Darcy Stuart has a reputation for being a rip-snortin’, gun-totin’, man-hatin’ woman and that is fine with her as long as it keeps worthless men off her doorstep. She has a promise to keep, a ranch to run, and a son to raise. She doesn’t have time to waste on scoundrels.
Born on the wrong side of the tracks, the defining moment in her life thus far has been the birth of her son. The maternal love she feels for Murphy keeps her going. She has been used and deceived by the men in her life, and she doesn’t believe any man is worth sacrificing her hard sought independence. Men’s words are cheap and their actions are generally false. She doesn’t give a plug nickel for any man who thinks he can seduce or cheat her out of the Circle S.
That is until a man from the past comes back into her life, and she can’t shake him. Deep down she’s not sure she wants to. He wants her and he won’t back down. While her goals are set in stone, Les Brewster seems to be chipping away at her very foundation. He opens her eyes to the powerful lure of sex and passion and melts her resistance under his firm hand and an unfailing determination to win her.
As a young and inexperienced young man, Les had admired his boss’s wife from afar. It was an innocent crush and that was as far as it went. She had been incredibly young, innocent and sweet, and he had moved on and away from a temptation that was one-sided. Fifteen years later though, she is a widow and fair game for the pursuing. Except she doesn’t want a man in her life, at least not as husband. That sweet peach of girl has turned into a ball-busting rancher who is in desperate need of someone to tame and settle her. He loves her wild spirit and he can see glimpses of the warm-hearted woman he knows is buried under that brittle shell. It’s going to take some patience to peel away some layers of hurt and distrust to find the lovely person that is trapped inside a promise she won’t break. In the meantime, he needs to discipline a foul mouthed, bad tempered shrew that needs to be reminded of how a lady should behave.
1886 Mason, Texas
Darcy Stuart stood stoically with her hands firmly gripping her son Murphy’s shoulders as he stood in front of her crying. Nine years old was too young to lose a father, and now he had lost two. The first was due to arrogance and entitlement, and the second was due to stubborn pride. Thomas Stuart should not be in the coffin the pallbearers were lowering into the ground. Men! They never listened. She had pleaded with him dozens of times over the last seven years, and he had always laughed. Now he was dead because he was too stubborn to learn to swim. Caught in a flash flood, he was dead at the age of forty-seven.
She was hurting, but she was also so mad she could barely see straight. She would be damned before she would let anyone see her cry.
When her son Murphy glanced over his shoulder at her in expectation, she realized she had not heard a word of the funeral service. She looked to the Reverend, who motioned her toward the grave. She stepped forward to toss a bouquet of Texas bluebells into it. Her son followed her example. Then it was over, they were alone, and on their own?again.
She felt people kissing her cheek, hugging her, patting her on the back, but she had no idea who did what. Her sweet little man, Murphy, led her to their buckboard.
Darcy turned to Mr. Kendall, the only lawyer in Mason, Texas. “Yes.”
“Ma’am, I need to go over your husband’s will with you, as soon as possible.”
“Did he leave me destitute?” Darcy asked.
The lawyer looked shocked, “No ma’am!”
“Then, it can be handled later,” declared Darcy. “Mr. Kendall, I will come to your office to discuss this matter. What is today?”
“It’s Tuesday, Momma,” Murphy supplied.
“I will be in town on Friday, Mr. Kendall.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
Darcy was vaguely aware of the bustle of buggies and wagons turning around, and people leaving. She was dimly aware of Mr. Bridges helping her housekeeper onto the buckboard seat. The Circle S cowmen mounted their horses and followed the buckboard respectfully to the ranch house.
She reentered her home with dread. Black crepe draped the porch railings outside. The inside was worse. Black crepe covered every mirror. Superstition held that if anyone saw their reflection in the house of the deceased?they would die next. Tom had liked mirrors, so there were at least two in each room. Even the fireplace mantles dripped with black crepe. Every picture frame was either turned over or covered in black, all based on the old-fashioned Irish traditions of their housekeeper.
Mrs. Connolly turned to her before going to the kitchen and her quarters. “Would you like lunch, Darcy?”
