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Authors: Dallas Schulze

Short Straw Bride

BOOK: Short Straw Bride
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Praise for Dallas Schulze whom
Booklovers
calls “A talent to be reckoned with.”

Gunfighter’s Bride

“…a delightful historical…A nonstop read that truly satisfies.”


Romantic Times

“…a highly entertaining and emotional read.”


Rendezvous

Temptation’s Price

“Ms. Schulze gifts her fans with this wonderful historical…”


Romantic Times

“So you think Ellen Williams is the one?”

“Eleanor,” Luke corrected automatically. “And I won’t know till I’ve had a chance to talk to her a bit more.”

“I don’t know, Luke. Marrying’s a serious business.” The laughter died out of Daniel’s eyes, which were the same clear gray as his brother’s. “Maybe this ain’t such a good idea after all. Maybe we ought to just forget the whole idea and try another housekeeper.”

Luke opened his mouth to agree that it had been a dumb idea from the start and that they should put it behind them. And found himself remembering Eleanor’s big brown eyes, the shy smile in them, and heard her voice saying that she’d lived in Black Dog six years, four months and twelve days.

“I said I was going to find a wife and that’s what I’m going to do,” he heard himself say stubbornly. For some reason, the idea of having a wife just didn’t seem as bad as it once had.

Dear Reader,

This month, we are very pleased with the long-awaited return of Dallas Schulze to Harlequin Historicals with her terrific new Western,
Short Straw Bride.
This award-winning author, who has written numerous contemporary novels for Silhouette and Harlequin, will make her MIRA debut in early 1997. Meanwhile, don’t miss this heartwarming tale of two people who many for practical reasons, and wind up falling head over heels in love.

Reader’s Choice Award winner Laurie Grant is also back with her new medieval novel
My Lady Midnight.
This intriguing story features a Norman widow who becomes a political pawn when she is forced to go undercover as a governess in the home of the baron she believes responsible for the death of her best friend.

Miranda Jarrett’s new Sparhawk book,
Gift of the Heart,
is a touching story set in the wilds of the New York frontier where a woman, abandoned by her no-good husband, discovers happiness in the arms of a fugitive haunted by his past. And
Beauty and the Beast,
by Taylor Ryan, is a Regency tale about a troubled nobleman who is badgered into health by an interfering young neighbor.

We hope you’ll keep a lookout for all four titles wherever Harlequin Historicals are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

 
Short Straw Bride
 
Dallas Schulze

Books by Dallas Schulze

Harlequin Historicals

Temptation’s Price
#134

Short Straw Bride
#339

Silhouette Intimate Moments

Moment to Moment
#170

Donovan’s Promise
#247

The Vow
#318

The Baby Bargain
#377

Everything but Marriage
#414

The Hell-Raiser
#462

Secondhand Husband
#500

Michael’s Father
#565

Snow Bride
#584

*
A Very Convenient Marriage
#608

*
Another Man’s Wife
#643

*
Addie and the Renegade
#727

Silhouette Books

Birds, Bees and Babies
1994

“Cullen’s Child”

*
A Family Circle

DALLAS SCHULZE

loves books, old movies, her husband and her cat, not necessarily in that order. A sucker for a happy ending, she finds that her writing gives her an outlet for her imagination. Dallas hopes that readers have half as much fun with her books as she does! She has more hobbies than there is space to list them, but is currently working on a doll collection. Dallas loves to hear from her readers, and you can write to her at P.O. Box 241, Verdugo City, CA 91046.

Chapter One

“T
here’s just no getting around it, Luke. We need a wife.”

Daniel McLain’s tone was grim, befitting the serious nature of his pronouncement.

“There’s got to be some other way.” Luke’s expression was even bleaker than his brother’s.

“None that I can see.” Daniel splashed a goodly measure of whiskey into his glass and then did the same for Luke. “We’ve put a lot of work into this place. If something happens to us, the ranch’ll be sold to some stranger. Neither of us wants to see that.”

