His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3) (9 page)

BOOK: His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3)
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“Was that what I was doing?”

She glanced up to meet his eyes as she finished writing down Lucy’s order. The sparkle those eyes contained and the pearly white of her teeth against the dusk of her lips sent Travis’s pulse soaring. The booth was suddenly far too small and hot, in spite of only having three sides, and there they were, standing almost flush against each other.

Piper had reached the booth’s window and cleared her throat. Travis jerked back. He hadn’t realized how close he and Wendy had gotten until he saw the teasing grin on Piper’s face.

“Well then,” Piper said. “I was going to ask you to make me a visiting dress with a bustle and high collar, but if you two are busy…”

“No, not at all.” Wendy smiled and cleared her throat, facing front and focusing on business. “A visiting dress with a bustle it is.”

 

The flurry of activity around placing orders lasted for a solid half hour. After that, those who hadn’t already stepped away to eat lunch with their families grew too tired of pouring over dress designs to continue. Honestly or through coercion, by the time Mr. Gunn came around to count how many orders both Wendy and Melinda had secured, they were in a dead heat.

“We’ll begin the sewing portion of the contest tomorrow morning at the hotel,” he announced. “I’ll put together a schedule for taking measurements for each of your orders. Mr. Kline has said he’ll bring all the fabric in his store over for you to use.” In an aside he added, “Howard Haskell has agreed to pay for it,” then finished with, “Each of you ladies has your assistant, and if all goes well, you’ll all be stitching away for the rest of the week.”

“If all goes well,” Wendy murmured after Mr. Gunn had left to tell Melinda what he’d told her.

Travis paused halfway through unpinning her dress designs. “Why do you say that? Why wouldn’t it go well?”

Wendy raised her eyebrows at him. “Do
you
trust Miss Melinda Bonneville?”

Travis blinked, then softened into a chuckle. “I’ll give you this much, Mrs. Montrose. You may not have been in Haskell long, but you’re bright as the sun when it comes to guessing people’s motives and sizing up their character.”

She shouldn’t be so tickled that he’d called her ‘Mrs. Montrose,’ implying she was his. She chose to brush past the fluttering in her chest to give a doubtful hum. “It doesn’t take much to size up the character of some people,” she said as she finished taking down her sketches on the opposite side of the booth from Travis. “Especially when you’ve encountered far too many people with the same sort of opinions.”

She shuffled her drawings and circled around the back of the booth and inside to add them to the portfolio where she’d been keeping them. Travis didn’t reply immediately. She was just beginning to wonder what he’d made of her gloomy statement when he stepped into the opening at the back of the booth.

“So, you’ve run into a lot of folks who are prejudiced?” His head was tilted slightly down, though his eyes met hers like twin arrows. He handed her the pile of drawings he’d unpinned.

In spite of the seriousness of his question, Wendy laughed. “I would very much like to say that you get used to it after a while.” She took the drawings from him and added them to the pile with the others. Turned half away from him, she said, “I’d
like
to say that, but you never do get used to people thinking things about you that have nothing to do with who you really are.”

Travis thrust his hands into his pockets and inched deeper into the booth. “I hope that I’m getting to know who you truly are.”

The intensity of his gaze and the closeness of the booth gave Wendy the illusion that they were completely alone instead of standing in a church yard with more than fifty people just a few yards away. It didn’t help her to find the right words to say how she felt, though. All she could come up with was, “And I hope I’m getting to know you for who you really are.”

A warm smile spread across Travis’s lips. He still looked as bashful and flustered as a schoolboy walking out for the first time, in spite of being every inch the man. The booth heated up in spite of the nippy, autumn day.

“I’m just a simple man from Oregon,” he said with a shrug. “I grew up around trees, and now I’m surrounded by cattle. All I want’s to work hard and be good.”

The flutter in Wendy’s chest intensified around her heart. She suspected there weren’t many men out there who could state such pure intentions so eloquently.

“We have that in common, then. I only want to work hard and be good as well.”

