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Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy

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BOOK: Mary Connealy
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Offering him that assurance almost made her sick, but she knew her duty. Red had his rights. Except she was unclean. But Red would know that. If he didn’t, she’d be glad to remind him.

“Now tell me what to make you for supper. I’d like the first night to be something you really like, and I don’t know your preferences.”

Red smiled. “Anything I don’t have to cook myself would be a treat, Cass. There’s a ham back there if you’d like to fry a couple of slices of that. Anything, and only if you’re feeling up to it. I…I haven’t told you how sorry I am about Griff.”

He had. He’d told her more nicely than anyone else. And to repay him she’d given him that black eye. But she didn’t correct him.

“I know this has been hard for you. Now your man is gone and a baby is on the way. Even…even if I share the bedroom, I’ll…I’ll keep a respectful distance. You’ll have your time to heal, Cass.”

He looked at her a moment longer, and for a while Cassie forgot everything but Red and his pure blue eyes.

Then he looked abruptly down at his hat again. “Gotta go.” He almost ran out the door, leaving it open to the fall breeze.

Belle slammed the bridles down on the support beam. She whipped the wall as she hung the traces on the nail, not caring that she missed and the leather and metal slid to the floor with a
clank.
She turned to the wagon full of supplies and fought the temptation to start throwing bags and cans. “Ma, what happened?”

Belle turned to see Lindsay staring wide-eyed. Belle closed her eyes and pulled in a long, slow breath, fighting to control her temper. The only trouble with that was if she quit being mad she was afraid she might cry.

Well, she wasn’t going to do that. That was weak. She’d just stay furious.

She’d always been honest with her daughters, so she saw no reason to be less than that now. She paced the length of the barn toward Lindsay. “I saw something in town today that’s just got me all churned up.” And no, she wasn’t going to talk about Anthony. She was blunt with her girls, but they didn’t need to understand this.

She got close to her thirteen-year-old and realized Lindsay was only two years younger than Cassie Griffin Dawson had been when she’d married that no-account Lester Griffin. And now at eighteen, Cassie had just been forced into another marriage. It was too much like Belle’s life.

“Who, Ma? We don’t hardly know no one in town.”

It was Belle’s life all over again, except Belle had been able to take care of herself. Cassie Griffin was helpless. Belle caught Lindsay by both shoulders. Lindsay, to her credit, didn’t flinch, despite Belle’s blazing temper.

“I’ve done my best, Lindsay, to make sure you’re never helpless. You understand that it’s about more than me needing hands on this ranch. You know how much I love you girls and want to protect you.”

Lindsay shrugged under Belle’s grip. “I know you need help. I know husbands are worthless.”

Belle flinched internally. Not all men were worthless. She knew that. Her pa had worked hard and had been a good rancher. He’d treated her wrong in the end, once he’d been blessed with a son to inherit the ranch after years of grooming Belle to run it. But mostly her pa was a decent man.

Seth at the general store stood at Muriel’s side and did his full share and more. Red Dawson owned a fair piece of land and ran a good, solid operation. That’s the only reason she hadn’t hauled Cassie out of there at gunpoint. That and knowing she’d probably end up arrested, and her worthless husband, Anthony, would have a free hand to break the unusual agreement she’d made him sign before they were married, leaving her sole owner of the Tanner Ranch. Plus the idiot would let her girls starve to death.

She didn’t correct Lindsay, though. Best to believe all men were worthless and prepare yourself to manage alone. Then, if she failed her girls and let them end up married, they’d be able to fend for themselves.

“There was a woman in town…a girl…eighteen, not that much older’n you. Her name’s Cassie Griffin.”

“Eighteen’s a lot older’n thirteen, Ma.”

“But she married today for the second time. She first got hitched when she was fifteen. That’s only a little over two years from your age.”

“Well, I’m not ever getting married so don’t worry about it. And remember you promised not to either.”

