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Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy

Mary Connealy (6 page)

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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Tom Linscott chose that moment to ride that brute of a stallion down Divide’s main street. Linscott rode up the street toward the doctor’s office. Wade had heard one of Linscott’s hired hands had broken a leg falling off a bronc. Linscott must be coming in to visit.

The tall Swede cut in front of Wade in a way that prevented him from looking down that alley. The china doll was long gone, but it was easy to switch his anger to Linscott. The man had never given Wade his respect due as son of the area’s largest rancher, and that rubbed Wade wrong. Especially since Linscott wasn’t that much older than Wade.

Wade strode down the street to block Linscott’s way. Linscott wasn’t one for the Golden Butte, neither the girls nor the whiskey. The man had a hair-trigger temper and seemed like he was born looking for a fight, but he didn’t have the vices Wade enjoyed.

Linscott was heading into the doctor’s office without watching where he was going, and Wade made a point to step right in Linscott’s path and slam his shoulder into the man. Linscott was a couple inches taller than Wade and twenty pounds heavier, all hard muscle. A part of Wade wanted to hurt somebody and hurt him bad. Another part expected to be given a beating. It seemed like the physical pain canceled out the pain in his heart to think of the china doll married again.

Linscott stumbled back then lifted his gaze to Wade and scowled. “You looking for a fight, Sawyer? Because you’ll find one with me. I don’t step aside for a little man just because he’s got a big old brute of a daddy.”

Wade wanted to put a notch in his gun. He’d been hungry to claim he’d killed a man for a long time.

Linscott shook his head in disgust. “You’re such a fool, Sawyer. Get out of my way.”

Wade’s fingers itched and they flexed near his six-gun.

Laughing contemptuously, Linscott said, “You haven’t got the guts to pull that gun, and if you did, I’d beat you to the draw and put you down like a rabid skunk.”

Wade took a wild swing and landed a blow to Linscott’s chin, mainly because the man wasn’t taking any of this seriously.

Linscott staggered back, and his head knocked into a post supporting the overhang on the doctor’s office. Then Linscott’s famous temper ignited. He cocked his arm and hammered Wade in the face.

Wade hit the wooden sidewalk with a thud.

Two hands from the Sawyer ranch came out of the Golden Butte, and Wade landed at their feet. They both pulled their guns in the flash of an eye and aimed them at Linscott.

Wade looked with smug satisfaction at Linscott. He’d bought into a fight with the wrong man.

Linscott took two steps back, rubbing his chin, looking with cool eyes between Wade and his cowhands. Still, Wade saw no fear on Linscott’s face. Wade envied the man his guts and hated him at the same time.

“I’m not fighting your whole ranch, you yellow coward. You want to come at me, you come alone.” Linscott shook his head in contempt then turned as if the guns weren’t of any concern to him at all. Somehow that dismissal made Wade’s feelings of failure deepen.

One of the men standing over him said, “Pick a fight with someone you can beat next time, you young pup. Maybe a little girl-child.” Both men laughed and holstered their guns as they stepped over Wade to head for their horses.

Burning with shame, Wade hated everyone until the fire of it nearly burned a hole in his soul. That hate reminded him of the one person he didn’t hate.

The china doll.

She was only out of his reach as long as Red Dawson was alive.

He could accomplish two things at once. Kill a man and have his china doll.

Wade finally thought he could do it. He could kill. True, he’d never been able to before and he’d had his chances to draw and ducked them. But he’d never felt this kind of rage. He wanted this enough.

He pictured it.

Red dead.

The china doll his.

He’d be saving her, rescuing her. For that, Wade could kill.

Red and Cassie walked down the dirt walkway that ran behind the bank and led to the back doors of four other stores. All closed for Sunday.

Cassie stayed a step behind Red and didn’t speak when he went to the back door of the first one and knocked.

One by one, they were invited into the family living quarters. Each had a bill with Lester Griffin’s name on it. Red talked quietly. Cassie remained several paces behind, embarrassed by the business being conducted in front of her.

