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ISBN-10: 1-89484-166-2
Genre: Romance/Mystery
eBook Length: 273 Pages
Published: September 2008

From inside the flap

Travis Conley has had to cope with the fallout of his older brother’s dangerous bounty hunter profession. Unlike Rafe, Travis has no interest in deliberately seeking out danger and excitement. Travis has roots—running his own cattle spread, courting a steady gal, his personal future all mapped out. Life at Crockhead Rest is nice and orderly and Travis likes it that way.

But one afternoon that well-ordered existence is turned upside down. Two women seemed determined to march him to the altar…one a total stranger! He knows when he catches his first glimpse of the exotic female standing at his front gates beside a mound of luggage and a yowling crate, he’s suddenly in big trouble.

Lucia Montessano hasn’t come looking for turmoil. She just seems to find it, maybe because she doesn’t understand English very well, let alone the peculiar customs and sayings on the frontier. When she learns she’s come to the wrong ranch replying to an ad for a mail-order bride, she doesn’t dissolve into hopeless tears. She starts rethinking her options.

For Lucia’s on a sacred mission. She hasn’t come west with everything she owns in trunks and crates on a mere whim. Perhaps the answer to her prayers is the flint-eyed young cattle boss with a weakness for sweets and a decent cup of coffee. He needs a new cook; she needs a husband and Travis Conley might be the perfect candidate…even if he doesn’t realize it yet.


Chapter One

"Sure picked yourself the wrong day to arrive in town, ma’am."

Why did they all keep saying that? Marone!

Lucia Montessano reminded herself to think and speak in English. Whenever she became confused or nervous, her mother tongue pushed the new language right out of her mind, making it all the more difficult to cope with American strangers like the station master or this wheezing driver for hire.

"You know the farm of Crockett?" she asked with a hopeful lilt in her voice.

"Yep. Outside town a piece." He reached to help her up into his rig. "I’ll get you and these goods out there…if my axles can hold out."

He mopped his brow with a spindly forearm and clambered up onto the seat beside her, tossing a wary look over his shoulder at the overloaded bed of his buckboard. "No help and the most dog-gone baggage I ever laid eyes on," he muttered. He released the brake lever and the wagon gave a crooked lurch as it rolled forward. Lucia watched the buildings and depot pass by, studying her surroundings in silence.

She could see this was not a large city, not like the one she’d come from. But she hadn’t known anything about this place, and certainly hadn’t expected she’d arrive on the day of some big event, which had all but emptied the shops and streets. She had fully anticipated her bridegroom would meet her at the station. True, when her brother Vincenzo sent his wire, he got no answering message back, but she had thought surely any man who would advertise for a bride would be anxiously awaiting her arrival. She never dreamt he’d leave her to fend for herself in a strange place.

The farmers and tradesmen she’d known back in Italy were much more considerate of their wives and families. But then, she reminded herself with a sigh, Italy was only a memory now, dimming with each passing month...right along with America’s promise of a better life. Hers had not improved since her family emigrated. It had recently grown more complicated.

Yet she couldn’t complain. She’d say nothing about the rude oversight today. She couldn’t risk angering the stranger she rode out to meet, couldn’t risk having him think her ritroso.

English, Lucia!

She concentrated, squinting, full, dark brows drawn into a frown. In English that word meant...difficult. Nasty or shrewish.

Oh no, this man Crockett must not think this of her. He was her only hope. She wouldn’t cause trouble or ask him to buy her new clothes or bonnets. This she knew American wives did. And she would try not to talk so much. Her father always said she talked too much. She had already grown quieter, more somber in dress and manner. Had stopped seeing reasons to laugh or chatter happily since the carriage accident that killed her two dear friends.

Now Lucia looked at the rolling landscape, realizing this town was not much more than a few clumps of buildings, not truly a city at all. What would her future husband be like? Would he be good-looking? Patient, kind, soft spoken? Old, young? In truth, it didn’t matter. She just needed his name. No fancy things, just a home and a man’s name. The man who’d advertised for a bride sought to wed as soon as possible. He hadn’t asked for the woman to be a great beauty or bring a dowry, only that she be clean and honest.