His brow shot up and he straightened as if she’d handed him a prize. He slipped his hands out of his pockets as the smile he wore grew and grew. She turned to close her portfolio, but before she could pick it up, Travis’s arms slid around her waist.

She barely had time to gasp before he stepped close to her, pulling her into the warmth of his broad, well-muscled chest. He lifted one hand to brush his fingers against her blushing cheek, then brought his mouth slanting down over hers. A rush of tingles spilled through Wendy as he kissed her, one hand cradling her face, the other held firm at the small of her back, keeping them together. His lips were warm and gentle, exploring hers.

He teased his tongue against the seam of her mouth. She couldn’t help but let him in. As his tongue slid along hers, she sighed deep in her throat and leaned into him. His hold on her turned more possessive, which only sent the swirls and tingles raging through her. They sank into her core, pulling with heated intensity at parts of her that had only just begun to awaken. The wild thought that she wished her breasts were free as they rubbed flush against him seemed both mad and perfect. And all the while, his mouth treated her to such delight that her good sense could only revel in the sensations he was causing in her body.

“So what, is this a kissing booth now?”

The snap in Cody’s voice as he approached the booth and knocked on the side was like plunging into a cold lake. Travis jerked back, tension hardening his body even further. Wendy had somehow wrapped her arms around him and felt every muscle harden before she let go. The pulsing heat and taste of Travis wouldn’t soon leave her.

“What do you want?” Travis’s voice was rough as he stared at his brother through the booth’s window.

Cody took a step back, holding up his hands in defense. “I just wanted to tell you that the game is starting soon, and I haven’t seen you or her eat yet.”

“Her name is Wendy,” Travis practically growled. A heartbeat later, he shook his shoulders loose and took a breath. “We haven’t eaten. Is there anything left?”

Cody took his time replying. His brow had furrowed into a stern frown, and he rubbed his chin as he eyed his brother. At long last, and with a tone of suspicion, he said, “Yeah. Eden Chance set aside a couple of plates for the two of you, figuring you were busy.”

“How very kind of her.” Wendy smiled, although the air between the brothers sizzled with confrontation. “Could you tell her we’ll be right over as soon as we finish cleaning up the booth? And be sure to let her know that I’ll help her with whatever clean-up she needs to do.”

Cody tore his eyes away from Travis and stared at her. He let his hand drop from his chin, but didn’t sound enthusiastic when he said, “I’ll let her know.” He marched off before Wendy or Travis could say another word.

The tension left Travis’s shoulders all at once, and if Wendy wasn’t mistaken, he let out a colorful expletive. “I’m sorry about that,” he sighed.

There was nothing to do but to put the most innocent interpretation on Cody’s behavior. “I suppose I’d be awkward too if I was faced with the woman I’d turned down and the man who rescued her.”

Travis turned fully toward her, arching one brow. “That’s a mighty forgiving way to look at it. I was going to say that my brother is a first-rate ass.”

Wendy giggled in spite of herself. It was a blunt statement, one with a questionable word in it, but somehow she liked it. She didn’t even mind his cursing. It was so very Travis.

“Small children are easier to manage when given sweets than when smacked,” she said, reaching for her portfolio and clutching it to her chest.

“And Cody is about the smallest child you’ll find in these parts,” he finished her thought.

“Mmm.” She tilted her head with a knowing grin, then stepped out of the booth. “Time heals all trials.”

“I suppose it does.”

Travis followed her out of the booth and walked by her side toward the long table where Eden Chance and a few other women were cleaning up. At some point when she and Travis had been distracted, the majority of the townsfolk had migrated across the church yard to the baseball field.

“One last thing,” Travis continued, swaying closer to her. She turned her glance up to him, questioning in her eyes. A grin tweaked the corners of Travis’s mouth, and he lowered his voice to say, “Think I might get another kiss at some point?”

Hot, fluttery excitement zipped through her, causing Wendy to both blush and giggle like a girl half her age. “I think that might be arranged.”

“Good.”

