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As usual, I promise NEVER to leave you without an ending!! If I haven’t posted for a bit, it’s a crazy-life thing, not a lack of commitment. (Shameful confession- I canNOT spell “commitment” without looking the damn thing up.)
REMINDER: I write long stories (and TT2 is longer than average– 45 chapters, 350-400 pages in regular-people-speak.) Many chapters don’t have naughty bits, but those that do will be way more fun if you read the others, too! Also, although TT2 is a stand-alone novel, it takes place in the same family as Texas Trio, so you might want to read that one first! –Stefanie
–:–:–:–:–:–:– Chapter 17 –:–:–:–:–:–:–
Becky collapsed against the high-backed copper tub in her sister’s bathing room, where Catherine insisted she have a long, hot soak. Nanny would be back to check on her soon, but for now she was alone with her troubled thoughts.
She and Brody had arrived at the farmhouse just in time to prevent the departure of a search party twelve men strong. Catherine seemed to have taken Brody’s subsequent explanation as gospel, but Becky wondered if Colt and Jem had been as trusting, or if Mr. Easton was being fitted for a coffin at this very minute.
Then again, Becky was beginning to wonder exactly where her brothers stood on the matter of Brody Easton’s suit.
When she’d first divined the purpose of Brody’s after-dinner visits to their porch, Becky hadn’t been at all sure whose intentions she was foiling—if Colt and Jem were merely being overprotective and wary of any man in her vicinity, or if perhaps Brody was unaware of some matchmaking going on behind the scenes. After all, that would explain the looks she’d intercepted between Catherine and Nanny, or Cat and one of her husbands.
Eventually she realized her brother’s extreme vigilance and Clancy’s extreme hostility toward Brody made much more sense if one assumed Mr. Easton had spoken to Colt and Jeremiah of his intentions.
Becky sighed and sank lower in the tub. After being blackmailed by him earlier in the day, she should be praying for his swift demise, but she couldn’t bring herself to hate him. When he’d returned to find her slumped on a rock, her skirt wet and her trousers in a heap, he’d collected them without comment. Expecting him to toss them behind a bush, Becky was surprised and oddly touched when he splashed back into the stream, squatted, and rinsed the sand from them, turning the pockets out to make sure he got it all. She lowered her face as he rose, squeezing the water from them.
Brody stuffed her trousers in one of his own saddlebags, explaining, “I’ll keep these until I can get them back to you without drawing someone’s attention.”
She hadn’t answered, and they hadn’t spoken at all on the ride back to the house. The sun was sinking, and even with Mr. Easton’s slicker, Becky was cold and nearly white with exhaustion by the time they arrived. Mr. Easton was off his horse and at her side before she had a chance to wonder how she’d find the strength to dismount. She’d merely leaned toward him, and he caught her about the waist as she toppled off, lifting her easily to the ground.
She’d forgotten to thank him before she went inside, Becky remembered as the steam penetrated her weary bones, collecting on her cheeks and lashes. She didn’t know the proper form for thanking someone who’d blackmailed you, though. Perhaps a formal call to the bunkhouse with a basket of fresh bread. “Mr. Easton, please accept my eternal gratitude for your kind extortion.”
Despite her fatigue, a tiny smile rose to Becky’s lips, but she sobered almost immediately.
What in God’s name was she going to do about Brody Easton?
Becky shifted in discomfort.
She’d always been so certain what she wanted—and what she didn’t want.
Since escaping from Uncle Harrison, Becky had only wanted two things: freedom and purpose. She’d found both and was working toward a more concrete, more ambitious goal—confirming her theories about finding petroleum via shale—but Brody Easton was a dangerous distraction. Before his arrival, she’d been entirely focused on her studies and explorations, yet here she was letting a man who wasn’t a relative keep her from her search. She might as well get married!
After spending a week sequestered in the house or peering from the windows in a pathetic attempt to avoid the man, she needed peace and quiet to settle her nerves.
