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Authors: Loretta Chase Catherine Anderson Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

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BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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“Big Jim, let’s try to stay calm,” the man on the floor inserted. Though his voice still sounded a little groggy, Rachel could tell by the way he spoke that he was fast coming awake.

“Calm?
I haven’t known a moment’s calm since the day she was born, I swear to God. I’m sorry about this, Rafferty. I truly am.”

Rachel couldn’t tear her gaze from the man she had believed to be Matt Rafferty until only a few seconds ago. Without her spectacles, which she never wore in public, he was little more than a blur to her. Rafferty, her father had called him. That had to mean he was one of Matt’s brothers.
Long, denim-clad legs, ebony hair, gray-blue eyes.
Given her poor eyesight, she supposed she could have made a mistake. All the Rafferty brothers were tall, raven-haired and dark-skinned.

Recalling the nonsensical observation that Molly had made earlier, Rachel nearly cringed.
You got the wrong one
!
her
sister had cried. A few minutes ago that had made no sense. Now Rachel understood all too clearly.

“If you’re not Matt, then which brother are you?” she asked her victim shakily.

“Clint.”

For an awful moment, Rachel felt as if her heart stopped beating. Since Clint Rafferty, the eldest of the brothers, seldom even came to town, let alone patronized the saloon, she thought she must have misunderstood him.
“Pardon?”

“Clint!” he repeated a little more loudly, his voice still slightly hoarse with sleep.

4

C
lint Rafferty? Feeling suddenly faint, Rachel pressed a hand to her waist. Of all the Rafferty brothers she might have chosen to cross, Clint had to be the most intimidating. Even the other men in town gave him a wide berth.

“Clint…?” she said inanely. “But you never go to the Golden Goose. There must be some mistake!”

“Oh, there was a mistake made, all right,” he agreed in the same hoarse voice. “It just wasn’t me who made it.”

A thought suddenly occurred to Rachel. “Wait a minute! You have to be Matt Rafferty. Otherwise, why did Dora Faye—” Catching herself at the last possible second, Rachel stood there, mentally swinging her arms to keep from falling in. The last thing she wanted was to get her friend in trouble.

Clint flashed
her a
slow, knowing smile. “Dora Faye did try to keep me from drinking the drugged whiskey, if that was your question. At the time, I wondered why. Now I know.” With that, he rolled to one knee and reached for his hat. “The only mystery, as far as I’m concerned, is why she didn’t step to the saloon doors and signal to you that she’d drugged the wrong man. It would’ve saved us both a lot of trouble.”

In Rachel’s mind’s eye, she saw Dora Faye as she’d been last night, blurry and indistinct, standing just inside the saloon and waving her arms. Without benefit of her spectacles, Rachel had believed her friend was signaling that all was well. Instead, she’d been signaling that nothing had gone according to plan? That Rachel should retreat? If it hadn’t been so awful, it might have been funny.

Gaining his feet, Rafferty said, “I hope you folks’ll forgive me, but I think I’ll be moseyin’ along. As entertainin’ as all of this has been, I’ve got a little brother at home to take care of and a ranch to run.”

Rachel certainly had no objection to his leaving. The sooner the better, as far as she was concerned. But her father seemed to have other ideas. “Hold up there just one minute, son.”

Clint dusted his hat on his pant leg. “Hold up? Don’t tell me you’re arrestin’ me.
If so, what for?
Bein’ in the wrong place at the right time?”

Considering the fact that her father had almost choked him to death, Rachel couldn’t blame Clint Rafferty for feeling a little less than charitable.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to arrest you,” Big Jim said, “but there is one small wrinkle we need to iron out.”

“Wrinkle?”

Big Jim inclined his head toward Rachel. “My little girl spent the night here with you unchaperoned. It
don’t
look good. Don’t look good at all.”

Rachel’s heart caught.
“Daddy?”

Big Jim seemed not to hear her. “The way I see it—”

“Daddy!”

“Shut up, Rachel Marie,” her father said with a wave of his hand, his gaze fixed on Clint. “The way I see it, Rafferty, my little girl’s good name has been ruined. Plumb ruined. And only you can set things right.”

“Right?”
Rachel echoed. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Yeah, what exactly do you mean?” Clint asked.

