His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3) (8 page)

BOOK: His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3)
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Apparently there was no keeping secrets from this man. “Is it that obvious?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Mr. Gunn spread his arms to underscore his point. “As I understand it, you agreed to come out to Haskell to marry Cody Montrose, expecting he was more like Solomon Templesmith, and ended up married to Travis. If it were me, I would be baffled and upside down.”

“Yes, I do feel like an acrobat in a traveling show,” Wendy admitted.

Mr. Gunn shifted his position, leaning closer to her. “Let me ask you this. Which troubles you more, the whispers that your marriage might not be legal or the lack of time you’ve had to spend with Travis?”

Wendy flushed as if he’d pointed out a smudge of dirt on her face. The answer was both and neither. She still couldn’t push her mind past the vast differences in lifestyle that she and Travis were accustomed to. It seemed like such a selfish and trivial thing to cling to the hope of living in town, as much as she longed to become closer to her sudden husband.

“I’m assured by a great many people that Howard Haskell will ensure my marriage to Travis is legal,” she answered carefully.

The sharpness in his eyes said Mr. Gunn saw right past her evasion tactics. Regardless, he answered, “Would you feel better hearing those assurances from Howard himself?”

Wendy sat straighter, not realizing she’d drooped as they’d talked. “Do you think that would help?”

Mr. Gunn shifted, absolute seriousness painting his expression. “Can you ride a horse or drive a wagon?”

Her disappointment returned. “No.”

“Hmm.” Mr. Gunn rubbed his chin. “I suppose I could spare Olga for the afternoon.”

“Olga?” She shook her head in confusion. “For what purpose?”

“To take you out to Paradise Ranch,” Gunn said.

Wendy caught her breath. Could she actually go out to where Travis was, uninvited and unprepared? Would he be glad to see her or would she only be in the way?

“To speak to Howard Haskell, of course,” Gunn went on, a cunning flash in his eye.

“Howard Haskell,” Wendy repeated.

“Yes. It is my belief that a visit to Paradise Ranch will be just the thing to lift the worry from your shoulders.”

“I suppose so.” Wendy had a hard time believing the purpose of her visit would truly be to speak to Howard, but she sighed and began gathering her sketches and supplies. “All right. I suppose finding out that much, at least, would set my mind at ease.”

“Good.” Mr. Gunn stood. “I’ll have Olga run down to the livery to borrow Herb Waters’ wagon to take you.”

Before Wendy could think to ask questions or argue in any way, she was sitting on the bench of the same wagon Travis had given her a tour of the town in, driving under an iron arch that bore the words “Paradise Ranch,” her heart in her throat.

“It’s been weeks since I’ve come out to Paradise Ranch,” Olga chattered as they drove on. “It’s such a pretty stretch of land.”

Olga was right. Even though the bloom of summer had given way to the crispness of fall, the wide plains and turning trees of Paradise Ranch were a sight to behold. Mountains rose up in the distance. Wendy still couldn’t get used to the sheer size of those mountains. Here and there, cattle wandered the closed-in fields. She even saw a few calves as they grew closer to the cluster of buildings that Olga explained was Howard Haskell’s patch within the ranch. His sister, Virginia Piedmont, had her own patch deeper into the ranch’s boundaries.

“Olga, what brings you out here?” One of the ranch hands left his work shifting hay bales from the back of a long hay rick into the biggest barn Wendy had ever seen.

“Billy!” Olga returned the man’s greeting with girlish enthusiasm and hopped down from the wagon almost before the horse had stopped. “I brought Mrs. Montrose out to see Howard Haskell.”

No one rushed to help Wendy down from the wagon. The way Olga and Billy were making eyes at each other, Wendy figured no one would come either. Suppressing a chuckle, she gathered her skirts and worked out how to climb down from the wagon in her heeled boots.

“Howard’s not here,” Billy told her when she was finally on the ground, regaining her balance and smoothing her skirt.

Wendy blinked when she realized he was addressing her. “What?”

“He’s gone into town.” Billy shrugged, walking around the wagon to give Wendy a hand as she picked her way over uneven ground, some of which was dotted with things she’d rather not step in. “He spends every Wednesday at his office in town, dealing with ‘city business,’ as he calls it.”

Wendy froze. She was tempted to plant her hands on her hips and shake her head. Mr. Gunn had fooled her. The man was far too clever not to know Howard wouldn’t be at his ranch. He’d sent her to Paradise Ranch for an entirely different reason, one that wasn’t hard to guess.