“No, thank you,” she said. “Please see that Murphy changes out of his good suit and eats something. Also, please remove the draping and restart the clocks. Tom is gone?.” Her voice broke, but she swallowed and continued. “We must get on with living.”
The housekeeper nodded as Darcy ran upstairs, closed, and locked her door. She began to remove her black mourning dress and veil when suddenly she was furious. She ripped and tore the veil and dress to pieces. As the tattered remains of her widow’s status fell to the floor, she crumpled and joined them.
* * *
Mrs. Alva Connolly opened the door to the Missus’ bedroom and shook her head sadly. The young one was in for a tough time of it. The housekeeper marched across the room and pulled apart the drapes. “Elizabeth Darcy Murphy Stuart, you have locked yourself in this room for two days and I have had all I am going to take on the matter!” With a heave of the quilts, Mrs. Connolly dumped her employer on the floor.
“What?” Darcy moaned. “Go away!”
Alva put her hands on her hips. “Get yourself out of this bed, girl! I have done carried water to your bathtub and I want you in it right now. You keep on this way and you will not have anything to lose. Your foreman is already claiming he will be in your bed by the end of the month, and be master of this ranch. Some of your cowmen have already quit because they are not willing to work for Kurt Hodges without Mr. Tom around to keep him on the straight and narrow. You have to get yourself together, girl. You have your boy to think about.”
“Is Murphy all right?” Darcy demanded.
“No, he is not all right,” snapped Alva. “The poor little thing is walking around hurt and confused. His Papa is dead, and his Momma ain’t doing much better. Do you hear me, girl? Unless you want to marry Kurt, or one of a dozen or more other greedy yahoos wanting this ranch, you had better stiffen your spine. Where is the tough little gal Mr. Tom was so proud to call his wife? Where is the girl who came halfway across the country toting a baby in her arms and wanting a better life?”
“Maybe she is in the grave with him,” Darcy sniffed.
Alva Connolly pointed her finger at the Missus. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You are young, but you are not stupid. You have a boy to raise. Life is rough for all women. Yes, you are now a widow, but you have more than most, so pull yourself together. You have to be careful and rely on the brains God gave you. There will be plenty of men sniffing around here. Some, because you are young and pretty, but most will be after the Circle S. Girl, you won’t be able to trust anyone for a while. You’ve gotten soft having a husband to take care of and protect you. He’s gone, so straighten up your backbone, and get in the tub!”
Darcy dragged herself to her feet, pulled on her robe and staggered from her room.
When she appeared at the breakfast table, she was wearing a split riding skirt, riding boots, a white blouse and a vest that had belonged to her husband. Her blond hair was in a neat bun at the nape of her neck.
“You look a sight better,” Alva said bluntly, bringing several platters of food to the table.
“Thank you,” Darcy said. She caught the woman’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’m going into town today to see where we stand.”
“Good morning, Momma,” Murphy said, coming into the dining room. He kissed his mother on the cheek and then walked past his chair next to her. He went to the other end of the table where he sat in his father’s place.
Alva looked at the Missus startled, but Darcy gave a slight shake to her head.
“Murphy, why are you sitting at the end of the table,” she asked quietly.
“I am the man of the family now, Momma,” Murphy said. “This is where the man of the family sits.”
“I see,” Darcy said. She sat for a moment, contemplating his words before rising, stacking their plates and cutlery and moving to the other end of the table. She sat to the right of Murphy where, traditionally, he had always sat to her right at the other end.
Alva followed Darcy, moving the platters of food to the other end of the table where she waited, hovering to see if she was needed.
“Murphy,” Darcy said around the lump in her throat. “I do appreciate how you have stepped into your father’s shoes. He would be very proud of you. Still, my little man, we have to work as a team to hold this family and ranch together. I am a woman and it is sometimes difficult for a woman to command respect from men. You are my son, and now the man of the family. Still, you are only nine years old. You will not command very much respect either. Between the two of us, though, we can do it. We have to do it together. I am going into Mason today to see Mr. Kendall, the lawyer. I would like you to finish your homework today so you will not be behind when you return to school tomorrow. A man cannot run an operation the size of the Circle S without having a good head for figures and a reasonable knowledge of language skills. I mean reading and writing.”
“I thought I would quit school and work with the men on the ranch,” Murphy said, his young eyes watching his mother, testing her.
