April 21, 1872
There once lived a cowpoke by the Nu-aces,
Who looked for a wife in pious places;
He sought a bride with nothing to hide;
What he got was a ride,
For the nag done been put through her paces.
Bethany Todd tried not to think of that rhymeâthe sort she'd first encountered in the Long Lick drinkeryâyet how could she not? Today she would face that cowpoke, and marry him. Deceiving Jon Marc O'Brien into marriage would be the biggest sin in a life of transgressions, slips, and lapses.
“Don't do it,” Bethany whispered against the curled fingers that she pressed to trembling lips. No one heard her. No other passengers rode the stagecoach traveling south on the Old Spanish Trail, the other having met a tragic end seven days previously. “Just stay aboard. Don't step down. He doesn't know you from beans.”
After a two-year correspondence, Jon Marc O'Brien had written to Kansas to ask for marriage. Marriageable ladies, Bethany had been given to understand, were as scarce as cobbled streets in the badlands that stretched southwest from San Antonio to the Mexican border at Laredo.
For some unmentioned reason Jon Marc had requested his mail-order bride's arrival to coincide with the day he turned thirty. Today. He expected chastity and a whole lot more, none of which Bethany Todd could provide.
Her curled fingers flattened on the bodice of a traveling suit that she'd fallen heir to from her sainted friend, the same one who passed last week to wherever saints went. “Just say you aren't Beth. Keep going. It's the right thing to do.”
Jarred by more than a ride through Texas brush country, Bethany pulled curtains aside as the stagecoach vaulted over the bridge that spanned the river Nueces, approaching the settlement called Fort Ewell.
A cowboy stepped from beneath a sign lettered “Post Ofice,” alighting the porch of a clapboard building that tilted slightly to starboard. Dressed in Sunday bestâblack suit, ruffled shirt, string tie, and polished bootsâhe wore a ten-gallon hat supported low on his brow.
He cast a long shadow, his step carrying a sensuality to it. She couldn't make out his face, but his shoulders capped a lanky frame. His litheness bespoke a hale, hearty man of the landâa physique honed from rounding up wild cattle and even wilder mustangs.
Was this Jon Marc O'Brien?
Jon Marc. Ranch owner. A man of means. The answer to a wretch's dreams. The man who could give her everything she wanted and needed, starting with respectability.
But why weren't two young men awaiting this stagecoach? There were two men at the post office, all right. But one had some years on him. The older man, grizzled and bearded, sat on the porch, a big dog at his side. That man couldn't be thirty.
When the stagecoach screeched to a halt, Bethany settled her gaze anew on the cowboy who ambled the thirty or so feet that separated building from coach. From the outline at the right pocket of his frock coat, she noted something sinister.
He packed a big gun.
She let go the curtain to shove her spine against the coach seat. Hopefully he wasn't a thief of horses, cows, and handbagsâthe Fort Ewell bandit gossiped about as far north as the Fort Worth stage stop, and no telling how far to the east.
The coach bounced once, when the shotgun rider jumped down to assist his passenger. But he didn't. The cowboy opened that door.
A hand browned by the sun reached into the interior. “I've been waiting all my life for you. Welcome.”
He had a deep voice, a nice one. Could this be the answer to her dreams?
“Are you . . . are you Mr. O'Brien?”
“Yes, ma'am. None other. But I'd think, due to our engagement, you'd feel free enough to call me Jon Marc.”
This was where good sense should have told Bethany not to get off the seat. Practicality mixed with desperation pulled her up, as if by marionette strings. Where else could she go? What could she do, and what would she do it with?
It had taken the last of her money, as well as her departed friend's, to get the poor dear buried with a decent marker. Bethany couldn't ride on to the next town, not without money for passage. Besides, she
what Jon Marc O'Brien offered.
Unable to eye him, she put her hand in his. Skin roughened by honest toil and a grip hardened by years of cowboyingâthese were what she felt. They bespoke honesty and hard work.
Having read and reread the stack of letters sent to court a bride, Bethany knew he had character. This was an honorable man. A man with an appreciation for the finer things in life, and he wasn't afraid to work for them.