Travis straightened, and they walked on with a more proper amount of space between them. All the same, he reached out to hold her hand.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

Wendy woke bright and early Monday morning, dressed in one of her more serviceable outfits, grabbed her sewing box and portfolio full of sketches, and headed downstairs before the sun had made it all the way over the horizon. Her plan was to get a look at The Cattleman Hotel’s ballroom early. Mr. Gunn and his staff had set it up for the competition late on Sunday and during the night, before things got busy. She expected to tip-toe unnoticed into the room to survey the space she would work in, but she was in for a surprise.

“I want that table over there,” Melinda barked to her sister. “Move these things right now. And move those bolts of fabric to my table while you’re at it.”

Honoria clenched her jaw as she gathered stacks of fashion plates, sketches, and notions into her arms and moved them to a table five feet away from the one where they had been. “You’re not supposed to hoard the fabrics.”

“Shut up. I’ll do as I like.” Melinda crossed her arms and tilted her nose up.

Her youngest sister, Bebe, made a move to the table that held dozens of bolts of fabric and cards of lace and trim in the center of the room.

“What are you doing?” Vivian stopped her with a shrill shout. She stood by Melinda’s side. The two of them together looked more like an advertisement for couture than a seamstress and her client.

“I was helping?” Young Bebe cringed as she backpedaled and faced them.

“That’s Honoria’s job,” Vivian snapped. “Yours is to—” She froze at the sight of Wendy standing in the doorway.

Whatever Bebe’s job was, it was none of Wendy’s business.

“Good morning, ladies.” She greeted them with a smile and strode fully into the room, making her way to the table full of fabric in the center.

Two work areas had been set up at either end of the ballroom. Each contained a series of empty tables, a roll of foolscap, and folding screens that Wendy assumed were there to create private areas where measurements could be taken. She breathed in the crisp scent of new fabric as she reached the table and smoothed her hand over the bolts. Her blood surged with the drive to get started, to create and lose herself in the creation.

“Don’t touch that.” Melinda broke away from Vivian to dash up to the table and yank the bolt of linen printed with tiny violets away from her. “It’s mine.”

“The fabric is for both of you to use,” Honoria informed her sister, coming to stand between Melinda and Wendy. She turned to Wendy with a brief smile and said, “Hello.”

“Well, I’m going to need every bit of this.” Melinda clutched the bolt of linen to her chest. She tilted her chin up, turned on her heel, and marched off to the far side of the room, where Vivian and Bebe were waiting to whisper with her behind their hands.

“Sorry,” Honoria sighed. “I can get the linen back for you if you need it.”

Wendy’s heart bled for the poor woman. She seemed sweet and genuine—totally different from her sisters, though she shared their honey-colored hair, blue eyes, and trim build. Honoria bore a weariness that the other three didn’t have, though, and it was no secret where that came from.

“Honoria!” Vivian shouted for her.

“Don’t worry.” Wendy leaned closer to her before Honoria could walk away. “If your sister wants to make every woman in town a dress out of the same fabric, we should let her and see how that affects her business.” She added a conspiratorial wink for good measure.

“For the love of God, Honoria, get over here now!” Vivian shouted even louder.

Honoria returned Wendy’s wink with one of her own, then rushed off to join the circle of her sisters.

Wendy sighed and left the fabric table to take her sewing box to the empty tables at the opposite end of the ballroom from the Bonneville sisters. She could be friends with Honoria Bonneville, if her sisters would allow it. But there didn’t seem to be much chance of that.

“Ah, ladies. I see you’ve arrived before I have.”

Wendy had just open her sewing box and begun to arrange her sketches across one empty table when Mr. Gunn swept into the room. He was dressed in his uniform—which seemed more like a finely-tailored formal suit than simple hotel livery—and his white hair was combed back in perfect order. The Bonneville sisters gasped and jumped, spinning around and wedging together as though they were trying to hide something behind them at the sight of him. Wendy left her sewing things to meet Mr. Gunn in the center of the room.