Luke could have pointed out that, under those circumstances, they wouldn’t actually
see
the ranch fall into someone else’s hands, but he didn’t. Daniel’s logic might be slightly skewed but there was a basic truth in what he was saying.

“A son. That’s what we gotta have, Luke. One of us has to have a son to take over when we’re gone.”

“It isn’t like either one of us has a foot in the grave,” Luke said with some annoyance. At thirty, he didn’t consider himself yet on a nodding acquaintance with eternity. “We’ve got plenty of time to think about wives and sons and who’s going to take over when we’re gone.”

“Maybe.” Daniel’s expression was solemn. “But Heck Sloane was younger than both of us and Bill Parley wasn’t even thirty-five. Look at them.”

In point of fact, no one could actually
look
at either man. They’d both met their demise in the past six months.

“Heck was a fool to take on that shootist. Him and those damned pearl-handled Colts of his were just looking for an excuse to die young.”

“Bill didn’t have pearl-handled Colts,” Daniel noted gloomily. He was well into his third glass of whiskey and clearly feeling the fell hand of fate on his shoulder.

“No, but he had that hammerhead roan. Meanest horse this side of Julesburg. It’s a wonder he didn’t throw Bill into a wall years ago.”

“It could have happened to either one of us,” Daniel said, reaching for the whiskey bottle.

“Not unless one of us is stupid enough to get on a horse that’s half rattler and the other half just plain mean,” Luke said. But the words lacked conviction.

The fact was that it didn’t take a mean horse or overestimating your talent with a gun to get a man killed, and they both knew it. Even a good horse could step in a prairie dog hole or get spooked by a rattlesnake. A man left alone on the prairie, without a horse and far from home, stood a fair chance of dying of thirst or exposure. Hell, it didn’t even take anything dramatic to end a life. Their own father, as tough a man as Luke had ever known, had torn open his hand on a nail and died of blood poisoning a week later.

Luke frowned at the scarred surface of the kitchen table. He reached for the makings and rolled himself a cigarette, scraping a match across the tabletop. He frowned at the mark it left behind. If their mother were alive she’d have skinned him alive for leaving a mark on her clean table and then she’d have done it again for daring to smoke in her kitchen. But she’d been dead for three years now and the once-immaculate room bore evidence of its neglect since then.

The thin lamplight revealed that neglect with merciless clarity. The big iron stove was covered
with a thick layer of baked-on grease, bits of food and soot. The muslin curtains that had once hung in crisp white panels in front of the windows were gray with dirt. Not that it mattered much, since the window behind them hadn’t been washed in three years. The wooden floor his mother had been so proud of, that had been brought in from Denver, was obscured by the same layer of filth that covered everything else.

Luke stirred uneasily and reached out to rub his thumb over the black streak the match had left. Erasing it left a slightly cleaner spot on the dirty tabletop. He could almost see his mother’s accusing eyes, feel her disapproval. Though the whole house would just about have fit into the ballroom of her father’s home in Virginia, Lucinda McLain had been proud of this house, proud of the work her husband and sons had put into building it for her.

The McLains might have lost almost every material possession in the War Between the States but they hadn’t lost the most important things—their pride and determination. At the war’s end they’d sold what they could, abandoned what couldn’t be sold or brought with them and moved west, chasing the dream of a new life, just as it seemed half the country was doing.

They’d lived in a soddy at first, literally building their home from the land around them.

He and Daniel had broken wild horses to sell to the army and used the money to buy cattle. Those first years had been hard. All four of them had worked from sunrise to sunset—can see to can’t see.

Before the war Lucinda McLain had never had to dirty her hands on anything outside the home, and even there, she’d had servants to help her. But she’d learned to milk a cow and use a hammer. Her hands had grown callused and her pale skin had burned in the hot sun but she’d never forgotten that she was a lady and she’d never let her sons forget that they were gentlemen. They might have been eating day-old bread and beans but there was always a linen tablecloth, even if the table was a wooden crate. And no matter how many hours she’d put in working outside, she’d still made sure her husband and sons had clean clothes, even if they were mended.

