Authors: Delilah Devlin
To my fans.
You motivate me, nag me, and push me to be better.
Thanks for the emails, the letters, and the FB love!
“It’s time you boys found yerselves a wife.” Sam Logan made his pronouncement then waited, watching the four younger men seated at the table from the corner of his eye. He didn’t have to wait long for his words to sink in. They exploded in the room with the force of a silent grenade.
Johnny’s jaw closed with a snap, and he laid his spoon down on the scarred oak table. His black winged brows drew together, nearly meeting over his dark eyes as he raised his head.
Sam suppressed a smile. That look could make the toughest
gulp, but Sam wasn’t the least bit concerned. Johnny tended to look mean when things changed. His oldest boy hated any kind of change.
If any other man had said what he had, Johnny would have cussed under his breath and aimed a piercing, silencing glare. However, he respected Sam, trusted him as much as he could anyone. That trust and respect were the only things that kept his butt on the bench beside his brother Killian.
For his part, Killian’s eyes narrowed. The corners of his lips twitched. Likely he was amused by Johnny’s reaction and didn’t want to let him off the hook too quickly, but was already lining up all the reasons why Sam’s idea was ludicrous. He was quick that way.
Sam calmly ladled the hearty stew he’d made into his mouth and let his gaze roam to the twins. Jason was coughing into his napkin while Mace gave him “helpful” taps between his shoulder blades.
Mace caught his stare and grinned. “
wife, did you say?”
Sam grunted, ignoring the one word that had caught his son’s attention. “This is the third time this week we’ve had stew,” he murmured. Not to change the subject, but to point out a glaring fact.
“I like stew just fine,” Johnny muttered.
“This house misses a woman’s touch.” There, he’d said it. Sat the big gorilla in the room right at the dinner table. Impossible to ignore.
“Gracie can’t be replaced,” Killian said softly.
The permanent ache next to his heart echoed that truth. Sam nodded. “She’s gone. Three years. I miss her every day. Know you do too. But life goes on. You’re men now. You have an obligation. Ranchin’s a family business. Y’all need families.”
Johnny cleared his throat. “No disrespect intended, Sam, but you didn’t get sons the old-fashioned way.”
“Not because Gracie and I didn’t try. And in the end, we had no regrets. We both loved you all like you was our own.”
“So, you’d rather saddle us with—”
Sam aimed a quelling stare. “Think I felt like Gracie was a noose around my neck?”
“No sir, but…” Johnny’s hands fisted on the tabletop. “Hell, how’re we to find someone like her?”
Sam understood what he meant. Gracie’s passing had left a hole in all their hearts. The boys had loved her. Took to her the very first day he’d brought each of them home. Gracie had been born to be a mother, and she’d showered them all with the things they’d needed most—acceptance and unconditional love.
“Boys, Gracie wasn’t born a rancher’s wife. Truth is, she didn’t know a bull from a cow and damn near poisoned me with the first meals she cooked. But she learned. Find a woman willin’ to learn, one you kin love and who’ll love you back.”
“You said, ‘
wife’.” Mace wasn’t gonna let that slip of the tongue go.
Sam shook his head and gave the twins a faint glimmer of a smile. Those two could always see the humor in any predicament. “Thought I’d give you two options. I know one can’t piss without the other goin’ too. And there are damn few single women to go around these parts. ’Nough said?” When all of them nodded, he cleared his throat. “I’ll be out of town for the next four days. Auction in Abilene. The house is yours.”
Johnny glanced around the dinner table at his brothers, whose attention had been snared from the first moment Sam had made his firmly spoken pronouncement. They were accustomed to eating quietly, filling their hollow bellies at the end of a long, hard day’s work. Sam’s words echoed in the silence that followed and hung in the air like a sour-smelling cloud. At least to Johnny’s imagination. The thought of taking a wife, keeping a woman around on a permanent basis, made him itch.
The suggestion that they find “
wife” had come out of the blue. But the look on Sam’s face said he’d thought long and hard about it and would brook no arguments. His sly mention that the twins might share one should have been shocking but wasn’t given their recent escapades, as well as the unconventional relationships springing up like chokeweeds all around Two Mule, Texas.
The glint of humor in Killian’s eyes forewarned he was about to say something sly. Johnny grunted and shook his head. Now was not the time to make a joke.
Killian snorted. His lips twisted, but he gave a shrug to indicate he’d behave.
Johnny didn’t like the turn of the conversation, but it was Sam Logan giving the advice. When Sam spoke, which was seldom, they all listened.
After all, they owed Sam everything.
Jason leaned away from Mace and grabbed at the hand that been pounding his back. “Can we draw straws to see who gets saddled with one?”
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “Strange things been happenin’ around this town. Fact is, I don’t care whether you all find one woman to take you on or four. But it’s time for you boys to settle down.”
Johnny knew what this was about. From the flinty glint in Killian’s eyes, he did too. Apparently so did the twins, who shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, cheeks flushing a dull red.
“I’m not sayin’ it was a sin, what you two boys did,” Sam said. “The girl was willin’ and yer young. But word gets around. Decent folks’ll keep their women away from ya. Best to make your move fast before everyone hears the gossip and doors close in your face. This is a hard life. A man needs his comforts. Do I need to say more?”
All four younger men shook their heads.
“No sir,” Johnny muttered. Sam’s pronouncements weren’t suggestions. He folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate. He’d been hungry before his foster father had spoken, but now his food sat like a cold lump in his belly.
A woman. He had to find a woman. He’d offer no arguments. Just like any other chore, he’d get to it with quiet efficiency.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, glaring at the twins as he pushed away from the table. “I have business in town.”
Sam eyed him, then solemnly nodded. “You do indeed. Good luck, son.”
