnes & Noble iBooks Kobo Google Books

What’s Good for the Cowboy

Wyatt Geyser couldn’t shake the concern in the back of his mind. It had been there all day, ever since his boss, Cord Anderson, told him at breakfast that he wanted to have a serious conversation at supper this evening. Cord was a good rancher, but the Shimmering Elms was similar to many ranches in Oklahoma right now; it was draining money. Cord insisted he had an idea that would bring the ranch back into the black. Wyatt hoped that was true, but he’d seen many large, well established ranches go broke and end up as housing communities in the last few years. He hated to even think of that happening to the Shimmering Elms, and not just because it would mean he, as the ranch foreman, would be out a job.

Not only were other ranches failing, but Cord hadn’t been in the best of health lately. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he knew something wasn’t right with his boss. Cord insisted it was nothing, other than his body letting him know he wasn’t a young man anymore, but Wyatt wasn’t so sure. It was true Cord was no longer a young man, but he wasn’t that old, either. Ranchers were hard workers, and that kept them in shape. Early to mid–sixties wasn’t old for a lifelong rancher.

He entered the ranch house, eager to hear Cord’s idea, but when he headed toward the washroom off the kitchen to wash his hands before the meal, he paused when he saw the young man talking with Cord. “Ty?” Wyatt asked.

The young man turned toward Wyatt, a big smile on his face, and his arm extended. “Wyatt, it’s sure good to see you again. How have you been?”

Wyatt reached out to shake his hand heartily. “I’ve been good. How about you? I heard you graduated a few weeks ago. Are you here for another summer with us, or just here for a visit before you start a fancy new job?”

Cord stepped forward and draped his arm around the young man’s shoulders. “Wyatt, my grandson, Ty, not only graduated, but he finished at the top of his class. He earned himself a degree in animal husbandry, as well as business. What do you think of that?”

“Very impressive. Congratulations, Ty,” he said as he pulled the younger man and friend in for a bro hug. “I knew you’d do well. I didn’t know you were going for a double major or that you would finish at the top, though. Good for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Go ahead and get washed up, Wyatt, so we can eat,” Cord said. “Ty here is part of my new plan, and I’m anxious to tell you about it. I want your honest opinion. If you like the idea, too, we’ve got some important planning to do.”

Wyatt nodded and went to wash up before supper. His mind wandered back to the first time he’d met Ty. Wyatt had worked for Cord ever since he graduated from high school, and had just been promoted to foreman when Cord’s grandson, Ty, who was then twelve, came to spend the summer with his grandpa. He wanted to work on the ranch, and was like a sponge, determined to learn everything there was to learn about ranching.

Wyatt had been skeptical that first summer. He was afraid he was going to end up babysitting a twelve–year–old all summer while trying to prove to Cord he was up to the challenge of being foreman, even though he was young himself, at only twenty–six. As it turned out, Ty was a quick learner, a good worker, and didn’t expect any favors as the owner’s grandson. He didn’t even complain when they asked him to muck out horse stalls.

Over the years Ty had spent every summer since then with his grandfather at Shimmering Elms. Wyatt had literally watched Ty grow up and learn ranching, from the bottom up. His love for ranching was evident. When he’d graduated from high school he wanted to work full–time at the ranch, but his parents and Cord said no. They all encouraged him to go to college. Cord told him once he had his degree, if he still wanted to work at the ranch, they would talk again.

It was clearly obvious Cord was proud of his grandson, and with good reason. He truly had learned ranching by doing it all, the good and the bad, and now had a college degree no less. He had to wonder, did Cord feel Ty would be a more effective foreman and could put the ranch back in the black? As he dried his hands he knew he was about to find out.

When he went into the dining room Cord and Ty were already seated. He sat down as Maria, Cord’s cook and housekeeper, brought a bowl of mashed potatoes and a gravy boat in from the kitchen. A big plate of steaks sat in front of Cord, and a bowl of glazed carrots was in front of Ty, along with a fresh salad with what looked like Maria’s homemade poppy seed dressing in a little pitcher beside it. There was a plate of homemade biscuits and some raspberry jam beside them. This was Cord’s favorite meal, so he obviously considered today important.

Once they had their plates full and had started eating, Cord got down to business. “Wyatt, as I’m sure you remember, I’ve been saying ranching is changing, and if we don’t change with it we’ll get left behind. As you also probably remember, I used to raise horses and cattle. The price of beef went high and like many other ranchers around, I thinned out the horses and concentrated on cattle. We only keep enough horses now for our use.”

“Are you thinking we need to get back into horses?” Wyatt asked.

“We talked about it a couple of years ago, and then ironically, Ty asked me a couple of weeks after we talked about it if I’d considered it. I sure wish I would have done it then, like he suggested. I didn’t want to borrow the money I would have needed to get back into it, but I obviously should have.”

After another bite of steak he continued. “Like I said, Ty has his degree in animal husbandry and business. We’ve talked about this, and I think we agree on a plan, but I’d value your opinion, as well.”

Wyatt was a little surprised, but appreciated the confidence and respect Cord was showing him. “Okay.”

“I think we need to get back into horses, but not just any horses. Ty thinks we need to concentrate on a breeding program that will produce top notch horses that will fetch a top notch price. He says we need to do the same with our cattle, too, though. With better breeding we can establish this ranch as a top producer of quality cattle. I knew a top quality bull was worth his weight in gold, but I was shocked when Ty told me how much a ranch can make renting a good bull out or selling his semen.”

Ty mentioned a couple of figures and Wyatt turned toward him with wide eyes. “Is that right?”

“It takes several years of good breeding to get a bull worth that kind of money,” Ty said, “and you have to have his offspring on site for ranchers to see. But if you get to that point where you have one outstanding bull, yes, I’ve seen one bull bring in enough money to run a ranch for a year. Any money you bring in from the cattle or horses then is profit.”

“That sounds like exactly what we need,” Cord said.

“That does sound nice,” Wyatt agreed, “but you said it takes a few years of expert breeding to get to that point?”

“It does,” Ty admitted, “but with good breeding, each year the cattle are a little better, and worth a little more. Buyers pay attention to up–and–coming ranches.”

“So let’s get down to business,” Cord said. “I’d like to get back into raising and breeding horses, and also get a better breeding program going for our cattle. I want you two to work together to do that. Ty’s got the training to handle the breeding part of it, and as the foreman, I need you to see that the work gets done. It will all need to be done right and in a timely manner. That’s why I need you two to work together.”

“I think it sounds exciting. I’m anxious to get these new programs going, and Ty, it’ll be good working together. You’ve earned my respect over the last eleven or twelve years working here in the summer, so I’m looking forward to us working together on this.”

“I told Grandpa pretty much the same thing,” Ty said with a little smile. “You’ve earned my respect while I’ve been working with you, and you’ve taught me so much. I’m eager, too, to get started on this.”

“It’s good hearing you two talking like this,” Cord said. “On top of you fellows starting those programs up, Ty also has the business background now to help me manage the ranch. There are a few places he’s pointed out that we can save a little money. That will be important as we start putting money into the ranch and these two new programs.”

Cord never believed in borrowing money for the ranch, but after talking to Ty, and watching ranches all across the area fold, he knew this was a different time, and if he didn’t do something different the Shimmering Elms would be one of the next ranches to fall. He was proud of his ranch and didn’t want to witness its demise. He’d bought it when he was in his thirties after he’d inherited a tidy sum of money from his grandfather. He’d added to it when neighboring land came on the market, and now had one of the larger spreads around.

More important to him than size, though, was the name and reputation he’d built for the ranch. The Shimmering Elms was known as being a good place to work, and for having good solid livestock. After talking to Ty, he was determined to see that it became known not just for having solid livestock, but top of the line livestock.

The same with horses. They had always been Cord’s first love, and what he focused on initially. Back then there had been a bit of a shortage of good horses, and he bred them and was known to have good horses for ranch hands working the area ranches. Now with Ty’s help, he hoped to get a good breeding program going and again be known for having good work horses for the ranches in the area, but now Ty also felt they could have some top of the line show and racehorses, as well.

Breeding good horses to work on a ranch Cord knew about, or did years ago. He didn’t have the knowledge to add good race and show horses to his line of work horses, but Ty did, and Cord had confidence in his grandson. Wyatt was the best foreman around, which would also be vital if this plan was going to work. Knowing the two men had worked together before and had mutual respect for each other, if they both felt good about this plan, he felt confident they could make it. He hoped so. Once he borrowed enough money to put this new plan into action, the future of Shimmering Elms would depend on it working.

The three men spent the rest of their meal talking about their new plan, working and talking through some of the decisions that would have to be made. By the end of the meal they had agreed on how they would get started, and what barns and pastures would be used for which animals.

They also agreed that at first all the men would work with both the cattle and horses, but as Wyatt saw men with natural ability or love of horses, he would have them working more with them, as horses would require more hands on, taming and breaking the horses, versus the cattle. The rest of the men would continue to work with the cattle.

They would more than likely count on all of them when it came to the big operations, like branding time or market time. They also on a regular basis ran the cattle through a chute to check each one for any signs of injury or illness. If something in a pasture was injuring their cattle or making them sick, they wanted to take care of it. All men would be needed for that operation.

After they finished supper and discussions, Wyatt went to the foreman’s cabin. He would fill the men in on their new future goal the next morning before he gave them their assignments for the day. He, Ty and Cord all felt it was important for the men to know about the changes that would be coming in the near future.

Cord and Ty retired to Cord’s office, where they had a lot yet they had to discuss and decisions to make. Ty wasn’t real sure he felt comfortable seeing Cord’s books, but Cord insisted. He wanted Ty’s help running the ranch through this major change, and for him to be able to advise him, Cord knew he needed to know exactly what the ranch had. They went over his books so Ty was familiar with the amount of money the ranch had on hand, and how much it normally brought in versus what it cost to run it smoothly.

They talked about how much of an investment would be needed to get into horses, and how much it would take to improve the breeding of the cattle. It was a rather large amount, but Cord felt he could borrow that much, and planned to go to the bank the next day.

“Grandpa, banking has changed over the years. I think most banks would be willing to give you a loan for that amount, especially the bank you’ve been doing business with for years. Not only is there no mortgage on the ranch, but it has a good name, which is important to bankers. I think we need to talk to them, though, and tell them what kind of loan we want, how we want it structured. That will make it easier for us to repay it in a timely fashion.”

Cord’s look of confusion changed over to a smile. “See, that’s why I wanted you involved in this from a management position. In my mind if you need to borrow money you go to the bank, ask for the amount you need, and if they approve your loan they give it to you. Apparently you’re saying there’s more to it than that these days?”

“Yes, there is, Grandpa. We won’t spend the money all at once, so we don’t want to get it all at once. We’ll see if we can get it set up like a construction loan, where you take the money out as you need it, as we find the quality animals we want to buy. That way we won’t start paying interest on the money until we actually spend it.”

“That sounds good, but I don’t want to move slow on this, and add things over several years. I think we need to make a move right away.”

“I agree, and we’ll start buying horses right away. It shouldn’t be too hard to get started on raising horses for riding and that ranchers will want for their hands to ride. We want to find good stock, from several bloodlines so we can start breeding and get good animals from the start. It’ll take several months to find the right horses from different places, and even longer to find the cattle we’ll want to introduce into our herd. The hardest part will be to find a good bull. That could take some time, and there’s no use to start paying interest until we actually spend the money. Even if it’s only a few months before we spend the money on a good bull, that’s a few months of interest I’d rather not pay.”

“That makes sense. I didn’t know you could get loans set up that way.”

“Most banks will do it, but you may have to ask for it. As long as you’ve used this same bank, I would think they would want to keep your banking business and be willing to accommodate you.”

“See, you’ve saved me money already, and we haven’t even gotten started.”

Ty laughed, but turned serious again. “I hope I can save us more money, because the amount we’re projecting we’ll need is a big chunk of money. It’ll be hard to make those payments for the first few years, but I’m hoping we can get creative along the way, at least for the first three or four years. Things will definitely be tight while we’re building our equine livestock.”

“Yes, they will, but I think it will pay off in the long run,” Cord said.

“So do I,” Ty agreed. “Once we get the numbers up enough that we can start selling horses, that will help a great deal. The show and racing stock will take longer to develop, though. Once we get a good program going they should pay out well, but they take longer to get to that point. That means we’re going to have to depend on the cattle and other horses to bring in enough to cover the ranch for several years.”

“Do you have any ideas, any ways we may be able to cut costs a little, or save a little here or there? Do you think we may have to let a couple of hands go?”

“No, not unless you have a couple of that aren’t pulling their weight. If anything, we’re going to be busier while we switch over, and as you know, the horses will take more time. I’m going to go over the books in more detail, if that’s okay with you, and check some prices on a couple of things. There were a couple of line items that looked a little high, but I’m not familiar with prices in this area. I’ll check and see if we can get a better price on a few things. Any savings we can come up with will be helpful once we have to start paying money back.”

Cord winced a little. “I’ve been dealing with most of my suppliers a long time and they give me good service. I’d hate to take my business elsewhere, but we may have to do it.”

“I’d hate to switch, too, if you’re getting good service from them. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a little negotiating with them, though. If we find someone that can provide something at a good savings, we can go to your current supplier and talk to them. If we tell them we’re making some changes, which will make money tight for a while, and ask if they can do anything about the prices they’re charging, they may be able to work with us. It’s worth asking, at least.”

“Yes, it certainly would be. Do they have leeway on their prices?”

“Most of them do, at least a little bit, especially if you’re buying a large quantity. If they don’t, they’ll tell us. If they know you’re looking elsewhere and why, most of them will do what they can to keep your business. If they have supplies we don’t use now, but will need as we grow, like quality feed for horses, that will help. They may be willing to go lower on what we use now so they can sell us other items in the future.”

“Okay, good to know. You look at the books all you want. I want you to take the lead when we go to the bank to talk to them about the loan. You know way more about it than I do, so you lead the discussion. Will you be ready to go tomorrow?”

“Give me a day or two to get more familiar with the books. They’ll more than likely have a bunch of questions, and I’d like to be familiar enough with the operation to answer them off the top of my head, then follow it up with records to show them.”

“Like I said, it’s good to have you on board, Ty. You take as much time as you need. Let me know when you’re ready and we’ll go talk to the bank. I’m excited about my ranch again for the first time in several years, and I’m eager to get started. Right now, though, this old man is tired. You stay up as long as you want, but I’m going to bed.”

“Good–night, Grandpa.”

“Good–night, Ty. It sure is nice having you back here again.” He left, and Ty spent a few minutes thinking about what his grandfather had said. It was nice to be back at the ranch again, but he couldn’t deny it was a bit of a surprise. The last couple of months had been a bit of a whirlwind. Although Ty had absolutely loved the time he’d spent on his grandfather’s ranch, and his interest all through college had been breeding animals to get the best offspring possible, this is not where he planned on being right now.

While he was in college he excelled in both his majors, graduating at the top of his class in both, although he’d only been interested in business as it related to ranching. His real love was in the animals and breeding. He’d been offered a job at a research and development center that concentrated on animal husbandry, where he would be one of three men leading the breeding program. It paid well, had good benefits, and he would be doing exactly what he’d dreamed of doing after college. The hours were good, which was the one drawback to a ranch, which had long hours, working until the job was done.

However, his parents, Tom and Helen Anderson, had been worried about Cord. Wyatt had called Ty’s parents when he became concerned. He said Cord had been staying in the house a few days here and there, not going out to work the ranch, which was very unusual for him. He said he’d been slowing down, and some days just didn’t seem like himself. Cord insisted he was fine, just getting older and slowing down. He insisted after running the ranch that long, he deserved a day now and then to himself.

Ty’s parents went to Oklahoma to visit Cord because of Wyatt’s concern, and they agreed with him. He did seem to have less energy. Talking to Cord proved very frustrating, however. He was too stubborn to go to a doctor, insisting you go there if something’s wrong. Getting old didn’t classify as something wrong, so he had no reason to go.

Cord made the trip to Texas to watch his grandson graduate, and spent a week visiting with the family. During that visit Cord and Ty spent a lot of time talking. Ty loved his grandfather. By the second or third day of his visit, however, Ty was beginning to see the same things his parents and Wyatt were seeing. Cord didn’t seem to have the same energy level, but what bothered Ty even more was that after a few days Ty could tell he didn’t have the enthusiasm for the ranch he’d always had.