“The fabric is for common use, ladies,” Mr. Gunn said without a second of hesitation. “It must be kept on the center table unless you are cutting it, and then only three bolts at a time. Miss Honoria, would you bring the bolts Miss Melinda has set aside back to the center table?”

Honoria’s lips twitched, although she kept her eyes averted from her sisters as she said, “Yes, sir,” and rushed to do what Mr. Gunn asked.

Melinda and Vivian hissed and hummed and did everything in their power to get Honoria to stop in a way they probably assumed was subtle. Mr. Gunn didn’t acknowledge their efforts. He clapped his hands together in front of them and smiled.

“I trust you are as excited about this competition as I am.”

“Oh yes,” Wendy answered, sparkling with anticipation.

Melinda, Vivian, and Bebe shuffled forward with false smiles and vicious eyes.

“I don’t see how it is going to be much of a competition,” Melinda said. “We all know where talent does and does not reside.”

“Yeah, and she doesn’t even have an assistant,” Bebe added.

“I’m here, I’m here.” Olga swept into the room, right on cue, out of breath and wearing her hotel maid’s uniform. “Sorry I’m late. It was the oddest thing. I had clean clothes in my room last night, but when I woke this morning, my wardrobe was empty.”

“You’re here now. That’s all that matters to me,” Wendy reassured her. She raised an eyebrow and glanced to the Bonneville sisters. None of them dared meet her eyes, or Olga’s or Mr. Gunn’s. So that’s how they were going to play this.

“There’s a crowd of women in the lobby already,” Olga went on, pressing a hand to her chest, eyes bright. “Preston is trying to serve them breakfast, but not a one of them wants to take time out for it. They’re all eager to have their measurements taken for the dresses.”

“Then I see no reason to delay them,” Mr. Gunn said. “But first, a reminder of the rules.” He looked directly at Melinda as he spoke.

Melinda gave him her prettiest, most falsely innocent smile.

“The fabric is for
both
of you to use,” Mr. Gunn stressed. “It will remain on the center table unless you are in the act of cutting or measuring it. I’ve asked a few of Haskell’s more prominent citizens to be present to help enforce that rule. Mr. Pete Evans will be here shortly.”

“Mr. Evans?” Vivian made a disgusted face.

Melinda kept her charming grin where it was. “I’m sure there is no need to have anyone regulate
my
behavior. I can’t say the same for…well, for less desirable sorts.”

Wendy exchanged an unexpected smirk with Honoria. She’d had worse comments thrown her way. Melinda was an amateur when it came to insults. Honoria seemed to share Wendy’s opinion. The two of them were forced to look away from each other to keep from laughing.

“Second,” Mr. Gunn went on, “We will break for an hour at noon each day for lunch, and all sewing must be completed by eight in the evening. At that time, you must leave your work and return home, or to other parts of the hotel in your case, Mrs. Montrose. The ballroom will be locked at night to ensure no outside work is done.”

“That hardly seems fair,” Melinda complained.

“I understand.” Wendy nodded.

Melinda glared at her, but Wendy kept her composure.

“All right.” Mr. Gunn clapped his hands again. “Seeing as we have ladies eagerly waiting already, I’ll let them in so that you can begin taking measurements.”

Wendy’s pulse soared. “Thank you, Mr. Gunn.” If she’d known how excited this competition would make her feel, she would have sought something like this out before.

“Yes, thanks,” Melinda rushed to add. She spun away from Mr. Gunn and Wendy, dragging Honoria away to the far end of the room as Vivian and Bebe whispered their plots at her from either side.

Wendy turned to Olga, shaking her head. “I assume they’ll be trouble.”

“Of course.” Olga smiled, surprisingly bright. “Bonnevilles are always trouble. It’s their purpose in life.”

The two of them shared a laugh and started off toward their end of the room.

“Can you take measurements?” Wendy asked as she veered off to organize her drawings and check on the foolscap for pattern-making.


Ja
, in my sleep,” Olga answered proudly.

“Good. Then I’ll set you to work taking those measurements while I cut pattern pieces.”

