The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 4

 

 

 

 

Dotty put six names in a bowl and shook it around. “First two names are partners for the night. We’re only going to run one table, so there’ll be a player and an advisor. Y’all know the stakes, so we don’t have to go over those. Now first name is Madge and I’m the second one. So we will be partners.”

 

 

Dotty giggled. “Now who is next? I got the paper in my hand. It’s Greg. Will he partner up with Rose or Clarice or maybe Emily?”

 

“Come on, Dotty,” Greg said.

 

“Don’t be impatient,” she said. “Greg will be with…” She unfolded the paper and said, “Rose.”

 

Emily looked at Clarice. “Guess we’ll have to show them who is boss.”

 

“In your dreams. Me and Rose can whip you all with an eye patch over one eye, can’t we, Rose?” Greg grinned.

 

“And by candlelight.” Rose nodded.

 

“Don’t let Rose with her sweet angel face fool you,” Clarice whispered to Emily. “She’s mean as a hungry coyote when it comes to dominoes.”

 

“Now you don’t go telling Emily stories like that. I’m just an old lady who likes to play dominoes. It’s not like I count cards.” Rose had thin, wavy white hair, a round face, and a thick waist. She wore a red double-knit pantsuit that had been out of style for forty years, but somehow it looked great on her. Maybe she was an older woman who set the style rather than followed it, and by the end of summer, everyone would be trying to find vintage pantsuits.

 

“Y’all might as well watch from the sidelines. Me and Madge are the winners tonight,” Dotty announced. “And if I win, I get…”

 

Clarice shot a look across the living room before Dotty could finish.

 

Dotty threw up both palms to ward off the dirty look. “Don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t going to say a fifth of Jack. Lord, if I even look at a bottle again, you’ll make me go to those damned old meetings and I ain’t got time to listen to folks stand up and tell me their problems. I was going to say that I was going to treat myself to one of them fancy massages when we go get our hair done this week,” Dotty said, then leaned over and cupped her hand over Emily’s ear. “Don’t you tattle on me, but I catch a couple of meetings a month at the church. It’s good for me to go to them and helps keep me sober, but I’ll be hanged if they know it.”

 

Emily pulled several bills from her shirt pocket. “Does my money go on the center of the table?”

 

Clarice frowned at Greg. “I told you to tell her on the way to the stables that we don’t really play for money.”

 

Emily popped him on the shoulder and stuffed the bills back in her pocket.

 

He grabbed his bicep and moaned. “Nana, I can’t play. She’s done broke my arm.”

 

“Bullshit,” Dotty said. “And if it is broke, suck it up and play with the other hand.”

 

“Why’d you tell her that we play for money?” Madge asked.

 

“It was a test to see if she really thought she was any good. I didn’t want a partner who couldn’t hold her own. I figured if she was willing to bring money to the game, then she might not be all hat and no cowgirl.”

 

Emily held her hands in her lap to keep from blowing on the one that had touched his arm. Dammit! How did just a simple two-second slap create so much heat? “What made you think I’d be your partner?”

 

“I knew they’d draw because they only set up one table tonight and you never know what the draw might do,” he answered.

 

“You kids stop fighting. We’re here to play, so hush and let’s get serious about this so we can eat,” Rose said and then leaned over to whisper in Madge’s ear like little girls on the playground.

 

Emily heard something about new girl on western, but that was all she caught.

 

“We play for fun, but the loser has to host the next domino night. Last week Clarice lost, so she’s hosting tonight. I love it when she loses because Dotty cooks when she does,” Madge explained.

 

Madge was built on a square frame—almost as wide as she was tall. Her round face sported a weak chin, a wide forehead, and narrow-set green eyes that sparkled when she talked. She wore an orange Western-cut shirt out over her stretch jeans. Her bright orange wedge heels had enough bling on the toes to blind a person.

 

“You play and I’ll advise, okay?” Rose asked Greg.

 

“You’re better than I am,” he said.

