Authors: Penny Richards
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #19th Century, #American West, #Western, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Inspirational, #School Teacher, #Sheriff, #Lawman, #Widower, #Children, #Unruly, #Mother, #Wife, #Marriage, #Busy, #Frustration, #Family Life
“Sure. Why not?” he said with a shrug. “Actually, it’s a great idea since Cilla claims I don’t show them enough attention. We’ll all read together.”
Allison turned again to leave, figuring she’d said enough for the moment.
The sound of him calling her name brought her to a stop. She turned slowly.
“I really appreciate what you did for Cilla and Brady today.”
“It means a lot to me.”
The expression in his eyes said he was sincere. Her heart throbbed with a sudden ache.
“Thank you,” she said, then turned toward town and hurried down the street. She walked home, her heart lighter than at any time the past couple of days. She wasn’t so naive as to believe that just because she and Colt had apologized for their deplorable behavior and were working together for his children’s sake that everything would come up roses, but she
encouraged by their tentative truce.
For the first time, she felt he understood that the situation and her concerns were real, and to his credit, he had taken her suggestions for helping Brady far better than she’d expected. His concern seemed genuine, but like her, he was at a loss as to what to do. At this point, he seemed willing to try almost anything to better the situation, including reading to the kids.
The first thing she did when she got home was look through her book collection to see what might be interesting for a boy Brady’s age. Besides the two books she’d mentioned, she found two other Twain books as well as a copy of
and a much-read edition of
that she and her sisters had almost worn out. Cilla was at an age that she should enjoy the tale of the four sisters.
Then, needing some company, she unhooked her purse from a branch of the hall tree and headed to the café. She thought of taking the books over to the sheriff’s, but after a moment’s hesitation, she decided that she would wait until the following day. She didn’t want him thinking she was too eager, or that she was interested in him. Heaven forbid!
* * *
“Here we go again,” Cilla whispered to Brady after Miss Grainger left and she’d scurried from her hiding place near the front door, where she’d been stealing peeks at the two grown-ups on the porch.
“What do you mean?” Brady asked, putting down a glass next to his plate.
“Pa wants to call her
instead of Miss Grainger, and he wants her to call him Colt instead of Sheriff Garrett.”
“So?” Brady’s forehead was furrowed in puzzlement.
“When grown-ups start calling each other by their first names, it means things are getting more serious.”
“You mean like he might start squiring Miss Grainger around like he did those other women?” Brady asked with wide-eyed shock.
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I think they’re just working together to try to get us to act better.”
“Maybe,” Cilla said with a sigh.
“And even if there is more to it, we can’t do anything. You heard Pa. If we try to scare her off, it’ll be bad for us, so if you cook up one of your schemes, you can count me out.”
* * *
That evening, after Colt got home from work, whipped up the pancakes Cilla’s disastrous trial had given him a hankering for, he sat the children down and tried to get a feel for what they thought about Allison’s ideas to make things better. Neither child said much, but in the end they both agreed that they would try to think before they acted, and they would do their best to cooperate without behaving like brats.
Then he spent the miserable, promised time reading with Brady, but felt little was accomplished except that he had done what he’d said he would. He vowed to keep his end of the bargain if it killed him, and while reading with Brady might not actually kill him, it just might drive him nuts.
Later, stretched out in his lonely bed, his arm across his face, the scenes from the past couple of days played through Colt’s mind as they had throughout the day. When he slept, he dreamed of the prissy teacher who reached out and wiped his mouth with her napkin. In his dream, as he had that morning, he caught her wrist in his fingers, an automatic reaction to her unexpected, disturbing touch. Her skin felt soft and warm against his fingers. This time, he didn’t let go. Instead, he pulled her closer and pressed his mouth to hers. Her pulse thudded beneath his fingertips, and his heart echoed the crazy rhythm as he sank deeper into the kiss....
olt had no recollection of his dream when he awakened the next morning. He was shaving when a rogue memory of thoroughly kissed lips flitted unexpectedly into his thoughts, causing the razor to slip. Muttering, he pressed a clean cloth to his chin and glared at his grumpy reflection, searching his mind for any other bits and pieces of the fantasy to give him some hint whom he’d been kissing. Nothing concrete came to mind, but there
a nagging suspicion that kept cropping up.