“I see. Well, is…is Travis here?” She cursed herself for feeling foolish about asking for her own husband.

Billy grinned, then nodded to the barn. “He’s in there, working on something you might like to see.”

“He’s…what?” She glanced to the barn, brow creased with a frown.

Billy chuckled. “Travis hasn’t been able to talk about anything but you and your upcoming sewing competition since Sunday. He got this idea and…well, you can go on in and see what he’s been doing.”

“Thank you, Mr.…”

“Billy. Just Billy. We’re not formal around here.”

“Thank you, Billy.”

Wendy picked up her skirts, half ashamed that she was so concerned with dirtying a few yards of fabric and half loathe to ruin hours upon hours of needlework. Everything around her as she walked carefully to the barn was unfamiliar—the sight of so much open land, the scents of animal and hay, and the sound of cattle lowing. It did carry a certain peace and simplicity to it, though. She could understand why a man like Travis enjoyed living this sort of life. Whether she would ever feel at home in it was another story.

A new sound—a hammer pounding against wood—greeted her as she walked into the barn. Even with several doors at ground level and in the loft above open, the light was dimmer inside. It took Wendy’s eyes a moment to adjust and to figure out what the hammering was. As soon as she saw, her brow flew up.

“Whatever are you making?” she asked, stepping carefully closer to Travis.

He worked near the center of the barn, in the light cast by one of the open doors. He was constructing what appeared to be a huge wooden box with a window in front. At the sound of her voice, he bolted straight and stared at her.

“Wendy, what are you doing here?” He fumbled his hammer, and a blush came to his face, but he smiled.

Swirls of giddiness that seemed utterly out of place with the confusion she’d felt earlier or the purpose for her journey tickled through her. How could she forget how handsome her husband was when he had been stopping by the hotel to see her at least once a day? In spite of the mess of the barn and the sawdust that covered him, Travis still made her heart speed up.

“I…I came out to see where you live.” Technically, it wasn’t a lie. Mr. Gunn may have sent her to Paradise Ranch on false pretenses, but in her heart she knew what he was up to.

“Oh.” Travis stood there, staring at her for a moment. He shook himself out of his thoughts and said, “Oh, well, as long as you’re here, come take a look at what I’m making for you.”

“For me?” No one had ever made anything for her. She was the one who made things for other people.

“Yeah, it’s for Sunday,” Travis explained. “When you’re going to be courting all those dress clients.” He stood beside his wooden box and gestured to it, full of pride.

Wendy squinted, embarrassed that she couldn’t figure out at a glance what it was. Even though she was still in the dark, she said, “It’s lovely.”

Travis snorted and shook his head. “Here, I’ll show you.”

He set his hammer down and reached over to lift the box on end. Standing upright, it looked more like a door, a closet…no, a booth. Understanding dawned, especially when she noticed a shelf nailed at the bottom of what must have been the booth’s window.

“I figured you could talk to people and sketch and show them designs, like the ones you’ve been making at the hotel, here,” he said, knocking on the shelf. “And if you have other designs ready, we can tack them to the sides here and on that side.” He touched the side of the booth. “A little fancy paint and maybe some fabric swatches to draw the eye, and I’ll bet not a single lady will be able to keep from slapping her eyeballs on your designs come Sunday.”

Wendy pressed a hand to her chest. She never would have thought of making a booth and displaying her designs like that. If left to herself, she likely would have walked around with a shuffle of loose sketches, only able to show her work to one woman at a time. Now she would be able to talk to individuals while others perused designs as they waited their turn. Not only was Travis’s idea practical and forward thinking, the fact that he’d gone ahead and made it for her touched her deeply.

“It’s perfect,” she said, smiling from ear to ear. “This will help so much.”

“I hoped you think so.” Travis lowered his shoulders in relief and glanced bashfully to the side.

“You sure you don’t want me to speak to Mrs. Haskell about letting you two move into the Hen House for a little…you know?”

Wendy nearly gasped as Mason Montrose stepped out from around the corner of a stall deeper in the barn.

“Mason,” Travis snapped, out of breath as if he too had been surprised. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Not like you do.” Travis’s brother winked, sending a whole new pink flush across Wendy’s face. She wouldn’t have been half as embarrassed by Mason’s teasing if part of her hadn’t been thinking the same thing.

“I shouldn’t get in your way,” she whispered, stepping away from Travis and her booth. The trouble is, she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

No, the real trouble was that she didn’t know how to simply tell her husband—her
husband
—that she would like to spend more time with him, that she would like to walk out with him and get to work figuring out how they were going to live a married life together. No one had given her lessons or instructions on how to be married or how to speak to a man about intimate things.

