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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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“I, um, don’t know quite where to start…” She turned to look at Clint. “Did you say you had chores to do?”

“Only a few,” he assured her eagerly. “This bein’ Sunday, we set aside most of the day for indoor chores. As soon as I finish, I’ll come back inside and help.”

“Have you any bread baked?” Rachel prayed so, for she’d never turned out a loaf of bread in her life.

“No. We usually make up enough on Sundays to last us the whole week. Like I said, Sunday’s our indoor day.”

Rachel’s stomach tightened. “I hope you have a cookbook. I don’t know the ingredients for bread by heart.”

“No cookbook, exactly.
But we do have a collection of recipes my grandma and ma wrote down over the years. Nothin’ fancy, just loose sheets of paper in a wood recipe box my pa made.”

“Do you have one for bread?”

“Sure do. Otherwise, I’d be lost. I don’t know the ingredients by heart, either.”

Rachel relaxed slightly. She’d be successful enough at culinary endeavors so long as she had recipes to follow. The cleaning would be a simple matter of following her nose. The main problem she would have was with the laundry. Then she would definitely need help. Maybe if she did passably well at all the other things, Clint wouldn’t mind that too much, though.

So unexpectedly that it startled her, Clint yelled, “Everybody hit the deck up there! It’s nigh onto noon!
Time to get to work!”

From the loft came the sounds of mattress ropes creaking and feet hitting the planked floor. In less than a minute, one dark head appeared at the top of the loft ladder.
Then another.
Before she knew it, four indistinct young men were standing above her. Taking turns, they came down to join ranks with Daniel and Cody.

With the arrival of each one, Clint called off his name and age.
“Cole, seventeen.
Jeremiah, twenty-four.
Joshua, nineteen.
Zack, twenty-two.”

As each young man was introduced to her, Rachel smiled and inclined her head. When Clint wound down, she said, “I’m pleased to meet all of you.”

“Not all,” Cody corrected her. “Matt ain’t here. He’s twenty.”

“Oh, yes, Matt,” Rachel said cautiously. “How could I have forgotten?”

Cody wrinkled his nose and regarded Clint speculatively. “You didn’t say how old you are,” he reminded his eldest brother.

To Rachel’s surprise, Clint stepped up beside her and draped an arm over her shoulders. “I’m twenty-seven, scamp, which makes me plenty old enough to settle down, and that’s just what I’ve decided to do. This morning, Rachel and I got married.”

“You what?”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” “I thought I was gonna be your best man!”
“Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!
You’ve gone and done what?” “I thought Lawson Wells was her beau.”

“I beat Lawson to the draw and asked her first,” Clint said. “Let it be a lesson to you. Don’t leave a pretty girl footloose and fancy free for too long a time, or the first thing you know, she may marry some other fellow.”

“I didn’t even know you knew Rachel that well,” Zach said.

“Why didn’t you tell us you were thinkin’ about marryin’ her?” Joshua demanded.

“Oh, wow!” Cody cried excitedly. “You mean she’s gonna stay here?”

Clint held up a hand. “Yes, she’s gonna stay,” he assured Cody. Then to the older boys, “As for all your questions, we just decided to get married, that’s all. I’m countin’ on all of you to make Rachel feel welcome.”

“You’re sure enough welcome!” Cody assured her. “Especially if’n you can bake cookies like the kind Clint brought home from the church social last year.”

Rachel blinked.
Cookies?
“Of course I can bake cookies,” she assured him. “As long as there’s a recipe included in those loose papers Clint mentioned.”

Marginally less enthusiastic, but warmly all the same, the older Raffertys expressed welcome, Jeremiah, the next oldest to Clint, finishing with, “We’ll be proud to call you sister, Rachel. Welcome to your new home.”

Sister.
Hearing the word brought a stinging sensation to Rachel’s eyes that felt suspiciously like tears. She blinked a little frantically, convinced they would all think her crazy if she got weepy-eyed and sentimental over something so silly. It was just that she’d always wished for a brother, and now she had seven of them, four of them older than she. It was almost as though Clint had known how fiercely she’d wanted an older brother to look out for her.

“And I’ll be pleased to call all of you brother,” she said in an oddly tight voice.

The courtesies thus observed, Clint drew his arm from around Rachel and systematically began naming off his expectations.