Eventually Cord asked if they could have a serious talk, and said he hoped Ty might have a few suggestions for the ranch. He admitted the ranch had been losing money the last several years. Ty was shocked. His grandfather was a good rancher, and to hear he’d been steadily losing money was not only heartbreaking, but it told Ty something wasn’t right. The man he’d seen all those summers he’d stayed there would have done something, made some changes somewhere if he lost money one year. The fact that it had been ongoing for several years now told Ty his grandfather needed help.

Moving back to the ranch and helping to get it running in the black again was not a hard decision for Ty. His grandfather was much more important to him than the job he had planned on taking. Besides that, he loved ranching and he loved Shimmering Elms. What worried him was that his grandfather needed help with more than just running the ranch. When he’d made the suggestion for the changes, Cord was very interested, but said he didn’t think he had it in him to oversee a change that big, and he definitely didn’t have the knowledge for the breeding program. When Ty immediately offered to move to the ranch and help, Cord seemed not only ecstatic, but relieved.

Now that he was back at the ranch and Wyatt was on board, he had to see what he could do to make sure his grand plan for the future worked. He planned to keep a close eye on Cord at the same time, and see if he could figure out what was going on there. He was certainly concerned about his health, as were his parents and Wyatt.

Knowing he had a lot on his plate, Ty forced himself to concentrate on the books. First things first; he had to get the ranch back on its feet. Watching his grandfather would be an ongoing thing. Right now, though, he had to prepare to go with Cord and talk to the bank. Without a substantial loan his plan, no matter how good it looked on paper, would remain just a plan.

He stayed up until one o’clock studying the records before calling it a night. He had made several notes, some things he wanted to ask his grandfather, and a few things he wanted to talk to Wyatt about the next day. He also had a list of expenses that seemed a bit high, and planned to do some checking of local prices over the next few days.

***

He talked with Cord and Wyatt the next morning over breakfast. It had always been Cord’s practice for his foreman to eat meals with him at the main house so they could discuss ranch business. Ty was glad that was the practice. It would make sure they were all three on the same page as they went forward with these changes.

For now, he checked his notes and asked the questions he’d had from the evening before. He was happy to see Wyatt was able to answer all his questions easily. He was a little concerned when it became apparent to him that although Wyatt was quickly able to answer his questions, Cord often wasn’t. He often deferred to Wyatt, saying he’d let him explain it, but by watching Cord, Ty could tell Cord was struggling with the answers.

After breakfast Ty went out to get reacquainted with the hands he’d met working there during the past decade of summers, and meet the new guys. Cord stayed inside, saying he was going to be working in his office. Ty wasn’t sure he believed that, but he simply nodded. It gave him a chance to talk to Wyatt a few minutes about his concerns.

They talked as they headed to the barn. Ty asked if he’d noticed Cord forgetting things, and when Wyatt sighed, Ty had his answer. “It seems it takes him a little longer to answer questions,” Ty said, “and I’m afraid it’s because his recall isn’t what it used to be. Am I wrong about that?”

“Ty, I really wish I could tell you that’s not the case, but that’s the conclusion I’ve reached, as well. My problem is I don’t know what that means or what to do about it.”

“I don’t, either, but I think I’ll talk to Dad about it. Cord’s his dad, and I think he has a right to know. I’ll see how he wants us to handle it. Maybe Dad will get involved, which would be easier for me. I don’t want to be the one to approach him, but I think someone needs to talk to him again and try to get him to go see a doctor.”

“Good luck,” Wyatt said sincerely. “I hate seeing him slip like this, and I hope someone can do something to help him. I know it puts you in a difficult spot, though. He thinks the world of you and is proud as can be that you graduated from college, and with honors. He’s been talking about you coming back here once you finished school, but as the time got closer, I think he was afraid you wouldn’t. He knew he didn’t have a lot to offer since the ranch hasn’t been doing well. I think as much as he wanted you to come back, he was afraid to hope.”

“I had no idea he’d been having problems with the ranch. I hope I can help.”

“I think you simply being here is going to be good for him. It was good seeing him so excited last night as we talked about his plan for the ranch. I haven’t seen him look so alive in a couple of years.”

“If we get this loan there’ll be some big changes around here. I hope if I can help him enough to take some of the stress off of him he’ll be able to watch the changes take place and enjoy it. Maybe we can get his enthusiasm back.”

They reached the barn and their conversation ended, as old friends recognized Ty and came out to welcome him back. He stayed around for the explanation Wyatt was about to give as to changes that would be taking place. He looked around and could easily see all the hands were on board and smiling about what they would be undertaking, even as they realized it would more than likely mean extra work. He was glad to see that, since he knew this whole process would be much easier if the men were all in.

maxbutton id=”1″ url=”https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Good-Cowboy-Misty-Malone-ebook/dp/B09FTMZXNP” ] Barnes & Noble iBooks Kobo Google Books

The Wife He Corrected

Joni Sinclair leaned against her sometimes boyfriend as he drove the huge rental truck back home. They’d just been in Zephyrhills, Missouri for a week. The two of them helped move her sister and fiancé into their new apartment and then attended their wedding. She was ready to be home, but couldn’t help asking, “Hank, are we really leaving her there?”

“Are you going to cry again?” Hank asked, reaching in his pocket.

“I might,” she grabbed the tissue he offered. “It just feels wrong to be so far away from Beth.”

“I met all Nick’s family. I spent time with them and talked to them. She’s going to be safe. Dropped in at the police station with him and we made sure they know what’s going on. Nick has friends who work there, too. She’s going to be in a bubble of safety.” His tone felt so reassuring and for some reason that annoyed her a little.

“I know,” Joni tried not to complain. She wasn’t complaining. She was rightfully worried about her sister. It was her job. “But I’ve done it for three years now. It feels like I’m neglecting my duties or something.”

“Joni, you aren’t her mother. She has a husband and a new family who will take care of her. You can take care of yourself now.”

“I’m fine,” she snapped at him. “I already take care of myself!” He could be so sweet, but so insufferable. It was a long way to get back to Clearwater though, so she didn’t want to pick a fight with him just yet. It would happen though, she knew, before they got too close. And he just let it. Let her. It had been very sweet of him to take a week out of his life to help her family. How many people would do that? She grabbed her phone from her pocket and texted Beth, “Are you doing fine?”

“All good, don’t worry. At the airport, getting ready to board the plane for New Orleans. Honeymoon time!”

Joni sighed and put her phone down.

“What’s wrong?” Hank asked.

“Nothing,” she said, trying her best to keep her tone civil.

“Why don’t you try to take a nap?” he said. “It will be about three more hours till we get home.”

“Yeah, a nap is what I need,” she said, leaning back in her seat and realized he was all she had. Well, not really. He wasn’t hers. He seemed happy with their on again, off again relationship. She wasn’t. But she wasn’t sure what she wanted. Hank was perfect. That was the entire problem.

The man was literally perfect. It was so annoying.

He was gorgeous, tall, dark brown hair, gray-blue eyes that sparkled when he shot her a devastating smile that made butterflies in her stomach and made her want things she’d never wanted before. He taught middle school like she did, he was a Master Gardener, which she wasn’t. He baked better bread and cake than professionals could. He cooked and, of course, his grill skills were out of this world. He volunteered to coach Peewee football on top of coaching the junior high team that was part of his job. He was writing a freaking novel. Who does that? As a big brother to his sister, her friend, Ellie, he aced it. He could fix things, he walked his elderly neighbor’s dog, and never lost his temper. How could anyone measure up to that? It just wasn’t possible, and to top it all off, he was nice. So aggravatingly nice, even when she wasn’t.

He did nothing when she threw tantrums, or jumped out of the car, or stormed out of a dinner. Nothing! Just let her be for a few hours or days, then brought her candy, flowers or chocolate and considered it over. And she always let him back in. What was with that? She was tired of living like that, but he seemed to want to do nothing about it. Sometimes she just wanted a little reaction out of him. Why did he just let her walk away from him repeatedly? Did he not care about her enough? Was she just convenient? Handy? Did he sigh, all relieved, when she stormed off and thought, ‘don’t have to deal with that for a few days’ until he wanted, well, what did he want?

***

Hank Thompson looked over at Joni as she seemed to drift off to sleep. Or fumed. He wasn’t sure which. It didn’t matter. He needed to get her home before she jumped out the truck and ran away. Keeping her safe was important, even though it was Beth who’d been in danger. He’d keep a close eye on her, though just in case the scum bag lurking around town decided not to take Beth leaving well. They hadn’t announced it but word got around. Scumbag Eli’s new girlfriend was Miranda and her brother Ben was engaged to Jordyn, who was Joni’s good friend. It seemed a far connection but rumors flew in small towns like Clearwater. He needed to keep an eye on Joni and figure out what they were doing. What were they doing?

They’d been on and off again for a couple years now. For a genius, as his sister Ellie told him, sometimes he sure could be dumb. He glanced at her again. She looked like a little angel sleeping, or fuming, there, with her strawberry blonde hair fanned out across the truck seat. Above her adorable little nose, sprinkled with very faint freckles that she always tried to hide, her pretty blue eyes were closed. He had no doubt he was going to marry her one day, once he figured her out. That was the key, though, trying to find out how her little brain ticked. Grinning, he thought, he just might have found the key. They’d find out this next week or so. Find out together. It would work or it wouldn’t and either way, he would have at least tried something, because what he was doing now, wasn’t working.

He’d gone to Nick’s bachelor party while they were in Nick’s hometown for the wedding. Nick’s brother and friends all taught him a few things about handling women. He’d known these things, but really, while some of these were a part of him, part of how he actually felt, he also knew, you just couldn’t do that anymore. Women were equal, more than equal, he knew and you had to treat them as such. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was Joni didn’t seem happy getting away with the things she did. If she wasn’t pleased with the outcome, getting some reward for it, she wouldn’t keep doing the same things repeatedly that made her, and him, upset. He knew she didn’t like acting like that, throwing fits like a child, but couldn’t seem to help herself.

While she wasn’t a true redhead like her sister Beth, or Moriah who worked at the bakery on the square, she had a short temper. Really, he doubted hair color had much to do with temper anyway, though he’d never read a study on it, one way or another. Now, when she was teaching, she had a limitless supply of patience. The kids and parents adored her and she excelled at her job. She’d been in town about three or four years now, and had a huge circle of friends, including his sister Ellie. Ellie’s group of friends were mostly people she’d known since kindergarten, and now Joni, who fit in as if she had always lived there. He never heard a word about Joni throwing fits with them. In fact, she was the stable one, the calm, mature one.

However, when they were alone, the woman would go off like a firecracker, and sometimes he didn’t even know what caused it. But she was soon going to find out what cured it.

Did he dare? Well, they couldn’t keep on going the way they were. He was tired of not knowing where he stood, or what she was upset about. He knew she could control her temper everywhere but with him. He had to dare, had to change the dynamic and hopefully for the better.

Today, though, he just needed to get her home. It had been a very stressful week for her, seeing her sister, her best friend, get married and moving and both happening in less than a month. Who got married in a month? But that had been what Beth and Nick wanted, and they made it happen, with a lot of help from Joni. She had to be exhausted, physically and mentally. He felt lucky she hadn’t taken his head off, out of sheer stress.

A couple hours later, he reached over and patted her knee. “Almost there, baby, if you want to wake up.”

She wiggled in her sleep, and he thought she looked like a sweet little kitten. Then, of course, one who turned into a howling bobcat. Sighing, she sat up, rubbing her eyes and yawning and smiled. “I guess I slept.”

“I guess you did,” he said. “I’m glad. You needed it.”

“I guess,” she said. “It has been a long week. Oh, it’s raining!”

“Has been for about an hour,” he agreed. “And now, look, you have a brand new life ahead of you. You can do anything you want to the house, only worry about you.” He tried to sound encouraging.

“I know that,” she snapped at him, her kitten side hissing at him. “I know. That doesn’t make me worry less about my sister.” He could hear her voice rising and decided to change the subject.

“We’re almost at the rental place. We’ll return the truck, grab the car and you’ll be home in less than half an hour. Won’t it be nice to sleep in your own bed tonight?”

“Of course it will, we’ve been gone a week.” She folded her arms and stared out the window.

Hank sighed. So she was in that mood. Well, he’d just let her be. Pulling into the rental’s parking lot, he pulled the truck next to where his car had been parked, and quickly unloaded their bags from the back, with Joni’s help. They both got soaked, the rain coming down in sheets. She yelped once when the thunder cracked, but didn’t say anything. They climbed in the car, soaked, and drove up to the office door where he dropped the truck keys in the overnight box.

Getting back in the car, he wiped his face and asked, “Want to hit a drive-thru before we go home?” He could eat. Wet or dry.

She shook her head, without speaking and he half grinned. At least she knew better than to jump out of the car in the rain. “Well, I do. I’m too tired to cook.”

Joni looked back from where she’d been staring out the window. “Thank you for coming with me, and being a rock all week. I know I can get grouchy but I really do appreciate you.”

Just when he’d thought he’d heard it all. “I’m glad I could be there for you,” he said, then placed his order at the speaker.

“It’s getting cold,” she shivered

“You’d think it was fall,” he said. “Almost winter.” Reaching over, he turned the heater up a little for her and added the heated seat for her side. “Better?”

She nodded and he felt bad, wishing he could just tuck her into bed. Instead he handed her the extra sack of fries he’d ordered. “Here you go.”

“I said I didn’t want anything,” she said, but took it from him.

“You’re welcome,” he said, as mildly as he could. Now was not the time to start the new regime. She’d been pushed to her breaking point.

They headed down the streets of Clearwater and once again he marveled at how much he loved this little town. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Growing up here had been picture perfect and one day he hoped his grandkids would come here to visit and maybe settle down. He’d take them to the parks, and to the lake, the local ball games. and wander through the adorable little downtown square. First he needed some kids, before those mythical grandkids showed up, though.

Glancing over to where Joni seemed fascinated by the rain, while methodically eating the fries she didn’t want, he opened his mouth to say, well, what? Instead he took a bite of his burger, and realized suddenly how hungry he’d been. After wolfing it down, he pulled into her driveway, which was right next door to his house. They had built a gate in the back yard fence a few years back, to make running back and forth easier. With the rain still sheeting down, you couldn’t see either of the gardens, but really, all he cared about was getting her inside and putting her to bed. She probably didn’t want him to stay. After a week together, she needed her space. So did he, honestly. He itched to get on his computer and do some research on what the Kinkirk clan, as he thought of them, had talked about.

“Got your keys?” he asked her.

“No, I was just going to walk through the wall,” she snapped and he shook his head. Wouldn’t be long and they’d be having a discussion about her tone. Feeling half tempted to just grab his bags and head home and let her struggle with her own, he told himself that wasn’t what a gentleman did. His mom had raised him right. No matter how tempting it was to let her attitude rub off on him, he just opened his door and grabbed her suitcase from one side while she grabbed two smaller ones from her side and they both rushed across the deck, to the door. He waited while she fumbled with the keys, they walked in and she quickly disarmed the alarm. “Don’t forget to turn that back on,” he said.

“Yes, Daddy,” she said, dropping her bags on the kitchen table. “Thanks, again, Hank. I’m going to take a shower and go to bed.”

He bit his tongue not to ask if he could join her. Instead he leaned over and kissed her still wet cheek. “You sleep well, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

With that he went back out into the rain.

***

Joni watched him go and yawned, then reset the alarm and made sure her phone had synced up with the camera system. Yup. all was normal. She controlled the urge to call or text Beth again. Beth was fine. Beth was on her honeymoon with her hunky new husband. She did not want her sister bugging her. Who would?

She grabbed her bags and headed up to her bedroom. A hot shower and bed sounded wonderful right now. Halfway wishing that Hank would have insisted on staying tonight, she was also glad he wasn’t here. In the mood she was in, she’d be snapping at him again. He didn’t deserve that.

Sighing, she stood in the shower letting the hotter than warm water sluice over her. It did feel good to be home. But what did home really mean anymore? This was their grandmother’s house. She and Beth and Sydney for a short time, had moved here over three years ago. She’d left a job she loved, in a city she adored to move to this town. Sure, it was a great little town, and her new job was wonderful. Teaching middle school was always fun and full of surprises. She had a large group of friends. She was getting together with several of them tomorrow for a late lunch which would be fun. Naturally she adored this house where her grandparents had lived. Hobbies, there were a few, her garden, reading, baking, helping Ellie at her events, but yet, there was something missing and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Now that Beth had left, what was left here in town for her? Her job and the bills that needed to be paid. Well, that settled that, now didn’t it? Gotta get those bills paid.

After drying off, she slipped into her robe and headed downstairs and looked in Beth’s office. Beth’s old office, where she had spent most of her days and many nights until Nick came into her life and whisked her away from here. It looked sparse, empty and forlorn. What would she do with it? She didn’t have to decide tonight. Tonight, she was just going to bed.