Lucia was a good Italian girl. Very, very clean.

* * *

Travis Conley’s lips halted in their descent to capture a taut rosy nipple. "Did you hear somethin’?" he panted, tensing with more than lustful desire. He could have sworn he heard a door slam. "Thought you said it was the butler’s day off and nobody was around."

Beneath him, sultry as the humid afternoon itself, Pearl Sweeney arched her back. "Nobody is."

"Ain’t no wind today," Travis hissed. "And even if there was, we didn’t leave the door open. Front door can’t shut itself."

A booming masculine voice penetrated the walls of the musk-scented bedroom. "Pearl! What’s come over you, daughter? You ailing?"

Travis didn’t know when he’d last moved so quickly. At the sound of Patrick Sweeney’s voice, Travis had somehow vaulted from the rumpled bed and gotten half dressed in one blur of movement. Fumbling with his jeans-clutching his boots, shirt and hat in one fist-he tried to close his fly and simultaneously unlatch a double-hung window.

"Pearl." The voice was harsh and rising up the stairs now.

"Lock the damn door," Travis ordered in a hiss.

Pearl sat up, gloriously naked, and casually shook out tumbled blonde sausage curls. She gave Travis a triumphant smile that sent his belly crashing down to his knees. "Sorry, the lock’s broken."

Oh Christ.

Then, in a clucking, verging-on-mocking tone, she turned to add, "And you’re not going to climb out that window. It’s a long way to the ground. My father will understand. This sort of thing happens more frequently than you might imagine." She got up and pulled on a gleaming pink satin dressing robe. "Why do you think Mary Sue Baker had to marry Tommy so suddenly last year?"

Was somebody teaching a class in how to trap your fella into marriage?

By now Travis had his ass perched on the windowsill. He gauged the distance to the section of roof below, overhanging the covered porch. Wasn’t that far, even if he fell. And compared to the alternative she had in mind, definitely the lesser of two evils. He’d take a broken leg any day over a ring through his nose. He glanced back at her before tossing his boots down to the dirt. "Tommy must be chicken of heights. I ain’t. Say howdy to your pa for me."

Thank God he’d tied Ole Rye around back, near the corral. Cursing and limping, with sharp little rocks digging into his feet right through his thick cotton socks, Travis crept around the side of the house and stopped to jerk his boots on. He leaped into the saddle of his bay gelding and whacked the horse’s rump.

"Damn that gal, anyway," he muttered to himself as he cleared the main lawn of the Flying Fist ranch. Now he knew why Pearl had asked to leave the town picnic early, why she’d been so eager to slip upstairs. Why she’d seemed more wanton than usual, claiming to need a second helping of his lovemaking.

Travis hadn’t expected Patrick Sweeney to come waltzing through his front door looking for his daughter less than an hour after they’d gone to her place. Pearl obviously had. It was a good thing she hadn’t bothered to act surprised. Travis would have horsewhipped her next time he met up with her if she’d thought him that darned gullible. She had a talent for displaying emotions she didn’t feel, but surprise wasn’t among them.

He couldn’t totally lay the blame for this at her feet, however. He’d known she was a scheming flirt almost from the first.

Oh, not when they met that day outside the general store. Then he thought she was a porcelain statuette come to life, a pure angelic vision in satin and lace. He’d never seen anything like her. He could still see her in his mind’s eye as she’d appeared that day-lace parasol spinning, her bustle twitching as she walked away, leaving him gaping in her wake. He’d bolted right back into the store to ask the proprietor who that incredible lady was.

Travis had been astonished to learn the new debutante in Pueblo was none other than the only child of his neighbor, Patrick Sweeney. It seemed unbelievable.

Sweeney was a beer-bellied, pugnacious Irishman with a walrus mustache and dangerously fanatical views. He owned the larger cattle spread across the creek from Travis’ own ranch-laughingly named Crockhead Rest. True to its moniker, stupid horses and their riders sometimes had little to show for a day’s work, yet somehow Crockhead had come into its own. It wasn’t big or anywhere near as impressive as the Flying Fist, but it was modestly successful. Travis had started it from nothing and made it a going operation-without charity from his affluent neighbor, whose "benevolence" would have carried too high a price.