She’d told Cat she wouldn’t go riding alone anymore, but she’d broken her promise, and made a dozen other bad decisions in a row this morning after she’d woken in a funk.
She’d waited for her brothers to leave, donned her trousers—under a riding skirt, of course—and crept out before Cat and the children were awake, listening to that unseen band of shale calling her name. She’d narrowed her search to just three of the many folds cutting into the edge of the plateau. Today she’d planned to follow one of the streams which created those folds bahis firmaları to its source in the hills, searching along the canyon’s limestone walls for a band of darker stone.
Cantering across the open prairie made her problems seem tiny, and the steep walls rising around her blocked external worries, as her explorations always did. Except for a few hours around lunchtime, the hot Texas sun didn’t make it to the floor of the canyons and arroyos she loved. The shade and whatever water remained in the brooks kept the air cool, alive with the movement of birds and insects as the world outside the canyon dozed.
Intent on finding the origin of the lost fish fossil, Becky was careful to keep an eye out for snakes among the rocks. A bite from a diamondback or cottonmouth might not kill her, but she didn’t want to test her mass against the potency of one’s poison, and there were more dangerous things out here in the bush than diamondbacks, anyway. Scorpions and coral snakes were much more venomous than rattlesnakes—at least the rattlers found in this part of Texas. She’d once read an article about a rattler found further west that was ten times as poisonous at the ones found here.
When the trail narrowed, she’d dismounted and gone to peek around the bend up ahead, just to see what was there before deciding whether to go on without Pepper or not. She hadn’t taken her rifle or her pack because she was coming right back. That was what she planned to do, anyway, but fortune intervened and the path disappeared from under her feet. She’d been winded and stunned by the fall and irked to find herself lying in the sandy creek, but unhurt. She’d clambered to her feet and stumbled. One hurried step and one small splash later, she was trapped in quicksand.
She’d been there for several hours before Brody came upon her. She’d spent most of the time worrying, chiefly about Catherine worrying about her, but also about Catherine’s reaction to Becky’s broken promise, and Colt and Jem’s reactions to what they considered her irresponsible behavior. On top of everything they were going to say about her clothing and her riding out alone, she was sure she’d be subject to a richly deserved lecture on the idiocy of leaving her rifle behind when she dismounted. If she’d had it with her, she could have signaled for help.
Better yet, she could have killed Brody, Becky mused hours later, in a bath which was soothing to her body, if not her mind.
All her window-peeping had been for naught: she hadn’t seen Brody once. Nonetheless, she’d spent an inordinate amount of time dwelling on what had passed between them.
She’d been completely bested by one kiss. Becky thought she might have let him do whatever he wanted right there by the hen house—the sensations he caused had so easily supplanted lifelong principles in her besotted brain. And that was the most dangerous prospect of all, because, unlike all the boys she’d frozen into decency over the years, Becky had no natural immunity when it came to Mr. Easton.
She was curious about lying with a man and ached for Brody Easton to be that man, but what came after the bedding? Becky had no intention of giving up her freedom, so she couldn’t marry him, but if she became pregnant, she wouldn’t have a choice. Even if Brody turned out to be the sort of man who’d run away from his responsibility—which Becky didn’t think he was—her older brothers wouldn’t allow either of them to evade the matrimonial consequences of their actions.
With her nose nearly touching the water’s surface, Becky huffed, her self-recriminations making tiny ripples in the bathwater.
Yesterday evening, she’d come to the conclusion that he must have taken her words in the barnyard to heart, which she should find refreshing, Becky told herself repeatedly. Men didn’t usually take a woman’s rejection with such equanimity. Maybe Brody’s feelings for her hadn’t been as strong as she’d believed. Maybe the energy in the air between them wasn’t mutual attraction, but another foolish schoolgirl fantasy, replacing Clarence Fredericks’ vaguely remembered visage with the face of yet another man who wouldn’t know her in a crowd.
