The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 9

 

 

 

 

Tangy tortilla soup served with warm, freshly made corn tortillas tasted good after spending the day out in the blowing snow. But what tasted even better to Emily was the hot, freshly fried sopapillas. She made a hole in piping-hot, cinnamon-dusted Mexican bread and was in the process of filling it with honey when Dotty announced that she and Clarice would be working on their bazaar projects that afternoon.

 

 

“Speaking of which…” Clarice looked at Emily. “Did you tell Greg?”

 

“Tell me what, and pass the sopapillas,” he said.

 

“That’s way above my pay grade.” Emily picked up the platter and handed it his way, their fingertips barely touching in the transfer. She let go before he had a good grip, and it took both of them doing some fancy juggling to keep from dropping the platter on the floor.

 

Clarice tucked her chin down and looked up at Emily. “Then I’ll give you a raise.”

 

Greg looked at Max. “What are they talkin’ about?”

 

The older man shrugged. “Don’t know what is going on, but if it’s above Emily’s pay grade, then I’m not sure I want to know.”

 

Emily caught Clarice’s eye and mouthed, “How much?”

 

Dotty nodded slightly and said, “Okay, okay! The new plan for the bazaar this year is that we’re having it at the ranch on the last Saturday in this month.”

 

Greg cut a hole in the top of the Mexican pastry and picked up the honey jar. “In the house?”

 

Emily took a sip of sweet tea. Thank goodness they weren’t talking about the dating sites. She’d have to have more than one raise and pay grade jump to tell Greg that story. “We’re having it out in the sale barn. The homemade things will be displayed on tables. Folks will buy a ticket at the door for five dollars and they get supper, dancing, and visiting for their money. Dinner will be barbecue sandwiches and chips. The ladies will provide desserts.”

 

“Y’all must be plannin’ on sellin’ a bunch of crafts and barbecue to do that.” Greg smiled.

 

“Go on.” Dotty nodded at Emily.

 

“You can tell the rest.” She fidgeted.

 

Sometimes the bearer of news got strung up in the nearest pecan tree with a length of rope.

 

Clarice snapped her fingers. “You have been promoted and it’s now within your pay grade. Tell him about the auction.”

 

“We are having a cowboy auction. It goes like this…” She went on to tell about how the bachelors would sit in the middle of the floor and have to dance with the ladies who paid for a bidding fan and put up their dollar a dance.

 

By the time she got to the part about the auction itself, Greg was shaking his head emphatically.

 

“You didn’t put my name on one of those chairs, Nana? Please tell me that you didn’t.” His words were to Clarice, but his eyes didn’t leave Emily’s face.

 

“Yes, I did. You have the number one chair and right next to yours is Mason Harper, and Louis, you get the number three chair,” Dotty said.

 

Louis grinned and nodded. “My pleasure, ma’am. There’s a couple of chicas that I’ve been flirting with. It’ll be fun to see what I’m worth.”

 

“Max?” Greg asked.

 

Max was not smiling one bit when he asked Clarice, “I’m auctioneering for it, right?”

 

She nodded. “You can have a choice. If you want to auction, you can. If not then we’ll get Rose’s nephew and you can be a dancin’ cowboy.”

 

“I’ll auction,” he said quickly.

 

Greg groaned. “What happens if I’m bought?”

 

Clarice smiled. “There is no if. You will bring a good sum to put into the scholarship fund. Just think of it this way—a lot of my prized bulls might not want to leave Lightning Ridge, but I can’t keep them all and they go to the sale in the fall. Tell him what happens, Emily.”

 

“You will have a date on the next Friday night. The lady gets to plan it and you have to pay for it. The ladies pay a dollar for each dance and then they will bid on whichever cowboy they liked best. Think of it as speed dating on your toes,” she said.

