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Authors: Loretta Chase Catherine Anderson Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Three Weddings And A Kiss

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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K
ATHLEEN
E. W
OODIWISS

and

C
ATHERINE
A
NDERSON
L
ORETTA
C
HASE
· L
ISA
K
LEYPAS

Three Weddings and a Kiss

 

 

Contents

 

 

Fancy Free
Catherine Anderson

 

 

The Mad Earl’s Bride
Loretta Chase

 

 

Promises
Lisa Kleypas

 

 

The Kiss
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

 

 

Prologue

C
lint Rafferty strode across the worn boardwalk in front of the Golden Goose Saloon and shoved open the bat-wing doors. It was hot and noisy inside, reminding him of the bowels of hell that Preacher Wells thundered about on Sunday. As he’d expected, the place was full, a usual occurrence at half past ten Saturday night, and the hazy, lantern-lit interior reeked of tobacco smoke, unwashed bodies, and cheap perfume.

A girl in a blue gown stood nearby, as though placed there to greet patrons. As soon as she spied Clint, her painted mouth curved into a smile and her glittering blue eyes narrowed. “Looking for company, cowboy?” she asked, sidling his way.

Clint inclined his head politely, his mother’s teachings still strong in him even at the age of twenty-seven. “No, ma’am,” he drawled. “I’m lookin’ for my brother.”

“Is that a fact?”

Clint reined in his impatience. Though he had no quarrel with how this soiled dove or any other made her living, he’d never felt the need to pay for a woman’s attention—especially when he was tired and hungry and had a good two hours of chores awaiting him at home. “That is a fact.”

He glanced past her toward the bar. Sure enough, there stood Matthew leaning against the polished top as if for support, his thick ebony hair lying in sweat-damp waves over his high forehead. From the looks of the kid, he was already sloppy drunk.

Clint muttered an oath under his breath.

“Are you two twins or something?” she asked, glancing back and forth between the two Rafferty men.

Folks had claimed for years that he and Matt were dead ringers for each other, and Clint guessed there were similarities. They shared the same square chin, high cheekbones, smoky eyes and black hair. But there the similarities ended. When Clint smiled, which wasn’t often, no one seemed to care. But when Matt flashed that lopsided, lazy grin of his, the whole world seemed to smile with him, especially the female half, many of whom tended to go weak at the knees as well. Even now there was a woman hanging on Matt’s opposite arm—a cute little redhead with big green eyes. She went by the name of Dora Faye, if Clint recollected right.

“I’ve got seven years on him,” he explained to the soiled dove, a fact that seemed to surprise her. No sense adding that he’d spent those seven years trying to be both mother and father to Matthew and all his other brothers.

“Then this is your lucky night, sugar,” she muttered, “because I just happen to be extra partial to older men.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I’ve got hungry horses to feed and a ledger to balance yet tonight,” Clint cut in before she could suggest he buy them both a drink.

She gave him a look of disappointment before shrugging one bare white shoulder. “The offer’s always open. Just ask for Maydeen.”

“I just might do that sometime.”

Picking his way through the milling bodies, Clint headed in Matthew’s direction. Here lately, Matt’s drinking sprees had become a weekly occurrence. Damn the kid’s hide. He knew about the Rafferty weakness for alcohol. Hadn’t he stood at Clint’s side when they’d lowered their pa into his grave five years past? The old man had drunk himself to death, for Christ’s sake, not to mention that his drinking had left his sons penniless. Unable to make the mortgage payments, they had lost the old home place back in Ohio and wouldn’t have had a roof over their heads if not for their moving west to find land they could homestead. By the sweat of all their brows, they were finally starting to get ahead, no thanks to their father, and now here was Matt following in the old man’s footsteps.

Clint’s first impulse was to grab his brother by the collar and shake him. Instead he elbowed his way in beside him and propped a heel on the boot rail. “Matt, the cattlemen’s meetin’ is over. I reckon it’s about time we thought about headin’ home.”