Sweeney was a man of powerful influence around these parts, despite his often radical political opinions. Travis knew he’d only been permitted to purchase the parcel abutting Sweeney’s because Conley was a good Irish name and he was Presbyterian. Sweeney detested Catholics, Irish or any other variety, and made sure every banker and businessman in Pueblo and Canon City knew it. He didn’t want Papists settling within ten miles of his spread.

It was said this was because he’d been a two-fisted brawler in Dublin, forced to leave Ireland when the Ribbon Society-an equally radical group of Irish Catholics-swayed the laws to prohibit Protestants from owning land in Dublin town. Sweeney swore prejudice had claimed the life of his fragile young wife and driven him from his homeland. And because today he was a wealthy cattleman, nobody much questioned the other side to his story.

To Travis’ mind, Sweeney was a bloated, dictatorial, overzealous bigot. One ugly man, through and through. Travis was taken aback to discover Sweeney’s only child was the prettiest gal this side of the Rockies. One look at Pearl outside the general store that day and Travis had begun to pursue her, chasing her down until she caught him.

It was only after they’d been keeping company for a time that he realized she’d meant for him to become her steady beau. He’d stepped right into a pile of dung, too infatuated at the time to recall how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Pearl had a grasping, calculating nature of her own. She was darned fetching, and knew it. Which made her darned snobbish, too. And he’d discovered in the last few months just how crafty she could be.

Always a popular gal, Pearl had served as bridesmaid in three weddings over the past year. Tired of being one of the visions in pastel headed up the church aisle, she’d obviously decided to take her next stroll in white. Travis was supposed to stand there in his Sunday best as Pearl slipped the noose around his neck. She wasn’t above arranging for her pa to catch them in bed to make sure things turned out her way. Hell, she probably didn’t care if the whole town knew she’d been compromised, as long as she got that wedding ring she was hankering for.

Travis turned Rye along the worn perimeter track toward Crockhead’s ranch house and sighed, tugging his hat brim down to block the fading sunlight on the horizon.

It wasn’t as though he’d never thought about marrying Pearl. He wasn’t an idiot. But he was young still and unsure whether what he felt for Sweeney’s daughter would last a lifetime. Not that he believed in hogwash like love at first sight or the grand, sweeping passions in theater melodramas. He just knew he didn’t have close to what his brother felt for his wife, Sparkle. Of that Travis was certain and damned glad. He’d witnessed firsthand how hankering over a gal had damned near killed Rafe. Travis didn’t need Pearl that way. Neither did he have the abiding trust and faith his sister Miranda had for her husband. Both his siblings were married and happy.

But when Travis thought about settling on one gal for life...Oh, he freely acknowledged Pearl was exciting sexually. As far as that went, he couldn’t imagine tiring of her in bed. She was fine to look upon or kiss, every inch-from her dainty little toes to her fragrant blonde curls. But the truth was, Travis didn’t like her. They got along best when she shut up and minded her own business. When she just stood on his arm at local gatherings, like at the picnic today.

But she was nearly as opinionated and bossy as her pa. Travis could just picture her, setting down to breakfast every morning, listing his chores for the day. Fussing with his shirt collars or ordering him to see the barber, shine his boots. Always talking. Maybe if he kept a chicken leg stuffed in her mouth...or something else.

And that was just it. He couldn’t spend all his time in bed with Pearl. He had a spread to run. And problems with it just now that were a hell of lot more important than taking sensual pleasure or her determined yen for flowers and a wedding dress.

A rueful smile curled his lips. Some fellas probably figured marrying Pearl would solve his problems. Travis could quadruple his holdings overnight. There weren’t many ways a young rancher could do that, short of a miracle. But he knew Miss Sweeney was no emissary from St. Peter’s gleaming gates, despite her name and outward appearance.

He’d pictured the Double F brand on the flanks of several hundred head of cattle. That image was a damned good one. He could handle a big spread and its acreage, too. But the thought of Patrick Sweeney as his father- in-law...that Travis couldn’t swallow. He literally shuddered at the notion of putting up with that sonofabitch on a daily basis.