Belle nodded. “I remember. Once Anthony dies, I promise. No more husbands.” Belle laid her hand on her belly and spent five seconds in hard, concentrated prayer.

Please, please, a girl, Lord God. Let it be a girl.

How could she possibly raise a boy up to be anything other than worthless? Any male seemed to have a powerful inclination toward that result.

Lindsay interrupted Belle’s prayer. “I’ve heard of Griffin’s house. Big, shiny mansion of a place.”

Her girls had almost never been to town. Belle had to travel several hours fast and hard to get there, stock up supplies, and get home, which was slow with a loaded wagon. She only made the trip once or twice a year, and she never took the girls.

Emma rode into the barn from the corral door. She rode a green, broke filly that had lines Belle wanted in her saddle stock. The horse was behaving perfectly.

“You’ve got her settling in nice.” Belle admired her second-born’s hand with the horses. Emma had a rare knack.

“She’s a little beauty, Ma. We did some cutting today and she really got onto it. She’ll give us some good foals.” Emma patted the bay’s shoulders, already strong and broad as a two-year-old.

Her two oldest daughters were a matched pair. Flyaway white blond hair, eyelashes and brows just as white, shining blue eyes so pale they were almost gray; they were the image of their pa, William Svendson. Her third daughter, Sarah, was a redhead with a thousand freckles and emerald green eyes. Her pa, Gerald O’Rourke, used to say Sarah’s eyes were as green as Ireland when the whiskey was on him…which was most of the time.

Belle, with her straight brown hair and light brown eyes, didn’t seem able to pass on a single physical trait to her girls. She had no doubt the baby she carried now would have black curls and snapping black eyes like Anthony Santoni, worthless husband number three. But if they didn’t carry Belle’s looks, they carried her strength. She could still teach ’em what they needed to survive.

“Put your horse up and come listen while I tell Lindsay what happened.”

Emma made short work of her unsaddling. The eleven-year-old was better at handling a horse than Belle or Lindsay, and that was saying something.

“What is it, Ma?” Emma pulled her leather gloves off as she walked toward Belle. No spurs. Belle had a gentle hand with the stock, but she knew a spur came in handy on rare occasion. She couldn’t convince Emma they were necessary.

She repeated to Emma what she’d told Lindsay about Cassie Griffin. “I just want you girls to know that you never have to get married if you don’t want to.”

Emma and Lindsay exchanged long looks.

Lindsay spoke first. “We don’t plan on getting married, Ma. We’ve learned our lesson from watching you.”

“Good.” Belle nodded. “I should hope so. Husbands bring you children, of course.” Belle rested her work-scarred hand on her round belly. “A nuisance being with child, of course. Slows me down some. But you girls, well, I reckon my life is only worth living because I’ve got you.”

“So, you mean you’ve changed your mind and you think we
should
get married?” Emma asked fearfully.

“No, no. Of course not. I’m just saying some good can come out of the whole mess. I’m trying to lay the whole truth out for you is all.”

Her girls nodded, their expressions grim.

“I just want you to know that you don’t have to make a choice like that because people tell you a woman
has
to have a man. You can make it on your own. As long as I’m alive you’ll have a home with me. We run this ranch smooth and easy.”

“Well, Ma, we work from can see to can’t see.” Emma slapped her gloves against her hand. “We bust broncs and brand steers and dig dams and cut and stack hay. So
easy
ain’t ‘zactly right.”

“I mean easy except for the backbreaking work. By
easy
I mean we do it right. The ranch runs easy…without a hitch. Don’t interrupt me while I’m explaining things to you.”

“Sorry, Ma.” Emma tucked her gloves behind her belt buckle.

“This is an important point. That little woman today …”

Belle considered Cassie little more than a child. Both in age and in temperament. The woman was being led along by that meddling Muriel and Red Dawson. Truth be told, Belle wasn’t yet thirty, but she felt as old as the hills that surrounded her beautiful mountain valley.