Hearing her phone beep as she plugged it in, she saw that Hank had sent her a good night text. Sighing, she turned her phone over and turned down her bed covers. She’d spent the week with him, he didn’t need to hear from her for a while. It would be best for the both of them, for tonight at least.

***

“Where’s Lucy?” Joni asked Ellie as they walked into Baking Memories together.

“On her way. She went home to let the dogs out for a minute on her way here,” Ellie said, shifting the box in her arms. “She can’t wait to hear about Beth’s wedding.”

“Hi, Jordyn!” Joni said. “Smells good in here.”

“Thanks, I like it,” Jordyn said. “Welcome home, we missed you!”

“It’s good to be home.” She watched as Jordyn took her apron off and turned to Moriah. “I’m going to take that break now. If you need me, you know where to find me.”

“I’ll be fine!” the pretty young redhead told her. “You enjoy your friends.”

“Make sure those cupcakes for the Coopers get finished, if you get time.”

“Will do,” she said. “Have fun!”

“Let’s go to the tasting room,” Jordyn said. Joni smiled. She liked that cozy little room and noticed, as they walked in, Jordyn had it set up already with four place settings, a pitcher of something, she couldn’t tell what, wraps of some kind and a large platter of cookies.

“Oh, Jordyn, this looks great,” Joni said, noticing Ellie put her box on the table unpacking four fruit salads. “I feel bad I didn’t bring anything now.”

“You brought the gossip,” Ellie told her. “But don’t say anything till Lucy gets here or she’ll never forgive us.”

They sat down on the comfortable chairs as they heard the bell tinkle at the front door and a cheery call of, “Hello, baby sister, long time no see!”

“Hi, Lucy! Your friends are in the tasting room,” they heard Moriah say and a few seconds later, Lucy popped her purple head through the door with a big take out box of pasta salads that she plopped on the table.

“Hey, everybody!” she said. “Hope I’m not late. Gypsy did not want to go outside this afternoon!”

“It is a little chilly and windy and still damp after yesterday’s rain. I love your hair!”

“I do, too! Plus Max thinks it’s too over the top which makes me like it even better. Nothing more fun than getting a rise out of his stodgy self once in a while!” Lucy said and started dishing salads out into the bowls that Jordyn had set out. “Jordyn, this looks great. I’m starving!”

“Looks like there’s plenty,” Jordyn said, as Ellie passed the platter of wraps. Soon they were all settled with food and drinks, and Ellie said, “Okay, Joni, we’re ready! Let’s hear all about the wedding week!”

“Oh, it was so much fun,” Joni said. “Well, most of it. We loaded up some of her furniture to move. They’re renting an apartment for now, till they find a house, and we got her stuff in. Nick and his brothers had already cleared his cabin out here in town.”

“He has brothers? Are they as hot as he is?” Lucy asked.

“Lucy! What would Max think!” Ellie scolded.

“Oh, he knows he’s my one and only,” Lucy said, “but my eyes still work and you all have to admit that Nick Kinkirk is a hottie.”

They all nodded and Joni giggled. “He actually has four brothers, all single,” she said. “And a whole slew of cousins, all of them hotter than the rest. There seems to be a preponderance of hot males in that town. In fact, it seemed most of the little kids running around were male too. Must be something in the water!”

Lucy fanned herself. “Oh my. Zephyrhills must be a really fun place to visit!”

“It was,” Joni agreed. “It’s gorgeous over there. The town is about half the size of Clearwater, and is surrounded by these small rolling hills, and lots of lakes, and well, in the fall, it was breathtaking. It seemed safe and secluded and like its own little island on land.”

“So you got her set up in her apartment,” Ellie said. “Then?”

“Let’s see. Nick’s mom, Molly threw her a little bridal shower, and she got to meet all her new friends and neighbors, and some cousins’ wives and things. She’s going to be surrounded by people who will take care of her.”

“That is so good,” Ellie said. “I was worried about her going off to a strange town with no one around.”

Joni nodded. “It was hard to leave her, but she is going to have lots of protection there. Hank went to Nick’s bachelor party and said after meeting everyone he wasn’t worried about her anymore. You know how protective Hank is of her.”

Lucy sighed. “That’s so good. I’m really happy to hear that. So the wedding?”

“The wedding was held in the church where Nick’s folks got married and Nick and his brothers were all baptized,” Joni started.

“Oh, I think that is so sweet,” Jordyn said. “What a family history!”

“It was a gorgeous little church all thick stone and stained glass,” Joni said. “Then they had a reception at a local hotel, which was a lot of fun. Hank and I danced all night.”

“All those dancing lessons that Mom dragged us to worked for him,” Ellie said. “Me, I still have two left feet, but I just follow while Mike leads, so it works.”

“When would you have time to go dancing?” Joni teased her. “Anyway, they postponed the honeymoon for a couple days, they want to get settled in. Just headed to New Orleans yesterday, so they are honeymooning as we speak.”

“Did your mom go? And Sydney?” Ellie asked.

Joni nodded. “They did, and Mom brought Beth a wedding dress from one of her fancy Chicago stores, off the rack, that fit her like it was made for her. Sydney and I stood up with her, and Mom walked her down the aisle. Nick’s brothers stood up with him. It was really nice. One of the cousins owns a flower shop and donated flowers as a wedding present, another made the cake. Which, of course, wasn’t as good as yours would have been, Jordyn.”

“Of course not,” Jordyn agreed. “If she had gotten married here in town I would have made her one.”

“I know, but considering the circumstances, we just thought that a small ceremony there would be smarter.” Joni picked up a second wrap and took a bite. She hadn’t eaten since the fries Hank had given her last night.

“Oh, we agree with that,” Ellie said. “But when you and Hank tie the knot, it better be here in town so we can do it up big.”

Joni choked on her mouthful of chicken and crunchy vegetables. “Married! No!”

“Are you two fussing again?” Lucy asked. “Doesn’t that get tiring? You know you always get back together.”

“No, we aren’t fussing,” Joni said. “I was with him for a week though, and while he was a great help, I’m ready for a little alone time.”

“That’s what work is for,” Lucy told her. “Jordyn, who is going to make your wedding cake?”

“I am,” she said. “Who would be better?”

“Set a date yet?” Joni asked.

“We’re thinking late winter, early spring, before summer which is a busy season for us both. Between summer weddings and Ben’s contracting business, summer will be crazy. I’m not even thinking about taking time off during holiday baking season, which has already started to ramp up.”

“Nice thing about being a teacher,” Joni said. “Holidays off. Summers are great, laid back, no worries, no work.”

“Bad thing about working for the government,” Ellie said. “There is no down time, right, Lucy?”

Lucy laughed. “You telling them, Ellie?”

“Telling us what?” Joni asked her.

“Mayor Lydia has decided not to run again, so I am!”

“Are you! Congratulations! This will be so much fun! Sign me up to work on your campaign!” Joni stood up and hugged her. “How excited is Mike?”

Ellie laughed. “What do you think?”

“He supports you in everything you do,” Jordyn said. “You know that.”

“I do, but he has this weird thing about wanting me home and spending time with him.” Ellie rolled her eyes. “Males.”

“They’re funny, aren’t they? Especially your brother,” Joni agreed.

“He adores you, you know,” Ellie said. “I mean, if taking off for a week and helping someone’s sister move isn’t love, I don’t know what is.”

“I know and really, well, it’s complicated,” Joni said and noticed Ellie looking at her sharply. She was Hank’s little sister and while one of her best friends, there were some things you didn’t talk to family about.

“Complicated is never good,” Lucy shook her purple haired head. “That’s one thing I love about Max. I always know right where he stands and right where he wants me standing.”

“Max is a good one,” Ellie agreed. “And so is Ben. Your mountain man is a sweetheart, Jordyn, even if Miranda is his sister.”

“That’s not his fault!” Jordyn said. “Besides, I rarely have to see her and I actually refuse to go anywhere with that new boyfriend of hers. Ben understands that.”

Joni gave a huge shudder at that. Miranda’s boyfriend was the reason her sister had left town. No one but Miranda could stand Eli. “Ugh. I just thought, she will be at your wedding, won’t she?”

“Since she’s about all the family he has, I imagine so. Maybe she will break up with the scum bag before then.”

“We can only hope,” Lucy said, picking up her glass. “Here’s to Jordyn’s fun wedding with no drama!”

“Cheers!” They clinked glasses and took a sip.

“So do you have any big plans now that you’re rattling around that big house all by yourself?” Jordyn asked.

Joni shook her head. “It still doesn’t seem real, you know. Like I’ll pop my head in her office and she’ll be in there pounding away on her computer.”

“Well, it’s only been, what, one day since you got back? You’ll get used to it. Unless you and Hank decide to move in together or something.”

Laughing at that thought, Joni said, “We’d kill each other. Having our own space makes us both happier, I think.”

Lucy shook her head. “That would make me tired. I don’t like volatile.”

“I don’t either,” Joni said. “He’s just so frustrating!”

“Yeah, frustrating isn’t a good way to live,” Ellie agreed. “I know Mike gets frustrated with me sometimes, though he’s pretty patient until he’s not. When he’s done, I know about it!”

“See, Hank doesn’t seem to do that. I can do anything I want and he just lets me. It’s like he doesn’t care enough. I don’t know what I’d want him to do, in any case, but just something, you know?”

Lucy reached over and patted her hand. “I do know. Hope you guys can figure something out, or maybe he just isn’t the one for you.”

“Ugh, don’t say that, Lucy! I want Joni to be my sister!”

“We’re already sisters,” Joni told her. “Me marrying your brother or not won’t change that.”

“Well, it would be more legal or something,” Ellie said, reaching for a cookie. “Lucy and I have to get back to work, but let’s get all the guys and do something at my house next week, okay?”

They all nodded, helped Jordyn clean up and soon Joni was on her way out, heading to the grocery store. She needed to refill some staples before she had to be back at work tomorrow. Hank had already gone back today, they had both used sick and personal days to take off for the move and the wedding and she’d taken an extra day to decompress, or if she’d needed, to stay a little longer with Beth. Beth who did not seem to need her anymore and it was disconcerting to say the very least. This was now her life and she had a good one. She could actually do anything she wanted after the school year ended, but she had no desire to leave Clearwater. Or did she?

Where would she go? To Zephyrhills with Beth and Nick? That would just be odd. Her mom was too settled and fulfilled with work in northern Chicago to be any good company for her, and had her own social life. Well, she assumed she did. Sydney was in her last year of veterinary school and just crazy busy. Besides, who knew where she’d end up after she graduated. Apparently she’d been offered several jobs already. No reason to move close to her.

No, this is where she’d stay, unless like Beth, she met someone and ran off. Half smiling, she thought of Hank. Again. She couldn’t really imagine life without Hank in it. She just needed something more than he could give her. Right now, though, she’d give him supper after his first day back. Picking up some pork chops, she threw them in her cart. It was chilly out, but Hank had been known to grill out in the snow. Chilly wouldn’t stop him. She’d get home and start marinating.

Since Beth had announced she and Nick were getting married and moving, in a month, all she’d done was ruminate and she was getting a little tired of it. How much deep introspection did one woman need? She’d had plenty of it. Maybe they’d just have a fun evening, play some cards, not fight. What were the odds of that?

Slim and none, of course, she found out a few hours later.

***

“We need to talk,” Hank told her as they cleared the dinner dishes.

“Isn’t that the female’s line?” she said, filling the sink with soap and hot water.

“My female doesn’t like to talk,” he said, picking up a dish towel.

“Huh. That’s odd. I wonder why that is? Most females do. Maybe you are hard to talk to?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sure that’s not it. I give her a lot of space and a lot of room and chances. I try to be a safe place for her, but it doesn’t seem to be making her happy.”

Joni felt her heart beat faster. Was he breaking up with her? It would serve her right. “It doesn’t sound like it’s you, then,” she agreed. “What do you think is wrong with her?”

“Well, I’ve learned a lot this past week while we’ve been gone. Listened to a lot of guy talk.”

Joni rolled her eyes. “I’m sure the sex isn’t the problem I’ve heard rumors you actually overachieve in that department.”

Hank laughed and popped her bottom with the towel, making her squeal and sort of smile despite the sting. Maybe he wasn’t breaking up with her? What was he doing then?

“No, it wasn’t about sex. As you’ve heard the rumors, then you might already know that that isn’t the problem.”

“Then whatever could it be?” she asked him draining the sink and wiping it dry.

“I don’t give her a wall to lean against,” he said.

Joni shook her head. “Well, if I don’t understand what that means, I’m sure your hypothetical female won’t either.”

“She’s not hypothetical, and that’s the problem. I’m sort of in love with her and I’m pretty sure she feels the same about me, but she keeps picking these silly little fights and acting like a child. Any ideas why she’d do that?”

“Because she can?” Joni swallowed hard. Where was he going with this?

“Exactly.” He took her by the arm and moved her to a kitchen chair, and sat her down. “And that ends today.”

He pulled out his chair and sat close to her. “What does that even mean?” she asked, noting her fingers were trembling.

“I’m planning to give her a wall to lean against, shove against and know it will be unmoving and sturdy for her. For you.”

“I’m still very confused. What is this wall for and why am I shoving?” She liked it better when there was the safety net of some other person in this conversation. However weird it sounded.

“You are shoving because the wall keeps moving. You jump out of the car and the wall drives away. You walk out of dinner and the wall pays the bill, let’s you cool off and appeases you. The wall is done with all that. You know how to behave. You are an excellent teacher. You have a large social network. I watched you all week and the only person you snapped at even once was me. It was a very stressful situation and yet, you handled everything, even your mother, with good grace and humor. Then turned around and snapped all over me.”

Yeah. She knew that. Why did she do that? Perfect Hank probably knew.

“Well, since you know everything, explain this to me. Why?”

“Because I let you and because you don’t feel safe with me.”

Joni shook her head. “Henry, that makes no sense at all. Maybe you are the only one I do feel safe with, so I can act out.”

“Are you happy when you have your little tantrums?” he asked.

“I’m unhappy with you and that’s why I’m doing it,” she said. “You can be so frustrating and just make me crazy.”

“So we agree, it’s my behavior that makes you act like you do.”

“Yes!” she said, almost triumphantly. “It is!”

“That’s why I’m changing my behavior.” He crossed his arms and looked at her steadily.

Joni sighed in exasperation. “What does that even mean?” Why was he being so cryptic? The man was a teacher and a literal genius. Surely he could find words to use.

“What part confused you?” He looked at her steadily and once again she marveled at how handsome and hot he was. She could get lost in those eyes. And kissing those lips and, well… Whatever else he decided to do.

“What behavior are you changing?” See, she knew how to use words.

“The behavior that allows you to get away with things and then feel bad about it,” he said.

“Let me? Umm, well, as far as I know, I’m a grown adult who doesn’t need permission to act anyway I choose to act.” She shoved a wisp of hair back away from her eyes where it had strayed.

“You are right, I agree. But what happens if you break the law?”

“Well, if you get caught, you get a ticket, or a fine, or even go to jail. You planning to give me a ticket if I don’t behave to your standards?” She could feel her tone becoming mocking. She didn’t like when she did that. It made her uncomfortable but for some reason he just brought it out of her. No one else did for some reason, just him. Why, now, was the million dollar question.

“No, but you are going to have consequences, if you still think we should be together.”

“Well, of course we should be together,” she snapped again, and tried to soften her tone. “I mean, we enjoy each other, our lifestyles fit, you know, all the usual stuff that we’ve talked about before.”

“I’m going to take steps to make our life together better,” he said. “You know we have talked occasionally about a little more, about being actually together and,” he held his hand up as she started to protest, silencing her, “and we both know we aren’t ready for that yet, right?”

She nodded, heart hammering so fast she hoped it would calm down before it burst as he continued, “So I’ve found a couple ways to deal with it.”

“Deal with what? Your behavior?” She felt even more confused than she had before.

“No, your behavior. Well, both. I’m changing the way I behave to change the way you behave. We both know we aren’t happy like this, so change is starting now.”

“You are irking me with your cryptic comments,” she said and looked over at the stove, wondering when the last time she cleaned the oven was. Probably needed it again. She jerked as he put a large hand on the top of her head, tightened his fingers and moved it so she could look at him. Umm, what was with this?

“You are going to be more than irked in a few minutes,” he said, and let go of her head. “Now. We are both in agreement we want this relationship, right?”

Where had her laid back, take anything man gone? This was not him and she didn’t know why, but it gave her a shiver of excitement. Why not, she should see where this went. What’s the worst that could happen?