“No, don’t go.” Travis lunged after her, as if she’d tried to flee in panic. His hand closed around her forearm, sending electricity straight through her. He met her eyes with unspoken tension, lips working as if he couldn’t figure out what to say to her either. “Stay.”

Wendy’s heart twisted in her chest. It was one thing for her to be clueless about marriage, but Travis clearly didn’t know what he was doing either. Heaven help them, how was this going to work?

“Have you ever seen a baby cow?” he asked, his grip on his arm easing up. He didn’t let her go, though.

Wendy shook her head. “I’ve never seen a grown-up cow before. At least, not up close.”

An amused, heart-warming grin spread across Travis’s face. “We had a baby girl born just this morning. She’s only a few hours old. Come out this way and I’ll show you.”

“I don’t know the first thing about animals or barnyards or ranches,” she rushed to confess, resisting when he tried to pull her on.

Travis slipped his hand down to hold hers. The contact of palm on palm radiated warmth all the way up Wendy’s arm. “There’s a first time for everything, right?”

“I suppose so.”

He stepped closer before nudging her to walk along with him. “Don’t worry. Cows are docile animals. They’re sweet, really. I’ll be right here, and I’ll keep you out of harm’s way.”

Those simple words left Wendy’s heart rolling over in her chest. She didn’t want to see a bunch of cows, babies or otherwise. She wanted to throw her arms around her husband, rest her head against his shoulder and tell him how long she’d waited for someone to say that they would keep her out of harm’s way.

Instead, she put on a smile and went with him, summoning the courage to face a paddock full of animals, who she was certain could trample her in a heartbeat. But at least she was with Travis. At least they were taking another tiny step along the path of figuring out their strange new life together.

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

By the time church let out on Sunday and the congregation filtered out into the cheery October sunlight, Travis was buzzing with excitement. So was the rest of Haskell. It was a surprisingly balmy day, the potluck tent had been set up in the church yard, and everyone was eager to get a look at the sketches Wendy and Melinda had made during the week. The snap and sparkle of competition was in the air.

“Is this what you spent all your time making these last few days?” Luke Chance teased Travis as he busied himself setting up the booth he’d constructed for Wendy.

Wendy was already hard at work, explaining some of the finer points of her designs to a small circle of Haskell women on the far side of the booth. In just a few minutes, if Luke stopped bothering him, he’d be ready to start tacking the designs to the sides, like he and Wendy had planned.

“Yep,” he answered Luke’s question with a grunt after fitting one of the shelves in place inside the booth for Wendy’s convenience. “What do you think?” He took a step back and studied his work.

Luke sidled closer. “I think you’re downright smitten,” he drawled.

Travis frowned at him, unable to fight the heat that came to his cheeks. “I am not,” he grumbled. “I just want to be a helpful husband. I’m not technically working, so I had time to do it. Wendy deserves a solid booth to show off her designs. She’s a fine woman and very talented too. This town is lucky she’s here.” He paused his hurried rambling as Luke’s grin grew. “Is it that obvious?” he sighed.

Luke chuckled and thumped him on the back. “Women will do that to you.”

As right as he was sure Luke was, Travis still winced. Since Wendy was busy, he pivoted to face Luke and lowered his voice. “Why in the hell is it that I can lead a massive cattle drive, see a dozen heifers through giving birth in one day, organize a team of men, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell to say around a woman who has already legally and rightfully married me?”

Luke chuckled, but then his grin dropped. “You two still sure it’s legal?”

Travis shrugged. “Howard says it is.”

Relief loosened Luke’s shoulders, and he thumped Travis’s back again. “I suppose some men have a knack with women and some don’t.”

“That doesn’t help me.”

Travis frowned and rubbed the back of his neck, stealing a glance at his wife. The more he looked at her, the prettier he thought she was. The other day, when she’d surprised him out at the ranch, he’d been worried that she was too refined for the muck and mud of the barn and paddock in fall calving season. She
was
too refined, and he’d felt terrible about the state of her boots by the time Olga drove her back to the hotel. But as crazy as it seemed, he liked that about Wendy. She
was
more sophisticated than half the ladies of Haskell. She was divine. But did he deserve her?

“The important question,” Luke cut into his thoughts, in a low voice that no one else could hear, “is have you…
you know
…yet?”

Travis frowned at his friend. “
That’s
the important question?”