He did know a couple of things. First, he’d accepted the fact that the problem with his children had passed the nuisance stage. Second, he recognized that they needed guidance, love and more attention than he was giving them. He could do that, too, but what they needed was a mother. And as much as it galled him to admit it, he needed someone, too.
It was becoming increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to find the kind of love he and Patrice had shared this second time around, but that didn’t negate the fact that it was time to find a wife. This time he’d approach it in a different way. He would give serious consideration to every female in Wolf Creek, not just those who struck his fancy, as he’d done in the past. Surely there was someone in town who would be suitable. When he got to work and took care of his morning duties, he’d give it some serious thought.
Colt wrote the title at the top of the tablet on his desk, using bold capital letters and underlining it. He wrote numbers down the left-hand side of the page and spent the next ten minutes staring at the front door, racking his mind for the names of eligible young ladies who might make a decent wife.
Finally he wrote
in positions one and two, even though it was doubtful that these two young women whom he’d wooed before would give him another chance, even if he explained to them that he’d laid down the law to the kids and promised there would be no more trouble. As his mama always said, a person had only one chance to make a first impression.
Besides, Holly had been seen around town with James Turner the past few weeks, and after some observation, he’d realized that Letitia, who was mighty easy on the eyes, had to be the most helpless female in town, hardly the kind to be much of a helpmeet. He just couldn’t picture her standing up to Brady and Cilla without dissolving into a puddle of helplessness.
He drew lines through their names and stared some more, softly whistling the evocatively beautiful “Lorena” while he tapped the pencil on the table. Ellie and Doc Rachel were out since Ellie had made it clear she could not marry anyone, and Gabe had won Rachel’s hand.
Think, Colt. Think!
Young unmarried women.
Finally, he wrote
Another of Cilla and Brady’s victims. Jocelyn was younger and more likely to be forgiving of the kids’ trespasses than the other two. Beside her name, he added
Young. Pretty. Likes kids. Sweet.
He thought of the irritating way she often burst into giggles at the most immature things and scratched through her name...twice.
young. He needed a wife and a mother for his kids; he didn’t need another one to bring up.
He needed someone older, settled. Ellie’s friend Gracie Morrison came to mind. He sighed and determinedly wrote
next to the number four, then added
Twenty-five or twenty-six. Smart. Very nice.
He couldn’t put that she was homely and ungainly, though it was true. Besides, her genuine goodness made up for her lack of beauty and grace, giving her her own brand of prettiness. What else? He knew for a fact that she’d been trained from childhood in all the wifely pursuits. Gracie was also very perceptive and fair-minded. She would be a good wife.
He leaned back in his chair and tapped the pencil against his lips. The problem was, he felt not the slightest bit of attraction to her, and desperate or not, if he was going to have to settle for less than love, he at least needed to feel some sort of desirability.
4. Gracie Morrison. Twenty-five or twenty-six. Smart. Very nice.
With a single bold line through her list of attributes, Gracie was out of the running.
Single women, Garrett! Think.
He needed to consider widows, not just women who’d never been married. Let’s see—there was Lydia North, but she’d made it pretty clear that after losing her husband, Jake, she would never marry again. Besides, she was so shy, he doubted she could even hold up her end of a conversation. He didn’t even bother writing down her name.
How about sweet-as-apple-pie Sophie Forrester? Sophie’s husband had been killed more than two years ago in a logging accident. She was a sweet woman and pretty enough in a tired way, and she was only a couple of years older than he. On the negative side, she had three ornery boys of her own. Nope. Sophie was definitely out. He didn’t want to add to his misery. Not intentionally, anyway. He drew a heavy line through her name.