 

“I bet he goes for big bucks,” Louis said. “There’s all kinds of women who’d like to chase him right up to the altar by summertime. I wonder why it is that brides always like to choose June for their wedding. Oh, well, it don’t matter because from February to June is long enough to plan a wedding. Who are you bidding on, Emily?”

 

“I might give your chicas a run for their money.” Emily winked.

 

Louis had thick dark hair, big brown eyes, and a round face. He was still young enough to blush and had thick dark eyelashes that most women would commit homicide to have.

 

“I’d rather see you give all them women after Greg a run for their money,” he said.

 

“Why?” Dotty asked.

 

“I’d hate to take orders from some of the women around these parts,” Louis said honestly.

 

“Dammit! I’d have to marry the woman for her to get to boss anyone on this ranch, and that ain’t happening! I do have a say in who I marry, don’t I?” Greg asked.

 

“I’m not so sure. A chica tells me she’s going to marry me, I’d be afraid to tell her no. She might slit my throat in my sleep,” Louis teased.

 

Dotty poked Clarice on the arm. “Looks to me like we’re going to have a real lively sale.”

 

Emily pushed her chair back. “Y’all don’t need me for the afternoon, then?”

 

Clarice shook her head.

 

“If you change your mind, call me on my cell phone. I’m going out to take some nature photographs,” she said.

 

Clarice looked at Greg.

 

“Don’t look at me. I’m not going to take up knitting for your bazaar. I’m doing my part in being a worthless bull that you are selling off,” he said.

 

“None of my bulls are worthless. Some are just keepers and some aren’t. I’m only selling you for one Friday evening, so stop your whining. Think of it as…” Clarice giggled.

 

“As stud service,” Dotty finished for her.

 

Jealousy, pure and simple, swept through Emily like a Texas wildfire. She didn’t want Greg going to bed with another woman, and yet she’d been the one to put the “slowdown” on their relationship.

 

“I’m going to drive into Bonham and pick up another load of feed. We’ll need twenty more bags to get us through tomorrow. Then hopefully it’ll clear off for the year,” Greg said.

 

***

 

Clarice and Dotty each claimed a recliner in the den and pulled a ball of white cotton thread and a number-ten crochet hook from their tote bags.

 

“Don’t know why in the hell we make these. Folks won’t pay what they’re worth, and the young girls don’t want them on their tables and chair backs. They’re too lazy to dust them, much less keep them starched,” Dotty grumbled.

 

“Let’s make snowflakes instead. I can do one in an hour, and I betcha they’ll sell better,” Clarice said.

 

“Why didn’t you think of that before? We can sell them as snowflakes or sew a feather in them and say they are cowboy dream catchers,” Dotty said.

 

Clarice kept crocheting. “I like that idea. We’ll starch them heavy, and instead of a feather, let’s sew one of those little buttons shaped like a boot that we bought last time we were in the hobby shop. And we can put a jute twine hanger on them. Did you decide on your four?”

 

Dotty nodded. “Yes, I did, and I already invited them and started talkin’ up the sale and how it would be so nice if they bought me… I mean Greg… so we could have a real date. Betcha we can turn out a dozen of these this afternoon and it’ll be something no one else is doing. What are we going to do if he falls for one of the women we’ve been rustling up for him?”

 

Clarice laid her crochet down and whispered, “Emily won’t let that happen. She’s in love with my grandson. I can see it. But if Emily runs out of money and can’t bid anymore, I’ll get Rose to buy him and then give him to Emily afterward.”

 

 

Dotty giggled like a little girl. “Sounds like fun to me. We haven’t been this naughty since way back in high school. Emily and those dating sites kind of put a bounce back in our lives, didn’t they?”

 

***

 

Emily drove to the stables, took a four-wheeler out of the shed, and slung the strap to a camera over her shoulder. She was going to take lots of pictures to show Taylor and Dusty when she went back to Shine Canyon.