Rachel didn’t need to see Rafferty’s face all that clearly to know he was fast regaining his senses. Unless she missed her guess, he was only inches away from losing his temper. The heels of his boots hit the floor in a sharp stacatto as he stepped over to retrieve his Colt revolvers. She watched in horrified silence as he strapped the crisscrossed gun belt around his hips and tied the holsters down to his lean, muscular thighs. In that moment, it began to occur to her that it might end up being her father, not Clint Rafferty, who was in danger of losing his life during this confrontation. The younger man had the devil’s reputation as being fast with those guns.

Without consciously making the decision to do so, Rachel inched closer to her sire. “Daddy, this entire situation should be simple enough to resolve. I mean, as I’ve just explained, none of this was Mr. Rafferty’s fault. The way I see it, we should all just go home and forget it happened.”

“Be quiet, Rachel.”

Afraid for her father, Rachel turned an imploring gaze on Clint. “Don’t you agree? That we should just forget any of this happened, I mean?” With a nervous little laugh, she added, “Big uh-oh, end of story.
Right?”

“Rachel Marie,” her father said with exaggerated patience, “this is a far sight more serious than that. Your reputation is destroyed. Mr. Rafferty understands the implications, even if you don’t.”

Rachel understood far more than her father gave her credit for, and she, for one, had an awful feeling this situation was getting out of control. Gesturing toward the church members, she said, “But, Daddy, everyone here heard my explanation. They all know now that nothing untoward happened.”

“It’s not that simple, Rachel. When a young lady spends the night with a man unchaperoned, there’s only one thing that can save her good name, and that’s marriage. It
don’t
matter if anything actually happened or not. All that counts is how it looks.”

“Marriage?”
Molly cried. “You can’t mean it!”

“Marriage?”
Rachel echoed weakly. “Did you say marriage?”

“Marriage,” Big Jim affirmed.

With that proclamation still ringing in the air, Big Jim caught both Clint and Rachel by the arms and, ignoring Rachel’s shrill protests, hauled them to the front of the church. Once there, he immediately began hollering for the preacher. Meanwhile, Rachel tried to talk sense to him, a task that proved impossible
Her
father wasn’t just big and tall; he was mule-headed. When he got it into his head to do something, no one, not even his daughters were going to stop him.

Reverend Wells, a tall, rawboned man with thinning gray hair, kindly brown eyes, and a beak nose, fought his way free of the throng and rushed to his pulpit, prayer book in hand. “Big Jim, this is highly irregular. We haven’t even posted any banns.”

“To hell with banns: just get them married.”

The minister gave an eloquent shrug. “I was just making an observation.”

“Daddy, have you lost your mind? I can’t marry this man!” Rachel turned on Clint. “Don’t just stand there! Do something!”

Apparently unperturbed, he shrugged a muscular shoulder. “Like what? Shoot him? Sorry, darlin’, but I’m not that adverse to the idea of gettin’ married.”

“Not adverse? How can you say that? We’re anyway.”

She couldn’t believe he was being so cavalier. “You’re as crazy as my father is.”

Big Jim motioned to the minister. “Forget all the fancy stuff, Reverend. All we care about is that it’s legal.”

Rachel caught her father’s arm. “Daddy, stop this! It’s absolute madness! Whatever are you thinking?”

“This is
all my
fault!” Molly cried somewhere behind them. “
All my
fault.”

The preacher chose that moment to say in a booming voice, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

Shaking his arm free, Big Jim grasped the chancel rail and leaned toward the pulpit. “Dammit, William, I said to skip all the folderol. Just get to the important parts.”

Wells coughed and cleared his throat. “As I already pointed out, this is all highly out of the ordinary.”

“Just do it,” Big Jim shot back. “If I want ordinary, I’ll ask for ordinary.”

The flustered minister ran a finger down the page to relocate his place. “All right, fine. But, mark my
words,
it will probably take me longer to locate the important sections than it would to simply recite the entire—”

“Good grief!” Big Jim interrupted. “Are you tellin’ me you don’t know the words by heart?” He threw up his hands. “You’ve been marrying people for the last twenty years, for God’s sake! How can you not know the words, William?”

Taking advantage of her father’s distraction, Rachel turned to Clint. Leaning close so she might clearly see his face, she whispered, “You can’t honestly intend to just stand there and do nothing to stop this.”

“Who says?”

“I say!”

He stood with his hands clasped behind him, gaze fixed on the minister, expression deadpan. At the corner of his mouth, she thought she glimpsed a smile and wanted to give him a good kick for not putting a halt to the proceedings. Before she carried through on the idea, she thought better of it. Last night he’d been charming, but he’d been silly with drink and mellow from the valerian. This morning all boyishness had been wiped from his face,
If
asked to describe him, she would have said he looked stern and more than a little intimidating, not at all the kind to provoke.