“Rachel’s gonna be cleanin’ this place up,” he started. “I want each of you to help her in any way you can. Understand? Jer, you hightail it out to the porch and bring Rachel’s grips into the bedroom. Joshua, you haul her up some buckets of water to heat on the stove. No point in her havin’ to wear herself out at the pump. Zach, you gather up all the things she’ll need: a broom and mop, clean rags, and whatever else she wants. Cole, while they’re doin’ that, you and Daniel and Cody get busy pickin’ things up and puttin’ them away. In their proper places, mind you, not just any old place. And, Cody! Nothin’ under the bed, you understand?”

Rachel’s head was swimming by the time Clint stopped issuing orders. He drew to a close with, “Now all of
you,
listen up. From here on out, Rachel’s word is law inside this house. I’m sure she’ll be makin’ up some new rules around here, and I expect each of you to mind what she says, just like it was me. Got that? No sassin’ her, or I’ll kick your butts.”

Zach, who was standing close enough that
Rachel
could clearly see his face, turned a solemn regard on her. After a long moment, he smiled slightly and winked irreverently. He obviously wasn’t intimidated by his older brother.

Clint rubbed his hands together and turned to arch a questioning brow at her. “Did I leave out anything you’d like said?”

“Only thank you.” Rachel smiled. “For making me feel so welcome.”

Joshua piped up with, “Welcome? Rachel, it’s a wonder we ain’t on our knees in gratitude. It’s been so long since we had a decent meal around
here,
we’ve forgotten what good food tastes like.”

Rachel could only hope she didn’t disappoint them. First things first, though. Before she could try her hand at cooking, she had to muck out the kitchen. Luckily, she had plenty of helpers.

7

T
wo hours later, Rachel had the kitchen cleaned up enough to start mixing bread dough. After enlisting Cody’s help in locating the recipe box Clint had mentioned, she announced to all the older boys that it was time for them to take a much-deserved rest, preferably some place other than in the kitchen.

When they solicitously offered to help her with the cooking, Rachel waved them off, saying, “No, no! I’m funny that way, I guess. I like an empty kitchen when I cook. Too many cooks
makes
for oversalted porridge, you know.”

“I never heard that sayin’,” Joshua commented.

Neither had Rachel, but it served her purpose, which was to evacuate the kitchen so she could slip on her spectacles undetected to read the bread recipe.

As the last Rafferty trailed off, Rachel
dived
her hand into her pocket for her spectacles. Something sharp pricked her fingertip. “Ouch!” she jerked her hand back out, saw a bead of blood, and frowned in bewilderment. “What in heaven’s name?”

More gingerly this time, she reached into her pocket. As her fingers curled over the wire frames, her heart felt as though it dropped, not just to the region of her knees, which is how it usually felt when something awful happened, but clear to the floor. Her spectacles! The frames were hopelessly mangled, and as she lifted them from her pocket, she saw that both lenses were absent from their holes. Fishing more deeply in her pocket, she soon leaned why. Each lens was shattered. It had been one of the jagged pieces of glass that pricked her finger.

Stunned, Rachel could only stand there for a moment, staring blankly down at ruined spectacles. How had this happened? She no sooner asked herself that than she remembered falling in the church last night. Evidently her spectacles had been broken then.

As the first wave of shock subsided, she turned her gaze toward the recipe box. Panic rose within her. She quickly tamped it down. Reading without her spectacles was nearly impossible but not absolutely so. If she held the written material right in front of her nose, she could usually make out the letters. It would be tedious, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

“Oh, lands!” she whispered under her breath.
“Why my glasses?
Why not an arm or leg? I could better do without either.”

Returning her ruined spectacles to her pocket, she advanced determinedly on the recipe box, her chin raised high. It took some searching, but she finally located the bread recipe. Peering intently at every ingredient until she could bring the letters and amounts into focus, she managed to mix a triple batch of yeast bread. After letting the three bowls of dough rise once on the cookstove, which still held banked coals from the supper fire the boys had built last night, she punched it down and shaped six loaves. As she recalled, Mrs. Radcliff had always rubbed her loaves with melted lard, covered them with a towel, and left them on the slightly warm stove to double in size. After finding three clean linen towels—no easy feat—Rachel followed the housekeeper’s example. When she could finally step back to admire the fruits of her labor, she felt as proud as if she’d given birth to six babies.

Returning to the recipe box, she applied herself to the task of finding something to fix for supper. Since she hated to eat meat, knowing that the practice caused some poor animal to suffer, she settled on venison stew—minus the venison, of course. Oh, yes. This was going to work famously, she assured herself as she began peeling vegetables. Delicious hot bread and stew for supper would make a good first impression on all the Rafferty men, young or old.