“Sure. I mean, I don’t want to break up if that’s what you’re asking.”

“And you agree what we are doing isn’t working as well as it should and that we aren’t as happy as we could be?”

That one was a given. “Yes, I do agree with that.”

“Do you think actions should have consequences?”

“Well, mostly, but sometimes…” her voice trailed off. Where was this going?

“Sometimes, what?” he asked.

Joni shrugged, feeling remarkably like a naughty kid at the principal’s office. It made her feel strange, nervous, yet a little excited and somehow turned on.

“Do you think you should get away with the way you treat me and how you act sometimes when we’re together?” He still had his hand on her head so she couldn’t move and was looking directly into his deep eyes.

She tried to shake her head but his hand wouldn’t let her move it. “Not really,” she admitted. “But, well, sometimes you just frustrate me so much.”

“You don’t think it’s frustrating to me when you throw tantrums like a child?”

“I do not throw tantrums,” she protested, wishing he’d let go of her head.

“What do you call it then?”

“Walking away from the situation before I do or say something I’ll regret,” she admitted. Where was he going with this?

“From now on, your actions are going to have consequences.”

“Like what?” she asked, suddenly fascinated.

“Anytime you throw yourself a little fit–” He finally let go of her head and reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a quarter. “You know what to do with this?”

This time she shook her now freed head. “Vending machine for coffee?”

“Nope. It’s for your nose.”

“Umm, what?” Now she felt thoroughly confused.

“You take your quarter and go to the closest wall and hold your little nose on it till you calm down. Then you’re going over my knee and I’ll be turning your adorable butt as red as your sister’s hair.”

Joni let out a peal of giggles, and when she could catch her breath, said, “You have got to be kidding. Right?” She looked into his eyes and suddenly it didn’t seem funny anymore. “Right?”

 

Buy on Amazon Barnes & Noble iBooks Kobo Google Books

Loving Lydia

West Sussex, the Year of our Lord 1671…

Lydia Robins was cross. Decidedly so. Pursing her lips, she reached down for a pebble and threw it with all her might into the still waters of the lake. The loud impact startled one of the moorhens on the other side, and flapping its wings loudly, it quickly took cover amongst the rushes.

Lydia stared after it, wishing she could do the same. But no. That certainly wouldn’t be allowed. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, causing her long blue-black hair to swish around her shoulders, the silky strands gleaming in the sunlight.

Why, oh why, did her mother always insist on inviting Cecily Walters to their soirées? Didn’t she have enough acquaintances to choose from whom she could invite instead? Cecily was the most unreasonable person she knew and practically every time they met, they argued.

Her mother, of course, thought she was being difficult and that Cecily was merely a tad on the excitable side, declaring that Lydia should have more patience and try to curb her tongue a little. Lydia narrowed her eyes and, huffing under her breath, threw another pebble.

“I was going to say good morning but judging from your obvious vexation, I would say it is not. Am I correct?”

A deep voice broke into her thoughts and Lydia spun around to find Lord Hugh Danbye watching her, a hint of amusement in his dark brown eyes. He was their closest neighbour and had been a friend of the family for years. He was a handsome fellow, with shoulder length brown hair and a neat cavalier moustache. He held the title of Earl of Barnham and was considered quite the eligible bachelor. If he wasn’t so much older and in possession of such a domineering persona, she might fancy herself in love with him. But he had told her off one too many times for her liking so even the notion of marriage to such a man was pushed swiftly aside.

At thirty-six, he wasn’t exactly old, but in her opinion, a man nearer her own age would be far more suitable. And by suitable, she meant someone more accommodating and docile than the foreboding earl. Heaven knew what it would be like to have such an overbearing husband.

Unfortunately, thus far, no other suitor had even come close to his handsome good looks, and at the ripe old age of nineteen, life was beginning to pass her by.

She placed her hands on her hips and retorted angrily, “In answer to your question, Lord Danbye, no, it is most definitely not a good morning! Mama has invited Cecily Walters to tonight’s soirée and you know that I detest her.”

He shot her a look of commiseration. “Yes, she can be rather irksome but surely, you can avoid direct contact with her,” he suggested. “Perhaps sit at the other end of the table and converse with others?”

“On this occasion, I cannot. There are to be only our two families present.” She pulled a face. “Apparently, her mama has something important to tell us. I expect it is something trivial as usual but said in such a way that we should gasp with awe and pretend to be impressed.” She flung her hand in the air dramatically, her eyes rolling with annoyance.

He chuckled. “Miss Robins, I am certain it will not be as bad as you portray it to be.”

“Oh, I believe it will,” Lydia muttered. She turned back to the lake and, concentrating hard, threw another pebble, wondering how the devil she was going to get through the evening with her faculties intact.

***

Lord Danbye studied Lydia’s stiff little form as she took her frustration out on the pebbles she launched into the lake. She was a fiery little thing and possessed a wilful nature. One that he had, on occasion, had to curb by way of a verbal reprimand when her parents were not there to do so. But despite her precocious ways, she was a rare beauty. Her lustrous dark hair swept down her back, almost touching her pert little bottom and her striking blue eyes were enough to weaken the hardest of men. His thoughts took a deeper turn and he shifted uncomfortably as his manhood began to stir.

Clearing his throat, he said her name to gain her attention, “Miss Robins?”

She swung back around to face him, her brow lightly furrowed. “Hmmm?”

“The main reason I have come today is to tell you that I am returning to court for a few months. The king has requested a meeting with his officials.”

She arched an enquiring eyebrow. “When do you leave?”

“In a few days. I have some affairs to get in order before I go.”

“Do you know why the king wishes to see you?”

Lord Danbye stroked his moustache and for a moment his face grew dark. “It would appear that the Dutch are being troublesome again.”

“Oh. Think you there will be another war?”

“Mayhap. We shall see. But ’tis nothing for you to worry about. Will you walk with me to the house?” He held his arm out for her to take.

“Of course.” She placed her small hand on his sleeve and they walked sedately back to the large house that Lydia had the good fortune to call home. Named Haven Manor, it had been built over two hundred years ago by one of her forebears and had been in her family ever since.

The gardens were equally as beautiful as the house, tended to by two gardeners, Tom and Rigby. It was May, and in her opinion, one of the most beautiful times of year. The trees were full, with new green growth and the early flowers were intoxicating with their heady scent. Lydia’s father, Sir Ralph, was an amiable man but a stickler for having things done to his satisfaction—woe betide anyone who failed to do so, his gardeners included. So at any time of year, one could take a walk and not fail to admire the gardens’ beauty.

Reaching the house, Lord Danbye stood to one side to allow Lydia to enter first. She did so with poise, and he found himself once again admiring her trim form as he followed her into the parlour.

Sir Ralph was reading the London Gazette and lowered it when he saw him. “Hugh, my boy. How lovely to see you. Take a seat.”

He obliged by seating himself opposite. Lydia, he noted, opted to stand over by the window, distractedly winding one of her silky strands of hair through her slim fingers. She was so pretty but didn’t seem to realise it. Another thing he found most appealing about her.

“Would you like something to drink, Hugh? A glass of port? A coffee?” Sir Ralph asked him.

“A glass of port would be splendid.”

Sir Ralph beckoned his servant over with a crook of his finger and told him to pour the beverage for Lord Danbye.

“How goes the king?” Sir Ralph asked him.

“Very well, or at least he was the last time I saw him. I will be attending court at the end of the week, which leads me to why I am here. I wondered if you wished to accompany me? I know you have oft asked about Whitehall, and this would be a perfect opportunity for you to see for yourself.”

“Nay, lad. I am much obliged that you thought of me but my foot is still giving me problems.” He tapped his left leg with his walking stick. “Doctor says ’tis gout. All I can do is rest it. Bothersome, but there is little else I can do.” He shrugged his shoulders. “‘Tis not the first time I have had it and I doubt ’twill be the last.”

“It must be painful,” Lord Danbye commiserated.

“Yes, it is, but enough talk of this damned foot—how are things over at Seven Oaks?”

“Very well. I had a new wing built on the eastern side. You will have to come and visit when you are recovered. It looks rather splendid.”

“I should like that. So will my wife. She is oft lamenting the fact that I do not go out enough, even though I tell her I am quite happy as I am,” he added gruffly.

Lord Danbye chuckled. Lydia’s mother was quite an assertive woman and as pleasant as she was, one could find her a little overbearing on occasion.

“Will you have a party to celebrate your new extension?” Lydia asked him, walking over, her eyes alight with interest. She perched her bottom on the arm of her father’s chair. “It would be the perfect way to show it off?”

Lord Danbye raised an eyebrow. “I am not certain people would be that impressed.”

“Of course, they would!” Lydia expressed, warming to her theme. “Everyone loves a party and they will also get to view the new building. Yes, they will be impressed.”

“I shall think on it. Parties take a lot of planning, and at the moment, my main concern is returning to court.”

Just then the door opened and Hortense, Lydia’s mother, breezed in. Lord Danbye immediately stood up, his good manners coming to the fore.

“Lord Danbye! How lovely to see you,” she exclaimed, smiling broadly. “I have only just learned of your visit, otherwise I would have joined you sooner.” She held out her hand for him to kiss, which he did with decorum.

“Lady Robins.”

“You look decidedly well if I may say so,” she noted, sweeping her gaze over him.

“Thank you. And may I return the compliment?”

She accepted his remark gracefully. “How kind of you to say so. I wonder, are you free this evening? We have guests coming and I would love you to join us.”

“I have no prior engagements. I would be honoured.”

He glanced at Lydia who smiled impishly and retorted, “How delightful. You can also endure Cecily Walters’ unbearable company.”

“Lydia!” her mother sharply reprimanded her.

Lydia rolled her eyes and walked over to the window, leaving Lord Danbye to make small talk with her mother and father. The dinner promised to be entertaining if nothing else.

***

That evening, dinner progressed surprisingly well. Cecily seemed slightly quieter than usual but it suited Lydia, for she had no desire to talk to her at all. She instead concentrated on conversing with Lord Danbye and her father.

At the end of the main course, Lydia’s attention was diverted by her mother asking, “Well, what is this news you wished to speak of, Lady Walters? I confess to be rather intrigued and simply cannot wait any longer to find out what it is.”

Lady Walters dabbed the corners of her mouth delicately with her serviette and then her eyes sparkled with excitement as she said, “As you know, one of my dearest friends is the Duchess of Cleveland. She and I have been friends for many years now. Well, she has put in a good word or two and our fortunate daughters have been chosen to serve the queen. What do you say to that?” She sat back in her seat, a look of self-satisfaction on her face.

Lydia’s jaw nearly dropped down onto the table. Serve the queen? Had she heard right?

Her mother was quick to reply. “It cannot be true? Surely?”

“Oh, it is, believe me.” Lady Walters nodded her head emphatically. “They are expected at the end of this month. Is this news not exciting?”

“I confess, I had never envisaged Lydia going to court, but yes, ’tis most wondrous,” Hortense replied.

Lydia raised her eyebrows, looking from one to the other before remarking, “Do I have a say in this?”

Lady Walters turned her head sharply and looked at her, aghast. “Surely, you have no objection?” The notion that anyone would reject such an offer was clearly unthinkable.

“Not as such,” Lydia declared, “but it would have been nice to have been asked beforehand rather than just assuming I wish to go to Whitehall.”

Lady Walters tutted loudly. “It is a great accolade not just for yourself, but for your family as well. Cecily has no such objection, do you, my darling?”

Cecily’s eyes shone with excitement. “Not at all, Mama. I feel truly honoured to have been chosen to serve Queen Catherine.” She quickly glanced at Lydia. “I confess, it will be a little daunting at first, but you and I together can rely on one another to calm our nerves.”

Lydia stared at her and raised an eyebrow. The last thing she wanted to do was rely on Cecily! But politeness meant she had to respond with something so she grudgingly offered, “I suppose.”

***

This news wasn’t welcomed by Lord Danbye, not at all. He had listened quietly to the interchange and felt compelled to speak out. “I do not wish to alarm you, but the king has a certain reputation,” he interjected, trying to be as diplomatic as he could. “I am not certain it is a wise decision to send your daughters to court.”

“All kings have a reputation, Hugh,” countered Sir Ralph. “But both our daughters are virtuous and strong of mind. They would not be easily swayed.”

“He is known to be very persuasive,” Lord Danbye warned him, shooting Lydia a sideways glance.

“I think your worries are unfounded, Lord Danbye,” stated Lady Walters. “I have no such fears. It will not only give them a step up in society but may even find them suitable husbands.”

The thought of Lydia taking a husband sent a surge of jealousy through Lord Danbye so great that he wanted to slam his hand down on the table in anger. Instead, he had to make do with clenching his teeth. He had often fantasised about asking her to be his wife, but he was thirty-six, nearly double her age. Would she want a man so much older than herself? She had never shown any interest in him that way and he had had enough lovers to know the signs.

But the thought of her going to court filled him with dread. Lydia was young and, in his opinion, vulnerable, and to place her amongst the backbiting and often outwardly hostile members of the court was akin to throwing Daniel to the lions.

But her parents seemed not in the least worried. Perhaps they would be of a different opinion if they had seen and heard what he had when walking through the corridors and halls at Whitehall. The torrid whispers, the malicious gossip. At least he would be there to watch over her. It gave him some comfort at least.

The meal continued with the women chattering over what dresses to take and which items the girls should pack. Sir Ralph looked at Lord Danbye over their heads and with a wink of his eye and a nod of his head, the two men left the table and retired to the sanctity of the study.

***

The next day, Lord Danbye returned to Haven Manor. His intention, to forewarn Lydia of the iniquitous den she would soon find herself in. His previous night’s sleep had been most troublesome and he had awoken with a pressing need to speak with her. Without her parents present, he hoped to be able to speak to her plainly. In his opinion, forewarned would hopefully be forearmed. Even better, perhaps he could persuade her not to go at all.

He found her wandering around the gardens, a small basket in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. She wore a pale-yellow dress with a white lace collar and matching lace cuffs. Her hair was neatly pinned up today, the dark brown ringlets framing her petite face.

She looked up on hearing his approach and smiled. “Why, Lord Danbye, you are here again.”

“Yes, I wondered if we may speak in private.”

She looked at him astutely. “I assume you mean without my parents present.”

He nodded and motioned to a nearby bench. She walked over and, placing her basket on the gravel path, sat down as he did the same.

“This is about me going to court, is it not?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “I noted you had reservations yesterday.”

“Yes, indeed I do.” He rubbed his forehead, wondering how to phrase his words. “I know your parents are honoured that you have been chosen to attend the queen, but life there is far removed from the life you live down here in Sussex.” He settled his eyes on her, his expression worried.

Lydia shrugged her slim shoulders. “I am no fool, Lord Danbye. If I hear any rumours or any whispers falling from licentious lips, then I will pay them no heed. I intend to do my duties as will be expected of me, but apart from that, I will keep myself to myself.” She stood up and stared at him, laying a calming hand on his sleeve. She was so petite that their eyes were almost on a level. “You need not worry on my behalf.”

“Life is not as simple as that, Miss Robins. If it were, I would have no cause for worry, but the court can be a dangerous place.”

“I am fully aware that people can show you one face yet hide another. I will be perfectly fine. Truly.”

“I am merely concerned.”

“Well, you have no need to be,” she admonished him. “Besides, surely we will encounter one another on occasion, and if I have any difficulties, I will be certain to seek you out.”

“Very well. But promise me that if you experience any problems, even if they seem trivial, that you will tell me or your parents. I will come to you immediately,” he declared sincerely.

“I believe you will and I thank you for it.” She bent down and picked up her basket, placing the small woven receptacle over her arm. “Will you walk with me whilst I collect some more flowers?”

“Yes.” He stood up and, keeping in pace with her small steps, followed her to a long line of rose bushes.

***

Lydia was beginning to get a little irritated with Lord Danbye’s concern about her going to court. Good lord, he was acting more overprotective than her parents!

After her initial reluctance to go, mainly influenced by having to be in such close proximity with Cecily, she had decided that, in fact, it might be quite exciting. After all, she was nineteen now and certainly old enough to know her own mind and stand up for herself when the occasion arose. She was no lily-livered weakling and would have no hesitation in putting someone in their place if need be. A small frown marred her brow. Although that would obviously not apply to the king, but His Majesty was their sovereign, so surely, she could place her trust in him?

No, Lord Danbye was being overly cautious in her mind. She leaned forward to snip off a rose stem and rolled her eyes when he told her to be careful of the thorns.