Luke frowned and picked at a three-corner tear just above the knee of his jeans. When had they last been washed? he wondered uneasily.

“Thinking about Mother?” Daniel asked, reading his older brother’s mind.

“Place doesn’t look the way it did when she was alive,” Luke said.

Daniel followed his gaze around the kitchen, taking in the dirt that covered every exposed surface. The rest of the house was in slightly better shape, but only because they didn’t spend much time in any of the other rooms.

“She’d box both our ears,” Daniel admitted, looking uneasily over his shoulder as if expecting to see his mother’s shade bearing down on them.

“We could hire a housekeeper,” Luke suggested.

“We tried that. Twice. The first one drank every drop of liquor in the house and damn near burned the place down. The second was more interested in finding a husband than in cooking a meal.”

“As I recall, you were the husband she had in mind. She might have caught you, too, if you’d been a mite slower.” Luke grinned at the memory of his brother’s panicked reaction to the housekeeper’s blatant pursuit.

“You didn’t think it was so funny when she turned her sights on you,” Daniel observed. “Besides, a housekeeper isn’t going to solve the problem of having a son to leave the ranch to.”

“I wish you’d stop talking like we both had one foot in the grave,” Luke said irritably.

“We aren’t getting any younger, and having a son isn’t like ordering a new saddle. It can take a little time.”

“Nine months, last I’d heard.” Luke ground the end of his cigarette out in a plate left over from breakfast. Or was it supper the night before?

“First you’ve got to find a wife. And then you’ve got to go about the business of making babies. It took Dick Billings and his wife almost five years to have their first.”

“If I had a wife as pretty as Almira Billings, I don’t think I’d mind five years of trying,” Luke said with a grin. “Besides, all that practice must have paid off, since they’re working on their third in six years.”

“All we need to do is find you a pretty girl, then,” Daniel said cheerfully.

Luke choked on a mouthful of whiskey. During the ensuing fit of coughing, his brother pounded him on the back with helpful force, nearly dislocating a shoulder in the process.

“Find
me
a pretty girl?” Luke wheezed when he regained enough breath for speech. “Since when am I in the market for a wife?”

“I thought you agreed that we need a wife.” Daniel’s dark eyes widened in surprise.

“If
we
need a wife, why am
I
the one getting one?”

“You’re the oldest. It’s only fitting that you get to marry first.”

“Get to marry first?” Luke raised one dark eyebrow, questioning the privilege his brother had just offered him. “I’m not a consumptive old maid and you’re not a snake oil salesman, so there’s no sense in you trying to weasel me into getting hitched. Seems to me that
you
should be the one to find a wife. You’re younger, less set in your ways.”

“I’m only three years younger,” Daniel protested. “Besides, I don’t want to get married.” The thought was enough to make him reach for his glass and down a healthy shot of whiskey.

“I don’t want to get married, either,” Luke noted.

There was a lengthy silence while they considered the problem. Outside, a cricket scratched plaintively, the sound swallowed by the vast emptiness of the land.

“We could draw straws,” Daniel said. “Whoever gets the short straw has to find a wife.”

“Might work.” Luke rolled the idea around. It wasn’t ideal. Of course, the only thing that would be ideal was to forget the whole thing. But Daniel was right, they did need a wife. And since neither
of them
wanted
a wife, it was only fair to let chance decide which of them had to be sacrificed on the matrimonial altar.

He got up and crossed to where the broom leaned in the corner. A thick lacing of cobwebs tied it to the wall and the handle stuck to his fingers. Frowning, he lifted it and broke two dusty straws off the bottom. He brought them back to the table and sat down again. Daniel watched as he measured the two straws and then carefully broke one off halfway down. There’d be no mistaking which of them had drawn the short straw.

“You sure about this?” Luke asked.

Daniel dragged his eyes upward to meet his brother’s. “I’m sure.”

