Authors: Shanna Hatfield
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #Forever Love, #Victorian Era, #Western, #Fifth In Series, #Saga, #Fifty-Books, #Forty-Five Authors, #Newspaper Ad, #Short Story, #American Mail-Order Bride, #Bachelor, #Single Woman, #Marriage Of Convenience, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Inspirational, #Factory Burned, #Pioneer, #North Carolina, #Conniving Mother, #Reluctant Groom, #Family Plantation, #Past Issues, #Asheville, #New Beginning, #Simple Farmer, #Misunderstanding, #Unknown Existence
Thoughts of his tender ministrations left her pensive.
“Is something wrong, Dacey?” Braxton asked, snagging her attention. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder while questions filled his gaze.
Tears gathered in her eyes as the warmth of his touch seeped into her being.
How she wished she could rest her head against his chest and cry out all her fears and frustrations. However, that would never be acceptable or welcomed.
“Yes,” she whispered, swallowing hard as she tamped down her emotions. “Something is wrong, Brax.”
“What is it, Dacey Jo? What’s bothering you?” Braxton started to wrap an arm around her, but she leaned away. He dropped his hand to his thigh and stared ahead as the sun speared golden shards of light through the trees.
The heavy sigh she expelled drew his focus back to her. With her face turned from him, he studied her profile — the perfection of her oval face, the richness of her auburn hair, the narrow shoulders that often strived to bear the weight of the world.
“I’m sorry about yesterday. I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you and I sure as shootin’ shouldn’t have lost my temper. If you don’t want me to work around the horses anymore, I understand. In fact, I understand if you’d like me to leave.”
He watched as she brushed at a salty drop glistening on her cheek.
The urge to take her in his arms, hold her, and comfort her threatened to chase every speck of sense from his head. Rather than give in to his desires, he released a slow breath.
“You don’t owe me an apology, honey. I’m the one who should apologize. My mind was elsewhere when I spooked the horse yesterday. I know he’s flighty and it was pure stupidity on my part. When I saw you fly off his back…” Braxton experienced acute pain in his chest at thoughts of Dacey being seriously injured, or worse. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt. Even though I had no idea what you said, I’m fairly certain I deserved every word.”
Dacey grinned as she stared at him. “It was highly inappropriate for me to get so mouthy in front of your men. I’m truly sorry. I’d like to say it won’t ever happen again, but sometimes my temper runs ahead of my good judgment.”
Braxton chuckled. “I promise to not startle the fractious horses you’re riding if you promise not to give me a verbal lambasting in front of my men. Is that a fair compromise?”
“That’s a deal, buster.” Dacey stuck out her hand and Braxton shook it. He wanted to hold onto it, kiss her fingers, and caress the back of it. Instead, he released it and turned his attention back to the splendid landscape in front of them. “What brought you to this particular spot?”
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Dacey asked as she inadvertently scooted closer to him and pointed to the horizon. “I’ve come out here a few times, just to watch the sunrise. It’s getting light so late these days, I’d miss breakfast if I did it too often.”
“But you came today.”
A tranquil sigh escaped her. “I just needed the peace of this place to calm my soul this morning.” She grinned as she turned to him. “Do you know what I see out there?”
“I have no idea, but I bet you’ll tell me.”
The enthusiastic smile she gave him made his lips tingle to savor hers. She lifted a hand and waved it dramatically in front of her, pulling his attention back to the glory before them. “I see a canvas, like a painter uses. I envision God dipping his paintbrush into the beautiful shades of autumn, dabbing it over the trees and bushes. Isn’t it lovely?”
“Lovely,” Braxton muttered, utterly mesmerized with the girl. Unlike any other woman he knew, he couldn’t think of a single person in his crowd of supposed friends who would rise early and hike miles up a hill just to watch the sun’s arrival and admire God’s handiwork.
About to lose his battle to keep Dacey at arm’s length, he got to his feet and held a hand out to her. “Come on, Dacey. Cornelia said all you had for breakfast was a biscuit with apple butter. I’m sure I can coerce Cook into making us something if they’ve already put the food away from breakfast. You must be starving after skipping dinner last night then walking out here.”