Placing one hand on her hip while with the other, she brandished her scissors at him. “Lord Danbye, I have been cutting flowers for years. Do you think me addle-brained?”

She watched his handsome features change as her words sank home. His eyes darkened imperceptibly. “There is no need to be rude, Miss Robins.” He went to cover her hand with his own. “Please, allow me to do it for you or perhaps one of the gardeners can assist you.”

“No, there is no need.” She pulled her hand back, putting the scissors out of his reach.

“Do you ever do as you are told?” he queried, giving her a stern look.

“Of course, I do, but not when the person asking is worrying needlessly,” she huffed.

He raised an eyebrow. “Your reaction is exactly the reason I do not wish you to go to court. You are far too independent and headstrong.” His mouth settled into a thin line of determination. “In fact, I am going to speak with your parents again right this minute.”

Lydia gasped. “You cannot! I have already made up my mind to go and I will not have you impeding me.” The devil in her quickly came to the fore and with a lightning-fast move, she reached up on tiptoe and promptly cut the feather off his hat. She watched with satisfaction as it floated down between them.

“You little madam!” Lord Danbye exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with anger. “I should spank you for that!”

Lydia’s pretty mouth dropped open at his statement, her eyes wide. “You would never dare.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“No, it most certainly is not.” Lydia took a step backwards, realising that he was deadly serious. Her stomach roiled nervously. His expression was stern and Lydia realised she may have just made a critical error. She took another step back, her heart beginning to race. “It is only a feather. I merely played a little prank on you and I believe you are overreacting.”

He folded his arms across his broad chest and looked at her astutely. “You see, this is the very reason I worry about you going to court. Your impudent nature will undoubtedly land you in trouble.”

“Fie, not everyone will be as tiresome as you,” she said rudely, glaring at him.

“You will apologise.”

“No, I shall not!”

They stared at each other for a long moment, neither moving until Lord Danbye reached out to take her arm. It was Lydia’s cue to skedaddle.

Dropping her basket and the offending scissors, she lifted up her skirts and ran for all she was worth. She could feel her heart hammering in her chest and her breathing become laboured as she tried to outrun him. But Lord Danbye was much quicker and she soon found herself captured. She struggled and kicked out, but his massive arms had her well and truly immobilised.

“Let me go! Let me go!” she shrieked, angry at having so easily been overpowered.

“No, my bad-tempered vixen. You are in need of a sound spanking and I intend to make sure you receive one,” he said sternly.

“Unhand me!” she squealed, doing her utmost to break free of his vise-like grip.

Lord Danbye ignored her and she soon found herself upended over his knee, her bottom high up in the air. “This is undignified. You cannot treat me like this!” she objected through gritted teeth.

“You should have thought about that before acting like a child.”

“‘Tis not my fault if you cannot take a… oh!

She gasped when she felt a rush of cold air on her buttocks, realising he had just exposed her bottom by throwing her skirts over her back.

“What are you doing? Aooow!

She shrieked when his hand made contact with her bottom, leaving a painful sting. Before she had time to recover, it fell again, and again. She felt her body jolt forward with each spank and cried out indignantly, “Stop! It hurts! Stop, I say!

He continued, despite her shrieks of outrage. It would seem he was hellbent on giving her a sound punishment regardless of anything she had to say. Her slim legs kicked uselessly into the air, her hands scrabbling around in front of her, trying to pull herself away from his punishing hand.

“You need a lesson in manners, Miss Robins. You seem to be under the illusion that there are no consequences for your naughty behaviour. I hope you will act with more decorum when you are at court.”

Her bottom was on fire and each smack of his large, iron-like hand made her writhe in pain. There seemed to be no escape from the torturous onslaught. “You are mean, my lord. Please… stop!

With a final swat to each buttock, he finally ceased, letting his hand lie still on her tender, heated flesh. She went to rise, but he kept her firmly pinned down.  “An apology if you will?” he demanded, his deep voice filling the air.

Lydia huffed under her breath but had a feeling that if she failed to repent, then she would get more of the same. Reluctantly, she gave in. “I am sorry.”

Finally, he allowed her to rise, which she did swiftly, hopping from foot to foot in front of him, whilst rubbing furiously at the backside. Her cheeks felt hot with embarrassment. God’s bones—he had just seen her naked bottom! She let her skirts fall down into place and looked at him petulantly, her bottom lip thrust out in indignation.

Lord Danbye pointed his finger at her. “I hope you will learn from this. It is not how a lady behaves, do you understand?” he chided her.

She nodded sullenly.

“Now, I suggest you go inside and think upon your behaviour. When you attend court, I shall come to see you, to make sure all is well. Until then, my mischievous Miss Robins, I bid you adieu.” He turned on his heel and made to leave.

“You are not going to dissuade my parents?” she asked him hesitantly.

He stopped mid-stride and looked at her over his shoulder. “Nay, Miss Robins. On reflection, I believe you have made up your mind to go, so I will not stop you. I simply take solace in the knowledge that I will be there to watch over you and keep you safe.” He looked at her meaningfully before turning around and taking his leave.

Lydia watched him walk away, her bottom still smarting from his firm hand. He might warn her of the unscrupulous people at court, but the one she would have to truly watch out for was him. And it seemed he would be watching her very closely indeed.

Her mouth made a little moue and she placed a hand over her bottom protectively, wondering what she was truly letting herself in for.

Buy on Amazon Barnes & Noble Kobo Google Books

The Marquess’s Adventurous Miss

Brayton Manor, Cumbria, July 1810

Richard Cavendish, Marquess of Heatherbrook, sat in his family home in his father’s one-time study, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities. He wasn’t sure it was acceptable for a marquess to be overwhelmed. But there was no getting away from it, he was. Papers cluttered his desk, whilst before him stood his slight, balding, and rather harried-looking lawyer, Mr. Forshaw. The man was reciting a long list of Richard’s duties.

Just six months ago, none of these things had been a worry for Richard. He had been able to sail through polite society, playing the part of the feckless, but rather charming, younger brother of the Marquess of Heatherbrook. It had been a good life, filled with ton parties, balls, races, either on horses or by boat, with far too many hours idled away with his dear friends, the Oxford Set as they had been christened. It hadn’t been chosen, more of a nickname that had stuck to the lot of them, the Marquess of Heatherbrook, Duke of Woolwich, Lord Lynde, Mr. Trawler, Viscount Silverton, and Baronet Verne, as well as Richard himself. Of course, they had enjoyed the notoriety that came with their arrival into the ton. Each of them was good looking, from well-connected families, and never long out of each other’s company. They had gone to the races, the palace balls, to Almack’s, too, but no more than once a month. On occasion, they had been mentioned in the scandal sheets or in the betting book at White’s. In short, they had set London ablaze.

Richard had been a late addition to the Set, allowed in because of his older brother, but he nevertheless felt a great affinity with them. It had been a great deal of fun, “a lark,” like life had been paused so that Richard could enjoy himself. But all that had changed with the death of his brother, the Marquess of Heatherbrook. Dear, dear George. Then all the responsibility had fallen to Richard.

“My lord?” Mr. Forshaw spoke with more volume, drawing Richard’s attention back to the study. Mr. Forshaw stretched out his gloved hand and passed yet another sheet to Richard.

“And this is?” Richard asked. He had only had six months to adjust to being the marquess. To being Heatherbrook. George had had his whole life to prepare, had been raised to assume the title. Richard had not. There had been some talk of the law, or possibly setting up business with one of the other members of the Set. But Richard had fallen into the habit of putting it off. Looking back at his earlier self, Richard felt a curl of disgust at his own laziness.

Duty bound, he followed the lawyer’s instructions and dropped his head to start looking through the new pages. The numbers and letters pooled this way and that, but Richard knew the estate needed to economise. The important thing now was protecting the Heatherbrook name and his numerous tenants.

“The Mayfair house. It’s costing more than £800 a year, with everything included,” Mr. Forshaw said. “I thought that might be unnecessary if you were to stay up here…”

Perhaps, Richard thought as he flicked through the pages, wondering how anyone sane ever tolerated a Season. Perhaps, he would have been able to manage this new role had he not been robbed of his family. George was all he had had left. His father and mother were gone. In this whole world, there remained only his grandmother whom he loved. Still, he told himself, self-pity wouldn’t help. He had been an idle man, and there were people who depended on him to be more than that. He needed to rise to the occasion; it was expected of him. He could at least make his family proud. Going forward, that would be his aim.

“Close the place down, except for a skeleton staff. I will discuss with the dowager if she would like to visit in the next year.”

“Very good, my lord,” Mr. Forshaw said with great primness. He was at least twice Richard’s twenty-four years. Richard had known the man since infancy and was grateful for his many years of loyal service, since he had worked for both of the last marquesses.

Getting to his feet, Richard moved across to a nearby dresser, sliding open one of the drawers. “I should have said earlier, but I wanted you to have this. It belonged to my brother. He valued you, as did my father.” He handed Mr. Forshaw a bible, which had belonged to George and had a handwritten inscription in it.

Mr. Forshaw’s pale eyes bulged in surprise, and he swallowed audibly. Richard turned away and looked to the mirror, giving Mr. Forshaw time to compose himself. Intense expressions of grief made Richard sure he, too, would break down. He glanced at his own appearance, one which had once been a matter of immense pride and a lot of time and care. Previously, he had spent hours every day with his valet, perfecting his look. The break from the city had brought a collection of youthful freckles over his nose and left his dark, curled hair too long, but otherwise he remained the same, a quirk to his lips, green-brown eyes, and the same haughty look he had learnt, despite how its everyday use gained him nothing.

Turning, Richard found Mr. Forshaw standing close by. “It might not be my place to say it, but I think both of the late Heatherbrooks would have been proud of what you’re doing. I believe you are setting their plans in motion.”

“I never wanted it,” Richard said. He needed Mr. Forshaw to know that. The older man nodded, wet his lips, and opened his mouth to speak but was stopped when there was a loud shriek of sound that retched through the halls of Brayton.

“Are the French coming—” Mr. Forshaw’s sentence was cut off when the door of the study flung open.

On instinct. Richard went for the pistol but stopped short at the sight of the man in the doorway. It was Woolwich. He had always been the tallest of the Set, but today, he seemed to have grown even larger. His blue eyes were icy, and he resembled more of a marauder from centuries back than a dignified duke. Richard gazed back at the man, his brother’s closest companion, his supposed friend, and from Woolwich’s face, Richard knew. Knew with absolute certainty that his shameful secret had been discovered. Richard looked away in embarrassment.

“God, you dog,” Woolwich grunted and started across the study.

“Sir!” Mr. Forshaw was in his way and had not got out a word before he was shoved aside and thrown unceremoniously to the floor.

“Really,” Richard began to say; it was fair that Woolwich try to take him apart, but it wasn’t permissible for Forshaw to be attacked. No one else should suffer for his mistake.

Woolwich strode forward, his face livid, looking fully capable of murder. It wasn’t normal for him to be like this; he was, or had always been, a good, generous man. A touch cynical but nevertheless thoughtful, kind… it was gone.

Behind him, the door was pushed wider, and Richard saw his grandmother and Silverton, Verne, and Lynde, enter the study. Before he saw anyone else, Woolwich slammed his fist in Richard’s jaw. The sheer force of it knocked Richard back, but he managed to stay on his feet. He looked away from the door, back to the furious man before him. His grandmother shrieked, and one of the Set held her back.

“You know why I’m here, don’t you?” Woolwich asked, his voice low.

It only took the raising of Richard’s eyes up to Woolwich’s for the duke to make a furious noise at the back of his throat and raise his fist again. This time Richard didn’t try to stay up. He let his body relax, and the hit sent him to the floor. Woolwich was here for blood; he may as well let the man have it. Sprawled down on the carpet, Richard reflected that he deserved this. His mouth filled with the taste of iron.

“Get up,” Woolwich said, and with great reluctance, Richard rolled onto his side to view the rest of the inhabitants of his study. It would have been bad enough if it had just been them, but it was all the Set. His friends, whose eyes were on him. Which meant Woolwich must have told them what Richard had done.

“Woolwich,” Verne’s voice was calm and measured, his slight French accent peeking out, “If you kill him, it will cause a scandal. Aren’t we here to ensure that doesn’t happen?”

“If this is a matter of honour, have a duel,” Richard’s grandmother said. She looked almost as angry as Woolwich. The dowager had pulled herself out of Lynde’s hold and moved over to help Forshaw up. Her grey hair was piled high on her head, and it wobbled as she moved, her cap at a rakish angle. Richard could not resist the idea that she would probably have to serve as his second, as no one else in the room would. He forced himself to his knees.

“This…” Woolwich’s eyes travelled back to Richard. “This cur has no honour.”

“I would like to know. I am entitled to know what you accuse my grandson of.”

Richard braced himself for the revelation. Woolwich would say Richard was a seducer, a damned blaggard, for taking advantage of the angel-like, beautiful Annabelle, Duchess of Woolwich. He would be named and shamed; that was inevitable. How Woolwich had discovered their brief affair, or terrible mistake, as Richard thought of it, he had no idea. Annabelle’s flowery romantic letters had been hidden away, stuffed into a drawer in his desk. Had she been fool enough to send another one that had been intercepted?

“He tricked my wife to bed.”

Richard, who had gotten to his feet in order to best face the embarrassment, turned in bewilderment to Woolwich. “That isn’t true,” he said, his voice hoarse. The accusation was even worse than he could have imagined. The humiliation more acute. But even to his own ears, he sounded childish.

He turned to his grandmother and grasped her hands. “I swear to you.”

She nodded, although she was very pale. Richard looked past his grandmother, to his assorted friends who were watching the proceedings. None of them would meet his eye. It was a solid confirmation he had only ever belonged to the Set as an obligation to George, and now they cut him.

“Are you going to claim it was love?” Woolwich asked, scorn dripping off every word. He looked like he wanted to murder Richard and barely kept himself in check.

In his mind’s eye, Richard saw himself go to the cabinet and withdraw Annabelle’s letters. There were five in total, sent to him after their one fateful night together. Why he’d kept them, he couldn’t even say. It wasn’t supposed to be a way of holding something over Annabelle’s head. More that he wanted to hold on to a reminder of the mistake. He could use them now to excuse himself, but then he would be throwing Annabelle into the path of Woolwich’s fury. She would be ostracised if he did that.

“It was a mistake—right after George’s death,” Richard said. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him. Part of him wished the rest of them would leave, let him confess to how drunk he’d been, how vulnerable, without everyone judging him. “I can only apologise for the grave error on my part.”

Able to read his desperation, the dowager strode away from the recovering Mr. Forshaw and opened the study doors that looked over the stone steps and led down into the peaceful gardens to the rear of Brayton. The cool summer air rushed in, and the dowager grabbed the two of the men nearest to her, Silverton, and Trawler. “Out,” she said. “This is a serious accusation between His Grace and my grandson. I don’t see why this involves the rest of you.” Her tone was firm, fully that of a dowager marchioness. The Set followed her out, with only Lynde lingering behind.

Lynde shot Richard a strained look of hurt disbelief. Nicholas Lynde was Richard’s dearest friend amongst the Set. His clear-sighted and azure eyes were filled with disappointment. With a betrayed sigh, Lynde shook his head at Richard. He followed the rest of the Set out.

Woolwich had likewise watched the others leave. He sank into one of the armchairs close to the desk. He was still angry, but Richard could also see there was something else there too, an element of smug satisfaction. This had been part of his plan. Humiliate me, cut me off from the Set. It is what I deserve, Richard thought.

Letting out a sigh, Richard looked back at Woolwich. “Do you want to call me out?”

“I want no one beyond the Set to know of this.” Woolwich leant forward in his seat, fixing Richard with his cold, hypnotic eyes. “I wish to avoid a scandal.”

“I cannot go abroad.”

In response to this, Woolwich smirked. “The idea of you, a useless wastrel, taking on George’s mantel—” He cut himself off. “Enough. I tell you; you will stay away from London. You will never speak to my wife again.”

“Are you going to divorce her?” The scandalous note that this added to the room made the guilt in his stomach writhe.

“Would you like that? So you could wed her?”

It would be the honourable thing to do in a terrible situation, Richard knew that. He knew, too, that whilst he cared for Annabelle, he was never going to fall in love with her. “If that is what you need me to do.”

“No.” Woolwich was on his feet. Once more, there was a furious glint behind his eyes. “You don’t get to come in and destroy a marriage. She is to go into the countryside and remain secluded.”

“If Annabelle—”

“Don’t you dare use her name.”

“I never tricked her.”

The duke made a small tutting noise, and Richard leapt on it. “You know I didn’t. You know she’s in love with me.”