 

“Jesus Christ!”

Clint couldn’t quite believe his eyes when he entered the kitchen. His cookstove had been transformed into a huge, misshapen mushroom! At least, that was how it looked at first glance. At second glance, she saw that the mushroomy cap was actually some sort of dough. Mountains of the stuff oozed over the sides of the stove and dripped in gooey rivers toward the floor. Useless, the family’s scruffy, mixed-breed excuse for a cattle
dog,
was pulling off strips of the stuff and eating it.

“Rachel?”

Clint glanced around the kitchen, which had undergone a more favorable transformation than the stove, thank goodness. Even the window over the dry sink now sparkled. Sitting almost regally in the center of the otherwise bare table was a pot of peeled and quartered vegetables covered with water. The makings for a stew or soup, up guessed, and saw that he was right when he spotted the open recipe box. The uppermost recipe was for his ma’s venison stew.

Following the sound of voices, Clint went in search of his bride. He found her in the loft with his brothers. The only one of the Raffertys missing, Clint realized, was Mathew, who was still in town, more than likely nursing a hangover. Rachel sat in the center of Zach’s bed, her slender back to the log wall, her skirts tucked modestly around her criss-crossed legs. The six boys—no matter how old some of his brothers grew, Clint still thought of them all as boys—were gathered around her, four sitting Indian-style on the bed, two kneeling on the floor with their elbows on the mattress. At the center of their circle was an array of playing cards.

“Here they come, folks, down and dirty,” Cole said.

“Down and what?”
Rachel asked with a giggle. To Jeremiah she queried, “Are you sure there’s such a thing as beginner’s luck? I’ll never manage to pay all this back to you fellows.”

The mess downstairs momentarily forgotten, Clint leaned a shoulder against the partition, one of two half walls that divided the loft into three proportional sleeping areas for his brothers. For a moment, he allowed his gaze to linger warmly on Rachel,
then
he glanced around at the boys. Apparently they were teaching her how to play poker and were fleecing her in the process. Normally he might have scolded, but it had been so long since he’d seen the six of them interacting this way and having a good time that he didn’t have the heart. Even though he didn’t hold much with gambling, Clint was a firm believer in having fun, and all of them seemed to be doing that.

“Pair of deuces showin’,” Cole said as he dealt a last, face-up card to Zach. “Holy Moly, look at that king. Possible straight!” he cried as he doled out cards to Cody. “And the lady draws a lady! Look at that pair of queens showin’,” he yelled as he slapped down Rachel’s last card. “Did I hear you askin’ if there’s such a thing as beginner’s luck?
Darlin’, just look at that.
Unless somebody’s got somethin’ really impressive hidin’ in the hole, you’re our biggest winner so far.”

Rachel touched a hand to her bodice, her big-eyed innocence too genuine to be feigned.
“Truly?”
She leaned forward to squint at a pile of rocks that lay on the bed. “How much will I win?”

Cody bounced forward to take a quick count. “Fifty dollars!” he said breathlessly. “Wow! If only it was real money, you’d be rich.”

Clint relaxed slightly. At least they weren’t gambling for actual money. He should be thankful for small blessings, he guessed. At just that moment, Rachel caught sight of him. “Clint? Is that you?”

He chuckled. “Damn, girl, are you stone blind? Of course it’s me.”

A faint flush touched her hollowed cheeks. “Your hat was shadowing your face,” she explained. “I couldn’t see you clearly. Besides”—she waved a hand at all his brothers—“just look at all of you. I’ve never seen so many people look so much alike.”

Thus reminded of his manners, Clint swept his hat from his head. “I hate to interrupt the game, but we have a hell of a mess downstairs. What is that stuff that’s all over the top of the stove?”

Her eyes went even wider, if that was possible. Tossing down her cards, she scrambled off the bed, elbowing boys out of the way en route.
“My bread!”

“Bread?
That’s bread?” Clint guffawed. “How much yeast did you use?”

Rachel raced by him. Clint caught her arm before she reached the ladder.
“Whoa, there.
Just slow it down. No point in takin’ a tumble.”

Setting her back a step, he went down the ladder first so he could ensure her safe descent. “Careful,” he cautioned, his gaze fixed anxiously on her small feet. “The rungs are tricky until you get used to them.”

After gaining the kitchen, she stood in frozen silence, staring at the stove.
“Oh no!
My beautiful babies! What on earth happened to them?”

