Read His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3) Online
Authors: Merry Farmer
“Yes, well, my brother, Jacob, thought so too,” she told him with a wry twist in her tone. “Mama and I worked, and Jacob collected our earnings and spent it on liquor and women.”
Travis scowled. “Did he?”
Wendy hummed. “There wasn’t much we could do about it, either, two women attempting to stop a young man who was considered our superior because of his gender.” She shook her head. “Jacob was a fool. He could potentially turn violent when he was drunk, but more often than not, he was drunk somewhere else and came home with a sore head and an empty pocket.”
“I see.” Travis frowned. “So that sort of thing is enough for you to end up in Hurst Home?”
“Not exactly.” Wendy lowered her eyes, taking a drink of water before going on. “I hope I’m not being vain when I say that I am a very good seamstress.”
“Did you make that dress you’re wearing?” Travis asked.
His lips twitched to a grin. “Then you’re honest, not vain.”
Wendy smiled. Her smile faltered when she went on. “When I discovered that the white women working at the dress shop were being paid twice as much as me, I asked my employer, Mrs. Tomlinson to meet that wage.”
“What did she say?” Travis leaned forward, engrossed in her story.
“No.” Wendy arched an eyebrow, old indignation rising up in her gut.
Travis swore under his breath. It was kind of him to react that way, but also ignorant.
“I threatened to leave if she didn’t match the other women’s wages. Still she refused.”
“What did you do?”
Wendy shrugged. “I left.”
“Good for you.” He smiled.
Wendy winced, picking up her fork and pushing it through her mashed potatoes. “No one else in Memphis would hire me. Mama was sick at that point, and I was the only source of income for the family. Suddenly, we had none. Jacob went into a fury.”
“Did he hurt you?” Travis gripped his fork as though it was a sword.
“No, he hurt himself. He tried to rob a store and was caught and sent to jail. I haven’t heard from him since.”
Wendy shook her head, gratitude in her eyes. “Jacob made his own bed.”
“What about your mother?” Travis asked.
Wendy shrugged. “Memphis wouldn’t have us, so I took her to Nashville. I was able to get a job at another establishment like Mrs. Tomlinson’s shop, but I still wasn’t paid a decent wage.”
“That doesn’t sound right at all.”
“It isn’t,” Wendy agreed, “but that’s the way things are.” She paused before continuing with, “Mama passed last year. There was nothing I could do for her aside from making her last days comfortable.”
Travis reached across the table, laying his hand on top of hers. “I’m truly sorry.”
An unexpected lump formed in Wendy’s throat. She twisted her hand up to squeeze his. “Oddly enough, without Mama to take care of, I grew bold.”
She nodded across the table to him with a proud smile. “I attempted to establish my own dress shop in Nashville.”
Travis met her announcement with a wide grin. “Good for you. How did it go?”
She was tempted to laugh at his innocent enthusiasm. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
He blinked. Realization dawned. As he withdrew his hand to continue eating, he said, “I suppose it’s hard to build a brand new business in a town as big as Nashville. There must be a lot of competition.”
“Exactly. I don’t regret trying, though. And I was fortunate enough to gain one vital client.”
Wendy grinned. “Mrs. Breashears.”
“Well I’ll be.” Travis laughed. The way he hung on her every word, so interested in the banal details of her life, was the greatest endorsement of his suitability as a husband that she could have.
“When I was forced to close my doors, I ran out of money. Mrs. Breashears heard about that, about the potentially disastrous situation I might find myself in, she opened the doors of Hurst Home to me. I did manage to find work and was saving up to try again when your brother sent notice that he wanted a wife.”
Travis laughed outright now. “I guess it must be fate, then.”
“That the two of us would end up together.”
The warmth that had been spreading through Wendy’s chest suddenly twisted up to something far more tender and exciting. It wasn’t just Travis’s eyes that made him handsome, it was his mouth too. He had a beautiful smile, lips that not only spoke, but expressed the words he said. Those lips had felt so tender against hers. Perhaps she would get to feel them again soon.
She didn’t realize that they were doing nothing but gazing at each other until Travis cleared his throat and said, “My story isn’t as interesting.” He set to work cutting another piece of steak, but a flush had formed across his cheeks. “I was raised up near Seattle. Pa had a timber operation, but it failed. After he died, Ma went to live with my sister, Annabelle, when she got married. Mason, Cody, and I moved down here to take a job with Howard.”
“Mason? There’s another one?”
“There is,” Travis laughed. “But don’t worry, he’s—”
The pleasant conversation was cut off by a voice that Wendy recognized. Twin jolts of dread and fury shot through her gut. She turned to find the rude man from the train striding toward their table. The four young women he’d met at the station were seating themselves around a table at the other end of the room, sending curious looks her and Travis’s way as they whispered to each other.
Travis’s expression hardened to neutrality. “Bonneville.”
Wendy held her breath, darting a look between Travis and the rude man—Bonneville. She clasped a hand to her stomach. Dear heavens, was this the man Travis was about to go to work for?
Bonneville stopped at the edge of the table. His lips curled into a sneer as he looked down his nose at Wendy. “What are you doing, sitting down to table with
A numb flush of anger sped through Wendy and she sat straighter.
Travis stiffened, answering through clenched jaw, “Well, sir, Wendy here is my—”
“Never mind. I don’t really care who you dabble with in your spare time,” Bonneville charged over him. Barely stopping for breath, he said, “I was hoping I’d run into you in town. It saves me having to make a trip out to Haskell’s ranch to discuss our deal.”
Still bubbling with insult, Wendy darted a sideways look to Travis, wondering how the man she’d married and entrusted her life to could make any sort of deal with someone like that.