Without looking at what he was doing, Luke rolled the straws between his fingers, then closed his fist around them. “You first.”

Both men looked down. The tops of both straws were visible above the tanned skin of his hand. One straw was higher than the other but there was no telling which was longer overall. Daniel studied the two straws as intently as if his life depended on it, which, Luke guessed, it more or less did. He reached out, his fingers hovering above Luke’s hand, and then quickly drew a straw, choosing the one that showed the least.

There was a moment’s silence and then Daniel drew a deep, relieved breath. His face expressionless, Luke slowly opened his hand and stared at the short piece of straw lying on his palm.

Damned if he wasn’t going to have to find himself a wife.

Eleanor Williams leaned her elbows on the windowsill and looked up at the fat yellow moon. It sat in the middle of the sky, surrounded by twinkling stars like a plump matron with dozens of servants dancing attendance. But Eleanor barely noticed the beauty of the view.

Today had been her birthday. She was now twenty years old and, according to her cousin, Anabel, could consider herself practically an old maid. The catty remark was the only acknowledgment there’d been of Eleanor’s birthday and Anabel had only mentioned it because it gave her an opportunity to say something unpleasant. Unfortunately, in this case, Anabel’s nastiness was nothing more than the truth. She
was
practically an old maid, Eleanor admitted with a sigh. And likely to remain that way as long as she was so completely overshadowed by her younger cousin.

Anabel had just turned sixteen and had every expectation of being a wife before her next birthday. How could she not be, pretty as she was? Her
hair was the color of just-ripened wheat, all soft and golden, and when it was tied up in rags, it turned into perfect ringlets that set off Anabel’s pink-and-white complexion like a gilded frame.

Unlike Anabel’s obedient golden locks, Eleanor’s waist-length hair was a mass of thick, soft curls that refused to be completely tamed. Even now, when she’d just braided it for bed, tiny curls had already sprung loose to lie against her forehead. And instead of being rich gold, it was a plain brown—dirt brown Anabel had told her when Eleanor first came to live with her aunt and uncle six years ago.

With a sigh, Eleanor released the heavy braid, letting it fall back over her shoulder. It wasn’t just Anabel’s golden hair that made her so lovely, Her eyes were a beautiful clear blue, the color of a summer sky, as one smitten swain had told her. No one was going to wax poetic about plain brown eyes. And Anabel was tall. Not too tall, Aunt Dorinda would have quickly pointed out. Just tall enough to display the elegant slenderness of her figure.

Thank heavens her Anabel wasn’t a little dab of a thing, Eleanor had once heard Aunt Dorinda say, with a pointed glance in her niece’s direction. At barely five feet tall and with a figure that was neither
elegant nor slender, Eleanor couldn’t even attribute the remark to Dorinda Williams’s acid tongue. She
was
a little dab of a thing, and there was just no getting around it.

His little chicken, her father had called her. Always fussing over him like a mother hen with only one chick, he’d tease. Every night he’d come to her room wherever they were staying and she’d solemnly inspect his person. Always, there’d been some small flaw for her childish fingers to adjust—a tie not quite properly tied, a lock of hair slightly out of place, a loose button to be quickly stitched onto the crisp white linen of his shirt.

The memory made Eleanor smile. It was only after he was gone that it had occurred to her that those little flaws had been deliberate. Nathan Williams had understood his daughter’s need to be needed. If they’d had a settled home, she could have fussed with the cooking and cleaning. But he was a gambler and they rarely stayed in one place more than a few weeks at a time. Since he couldn’t give her a house to fuss over, he’d given her himself.

Eleanor’s mother had died when Eleanor was six, and for the next eight years she’d traveled with her father. Nathan Williams had been a gambler by profession. He’d started out gambling on the Mississippi
riverboats before the war. When he married Emmeline St. Jacques, he’d purchased a store in St. Louis and settled down to try his hand at being a tradesman. Eleanor had vague memories of a high-ceilinged room, with sawdust on the floor and goods piled high on every side.

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