“I am hungry,” she admitted, sliding off the rock and accepting the hand he held out to her. She’d taken only two steps when her eyes widened to the size of bread plates. With a frantic leap, she returned to the rock and danced a nervous jig that made Braxton gape at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“Snake!” she screamed, pointing to a reptile slithering beneath the edge of the rock.
In the weeks Dacey had been at Bramble Hall, he’d seen her kill mice and spiders without blinking an eye. From reports he’d received, she’d faced down raccoons, removed a bat from the carriage house, chased away a family of opossum when they tried to take up residence beneath the back porch, and disposed of a dead skunk no one else was willing to go near.
To those who’d witnessed her actions, she came across as unflappable and fearless.
Yet the sight of a snake, and a harmless one at that, sent her skittering on top of a rock, fretfully pacing across it like the reptile might somehow work its way up her riding skirt if she stood still.
Amused, he lifted a hand out to her again. “Come down from there. That snake won’t hurt you. In fact, it’s probably more afraid of us than you are of it.” Braxton motioned for her to step off the rock.
Emphatically shaking her head, she refused. “I’m here to tell you that isn’t possible. I despise snakes. Completely. And don’t you dare tell me it’s harmless. I don’t care if it has fangs two feet long full of deadly poison or not, they are all dangerous in my opinion.” She waggled her finger toward the ground near his feet. “If you think I’m setting foot down there until you kill that thing, you’ve got rocks rattling around in that handsome head of yours.”
Braxton didn’t know whether to be insulted or complimented by her words. At least she’d said he was handsome. That stroked his ego.
He bit back his humor at her uncharacteristic terror of the snake and took a step closer.
“I’m not killing the snake, so either you’ll have to spend the day sitting on this rock, or…” he reached out and grabbed her around the waist, swinging her into his arms.
Instinctively, she wrapped her hands around his neck and glanced down to make sure the snake hadn’t started slithering up Braxton’s boots to get to her.
He laughed and held her closer against his chest. “You are something else, Miss Dacey Jo Butler.”
“I am?” she asked, looking up at him. Her face, mere inches from his, made him groan inwardly. It would be so easy to sample a taste of those tempting lips, to devour her with his surging passion. Rather than surrender to his need for her, he drew a deep breath of fresh mountain air and continued walking to his horse.
If seeing a snake sent her into his arms, he might have to task some of the younger boys with gathering a few to strategically place around the yard and barn. There would be no objection from him to have an excuse to hold her as often as possible.
At the last moment, he veered off course and over to a tree covered in morning dew. Deftly, he stepped beneath a canopy of copper-toned leaves.
Dacey drew in a breath and looked around, awestruck. “What is this, Brax? What is this place?”
Reluctantly, he set her on her feet. “This is a weeping beech tree. Mother said my grandmother had it planted for her birthday when she turned sixteen. I used to come out here and pretend it was my secret spot when I was a boy. The branches create a wonderful place to hide since they cascade to the ground.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It reminds me of a weeping willow, only more colorful with different leaves.” Dacey reached up and stroked her fingers across the leaves.
As she studied the tree, a fanciful dream of Braxton meeting her there for an afternoon of sweet kisses filled her thoughts. Mindful of how badly she wanted him to kiss her, she needed to leave before she acted on her feelings.
She turned to go and bumped into his solid form, unaware he stood so close behind her.
His hands grasped her arms to steady her. The power of his touch caused her legs to tremble. Absently, she contemplated how she’d get back to the house when she could barely keep herself upright.
“Dacey, I…” Braxton’s head lowered toward hers.
Lips aching for his kiss, she closed her eyes. His unique, manly scent filled her nose while her hands rested on the muscles of his chest.
Warmth swirled through her, from her head to her toes, as his breath brushed against her face. Foreign feelings washed over her, leaving her unsettled and uncertain.
Her eyes popped open. Resigned to doing what was right, she pushed away from him, scurrying outside into the bright morning light.