Darcy considered her words carefully. “If this is the case, I am afraid all the business of the Circle S will fall on me. I am not very good at business, son. We may have to hire someone and it is hard to know who can be trusted not to take advantage of a widow and her son.”
“No, Momma,” Murphy said decisively. “I will stay in school and keep learning, so I will get as smart as Papa. We will learn to run the ranch together. As long as you need my help, Momma, I will be here for you.”
Alva squeezed Darcy’s hand under the table, and then she got up abruptly and returned to the kitchen.
Darcy blinked away tears, as a little bit of the heaviness threatening to swamp her lifted. Looking at her little boy, she knew he was her miracle, and he would be her strength to keep going. He had been from the moment she had felt him quicken inside her body.
“Thank you, my little man. We will do this together,” Darcy agreed as her bruised heart swelled with love and pride.
1894 Mason, Texas [eight years later]
Darcy Stuart slid into her seat at the table for breakfast. Her son wasn’t there yet, which was unusual because he was generally first in line for any food. Hank Smith, their foreman at the Circle S, came in and sat across from her.
“Is everything ready?” Darcy asked.
“As ready as we can get,” Hank said, filling his plate from the breakfast platters. “I’m leaving Will and Pepe here so the chores are covered. Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“Alva would have my hide if she came home to learn I had gone on a cattle drive,” Darcy said with a grin. “Two weeks on the trail with eighteen men, I would never hear the end of it. Murphy would also not appreciate his Momma tagging along with him on his first cattle drive.”
“It’s only a couple weeks, three at the most,” said Hank. “It ain’t like the old days when it took two to three months to get a herd to the nearest railroad.”
“The newspapers are claiming Texas is becoming civilized and progressive,” Darcy mused with a slight smile.
“Barbed wire and sheep ain’t my idea of progress,” Hank snorted.”
“We can’t stop it,” Darcy said. “The Hoodoo War proved so. I’m going in to talk to E. M. Reynolds while you are gone. I want to see if I can get the Grissom farm.”
Hank did not blink an eye at this news. He got to his feet. “Hurry along your boy, we won’t wait on him.”
“Hank,” Darcy said mildly. “I am sending my son with you on this drive in one piece. He has all his original parts and I want him to return with them. Murphy may think he is a man, but he is only seventeen years old. I want you to keep an eye on him.”
The older man winced. “I always do, Mrs. Stuart.”
“This includes the celebrating after you get to Ft. Worth,” Darcy said softly. “His first time should not be in a brothel in Hell’s Half Acre. It should be with a gal he thinks he loves.”
“Now Darcy,” Hank said, his face flushing to a dark red. “Not even I can watch him that close. It’s your job as his Momma to put the fear of God in him.”
“I have tried,” she said, grinning. “With him wanting to be a man fully grown, it is a hard battle to fight.”
* * *
“Bye, Momma,” Murphy said, running down the stairs.
“You have time to sit and eat one last decent meal before you have to stomach Domino’s cooking,” Darcy said.
“Naw, I want to be with the other men. Besides, Domino’s been the cowmen’s cook for as long as we have been here. No one has died yet. Are you sure you will be okay with Mrs. C. and me gone at the same time? There is no one here to keep an eye on you.”
“This is a chance to kick up my heels,” Darcy said, teasing. “I might go into town and rent the Presidential Suite at the new Mason House Hotel.”
“You be careful, Momma,” Murphy said in his new, low, grown-up voice. “Roscoe Hoester is still mad about you refusing him. He has been saying mighty nasty things in town about you.”
“Roscoe isn’t mad because I won’t marry him. He is mad because he can’t get his hands on the Circle S Ranch. Every bow-legged cowpoke in Texas thinks all he has to do is ride to my front door, and I will fall at their feet and marry them.”
“It might have more to do with you being the prettiest single woman in the whole of Mason County,” Murphy said with a smile. He followed his statement with a frown. “I am serious, Momma, I want you to be careful!”
“I always am,” Darcy promised. “The same goes for you, young man!”
“I will see you in a couple weeks,” Murphy promised, dropping a kiss on his mother’s cheek.
