Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy
But snooty? How could Seth say that? They were slandering her and, far worse, insulting Griff. She needed to defend her husband, but Griff hated emotional displays. How could she fight them without showing all the rage that boiled inside her? As the hole grew, something started to grow in Cassie that overcame her grief and fear.
That shovel rose and fell. Dirt flew in a tidy pile, and she hated Red for keeping to the task. She wanted to run at Red, screaming and clawing, and force him to give Griff back to her. But she feared unleashing the anger roiling inside her. Griff had taught her to control all those childish impulses. Right now though, her control slipped.
“A time or two I’ve seen someone who looks to be snooty who was really just shy…or scared,” Muriel said.
Red kept digging, determined not to join in with this gossip. But not joining in wasn’t enough. He needed to make them stop. Instead, he kept digging as he thought about poor Cassie. She’d already been tucked into Muriel’s back room when he’d come to town yesterday, but he’d seen Seth bring Lester Griffin’s body in. He couldn’t imagine what that little woman had been through.
“When’s the last time she came into our store?” Seth asked. “Most times she didn’t even come to town. She was too good to soil her feet in Divide. And you can’t argue about fancy-dressed. Griff ordered all her dresses ready-made, sent out from the East.”
Everything about Cassie Griffin made Red think of the more civilized East. She never had a hair out of place or a speck of dirt under her fingernails. Red had seen their home, too. The fanciest building in Montana, some said. Board siding instead of logs. Three floors and so many frills and flourishes the building alone had made Lester Griffin a laughingstock. The Griffins came into the area with a fortune, but they’d gone through it fast.
“That’s right,” Muriel snipped.
ordered them. A spoiled woman would pick out her own dresses and shoes and finery, not leave it to her man.”
Seth shook his head. “I declare, Muriel, you could find the good in a rattlesnake.”
Red’s shovel slammed deep in the rocky soil. “Cassie isn’t a rattlesnake.” He stood up straight and glared at Seth.
His reaction surprised him. Red didn’t let much upset him. But calling Cassie a snake made Red mad to the bone. He glanced over and saw Muriel focusing on him as she brushed back wisps of gray hair that the wind had scattered from her usual tidy bun. She stared at him, taking a good long look.
Seth, a tough old mule-skinner with a marshmallow heart, didn’t seem to notice. “This funeral’ll draw trouble. You just see if it don’t. Every man in the territory’ll come a-running to marry with such a pretty widow woman. Any woman would bring men down on her as hard and fast as a Montana blizzard, but one as pretty as Cassie Griffin?” Seth blew a tuneless whistle through his teeth. “There’ll be a stampede for sure, and none of ’em are gonna wait no decent length of time to ask for her hand.”
Red looked away from Muriel because he didn’t like what was in her eyes. He was through the tough layer of sod and the hole was getting deep fast. He tried to sound casual even though he felt a sharp pang of regret—and not just a little bit of jealousy—when he said, “Doubt she’ll still be single by the time the sun sets.”
Muriel had a strange lilt to her voice when she said, “A woman is rare out here, but a young, beautiful woman like Cassie is a prize indeed.”
Red looked up at her, trying to figure out why saying that made her so all-fired cheerful.
Seth slung his beefy arm around Muriel with rough affection. “I’ve seen the loneliness that drives these men to want a wife. It’s a rugged life, Muriel. Having you with me makes all the difference.”
Red understood the loneliness. He lived with it every day.
“She’s a fragile little thing. Tiny even with Griff’s child in her belly. She needs a man to take care of her.” Muriel’s concern sounded just the littlest bit false. Not that Muriel wasn’t genuinely concerned. Just that there was a sly tone to it, aimed straight at Red.
Red thought of Cassie’s flawless white skin and shining black hair. She had huge, remote brown eyes with lashes long enough to wave in the breeze, and the sweetest pink lips that never curved in a smile nor opened to wish a man good day.
