Authors: Starla Kaye
They stared at each other for a couple of seconds. Adam Braddock was such a complicated man, an emotionally wounded man. She shouldn’t care about him anymore after how he’d treated her these last months, after he’d rejected her over and over. And she should hate him for wanting to discipline her like this. She reminded herself that she had decided to forget the feelings she’d had for him for so long. Yet something had changed between them, somehow. She didn’t understand what it was or why it had happened, but there was something in his eyes as he looked at her. If there was even the tiniest amount of hope that they might have a future together…
She gripped the shelf in front of her again and braced herself. Whatever softening he felt for her now, she knew he meant to make her pay for pursuing him when he hadn’t wanted it, for forcing him to lower the walls he’d built around himself. She decided the fleeting pain would be worth the small amount of progress she’d made with him.
He held her in place with one arm and sent the brush down hard once more. “Your father is right. You need a man strong enough to handle your stubbornness, your willfulness.”
She sucked in a shuddery breath as he sent six more stinging swats down. They were horrible and she hissed with each one. Still she managed to protest, “I need a man strong enough to love me, and let me love him.”
“A man who loves you will also need great patience.” He swatted her again. “He will keep a paddle and be ready to apply it firmly from time to time.”
She gasped and shuddered at the next swat. When she caught her breath, she said with determination, “He may discipline me as he feels needed, but I will love him nonetheless. He will own my heart…and I will own his.”
She felt him hold the brush against her burning bottom, but she bravely added, “Adam, I love you.”
To her surprise and regret, he stepped away, let her clothing fall back into place. He set the brush on the counter and said wearily, “But I cannot love you back.”
Dry Fork was being over–run with women arriving on one stage after another for the last two weeks. Angelica and Faith watched from the mercantile’s window as another three women left the stage depot and headed for the Dry Creek Hotel. As far as Faith knew, the hotel was full up.
She turned to Angelica. “It looks like you’ll have more guests.”
Angelica sighed and shook her head in amusement. “Strangest situation ever, having the rooms above the saloon taken over by a bunch of single women. And not the kind who sometimes make use of those rooms.” She winked at Faith. “Not that I have any idea what those ladies do upstairs.”
Faith was well aware of what happened in the privacy of those rooms, but she didn’t care. She knew the four “ladies” involved and liked them. They’d all had hard lives before finding their way to Dry Fork and the Tumbleweed Saloon. She also knew Angelica hadn’t had an easy life either, although her friend had never actually talked about her life before she came here. Which was fine with her. But she did find all of what was happening with the arrival of these numerous mail–order brides amusing. Jennie did not. She was currently furious with all of the Braddock brothers, which amused Angelica and Faith even more.
“How are your regulars taking this change?” Faith turned from looking out at the street with its heavier than usual traffic of wagons and riders, cowboys who came into town more and more to ogle the new women.
“At first there was a lot of grumbling about their being ‘inconvenienced.’” Angelica grinned. “Now, though, I think most of them are kind of enjoying having so many ladies around. A couple of them have even been trying to do some courting.”
They heard footsteps on the boardwalk and irritated women’s voices. Faith didn’t have to look to know it was the newest three women headed for the Tumbleweed. The proper ladies didn’t like being turned away from the hotel and told the only rooms available in town were in the saloon, and those were fast filling up.
“It looks like you’d better go take care of your new boarders,” she said. The other good thing about having all these women in town was that her mercantile’s business had picked up considerably.
Angelica nodded and stepped toward the doorway at the same time Jennie came storming inside. She stopped, raised a dark eyebrow, and asked, “What’s got you so fired up now?”
Jennie’s chest puffed out and she snapped, “All of those women! Daniel! Adam! Ben! Caleb!”
Faith watched Angelica’s lips twitch as she struggled to keep from outright laughing. She really enjoyed seeing the Braddock brothers in trouble.
“What have they done now?” she questioned and took a second glance outside. She stiffened at the sight of a stunning redhead stepping onto the boardwalk. The woman in her early twenties had to have spent days travelling by stage and yet she looked fresh as a daisy, not a hair out of place from the chignon she wore. Faith’s own red hair never looked so neat. No matter how hard she tried, a strand here or there managed to slip free of being pinned back or staying in a braid. She fought to keep from reaching up to check her hair.