He was staring at the scratched-out names on his list when Dan spoke up from behind him. “What’s wrong with Gracie?”
Colt flinched in surprise and glared at his second-in-command, who was peering over his shoulder. Big Dan Mercer, his fortysomething, never-been-married deputy, had taken their solitary prisoner’s dirty breakfast dishes back to Ellie’s. Colt hadn’t heard him come in the back door. Blast it all! He hadn’t intended for anyone to know about the list. Now Dan would no doubt blab it all over town.
“Not a word about this, Dan,” Colt growled.
“What’s to say?” the burly older man demanded, a cross expression on his craggy face. “It ain’t like everybody in town don’t already know you’re huntin’ for a wife. I’m just curious about why you crossed out Gracie. She’s a fine woman, if you ask me.”
“I agree,” Colt said. “She’s one of the finest. She’s just not the right one for me.”
“Oh.” Big Dan cleared his throat and shuffled his weight from one foot to the other. “Well, since you marked her off your list, you won’t mind if I ask to call on her, will you?” Dull color crept into his lean cheeks, which bore several scars from his years spent boxing for a living back East.
Colt grinned at his assistant. So that was the way it was. “Not at all.”
“Well, all right, then.” Big Dan started to walk away.
“I had no idea you were interested in Gracie,” Colt said, stopping him.
“I don’t tell you everything, you know,” Dan said. “The fact is, I’ve liked her a good long while, but everybody knows she won’t tolerate anyone squiring her around who’s in the habit of tyin’ one on now and then.”
He shrugged and continued. “I thought about it, and decided that she’s a good woman and deserves the best. Not that I am, of course. Far from it. But you have to admire a woman with principles like that. So I been workin’ on things for several months now. I’m even readin’ my Bible and such, since I know that’s important to her.”
Colt stared at the man, impressed, as he often was, by just how far a smitten man would go to win a lady’s hand. Pretty potent stuff, love.
“That’s great, Dan,” Colt said, and meant it.
“So you gonna be here a spell? If you are, I think I’ll go talk to Gracie.”
Colt smiled again. “What’s the hurry?”
“If other guys are considerin’ her for matrimony, maybe I’d better not let any more grass grow under my feet.”
“I’ll be here,” Colt said with a laugh. “Go do your sparking.”
“Thanks, boss. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Big Dan turned at the door and held up a rough finger. “Don’t forget Ellie and her sister,” he said, and then, with another foolish smile, he almost danced out the door.
Ellie and her sister. He’d already established that Ellie was out of the question, and her sister... Colt frowned. Sighed. He’d said he’d consider every eligible female he could think of, and Miss Grainger certainly fit the bill. After another moment’s hesitation, he wrote
Thought a moment and wrote
It had been very kind of her to buy the things Cilla would need to begin her embroidery.
Thoughtful. Caring. Likes kids.
She’d proved that by writing to her professors and making arrangements for Cilla to learn some feminine pursuits.
What about the attraction, Colt?
Well, he certainly didn’t find her unattractive. In fact, she was more than all right, he supposed. Frowning, he kicked back, swung his feet to the desktop and laced his fingers together behind his head, his habitual thinking position.
He stared up at the ceiling and recalled how different she’d looked when he’d taken the children to apologize. There was no doubt that her hair made a tempting sight hanging free down her back. It made a man’s hands fairly itch to test the springy curls to see if they were as soft as they looked.
He sat bolt upright, the front legs of his chair hitting the floor with a thud.
A humorless chuckle escaped him. A man would have to be crazy to use those two words in the same breath as
He picked up the pencil, determined to add her other good features to the list. She might be a tad plump, but she had nice skin, a nice nose, really unusual eyes and incredible eyelashes. Not to mention a pretty mouth.
He wrote everything down and scanned the list. There was no denying that it was impressive. If he were just looking at positives, Miss Allison Grainger had several. Of course, she had quite the temper when she was riled, but then, it was his experience that most women did. Still, he wrote that down, too—
Definitely stubborn and...