Griff had always told her a woman had no head for figures and it was not her place to buy and sell. Now Cassie felt as if she was watching something unseemly, and her cheeks warmed until she feared she blushed crimson. She got some scowling glances from the people with whom Red conducted his business, but he seemed to be ignoring her. That was a situation she hoped continued.

Before they were done, they’d been on both sides of the street and stopped in nearly every store in Divide.

They left the general store for last.

“Cassie needs a better work dress, Red.” Muriel gave Cassie a sympathetic look as if the expensive black silk she wore was something to be ashamed of.

Red and Muriel debated about her dress for a while. Cassie did her best to behave herself and not listen.

Then Muriel led Cassie into the back room. “I’ve got one that I hope will fit. It’s not cut for a woman who’s expecting, but it’s several sizes too big for you so I think it’ll work.” Muriel patted Cassie on the arm.

Cassie looked up at Muriel. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Red told me that you overheard what we said about Griff and you, honey.” Muriel didn’t look like a woman given to tears. She was tough and weathered and she’d seen too much, but Cassie thought the older woman’s eyes watered a bit and there was definite regret in her expression. “I apologize for that. It was gossip and it was sinful. I’m ashamed of myself. I hope you can forgive me.” Muriel extended a thin blue calico dress to Cassie.

“I forgive you.” Cassie didn’t really see it as her place to give or withhold forgiveness. She’d come to expect criticism for her incompetence in all things and accept it. Her fury had been all to defend Griff and she’d burned that off long ago. Red had the black eye to prove it. The events of the day had left her too exhausted to hold much anger.

“Thank you. I know I talk too much. I plan to study my Bible again tonight. Red reminded me of the verse, from Luke. Part of it says, ‘That which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.’ I certainly learned that lesson today. My words were a sin and I hurt you with my sinning. I am sorry.” Muriel gave Cassie an awkward hug.

“I’ve never heard that one before.” Cassie wondered if what
she
thought in private would be proclaimed from the housetops. If that was so, God was going to be very hard on her on Judgment Day, because Cassie’s thoughts were sinful beyond redemption. She usually kept them to herself, but she’d shouted at Red and hit him. Her stomach twisted when she thought of how he’d retaliate later…in private. It took a terrible effort to keep from breaking into tears.

“Do you need help changing?” Muriel looked doubtfully at Cassie’s heavy silk dress, the skirts held wide with petticoats and a bustle. At least the row of tiny buttons ran up the front, or Cassie most likely couldn’t have dressed alone.

“I can manage, thank you.” Cassie blushed to think of Muriel or anyone being near her while she was in her under-things. Griff was always chastising her if he caught so much as a glimpse of her throat or ankles. To her knowledge, Griff had never—day or night—seen even a bit of Cassie’s skin except her face and hands. He’d stressed the decency of that, and Cassie had learned to never flaunt herself.

Muriel pressed a brown paper–wrapped package into Cassie’s hands. “This is a wedding present. I know the bank is takin’ everything. So you’ll need this. Red’ll be good to you, Cassie. He’s a good man. Leave the silk behind. I’ll get enough for it to settle Griff’s bill. This calico is better for life out here anyway.”

After Muriel left, Cassie missed the motherly lady. Except for the gossiping at the grave site, Muriel had been nice to her since Griff had died. She exhibited none of the cool politeness that had always been between them. Griff said Muriel and Seth were common and beneath them, so although Griff had to do business with them, Cassie kept her distance. But Cassie had leaned on Muriel since she’d come to town for help. She’d stayed in her rooms above the store, and what bit of food she’d eaten, Muriel had prepared and served.

Remembering those shocking words out at the grave site, Cassie realized that Muriel and Seth actually looked down on Griff. It was such a shift in Cassie’s world that she turned her thoughts away from it.

Without Muriel, Cassie had a long struggle to get changed. It had taken forever to get the black silk dress on earlier today. Cassie didn’t see the dark blue silk she’d worn to town. Most likely it was mortgaged, too.