She jerked her gaze away and scanned the church, dismayed to see that the crowd at the back had dispersed to take their usual places in the pews, not for Sunday services as usual, but to witness a wedding.
Her wedding.

That thought drove Rachel to desperate measures. Straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin to a stubborn angle, she faced her father. “Daddy, I cannot marry this man,” she said, slowly and distinctly. “I absolutely can’t. Nothing you can say or do will convince me otherwise.”

“Of course you can,” her father replied and, without so much as a pause, he drew his Colt revolver from its holster and pressed the barrel to Clint Rafferty’s temple. “It’s the only thing you can do, honey. Whether he meant to or not, Mr. Rafferty here ruined my little girl. Honor demands that I kill him if he
don’t
marry you. It’s the way things are, sort of an unspoken code among men. Ain’t that right, Mr. Rafferty?”

“Christ,” Rafferty said hoarsely.

Rachel watched her father with mounting horror, an emotion she made every effort to conceal by smiling and folding her arms.
“Right.
You’re just going to shoot him in cold blood.
After a lifetime of upholding the law?
Come on, Daddy. I realize I’m a little gullible, but that’s just plain silly.”

With slow deliberateness, her father drew back the hammer of his gun. “You think I’m bluffin’? Think again, Rachel Marie. His fault or not, he has ruined any chance you have of making a decent marriage.”

“That isn’t so!” Rachel scanned the church and spotted Reverend Wells’s son, Lawson, who had been courting her these last three years. “Tell him, Lawson! Tell him it doesn’t matter, that you love me and won’t hesitate to marry me anyway!”

Looking as though his necktie was choking him, Lawson sprang up from his seat, swallowed spasmodically, and then just stood there looking bugeyes.

“Well?” Rachel implored him. “Speak now, Lawson, or forever hold your peace!”

To her dismay, Lawson said nothing. She sent him a scathing glare, barely resisting the urge to call him a bad egg, plug ugly, and a bootlicker, just for starters. She settled for whispering the insults under her breath.

“I guess that proves my case,” her father said, gesturing toward Lawson. “Not even your own beau will step forward.”

Feeling a little less certain of
herself
, Rachel let her arms fall to her sides. “That still doesn’t mean you’ll shoot Mr. Rafferty. You’re only trying to frighten me into minding what you say.”

“Oh, I’ll shoot him,” her father assured her. “Before I let him walk off scot-free, I’ll blow his brains clear into next week.”

She winced at the picture his threat brought to mind. “You don’t mean it, Daddy. What about being marshal? You’d have to give up your badge if you shot somebody.”

“That’s why. Don’t you see? An upstandin’
man don’t
let another man ruin his daughter and not do something about it. If you won’t marry him, Rachel Marie, I have to shoot the poor fellow. It’s just that simple.”

Preacher Wells chimed in with, “Do you, Clint Rafferty, take this woman, Rachel Marie Constantine, to be your lawfully wedded wife?”

Beads of sweat had sprung up on Clint’t dark face. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he tried to swallow. “I do,” he said without a second’s hesitation. Then, to Rachel, “If it’s all the same to you, argue with your father later. He’s got a gun held to my head, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Don’t worry. He won’t really shoot you,” Rachel assured him.

“Wanna bet?” Big Jim grinned broadly and curled his finger over the trigger.

Clint squeezed his eyes closed. “Jesus Christ! Do what he tells you, Rachel!”

Rachel’s stomach plummeted. “Daddy, this has ceased to be entertaining. What do you think you’re doing, threatening an innocent man’s life like this?”

“Innocent,” Clint inserted, “there’s the key word.”

The preacher cut in once more. “And, do you, Rachel Marie Constantine, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love, honor and obey until death do you part?”

Rachel rolled her eyes and smiled sweetly at the minister. “Mr. Rafferty may be quaking in his boots, but I certainly am not. Blizzards will fly in August before any of you hear
me
say ‘I do.’”

Big Jim smiled at the preacher. “You heard her. She just said ‘I do,’ clear as you please.”

“I did not!” Rachel said with a scandalized gasp.

“You did so!” Big Jim argued.

Glancing apologetically at Rachel, the preacher said, “I heard her, Big Jim, but I’m not entirely certain she meant—”

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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