 

“That’s why I’m going to advise you. Besides, I lose track of the score when I gossip, and I’ve got stories to tell,” Rose said.

 

All three of the other women shot her a look and she giggled. “Some stories you tell and some you keep close for another day.”

 

Clarice turned to Emily. “You play and I’ll sit back and boss. Now what do you know, Rose, that can be shared in present company? Come on, tell us, what is it?”

 

Madge sat down in the chair nearest the table and started to shuffle. “You can be the silent partner tonight, Dotty.” Then she leaned over, cupped her hand over Dotty’s ear, and whispered something about farmers and a looker.

 

Dotty poured the dominoes out of a velvet drawstring bag and turned them over. “I ain’t never been silent about anything. Oprah called it multitasking when she was on the television.”

 

“Wow!” Emily said.

 

She’d never seen gold-plated dominoes with colored stones instead of dots.

 

Clarice leaned over and whispered, “It’s fake gold and the stones are colored glass. They aren’t real diamonds and emeralds.”

 

“They’re still sparkly,” Emily said.

 

“Greg bought them for her for her eightieth birthday. The dominoes we play with at my house are the plain old black-and-white kind.” Madge giggled.

 

“I thought Prissy was coming tonight. I had a computer question to ask her,” Rose asked.

 

“Maybe I could help. I know my way around computers pretty good,” Emily said.

 

“Thanks, darlin’, but this is a personal problem and Prissy already knows all about it. I’ll just call her and tell her I’m making lasagna for dinner and she’ll be right over,” Rose said.

 

“Are we here to play dominoes or gossip?” Greg asked.

 

“Both,” Dotty and Clarice said at the same time.

 

Greg laid out a double six. Twelve sparkling red stones all total. Right away Rose put a six-four at the end of that and the game was on. In half an hour the table looked like a giant chicken foot. Dotty and Madge won that round. Then they went to the more complicated Shoot the Moon, and Dotty and Madge won round one of that one and Rose and Greg won the second round.

 

Clarice patted Emily on the wrist. “Looks like me and you are going to host and cook next week. I heard that Prissy has got a secret boyfriend. Everyone at church is just dying to know who he is, but she hasn’t even told her best friends. I bet it’s one of those cowboys that her granddad hired. Has she told you anything, Greg?”

 

Greg shrugged. “If she did, I wouldn’t tell y’all since it would be in confidence.”

 

Dotty drew her eyebrows down. “I’ll ask Jeremiah. I bet he knows what’s going on. He and Prissy are still real good friends. He tried to hire her to work in his business, but she turned him down. That does it for this evening. Emily is going to cook next week. Let’s take this party to the dining room.”

 

Emily glanced at Dotty, who threw up her palms and exclaimed, “Don’t look at me. It’s up to you to do the cooking, but you’d better not leave my kitchen or my oven in a mess. I won so I’m treating myself to that massage, and no cooking on domino day.”

 

“We should have those little pecan pie tarts, Nana,” Greg suggested.

 

 

“I’m horrible at pie crust. How about you?” Clarice asked.

 

Emily smiled sweetly. “It’ll be a surprise. And next week, I won’t let Greg win.”

 

“You didn’t let me win tonight,” he said.

 

“Of course I did. You look like you’d be the type to pout if you lose, and I didn’t want to put up with you whining around like a little girl all week,” she teased.

 

Greg pushed the dominoes toward her with a grin on his face and a twinkle in his sexy green eyes. “Loser also has to put the dominoes away. I won this fair and square, so put them away, woman.”

 

“Sure you won, darlin’.” She patted him on the arm and winked at the ladies.

 

She quickly busied herself putting the dominoes away. Maybe no one else saw the goose bumps on her arms and the chills chasing down her back when she touched his arm. Rattling her was a huge understatement. That cowboy just flat turned her temperature up to the boiling point.

 

“Next week you will lose and you will cook just for teasing me about the money.” Maybe words would make the ache in her body disappear. Fate wasn’t being nice when she made Greg so damn sexy and then put Emily’s ranch eight hours away from his land.