Darcy followed her son from the house and watched as he jumped into his saddle and rode off with the practiced ease of a seasoned cowman. He was her boy, but he stood over six-feet tall and still had a couple more years of growing left in him. He was on the cusp of manhood, leaning far more toward man than a child.
She shielded her eyes from the sun to look at the herd in the far distance. There was over a thousand head going this time. Beef prices were high now on the Livestock Exchange, fifteen cents a pound on the hoof. Tom had been right to start breeding Angus. The days of the Texas Long Horn were over. They were a sturdy breed, but the open cattle trails were now a part of Texas history. Herds no longer had to cross a thousand treacherous miles of Texas and Indian Territories to Mud Creek, Kansas, to reach the closest railroad. Mud Creek had long since been renamed Abilene and it was only one of many towns built with massive stockyards to receive herds for shipment to the eastern part of the country.
The Ft. Worth Stockyards were their destination. The drives there weren’t as hard on men or beasts as the old trails. There were new, closer railroads in Austin and San Antonio, but neither had the huge lots needed to hold thousands of head of cattle.
The latest problem for ranchers was the government program to open the range to settlers moving westward. Easterners and foreigners had put down stakes on open Texas rangeland without having a clue about the culture of the West. They held as little or even less respect than the Washington government for the ranchers who had first tamed the land. Farmers moved in and strung barbed wire, essentially stopping the free-range cattle drives. A lot of older ranchers and cowmen still held a deep resentment over the disappearance of the open range. Now, farmers demanded to be paid when herds crossed their lands, formerly ‘free-access’ lands.
Darcy had signed right-of-way leases across every piece of land between the Circle S and the Ft. Worth stockyards and she had a wagon going along filled with fence-building supplies. As her men cut and removed barbed wire along their routes, they would also rebuild it in their wake. Her herd would make it and every step of the way would be legal although it had also been expensive and would cut into her profits. This was the way you had to do business now.
Times were changing. Even she had strung barbed wire occasionally, only where it was necessary for the safety of her cattle. Mostly, she took it down after farmers went bust and she bought their land to add to the Circle S.
Marie Cartwright walked past her on the porch, a baby on her hip and two hanging on to her skirts. She had come over earlier to cook breakfast, and then returned home to feed her family. Now she was back to do the cleaning. Marie was replacing her housekeeper Alva Connolly for a couple of months. Mrs. C. had gone to Ft. Smith, Arkansas to help her sister who had fallen and broken a hip.
Darcy had figured she needed no help, as she would be alone in the house for the first time in seventeen years. However, Mrs. C. had made the arrangements without asking her, as was her nature, and Darcy would let it stand. Marie and Lonnie could use the extra money. Mrs. C. did not think Darcy capable of cooking or cleaning, but she was wrong. Darcy had worked in a mill by the age of eleven and had provided maid service from the time she was thirteen until she had arrived in Mason, Texas at sixteen.
She had a baby in her arms and twenty cents left to her name when she stepped off a freight wagon in Mason. She had gone as far as she could. She went to the Mercantile where she bought four cans of condensed milk for her baby with the last of her money. Her mother’s milk had dried up from going too long without food. She saw a note posted at the Mercantile for a housekeeper at the Circle S Ranch.
She had hitched a ride on a wagon for part of the way, walking the last six miles. Tom Stuart opened his door to a little slip of a girl with a baby. She fainted from hunger and exhaustion on his doorstep.
Tom took them in. He lived on burnt beans and hard biscuits he soaked in milk to soften until she learned how to be a passable cook. He watched over her, protected her and Murphy, and never once said or made a disrespectful gesture toward her. Nearly two years later, he asked her to marry him. She accepted. When she took on the duties of a wife, he hired Alva Connolly as a housekeeper. He told people he married Darcy so he would not have to eat her cooking anymore. Everyone thought he was joking, but he was not. She never did get the hang of it.
Tom was a decent husband to Darcy and a good father to Murphy. He wanted more children, but it never happened. Tom had been disappointed, but he accepted her son, Murphy, as his son, or at least he said he did. He had promised her he would protect her son’s future.
She might not have loved Tom in a romantic way when she married him, but she had learned to love and respect him because he gave her no less. Oh, they had disagreements and had raised the roof a couple of times, but after the fireworks, they always made up. Darcy did not have the traditional look of the Irish, being blond with chestnut-colored eyes, but her Irish name and temper compensated for it.