Travis set his knife and fork down, cleared his throat, and glanced across the table to her. “Excuse me,” he whispered before standing to face Bonneville toe-to-toe. “No offense, sir, but could this wait until later?”
Bonneville barely acknowledged Wendy was still present before leaning closer to Travis with a supercilious look in his eyes. “So you
want to finalize my offer and start work at my ranch?”
Travis crossed his arms, tilting far enough back from Bonneville to break the coziness of their conversation without appearing to back down. “Yes, sir, I do. Now more than ever.” He darted a quick look Wendy’s way. “But I’m occupied at the moment.”
Bonneville broke into a shark-like grin. “So? Unoccupy yourself. This is more important than a dalliance with the town’s newest whore.” Before Travis could protest, Bonneville went on with, “I want you out at my ranch by the end of next week.”
“I’ll head out there tomorrow, if you’ll just give me a contract to sign.”
Bonneville’s face pinched. “My lawyer in Cheyenne is still examining some of the clauses I want to include in our deal.”
“What clauses?” Travis’s voice held as much suspicion as Wendy felt watching him. She didn’t know enough about Haskell, ranching, or either of the men standing in front of her to make a judgment, but then again, she didn’t need to in order to see when trouble was on the horizon.
“Nothing out of the ordinary.” Bonneville brushed the question off. “Just some things about bonuses, and an anti-competition clause.”
“A what?” Travis asked, confirming her suspicion.
“It’s nothing,” Bonneville replied with a smug grin. “You’ll earn double whatever you’d make on your own either way.”
Travis shook his head in disbelief. “On my own?” He shifted his weight and stared Bonneville down. “Mr. Bonneville, you know that my goal is to own my own ranch, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, of course.” Bonneville waved the question off, but the look in his eyes was too shifty for Wendy’s comfort.
Travis’s expression lightened. “At least we’re clear on that.”
“We are,” Bonneville growled. “But I won’t tolerate betrayal from any of my employees,”
Travis recrossed his arms. “It’s not exactly betrayal if someone earns his money fair and square, then spends it on whatever he sees fit, now is it?”
Bonneville narrowed his eyes. “We’ll see.”
“Papa,” one of the girls called from the table at the other end of the room. “Papa, we’re ready to eat.”
“Melinda, can’t you see he’s in the middle of a conversation?” one of the younger sisters—who seemed a tad more subdued than the other three—asked.
“Shut up, Honoria,” Melinda snapped without looking at her. “Papa, come back at once.”
“In a minute, poppet,” Bonneville called back to his daughter. He fixed his gaze on Travis with a final blast of command. “I’ll have the contract to you soon, and I’ll expect you to be settled in at my ranch by the end of next week.” He thumped Travis on the back. “This is your ticket to a better life. And you won’t have to go fishing for mullet when you could have salmon swimming right into your arms.” He tossed a disgusted glance in Wendy’s direction before thumping Travis on the arm. “Think about it.”
Without waiting for a reply, he gave a quick salute, then turned and marched off.
Travis let out a tense breath that turned into a disbelieving grunt, then slipped back into his seat. “I am truly sorry for that. Bonneville thinks he can throw his weight around because he’s a member of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.”
All of the questions and comments Wendy had in the wake of the confrontation coalesced into, “What?”
“The Wyoming Stock Growers Association. They’re a bunch of the more prosperous ranchers in Wyoming. Supposedly they help regulate and organize the cattle industry, but in practice they regulate and organize the government of Wyoming.”
“Oh. I see.” She wasn’t sure if she did, at least not entirely, but she knew about wealthy bullies and the way that they treated people they thought they owned. “So are you going to move out to his ranch, next week then?” More importantly, was she going to be stuck living on the land of a man who had insulted her so grievously?
Travis picked up his fork with a scowl, poking at what was left of his steak. “Yes, I suppose. All this time I figured I could put up with Bonneville’s…Bonneville-ness. Suddenly I’m not so sure, especially since…” He let his sentence face and glanced up to meet her eyes.
Wendy didn’t need words to know he was thinking about her—the responsibility he hadn’t known he was taking on when he woke up that morning. Did he have enough money to support her without turning to the wretched Bonneville? Was she about to become a financial burden?
“I fully intend to work, if I can,” she announced, a little too forcefully and without realizing what she was saying.
Travis’s brow shot up. “I wasn’t asking you to work if you don’t want to.”
Embarrassment rushed in where her determination fell off. “Oh. I didn’t think you were. Exactly. It’s just that…” She squirmed in her seat, finally giving up and throwing up her hands in surrender. “This isn’t exactly what either of us had planned. I understand if you’re not prepared. I was resigned to giving up sewing in order to be a wife and mother someday, but if it would help you not to be at the mercy of a man like that…”
A ghost of a grin returned to Travis’s lips. “Is that what you
to do? Sew?”
The very thought of being able to start over, to try again to build a business in this new town filled her with sunshine. “Yes,” she answered with a smile. “Very much.”
“All right then.” Travis relaxed into his chair, setting his fork beside his plate without taking a bite. “If you want to sew or start a dress shop or something like that, I won’t stop you.”
“Really?” She blinked. “Do you mean that? You wouldn’t mind it if your wife worked outside of the home?”
Travis shrugged. “I don’t suppose I would. You’re obviously talented, and I can see in your eyes that you love it.”
“Thank you, Travis.” She brimmed over with joy far more powerful than she expected. The chance to try once more to start a dress shop was even more fantastic than marrying and having a home. “That’s kind of you. Many husbands wouldn’t feel the same way.”
She was left tingling with possibility. It was the first time she’d called him by his given name, the first time she’d referred to him out loud as her husband. It brought a flush to Travis’s handsome face.