A shadow passed over Woolwich’s face. “It is my word against yours, the untried, unprepared son, nothing more than a wastrel. All the Set knows the story I have told them. If you try anything, you will be ruined by those in the aristocracy, those in trade, and those in the military. Don’t our friends fill some important roles?” His joke was bitter, and Richard had no reply. Woolwich was right, the Set members had found powerful roles. They had influence and were prepared to blacken his name should Richard do anything to reveal the truth.

“Annabelle was given a choice,” Woolwich continued. “A man who didn’t want her or to stay with a duke whom she had fought so hard to win.”

“You lied to them,” Richard said, indicating the Set with a nod of his head towards the gardens, “so that you would not be labelled a cuckold.”

“Do not think there was any advantage in this for me. I did this to protect my wife and her reputation.”

“And in doing so, you get your revenge. You get to destroy me.”

“You cannot…” The gleam vanished, and Woolwich smirked. He almost seemed to be enjoying the confrontation. “Come now, you must know how I discovered it.”

Richard’s brain had slowed down, so that everything he thought seemed to be laden down with treacle, until it finally clicked. “She is with child.”

“It cannot be mine,” Woolwich said.

His slow-moving mind whizzed forward, alive with the ideas, calculating it all and realising what had happened. Annabelle and he were together only one night. In January. The night George had died. A drunken night which he thought had been consigned to the past. Woolwich had been in Paris, unable to make it back, not even for George’s funeral. It had been many weeks before the duke had returned to England. “You must divorce her, and I will wed her.”

“That is not for you to demand. She will deliver the child.” Here, the harsh, strict elements that Richard had suspected but never witnessed, poked out from beneath the duke’s façade. “And you will forever wonder where your child is. Where I might have placed it and with whom. That will be your punishment. Shall I send your son off to some gambling hell? Your daughter to a brothel? What I have done with the baby… that can be the only fit punishment for you. It will not bear my name.”

He had moved closer to Richard, and when he was finished, he spat in Richard’s face before turning and leaving the study to stand outside in the fresh, cool air amongst decent men. His words burrowed into Richard’s skull, chiming, and hurting with the implications.

“Richard?” His grandmother was moving through the study, her hand raised, and for a moment, he thought she would stroke his cheek. Instead, she slapped him. “What were you thinking?”

“I never forced myself on or misled Annabelle. She’s… she’s with child.”

“Blast it,” the dowager muttered. Her sharp eyes went round the room before she marched back to the study door. “Mr. Forshaw, a moment please.” Sliding back into the room, the lawyer was looking worse for wear. “I trust you to keep silent on today’s proceedings.”

The lawyer nodded; his face was still pink from where he’d hit his head.

“Woolwich said there will be a child,” the dowager repeated.

He had ruined it all, even the poor child’s life.

“He said he’d take it to a brothel,” Richard replied, his stomach churning.

“Can we claim the child?” the dowager asked. “Better than letting the mite be shipped to god knows where.”

The study looked wrong, with its elegantly kept books, polished oak furniture, Chinese carpets, and paintings by Kneller and Reynolds. The room had housed his father, and here was Richard, further spoiling his family’s reputation. Distantly, he could hear the Set leaving, their voices raised, and headed towards the stables. They had arrived to see his humiliation; they had believed Woolwich. A flare of anger ignited in his stomach. Did they know what was intended for his baby?

“It is not my area of expertise,” Mr. Forshaw said, “but if the child is christened, and no one claims to be its parents… If the duke does not let it be christened with his name, then…” Mr. Forshaw flushed. “It would be named a foundling, rather like an orphan. Provided you could locate the babe, there would be no reason why you could not raise the child as your ward.”

“At least I would be able to rectify that,” Richard said. It was only an idea, a glimmer of hope, his unborn child, a silver lining in such a wasted life. It is my chance, no, it is my only chance at salvation.

* * *

London, April 1814

Richard was on a mission. His tight-lipped expression aged him past his twenty-eight years, adding gravity to his features and grit to his expression. He was returning to London in a high-speed chaise, at the request of his recently hired Bow Street runner, Mr. Clifton. The runner’s note assured Richard that there was finally news of his child. Clifton had some promising new leads that needed to be heard in person. In truth, over the last few years, Richard had heard so many different tales that he had almost lost hope. Since that fateful day, that dark day as he thought of it, there were only the Heatherbrook estates and the quest for the child. In a way, he told himself without much humour, the desire to locate the baby had replaced, or become a welcomed distraction from, the loss of his dear brother. An urgent, overwhelming desire to find the child at any cost.

Tightening his fists, Richard wished the carriage would go faster. He disliked returning to London, but needs must. Most of his business was contracted through Forshaw and his associates, but Clifton promised that the lead was genuine.

The child. His child was a girl. Hidden deep in his waistcoat pocket, was a sketch of the child, the mirror image of her mother. Years back, his hirelings had combed through foundling hospitals, but without much hope. Richard had had the recurring dream that Woolwich had thrown the child into the Thames.

“Drive on,” Richard muttered as he fidgeted in his squab. He could have sworn he would have been able to drive the blasted thing faster. They must be nearing Oxford by now. They had stopped only to change the horses, the drive down lasting hours. It was getting dark, the cloudless sky blackening. I will be there soon, Richard promised. If I am lucky, I could see my child within days.

Leaning into the cushions of the chaise, Richard allowed himself to relax. His obsession over the girl’s safety had kept him going, had kept him sane almost to the exclusion of all else. With his eyes closed, he pictured a scene where they were all together, picnicking on the grounds, teaching her to read perhaps. Lord, he would need to get her a tutor. Richard was lulled into an uneasy sleep. When he opened his eyes, the chaise was slowing outside his London home. The Mayfair house was a handsome one, with a fine white façade, neat railings, and large windows, which would have seemed inviting. It had been closed for numerous months, with only two elderly servants to keep an eye on things, so now the place looked almost gloomy.

Stepping down from the chaise, Richard reviewed the London street. He had arrived in the late afternoon, almost evening. Were anyone beyond the servants working, he might have been noticed, but he hoped he could slip unnoticed into his home and await Mr. Clifton.

“My lord.” It was the reedy voice of Mr. Wilson, the family butler. Unbidden, a smile formed on Richard’s face. It was a sweet, familiar reminder of the past.

“Good to see you, Wilson.” Striding up the steps, Richard made it inside the hallway and resisted the urge to question Wilson. The old man needed to proceed back inside.

“There is…” Wilson’s voice trailed off, and he gestured over towards the main parlour, “a gentleman waiting for you.”

Frowning, Richard moved forward. Woolwich would not be depraved enough to have had him followed. Swinging the parlour door open, Richard was surprised to see Verne sitting by the empty grate, a book of poetry resting on his knee and a reflective expression on his face.

“His Lordship will not be staying,” Richard snapped. If Verne thought Richard could be chased out of London, then he had another thing coming.

“I hate to contradict you,” Verne said. “But I do think you will wish to hear what I have to say. It concerns your Mr. Clifton. And the child.”

“Please see that my bags are sent up.” Richard closed the door and turned back to his guest. He had never been close to Verne per se. There was something almost too relaxed about the man; he gave the impression that he was easing one into a stupor before striking. But his reputation for intelligence, and his ability in the ring, preceded him. Making his way forward, Richard chose the chair farthest from Verne and sank into it, before waving his hand. “You may proceed.”

Drawing out a small snuff box, Verne took a sniff, stretched, and then began in a light manner. “I hope my reputation precedes me.”

“To what do you refer?”

This caused Verne to smile. He gave a Gallic shrug. “In that case, I shall simply say that I am said to be a good judge of character.”

“If you say so.”

Verne did not immediately voice a reply to the comment, but he did glance away from Richard. “I have never been one who has come under the sway of the stunning Lady Annabelle Bradley, as was. Our dear Duchess of Woolwich, as is.”

“While the rest of us followed at her heels, you mean?”

“Quite.” Verne smiled. He had an unnerving way of forming a grin which did not reach his eyes. “This luck, shall we say, meant that I never bought Woolwich’s accusation against you.”

Richard could recall the dark day still and did remember Verne calling out, reminding Woolwich… well, he had stopped the man from killing him.

“Not enough to do anything about it,” Richard bit out. The resentment he felt, the rejection and bitterness, had consumed him; how easily they had gone along with Woolwich’s say. “Was it because he’s a duke? You didn’t want to offend someone so powerful?”

For the first time, a flash of emotion—was it anger or something else—passed over Verne’s dark features. But then it vanished, smoothed away, and he resumed his easy, calm look.

“Don’t you know that guilt can work in unusual ways?” Verne asked. “It has worked its wiles on me.” When Richard made no reply, Verne continued, “I noticed that you had your own reasons for keeping quiet too.”

The night I spent with Annabelle was a mistake. She had already suffered enough. What was I supposed to say that would ever remedy it? Stuffing such delicate thoughts away, Richard stiffened his resolve. Just because he had been chased out of society, didn’t mean he couldn’t rescue his child.

“I prefer to work on evidence. And my knowledge of people’s characters. They usually give me enough disappointing information to reveal themselves,” Verne continued. “It is the most effective way of operating.”

“What evidence did you find?” Richard asked. He could see the way Verne was going, and this could take all night. The man was impressed with himself.

“If I share this with you, I want your word on two things. The first, that there will be no reactionary gestures against the duke or the duchess. Two—”

“If I wanted to do that, I would have done so already.”

“Two,” Verne carried on as though he had not been interrupted, “I want you to release the services of the numerous Bow Street runners you had hired over the years. Their services could be put to better use than searching through foundling hospitals. It is at the request of the British government.”

“Why do you care about that?” Richard had made his way over to the nearest bookshelf and started through a leather-bound book. He wasn’t about to give up the good men he had hired unless Verne was going to give him something better in return. “The note I received mentioned that the child was a girl. That…” For some reason, Richard could not quite form the words. “There was drawing of her.”

“I did that. It’s not an exact likeness. I cannot say I am a gifted artist.”

Richard was across the room in a flash, pulling Verne out of the armchair and to his feet, his hands tightening around the other man’s neckcloth. “You know where she is. Give her to me.”

“I don’t,” Verne said with maddening calm, “have her with me. But I saw her, and I am prepared to tell you all that I know, provided you agree to my stipulations.”

“Yes, yes,” Richard snapped, releasing his hold on Verne. He was in a vile mood; the idea that the girl could be close by was eating him up. He could still recall Woolwich’s taunt about brothels. Some places specialised in children. He shuddered at the idea. “Get on with it.”

“I saw the girl. She is the tiny twin of Annabelle, unmistakably her daughter, in a small rural village in Sussex.”

“Her wellbeing?” It was not at all what Richard would have imagined. His fears were confounded, and he found himself listening in confusion.

“From what I could see, the child seemed well. Happy too.”

“What else?”

“I watched the pair of them, the child and who I assumed was…” Here, Verne paused. “Well, the child was accompanied by a very striking woman who was looking after her. I believe her to be Woolwich’s mistress.”

Here we go, Richard thought. He is punishing me by raising my daughter with his jade.

“You have their names?”

“Indeed. I heard the woman call the child Harriet. I made a few discreet inquiries around the village and discovered she is a foundling known as Harriet Milton. A foundling who lives with the Pendletons.”

It all sounded far too respectable. So unlike everything that Woolwich had threatened. Glancing up, Richard met Verne’s eyes. “If you are lying—”

“Then feel free to return to using the runners and resume paying Mr. Clifton his huge fees.”

“The name of the village?”

“Alfriston. Just five miles away from Lynde’s family estate.”

The idea that his old friend might have known Harriet’s whereabouts wriggled its way around his brain, painful and gnawing. But then Richard squished that emotion back down; what good would it do him to dwell on that? He now had the best opportunity he’d had in years. Her name, her location… Sussex, just a matter of a day’s travel away.

“Richard?” It was Verne who called him back to himself.

Not bothering to turn around, Richard paused; he had been bent over his desk scribbling these scant details down.

“I suppose Lynde knows already.”

“I thought it best and only fair for me to tell you first. But I will make a call on him tomorrow or the following day.”

“Give me the whole of tomorrow. You owe me that.” He locked eyes with Verne. “What did she do that convinced you?”

This earned him an amused look from Verne. “I thought the rest of us could burn in hell?”

With a careless shrug, Richard drummed his fingers on the wooden surface. It had been years, so why did they still have the power to hurt him? It was the lie; they were liars, holding him captive in such a way.

“She asked after you. Annabelle.” Verne spoke into the silence. “It was a small question directed to me, just a passing remark, but when pressed, well, she confirmed my doubts.”

“How good of you.” A flare of bitterness had returned to his tone that Richard could not control.

The expression on Verne’s face was neutral, that of a gentleman. “This means you won’t have contact with Woolwich or Her Grace? No matter who Harriet has been raised with. I don’t suppose either of them will wish to, Her Grace is in a delicate condition, and I thought—”

There was a break in Verne’s speech, and Richard could imagine the rest. Verne believed that Woolwich, distracted with Annabelle’s new pregnancy, would let the previous child go. How innocent Verne was in the true maliciousness that Woolwich had left Richard in.

Swallowing down any surprise at the news of Woolwich’s impending fatherhood, Richard said, “Tell Lynde whatever you like when you run off to tattle to him. And I don’t give a damn about the others. It’s all for Harriet.” He did not look back to Verne and waited for the man to leave the room, so when he repeated it to himself it was more of a benediction. “I don’t give a damn about anyone else.”

 

 

Buy on Amazon Barnes & Noble iBooks Kobo Google Books

More Than All Right

His knock, like his tone, was soft but firm. “Are you all right?”

Damn his voice! Even now, through the bathroom door, it caused a shiver to run up her spine—not that it did anything to in any way dampen her out of control sobs, though. In fact, it was probably the opposite.

“Kim?”

She’d turned every possible source of water on, of course, as soon as she’d skittered in there, hoping to drown out the pitiful sounds of her weeping.

It flew through his head that maybe he should remind her that they were in a drought, but then he realized that that probably wouldn’t go over well. Not everyone got his quirky sense of humor, his family was fond of reminding him. “Kim? Are you okay?”

Nothing.

He leaned his shoulder against the door frame. “You don’t know this about me, but I have pretty good hearing. I know you’re crying.”

Pressing her hand even harder over her mouth, she succeeded in stemming the tide for all of about two seconds before it broke again on an even louder sob. But she was still socially conscious, and since he’d told her that she wasn’t fooling him in the least by wasting all of that water, her conscience took over and she turned everything off, which only seemed to make things worse. There was nothing quite like the jarring echoes of your own selfish, self-indulgent blubbering to make you hate yourself—and question your own sanity—even more than you already did.

Braun’s words were quiet and surprisingly soothing to her. “Thank you for turning off the water.” He paused, then continued, “You don’t know this, either, but I tend to be a bit stubborn, and I’m not going to go anywhere until I can see you and at least make certain that you’re all right.”

Of course, he wasn’t. Why she couldn’t have chosen to sleep with a guy who would have been up and out at the first sign of her waterworks, she’d never know. Well, that was a lie. She knew.

Kim had spent her lifetime avoiding exactly that type of asshole, with varying results, but as she’d grown older, she’d gotten better at spotting them—and thus managing not to become involved with them in any way—mostly.

But here she was, essentially trapped in a hotel bathroom, weeping like a child, while a fecking gorgeous man—who was terrifyingly close to what she might have rhapsodized about if someone had asked her what her ideal man was, at least as far as looks, intelligence and compatibility in bed—stood outside, apparently only too happy to remain there until she acquiesced and came out.

Until she, essentially, submitted to him—again—she rephrased her own thought, causing herself to begin to tremble all over at the surprisingly deep connection they’d made along those lines last night, after such a short acquaintance, which was one of the reasons she was now residing where she did.

Kim wondered briefly whether she could outwait him, but jettisoned the thought immediately, based on the impressions she’d gotten of him last night—and this morning.

No, he’d said he wasn’t going to leave until he was certain she was all right, and she didn’t doubt a word of it. She already recognized in him the sometimes annoying but almost always honorable trait where he said what he did and did what he said. It was very much as if she already knew him really well, as if she’d known him all her life. That had been her impression of him from the moment she’d met him, and nothing he’d done or said the entire time they’d been together had disabused her of that somewhat fanciful notion.