Matt turned slowly, his gray blue eyes slightly out of focus, his usually firm mouth lax at the corners. “Clint?” he asked, his tone indicating that he was none too sure.

“Who else?”
Clint couldn’t stifle a smile as he slowly waved a hand in front of his brother’s nose.
“You in there, Matthew?”

“Last time I checked, I was.” Matt hiccupped,
then
grinned down at the woman on his other side. “This here pretty lady has been kind enough to buy me a drink, haven’t you, darlin’?”

Dora Faye darted a look at Clint’s face. “Evenin’, Mr. Rafferty,” she said in a surprisingly subdued tone. “I didn’t realize that you were in town, too.”

“Old Clint here, he came in for a meeting with the other big boys,” Matt joked, his voice slurring. “Ain’t that right, Brother?”

“Right.”

Matt licked his lips,
then
frowned. “I di’n’t think you frequented places like this.”

“I don’t usually. That doesn’t mean I never do.” Clint glanced at the glass of whiskey in front of his brother. Not a jigger but a tumbler, for Christ’s sake, and half full at that. The last thing Matt needed was more liquor.

Moving quickly so his brother wouldn’t anticipate what he meant to do, he reached for the glass. “You don’t mind sharin’, do you? The old whistle’s a little dry.”

As Clint curled his hand around the tumbler, Dora Faye caught hold of his wrist. “Say, there, Mr. Rafferty.” She inclined her head at the whiskey jug. “Let me pour you your own drink. We’ve got
plenty,
and more where this came from.”

Wasn’t that just the problem? Casting a jaundiced eye at the whiskey jug, Clint saw that the container was three-quarters empty. Little wonder Matt was drunk.

“I don’t mind drinking after my brother,” he informed the soiled dove, forcing a grin. “Besides, it looks to me like he’s had about enough.”

For just an instant, her grip seemed to tighten on his wrist. Then, with a nervous smile and a flash of her green eyes, she released him, muttering something under her breath that he couldn’t quite catch. Tipping the glass to her in a mock toast, Clint tossed down the liquor,
then
clenched his teeth at the burn. “Not bad.”

Grabbing the bottle, Matt poured another measure of whiskey, some of which sloshed over the edge of the glass onto the bar. “Go ahead, Clint. Enjoy. Like Dora Faye says, there’s always more where this came from.”

Though Clint could have done without another drink, he didn’t want his brother to consume what remained in the bottle, either. Making no objection, he drained the glass a second time and said nothing when Matt filled it with liquor yet again. Unfortunately, as he set the tumbler down for the third time, Matt signaled the bartender for a new jug.

“Forget it, Matt—you’ve had enough,” Clint suggested softly. “Let’s just call it a night, pard, and head on home.”

“Don’t go tryin’ to play mama, big brother. I’m a little old for coddlin’.”

“Coddlin’ is the last thing on my mind.” Clint clamped a hand over his brother’s shoulder and gave him a jostle. “It’s late, and we’ve both had a full day.
It’s
best we go home now, okay? Build us a fire, brew us some coffee. It’ll be nice for a change.”

“You go ahead.” Matt slipped an arm around Dora Faye’s waist. “As the old sayin’ goes, the night is still young.” The slightly built barmaid caught him from stumbling as he shifted his weight toward her and released his hold on the bar. “I’ll be home in the mornin’, Clint. Bright ‘n’
early,
and none the worse for wear, I promise.”

Clint knew better. After a few more drinks, Matt would pass out and sleep until late tomorrow, whereupon he would awaken sick to his stomach and with a terrible headache.

“I guess I was just hopin’ to have some company on the ride home,” Clint tried. “We hardly ever get any time together when we’re not working anymore.”

“Maybe next time,” Matt suggested. With that, he bent to nuzzle Dora Faye’s ear. To keep them both from falling, she leaned into him with all her weight. “Hey, honeybee,” he said. “How’s about we go upstairs?”

