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Authors: Montana Marriages Trilogy

Mary Connealy (9 page)

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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It was, quite possibly, the sweetest moment of Cassie’s life, at least the sweetest in the years since her mother had died. Cassie stood, stunned at Red’s kind speech about Griff and her baby and keeping his distance.

For the first time, Cassie realized that Red was very young. He carried himself with such ease, and he was treated with deference by a lot of men and as an equal by the others. For some reason she’d been thinking he was Griff’s age. But the twisted hat and the stuttered speech made her think differently. Now she wondered if he wasn’t about
her
age. He had to be twenty-one to file a homestead. But if he’d been here two years like Griff and her, Red could be twenty-three, a barely grown boy striking out on his own in the West. She wished she had the nerve to ask him his age. That wouldn’t be too forward a question for a wife to ask. Or would it? She wished Griff was here to tell her.

She explored the cave she now lived in, and somehow the combination of realizing her husband was hardly more than a boy and finding out she lived in a cave made her feel young and adventurous. She’d gotten to thinking of herself as the same generation as Griff, but she was only eighteen.

The bedroom was large and very dark. There was a good-sized bed. Only one. Not two smaller ones like Griff said was appropriate for a married couple. In fact, at Griff’s house she’d had her own room. She felt heat rush into her face as she realized what she’d been offering when she told Red he could join her in the bedroom. If he suggested staying in the front room again, she’d agree.

She found the little notch in the back of the room. The passage winding away into the heart of the mountain caught her imagination and she was sorely tempted to explore. She stepped away from it. She had to ask Red first. She didn’t want to start her marriage by being disobedient.

She left the bedroom and went into the cooler. She was amazed at the drop in temperature. She followed the pleasant trickle of water, careful not to trip over anything. She was clumsy and she’d gotten worse with the baby on the way. Griff had rebuked her for it many times.

She found a brisk little spate of water pouring out of a crack in the rock. It landed in an overflowing pail on the floor and disappeared into the ground. She touched the water and shivered from the frigid temperature. Cold water. What if it stayed cold in summer? What a luxury that would be.

Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light and she saw food piled everywhere. Hams hanging over her head. Eggs! Cassie hadn’t eaten an egg since she came west. It was all she could do not to grab one and take it directly to the stove to cook.

Red must have chickens and pigs. There was butter, and a pail of milk hung on a nail on one wall. A milk cow, too? She found potatoes, carrots, onions, and beets. There was flour, salt, sugar—both brown and white—honey, and cakes of yeast. She couldn’t begin to search through all of the crates and barrels packed in that room.

She had lived in a beautiful home with Griff, but food had sometimes been a problem. There was the spring near their home and he’d had good luck fishing. But they’d eaten a lot of trout. Griff wouldn’t let Cassie help in the garden, although as a child she’d enjoyed working by her mother’s side. Griff had helped her understand how crude her mother had been to do man’s work. She wondered how long Red had been here to be so established. Then she realized how much time she’d spent dreaming over the food and hurried to work on supper.

The main room of Red’s home was small. The fire blazed cheerfully now and cut the chill in the kitchen. The sink was simply a hollowed-out log split in half, with a hole in the center of the bottom and a bucket under the hole to catch draining water. A small but well-built table with two sturdy chairs sat near enough to the fireplace to make a meal cozy even on a cold night.

The floor was dirt and a handmade broom stood in one corner. Cassie wasn’t sure how she’d know when she was done when she swept a dirt floor. She looked around the room and realized that except for a few pots and pans, there was nothing in the house that wasn’t handmade. Red had created this strange house with nothing but his bare hands. Cassie wondered at the pride a man would have if he could care for himself like Red did.

She started a rising of bread. They would have fresh-baked bread for breakfast. She warmed the ham in a cast-iron skillet and hung it from a hook in the fireplace. She pared potatoes, careful to waste as little white flesh as possible, put them in the covered pot full of water, and tucked the pot into the corner of the fireplace. She made biscuits. The heat was uneven and she feared things would burn, so she kept a careful eye on everything. Ham, potatoes, and biscuits. If she could get a good gravy from the ham, it would be a simple but tasty meal. She wished she could figure out an excuse to fry eggs with the meal. She’d do it for breakfast, she promised herself.

The bread had risen. She’d punched it down and shaped loaves which were rising again. The table was set with one tin plate and one chipped china plate, the only plates she could find. The food was done. Even the mashed potatoes were whipped high with butter and milk and set in a pan of warm water, waiting for when Red came back.

The door swung inward and Red entered, looked at her, and smiled rather abruptly.

Cassie had the impression he’d forgotten he was married.

C
HAPTER
6

R
ed hadn’t been able to think about anything all day except that he was married.

Married!

He’d left here yesterday a single man with too many chores and too many goals and not a second to spare for anything else. Now there was a woman in his house. He looked at Cassie and saw the most beautiful woman on earth.

She turned from his fireplace in his kitchen, and he thought back to how he’d held her in his arms all the way from town. He’d loved every minute of it.

“H–Hi, Cassie. I see you’re cooking.” He felt like some kind of monster to marry a woman standing on the freshly dug grave of her husband. But he’d seen no way out of the marriage. The crowd wasn’t even going to allow them to move out of the cemetery.

Cassie nodded and didn’t speak. Which gave Red a moment to remember why he’d married her—to save her. And why he shouldn’t have—because she wasn’t a believer.

Marrying Cassie was a sin, the greatest sin of his life.

But he’d had to help her.

But he could have thought of
something
short of marrying her.

Except he couldn’t think of
anything.

But he should have tried
harder.

But he’d tried
hard
!

The events had chased themselves through his head over and over while he did his chores until he’d wanted to crack his head into a rock a few times, hoping the pain and a big knot on his head would give him something else to think about.