 

“You think I can’t cook?” Greg asked.

 

“Can you?” She smiled sweetly.

 

Rose stood up. “There you two go again, fussing and fighting. Or do they call it flirting?” It was her turn to act like a second grade little girl and whisper in Clarice’s ear.

 

“Y’all know that secrets are rude,” Greg said.

 

“Now what would us old women have secrets about?” Rose giggled.

 

“I’m hungry,” Greg said.

 

“Me too, and we aren’t flirting,” Emily said.

 

Finger foods were laid out beautifully on crystal platters. Slider sandwiches stuffed with ham and cheese, a vegetable tray with a scrumptious-looking dip, a fruit tray with strawberry cream cheese dip, and a cheese ball covered in pecans with an assortment of crackers surrounding it. A three-section warmer held tiny egg rolls, buffalo wings, and smoky sausages in barbecue sauce. Several kinds of homemade cookies, including oatmeal raisin, which was Emily’s favorite, were stacked on pretty plates at the other end of the table.

 

How in the devil was she supposed to top a spread like that the next week? Maybe she should just write Clarice a note on Sunday and sneak out before daybreak on Monday. She made it to the dining room in time to hear Rose talking softly to Clarice.

 

“I write down what she says, but I swear I can’t remember what those letters all stand for. FYI, OMG, WTF… I lost my notebook. I know one of them has a dirty word in it, but I can’t remember what they are. If she don’t come over tomorrow I won’t be able to get on the laptop.”

 

Rose blushed when she noticed that Emily was in the room. What in the devil were these old girls into? Had they discovered Internet dating for seniors?

 

***

 

“What a day! Gramps, I wish you were here so I could tell you all about it,” Emily whispered at her reflection in the bathroom mirror.

 

It had gone by in a fast blur, and yet it had been the most exciting day she’d spent in years. As she brushed her teeth, she recaptured the highlights and most of them had to do with the expressions on Greg’s face throughout the day.

 

It was only ten thirty when she crawled between the soft sheets and shut her eyes, but sleep would not come. Nothing helped! Not beating on the pillow. Not flipping from one side to the other. Not sitting up and staring into the semidarkness or imagining baby calves hopping over a low fence.

 

“I need warm milk. Either that or a double shot of Gramps’s moonshine, and since the only jar left is on Shine Canyon, I guess it’s milk.” She slid out of bed, peeked out the bedroom door, and slipped out into the dark landing.

 

Tiptoeing down the stairs and across the foyer, she used the moonlight coming in through the windows to make her way to the kitchen. She carefully poured milk into a coffee mug, set the microwave for twenty seconds, and waited until the ding.

 

“Shhhh,” she hissed at the microwave. She didn’t want to wake up everyone in the house just because she was too worked up to get to sleep. She took a sip and decided that it needed chocolate. She held the refrigerator door open with her foot and squeezed a stream of chocolate syrup into the glass. She stirred with her finger, let the door go shut, and took a sip.

 

“Couldn’t sleep either?” Greg asked from the shadows.

 

She had to swallow fast to keep from spewing chocolate milk all over the kitchen floor and cabinets. In the semidarkness, she could see that he wore light gray sweat bottoms hanging low on his hips, no shirt, and no glasses. He was so sexy that it plumb took her breath away.

 

The second hard swallow had nothing to do with milk and everything to do with a half-naked man right in front of her.

 

“Must’ve been all that late-night food,” she muttered. “I even tried counting baby calves jumping over a rail fence.”

 

With a flick of the wrist, he flipped the light switch. “That looks pretty good. Think I’ll join you. I count calves in a pen rather than watching them jump over a fence. If I did that, I’d start worrying about catching them all.”

 

She immediately tugged at her shirttail, but the flannel didn’t stretch or cover any more of her legs. “I’ll just go on back to my room.”

 

“Stay and talk to me,” he said.

 

The clock in the living room chimed twelve times and she smiled. “I’m not dressed to stay and talk to you.”