Red thought on what he’d say to draw a smile and a kind word from her. Such thoughts could keep a man lying awake at night. Red knew that for a fact. Oh yes, Cassie was a living, breathing test from the devil himself.
“China doll’s the perfect name for her,” Muriel added.
Red had heard that Griff called his wife china doll. Griff never said that in front of anyone. He always called her Mrs. Griffin, real proper and formal-like. But he’d been overheard speaking to her in private, and he’d called her china doll. The whole town had taken to calling her that.
Red had seen such a doll in a store window when he was a youngster in Indiana. That doll, even to a roughhousing little boy, was so beautiful it always earned a long, careful look. But the white glass face was cold and her expression serious, as if someone neglected giving the poor toy a painted-on smile. It was frighteningly fragile. Rather than being fun, Red thought a china doll would be a sad thing to own and, in the end, a burden to keep unbroken and clean. All of those things described Cassandra Griffin right down to the ground. Still, knowing all of that didn’t stop him from wanting her.
Cassie got to him. She had ever since the first time he’d seen her nearly two years ago. And now she was available. Someone would have to marry her to keep her alive. Women didn’t live without men in the unsettled West. Life was too hard. The only unattached women around worked above the Golden Butte Saloon and, although they survived, Red didn’t consider their sad existence living.
“You’re established on the ranch these days, Red. Your bank account’s healthy.” Muriel crouched down so she was eye level with Red, who was digging himself down fast. “Maybe it’s time you took a wife.”
Red froze and looked up at his friend. Muriel was a motherly woman, though she had no children. And like a mother, she seemed comfortable meddling in his life.
Red realized he was staring and went back to the grave, tempted to toss a shovelful of dirt on Muriel’s wily face. He wouldn’t throw it
He just wanted to distract her.
When he was sure his voice would work, he said, “Cassie isn’t for me, Muriel. And it isn’t because of what it would cost to keep her. If she was my wife, she’d live within my means and that would be that.”
Red had already imagined—in his unruly mind—how stern he’d be when she asked for finery.
“You’ll have to sew it yourself or go without.”
He even pictured himself shaking a scolding finger right under her turned-up nose. She’d mind him.
He’d imagined it many times—many, many times. And long before Griff died, which was so improper Red felt shame. He’d tried to control his willful thoughts. But a man couldn’t stop himself from thinking a thought until he’d started, now could he? So he’d
a thousand times and then he stopped himself…mostly. He’d be kind and patient but he wouldn’t bend. He’d say, “Cass honey, you—”
Red jerked his thoughts away from the old, sinful daydream about another man’s wife. Calmly, he answered Muriel, “She isn’t for me because I would never marry a nonbeliever.”
With a wry smile, Seth caught on and threw in on Muriel’s side—the traitor. “A woman is a mighty scarce critter out here, Red. It don’t make sense to put too many conditions on the ones there are.”
“I know.” Red talked to himself as much as to them. He hung on to right and wrong. He clung to God’s will. “But one point I’ll never compromise on is marrying a woman who doesn’t share my faith.”
“Now, Red,” Muriel chided, “you shouldn’t judge that little girl like that. How do you know she’s not a believer?”
“I’m not judging her, Muriel.” Which Red realized was absolutely not true. “Okay, I don’t know what faith she holds. But I do know that the Griffins have never darkened the doorstep of my church.”
Neither Seth nor Muriel could argue with that, although Muriel had a mulish look that told him she wanted to.
“We’d best get back.” Seth laid a beefy hand on Muriel’s strong shoulder. “I think Mrs. Griffin is going to need some help getting ready for the funeral.”
“She’s in shock, I reckon,” Muriel said. “She hasn’t spoken more’n a dozen words since she rode in yesterday.”
“She was clear enough on what dress I needed to fetch.” Seth shook his head in disgust. “And she knew the reticule she wanted and the shoes and hairpins. I felt like a lady’s maid.”