Finally she donned the blue calico. It took only minutes. It was far too big, but that was a good thing or it wouldn’t have fit over her stomach.

Cassie left behind her stylish black hat, the reticule, and her lace handkerchief. She had several heavy petticoats. She left them, too, keeping only her shoes and her chemise and stockings. The stockings were silk, but they were the only ones she had, and modesty required she keep them. Then Cassie remembered the solid silver pins in her hair. She removed them and left them for Muriel, letting her heavy dark hair drop into a plain braid down the center of her back.

When she emerged from the back room, pounds lighter in the simple dress, Red and Seth were debating something heatedly. Red saw her come out and fell silent for a moment as he looked at her. Then he shook his head sharply, spoke again to Seth, and turned to her. “Let’s head out.”

Before they could start toward the back door, the bell over the front door rang and drew their attention.

A woman walked in whom Cassie had never seen before. A strange woman, wearing a riding skirt and a flat-topped black hat with a silver band. She pulled her gloves off as her boots clunked on the wooden floors. Spurs jingled with every step. A woman wearing spurs?

“Howdy, Belle.” Seth moved to stand behind the counter. “I’m mostly done with your list.”

“Thanks, Seth. The wagon’s out front. Sorry to bother you on a Sunday. I appreciate you opening up for me.” Belle tucked her gloves behind her belt buckle.

That action drew Cassie’s gaze, and she realized that the woman was with child. Not as round as Cassie but definitely expecting.

The woman, Belle, looked up, and her gaze froze on Cassie, moved to her belly, and then their eyes met.

Muriel had been standing in the hallway to her living quarters, behind Cassie and Red. Now she squeezed past Cassie and went to Belle. “This is Cassie Dawson. She and Red got married today.”

Belle’s eyes slid between Red and Cassie, and Cassie had the strangest urge to throw herself into Belle’s arms. She had no idea why. The woman was a bit older than she, but not that much. Still, the woman had the look of a mother, a warrior mother.

“Today?” Belle asked Muriel, but her eyes stayed on Cassie, flickering to her obviously round stomach again.

“Her husband died, just yesterday. Lester Griffin?”

Belle snorted and Cassie caught way too much meaning from that sound. Here was another person who thought ill of Griff.

Red shifted a bit closer to Cassie as if she needed protection. But there was no danger to Cassie from this woman.

Belle walked straight for Cassie then, spurs ringing.

Muriel gave way like dust in the wind, and Cassie had a shocking urge to smile.

Red held his ground, but Belle ignored him and spoke past his shoulder straight to Cassie, “Was this your choosing? This marriage?”

Cassie was speechless. Her choosing? What did that have to do with anything? “Wh–What do you mean?”

“Belle, it’s done.” Red leaned as if to block Belle from Cassie, but she glared at him so hard he straightened, shifting so they stood in a circle in the hallway of the store.

This woman had made a man move aside with a single look. Cassie’s heart started pounding. She’d never heard of a woman who could do that.

Belle turned to Red. “Yes, it’s always
done,
isn’t it? Done to a woman. No one gives us a
choice.
Look at her. She doesn’t even know what I mean by ‘choosing.’ ”

Muriel came up behind Belle. “It’s all right, Belle. She had to pick a man. You know that.”

Belle rested her hand on her belly. “I don’t know any such thing.” Her jaw tightened, but kindness was there, along with anger. “You can come home with me.”

Red shook his head. “She’s a married woman.”

“She belongs with her husband, Belle,” Muriel said.

Belle ignored them both and spoke to Cassie. “You can come home with me if you want. I’ve got a husband who spends most of his time hiding from work and three daughters who would love a big sister. When that baby comes, I’ll have one more. We’ll pray it’s a girl. And I’ll help you; you’ll help me. We’ll get by. What do you say?”

Cassie almost launched herself at Belle, grabbed her, and clung to her.

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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