Texas Mail Order Bride(5)

By: Linda Broday

Thank goodness he didn’t even have to try. He’d set her straight, and that was the important thing.

He had to admit the lady sure was a looker, had curves in all the right places and the sort of walk that made single, bachelor-type men think of things that would land them in a heap of trouble. He’d nearly drowned in eyes that reminded him of moss at the bottom of a clear, gleaming pool. Instead of hair that glistened in the sun like a shiny gold piece, though, she should’ve been a redhead, with that hot temper of hers.

That Southern drawl as soft as melted butter did certain things to him.

Yes, her drawl and the dark beauty mark on the right side beneath her mouth had driven him to distraction.

Fair to say he hadn’t been prepared for someone so pretty. He’d expected her to be…well, homely. And desperate.

Though she’d tried to hide the sudden tears from him, he’d seen the wet shimmer in her eyes. That part had nearly done him in. Women’s tears never failed to turn his heart to mush. Not that she was the kind to give in to tears often, he suspected. The lady seemed to have more grit and steel than most men.

But he’d meant what he said. He was a bachelor and he’d stay a bachelor. The sooner she got that through her head, the better off they’d be. He supposed she’d leave town on tomorrow’s stage and go back to Georgia. He doubted he’d ever see her again. No use getting maudlin over her. She’d be fine.

The fact that she’d been duped same as he had been was crystal clear. She’d believed every word in those letters someone sent her. If he ever found out who’d played the cruel trick, he’d pound them into the street and drive a wagon over them.

It occurred to him that whoever did it would want to see how the fruits of their labor played out. He scanned both sides of the street for someone who might show undue interest. But everyone seemed to be going about their business, not giving him a second glance.

But secrets didn’t stay buried—he just had to be patient and keep his eyes and ears open.

At that moment a boy he’d befriended some years ago, Ben Barclay, skidded to a halt in front of him. “Hi, Mr. Cooper.”

“Ben, how are you doing these days?”

“Lost another tooth.” The boy’s copper hair flamed under the sun’s rays. Ben grinned and Cooper could see the gaping hole in the middle of his teeth.

“You sure did. Did you pull it yourself?”

“Nope. Mama did.”

“How’s your mama?”

Ben shrugged, staring up at him. “Fine, I reckon. Just wonderin’ when I could come out to the ranch.”

“Anytime would suit me. Gonna start roundup next week, though, and I’ll be busier than a one-armed blacksmith. Might be better to wait until after that.” Cooper fished in his vest pocket for a small sack of lemon drops he always carried. He took one out and handed the rest to the seven-year-old.

“Thanks, Mr. Cooper.”

“Your father behaving himself?”

Ben’s face darkened and he shrugged again. “Guess so.”

Cooper popped the lemon drop in his mouth. The boy’s answer fell short of being reassuring. Something was up. Hogue Barclay must be back in town. The man was as sorry as they come. Stuck around long enough to make misery for everyone, and then he was gone again. And to make matters worse, the man had a mean streak as wide as the floodwaters of the mighty Mississippi.

Cooper draped an arm around Ben’s scrawny shoulders. “Just remember what I told you. Anytime you or your mama needs me, I’ll be there.”

The boy had been a babe in his mother’s arms when Cooper rode into town with Rand and Brett. Right off, he’d recognized Jenny’s look of pure desperation and decided then and there to watch over them. He could count on one hand the number of people he truly cared about. But for those he did, it went bone deep. Jenny and Ben stood next to his brothers in that way.

Every time Jenny’s husband, Hogue Barclay, got a snoot full of liquor, he beat Jenny something fierce. Six months ago, Cooper had threatened Hogue with sure death if he ever did anything like that again. He might need to reinforce that threat soon.

“Ain’t gonna forget, Mr. Cooper.”