Frustrated, Braxton released a careworn sigh and followed her over to his horse. He grasped the reins in his hand and swung up to the saddle, then held out a hand to her. She took it and pulled herself up behind him, firmly wrapping her arms around his waist.
The close contact left him mentally off balance, but he relished any opportunity to have her near.
He rested his hand over hers and turned the horse toward the house. As it meandered back in the direction he’d come earlier, Braxton let his thoughts wander to what might have been.
The kiss that almost happened made him realize how much he wanted, needed to taste her lips. His grandmother’s tree seemed like a perfect spot to steal a kiss, or a dozen, but Dacey pulled away at the last second.
A lack of interest hadn’t held her back. The yearning shimmered in her eyes, easy for him to see.
Something else kept her emotions in check and he wouldn’t rest until he discovered the reason.
Dacey caught Braxton’s frown across the dinner table as Ernie Howell bragged about his exploits in coon hunting.
She’d tired of the conversation approximately a minute after it started. Ernie and his father erroneously assumed everyone held their disturbing level of interest in treeing raccoons and shooting them for sport.
Ellie Howell offered Beatrice an apologetic glance as her husband and son dominated the dinner conversation.
The first time Dacey had met Ernie, she’d pegged him for a worthless braggart who thought he had quite a way with women.
Although she didn’t find him even remotely as handsome as Braxton, she’d noticed the girls in town flocked around him. They all appeared to admire Ernie’s golden head and come-hither blue eyes. Somehow, they overlooked the cavalier way he treated women.
Because she liked his mother, she’d been polite to him. However, she was careful not to offer him a bit of encouragement about paying court to her.
She might be desperate to resolve her situation, but she wasn’t crazy. Saddling herself to that man would mean a lifetime of heartache and irritation.
Aware that Ernie looked to her for approval as he finished his story, she smiled and courteously nodded her head.
Lest the Howell men continue their gruesome tales, Daniel quickly gained control of the conversation, asking about the grocer business. Ellie appeared relieved as her husband and son shifted from talking about hunting to the store.
In the weeks Dacey had stayed at Bramble Hall, the Douglas family often entertained guests. Even so, she thought it strange Beatrice invited the Howell family to dine with them. Aside from the high regard most everyone held for Ellie, she didn’t get the idea anyone was fond of Mr. Howell or Ernie.
Regardless of the reason for the invitation, Dacey would do her best to be gracious to the guests, even if she still considered herself one.
Beatrice assured her she didn’t want her ever to leave. However, Dacey couldn’t imagine they’d continue to allow her to work with the horses and help with chores indefinitely.
In fact, she knew Beatrice preferred she not do any work, but she insisted on doing something to help pay her way.
Thoughts of all the money Beatrice had spent on clothing for her caused her throat to go dry. Dacey sipped water from a crystal goblet and refocused her attention on the conversation.
When Braxton caught her eye and made a comical face, she bit her lip to keep from laughing aloud. Often, he made a small gesture or offered a whispered word in passing that made her feel like part of the family, as if she belonged, even if she never would. He’d gone out of his way to ensure she felt included throughout the evening.
After dinner, they all retired to the music room where Beatrice played several selections on the piano. When she finished, servants carried in dessert and tea.
Ernie somehow finagled his way into a seat beside Dacey. As he leaned across her to pick up a piece of pie from the tray in front of her, his hand brushed against her legs and touched her knee. She frowned at his inappropriate action.
Despite growing up half-wild on her father’s ranch, her mother had instilled in her good manners, even if she couldn’t completely eradicate western slang from her speech.
Appalled by Ernie’s bold advances, Dacey teetered on the verge of giving him a shove onto the floor. She happened to catch a wrathful look on Braxton’s face. He studied them from where he leaned against the fireplace mantle.
Suddenly inspired by the thought he might care for her a little, she inched closer to Ernie.
The muscles in Braxton’s jaw tightened. Angry sparks shot from his eyes, piercing Ernie, although the dunce failed to notice.
Braxton grabbed the poker and jabbed at the logs snapping and popping in the fireplace. When he turned back to face their guests, he appeared calm once again.