Luke held up his hands in defense. “All I know is that a man and his wife can work out a lot of things that way when they can’t find words for stuff.”

Travis crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes.

“Although I’m pretty sure Eden could talk about any of that stuff with or without…you know,” Luke rushed to add. “But for me,
that
says it all.”

Travis stared at him, then said, “So you’re telling me that the best way for me to tell my wife that I like her and respect her and want to get started planning our life together is to invite myself up to her hotel room and kick off my boots?”

“Yep,” Luke answered without hesitation, grinning from ear to ear.

Travis continued to stare at him, relatively sure Luke was out of his mind, then twisted to glance at Wendy. She turned toward him at the same time, and their eyes met. Such deep, dark eyes, with beautiful lashes that brushed against caramel-sweet skin. Thoughts of more than just kicking off his boots slammed into him, sending a horrifically inconvenient tightness to his trousers. Yeah, he’d like to invite himself up to Wendy’s hotel room, all right. Just like he’d like to earn himself a slap that knocked half his teeth out.

“Wendy is a lady,” he reminded Luke.

Luke didn’t have time to reply. Wendy excused herself from her circle of potential clients and crossed to Travis and the booth.

“Is it ready?” she asked, laying a gloved hand on the freshly-painted side of the booth, excitement in her eyes.

“Yep,” Travis answered, as skittish and eager as a stallion in spring. “Here, let’s tack your designs up on the sides.

It wasn’t until ten minutes later, when the outer walls of the booth were papered with Wendy’s fashion sketches and half the women of Haskell were humming and pointing that Travis realized he’d utterly forgotten about Luke. He spun around to search for his friend, but Luke was long gone.

But another storm was just blowing in.

“What is this ugly monstrosity?” Melinda Bonneville declared as she flounced across the church yard toward Wendy’s booth.

Travis stepped away from the booth’s window—where Wendy had just settled herself and her sketching supplies—with a frown. Nothing good could come out of an encounter like this, but nothing good could come out of him stepping in the middle of women’s business either.

Melinda’s sister, Honoria, followed behind her, carrying a ledger and a pencil. “It looks like a display booth for Mrs. Montrose’s designs. How clever.”

“Shut up, Honoria,” Melinda grumbled. She pushed aside two of the women who were pouring over the designs tacked to one side of the booth, leaning in to get a look at them herself. Worry flooded her expression, but it was quickly replaced by scorn. “You can’t possibly think that she drew all of these herself, can you?” she asked the circle of potential clients.

“They look hand-drawn to me,” Lucy Faraday, who was one of the women studying Wendy’s work, said.

A few others hummed in agreement. Travis smiled, sending a proud wink to Wendy.

Before Wendy could react, Melinda snorted. “Any fool can copy a picture out of a magazine.”

Beside her, Honoria glanced down, cheeks flushed in guilt, pressing her open ledger and the loose pages of designs close to her chest.

Wendy stepped out from her booth to face the Bonneville sisters. “I can assure you, ladies, all of these sketches are originals.”

Honoria met the declaration with a smile of admiration—a smile that Wendy returned—but Melinda sniffed and tilted her head up.

“We’ll see,” she said, then turned her back on Wendy. She squared her shoulders and put on a powerful, preening smile. “Anyone who’s anyone in Haskell knows that my dressmaking talents are second to none. And anyone who lowers themselves to support this stranger in our midst… Well, let’s just say that there may not be as many seats at the table for the Bonneville sisters’ annual harvest tea this year.”

Travis snorted with laughter. That was supposed to be a threat?

He was surprised a moment later to find half a dozen women staring at him like he’d drowned a kitten. “It’s just a tea party.” He defended himself with a shrug.

More than a few of the women clucked and shook their heads at his apparent ignorance.

“Well, perhaps it’s about time Haskell hosted two harvest tea parties,” Lucy said. “A little competition never hurt anyone.” She directed her comment straight to Melinda.

Melinda’s nose and chin tilted up even further. “I wouldn’t know about that. All I know is that you ladies have known me for years. Loyalty should count for something.”

“Loyalty is a delightful thing.” Wendy was quick to step into the center of the growing circle of Haskell ladies. “Fashion is a wonderful thing as well. I have no doubt that Miss Bonneville here is an accomplished seamstress—”

Honoria coughed and continued to hide her face with one hand.

“—but as sophisticated, modern-thinking women, I’m sure you will all be interested in incorporating the latest European designs into your wardrobes.”

“And you think you have those?” Melinda sniffed.