“It’s perfectly safe to come out, you know,” he not quite cajoled, as she could hear him—or was it just her imagination—lowering himself to the floor. But then his voice began to originate from somewhere much lower than if he’d been standing, and she realized that she was right. He’d sat down—unselfconsciously buck naked, too, she’d bet—as if he was making himself comfortable to one side of the bathroom door, in it for the long haul. “I’m not someone who’s going to be angry at you or berate you for crying, whether it’s after an orgasm or because you’re just sad for no particular reason. And if I hurt you, it was entirely unintentional, and I heartily apologize for it. I’ll take myself to task for that, believe me, but I won’t lay it at your door.” She heard him chuckle softly at his own joke. “Really, I just want to hold you while you cry on my shoulder—no pressure, no expectations beyond that.”

Damn. Either he’d memorized the exact things most women wanted to hear in this type of situation, or someone had raised this man right. His mother and three sisters deserved the credit, she would guess. He’d talked about them frequently last night—although not overly so—and there was no mistaking the pure love and pride in his voice when he did so.

It must be wonderful to have someone out there in the world, unabashedly singing your praises, even to someone they barely know. That wasn’t something she’d ever likely experience in this lifetime, Kim thought wistfully, her eyes filling with tears again when she thought she’d successfully beaten them back.

Then she forced her head up, confronting the red, swollen eyes in the mirror, assiduously avoiding looking anywhere else. What was it with hotel bathrooms having mirrors the size of New Jersey? She was naked—she didn’t want to see herself like this! The usual ugly results of crying were bad enough, but to have to see her startlingly white, fat, misshapen body, too, was nearly enough to set her off again.

Kim’s eyes remained resolutely on her own—although the rest of her was definitely hard to miss—as she finally found the will to do what she had become quite expert at doing; she stuffed down that highly inappropriate response her body often insisted on when she came to pleasure, picturing herself strangling them and literally stomping up and down on them until they were rightfully contained in the far reaches of her soul. She’d take them out and look at them when she felt particularly low, torturing herself with them, and adding them on top of what was already a considerable pile of shameful memories.

Although she’d never know how she was going to face him after having had one of the hardest climaxes she’d ever experienced because of his singular efforts, and then racing to the bathroom as if he’d beaten her senseless, with him obviously startled and concerned that she’d wiggled out from under where his mouth had taken intimate possession—and control—of her.

“What’s wrong?” As she replayed the scene from a few minutes ago in her head, she could hear the genuine surprise in his voice, even though she’d been intent on getting into the bathroom and locking the door behind her before he decided to follow her or even stop her from getting there.

This man was definitely the type who would do either of those things, as evidenced by the fact of where he was sitting at the moment.

Luckily, she had the element of surprise on her side, but she didn’t make it there before she could hear him rolling out of bed, the next questions out of his mouth being, “Did I hurt you?” and “Are you okay?”

She’d had to concentrate hard to make her one word answer loud enough for him to hear before she closed and locked the door. “No.”

Kim hadn’t bothered to address his “Are you okay?” or his “What’s wrong?” inquiry, that she knew had ended before he’d gotten to the “with you?” part of it. Frankly, the answer to either of those questions was much too long to get into with a one-night stand.

Now, having wrestled her wayward emotions back under some semblance of control, she looked around the room and dearly wished that she’d grabbed one of the robes the hotel provided—not that it would fit her, of course. But she would have liked not to have to confront him while completely naked, preferably, and she wouldn’t have attempted to tie the sash. It would just be some kind of armor against this man, who managed to make her feel much more vulnerable with just a look than she’d allowed herself to feel in a long time.

Turning to face the door—grateful not to have to stare at herself any longer, but literally shaking at the idea of having to see him again—she nonetheless straightened her shoulders, drew a deep breath, and opened the door.

As soon as she stepped out of the bathroom, he rose with the grace of a much smaller man and began to follow her to where she was busily collecting her clothes from where they’d landed when he’d either ripped them off her—as in the case of her now tattered panties—or slowly removed them from her highly sensitized body, like the little black dress he’d taken his sweet time unzipping, while depositing butterfly kisses to each newly revealed inch of flesh he’d uncovered.

She didn’t even think he’d noticed that she’d flinched slightly each time he’d done that. She wasn’t used to anyone taking so much time with her, and certainly not kissing her delicately all over, as he had, as if he was cherishing every bit of her that he could get, even the ugliest parts.

Her assumption that it was just a fanciful thought had been proven wrong, time and again, throughout their night together, culminating—for about the twenty-fifth time—a mere few minutes ago. Her body was still throbbing from the power of the climax he’d brought her to, contracting randomly but not that strongly, enough, though, to make her mind take notice every time it happened.

It felt like hours ago to her, though, her deep shame at her reaction to what should have been a wonderful gift he’d given her, not to mention what she looked like now—in the harsh glare of the artificial lights in the hotel room—making her feel just that much worse than she would have if she’d just been able to orgasm like a normal woman and move on from there.

All she wanted to do was gather up her stuff, get dressed as quickly and efficiently as possible, preferably without looking at him or starting to cry again, and get herself home—alone—where she intended to finish the breakdown she’d begun in the bathroom. She was going to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake, then some leftover chicken casserole she’d made a couple days ago, watch Letterkenny on a loop, and wallow in her shame and embarrassment for at least the rest of the day, if not longer.

But, of course, she wasn’t anywhere near lucky enough for that to happen.

As soon as Braun saw that she was collecting her clothes, he began to do the same thing, but when she stood, with the majority of what she needed in her hands, he gently relieved her of them, adding them to his own pile and putting them on that little, uncomfortable chair every hotel room sported, for no particular reason. It wasn’t as if anyone actually sat in it.

Kim was surprised enough that she hadn’t put up any kind of fight over her clothing, although she regretted not having done so immediately, of course, especially when he chose to stand entirely too close to her. She refused to look up at him, but she could feel him looking down at her.

His incredibly cut chest would have filled her field of vision, but she preferred to resolutely gaze at her pink-nailed toes.

Then he took that last step towards her, the one that made it so that they were almost touching, and she could see his enormous feet bracketing hers. His warmth—no, more than that, his presence, and this man had more of one than she’d ever encountered before—surrounded her, and she immediately felt comforted and soothed, whether she wanted to or not.

His, “Kim,” was said in one of the gentlest, softest ways she’d ever heard it. “Look at me.”

And her, “No,” was one of the wimpiest things that had ever come out of her mouth. She’d wanted it to sound strong and self-assured, but it came out like she least wanted it to—like a whimper or a plea—as if she was still stuck in the submission he’d effortless brought to the forefront last night and used to both of their advantages, proving every single time he touched her that he knew exactly what it meant to her.

At least, that’s what she’d allowed herself to think in the hot, wet, tangle they’d formed in the darkness, anyway. Kim was quite sure that she’d made more of it than there really was, preferring to believe what she wanted to of him, rather than dealing with what he was probably really like, which, in her experience, would be a letdown of epic proportions.

“I’m not going to ask again, honey,” he intoned in much the same manner, with quietly assumed authority, rather than the glaring insecurity of a louder, courser demand.

Kim bit her lip. If there was one thing she’d learned about him from the past twelve hours or so, it was that she did not want to be spanked by this man for real. She would be willing to bet that her backside still bore the evidence of where his hand had landed multiple times, but that had been in the way of a surprisingly expert method of arousing her.

Upon correctly intuiting—from her bright red face and the fact that she refused to answer his question about whether or not spanking turned her on—that it most definitely did, he’d flipped her onto her tummy, without so much as breathing heavily or breaking a sweat, which was more than enough to impress her. She’d never been manhandled in a way that wasn’t unpleasant—and downright embarrassing—before, but nothing this man did to her, had done to her, had been anything but incredibly hot.

“Relax,” he’d rumbled, rubbing his hands all over her while she tried—unsuccessfully—to cringe away from his touch. “You can put yourself in my hands. Just be sure to let me know if anything I do isn’t to your liking—not doing so is definitely cause for a punishment spanking,” he’d added, and her entire body had stiffened, then done exactly as he’d told her to, relaxing into a puddle of naked desire.

He’d touched her everywhere first, ignoring her obvious discomfort as he did so, then left one hand cupping only the outside of her secrets while the other arranged her—legs spread obscenely around him as he sat between them—to his satisfaction before beginning to massage her backside with sure, certain hands.

Only when she’d relaxed for him again, did Braun bring his hand down on her bottom, quite gently at first, while the other stroked down the perimeter of her groove, from bottom to top, causing her to giggle nervously, then flush with embarrassment and wish she’d been struck dumb before meeting him.

With each slowly sharpening swat, his other fingers explored her carefully, but relentlessly, not stopping when she gasped as they parted her lips to become drenched in her honey, or when she groaned for the first time as those slick digits slipped over her clit in a maddeningly casual way.

By the time he brought her to a pleasure that most men had never managed to, or never even attempted to, achieve, his hand was cracking painfully down on her angry red cheeks every other second or so, as he dedicated himself to offsetting that discomfort with a mind-wiping ecstasy that had her convulsing and—to her great shame—humping his hand in order to glean every painfully pleasurable second from her climax that she could.

In her experience, that was all that she was going to get, and she hadn’t expected to get that, either. But she was dead wrong about him in regard to that. This man was not your average one-night stand—in every way it counted to her.

It was the equally sharp smack that he delivered when she didn’t obey him as she stood in front of him that caused her to snap her head up and look at him, while trying to dance away from him at the same time. But the hand that had laid yet another crimson imprint on her backside remained there, effectively holding her in place simply by possessing that intimate part of her.

“Braun, let me go.”

His head tilted a little as he gazed down at her. “When I’ve assured myself that you’re all right, I will let you go, but not before then.”

She reached back to dislodge his hand—a ridiculous move that she should have known better than to attempt, considering that she knew just how strong he was—resulted in him releasing her cheek but claiming her hand and holding it behind her back in such a way that she would have no use of it, but wasn’t being hurt in the least by his hold on her.

Her other hand rose, as if it was going to try to valiantly rescue its twin, but one flick of her eyes to his made her put it back down at her side.

“Smart girl,” he whispered, contracting his arm just slightly, bringing them just that much closer together.

There was no doubt that he was aroused—his imposing hard on was trapped between them. But he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to it. He was concentrated solely on her, not himself, which was another point in his favor, although the whole “holding her in place” thing was a contrasting ding against him, as far as she was concerned, ignoring how contrarily good it felt to her.

“Did I hurt you?” he asked again, brow furrowed deeply, as if he was greatly concerned with her answer.

“No, you didn’t,” she whispered to his clavicle. If she looked down, all she could see now was his weeping cock.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.” Her answer came out more impatiently than she’d intended.

“I’m glad. Are you feeling a bit better?”

Kim closed her eyes. “Yes,” she lied blithely, telling him what she thought he—being an average American dude—wanted to hear, which was, of course, the exact time her eyes decided to fill with tears again, and as soon as she opened them, one rolled down her cheek.

His, “Uh huh,” sounded decidedly skeptical.

Before she knew it, she found herself perched on his lap—atop his hard on—his arms easily wrapping around her and holding her there, her head on his shoulder, as if he was again offering it up for her to cry on.

“I meant what I said, you know. I’m not one of those guys who panics when a woman cries, and all I really want to do is to offer you a safe, comfortable place to do that.” He added with not a small amount of reluctance, “If you’d like to. You can talk to me about what happened, too,” again, adding, “if you’d like to.”

Although she was crying in earnest again, she shook her head. “No, I don’t want to do either of those things, but thank you for the offer.”

She half expected to be dumped onto the floor, having spurned his suggestions, but instead, he stared into her eyes while brushing her tears away with his thumb, still looking very troubled about her. But then he lifted her up and put her gently onto her feet in front of him.

“All right,” he said, reaching for his own clothes. “I hate to leave you alone like this when you’re still upset. I think my family would disown me if I did. Why don’t we get dressed and go get some breakfast? Then I’ll take you home.” He wanted to tell her she wasn’t going anywhere until he could see that she was feeling much better, but he knew he didn’t have the right to say that to her—yet. The only thing he could do was try to stay near her in case she needed him for some reason, even though he knew she wouldn’t, and even if she did, she wasn’t likely to tell him that.

Still, he felt much more than the need—the expectation—that he would be kind to her. She stirred something much deeper than that in him, something much more real, and much more rooted in himself—who he was and what he wanted from a woman—than any woman he’d ever met before, and he was loathe to let her go with silent tears still tracing down her cheeks.

Breakfast out was one of her favorite things. She rarely bothered to make anything elaborate for herself, unless she was on vacation and there were some truly excellent breakfast places around town.

But as much as she wanted to give him an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Kim decided against it. This man was just too perfect for her, and she knew that—even if just for an hour or so more—she didn’t want to give herself a chance to try to build this into more than what it was. Terrifyingly large parts of her mind were already doing that, just based on the short time they’d already spent together, and she wanted to put the kibosh to that as soon as possible, and she couldn’t do that with him so close.

“No, thank you. I’ll just grab an Uber.”

He’d stepped away from her with severe reluctance and dressed really quickly—she was still trying to get her zipper pulled up when he was already done, until he saw her struggling and did it for her.

“Well, if you don’t want breakfast, let me at least drive you home.” Braun watched her turn around, seeing that doubtful, hesitant expression on her face that let him know she was going to decline that, too.

So before she could get the words out of her mouth, he preempted her. “You know that Cara wouldn’t like it if I just left you here.”

His sister Cara! Fuck! She’d forgotten all about her!

Cara was one of her best friends, and she wouldn’t put it past her in the least to give him a hassle about not seeing her to her door. Cara was far from an old-fashioned woman, but she and her sisters and her mother had still managed to instill old-fashioned manners in their only brother and son.

She sighed ungraciously. “Oh, all right.”

“Thank you,” he said in an earnest but still slightly teasing tone as she blushed.

When they’d gathered their things, he made a last sweep of the room, then they headed to the desk together to check out.

“I’ll pay for it.” She grabbed for the bill when the clerk put it on the counter.

Braun didn’t bother to do that. He simply said to the woman, “Charge my card,” then turned to her. “Ready to go?”

Frustrated again at his high handedness and knowing she didn’t really have a right to be, Kim thanked him in a tone that let him know how she was feeling, then trudged along beside him to his beautiful new maroon Mustang convertible. When she was ensconced in the passenger’s seat, he took his place behind the wheel and before she knew it, they were parked outside her place.

He got out before she could tell him not to, opened the passenger’s side door, and escorted her to her house, taking her keys from her and unlocking her front door before returning them to her and stepping off her stoop to turn and look up at her.

“I had a very good time, Kim. I’d love for us to get together again. Are you free next Friday night?”

Of course, she was free. She was always free. She had no romantic life to speak of, and not much of one beyond that, either.

Still, she replied, “I had a good time, too, Braun. Thank you.” That was an understatement if there ever was one. Was it proper to thank someone who had given you more orgasms than you’d ever had before with a partner? “But I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Without another look or another word, she stepped into her house and closed—and locked—the door.

Braun stood there for a few beats, wondering why she wouldn’t want to see him if she’d had a good time—and he’d made damned sure that she’d had a very good time—then he made his way back to his car, wishing with every step he took away from her that she’d agreed to a second date, or invited him in, or done any one of a million things that would have extended their time together.

Everything in him wanted him to go back and try to convince her that she should see him again, but he was very cognizant of the complaints his sisters had about the men they dated when they did things like that—blithely assuming that they “belonged together” and forcing the issue when the woman they were with didn’t agree. It was right up there on the top of all of their lists of absolute no-nos.

So he got into his car alone, and drove home alone, then eventually, after he’d gone over everything that had happened on their date in excruciating detail to see if he could identify something that he’d done that she might not have liked, causing her to refuse another date, he masturbated alone, all while thinking of—and fantasizing about—her.

Buy on AmazonBarnes & Noble iBooks Kobo Google Books

Redeeming the Roughnecks

Rachel

 

Rachel Linton wiped an imaginary speck of dust off the skirt of her dress and sighed. What was she doing here, on this train, headed to an uncivilized place called Oklahoma? Her entire family had lost their minds. It had all started with her older sister, Sarah. She loved her sister, but honestly, who goes out west to marry a man she has never met? Mail order bride, indeed! Sarah could have had her pick of the wealthiest men in the east, but no, she didn’t want them. She had gotten on a train bound for nowhere, or so Oklahoma seemed to Rachel. She’d married the man she went there for, too. He was a rancher, of all things. Of course, Sarah would never have let her parents think she’d made the biggest mistake of her life. Her letters were always full of praise for her man, love of the place they owned, and talk of the friends she’d made there. Maybe it was true, but to Rachel, she could not imagine such a life making anyone happy. Sarah was different, though. She liked things simple. That was the difference between the two sisters. And when the love of Sarah’s life was killed in some sort of accident, one would have thought the girl would have been smart enough to take the next train east, to go home. But no, not Sarah. What did she do? Got herself hitched to another man out there. At least this one was from the east and was a proper businessman.