Travis might consider marrying Pearl some day. Might. But he sure wasn’t about to be danced up the aisle at the end of a shotgun barrel. If he married her, it wouldn’t be because Patrick ordered it or because Pearl had too many bridesmaid dresses in her closet. He’d ask her when and if he was ready to take on a wife, when Patrick was ready to pass the torch-if that day ever came. Travis knew it wasn’t about to come soon enough for Pearl. Too bad. He didn’t have time for her schemes.

He needed to find a cook for his ranch before he lost his whole crew.

Travis had started Crockhead with two employees, Joshua and Clara Abbott. Josh had been an experienced trail boss, the ideal ranch foreman; Clara managed the household chores and cooking. Josh had helped Travis expand his herd from a couple dozen steers to a serious operation. Eventually Josh hired other wranglers and Travis had built a separate bunkhouse. Along with a small cabin his brother had erected and used during the winter months.

Travis had always wanted his older brother to go in as a partner with him, but Rafe wanted no part of being a rancher. It turned out Travis hadn’t needed Rafe. With Josh Abbott’s experienced judgment and his own hard work, Travis had built Crockhead into a spread employing over twenty men, even more during cattle drives.

Things would have been just fine if Clara Abbott hadn’t died in her sleep one night.

Josh had come to Travis after the funeral, hat in hand, openly wiping at streaming eyes. He’d explained that everything about the ranch was too painful since Clara’s passing. He saw her everywhere. He couldn’t stay on, had decided to join his only brother out in Connecticut. In one fell swoop, the two people Travis had always relied upon were gone.

Replacing the ranch foreman had been simple enough. He’d promoted Randy Shea, his best cowpuncher. And Travis thought he’d been lucky about finding a ranch cook. Sourdough Freiling had volunteered for the job, asserting he’d earned his nickname years before down in Texas, working on a chuck wagon.

Toting the bucket of axle grease for that wagon, Travis surmised once forced to subsist on what Sourdough termed "chow."

Freiling claimed his cooking skills were legendary.

Travis couldn’t argue with that. Legends were spun from life’s horrors. Three men had quit in the last month alone, another the month before that, all citing bellyaches or weight loss as their reason. Biscuits, chipped beef on toast, fried eggs-Freiling incinerated all of it with indifference. It was a high compliment to call the sludge he brewed "coffin varnish." Once Randy Shea had literally checked the battered tin coffeepot for dirty boot socks. Travis lost a five-dollar bet when they didn’t find any inside.

They’d endured the awful food over the summer. Travis hadn’t been concerned about losing a few hands along the way. It was early autumn and he’d normally be forced to lay off several men in the coming weeks. There just weren’t chores enough in snow season to warrant a full bunkhouse.

But his priorities shifted when Shea began talking about greener pastures. Travis wasn’t about to replace another ranch foreman. If Randy went, too…well, if Travis didn’t want to end up the only man left at Crockhead Rest besides old Sourdough, he realized he had to hire an honest-to-goodness cook and housekeeper.

Serving on the Canon City planning committee for the big picnic, Travis had asked several of the town elders for a recommendation. There had been suggestions, all of them ludicrous. One man nominated his mother-in-law, a half blind old crow who literally couldn’t see to open a can of beans and pour them into a pot without spilling all over the place. And Carmichael’s thirteen-year-old daughter. Too young and so scrawny, the poor thing couldn’t heft a basket of dirty work pants, let alone carry it down to the creek.

Unable to find a suitable local gal, Travis had resorted to ads in big-city papers. He was certain some widow or spinster would take the position. He’d find someone who knew her way around a stove and prayed he found her soon.

"Boss, you won’t believe it. Glory be, but we got us a cook!"

Travis snapped out of his reverie as Mick Keenan rode straight at him, waving a battered hat in the air, hooting and hollering. Mick’s excitement didn’t count for much. He’d shout if they got corn snow or a prairie dog farted. "I said, Travis, there’s a gal down at the main gate."