Useless, whose hunger was apparently satisfied for the first time in his misbegotten life, licked his mottled chops, plopped down beside the stove, and whined. It suddenly occurred to Clint that perhaps he shouldn’t have allowed the dog to continue eating the dough.

“Christ,” he said under his breath, eyeing Useless’s belly, “I hope he doesn’t get sick.”

Rachel huffed indignantly. “Are you saying my bread may make him sick?”

“I was thinking of the yeast, that maybe it isn’t good for dogs.” Clint dragged his gaze from the canine. “It looks to me like maybe you put too much in.”

“Only what the recipe called for, one cup per batch.”

“A cup?”
Clint whistled. “No wonder you have dough everywhere, honey. You must have misread the ingredients. My ma’s recipe calls for one quarter cup yeast per batch.”

At that moment, all the boys came spilling down the ladder. When they saw the mess on the stove, their eyes widened in amazement. “Wow!” Cody cried. “Will we cook all of it?”

“No, Cody, I don’t think it’ll be edible once we get it scraped up,” Clint replied. “Useless is the only one who gets bread tonight.”

“Oh, darn!” Cody said. “I’ve had my mouth set for hot bread all day.”

Rachel looked so upset that Clint hastened to say, “It’s not that bad, Rachel. We can have biscuits tonight, and you can make bread tomorrow.”

With that, he rolled back his shirt sleeves and set himself to the task of cleaning up the mess. Ten minutes later he had revised his earlier opinion that it wasn’t that bad. He’d never seen so much bread dough. Worse, damn near all of it had stuck to the warm cast iron, creating a mess that was nearly impossible to clean. In the end, he resorted to scraping the goo up with his knife.

“Are you sure you only put in a cup of yeast per batch?” he asked Rachel. “I gotta tell you, I’ve never seen fifteen cups of flour go so far in my life.”

“Nine,” she corrected. “The recipe called for three cups of flour per batch, nine if it was tripled.”

Clint paused in his scraping to regard her thoughtfully. “No, honey, the recipe calls for five cups of flour per batch, so a tripled amount would be fifteen. You misread more than just the amount of yeast, evidently. Do you have poor eyesight or something?”

At the suggestion, her cheeks flushed a pretty pink and her eyes took on a shimmer of indignation. “Lands, no, I don’t have poor eyesight!”

Judging by her expression, Clint could see that he’d made a mistake asking. Females were sensitive about things like that, he guessed. Thinking quickly, he endeavored to mend his fences, making mental note not to call her eyesight into question again. “You’re right. It was silly of me to suggest such a thing. No small wonder you misread the writing. Threes and fives look a lot alike, and I’ve used that recipe so many times, I’ve probably smeared ingredients all over the numbers, making them hard to see.”

Looking relieved to be let of the hook, she nodded decisively. “Yes, I’m sure that’s it. The recipe did have lots of smears on it.” She wrung out the rag she was using. “I’m so sorry about the mess, Clint. Truly, I am. You really don’t have to help me clean up. I can do it by myself.”

She looked so adorable standing there that Clint wouldn’t have left her to finish by herself for anything in the world. He would have to go out to the barn to do the milking later, but otherwise he was staying inside for the remainder of the day. There was no reason he could think of that he should be separated from his bride. The way he saw it, they had little enough time left before nightfall to get to know one another. If he hoped to make love to the girl before their marriage saw its first sunrise, he had his work cut out for him.

 

When Clint sat down to supper that night, he nearly broke a tooth on one of Rachel’s biscuits, and then he almost went blind looking for the meat in her stew. After taking several bites of the concoction, which was way too salty for his taste, he decided there must not be any meat in it. Regarding his wife the length of the long table, he smiled slightly. She was eating away, clearly oblivious to the fact that there was anything missing.

“Rachel, from now on when you need some meat, just ask the boys and one of them will go fetch you some. We have beef and venison aplenty in the smokehouse.”

“Meat?”
She fastened startled eyes on him, her spoon suspended partway to her lips. “Whatever would I need meat for?”

Clint deepened his smile.
“To cook?”

She returned her spoon to her bowl. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

“Couldn’t what?”

“Cook meat.”

Her response effectively brought to a halt every spoon at the table. Clint glanced around to see that all his brothers—excluding Matthew, who’d not yet come home—were staring at his bride, their expressions curiously blank. Not that he blamed them. He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right himself.

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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