Texas Mail Order Bride(2)

By: Linda Broday


“A woman arrived on the stage today. A mail-order bride. Claims you agreed to marry her.”

Cooper’s fork clattered to the table. “Of all the…! Whose idea of a sick joke is this?”

“Can’t understand why you didn’t see fit to tell Brett and me that you’d changed your mind about taking a wife,” Rand teased. “You being head honcho of the Battle Creek Bachelors’ Club and all.”

“You know better than that. Wipe that grin off your face before I knock it off,” Cooper growled.

Rand shrugged but kept grinning anyway. “Fact is, she stepped off the stage and was mighty put out that you weren’t there waitin’ to welcome her. I did what I could to help.”

“I’ll just bet.”

His brother put his hand over his heart in mock horror. “You wound me.”

“Yeah, well, whoever is behind these rotten shenanigans had best take warning and find a rock to crawl under. When I catch him, there’ll be hell to pay. For all I know, this could be one of your harebrained stunts. You seem to think it’s so all-fired hilarious.”

The grin faded from Rand’s face. “I wouldn’t joke about anything as serious as this, Coop. After all these years, surely you believe that.”

“Yeah, I don’t reckon you’d be mixed up in something like this. But someone sure the hell brought her here and put her up to this.” Either that, or the woman had hatched the scheme all by herself. Maybe she was looking for some easy money and thought Cooper would pay her off to leave.

Well, the joke would be on her. Cooper had little money, easy or otherwise. What he got he turned around and put right back into the ranch. All except for the nest egg he’d put aside to buy the Zachary place that neighbored his property. He almost had enough saved, and then the better portion of the valley would be his.

Rand laid a hand on Cooper’s shoulder. “Reckon only one thing to do. Come into town and straighten her out. Name’s Miss Delta Dandridge. Came all the way from Georgia. Says she’s not leaving till she talks to you. She took a room at Mabel’s Boardinghouse—you can find her there.”

If that wasn’t just dandy! The day that had begun with such promise had certainly gone to hell in a handbasket fifteen ways from Sunday.

And who in the hell had a name like Delta?

“You tell that little conniver I’ll be in town first thing in the morning,” Cooper snapped. “I’ll send her packing.”

***

Delta tried to still the tremor in her hands as she stepped onto the porch of Mabel’s Boardinghouse. She breathed the crisp morning air.

Rancher looking for a wife. Must be of sound mind, body, and moral character. That’s what the notice in the Matrimonial Harvest catalog had said. She’d upheld her end of the bargain and could attest with certainty to her exemplary mind, body, and character.

But the gentleman?

That Mr. Thorne hadn’t seen fit to meet her stage yesterday still smarted. Alone, with only a stranger to guide her, she’d taken a room here at the boardinghouse rather than the dark, dreary hotel that had sent a sense of foreboding shivering up her spine.

Now she wasn’t sure she was quite ready to meet the man who’d agreed to be her husband.

Yet, here he was, a few feet away.

Fortunately, the tall rancher had his back to her, which gave her the advantage of seeing him first.

“Mr. Thorne? Cooper Thorne?”

He turned and Delta’s breath caught in her throat. My goodness, he was quite impressive. Tall and lean, there was a rugged quality about him from his chiseled features down to boots that had many miles on them. And a good deal of cow manure, if she wasn’t mistaken. His dark gray shirt stretched tight across his broad shoulders, and the black Stetson that shaded his eyes had seen better days.

Yet it was the deadly Colt on his hip that gave her pause. He appeared a man to be reckoned with. Everything about him was hard and unyielding and put her in mind of someone who’d never known any kind of softness. For a moment, it took her aback. She wondered if she could please him.

“Miss Dandridge, I suppose.” The deep timbre of his voice seemed to vibrate the air between them.