It was just that at the time Muriel had been nagging him to save the poor little thing. That overbearing Mort Sawyer had been ignoring Cassie’s pleas and demanding to the parson that they “get it done.” Then Cassie’d started screaming to raise the dead, which considering they were standing on her dead husband at the time, she might have been trying to do exactly that. Throw in Wade looking on all hungry and evil and it had all forced his hand.

Except that wasn’t really the whole exact truth. Yes, it was part of the truth but not all of it. Red figured the only fool bigger than a man who tried to lie to himself was a man who lied to God. Both were just a pure waste of time. Red supposed he was seven kinds of a fool, but at least he was an honest fool. And the plain honest truth was he
wanted
to marry Cassie. He wanted to marry her almost desperately. In his own way he was just as bad as all those ruffians who were fighting over her.

Red couldn’t shake the idea that somewhere God had spent a lifetime preparing a perfect mate just for him, a woman who was a believer above all else, and Red had just gone and tossed God’s plan back in His face by marrying the wrong woman. Cassie Griffin. Cassie Dawson.
God, forgive me,
he thought.
I do like the idea of her having my name.

Red had done his chores thoroughly, but it was a good thing he’d done them a thousand times before because his mind was not on his tasks. Even though Rosie was going be hurting bad by the time he milked her, he left the cow until last because he didn’t want to go back to the house to leave the milk. He almost dropped everything ten times and ran back to the soddy to see if Cassie needed help finding supplies, or lifting a bucket, or squashing a bug, or crossing a mud puddle ….

Oh, no doubt about it, he had it bad. He wanted that woman, that overindulged, beautiful, non-Christian woman desperately. He sat down to Rosie and she thanked him for his prolonged neglect by kicking him soundly on his backside. He figured it was just what he needed.

And now here his wife was, smiling at him, a sweet, shy smile, and he thought about how he’d finished with Rosie and grabbed the bucket of eggs and forced himself not to run to the house.

He’d been twenty feet away when he smelled the cooking. He’d assumed she wouldn’t cook. He knew she was pampered. A person only had to look at her beautiful clothes to know that. And everyone said Griff was broke because of Cassie’s greed. Red didn’t listen to gossip, and he held that a man had free will; and no one, even a wife as pretty and perfect as a china doll—which is what everyone called her—could make a man spend money if he didn’t want to. And Red had known Griff enough to know the man was stiff-necked and arrogant all on his own. No one could blame Cassie for that. But whether Cassie was spoiled by Griff’s wish or her own, Red had never known. He did know he hadn’t expected the cosseted china doll to cook. Yet there she stood, holding a heavy pot in her hands.

Red had seen the Griffin place and he knew Cassie didn’t lift a finger outside. He’d seen Griff working in the garden and hauling water, and everyone knew she bought all her dresses ready-made, so she didn’t sew. Those were all chores that most women would do, especially when there was so much work on a ranch and Griff didn’t hire any hands.

But Cassie refused. Why even on trips to town, on the rare occasion that Cassie would lower herself to appear, she rarely left the carriage, sitting alone, ignoring all and sundry. Yes, there was no doubt Cassie was spoiled.

But she’d cooked. He wondered how a man could unspoil a woman. He’d better figure it out, because however Cassie Griffin was, Cassie Dawson was going to have to rough it. There’d be no more silk dresses. Yup, Cassie was going to have to learn, and if it had to be the hard way, so be it.

He felt all strict and manly standing there with the milk and eggs. He was thinking that milking cows and collecting eggs were woman’s work and she’d better start carrying her weight around here with the stock, too. Then he asked God for an extra-large dose of wisdom and went inside to the wonderful smell of warm food and the even more wonderful sight of a beautiful woman.

She looked at him with that perfect china doll face. She blinked her huge brown eyes at him, and he thought maybe he could see why Griff would die trying to keep her happy.

Red stepped inside, setting the eggs down to swing the door shut without taking his eyes off his brand-new, beautiful, perfect wife.

His last thought as the door thudded shut was that he’d have to be careful, or he’d end up dying trying to keep her happy himself.

“Red Dawson, you’re gonna die.” Wade Sawyer lowered his rifle and rolled onto his back with a deep grunt of self-contempt. “I should’ve done it. I should’ve killed him where he stood.” He’d had Dawson in his sights. One shot and the china doll would be his. He’d take her away and not bring her back until she had accepted Wade as her husband. Not even his pa would have a chance at her.

He rested against the cool rocks on the overhang near Dawson’s poor excuse for a house. “No one would have known. And even if anyone wondered, who would challenge a Sawyer’s word?”

Something quick and hard twisted in his stomach as he watched the dusk settle in through the branches of an overhanging pine. The china doll was nowhere in sight. A stray bullet could have hit her. Wade tried to convince himself that he’d held off with the shot because of that. But it wasn’t true. The truth was he was a coward. He should have killed Dawson. He should have proved to himself that he was man enough to take what he wanted.

He’d never had the guts to kill a man. He’d had his chances. Drunken cowpokes looking for trouble. Rustlers. A cardsharp once who had cheated him. His father’s men were always around, backing him up, like they’d done today with Tom Linscott. And some of Pa’s hands were salty enough that they’d step in eagerly to do any shooting without Wade having to show his yellow streak.

“I’m a coward. I should have killed him, but I’m too yellow.” Wade stared up at the sky and hated himself for being weak. Losing the china doll today was the final proof of it. He should have stood up to his pa. He should have told that old tyrant that he’d have to kill his own son in order to claim that beautiful woman.

When they’d heard about Griff, he’d told Pa he wanted her.

BOOK: Mary Connealy
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