 

“I got the pants. You got the shirt. Between us, we’re dressed.” He poured a glass of milk and added two long shots of chocolate. “Let’s go to the living room where the chairs are more comfortable.”

 

“Aha,” she said when realization hit.

 

Fate was throwing another test at her, daring her to be alone with him.

 

He turned the kitchen light off. “Aha, what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

Be damned if she’d tell him that she’d figured out what fate was up to. She was being tested to see if she really did have roots on her ranch in Shine Canyon. This is what her grandfather was talking about all the time. Emily Cooper was as wily as fate, and not one thing could be thrown at her that she couldn’t handle. Well, okay, maybe not dominoes, but if Greg hadn’t smelled like heaven sitting right beside her all evening, and if he hadn’t kept brushing her fingertips, she might have had a better chance at winning the game.

 

She led the way across the foyer and into the living room. Greg followed her and turned on a lamp at the end of the sofa. She set her half-empty glass on a coaster and curled up in the corner of the sofa.

 

***

 

Greg had laid his book and glasses aside when he’d heard her bedroom door open and soft footsteps padding down the staircase. He followed her to the kitchen and watched from the shadows as she heated milk. Her black hair had been set loose from the ponytail and floated in gentle waves down past her shoulders. The shirttail hem on the flannel shirt she wore curved up on the side to show fine, shapely legs.

 

He took a long gulp of his milk then put it on the coffee table in front of him. It did little to ease the dryness in his mouth or to still his racing pulse.

 

“So evidently you are not married now because you’ve agreed to stay on and work for Nana for a month. Have you ever been married?”

 

“Have you?”

 

“I asked first,” he answered.

 

“It doesn’t matter who asked first. I think it’s only reasonable that you answer my questions too. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. You either answer mine or I don’t answer yours,” she said.

 

 

“Nana says that about the goose and gander all the time.”

 

“So did Gramps. He said just because I was a girl didn’t mean I didn’t have to learn the ranchin’ business from the ground up.”

 

“Okay, fair enough. No, I have not been married.”

 

“Neither have I. Why?”

 

“That’s two questions,” he said.

 

“You asked two, so I get two.”

 

She turned her head slowly and her blue eyes locked with his. He wanted to kiss her, to reach out and trace her jawline with his finger; he wanted to kiss her passionately. Even if she slapped the shit out of him, he had to kiss her.

 

***

 

His eyes looked different without the glasses, softer and dreamier. Thick brown lashes rested on his cheekbones when he blinked. She reached up and touched the slight cleft in his chin.

 

“Are you involved with anyone?” she whispered.

 

He ran his left hand from her shoulder down to her hand, where he laced his fingers in hers. “Are you involved with someone?”

 

She barely shook her head, afraid that he’d take it as a sign to move his hand.

 

She wanted him to kiss her.

 

“I should go back up to my room,” she whispered.

 

He nodded and tilted her chin up with his right fist. “Me too.”

 

Neither of them made a motion to stand.

 

“But I don’t want to.” He grinned.

 

Oh, hell, she thought as she unlaced her hand and scooted six inches closer to him. She leaned in, wrapped her arms around his neck, and brushed a kiss across his lips.

 

He pulled her tightly against his bare chest, only the thin cotton of her nightshirt separating skin from skin. He deepened the second kiss until it felt like white-hot fire, silk sheets, and chocolate all mixed together. It held promises of something so wild and wonderful that it made her whole body quiver.

 

It ended, but it wasn’t over. He brushed the hair away from her neck and moved downward to that erotic zone right below the ear and strung scorching hot kisses from there to the hollow of her neck and back to her lips.

 

He wrapped his arms around her waist, and she shifted positions until she was sitting in his lap. Her hand toyed with his hair at the nape of his neck, and the other pressed against his bulging chest muscle.

 

His hand slipped beneath her shirt and massaged her back on his way to her shoulders, then gently eased around to cup her breast. She was going to explode any minute right there on the sofa. Tomorrow morning Clarice would find the remnants of a flannel shirt and a few buttons. The rest of Emily would be scattered around the room in fine ashes.