 

The wind still rattled the limbs of the low-growing mesquite trees and the crooked scrub oaks, but the snow had finally stopped falling. Emily pulled her stocking hat lower over her ears and set out to the back of the ranch where the cabin was located. Maybe it would be remote enough that she could capture some really good pictures of deer, bunnies, or even a covey of quail.

 

She parked in the same spot that Greg had and started around the cabin, when she saw the deer herd right at the edge of the woods, not twenty feet ahead of her. She sat down on the back porch and held her breath as she slowly brought the camera up to eye level. The buck was an old man, sporting a rack that couldn’t be covered with a bushel basket and several scars on his neck and body. A dozen does nosed about in the snow looking for green grass, and four fawns with spots still shining milled about their mother’s long, spindly legs.

 

She let her breath out slowly and snapped a dozen times before the buck sniffed the air and spotted her. He bounded back into the woods with the does following him and the little fawns right behind them. She stood up slowly, looking around to see if there were any more surprises. A cottontail rabbit lit out from the edge of the porch in a blur, but if she’d tried to catch a picture, it wouldn’t have been anything but a streak of light brown fur.

 

Cold crept through her coat and her toes were numb within an hour, but she had more than a hundred amazing pictures of mistletoe covered in ice, a bright red cardinal pecking at the snow, a robin searching for worms, and a litter of bobcats tumbling around with each other while a mother watched from under the low branches of a cedar tree.

 

“Are you the same one that I saw, or was that the poppa and he’s off eyeballing one of our calves?” she whispered softly.

 

Our calves? Was that a slip of the tongue or a manifestation of the way she really felt? Or maybe her brain was frozen and thought she was back at Shine Canyon. Even though the snow had stopped, the wind was still bitter and there was firewood stacked up against the back of the cabin. She’d build a fire, make good strong campfire coffee, and get warm inside and out before she went back to the ranch house.

 

The kindling was wet, so it took several tries before she finally got a flame started with the last matches in the box. She let out a whoosh of pent-up air when it caught.

 

“Better put matches on a list to bring up here or the next person will have to rub two sticks together. Now surely there is coffee and a pot in here somewhere. Dammit! I hope that the pump isn’t frozen.” She talked to herself as she started by grabbing the handle of the pump and working it for a full minute before clear, cold water came gushing out into the dishpan below it.

 

She found an old blue granite pot shoved back in the corner, removed her gloves to keep from getting them wet, held the pot up to the edge, and caught enough water to rinse it out, flushing out two dead spiders and a couple of flies. She rinsed it three times to be sure that it was clean before filling it.

 

Gramps always used a heaping cup of grounds when he filled the pot, but since she’d only filled it half-full, she measured out enough for that amount and hung it over the fire. Then she squatted in front of the blaze and held her hands out to warm them.

 

“I wish you were here, Gramps. I’d tell you about Clarice. I like her a lot. And you could help me sort out this thing I have for Greg. There’s something in my heart for him and it’s more than just a sexual attraction. I can’t leave Shine Canyon. I just cannot do it,” she said and then leaned back against the worn old sofa to let her thoughts wander.

 

***

 

Every single song on the country music radio station reminded Greg of Emily. Something she said. Something she did. The way her head leaned to the left when she was thinking. Her walk. Her good common sense even when he didn’t like it. He would have much rather let the relationship keep going in high gear than put the brakes on it.

 

Nana liked her. She and Dotty were already playing matchmaker between them, and Jeremiah had checked her out. She was the real deal, but west Texas was calling her name. If she would just think with her head instead of her heart she’d know that he was right. He leaned against the fender of the truck as the guys at the store loaded the fifty-pound sacks for him.

 

“You sure are quiet today,” Buster said.

 

“Just thinking,” Greg said.

 

“’Bout having to unload all this or that pretty girl out at the ranch? I heard that Miz Clarice done hired a brand-new assistant girl and that she’s real pretty.”

 

“Maybe I’m thinkin’ about both,” Greg said.

