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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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“Did I understand you to say you can’t cook meat?” he asked, hoping to clarify matters.

She daintily wiped each corner of her mouth with a fingertip, clearly at a loss without a proper napkin. “That’s right. I don’t eat meat.”

Clint barely managed to suppress a hoot of laughter.
“Why ever not?”

Her already wide eyes seemed to grow even larger. “Well, because! It’s so cruel!” She looked around at his brothers. “I can’t believe a single one of you would be so mean as to actually go out into the woods and shoot an innocent deer just so you could have venison in your stew.” She smiled brilliantly. “Not when it tastes perfectly fine without it.”

Clint was convinced she was teasing. “Rachel, honey, everyone eats meat.”

“Not everyone. I certainly don’t. And if I’m to be the cook in this house, none of you shall, either.”

Stunned silence.
Clint gave each of his brothers a meaningful look. Clearing his throat, he said, “Maybe we should discuss this later.”

“There’s nothing to discuss,” she said sweetly.
“Unless, of course, someone else is volunteering to cook.”
She looked around the table. “You all don’t mind, do you? Eating meatless meals, I mean?”

Clint could scarcely believe his eyes and ears when every last one of his brothers shook their heads and said, “No, we don’t mind!” almost simultaneously. He scowled his displeasure at each of them. “All of you know very well that you like meat. How can you sit there and say you won’t mind doing without it?”

Josh said, “Well, maybe a couple of times a week, one of us can cook, and on those nights, we can have meat.”

“Do we get to eat eggs?” Cody asked glumly.

“Yes, of course,” Rachel assured him. “And there’s no meat in cake or cookies.”

Cody brightened at that news. “We don’t gotta have meat, Clint. Not if it makes Rachel sad to cook it.”

Jeremiah looked as if he were about to bust with laughter. “We wouldn’t want to be cruel to animals. I guess eating them qualifies.”

Clint didn’t see the humor. “Might I remind you that we’re operating a cattle ranch here? We raise and sell beef.”

Rachel looked appalled. “Oh, my, I never thought about it like that. I suppose the cows are killed once they’re sold, aren’t they?”

“That’s how folks who live in town get their hands on steak, Rachel. They buy cows raised on cattle ranches and butcher them.” Clint set his teeth at the distress he read in her expression. Then, before he could stop himself, he added, “A lot of cows aren’t butchered, though.” He groped for another lie, anything to make her feel better about what he did for a living.
“Dairies, for instance.
Lots and lots of cows are sold to dairies.”

“And
a bunch are
sold for breeding purposes!” Cole inserted.

“That’s right,” Daniel agreed. “Without plenty of bulls and cows left to reproduce, we’d nave no newborn calves each spring.”

Cody beamed a smile. “And they’re used to make shoes and boots, too! So, see, Rachel? Not all of ’em get sold for steak.”

Rachel touched a hand to her throat. “Oh, my…You know, I never stopped to think about it, but my opera pumps and high-button shoes are made out of leather.”

Afraid she might try to convince them they should all go barefoot
next,
Clint broke in with, “This really is good stew, Rachel. What’s that spice I taste?”

“Salt,” Jeremiah supplied.

Clint reached for his glass of water to wash down the taste.
“Mmm-mmm.”

8

S
hortly after the supper dishes were washed, Clint hustled the boys off to bed and maneuvered Rachel into the downstairs bedroom, which adjoined the parlor. With no lamp lit and only a few feeble moonbeams streaming through the double-hung window, he figured it was dark enough to undress without embarrassing her.

Rachel said nothing when he took off his shirt. But as he removed his gun belt and reached for his belt buckle, she let out a shrill squeak. “What’re you doing?”

Clint froze. “Undressing?”

“Why?”

He circled that carefully, not at all sure he knew how to reply. “Well…” He sent a loaded look at the bed. “I usually do before I go to sleep.” Not that he had any intention of sleeping. “Don’t you?”

“But where is your nightshirt?”

“My what?”

“Your nightshirt.
Surely you don’t—” She broke off and swallowed. Even in the dimness, he saw her throat convulse. “Surely you don’t sleep in your altogether.”

Clint rubbed a hand over his face. It didn’t take a genius to realize she was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockers. He abandoned his intention to undress and stepped slowly across the room to her, taking care not to make any sudden moves. Judging by her pallor, which made her look sort of luminous in the
moonlight,
she was already scared half to death.

“I don’t have a nightshirt,” he informed her cautiously.

She looked scandalized to hear that. “You don’t? Well…until you can purchase one, I suppose you’ll have to sleep in
your…
in your unmentionables.”

“My what?”

“Your”—she lowered her voice—“your underwear.”

In the summer, Clint wore knee-length cotton underdrawers. Somehow he didn’t think that was what she had in mind. “Rachel, honey, I’m not going to hurt you.” He smoothed a tendril of dark hair away from her cheek. “In fact, I’m hopin’ to make you feel real nice.”