He even offered an affable smile to their guests. “You gentlemen might like to see something I recently acquired. Would you care to join me?”
Ernie and his father immediately rose to their feet, following Braxton and Daniel from the room.
Relieved, Dacey watched them leave then leaned back against the cushions of the settee with a soft sigh.
Beatrice moved to sit beside her and the three women visited as they ate slices of pie.
“Did I hear correctly that you grew up near Pendleton, Oregon, Dacey?” Ellie asked as she set down her empty plate and took a sip of tea.
“What made you leave?” Ellie innocently asked.
Beatrice shot Ellie a guarded look, but the question hung in the air until Dacey set down her teacup and looked at her. “The man my mother married.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize… I’m sorry, Dacey. There’s no need to say anything further.” Distraught that she might have offended the girl, Ellie shot Dacey a sympathetic glance.
Dacey waved a hand at her in a placating motion and smiled. “There’s nothing you need to apologize for, Ellie. My father died when his horse threw him. Broke his neck. Mother didn’t trust me and our hands to keep the ranch going, so she married the first man who asked. If he could have, Daddy would have risen from the dead and pitched a royal fit. Luther Goss is about three levels lower than a snake’s underbelly, but that fact was one we didn’t discover until after he’d talked my mother into marrying him.”
“So he charmed his way into your grieving mother’s good graces?” Beatrice asked, hoping Dacey would continue her story.
“You could say that. My daddy had only been gone a month when Mother up and married ol’ Luther. It caused quite a scandal in town, even if the rules of society are a little more relaxed there than here.” Dacey tugged at the lace on the sleeve of her dress. As much as it irritated her, she’d considered taking the scissors to it a few times. However, the gown was expensive and Beatrice seemed to favor it, so she refrained.
“Then what happened?” Ellie asked, gazing at her with interest. “How did you discover he wasn’t the man he claimed to be?”
Dacey grinned and leaned forward in her seat. “Only a few weeks after he married my mother and moved out to the ranch, he started disappearing right after supper. He typically had a drink or two with the meal, but he’d be rip-roaring drunk when he arrived home after his nocturnal adventures. The hands and I got to wondering what he was up to. We had a pretty good idea, so one evening I followed him.”
“You didn’t!” Beatrice gawked at Dacey, placing a hand on her arm.
“I did.” Dacey squeezed Beatrice’s hand. “I stayed far enough behind the drunken lout he had no idea I was trailing him, but I followed him into Pendleton just to see what sort of tomfoolery he engaged in of an evening.”
“Where did he go?” Ellie questioned, enthralled with Dacey’s story.
“Had he wandered into a saloon, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. The boys and I expected that. But my jaw dangled open like the hinges had come plumb loose when I rode around a corner and saw him boldly march up the stairs to the most notorious bordello in town. One thing we’ve got in abundance in Pendleton are saloons and houses of ill repute.”
Ellie gasped and clutched a hand to her chest while Beatrice stared at her in surprise.
Genteel women weren’t supposed to know bordellos existed, let alone speak of them.
Due to that fact, both women eagerly awaited the continuation of Dacey’s tale. When the girl continued to pause, studying their appalled reactions, Beatrice tapped her hand. “A house of ill repute, you say?”
“The fellas at the ranch refer to Miss Clementine’s place as the twenty-three steps to heaven. In my opinion, it’s more like twenty-three steps to the depths of he…”
Laughter from the doorway drew the gazes of the three women across the room. Braxton leaned against the wall near the doorway, clearly amused by Dacey’s story.
“Please don’t stop on my account. By all means, continue,” Braxton said, pushing away from the wall and crossing the room in a few long strides. He took a seat on a side chair near Dacey and offered her an encouraging nod. “Go on.”
Nervous in his presence, Dacey shook her head. “I think I’ve said enough.”
“You most certainly have not.” Beatrice nudged her side with her elbow. “Finish the story. Please?”
Dacey smiled and slowly nodded her head. “Well, I slid off Thunder, that’s my horse, and tied the reins to a hitching post around the corner. Quietly, I started creeping up those steps. I remember the wood was polished and shiny, and flowery perfume floated in the air. The walls leading up the stairs held numerous paintings of…” Dacey glanced over at Braxton. Her gaze fell to her lap as her cheeks pinked from embarrassment.