 

Buster tossed the last feed bag on the truck. “My aunt told me that y’all are plannin’ a big ranch party and the ladies from the church are puttin’ it on. She says there’s goin’ to be dancin’ and you’re goin’ to auction off cowboys for dates with the women. What do I have to do to get my name in the pot to be auctioned off?”

 

“Call the ranch and tell my grandmother. She’ll be tickled to put you down. You sure you want to do that? What if some old woman buys you and you have to go out with her and buy her dinner and all that?”

 

Buster’s eyes twinkled. “I’m hopin’ that some pretty little thing will just fall head over heels in love with me.”

 

“Well, good luck with that. Ranch number is in the book,” Greg said.

 

He left the radio on and the pickup door open as he unloaded the feed. When he finished he headed off toward the back side of the ranch. Maybe he’d light a fire and make a pot of coffee in the cabin and think about his grandpa some more. Or maybe he would sneak in a quiet afternoon nap on the sofa and not think of anything at all.

 

He parked behind the four-wheeler and sighed. He’d wanted to come up there to think, not listen to hunting stories from Louis or Max or anyone else who was out to flush a covey of quail. He might as well dash in, shoot the bull with them for a while, and have a cup of coffee. From the scent in the air, they already had a pot going.

 

He crawled out of the truck and ran across the yard, up on the front porch, and swung the door open to find Emily sitting on the floor with a cup in her hands and a smile on her face.

 

“Welcome home, honey. How was your day?” she teased.

 

He shed his hat, shoved his gloves into his coat pockets, and hung both hat and coat on nails beside the door. “Day went fine. You make plenty of that coffee? How was your day, darlin’?”

 

“My day was great,” she said.

 

“I love campfire coffee,” he said as he poured a cup and took a sip. “Good Lord, Emily, this would make one of those energy drinks look like lemonade.”

 

“Good, ain’t it?” she said.

 

He sat down beside her and leaned back against the sofa. “What put you in such a good mood?”

 

She shrugged. “I like where I am today. I like my life. I like my memories, and even though I miss Gramps, it’s okay. I’m always going to miss him, just like I’m always going to miss my dad. They wouldn’t want me to whine around and carry on, and besides, this is damn good coffee on a bitter cold day. And I saw a whole herd of deer, and I got the pictures to prove it.”

 

 

The second sip didn’t try to melt all the enamel off his teeth like the first one did, so he gave the third one a try. It wasn’t bad at all.

 

“You buzzing yet?” she asked.

 

“Almost!” He grinned. “It’s just about strong enough to give me a peyote vision.”

 

“Didn’t know you had Indian blood.”

 

“Grandpa had a little bit, but I was remembering an old Western that I saw years ago.”

 

“Did you see the size of that chicken?” She quoted a line from an old Western movie, Young Guns.

 

“I’ll never forget that line in the movie. This coffee comes pretty close to giving me visions of chickens that big too. Did you watch it with your grandpa?”

 

“More than one time. He loved Young Guns, and I swear he knew the dialogue almost line for line. He always said that if coffee wasn’t strong enough to wake you up that you might as well drink water. Have you gotten over Clarice loving my Gramps when she was young?” Emily asked.

 

“No. Maybe. I don’t know yet. It’s okay for me to have loved and lost in my lifetime, but I’ve always thought Nana had wings and a halo and loved only Grandpa.”

 

Emily laughed out loud. “Kind of hard to visualize grandparents being young and hot in lust, isn’t it?”

 

He snarled his nose. “That’s just wrong to talk like that.”

 

She laughed again. “Honey, human nature is the same, no matter where the place or the time. Back in caveman days, the men lusted after the women and they still do. And believe me, the women lusted after the men too, and they still do.”

 

“Want to go into that with more detail?” He grinned.

 

She shook her head. “Well, cave women did some lusting too, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. I found a deck of cards over there on the kitchen table. Want to play some gin rummy this afternoon while we drink this coffee?”