In no time she'd gathered parasol and reticule, and was contemplating brown Texas dirt. Jon Marc stepped back. For that she could be thankful, since she needed distance to catch her breath.
Her nerves went from jarred to clattering like a tambourine at full jangle. Catch her breath? Impossible. Could she pull off this ruse? What if he saw through her? She might not measure up to the tintype sent last year. What if he flat didn't like her?
She dared a glance at him.
He cocked his hatted head, but the brim shaded his face. Even though he was a half head taller than Bethany, she found it impossible to assess either his looks or his frame of mind.
“You're even prettier than your picture, Beth honey.”
Under normal conditions she would have smiled, compliments having been few and far between in her twenty years. Fear that he'd send her away froze the muscles around her mouth.
That was when he went down on a knee and brought her fingers to his lips. His gallant kiss launched a bounty of sensations up her arm, past her shoulder, and into her heart.
She almost dropped her reticule and parasol.
“ 'For in my mind, of all mankind, I will love but you alone,' ” recited the Texan.
Unfortunately, Bethany couldn't appreciate his gestures, nor smile at anything. Meeting his gaze? Dangerous.
“You sure are pretty.” He drew to booted feet and brushed dust from a knee before adding, with either disappointment or suspicion, she couldn't judge which: “You're younger-looking than I expected.”
She refused to admit falling shy of the twenty-two he believed her to be. Her gaze averted, she retreated a pair of steps and unfurled her parasol to ward off the afternoon sun. Or was it to put a barrier between herself and her prey?
He got close enough for her to see the tips of his boots and to smell bay rum. He said, “Please don't be frightened of me. I'm only out to love you.”
Touched, albeit terrified of making a wrong move, she whispered in a kitten's mewl, “I know you are, sir.”
Somehow Bethany collected enough courage to scrutinize the man she wanted to deceive. With the post office and the oldster with dog as backdrop, Jon Marc leveled those wide, wide shoulders. He had a charming yet disconcerting trait of looking into her eyes, as if the rest of the world meant nothing to him, as if she were the only person in it.
That had its advantages. If he kept his eyes on her face, he wouldn't get a look at her shoes.
His lips twitched as he met her stare. That was a manly mouth; Bethany had the urge to touch it and find out if it was as soft yet firm as it looked.
He wasn't pretty, not of features. Pretty didn't matter. This Texan was wonderful to look at.
Neatly trimmed, shining clean hairâthe hue of a much-traded pennyâgrew thick and curled at his nape. He had nice, soft brown eyes with thick, straight brows that might have been tipped with gold dust. The best part? Those manly planes that made up his face.
Craggy, dipped by time and sun, it had substance and strength. No mustache, no beard. Shaven clean. Somehow he'd escaped the bane of redheads, skin that objected to sunshine. His nose was on the large side, but it complemented those crags and dips.
Ain't no riddle when you get the diddle: big nose, long hose.
Bethany trembled anew, trying not to have bawdy thoughts.
Silence gathered, the only noise coming from the stagecoach boot, where the shotgun rider tossed her pair of valises to the bowlegged oldster who had gotten down from the porch to help. The old man complained about the weight of her belongings, and he hadn't reached the dowry offeringsâboxes and a barrel of flour.
Jon Marc took the parasol from her stiff fingers to hold it at the correct angle. His voice rough with emotion, he said, “I may not be the answer to a maiden's prayers, but I'm healthy, I'm strong, and I'll always be good to you.”
If Bethany had gone on instinct, she would have gushed about how easy he was on the eye and how much she wanted to please him. Unladylike behavior. Improper! A disgrace.
But why didn't he kiss her, just grab her up and slam his lips to hers? She knew why not. This rancher, born in Memphis but twelve years a Texan, was too good for grabbing a woman as if she were no more than a piece of meat.
“You'll do, sir,” was all she dared reply.
The older man then toddled toward them. His sand-colored dog, missing a hind leg, hobbled beside him. The dog lifted his snout to bark, displaying a missing incisor.
