Authors: Tender Kisses Tough Talk
Books By Deborah Camp:
The Dangerous Hearts Series
Master of Moonspell
Right Behind the Rain
The Daring Hearts Series
My Wild Rose
The Love and Adventure Series
For Love or Money
In a Pirate’s Arms
Just Another Pretty Face
Vein of Gold
The Love and Laughter Series
A Newsworthy Affair
Hook, Line, and Sinker
The Butler Did It
The Love Everlasting Series
A Dream to Share
They Said it Wouldn’t Last
The Passionate Hearts Series
Taming the Wild Man
The Second Mr. Sullivan
Weathering the Storm
The Tender Hearts Series
Sweet Passion’s Song
This Tender Truce
To Have, To Hold
The Wild Hearts Series
A Tough Man’s Woman
Too Tough ToTame
Tough Talk, Tender Kisses
Copyright © Deborah Camp, 1997
All Rights Reserved
First published by Avon Books.
A mail-order marriage is trickier’n braidin’ a mule’s tail.
he 10:10 chugged down the tracks toward Whistle Stop, Indian Territory, right on time, much to Adele Bishop’s regret.
“Reno Gold,” she whispered, and just the sound of his name sent her temperature up a degree. She’d been barely out of pigtails the last time she’d seen him and today she was supposed to marry him!
Of course, she wouldn’t. And she was certain he didn’t expect it of her. Why he had answered her advertisement for a husband was a mystery to her, but she was sure his acceptance had been as lighthearted and frivolous as her offer. They would catch up on each other’s life since their shared days in Lawrence, Kansas, six years ago, and Reno would be on his way again.
She placed a confident smile on her lips, reminding herself that she meant to teach this backward-thinking town an important lesson about humanity. After today the men of Whistle Stop would reconsider their practice of ordering brides as they would a new saddle or stove.
Her mother—a notorious, right-thinking suffragette, may God rest her soul—would have been proud.
“Here comes the bridegroom,” Yancy Stummer said, displaying the four yellowed teeth he still had in the front of his mouth. “Ain’t this excitin’? I ’member when my bride come on the train.
, that was one happy day, I’m here to tell ya.”
Adele tipped up her chin. “I wonder if your bride shared your enthusiasm.”
“She was damn lucky to get me.” Yancy stuck out his scrawny chest. “Why, she was a widder-woman with two crybaby kids when I agreed to take her in. She’d been livin’ with her pappy, and he treated her like a plow mule.”
“Ah, yes, and you ordered her up like you would a fried-chicken dinner at the restaurant.” Adele looked back at the eating establishment she managed. The two-story building sat to the south of the depot and was the center of activity for the small town of Whistle Stop. She faced Yancy’s gap-toothed jeer again. “I’m sure Stella felt awfully special,” she added in a droll voice that diminished Yancy’s grin a fraction.
Past Yancy’s stoop-shouldered form Adele caught sight of Taylor Terrapin, the pitted-faced owner of the Black Knight Saloon. He never missed a chance to flirt with her, not even on this day, the day she would supposedly collect her bridegroom. His smile made her skin crawl. She not only disapproved of his dubious character, but she strongly disapproved of his business, which used women of easy virtue to attract customers to his gaming tables.
She yanked her attention away from Terrapin’s oily visage and tried to shut out the snickers and snide comments directed at her by the observers. The train squealed to a stop, and the engineer gave a jaunty salute to the brakeman. Adele’s nerves quivered while the conductor placed the steps at the train door and made ready for the passengers arriving at Whistle Stop. The hour stopover enticed riders to stretch their legs and order something from the restaurant, but few ever chose to remain in Whistle Stop.
However, one passenger would not get back on the train this morning.
Oh, that name sent delicious shivers skittering across Adele’s skin. How had the years changed him? Why had he answered her advertisement for a husband? Was Sally Baldridge right in her assumption that he was down on his luck and looking for room and board until he could get back on his feet? Would he make a bigger fool of her than she already felt, with the town yokels gawking at her as if she were the main attraction in a carnival sideshow?
She smoothed her hands down the front of her restaurant attire of white dress and black apron. Sally had wanted her to remove the apron, but Adele had resisted, thinking the dress would seem too bridal without it, and she didn’t want to give Reno any wrong ideas. She had advertised for a husband, but she had no intention of actually claiming one. Sally, a friend since her days in Kansas, had tried to talk her out of this scheme—especially after Reno had responded. She’d never approved of Reno.
Adele watched as bodies stirred behind the train
windows and the porters pushed open the narrow doors. Someone near her whistled the wedding march. A woman laughed raucously.