 

“Oh, Greg Adams, darlin’, where are you? I heard you were back here all alone.” A thin, tinny voice called out from behind the front door.

 

Emily jerked her head around and narrowed her eyes into slits. “Greg, darlin’. Don’t you be fussin’ at me over Dusty no more.”

 

“I have no idea who that is,” he whispered.

 

“Let me in, you sexy devil. I drove through ice and snow, but we can sure warm each other up. I found you and your big old ranch and I like what I see,” she said.

 

Greg went to the door and cracked it just enough to see outside.

 

Emily peeked out from behind the curtain. Oh, sweet Jesus, that was the stripper that Dotty had been fussing about.

 

“Look what I brought just for you.” She whipped open her long denim duster to reveal nothing but red thong underbritches and a low-cut red lace bra.

 

What in the hell had Dotty told her when she was playing at being Greg?

 

“Open the door. It’s cold out here and I’ve driven a long way. It’s been long enough to go without us meeting each other,” she said.

 

Emily raced from window to door, stepped in front of Greg, and threw the door wide open. “Who in the hell are you?”

 

“I might ask you the same thing,” the woman said. “I’m the one that intends to show Greg a good, good time. I can learn to love the little baby cows.”

 

“You bastard,” Emily slung over her shoulder at Greg. “I’m going to take a hammer to that damned computer. You promised me when I got pregnant that you’d never put your picture on those damned porn sites again.”

 

Greg’s face registered pure shock.

 

“You are Greg Adams who owns this whole big Lightning Ridge Ranch? I saw your picture on the website when I searched out the ranch.” The woman snapped her duster shut and held it tight with her hands.

 

“I am Greg Adams,” he said.

 

“But he doesn’t own this ranch. I don’t know where you got your information,” Emily said.

 

“PlentyOfFish.com. I knew it was too good to be true. It’s creeps like you who ruin it for us. I hope you do tear up his computer and then take that hammer to his head,” the woman said before she marched off the porch, crawled into a late model red car, and drove away.

 

“What in the hell was that all about?” he asked.

 

“Some crazy woman that thinks she met you on a dating site. Haven’t you ever heard of PlentyOfFish.com?”

 

“Hell, no, and I don’t do dating sites, and if someone has put my picture on there as a joke, I’m going to shoot them,” he said.

 

“Well, you are welcome.”

 

“For what?” he asked.

 

“I saved your ass again.”

 

“Again.”

 

“Admit it.” She poked him on the arm. “You need me to save you from sorrow, bobcats, and now wanton hussies.”

 

He finally grinned. “Okay, I need you to save me. I’m admitting it. But Emily, I don’t have my name on a dating site.”

 

“Well, evidently someone thinks that you are on one.”

 

“And whoever did it, I bet it was that ornery Buster down at the feed store. He was entirely too friendly today. I’ll get him later, but I’m not going to let it spoil my day right now. Let’s play strip poker.” His eyes glittered. “If I can’t partake of the wanton hussy, then surely we can partake of some strip poker.”

 

“After the Valentine’s party I’ll play poker with you. I will take all your clothes and make you walk home naked and barefoot in the snow.” She’d gotten off easy that time, but the ladies had better be a hell of a lot more careful. She might not be there the next time to run interference for them.

 

“Rummy it is,” he said.

 

He shuffled the cards and handed them to her to deal. When she had her cards fanned out before her, he said, “I remember the first time I played in this cabin with my grandpa. I’d been playing with the guys at the bunkhouse and thought I was unbeatable. Didn’t know that they’d let me win a few times just to keep me happy. How did that woman know where to find me?”

 

She studied her cards. “Gramps and Daddy never ever let me win. I was fifteen years old before I ever won a game. It was just before Daddy got killed and I did a victory dance all over the living room floor. Some of the guys at the bunkhouse probably saw your truck drive by and figured you were coming back here. If she stopped and asked they would have told her.”