“Shud up, Stumpy.” His master nudged Stumpy's brisket with a toe of his boot. “If ya ain't barkin', you's gnawin' fleas. I swear, I'm gonna get shut of you, one of these days. It be into the Nueces for your lousy hide!”
“He's all bark and no bite,” Jon Marc confided, his regard for the other man friendly. “And I'm not talking about Stumpy.”
“Howdy, ma'am. Welcome to brush country. I be Liam Short. Postmaster of Fort Ewell.” Before she could muster the social graces, Liam turned to Jon Marc, scratching his white beard and saying, “Son, I thought you said her eye-uz blue.”
“Why don't you get those thirsty horses a drink, Liam? Now!”
The meddlesome old coot shrugged, but imparted a superior look Jon Marc's way, before hitching up his britches to take off.
“You did mention blue eyes,” Jon Marc prompted.
Bethany couldn't meet the curious, intense stare of her intended. This would be her first venture into what would surely lead to a host of face-to-face lies with the fine man who deserved honesty. “Did I say that? How very absentminded of me. My eyes were blue, as a moppet. But they turned hazel.”
“They're a pretty shade of hazel. Leaf-green irises with darker circles around them, like the color of a pecan. Looks mighty pretty with your black hair and heart-shaped face.” His voice had a smile in it, despite the awkward moment. “Mighty pretty.”
She sighed with relief, having covered her blunder.
Another copious silence puckered before Jon Marc said in a husky whisper, “You're sweeter-faced than your picture.”
Having depleted her store of swift replies on the eyes error, she concentrated on his string tie.
“Beth . . . mind if I ask what became of your chaperone?”
“Mrs. Wiley had to be discharged in Waco. She was found in a state of inebriation, compromising her good name with the innkeeper. And, um, with the cook's assistant. I believe they were playing a game of cards that involved betting one's attire.”
Jon Marc chuckled, the timbre deep and pleasant. Blinking and tilting his jaw just so, he clicked his tongue and grinned. His flirtatious yet boyish expression had a magnetic quality to it.
While he found mirth in Estelle Wiley's fall from grace, Bethany took comfort in his sense of humor about human frailties.
Maybe he wouldn't send her away.
Having gained some control over the tambourine of her nerves, she noted the riverside surroundings. A buckboard waited, festooned with roses, near the post office. No doubt to carry a bride and groom to the church, then to Rancho Caliente. What a sweet gesture, Jon Marc thinking of flowers when few grew within miles of this stretch of Texas. Where had he found them?
Not here in Fort Ewell.
The town barely fit the definition of one. A single wooden structure, the post office. Cows on the horizon. Chickens scratched dirt in front of a quartet of adobe huts. One burro grazed next to a weathered oxcart, between the river and what appeared to be a pen of pigs. A tiny white church with a wooden steeple lay beyond what might be considered the city limits.
Bethany also saw miles and miles of miles and miles. It wasn't much, this town. But any place beat the place she came from.
“Beth?” Solemn in both tone and face, Jon Marc asked, “Would you like a lemonade before we ride over to the church?”
“No.” She couldn't have swallowed anything. “First, where is Hoot . . . ?” Somehow she couldn't voice the outlaw's last name. But Hoot would be enough. From Jon Marc's letters, and from gossip first heard in Fort Worth, she knew the bandit to be an enemy to Rancho Caliente. Her voice found, Bethany went on, “His half sister traveled on the stage. Planned to make a home with him. We were given to understand he'd meet her.”
“He's not what you call dependable.”
“I must forward a message to him.” Grieved at losing a friendâthe women had formed a sisterly bond in a fortnight of shared travel, one that Bethany would never forgetâshe whispered, “His sister won't be arriving.”
“The postmaster spread it around, about Hoot expecting kin.” A frown shored up Jon Marc's mouth. “If she's got good sense, she'll stay away. Hoot is bad news.”
“So I've heard.” Bethany moved her reticule to the other perspiring palm. “I bring sad tidings. That lovely lady succumbed to a rattlesnake bite, a week ago in Austin.”