“It’s shameful! Downright shameful!” the woman said loudly. “You’ve got no right advertising for a man.”
Adele bristled and glared at the scolder, who turned out to be one of the saloon tarts in Terrapin’s den of ill repute. “I have as much right as any man to advertise for a mate.”
“Men are easy to find out west, but women aren’t. Men got to do what they got to do to get women to come out here,” the other woman charged, her painted face contorting in disgust.
“If a man wanted a woman so desperately, he could find one at Mr. Terrapin’s saloon and ask her properly to be his wife,” Adele retorted. A woman standing back from the others caught her eye. She had a plain face that was somehow off-kilter, but when she smiled at Adele, she was transformed into something almost pretty. Adele gave a sigh of relief. At least one woman here today was in her corner!
“It’s a man’s place to pick his mate, not the other way around,” Yancy declared. “Besides, nobody wants no whore for a wife.”
The plain woman’s smile slipped. “Us whores don’t want none of y’all neither,” she declared, then shrank back when Terrapin turned to glare at her. “I mean, uh, that is … not as h-husbands.” Her smile trembled on her thin lips and her eyes were wide with anxiety. Adele realized what accounted for her unbalanced appearance; one eye was blue and the other was dark brown.
Terrapin nodded and gently knuckled her pointed chin. “That’s right, Doris. Glad you remembered who butters your bread.”
God’s nightgown! Strengthening the moral fiber of this town could very well be beyond her capabilities, Adele fretted. Terrapin turned his smile in her direction, and she looked quickly away from him, feeling the same revulsion as she felt for snakes.
“You want a man? There are able-bodied men right here in town willing to wed ya,” Yancy piped up. “I betcha Willie Halderon there would make an honest woman of ya.”
Halderon, all six feet and one hundred fifty pounds of him, shuffled forward. He blushed, and to Adele’s astonishment, lowered himself to one bony knee before her. The onlookers applauded and whistled.
“Willie, get up,” Adele whispered, stepping away from him as her face heated like a stove lid.
“Won’t you marry me, Miss Adele? I think you’re real nice to look at.” His Adam’s apple slipped up and down in his long throat.
“No, Willie, I will not marry you. Now please get to your feet.”
“Is that him?” Yancy asked, as a crippled, elderly gentleman accepted a porter’s help to leave the train.
Adele made a face at Yancy’s quip, but the crowd laughed. With a sigh Willie stood and shuffled back among the others.
Adele almost hoped that Reno Gold had decided not to board the train after all. Suffering rejection wouldn’t be so bad. Yet she knew she’d be disappointed if he didn’t show up. In all truth, she wanted to see Reno again to discover for herself if he had
fulfilled the potential for greatness she’d seen in him back in Kansas. With his agile mind and a fair chance, he could have made a mark on the world. But she worried this wasn’t the case. He’d written that he’d tried his luck in the goldfields; an idle, foolish quest to her way of thinking. Men chasing after luck usually ended up luckless.
“Hey, here’s another stranger. Is he the fortunate feller?” Yancy called out, clearly enjoying his role of ringleader for the group of gawkers.
A blond man with a patch over his left eye departed the train, and Terrapin came forward, one hand extended.
“Glad you could make it, Buck,” he greeted the one-eyed stranger. “Collect your baggage and I’ll take you to the saloon.”
“I’ve only got this,” the man said, indicating the carpetbag he held. “Good to see you again, Taylor.”
“What happened to your eye?”
“Lost it back when I was in Montana. A Blackfeet son of a bitch cut me. But don’t you worry. I’m still a dead-on shot.”
“I don’t doubt that, and I don’t doubt that you’ll earn the big fee I’ve agreed to pay you.”
The snatch of conversation sent uneasiness through Adele. Was this man a hired gun? If so, who was his target?
She watched the other passengers leave the train one by one, all the while conscious of Terrapin and his tarts escorting the blond stranger away from the depot and to the saloon owner’s waiting buggy. A chill of foreboding seeped into her bones. A hired gun. In Whistle Stop. Who or what threatened Taylor
Terrapin so much that he felt compelled to hire an assassin?
“Looks like your sweetheart got hold of his good sense before it was too late,” Yancy said, giving a hoot of glee. “Yup, he musta seen that this mail-order husband plan is ’bout as natural as a hog trying to mount a goat.”
“Watch your filthy mouth, Yancy Stummer,” Adele admonished him. “I have every right to buy myself a husband and lay down the law to him.” She hardened her heart against the sting of rejection. Reno wasn’t on the train. He’d stood her up. “My question is, does any of us really have that right? We fought a war to end slavery and yet we practice—”