“That woman, Cassie, wasn’t given a choice today. I don’t know much about the man they forced on her. There’s such a thing as a decent man, I’ve heard. Seen little sign of it, but that’s not my point.” Belle wondered if Sarah had supper going in the house yet. Most likely. A dependable child, her Sarah.

“What is your point, Ma? I’ve got chores left.” Lindsay looked bored.

Belle suspected she’d told her girls all of this before…a thousand times or more. But seeing Cassie today, quiet, obedient, being told what to do and who to marry and most likely how to breathe, had scared Belle to death. Belle was ten times as strong as Cassie Dawson, and
she’d
fallen into the same a-woman-had-to-have-a-man trap as Cassie.

Belle had to save her girls from such a fate. “You don’t have to marry some man just because you’re of marrying age. A woman can get by on her own. I am raising you girls to work and work hard. The strength of your back and the sense in your head will carry you through life without having to drag some worthless husband along with you. Might as well just tie an anchor to your leg and tow that.”

Belle took a couple of steps toward the barn door so she could see the house. “Has Anthony come around?”

“He’s not on the roof?” Lindsay came up beside her.

“No. And I saw him in town today, but I had a lot of errands and figured he headed home before me. And riding horseback he’d’ve made good time. I suppose he’ll come back. Free food.”

Emma pointed toward the Husband Tree. “He’s there.”

Belle squinted. Sure enough, Anthony was sitting on his backside…as usual. But instead of climbing on the roof, which he was partial to—somehow that must make him think he was beyond Belle’s reach, as if Belle would ever
want
to reach him—he was sitting, his back propped up by the Husband Tree.

“Does he know he’s sitting on one of the other husbands?” Lindsay asked.

Belle shrugged. “Don’t know. You can’t tell there are graves there anymore. I didn’t waste time markin’ ’em. But I’m sure that’s the side your pa is on. I wanted him to face the ranch. I don’t remember if I buried Gerald on the left or right side. I didn’t give it much thought. And I sure didn’t care if
he
could see the ranch layout. Better he should face the Golden Butte in Divide.” Gerald had liked the Golden for its liquid pleasures, while Anthony was more interested in the sweeter enticements of the place. William had never gone there, she’d give him that. He’d just grumbled and griped and taken long walks.

“Well, Anthony’s still alive and kicking so far.” Lindsay turned to look at the chicken coop. Belle was proud of the girl for being more interested in chores than the problems of being yoked to a slug of a man.

Belle sighed. She’d been a long time in town, and then she’d had the heavy buckboard to pull home. “He could live a long time, I reckon, although he’s stupid, and stupid’ll get you killed in the West.”

“Are you done telling us
again
we don’t have to get married, Ma? ‘Cuz I got chores.” Emma pulled her gloves free and started tugging them on.

“I’m done for now.” Belle wasn’t really. She didn’t think she’d said enough. “I just…Today, hearing about that young girl passed around like she was a box of groceries, it just hit me hard.”

She looked from Lindsay to Emma and back. “I want to save you from husbands if I possibly can.”

The three of them looked at Anthony. The way he sat, his head leaned back, he looked like he was catching a nap. Resting up for bedtime, no doubt. It didn’t matter if he was rested or not, he had his own bed. Belle slept with her cast-iron skillet these days.

“We hear you, Ma.” Emma headed for the hog pen.

“Loud and clear.” Lindsay went to saddle her horse.

Belle watched them walk away. Her pride in them…well, she was back to holding on to her temper to keep the tears away. She laid her hand on her baby, due in early spring.

Be a girl. God, let her be a girl.

She went in to have the same heart-to-heart talk with Sarah. Even at eight, the child wasn’t too young to learn her lesson. Belle ignored the pain of Anthony’s betrayal. It was an old pain. Instead, she nursed her fury over the fate of that poor, sweet, helpless Cassie Griffin Dawson.

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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