He heard the door open and looked up. To his surprise, it was none other than the object of his thoughts, carrying an armload of books.
* * *
Allison watched as Colt stood, dragged open his middle desk drawer and shoved a tablet inside, almost in one motion. “Am I interrupting anything?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, a bit nervously. “Just, uh, making a list.”
“Oh.” She offered him a tentative smile and crossed to the desk, placing the books on the scarred top. “I found some books I thought you and Brady might enjoy,” she said. “And one I think Cilla might like.”
She hoped he could see that she was taking their problem seriously. He gestured toward the chair across from him, and she sat, smoothing her simple gray skirt and lacing her fingers together in her lap, hoping her own tension didn’t show. There was something about being in the same room with the sheriff that taxed her nerves. Next to her he was so big and tough-looking, not to mention so very good-looking that it was a wonder the ladies didn’t swoon when he passed them on the street. Her fingers tightened.
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” he told her, taking his seat again.
“I’m just doing my job, Sheriff,” she said, the tension she was feeling causing her to resort to her previous stiff demeanor.
“Colt,” he reminded her. “And it isn’t your job to lend us books, and buy Cilla sewing notions or offer her your piano to practice on.”
She granted him another jumpy, fleeting smile. “Well, since we have no lending library, it seemed like the thing to do. I’m hoping the children will see me as someone who really does have their best interests at heart.”
“I need to work on my fathering skills, too,” he said. “I’m planning on spending more time with them in the evenings.” He gave his head a shake. “I can’t believe they doubt that I love them.”
“Growing up is hard,” she said. “Children need to be shown love as well as being told they’re loved.” She gave a sad little sigh. “In fact, everyone does. Wouldn’t you agree?”
As soon as she said the words, she dropped her gaze to her lap, longing to call them back, lest he think she was getting too personal. Or he might think she was pining for love herself. Which, of course, she was. Even worse, he might think she was hinting that she wanted love from him! She pressed her lips together. Oh, why was she so inept when it came to conversing with the opposite sex?
She looked up, her gaze meeting his. The intensity in his eyes almost robbed her of breath. Why was he looking at her like that?
“I would definitely agree.”
Surely it was her imagination, but his voice sounded husky. Allison’s eyelids drifted downward, and just for an instant, she allowed herself the luxury of imagining that throaty voice whispering into her ear.
Desperate to change the subject, she raised her head and said, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Has Brady said what it is that interests him?”
Colt looked taken aback by the sudden change in the conversational topic. “Actually, he said he wants Lew Jessup to teach him how to play the harmonica, and he wants to learn to shoot a bow and arrow.”
Colt rubbed his cheek in a familiar gesture. “Thing is, the only person I know who can show him that is Ace, and I’m not sure where he is at the moment.”
“Ace Allen?” Allison couldn’t hide her shock. Ace, an improbable combination of Irish and Cherokee, had been sent to prison earlier in the year, along with Meg Thomerson’s husband, Elton, for a series of thefts and an attack on Sarah VanSickle. Fortunately for her, Gabe Gentry had come along to help on his way home from Antoine.
“But he’s in prison!”
Colt shook his head. “Not anymore. Actually, he’s been in prison twice. The first time was a manslaughter charge a few years ago.”
“Manslaughter! What happened?”
“I’m sure you can imagine that it’s tough being a half breed. He’s spent a lot of time defending himself to all the people who look down on him. He got into a fistfight taking up for his mama. The guy hit his head on a rock and died. It was an accident, but because of who he was, Ace spent two years at hard labor. When he got out, he went to Oklahoma for a while then came back here to help Nita out when Yancy died.”
“I had no idea,” Allison breathed.
Colt shrugged. “Word got around that Elton’s partner was Indian. Ace may be half Irish, but everyone considers him Indian, and they knew he’d done time. To top things off, Elton corroborated that Ace was his partner even though Sarah and Gabe said otherwise.”