Her gaze skittered from his. “That’s fine. I mean—well, I know about—well, you know.” She airily waved one hand and then leaned slightly toward him, gave a little laugh, and whispered conspiratorially, “It’s just that I’d rather not do it naked.”

An ache of tenderness swelled in Clint’s chest. He traced the hollow of her jaw with his thumb. “How are we going to manage, then?”

“With a minimum of fuss?”

He nearly chuckled. But gazing into her eyes, he read her fear and realized it wasn’t all that funny.
With a minimum of fuss?
He had a feeling the slower he went and the fussier he was, the better it would be for her. Of course, she didn’t know that.

She toyed nervously with the top button of her shirtwaist. “I also absolutely must insist that you buy a nightshirt, posthaste.”

Clint imagined how his brothers would tease him if they saw him wearing one.

“We’ll see. For now…” He caught her chin on the edge of his hand and tipped her face up for his kiss, confident that he could stir her to passion if only she would relax. Instead, she went as stiff as a twice-starched collar.

“Rachel,” he scolded huskily, “
don’t
be afraid.”

“I’m not.” She whispered the denial against his lips.

Settling a hand at her waist, Clint knew the instant he touched her that she was
lying
. Her body was rigid. Pressed close to her as he was
,
he could feel the rapidity of her breathing and imagined he could hear her heart pounding. He only hoped he could make her forget her girlish fears by kissing her.

He was about to try when a thump came from somewhere beyond the bedroom door. The next instant, an eerie wail echoed throughout the house. Then someone yelled, “Clint! Hurry! Somethin’s wrong with Useless!”

By the time Rachel and Clint arrived in the kitchen, the dog had worked himself up to a full-fledged cacophony, his howls resounding. Instantly aware that the canine’s belly was abnormally distended, Clint dropped to his knees.

“Oh, shit! The yeast dough! The poor bugger ate too much, and it wasn’t done rising.”

Cody gasped. “Is he gonna die?” he asked in a quavery voice.

“No,” Clint assured him. “But I bet he’s got one heck of a bellyache.”

He glanced over his shoulder at Rachel, wishing he could return with her to the bedroom and finish what he’d started. One look into her wary blue eyes told him that it was probably a good thing he couldn’t. It was too soon for a consummation of their marriage. She needed time to get to know him first, and it was his responsibility as her husband to see she got it. He might even have to give her as much as a month, perish the thought.

“It looks like I have to stay up and play nurse to Useless. Care to join me?”

She smiled, plainly grateful to be given a reprieve. “Sure.”

So it was that the two of them prepared to spend their wedding night fully clothed, playing nursemaid to a sick dog. A little after midnight, Matt finally wandered home. After Clint informed him of his marriage to Rachel, Matt joined them in their vigil, taking a spot beside the dog on the floor. Initially things were tense: Rachel openly hostile, Matt sullen. Clint decided then and there that the two of them had to discuss the bad feelings between them, all of which seemed to revolve around Rachel’s little sister Molly.

When encouraged to air her grievances against Matt, Rachel started off by accusing, “You deliberately led my sister on and then heartlessly humiliated her!”

Matt cried, “I did not!”

From there, the fight was on, with Clint playing referee. After the two combatants had vented their spleens, he was able to maneuver them into a more productive exchange, during which it was discovered that Molly had failed to tell Rachel the entire story.

“When she walked up to me on the boardwalk that afternoon, she had cotton stuffed into her dress,” Matt explained.

“Cotton?”
Rachel repeated blankly.

“Yeah.”
Matt gestured vaguely at his chest. “You know…to make herself look older.”

Rachel’s eyes went round with astonishment. “She didn’t!”

Matt nodded grimly. “Some of the cotton was poking out, only she didn’t know it,” he elaborated.
“Above her neckline.
Everyone saw it. A couple of the younger boys started laughing. When Molly looked down and saw what was amusing them so much, she started to cry.” In his earnestness, Matt stopped petting Useless and leaned forward to look her directly in the eye. “I did tell her to go home, Rachel, just like she says I did. But I didn’t do it to be mean, and I didn’t intend it to hurt her feelings. It was just—well, she was so embarrassed, I don’t think she’d have had the presence of mind to move otherwise.”

Clearly mortified, Rachel cupped a hand over her eyes. “Oh, dear…Cotton? Why would she do something so silly?” She shook her head. “No wonder she came home sobbing. She must have been humiliated to death. Why didn’t she just tell me the truth? I would’ve understood. Instead, I’ve been blaming you.”

“She was probably ashamed to tell you.” Matt smiled slightly. “When we’re that age, all of us do crazy things in the name of love. I even serenaded a girl under her bedroom window once.”

“That isn’t crazy, it’s sweet.”

Matt laughed. “You haven’t heard me sing!” He glanced at Clint.
“Your turn to share, brother.
What crazy stunt did you pull?”

Clint chuckled. “Leave me out of this.”

Rachel sighed and nibbled her lower lip. “I guess I owe you an apology, Matthew. I’m sorry my sister made such a pest of herself. It sounds as though she dogged your heels constantly.”