Tom had wanted a lady as a wife. Instead, he proposed to a scrappy Irish girl who had seen more hardships by sixteen than most did in a lifetime. He had learned to live with his firebrand and accepted her for who she was.
Darcy could behave like a lady when she wanted. She could also be a hard-nosed bitch if someone tried to take advantage of her. She might be a woman, but she was not stupid, and she would not allow herself to be vulnerable. Her temper was well known. She was a woman who took on a man’s job after her husband’s death. She ran the Circle S with the help of Hank, carefully selected cowmen, and her son. She had to be strong. Playing Little Miss Sweet and Helpless did not get the job done.
Darcy went inside, finished her breakfast and strapped on her Colt 45 Peacemaker. The revolver was as old as her son was. It was the first gun she had learned to shoot and it was still her favorite. When she first came to the Circle S, she was the only girl on a ranch full of men. Tom had not counted on a spunky young girl answering his ad. Child as she was at the time, she still attracted men like bees to honey. Tom insisted she be able to protect herself, so he taught her to shoot and handle various firearms. Times were more civilized now, yet she rarely went anywhere on the ranch without protection. She carried her Colt in a cross-draw holster along with a Winchester 5‑shot repeating rifle in her saddle holster. She liked being prepared for anything.
As she walked across the barnyard, she looked for the herd in the distance. All she could see was the cloud of dust raised by a thousand head of cattle on the trail. She stood for a moment reflecting on how far she and Murphy had come in seventeen years. Six of those years were under the stewardship of Tom as her husband. He had been kind to her and Murphy for nine years total. It was only after his death she learned he had lied to her. He had made her a promise and he had broken it. Three days after they buried Tom, Darcy vowed to follow through on his promise.
Now, eight years later, she was still working on fulfilling her promise. Darcy kept her word and spoke the truth. She might not have been Texas born, but the strength of truth meant everything to her. She built her life around fulfilling the secret promise she had made to her son. It was her secret to keep. He knew nothing of it because she had never told him. Her husband might have sullied his memory with a lie, but she would not.
She walked over to the barn and nuzzled her Appaloosa, Splash. Solid black with a snowflake blanket across his hips, his official name was Midnight Splash. It had never mattered to her. He had been simply Splash from her first ride on him. He was magnificent, and he was hers. Splash was a rare horse; he hated men, distrusted them, bucked them, bit them and stomped them with little provocation.
Tom had been about to sell him, even though his breeding was impeccable. Not one of the ranch hands could handle him, nor could any of the wranglers break him. She had gone to the corral to see this horse, which had flummoxed her husband. Splash had eaten from the palm of her hand as gentle as can be. They had been bosom friends since.
In spite of Tom’s original anger and threats to tan her hide if she went near ‘that damn killer’ again, she repeatedly snuck back to visit the amazing stallion. It had cost her a sore butt a few times, but Splash was not dangerous to her or to Murphy.
Her husband had given her Midnight Splash on her twenty-third birthday, laying down the law with a long list of do’s and don’ts, most of which she ignored from the beginning. She still trusted and controlled the Appaloosa. It secretly pleased her how men had to keep a safe distance, but not her or Murphy.
* * *
Several hours later, Darcy rode into the town of Mason and tied her horse to the hitching post outside the bank. She had not ridden Splash to town, but one of the other good saddle horses in her barns. Splash she kept for herself and solitary rides on the ranch, except when he was needed for breeding. Texas might be more civilized lately, but her stallion was not. She could not trust him to stay out of trouble in town. It made men uncomfortable to know she could handle the rogue when they could not. It seemed to prick their male pride, which tickled her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Stuart,” Marcy Reynolds said from behind the bank’s teller cage. “Do you need to see Mr. Reynolds?”
“I do,” admitted Darcy, letting herself in through a gate to the little waiting area framed with porch railings, which separated E. M. Reynolds’ office from the rest of the bank. She took a seat to wait?E. M. made everyone wait.
Marcy pulled a chain and Darcy could hear a bell ringing inside the bank president’s office.
