Texas Mail Order Bride(4)

By: Linda Broday


“Speaking of that, would you know of any jobs around here for an enterprising woman who’s down on her luck?”

“Why, yes, maybe I do. Mr. John Abercrombie mentioned that he’s hard-pressed to handle the mercantile by himself. His wife died a few months ago. She ran that business mostly by herself. John doesn’t know how to make a go of the store without Nell.”

Flickers of hope rose. Delta wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Then I intend to pay him a visit.”

“One thing I should tell you. John…well, John is a hard man to get to know. And since Nell died, he’s gotten worse. Just don’t let him scare you.”

Like old dogs, Delta supposed. If they sensed fear, they went for the throat. What could very well be the only job in town called for someone with steely resolve.

Yet she doubted she had any choice. Besides, she could always throw John Abercrombie a bone. Or growl back.

Less than an hour later, she strolled toward the mercantile, her heels striking the sidewalk with determination. At the precise moment she passed the saloon, Cooper Thorne stepped out and into her path.

Surprise rippled across his face when he noticed her. It was obvious that he hadn’t planned to run into her. But she had to give the man credit—instead of turning away, as she fully expected, he tapped the brim of his hat and gave her a half smile, though it appeared to be with considerable effort.

“Miss Dandridge.” His voice was whiskey-roughened and unapologetic.

Delta raised her chin a trifle and glared. “Mr. Thorne.”

Stepping smartly around him, she continued on her way with her head held high. She should probably thank her lucky stars that she hadn’t wed him. It appeared the man had a drinking problem. Swilling whiskey in the middle of the day was a sign of a serious character deficiency.

Why, he’d likely beat a wife if he ever were to take one.

Putting him out of her mind, she entered the dim interior of a mercantile that was narrow across but extended a good ways back. It had only one window to the left of the doorway. As dim as the store was by the window, she could only imagine how dark it was at the rear.

Squaring her shoulders, she approached a thin man behind the counter whose skin was stretched tightly over the bones of his face. “I’m looking for Mr. Abercrombie.”

“What for?”

If Mabel hadn’t warned her of his surly nature, she’d have raced from the store. “Would you be Mr. John Abercrombie?”

“So what if I am?”

Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she prayed for patience. “Mrs. King over at the boardinghouse told me about your predicament. My deepest sympathies for your loss. I think we might be useful to each other, sir.”

“Whatever you’re peddling, I don’t need. Take it somewhere else. Just get on out of here and leave me be.”

“I wish I could. I truly do,” she said softly. “But the fact is, I desperately need a job. And it looks like you’re in great need of someone to help you.”

John Abercrombie braced his hands on a nicked and scarred wooden counter. “How would you know what I need? You ever work in a place like this?”

She glanced at the grimy window that barely allowed a sliver of light through and an overturned barrel with mice nibbling on the crackers inside. Everything was disheveled and dirty. And sad. If buildings had hearts, this one would surely be broken.

“No, sir. I never have.”

“How do I know you can do the job, then?” he snapped.

“Hire me on a trial basis. If I haven’t made a difference and increased your sales in two weeks, I’ll gladly go on my way. You won’t even have to fire me.”

“Can’t pay you much,” Abercrombie said stubbornly.

“All I ask is enough to pay Mrs. King for my room and board. Then as the store makes more money, we’ll discuss the terms of my employment again.”

“Don’t expect any favors from me.”

No, she wouldn’t. She’d never expected favors from anyone. No need to start now.

***

Cooper’s gaze narrowed as he stared at the mercantile. He wondered why Delta Dandridge would decide to go there when she should be buying a ticket for the next stage. Probably needed a button or some thread or whatnot. The things a woman could get in her head to do—a man never could figure them out.