And that’s when their parents had made the horrifying decision to sell everything and move out there to be near Sarah and any grandchildren that might come along, taking Rachel with them. She’d been given no choice, really. Her father had laid down the law. Her life was ruined. She’d be damned if she’d succumb to the charms of one of those western heathens. She was not her sister. So, her plan was to cause so much trouble and aggravation that her parents would quickly send her back home to live with her aunt. She would go back to attending social events and would eventually marry one of the many men who wanted to court her, like any normal, civilized girl would do. Of course, she would have her fun first. No need to rush anything. Marriage could wait.

Rachel loved the social scene, the teas, the balls, dancing until midnight with every available young man and a few who weren’t. All that was gone now, thanks to big sister, Sarah.

She would have been agreeable to an extended holiday with her sister and her new family, but to live in that godforsaken place? What were her parents thinking? Who sells everything to pull up stakes and move across the country like that?

Well, she would soon be on a train bound right back to Pennsylvania. She would make sure of that.

To her mother, she said, “How many more days must we be subjected to this train?”

They were sitting in the private car that was theirs for the trip. It had two bedrooms and a small sitting room. Her mother was doing embroidery work, some sort of gift for Sarah, and Rachel was pretending to read.

Mrs. Linton looked up and smiled. “Now, dear, you know it will be several more days before we reach Sarah and Conrad. We must make the best of it and fill our time as best we can.”

Just then, Rachel’s father entered the car with two cups of tea. “I thought you girls might be ready for some refreshment,” he said as he set the cups down on the table.

“Did you enjoy your cigar and brandy with the men?” his wife asked.

“Yes, indeed. There are a few men on the train who are very interesting to chat with. The smoking car was full.”

“That’s nice, dear. Rachel is getting restless. Do you know when we will stop again so she can stretch her legs?”

Mr. Linton sighed. “In a few hours. Surely, you can amuse yourself until then.” He looked at his younger, difficult daughter.

“Well, if you would allow me to leave this car, I might.”

“You know it is much safer for you to remain here unless your mother or I are with you. We have discussed this many times.”

“Sarah made the trip alone,” Rachel argued.

“Sarah is not you, my sweet daughter,” he replied with a chuckle.

Rachel rolled her eyes and went back to her book. Yes, it was true. Sarah and she were two completely different girls.

For the next few hours, she tried to concentrate on the words on the pages of the book. Finally, it was time for a break, and she couldn’t wait to get out of the train. They would dine in a real restaurant at least, before re-boarding the train.

When she stepped off and saw the general store/restaurant looming within walking distance, her face fell. Far from what she was used to in the east, she resigned herself to taking her evening meal in the countrified establishment.

“Come, dear, let’s look around the store while your father gets a table for us,” her mother said as she stepped up beside her.

“How can you be so cheery about this? Do you not realize that father is moving us to some godforsaken place? Just look at this place. I am sure Oklahoma is even worse than this place.”

“Oh, Rachel, where is your sense of adventure? I am sure it will be fine. Your sister certainly has acclimated well.”

“I am not my sister. I wish you would all recognize that fact!” she said a little too loudly. Several people turned to stare in their direction.

“Shh, Rachel, you are drawing attention,” her mother said.

She rolled her eyes and walked away to look at a rack of ready-made dresses. Who would actually buy a dress off the rack in a general store, anyway? Disgusted, she wondered just how low her sister had fallen since moving out west. At least now, she was married to a businessman. Hopefully, that had restored some class to the rancher’s wife Sarah had once been. She was sure Johnny was handsome and all, but a rancher, really?

“Come, our table is ready,” Mr. Linton said as he approached his wife and daughter, oblivious to the latest outburst from his youngest.

“Thank goodness!” her mother exclaimed as she took Rachel’s arm and pulled her along.

Mr. Linton gave her a funny look, not understanding his wife’s impatience, and led them to the table. Then he explained that they would have a guest at their table. “Mr. Thomas, a young man I met on the train, was going to dine alone, so I invited him to join us.”

Of course, he did, Rachel thought. Finally, a normal dinner at a real table and we have to entertain some guy he met on the train.

Her dad led them to the table where a dark-haired man stood when he saw them approaching. He wasn’t bad looking, she supposed. Tall, young, with a mustache and goatee, he looked like he could be from the east, but he was not dressed as such. What was his story?

They all sat down, and the waitress took their drink order and left them menus to look over.

“It will be nice to have a good meal. Not that the food on the train isn’t good, but there is something to be said for sitting at a proper table,” Mr. Thomas commented as he perused the choices before him.

“I agree,” Mr. Linton said. “It’s also good to be able to stretch our legs. The next time we stop, we’ll be able to sleep in a real bed as well. We will spend the night in a hotel. I’m sorry, I didn’t make the introductions. Joshua Thomas, this is my wife, Rosella, and my daughter, Rachel.”

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Mrs. Linton said.

“I’m happy to make your acquaintance as well,” the young man replied. He turned to Rachel then. “Miss Linton.” He nodded.

“Tell me, Mr. Thomas, where are you from?” Rachel asked.

He chuckled. “I grew up outside of Philadelphia. However, for the last few years I’ve been in Oklahoma.”

“Why on earth?” she asked, to the horror of her parents.

“Rachel!” her father admonished.

“It’s quite all right, sir. It isn’t like I haven’t heard it before from my own family.” He laughed and then looked back at Rachel. “To answer your question, though, Miss Linton, I went out west for a change of scenery. I felt stifled working in my father’s business. I wanted to explore the world before I settle down to that kind of life. So, I went out west and I’ve been working on a ranch for the past few years. I am returning from a visit home because of the death of my grandfather.”

“And yet you are going back out west,” she commented.

Again, he chuckled. “Yes, much to the chagrin of my family, I must say. I found that I like the town I have been living in, and the people. It’s more to my liking and I most likely will settle there. When I return, I am to start working for a new oil company. The brother-in-law of one of my employers on the ranch started it, and he needs help.”

“That’s interesting,” Mr. Linton said. “Our older daughter’s new husband owns an oil company. His brothers-in-law own the Big G Ranch. Have you heard of it?”

Joshua’s eyes grew large. “Heard of it? I worked for the Garrison brothers on the Big G. The oil company I am now going to be working for is Conrad Appleby’s. Is he by chance your son-in-law?”

“What a small world,” Mrs. Linton said. “Conrad is indeed our son-in-law. We are moving to Oklahoma to be near our daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Conrad.”

“Is that right? That’s amazing. I had no idea,” Joshua said. “So, it looks like we’ll be seeing each other on a more permanent basis. Let me be the first to welcome you.”

“Why, thank you, Joshua. That is very sweet,” Rosella said in response.

“Yes, this is good news indeed. I’m sure you’ll make a fine employee for Conrad’s company,” Mr. Linton said.

Rachel was silent, so Joshua looked over at her and offered, “Miss Linton, I would be happy to show you around when you are settled in your new home.”

“Thank you. We shall see,” was her non-committal answer.

Her parents gave each other the look they always shared when they were exasperated with their younger daughter. Mr. Thomas, however, took the brush off in stride.

“Very well,” he said.

Their meal arrived then, which Rachel was glad of. Imagine, this arrogant man thinking he could make an advance on her. Why on God’s green earth would she want a man who had given up the life of an eastern businessman to settle in that no man’s land? The nerve of him to even think she would.

Soon, it was time to get back onboard the train. Rachel purchased some peppermint sticks to snack on and immediately went back to her family’s private car so she wouldn’t have to tell Mr. Thomas no if he asked her to sit with him. The farther away she could be from that man, the better. And the sad thing about it was if she had met him when he lived in Philadelphia, she would have definitely been drawn to his good looks and suave voice. As it was, he was about as deranged as her dear sweet sister. What was it about Oklahoma that drew well-bred easterners to decide to stay there? Well, she would not be one of them. The first chance she got, she would be right back on this awful train, bound for her aunt’s house in Philadelphia. She would make sure of that.

***

Mr. Linton whispered to his wife, “You join Rachel in our car. I want to have a word with young Joshua, apologize to him for Rachel’s behavior.”

“All right, dear, but one of these days, we have to stop doing that and let her face the consequences of her own actions. Joshua seems like such a nice boy, though, so you go on.”

He walked her to the door of their car, planted a kiss on her forehead and told her he would see her later. Then he found Joshua and invited him to join him for a cigar and brandy in the smoking car.

“Thank you, sir. I was just heading that way,” the young man said.

Once they were comfortably seated, each with a glass of brandy and a cigar, Mr. Linton began, “I must apologize for my daughter. You have to understand that she is not happy about this move. If she’d had her way, she would have remained in Philadelphia with my sister. Part of the reason we are going west to join our other daughter is because we feel Rachel needs a change of scenery. She is a difficult girl, nothing like her older sister, Sarah.”

Joshua smiled in understanding. “That does not surprise me. Most eastern girls would balk at the idea. I was not offended. Your older daughter, she likes Oklahoma?”

“Oh my, yes. She made the decision to become a mail order bride a few years ago. Of course, at first we were stunned, but she made it clear that she was not going to settle for any of the young men who had been trying to court her and that she wanted to live a different life. We finally agreed, and she has been in love with the area she settled in ever since she arrived there. Her first husband, a rancher, was killed in an accident. We wanted to come out then, but there was the house to sell, things to settle, and well, it just didn’t happen. When she recently remarried, we decided not to put it off any longer. We sold our house and some of the furnishings with it. What we wished to keep will be sent out when we find a home. Luckily, she had some good friends who took her in and helped her during her mourning period. We had thought she might come home then, but she didn’t.”

“I believe I know who she is. The Garrisons are the ones who took her in. She’s a pretty thing, very sweet from what I know of her.”

“Yes, yes, it was Clayton and Clara Mae Garrison. Conrad Appleby is Mrs. Garrison’s brother.”

Joshua nodded and took a drink of his brandy. “Tell me about Rachel. You say she is difficult. Maybe she hasn’t yet met the man who can tame her.”

At that remark, Mr. Linton chuckled. “I don’t know that there is a man alive who can tame that one. I certainly haven’t been able to.”

“The right man will.”

Mr. Linton looked at Joshua through new eyes. “Well, let me just say that my younger daughter enjoys partying, flirting, leading men on, with no intention of settling down with any of them. We feared for her reputation, and thus, the move.”

“Ah, I see. Well, living in Oklahoma will be a new experience for her. The folks there are right neighborly and friendly, but the men are looking to settle down if they haven’t already. With her pretty, fair hair and skin, she will have them all wishing to court her.”

“Pardon my saying this, but they will not stick around long once her snobbish eastern ways make themselves known.”

“All the more reason she needs the right man.”

“Am I correct in believing that you think you might be that man?” Mr. Linton asked.

“You are, indeed, sir. I would ask your permission to court her, but I think the lady has made it quite clear she is not exactly excited by that thought.”

“Give it some time, son. Let her get settled, get to know her ways, and then if you still feel the same way, we’ll talk again. I agree that she needs a dominant man who can handle her the right way yet give her plenty of love and attention.”

The two men, having reached an understanding, enjoyed the rest of their cigars and brandy before saying goodnight. Joshua returned to his car and Mr. Linton to his, with his wife and daughter.

When he stepped into the car, both women were in their bunks asleep. It was just as well, he thought as he readied himself for bed. He decided he would keep the conversation with young Joshua to himself for now.

***

The next day, Rachel remained in the car, taking her meals with her mother there. She didn’t wish to run into Joshua Thomas again if she could help it. She spent her time reading and looking out the window, watching the scenery pass by as the train progressed down the tracks, taking her farther and farther away from the only home she had ever known.

Her father had been out of the car most of the day, probably visiting with the men he’d met on the train, playing cards or smoking and drinking. He was certainly enjoying the train ride. But the man had worked in an office all his adult life. She was sure he was relieved to have the free time to indulge in such things.

Her mother was working on the gift for Sarah. So, Rachel was left to her own thoughts. She put down the book she had been reading, leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

She thought of all the parties back home, her friends, the young men who were always trying to get her attention. She doubted there would be such frivolous parties and teas where she was going. What did people do in Oklahoma, she wondered. She had never bothered to ask Sarah.

And now that Joshua would be working for her new brother-in-law, did that mean she would have to see him on a regular basis? She was still trying to process in her mind why on earth the man would wish to go back to Oklahoma once he had been back east and could have stayed there. He must be made of the same cloth as her sister, a bit touched in the head if you asked her.

How anyone, male or female, could choose the wild west over the excitement of the city was beyond her understanding. And Conrad was just as bad! She had been told that he had sold the family business, home, and everything else to join his sister and her family in Oklahoma. Just like her parents were forcing her to do! She still didn’t understand why they couldn’t have just gone for an extended visit. Why sell everything and relocate there, for goodness’ sake?

Aunt Mary, her father’s sister, had been more than willing to let her stay with her, but, no, her father had put his foot down on that. His sister had been widowed young, had no children, and was a bit of a social butterfly. Rachel and she would have gotten on famously, she was sure.

Well, soon, she would be with her beloved aunt again.

They were almost halfway to their destination now. In a few more days, they would be stopping for an overnight break, then the next stop would be Oklahoma. Hopefully, the hotel in the town where they stopped for the night would be nice and there would be some decent shops for her to browse. When they finally got to Sarah, the plan was to find a house in town, near Sarah and Conrad. At least her parents weren’t going to live on a ranch. For that, she could be grateful. She shuddered at the mere thought.

Finally, it was time to stop. She was anxious to see the town and get out of the train car. Her mother kept her close to her, of course, while their father got rooms for them at the hotel. Rachel couldn’t wait to indulge in a proper bath before going to the shops and having dinner.

When she sank down into the warm water, she smiled. Now, this was more like it. The room she had been appointed would pass, she supposed. It was pleasant enough, with a handmade quilt on the bed, frilly curtains at the window, and a table and chair where she could sit with a cup of tea and look out over the bustling town.

Feeling refreshed after the bath and tea, she dressed and went next door to see if her mother was ready to do some shopping.

When she stepped into the hallway, Joshua was coming out of his room across the hall. Wonderful. She tried to ignore him, but he made that impossible.

“Going out to see what the town has to offer?” he asked.

“My mother and I are going shopping before dinner,” she said as she knocked on her parents’ door.

“Have a nice time,” he said as he sauntered down the hall, whistling as he went.

“Ugh,” she said as she waited for her mother.

“Ready, dear?” Rosella asked as she opened the door. “We haven’t much time, so we should get going.” She turned to tell her husband, “We will meet you in the dining room.”

“I thought we would go to the dress shop first,” Rachel said.

“Fine, Rachel, but we cannot purchase much. We don’t have room on the train.”

“Yes, Mother, I am aware of that. I just want to look. I don’t know what sort of dresses I will be expected to wear out in the uncivilized world.”

“You exaggerate so much, dear.”

Once inside the shop, she began to look through rack after rack of dresses. Some were fancier than she had imagined they would be, others plainer. Her mother suggested they each buy one of the plainer ones for everyday wear.

She resigned herself to the fact that she probably wasn’t going to be able to talk her mother into anything else and chose a pale rose-colored dress with simple ivory lace trim. It was pretty enough but certainly not something she would have been seen in back home.

When they returned to the hotel, her mother had the packages sent up to their rooms and they walked to the dining room where they found her father deep in conversation over coffee with, of all people, Joshua Thomas.

“Well, here are my girls now. Did you buy out the stores?” her father asked as both he and Joshua stood.

“We each bought one dress,” her mother replied. “Your bank account is safe.”

They sat down and the waitress brought menus and tea for the women.

“I took the liberty of telling her you ladies would have tea when you arrived,” Joshua told them with a grin.

Rachel stopped mid-sip, her blue eyes blazing as she said, “And what made you think we would want you to take it upon yourself to do that?”

Her mother gasped, but when she glanced at her father expecting a reprimand for her rudeness, she saw that he was grinning too.

“I didn’t, but I thought that after shopping, the two of you would appreciate it,” Joshua said calmly as he picked up the menu, ignoring her sigh of disgust. “Now, what looks good on the menu tonight?”

“I suppose you wish to order my food too?” Rachel spat at him, venom in her voice.

“I wasn’t thinking that, but since you’ve said it, yes, I believe I will.” He turned to her with a gaze as icy as hers, and then it wasn’t. His green eyes darkened with something she couldn’t define.

Buy on Amazon Barnes & Noble Kobo Google Books