 

It wasn’t a lie, so God shouldn’t be sending that big mother-of-all-damned-bobcats to tear her limb from limb.

 

Greg glanced at his cards and then looked back at her. “I guess so. If I had whoever told her about me, I’d string them up by their toenails. After I figured out that the guys had let me win, I wished they hadn’t. Gramps asked me if I’d teach him to play. Of course, he whipped me soundly several times before I figured out that he knew all about the game. Has anyone ever told you that your eyes are mesmerizing, Emily? You could walk into a bank and rob it with nothing but your eyes.”

 

“I might give that a try if there’s another drought year. I’d hate to borrow money against the ranch. Stealing it might be a better alternative. And for your information, darlin’, that is one of the best pickup lines I’ve heard in a long time. And Miz Clarice said you weren’t a romantic.”

 

“It’s the truth. I’m surprised that some old cowboy hasn’t already proposed just to get to wake up every morning to look into your blue eyes.”

 

He wanted to reach across the space and run a thumb down her jawline, cup her chin in his palm, and lean in for a kiss. He wanted to watch those pretty blue eyes snap shut just before his lips found hers. More than any of that, he wanted to make wild, passionate love to her on the deerskin rug in front of the fire.

 

 

“You are a charmer as well as a businessman. Speaking of which, I wonder how much that woman intended to charge you for her services or if she was out to marry you and get the whole ranch?”

 

“Just speakin’ the truth, and honey, she said she could learn to like baby cows, remember?” he answered.

 

“Are you trying to throw me off my game?” she asked.

 

He laid a hand over his heart. “You hurt me right here, accusing me of such a dastardly deed as throwing you off your game. Honestly, Emily, you could be a runway model.”

 

“Yeah, right. I’m too short and my hips are way too big,” she argued. “I’m just a plain old ranchin’ woman looking forward to dancin’ all night at a party.”

 

His heart felt like a rope had been tied around it and a three-hundred-pound cowboy was on each end, pulling with all their might. He didn’t even like to think about the other cowboys dancing with Emily, but what could he do? They’d be lined up like hot little kids in front of a snow cone stand, just waiting to dance with her, especially since Clarice was her date.

 

***

 

Neither the heat from the fireplace nor the excellent hand she’d been dealt had a thing to do with those hot little sparks landing everywhere around her like multicolored bits of fire. Greg’s denim work shirt was unbuttoned to show the oatmeal-colored thermal shirt underneath. Never before had a thermal undershirt fallen into a sexy category in her world. A tiny little patch of chest hair had snuck out at the neckband, and she had to grasp her cards tightly to keep her hands from reaching out to see if it was as soft as it looked.

 

“Maybe I will dance with all the pretty girls there while you are dancing with the cowboys. Does that make you jealous?” he asked.

 

“Damn straight. Can’t you see the green glow coming off me? And I bet there’s going to be a hell of a lot more girls there than cowboys,” she said. At least sixteen more than there would have been without the dating sites.

 

“Don’t tease me, Emily.”

 

She looked over the top of her cards right into his eyes. “Who says I’m joking? I will be jealous. That’s the gospel truth according to Emily Cooper, who does not blaspheme for fear of being zapped into a pile of ashes on the spot. High-octane coffee loosens the tongue more than moonshine, don’t it?”

 

His gaze drew her past the lenses of his glasses and into the depths of his heart.

 

“It does, and I’m going to be jealous too,” he admitted.

 

“Good. I’m glad. Now let’s play cards and drink coffee while we enjoy a perfectly wonderful afternoon together in this cabin.”

 

“Will you come back up here with me next week after this party is over?” he asked.

 

“Are you asking me on a date, Mr. Adams?”

 

“I am.” He nodded.

 

“Then my answer is yes, if you don’t find someone who takes your eye at the bazaar auction.”