Darcy smiled to herself. She doubted the little bell was enough to wake E. M. from one of his numerous daily naps. Marcy pulled the chain a few more times. Then, looking embarrassed, she smiled at Darcy and entered her father’s office being careful not to allow anyone to see past the door.
The girl shortly came back out of the office. “Mr. Reynolds will be with you in a moment.”
“Marcy, E. M. is your father,” Darcy said. “Do you have to call him Mr. Reynolds?”
“Papa says it is more professional,” Marcy said with a giggling laugh. She glanced behind her at the door to her father’s office. “Has Murphy left on the cattle drive?”
“This morning,” Darcy said. She would have shared more details with the girl except the door to her father’s office creaked and Marcy dashed to her teller’s cage.
“Mrs. Stuart,” E. M. Reynolds said, coming from his office. “How may I help you today?”
Darcy grabbed her folder and walked into the banker’s office. He followed her and closed the door.
“Land, E. M.,” Darcy said, unrolling a land-office map on his desk. She pointed to two properties. “The Flying G has a connection to the north tip of my right-of-way to the Circle S and the Rolling J flanks my property on the west. The bank owns them and I want them.”
“Now, Mrs. Stuart,” E. M. Reynolds exclaimed. “The Circle S is one of the biggest spreads in the county, you don’t need more land.”
“Says who?” Darcy asked, pinning the banker with a steely look.
E. M. grimaced. “Word about town is Roscoe Hoester and you are about to merge your properties.”
“Over my dead body,” Darcy said plainly.
“When a woman marries?.”
“I am not marrying Roscoe Hoester,” Darcy snarled. “If he said so, he is a damn, liar.”
“Now, Mrs. Stuart, there is no reason for vulgarity,” Mr. Reynolds huffed.
“E. M., you have dealt with me for eight years. You are the one being vulgar when you give credence to such lies,” Darcy scolded. “Put an end to it right now. I am not marrying Roscoe or anyone else. Now, are you interested in selling these two properties or not.”
“The Rolling J is still for sale,” E. M. Reynolds blustered.
“What about the Flying G?” Darcy exclaimed looking surprised.
“I sold it three days ago,” E. M. Reynolds said. “A man walked in and didn’t dicker on the price. I can still sell you the Rolling J.”
“Consider it sold,” Darcy snapped. “Who bought the Flying G?”
“Mrs. Stuart, we have a fine working relationship, but it only takes us so far, as to what private information I can divulge to you.”
Darcy narrowed her eyes at the banker. “E. M., if you sold the Flying G to Roscoe Hoester, I will personally make your life a living hell. You know I can do it.”
The banker swallowed hard. “It wasn’t him. A stranger walked in here three days ago and paid cash money for it. Mr. Kendall finalized the papers and the man signed them yesterday. I’m sorry, Mrs. Stuart, usually if you want something, you are in here pestering me as soon as the bank takes ownership. I didn’t know you wanted Flying G.”
Darcy gave a sigh. “It was my fault. I have known for a couple of weeks the loans defaulted. I should have come in sooner, or at least sent word I wanted it, but we were in the middle of the roundup. Process the papers for the Rolling J. It’s a lot smaller, but it is still adjacent to our property and has good water. Is the new owner of the Flying G a rancher or a farmer?”
“He didn’t say, I didn’t ask,” E. M. sputtered.
“Well, if he is a farmer, he probably won’t last any longer than the rest of them. Most leave within their first three years. If the property becomes available again, do send word to me.”
“I have heard rumblings around town, Mrs. Stuart,” Mr. Reynolds said quietly. “People aren’t real happy that you keep buying all the farms and available land.”
“Why are they complaining?” Darcy demanded. “No one is saying they can’t buy them.”
“Well, times are hard. Folks resent the growth of the Circle S while they continue to struggle.”
“They struggle because the government keeps sending settlers here who don’t understand the land. I return the land to what it is fit for, ranching and grazing, not farming,” Darcy snorted.
“There are a lot of folks who don’t want to believe what you’re saying. They think you want to buy the whole county.”
“E. M., have I ever told you I hate how you live in the biggest house in Mason?” Darcy asked.
The man drew himself up, looking affronted. “Why would you feel that way?”
“I don’t,” Darcy said, contradicting herself. “I don’t resent