It didn’t take long for the other three to find him. The bathroom door opened as he slicked back his wet hair. Mace sidled inside while Killian leaned against the doorframe and Jason stood behind him with his hands in his pockets.
Mace grimaced as he sat on the edge of the bathtub. “Think he was serious?”
“When is he not?” Johnny said, keeping his tone even.
“You gonna do it? Just like that? Find yourself a wife?”
Johnny squared his shoulders. “It’s what needs to be done.”
“Because Sam said so?”
Johnny turned and shot out a hand to grip the collar of Mace’s shirt.
Mace met his glare with one of his own. “Didn’t mean it that way, bro. But hell, a wife? Shouldn’t we take our time? Do this thing right? It’s a big damn step.”
Johnny hardened his glare. “You two may have been the ones to draw attention to the problem, but we’ve all done plenty to answer for. If we’ve embarrassed Sam, it’s time we manned up.”
Mace’s lips firmed then he released a deep sigh.
Johnny let him go but stood with his hands fisted on his hips.
“Guess you’re right,” Mace muttered. “So, what’s the plan?”
Why was it they always looked to him for a plan? In this instance, he was the least qualified one to decide. But as always, Johnny gritted his teeth and kept it simple. “We find a woman, someone we all don’t object to, ’cause she’s gonna be underfoot. Then one of us has to marry her.”
“Think it’ll be that easy?”
“’Course not. But since when have we shied away from a challenge?”
“We’ll go in two separate trucks,” Killian said, straightening away from the door. “Cover twice as much ground.”
Johnny turned to the mirror and gave his appearance once last look. Wasn’t much he could do, but at least his hair was combed and his breath was fresh. He glanced over his shoulder as the twins headed down the hallway, laughing and shoving each other toward the stairs. “Don’t know why I’m suddenly scared to death,” he muttered.
Killian laughed. “Yeah, those two with a mission. Boggles the mind.”
The trip into town was made in silence. The way he liked most things. From the corner of his eye he could see Killian glancing his way, like he wanted to say something, but Johnny didn’t give him any encouragement. He was mad as hell it had come to this.
Up to now, they’d had it good. Sure, the work was backbreaking but the ranch was all he had, all any of them had. Sam was planning to leave it to them, but only if they managed to keep out of trouble, learn to ranch, and be good citizens. Learning to ranch had been the easy part. They’d all taken to it like ducks to water, thriving on the physical challenge, learning to rope and ride. Learning how to break a horse to saddle, how to birth a calf.
That had been the simple part. The being good citizens part had been tougher. None of them had had the greatest examples of manhood in their lives to model themselves after. Not until Sam. And Sam had his issues. He was damn near a hermit. Grumpy as hell around other people. Even more so after Gracie had passed away.
Johnny had grown more like Sam than the others, but hadn’t realized it was a problem until it came to dealing with the opposite sex. While the twins and Killian never had any trouble finding willing partners, Johnny had bedded few. His straight stare seemed to scare women away.
And if they weren’t put off with the way he looked at them, he didn’t have a silver tongue. In fact, he couldn’t seem to put two coherent words together, much less figure out a way to put a woman at ease in his company.
Still, he wasn’t all that worried about Sam’s pronouncement. The others would have a better chance of finding a woman willing to take them on. He’d do his duty, give it a try, set an example for the others, but he knew his chances of finding a suitable woman who could overlook his flaws was slim to none. No, he didn’t have an ounce of charm, had two left feet and a face as rugged as a mountain. Given those facts and his history, what woman would look his way and want to make a family with him?
Not that the thought of having children didn’t cause his chest to fill with a lonely ache.
“I could help you, you know,” Killian said, his tone casual.
Too casual. Johnny grunted. “With what?”
“Gettin’ you a wife.”
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Worry about findin’ your own.”
“It’s not how it works, bro. We’re brothers.”
“We’re not blood.”
“Blood’s not what counts.”
Which was a sorry damn truth they all knew too well. Blood had failed them all.
Johnny cussed under his breath. “How would you help? You gonna chat her up for me? You gonna tell her what a catch I am?”
“Well, you are. You stand to inherit a fourth of the Double Tree. And I’ve seen the way women look at you.”
“You’re not a bad lookin’ guy.
Johnny aimed a blistering glare his way. “You gonna ask me out?”
Killian grinned. “Just statin’ the facts. You’re not hard on the eyes. And you’re tall. Girls like that. And they like your hair. They like you fine until you give ’em that thousand-yard stare like you’re sightin’ down a rifle barrel.”
Johnny gave him his meanest glare. “This isn’t gonna work.”
Killian gave a waggle of his eyebrows. “I’ll help. What’re brothers for?”
“You’re just hoping I’ll snag a wife and that’ll be the end of it. You’ll be off the hook.”
“You think this is funny.”
“Watchin’ you tryin’ to sweet talk a woman—yeah, it’ll be the most fun I’ve had in while. So where do you wanna start?”
Johnny didn’t answer but he passed up the most obvious place. The saloon’s parking lot was already full. Instead, he turned onto Main Street and slowed as he searched for a parking place.
Killian straightened in his seat. “You’re not thinkin’ of Ellie, are you?”
The way Killian said it intimated he thought Johnny had lost his mind. Maybe he had. But she was the first woman he’d thought of when Sam had mentioned the stew. “She can cook.”
Killian gave an exaggerated shudder. “But she’s mean.”
“Should be perfect for me then, don’t you think?”
Killian gave a bark of laughter then crammed his cowboy hat on his head.
Johnny raked his hair with his fingers and wished he’d thought to bring a rubber band to tie it back. However, Killian had said girls liked his long, straight hair. He didn’t know why he’d kept it. It was the one most glaring trait that set him apart from his brothers. The last vestige of the heritage he’d thrown off when he’d run away from life on the reservation.