Mick’s horse skidded up beside Rye and they headed back toward Crockhead rest. "You mean she’s already here?"

Now that was something. Travis had received only two inquiries from his ad. He wired details on working conditions to one Bostonian blue-blood, only to get a wire back that she’d turned down the job. The other gal had given an address in Wisconsin. Travis had written there several weeks ago and heard nothing more.

Had the danged female just shown up? Might have been nice if she’d let him know she was coming, so he could tidy up a bit. The irony of cleaning his house to impress someone hired to do it didn’t escape Travis. He simply couldn’t help himself. He’d always been compulsive about some things. His sister had raised him with strict standards and a certain measure of pride.

"Yessir, she’s here." Mick panted, out of breath. "Big as life. Got a stack of goods nigh the size of an elephant. Ain’t never seen a body travel with that much claptrap. Must be related to a...junk dealer. And-"

Travis cut in, knowing it was the only way to keep Mick focused on the point. "So she brought everything she owns, indicatin’ she means to stay on?"

"Yep. Oh, and one of them crate’s makin’ noises. Reckon she’s got somethin’ alive inside, but I didn’t get none too close. Thing is, uh-this gal’s real...well, she’s kind of what you might say…"

Mick pushed his hat back over his scraggly thatch of brown hair and seemed to search the horizon. This was a bad sign. Rare for Mick to be at a loss for words. Usually they spilled out of him, end over end, until someone shut his yap.

"What? What is she?" Travis demanded. "Wrinkled? Covered in liver spots? Don’t tell me you figured I’d hire some ravin’ beauty, who’d be dyin’ to make the acquaintance of you dumb cowpokes."

"Wouldn’t quite call her that, but she sure as hell ain’t wrinkled or got no liver spots. No sir."

"I don’t get it," Travis mused, frowning. "She wrote she was on the far side of fifty." He slowed Rye as a peculiar sensation crept up his spine. Something about this whole business felt very wrong.

Mick spat a stream of chaw. "Reckon that ain’t rightly so, Boss."

"Maybe she lied about her age. Womenfolk’ll do that."

"Could be. If I was to reckon on it, I’d say this gal’s old enough to do the job, but young enough so we’d all want to watch while she does it. If you take my meanin’." Mick waggled an eyebrow suggestively.

Travis swore under his breath. The womenfolk Mick ogled were usually worth slobbering over-buxom and curvaceous. Brazen sorts. Anything but spindly and prim housekeeper material. "Thought you said she ain’t pretty."

"Not Pearl Sweeney pretty," Mick corrected. "Packaged like a painted cat. Kind you’d pay to unwrap, only not so gaudy." At Travis’ scowl, Mick coughed and added, "Not you personally, Boss. Didn’t mean that. But most of us fellas ain’t got a steady gal, so we visit bawdy houses and-ahem. Anyhow, this here gal, she ain’t from these parts. She’s some kind of ferner."

"Some foreign whore’s lookin’ to work on my spread?"

"Hold up there! I didn’t rightly declare her a fallen angel," Mick clarified, looking indignant. "Said she got a figure like one. Think she’s Portuguese or some such. Couldn’t make out most of what she spouted, but she waved a pot at me and Gilmore, so we figure she means to cook. It’s the other part we ain’t too sure about."

Travis nudged his gelding forward faster. "Ran an ad for a cook and housekeeper. Anybody can figure that means she’s expected to do the wash and mendin’, along with sweepin’ up and such."

Mick spat the last of his chaw and nodded. "Has her a broom, ’long with every other damn thing a woman could own. Don’t seem skittish about chores. Nope. But…well, you’ll probably say I gone loco, but Gilmore thought the same thing. Danbers, too. They both heard when she was rattlin’ at me in that weird talk, though I allow maybe we misunderstood."

Turning in his saddle, Travis gave a final warning glare to the idiot beside him. Mick had worked at Crockhead long enough to know that look meant Travis was nearing the limits of his patience. Tugging his hat back down, Mick inhaled and spit out something even nastier than wet chaw.

"She mentioned the newspaper. But I swear she says she came to marry up with you."