Sweeten the Swindler

By: Dallis Adams

Brides of Blessings: Book 5

Chapter One

Blessings, California

Fall, 1851

"Looks like Maxine Sweeten just got another box of chocolates from a hopeful suitor."

At Atherton Winslett's comment, Jake Stark glanced over the top of a ten-day-old-copy of the San Francisco Tribune he'd been only half-reading to see Miss Sweeten crossing the Main Street of Blessings, carrying a brown paper-covered box under her arm. The light spring breeze rustled the straw bonnet she wore, one that was decorated with blue ribbon and lace that matched the dusky-blue-and-white checkers in the fabric of her dress. Her dress clung to her tiny waist only to flare out over her hips.

Although she was small— maybe a couple of inches over five feet— she had all the right curves. The pink brought out the coral color in her high cheekbones and seemed to emphasize her lips. Her long thick hair was parted down the middle to form pigtails, the long ends curling against her bodice. Richly dark, the luscious strands complemented her milk and cream complexion as did the deep-mahogany color of her eyes.

A tasty package she made.

"You mean another box of chocolates from a hopeless suitor," Ed Mosier— owner of the only mercantile in town—replied before moving a pawn on the chessboard that sat on a wooden barrel between him and Atherton Winslett.

With a row of ladder-back chairs sitting on the boardwalk in front of Carl's Cuts, the barbershop seemed to be the place to go if a person wanted to hear the town's gossips. Who knew the tongue wagglers would be a bunch of men? Nothing seemed to get by Winslett.

The man's long white hair and matching beard reminded Jake of a professor he'd once met on a gambling steamboat traveling up the Mississippi River. But when Winslett smiled, the missing teeth negated the scholarly look. Even so, Jake had a feeling the icon of Blessings was wiser than he appeared.

Miss Sweeten called out to a boy of perhaps nine years of age, talked with him and then held out the rectangular shallow box she'd been carrying under her arm, the pink bow on the package lopsided and crushed-looking. With a grin, the lad accepted the offer, ran down the street, only to disappear through the trees that lined the road that led to Pasley Miner's Hats. Jake gritted his teeth, then forced himself to relax.

"What a waste," Mosier exclaimed. "Who gave her that one?"

Atherton Winslett watched the exchange, his fingers rubbing his chin. "I'm guessin' Bart Frister since I saw him with the box this mornin'. The boy is love-struck. I think that's the third set he's given her. They all end up at Pasley's."

"Either Roxanne Boone is going to have to quit making the chocolates, or somebody's gonna have to shoot the poor fool."

"Ed, now I know you don't mean that," Winslett admonished.

Mosier hefted a sigh. "I just don't want to see him hurt. Has anybody told Bart she's not keeping the chocolate for herself?" Ed Mosier shook his head, making his brown hair swish. "What woman doesn't like chocolate?"

"She doesn't," Winslett replied as he moved a rook across the board. "Like chocolate, that is. And yes, she told him she doesn't like the candy and was givin' them to customers. Too, she told him she wasn't interested in him that way."

Interesting. In Jake's experience, women tended to string men along to get what they wanted.

"So," Winslett continued, "you can't fault her. She's honest with Bart. The other day I heard her tell him no candy, don't waist his money because she considered him more like an older brother."

Ouch. Jake winced for the poor wretch.

"But when she offered to return them to him, Bart refused to take them back. The lovesick dunce was agreeable to her idea of settin' them out to as a welcoming gift to all the customers at Pasley's. But I don't think Bart knows what else to do."

Jake watched Miss Sweeten walk into Coco's Chapeaus, a shop with a handsome display of women's hats in all shapes, colors and sizes.

"No imagination, that Bart." With another sigh, Mosier shrugged and then moved another chess piece.

Right. Jake needed to use his imagination, to outsmart any other would-be beaus in town—which shouldn't be difficult since he considered himself quite clever. Yes, he planned on wooing Maxine Sweeten, enough so she would be clay in his hands. Because she was the means to his revenge.