With her back straight and her expression no more hostile than a confident smile, Wendy answered, “I was privileged to have access to some of the latest fashion periodicals from Paris, Rome, and London while living in Nashville, Tennessee. I made a diligent study of the trends that are sweeping Europe, particularly the royal houses of England, France, and Prussia.”

A chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” rose from the women. A grin tweaked the corner of Travis’s mouth. So women were impressed by royalty? He leaned against the side of the booth, taking note of other nuggets he could learn from the conversation.

Melinda was looking a tad pale. “Who cares about a bunch of stuffy monarchs anyhow? It’s Paris fashion that really counts, and
I’ve
studied that.”

Travis glanced to Wendy, waiting to see how she would attack. She only smiled, avoiding Melinda’s scowl, and gestured to the booth. “Perhaps you ladies would like to examine my sketches, then tell me what elements you are looking for in a gown.”

“I know I would,” Lucy said, then stepped right past Melinda to squint at one drawing in particular.

“Well, I wouldn’t expect the likes of
you
to know fine fashion when you see it.” Melinda turned up her nose. “But Mrs. Kline, I’m shocked at you.”

Portly, middle-aged Mrs. Kline—who was examining a drawing on the other side of the booth over the top of her glasses—jolted at the sound of her name. “What?”

Travis dodged out of the way as Melinda stormed past the booth to confront the hapless woman. “My father holds the deed to your husband’s store, doesn’t he?”

Mrs. Kline gaped, the color draining from her face. “Well…I…that is…” At last, she sighed, sent one final, longing look at Wendy’s drawings, and lowered her shoulders. “I suppose he does.”

“Good.” Melinda grinned with victory. “Honoria will take your order for a dress. Honoria!”

With a start, Honoria skittered forward, opening the ledger to show Mrs. Kline Melinda’s drawings and to write down her commission.

“And you.” Melinda grabbed hold of Florence Milligan’s arm, dragging her away from the booth. “My father paid for half of your husband’s medical supplies, did he not?”

“Howard Haskell paid for the other half,” Mrs. Milligan grumbled.

Melinda pursed her lips, scowled, and said, “We’ll miss you at the tea.”

“Hold on, hold on.” Mrs. Milligan held up her hands. “I was only looking. I haven’t seen your drawings yet.”

“Honoria!” Melinda barked. “Show Mrs. Milligan my drawings.”

Melinda pushed Mrs. Milligan in Honoria’s direction, then turned to see who else she could bully or drag away from Wendy. Travis still didn’t intervene. Enough women had politely lined up at Wendy’s booth that she had skipped around the corner to begin taking orders. Travis was less worried about whether she would get orders than he was about her ending up with too many.

“Do you have help for this competition?” he asked, stepping inside of the booth to see if there was a way he could lend a hand.

“Yes, Olga Rasmussen, the maid from the hotel, was a seamstress in Sweden. She said she’d be my assistant.” In spite of the flurry around her, Wendy kept smiling.

“Oh, Olga is good with a needle,” Lucy said as she stepped up to take her turn putting in an order. “I had her sew a few baby clothes for me when Barrett started growing so fast we ran out.”

“Olga Rasmussen.” Melinda bit out the name as if it were sour. “
Her
?”

“She’s quite talented,” Honoria whispered.

“I didn’t ask you,” Melinda snapped.

Travis began to rethink his stance of not getting involved. Honoria might be a Bonneville, but no one should be spoken to like that.

Melinda had already moved on, though. “You, Piper Strong. You need to place an order with me.”

Piper was already standing in Wendy’s line, but Melinda attempted to drag her to the side. Piper shook her off and planted her fists on her hips.

“I like Mrs. Montrose’s designs,” she said, point blank. “I want to see what she can do.”

“Really?” Melinda’s eyes went wide and her color flared high. “Is that so?”

“It is.”

“Well, we’ll just see if your brother…” She stopped.

Piper broke into a sly grin. “You’ve got nothing to hold over me or my family, do you?”

Melinda balled her hands into fists and grunted in frustration. “We’ll just see about that.” She stormed away from Wendy’s line, yanking Honoria and a few other women along with her.

Travis let out a low whistle and leaned closer to Wendy. “Boy, I tell you, people have a thing or two to say about how dangerous bulls can be, but it seems to me that the heifers are the ones to really watch out for.”

Wendy burst into a fit of giggles that she tried to hide with a gloved hand. “It’s not polite to refer to your neighbors as heifers,” she scolded him in a warm whisper.

BOOK: His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3)
7.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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