The plan was a solid one. Minutes later, the ladies of Haskell were let into the room. It was as if a whirlwind had been let loose in the ballroom. Wendy wasn’t the only one filled with excitement. The walls rang with chatter and laughter as ladies lined up to have their measurements taken and to give the seamstresses their opinions on fabrics. Mr. Pete Evans showed up shortly after the doors were opened looking as though he’d rather attend a lecture on paint drying. He stood guard by the fabric table and did his duty well, though. Twice he caught Bebe attempting to slip a bolt of something or another away when clearly Melinda wasn’t anywhere near ready to start cutting.

Toward the end of the initial burst of activity, while Wendy was pinning together stacks of pattern pieces she’d cut as Olga finished with each of her client’s measurements, Travis strolled into the ballroom. Wendy caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye. It was as if every ounce of energy in the buzzing room swarmed around him, lighting him up. Her heart leapt to her throat, and she jabbed herself with a pin. Travis scanned the room, brow lifted in surprise, and when he spotted her, his entire body relaxed into a smile.

Wendy raced to organize her piles of pattern pieces, then stepped around the end of the table to greet him with, “Travis, how nice to see you. What brings you into town in the middle of the day?” She was well aware of the tremor in her voice…and of the half dozen sets of curious eyes focusing on the two of them.

Travis slowed his steps to a downright strut as he closed the distance between them. “I thought I’d stop in and see how my lovely wife is faring with her dressmaking enterprise.” He reached for her hand and raised it to his lips.

Several of the ladies watching sighed and giggled. Wendy’s cheeks flushed bright red.

“The competition has only just begun.” She was amazed that she managed to put more than two words together on end. “We’re just finishing up measurements, and I’m cutting pattern pieces.”

“Pattern pieces?” Travis blinked, his smile shifting to curiosity. “How does that work?”

“Um.” Wendy glanced down to her hand. Travis still held it, his thumb brushing across her knuckles. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts enough to say, “Dresses are made from patterns, but when designing a new style, the seamstress has to create the pattern.”

“Oh.” Travis smiled, his eyes never leaving hers. “I didn’t know it was that complicated.” He continued to hold her hand.

“It isn’t
particularly
complicated,” Wendy tried to explain. “Just a necessary part of the—”

“Honoria, you clod!”

Melinda’s shout from the other side of the room turned everyone’s heads. Travis dropped Wendy’s hand and frowned at the scene unfolding in the Bonneville camp. Honoria was bent over one of the tables, pencil in hand. At the other end of the table, much closer to Bebe than Honoria, the roll of foolscap had been knocked off the table and had run away and unrolled like a child’s toy. With her expert eye, Wendy noted that Melinda hadn’t cut out a single pattern piece. In fact, she wasn’t even standing close to the table. She was too busy preening in the center of a group of her friends.

She laughed as soon as she noticed the attention she’d gathered. “That Honoria. She’s so clumsy,” she said, overloud. “But I can assure you, she’s just my assistant. She’s no one important. Now, tell me again about that exclusive, difficult embellishment you want on your hem, Mrs. Kline?”

“Is she doing any work at all, or is she having Honoria do it?” Travis asked, leaning closer.

Wendy breathed in the fresh, rustic scent of him, nearly forgetting the question. “I don’t expect she’d be able to finish her orders in time if she relied on Honoria to do it all.” She tilted closer to him and added, “But I wouldn’t put it past her to try.”

A giggle from behind brought home just how close she and Travis were standing. She cleared her throat and stepped away, turning to find Estelle Tremaine and Olivia Garrett smiling at her.

“Are you certain you’ll be able to get your orders finished with such a delightful distraction standing by?” Estelle teased her.

If Wendy wasn’t already hot and flushed, she would have turned scarlet. She liked Estelle and Olivia, so rather than wilt under the comment, she grinned and replied, “Perhaps charming husbands should be banned as unfair distractions?”

BOOK: His Bewildering Bride (The Brides of Paradise Ranch - Spicy Version Book 3)
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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