“Oh, she wasn’t that bad,” Matt said.
“Not for the most part, anyhow.
Except for when she followed me into the bathing house. Three men smoking cigars dived under the water when they saw her, and I had to buy them all new smokes. I could’ve wrung her neck that time.”

“The bathhouse?
She followed you into the bathhouse? Oh, just you wait until my father hears. She won’t be able to sit down for a week.”

Matt began to look worried. “Maybe you shouldn’t tell on her,” he suggested. “I don’t want her getting into trouble. She’s just a kid. Kids do dumb things.”

Mart’s attempt to intervene on Molly’s behalf completely won Rachel over. Her eyes took on a suspicious shine. “Maybe you’re right. Being embarrassed in front of her friends was probably punishment enough.” She glanced at Clint,
then
averted her face. “I feel really bad. After everything that’s happened, and now I learn that Molly brought all her heartache on herself.”

“All’s well that ends well,” Clint assured her.

“Ends well? You’ve suffered dearly for her antics. Here you are, married to me.”

Clint smiled. “Like I said, all’s well that ends well.”

 

By morning, Useless was much improved, if not completely recovered. Still a little worried, Clint allowed the dog to remain in the house while he and Jeremiah went out to milk the cows and gather the eggs.

When the two older brothers exited the house, Cole and Daniel were already out in the yard getting that day’s stove wood chopped and moved onto the porch. “What’s Rachel fixin’ for breakfast?” Cole called out as Clint passed by him en route to the barn.

“Biscuits!”
Clint called back, hoping even as he spoke that Rachel’s second attempt proved more edible than her first. “Since she was up all night, I said we could make do with hot biscuits and sorghum.”

Cole made a face, but he took the disappointment in stride, accustomed as he was to eating whatever he could scrounge.

A few minutes later, as Clint made his way back to the house, Cole yelled, “Shouldn’t’ve left Useless inside! He reared up on Rachel and knocked the gallon of sorghum out of her hands.”

“It went all over everywhere,” Daniel elaborated.
“Rachel, the floor, the table.
Talk about a mess. To top it all off, she got sidetracked tryin’ to clean up the syrup and burned the biscuits.”

Clint groaned. He entered the kitchen to find Rachel still on her hands and knees. By the looks of her face, he guessed she’d been crying. He knelt to help her, and within a few minutes, the majority of the sorghum was mopped up. Unfortunately, the stickiness had seeped into the unvarnished planks, and their shoes stuck to the floor when they walked across that spot.

“Well, this day is off to a wonderful start,” Rachel said morosely. Then, out of the blue, she started to giggle.

Clint couldn’t see what was so funny. Nothing had gone right since her arrival, after all. Then he realized that was exactly why she was laughing: because they were off to such a bad start. Leave it to Rachel to find some humor in that.

With a weary chuckle, he sank down on a bench. “Well, I guess if we make it through this, we can make it through anything.”

Red in the face and holding her sides, she gave a breathless nod and then managed to squeak, “Oh, Clint!
The bench.
That’s where I spilled more sorghum, and it wasn’t wiped up yet!”

He reached back to feel and swore under his breath. “Well, hell.” This time it was his turn to dissolve into laughter. He laughed until he ached.
Until tears rolled down his cheeks.
Until he was weak.

“Things have to get better,” he finally managed to say. “They can’t get worse.”

 

Rachel could have told Clint that, around her, things could always get worse. Bad luck was to her what miracles had been to Jesus, and over the next few days, it seemed that fate was out to prove it. One morning as she walked from the chicken coop back to the house, she didn’t see a piece of firewood one of the boys had dropped on the steps. When she tripped over the wood, she smashed every one of the eggs she’d just collected for breakfast. Since eggs were one of the few things she seemed able to cook without disastrous consequence, it was no small matter.

Her cooking…It wasn’t just bad, it was awful. Since she still hadn’t worked up the courage to tell anyone how blind she was
,
Rachel had no idea what Clint must think. That she was the stupidest creature ever born, she supposed. And she couldn’t much blame him. One time she misread the labels on the storage barrels and accidentally used salt instead of sugar in an apple pie. Another time, she used three times the soda called for in a cookie recipe. It got so bad that Rachel wanted to duck every time anyone took a normal-sized bite of anything she cooked. Unless she remembered to taste things herself as she went along, she could never be sure she hadn’t misread a recipe or mistaken one ingredient for another.

Unfortunately, her failures didn’t occur only in the kitchen. In addition to being unable to follow a simple recipe accurately without her spectacles, Rachel soon discovered another flaw in her character: extreme absentmindedness. No matter how important the chore, if she allowed herself to be distracted midway, it was a sure bet she would forget whatever she had been doing, oftentimes with catastrophic results. On one such occasion, she had put a laundry tub full of white clothes on to boil over a fire out in the yard. As she stood there, stirring away and gazing off into a blur of nothingness, she heard Cody crying and abandoned her post to go find him. He was horribly upset, and she soon discovered why. Clint’s birthday was coming on July sixteenth, and Cody had nothing to give him as a present.

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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