Evidently Angelica noted her discomfort. “You’re every bit as pretty as that woman.” When Faith glanced at her, she added, “Adam only has eyes for you anyway.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Faith drew in a frustrated breath. Still, she felt her face heat. “I’ve barely seen him these last couple of weeks. He’s stopped popping in to check on me…not that I care.” Liar. She’d been angry with him for denying that he could ever love her, but she’d still looked for him to come pester her like he’d done after she’d gotten hurt.
Jennie marched across the store, her long skirt swishing around her ankles. She planted herself behind the main showcase, obviously prepared to help out today even though Faith hadn’t asked her to do so. Her pretty face pinched in irritation. “I’d say Adam is the stupidest of the Braddock brothers, but he isn’t. They’re equally foolish.”
“Again I ask, what have they done now?” Faith studied her friend. Yet a part of her didn’t want to know.
“Where do I start?” Jennie settled onto the stool behind the case, her back rigidly straight. She blew out a breath in an attempt to calm down, but it wasn’t working.
“Surely it isn’t that bad.” Faith’s stomach was knotting in anticipation. Whatever it was that had Jennie upset, Faith sensed she wouldn’t like it either. Maybe that’s why Jennie seemed to be having trouble actually spitting it out.
“Come on, Jennie, tell us,” Angelica prodded. “I’m dying to know, but I’ve got to go check in my newest boarders.”
Jennie tipped up her chin and blurted out, “They’ve decided to send off notices about needing potential husbands for all of these women. As if we don’t have enough chaos here now!”
She shook her head and went on in barely controlled fury. “I told Daniel that he and Adam have caused enough problems. This whole thing needs to be stopped.” She heaved a sigh. “But I don’t suppose there’s a way to stop this flood of women coming.”
Angelica looked cautiously at Faith. “Do you know who exactly came up with that idea?”
Now Jennie glanced uneasily at Faith. “Adam,” she admitted quietly.
Faith bristled. “Oh really!” She’d told her friends that she and Adam had argued about her wanting to send a notice off about her looking for a mail–order groom. How he’d torn up her letter. She hadn’t told either of them about how he’d spanked her about such foolishness…well, and other things, he’d said. How dare he! How double–dang dare he!
She stomped into the back room and came out with a piece of vellum, a pen, and a bottle of ink. “I should have done this before now. Right after he tore up my first letter.” She set everything down on the closest glass case so hard she was lucky the inkbottle didn’t break.
Angelica walked over and put a hand to stop Faith from opening the inkbottle. “Why bother? If they have already sent out word about needing mail–order grooms, your problem is solved.” She looked at Jennie. “Have they?”
Jennie huffed. “I don’t know. Daniel just told me about their plan last night. But I suppose one of them could have given a letter or two to the stage driver, who’ll be leaving Dry Fork before long.”
Faith glanced down at the paper. Maybe the men had handled her problem, without meaning to. But if a notice hadn’t been sent, then she would pen one herself. First, though, she wanted to confront them…Adam specifically.
Determined now, she moved from around the case to the open door. “I’ll just go and find out.” Then before either of them could stop her, she hurried next door to the barbershop.
* * *
Adam sat in the barber chair furthest from the window, watching Daniel and Caleb. His brothers had ducked in here just as the stage had pulled into town. As if they were in hiding. In truth, he figured both of them were, but for different reasons. Daniel had grumbled upon walking in that Jennie was still barely speaking to him about this whole mess he’d caused. Caleb was trying desperately not to be spotted by the near two dozen single women who had already shown up in answer to the ads for mail–order brides.
“I still don’t understand your problem,” he said curiously to Caleb. “You’ve got your pick of ladies now. There’s more arriving every day. Surely you can––”
Caleb, usually the more calm and easy–going of the Braddock brothers, turned to level a sour look in his direction. “I don’t appreciate you two butting into my personal business. Sending for a bride for me was…well, damn wrong.”