“Of what?” Ellie asked, eyes round and wide.
Dacey dropped her voice to just above a whisper. “Women without a stitch of clothing. My stars, but it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.” Dacey sat back and cleared her throat, appearing to shake off the memories of the images. “I was halfway up those steps when a hand grabbed me around the waist while another clamped over my mouth. Our ranch foreman, Rowdy, dragged me down the stairs and back to my horse. When he let me go, he said, ‘Dacey! What in tarnation are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Finding out where that stinkin’ polecat is spending all our money.’ Of course, he sent me home. He stayed long enough to discover Luther spent every evening at one of the, um… establishments in town. He’d been drinking, gambling, and availing himself of the services most every night. That’s how he lost our ranch.”
“In a card game?” Braxton asked, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
Dacey nodded her head as tears pricked her eyes.
From what little she had shared about her life in Oregon, Braxton had gathered her stepfather had lost the ranch her father worked so hard to wrestle from the sagebrush, but he had no idea it had been in a drunken card game at a bordello.
“Then what happened?” Ellie asked, touched by Dacey’s account.
“The man who won the ranch kept on the hands, but Mother, Luther and I had to leave. He would have let me stay, but I couldn’t abandon my mother. Not to Luther. Riding away from the ranch, knowing I’d never be back was one of the hardest things I ever did.” Dacey sniffled and tamped down her tears. “We moved into a tiny little place in town. Mother took in mending and ironing to make a little money while I went to work for one of my father’s friends training his horses. Luther refused to work or give up his proclivity for um… well… Anyway, my mother withered right before our eyes. Within a year from her wedding to Luther, she’d passed away. Before she died, I could see things would end badly with Luther. I contacted the daughter of Mother’s childhood friend to see if she could help me find work far away from Pendleton. Josephine encouraged me to join her in Massachusetts where she worked in a factory. I started making plans to leave. The day we buried my mother next to my father, Luther informed me that with her gone, he expected me to take over all of her wifely duties.”
Ellie and Beatrice shared horrified looks while Braxton’s hands clenched into fists. If he ever encountered Luther, he might throttle the man with his bare hands.
Beatrice settled an arm around Dacey and gave her a comforting hug. “You don’t need to finish the story.”
“Oh, but the last part is good.” Dacey patted Beatrice’s hand in a comforting gesture. “When Luther came back to the house that night, I was ready. I clunked him over the head with a chunk of firewood, hogtied him to the bed, and emptied his pockets of the money that never belonged to him in the first place. My bags were already packed and I caught the morning train east. I’d only been at the factory a few days when it tragically caught fire and we all lost our jobs.” Dacey grinned at Beatrice. “Then I found my way here.”
“And we’re so glad you did, darling.” Beatrice hugged her again and kissed her cheek. “We all are so glad you did.”
Ellie hopped up from her seat and gave Dacey a hug before returning to her chair.
When Dacey looked at Braxton, he offered her a tender smile and nodded his head, agreeing with his mother. No matter how she came to be at Bramble Hall, Braxton was thoroughly pleased she was there.
The sound of footsteps drew their attention to the doorway.
“I say, that is quite a remarkable piece of equipment, Braxton,” Mr. Howell said. He, Ernie and Daniel returned to the room after looking through the new telescope Braxton had purchased and set on the topmost balcony to gaze at the sky.
With a full moon overhead, it provided a perfect distraction to keep Ernie away from Dacey for a while.
Braxton had quickly lost interest in hearing Ernie and Mr. Howell brag while they looked at the night sky and returned inside. He’d listened to far more of the conversation taking place among the women than they realized. If he hadn’t been so amused by Dacey’s story, he would have gone unnoticed longer.
He could just picture her sneaking up the steps at a bawdy house and the ranch foreman dragging her away.
Later, once the Howell family departed, Beatrice and Daniel excused themselves for the evening, leaving Braxton and Dacey alone in the front entry.