Clint drew his hand from his brother’s shoulder. “Well, I guess I’ll be moseyin’.”

Matt, who had abandoned Dora Faye’s ear to nibble on her neck, didn’t bother to respond. Heavy of heart, Clint stood there, reluctant to
leave,
yet knowing Matt was old enough to make his own choices. He finally turned away when he saw his brother signal the barkeep for another jug. For better or worse, Matt was
on his own
.

Pushing the bat-wing doors open with one shoulder, Clint spilled out onto the boardwalk and took a bracing breath. Instead of clearing, however, his head seemed to fog over even more, a result of the whiskey he rarely consumed, he decided sourly.

Letting the doors swing shut behind him, he turned left along the boardwalk, his heels tapping out a hollow-sounding tattoo on the weathered wood. From between the buildings, stripes of silvery moonlight spilled across the walkway, marking his progress.

Glancing up Main, he saw lights at only a few windows. It was almost midnight. Most families had settled in for the night. The thought made him feel sad and hollow inside. Not long ago, all the Raffertys would have been home in bed as well.

Not long ago? He squeezed his eyes closed, remembering what it had been like when his folks were alive.
Wonderful, home-cooked meals.
Lace curtains at the windows.
The sound of laughter.
Six years had passed since his ma’s death, five since his da had joined her. In actuality, it wasn’t so very long a time, yet to Clint, who’d shouldered the responsibility for his younger brothers, it seemed an eternity.

Pausing in front of the mercantile, he gazed with an ache of yearning at the window display, illuminated by the moon. Bess Harrison, the proprietor’s wife, who was very talented with her hands, had fashioned a miniature kitchen on the opposite side of the glass. The cheery scene made him think of the drab, austere atmosphere awaiting him at home. No cheery kitchen, no place settings, no flowers, no lace curtains. It took a woman’s touch to make a house cozy, and that the Raffertys sorely lacked.

Not for the first time, Clint found himself wondering if he shouldn’t get married. Maybe Matt wouldn’t find it necessary to stay in town so much if his home were more pleasant. Since moving to Shady Corners, Clint had accomplished a lot, but most of the improvements he’d made were on the land. The house needed fixing, and six-year-old Cody needed a mother. Even Daniel, next youngest at fourteen, was showing signs of growing up uncivilized, a result, Clint figured, of his own inadequate parenting skills.

But damn! He was a rancher, not a nursemaid. He knew cows and horses, and on occasion, how to prod his lazy brothers into pulling their own weight. But Cody and Daniel still had bad dreams about their parents’ deaths that Clint didn’t know how to soothe and temper tantrums he didn’t understand. Worst of all were the nights Cody cried himself to sleep from sheer misery because Clint didn’t know how to comfort him.

That was one of the main reasons Clint had written to his great-aunt Hester a few months back. She was a kindly woman who’d never been blessed with children of her own. Now that she was widowed, he was hoping she’d be interested in leaving Ohio and starting a new life with them here in Oregon. So far, though, she hadn’t answered his letter, and now so much time had gone by that he was beginning to doubt she ever would.
Which led him right back to his original thought, that maybe he should get married.

Resuming his pace along the boardwalk, he tried to imagine what it would be like to have a female in the house again. Better, he guessed. Probably a lot better. It would definitely be nice to come in of an evening to a hot, home-cooked meal, and it sure couldn’t hurt to have someone around to keep up with the laundry. With eight people contributing, the pile of unwashed clothes seemed mountainous. Yep. No question about it; having a woman around the house would be a big improvement.

The way his luck had been running lately, however, none of the pretty, sought-after young ladies hereabouts would be interested in taking on such a large, ready-made, and admittedly rowdy family of males, and he’d be forced to settle for some homely girl no one else wanted.

It was a singularly unappealing thought.

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
9.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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