“I’ve never seen a woman so shaken.” Muriel’s eyes softened. “The bridle was on wrong. She was riding bareback. It’s a wonder she was able to stick on that horse.”
Red didn’t want to hear any more about how desperately in need of help Cassie was.
Muriel had been teasing him up until now, but suddenly she was dead serious. “You know what the men around here are like, Red. You know the kind of life she’s got ahead of her. There are just some things a decent man can’t let happen to a woman. Libby’s boys are off hauling freight or I’d talk to them. They’d make good husbands.”
Muriel was right, they would be good. Something burned hot and angry inside of Red when he thought of those decent, Christian men claiming Cassie.
It was even worse when Red thought of her marrying one of the rough-and-ready men who lived in the rugged mountains and valleys around the little town of Divide, which rested up against the great peaks of the Montana Rockies. It was almost more than he could stand to imagine her with one of them.
But he also knew a sin when he saw it tempting him, and he refused to let Muriel change his mind. She badgered him awhile longer but finally gave up.
He was glad when Seth and Muriel left him alone to finish his digging. Until he looked up and saw Cassie as if he’d conjured her with his daydreams.
But this was no sweet, fragile china doll. She charged straight toward him, her hands fisted, her eyes on fire.
“Uh…hi, Miz Griffin.” He vaulted out of the shoulder-deep hole and faced her. The look on her face was enough to make him want to turn tail and run.
She swept toward him, a low sound coming from her throat that a wildcat might make just before it pounced.
She’d heard it. All of it.
God forgive me for being part of that gossip, hurting her when she’s already so badly hurt.
Whatever she wanted to say, whatever pain she wanted to inflict, he vowed to God that he’d stand here and take it as his due. Her eyes were so alive with fury and focused right on him. How many times had his unruly mind conjured up the image of Cassie focusing on him? But this wasn’t the look he’d imagined in his daydreams. In fact, a tremor of fear ran up his backbone.
His grip tightened on his shovel, not to use as a weapon to defend himself but to keep her from grabbing it and taking a swing.
“Stop it.” Her fists were clenched as if to beat on him. “Stop saying those awful things.” Red saw more life in her eyes than he ever had before. She was always quiet and reserved and distant. “Give him back. I want him back!” She moved so fast toward him that, just as she reached his side, she tripped over her skirt and fell. A terrified shriek cut off her irate words.
“Cassie!” Red dropped the shovel and caught her just as she’d have tumbled into the open grave.
She swung and landed a fist right on his chin.
His head snapped back. She had pretty good power behind her fists for a little thing. Figuring he deserved it, he held on, stepping well away from the hole in the ground. He pulled her against him as she pummeled and emitted short, sharp, frenzied screams of rage. Punching his shoulders, chest, face. He took his beating like a man. He’d earned this by causing her more pain when she’d already been dealt—more than she could bear. Of course he’d tried to stop it. But he’d failed now, hadn’t he?
“I’m sorry.” He spoke low, hoping to penetrate her anger. He could barely hear himself over her shouting. “I’m so sorry about Griff, Cassie. And I’m sorry you heard us speaking ill. We were wrong. So wrong. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” His voice kept crooning as he held her, letting her wale away on him until her squeaks and her harmless blows slowed and then ceased, most likely from exhaustion, not because she’d quit hating him.
Her hands dropped suddenly. Her head fell against his chest. Her knees buckled, and Red swung her up into his arms.
He looked down at her, wondering if she’d fainted dead away.
In his arms, he held perfection.
She fit against him as if his body and his heart had been created just for her. A soul-deep ache nearly buckled his own knees as he looked at her now-closed eyes. Those lashes so long they’d tangle in a breeze rested on her ashen face, tinged with one bright spot of fury raised red on her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you. Please forgive me.” His words were both a prayer to God and a request to poor, sweet Cassie. He held her close, murmuring, apologizing.
At last her eyes fluttered open. The anger was there but not the violence. “Let me go!”