“Now, preacher boy, you shouldn’t be cussing like that,” Daniel chastised. He turned from the window and shook his head sadly at his younger brother. “You were being too darn picky about choosing a woman from the ones available around here. We just wanted to give you more choices.”
“What you’ve done is cause a whole lot of problems. You’ve brought all of these women out here hoping to find a husband–in specific, me–to settle down with.” He eased away from the window, clearly worried one of the women would spot him. “Even if I chose one, there would be a couple dozen other women gravely disappointed.”
Daniel perked up. “So one of them has caught your notice?”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “You are missing the point. You’ve brought women here with no means of taking care of themselves, with false hopes. And no, I haven’t found myself a bride. Because I am not interested in looking for one right now.”
“You don’t have to get all hostile.” Daniel looked annoyed.
“I ought to pack up and move away. Don’t think I haven’t been seriously considering doing just that.” Caleb glowered at his oldest brother.
In a way, Adam felt sorry for him, even if he’d had a part in this situation. He didn’t want anyone pushing him to get married again, not that his brothers hadn’t tried. He was trying to hide out from the women, too. It wouldn’t take long for them to learn he was available as well. His thoughts turned to Faith, as they did far too often. She was the worst of the whole lot of husband–hungry females. She’d been after him for too long, fought against accepting his refusal to court her.
Just as he was working up a good mad, he recalled her quiet “Adam, I love you” spoken even as he’d burned her bottom with the hairbrush a couple of weeks back. Hell. The words had haunted him ever since.
He shifted in the chair, couldn’t quite find a comfortable position. Again, he’d tried to convince her to give up on him. He remembered exactly what he’d told her: ‘But I cannot love you back.’ He meant it, too. He couldn’t let himself love her.
“Did you get some letters to the driver?” Caleb asked and pulled Adam from his musings.
“I figured Adam would take too long writing them up, so I did it. Gave them to my deputy to give to the driver.” Daniel looked from brother to brother, clearly pleased with himself.
Adam inwardly groaned. Sure they had an abundance of single women running around Dry Fork now. But given time the single men living in the area on the various ranches would probably take care of the problem. He hadn’t been serious when he’d mentioned they should send off for some grooms. If Faith ever found out…
Naturally, with his luck of late, she came bustling in the open doorway. She shot Daniel and Caleb withering looks before striding over closer to him. Her green eyes sparked with annoyance. Her normally pale complexion was pink with temper.
“You are such a hypocrite!” she accused, planting her small hands on her shapely hips.
He sat up straighter, annoyed that his brothers were listening avidly. “What are you talking about?” Of course he was pretty sure why she was angry.
“My letter. You had the nerve to tear it up, not let me send off for a mail–order groom.” She stretched to her full, still short height. “Yet you decide to send off for grooms for those women.”
Daniel foolishly stepped into her view. “Actually, Miss Paddington, it was Adam’s suggestion. But I’m the one sending those letters off today.”
She pinned him with a look that clearly told him what an idiot he was. “Does Jennie know it was you who wrote them, who’s posting them? Oh, she knew about the lot of you talking about this plan…and to say she’s more than a bit annoyed with you would be putting it far too lightly, Sheriff Braddock.”
Adam was giving some thought to easing from the chair and seeing if he could escape out the back door. Chicken, yes. But he really didn’t want to have another verbal war with Faith right now. But her focus darted back to him. Oddly she looked calmer now and that worried him more than her anger.
“However, as Angelica pointed out when I was going to write a new letter, I needn’t bother.” She gave him a smile as if she’d won this battle. “When these men start coming to town, all I need to do is make known that I’m available as well.”
He curled his fingers around the arms of the chair and ground his jaw. “The hell you will!” This was actually why he’d changed his mind about this latest plan. He glowered at Daniel. This was all his fault!
Of course she ignored his outburst and concentrated on Daniel again. This time she flashed him a smile. “So, Sheriff, it appears you have actually done me a favor. Perhaps I’ll even put in a good word to Jennie for you.” With that she went sailing back out of the shop.