 

His thumb grazed her jawbone, and his forefinger tilted her chin up for a better position, each kiss getting deeper and deeper, his tongue doing a mating dance with hers and heat building into a raging fire. He left her lips long enough to kiss both eyelids and move his hand from her breast to the top of her bikini underpants.

 

She arched against him, ready for his touch, wanting it. His fingertips slipped beneath the elastic. She pressed closer to him and opened up for easier access. God, she’d never been so damn hot in her whole life.

 

And then the microwave dinged.

 

She jumped like she’d been shot, and with the speed of lightning, both of his hands were gone.

 

“Shit!” he mumbled.

 

Dotty’s voice floated from kitchen to den. “You couldn’t sleep either? Did you check out your laptop?”

 

Emily and Greg scooted to opposite ends of the sofa.

 

“Too much excitement. We’re gettin’ old when a domino game keeps us up. I got out my notebook and copied it all off in a new one so I can give it to Rose. She can’t do her business without the alphabet chart,” Clarice said.

 

Greg whispered, “They’re in the kitchen. I’ll go keep them busy until you get back to your room.”

 

Emily looked down at the telltale bulge in his pants and shook her head. “It would be kind of tough to cover that up. I’ll wait right here for them.”

 

“Thank you,” he whispered.

 

She heard his bedroom door shut barely seconds before Dotty and Clarice joined her in the living room. She wanted so badly to ask them what they were doing with notebooks full of Internet lingo, but that would be prying into stuff that was none of her business. Still she would just love to see the pictures of the old men that they were flirting with online. Were any of them as handsome as her grandfather had been?

 

“I figured Greg would be in here when I saw the light. Sometimes he has trouble getting to sleep,” Clarice said.

 

“I couldn’t sleep so I heated up some milk and put some chocolate in it.” She pointed to the table. “That is probably his glass right there. Guess he left it when he went back to bed.”

 

“He likes chocolate milk when he has trouble sleeping. I used to drink a little shot of Jack Daniel’s before Clarice put me on the wagon. Now I have a cup of jasmine tea,” Dotty said.

 

“That good for insomnia?” Emily asked.

 

Clarice sat down on the sofa beside Emily. “No, but Dotty thinks it is. Greg should have at least put his glass in the dishwasher.”

 

“Guess none of us could sleep. I checked my emails and my Facebook site. Are y’all on Facebook? I’d love to have you as friends if you are,” Emily said.

 

“Gracious, no! We wouldn’t have the faintest idea about all that shit,” Dotty said.

 

“We come from the age of writing letters and notes, darlin’,” Clarice said. “Guess you noticed all the sticky notes in the kitchen. We get a big kick out of those. Prissy brought some when we first had trouble with the computer and she stuck them around the monitor. They kind of remind us of our younger days back before all this computer rage, so we started using them a lot.”

 

“Well, I’ll see you in the morning, then.” She stood up and headed for the kitchen. It wasn’t until she started up the stairs that she could breathe right again. She and Greg had damn sure lucked out that night. In five more minutes they would have been having sex right there on the sofa or on the living room floor. They’d have been so wound up in each other’s naked arms that they wouldn’t have even heard that microwave dinging. Thank God for microwaves! Greg would have thought she was one loose-legged hussy if she’d fallen into sex with him after only twenty-four hours.

 

Greg stepped out of his bedroom door and wrapped his arms around her, kissed her on the forehead, and whispered, “Your room or mine?”

 

Shaking her head was the hardest thing she’d ever done. “Neither. We were both saved by the microwave. When fate steps in and stops something, there is a reason.”

 

“Damn microwave,” he grumbled.

 

“Good night, Greg.” She tiptoed and kissed him on the cheek.

 

She shut her bedroom door and flopped backward on the bed. She beat the pillow into submission, but something still wasn’t right. Finally, she figured out that it was his picture, so she turned it around and crawled between the sheets. But sleep was still a long time coming that night.