She should be relieved, but Becky wasn’t stupid enough to lie to herself about that. Stupid enough to develop a tendre for a ranch hand, yes. Stupid enough to deny its existence, no.
So her only weapon against Brody Easton was to stay the hell away from him—permanently.
Becky stood abruptly, water sluicing off her body. She’d be better off coming up with details for Colt and Jem than worrying about a situation over which she had so little control.
“What do you think?” Colt asked, watching Brody leave on the cinnamon-colored crowbait he’d been riding since he came to the ranch.
“I think,” Jem answered, “Brody Easton just looked me straight in the eye and lied to me.”
“Yup,” Colt agreed. “You wanna horsewhip him, or you gonna let me have at it?”
“Mmm,” kaçak iddaa Jem answered, turning to his partner. “What do you think about him otherwise?”
Colt lifted one shoulder non-committally.
“I know you don’t trust him,” Jem clarified, “and I tend to think he’s hiding something, too, but . . . I don’t think his intentions toward Becky are dishonorable.”
Colt snorted, and Jem grinned in response, correcting himself, “Not entirely dishonorable.”
“I don’t appreciate bein’ lied to,” Colt stated, but there was no heat in his pronouncement. “On the other hand, if Harrison Matthews had been a real father to Cat, ‘stead of the sick bastard he was, I woulda lied to his face anyway, if Cat had asked me to.”
Jem nodded. “That’s what I was thinking.”
He looked back at the road.
Brody was gone.
“I hope that report shows up soon,” Jem added, wondering again what secrets Brody Easton’s history held.
–:–:–:–:–:–:– Chapter 18 –:–:–:–:–:–:–
“I don’t like it,” Clancy complained, pacing a circle around his cane.
Jem and Colt exchanged a glance. The fact that Clancy disliked Brody Easton would be obvious to anyone with eyes or ears; he disliked Brody more vehemently than either of them. He kept quiet about it as long as Catherine was around. When Catherine and the children were absent, however, Clancy felt free to cut loose with the derisive comments and insulting asides. And Clancy had a way of getting under your skin.
He stopped pacing long enough to glare from one of them to the other. “Don’t see how you can countenance him a’courtin’ Miss Becky, after what he done–“
Jem interrupted, “Clancy, that’s enough. Brody apologized, we haven’t decided anything as yet, and Becky is as likely to refuse a marriage proposal from the king of England as anyone else. Nothing is settled.”
Clancy harrumphed, but he shut up about their decision.
“Did you find out anything else about Lem or the fella he hooked up with?” Colt prompted, getting down to the reason for this tête-à-tête in their office.
With one last frown for the floor, Clancy moved on. “The other feller’s some drifter. He’s a Mex, comes from out Louisiana way. Nobody knows him, but Carl says he’s a mean drunk, works just long enough to get the coin for another bender. He got locked up a coupla times since he been here for bein over-friendly with the ladies at the saloon.
“No name?” Jeremiah asked.
Clancy shook his head. “Carl said maybe Eddie or Earl, but he’s just guessin’.”
“And no idea where they’re holed up?”
Another head shake.
After a long pause, Clancy offered reluctantly, “You want I should hang around the saloon for a coupla days, wait ’til they show up and follow’em back to where they’re goin’?”
Jeremiah declined, and watched the smaller man thump and hobble across the wooden floor to the exit. He couldn’t imagine Clancy, with his russet hair and wooden leg, being much of a stalker.
Whatever his background was, Brody had a way with children, Jeremiah admitted to himself as he watched Kent try again—and fail again—to make a proper bowline.
“Here,” Brody said, straightening up. He lifted Kenny from his side to a standing position on the stairs in front of him. In that position, Kenny’s head was right beneath Brody’s chin, and he could direct Kenny’s hands as need be. “Like this . . . .”
He was good at it, too, Jem thought—patient and not taking over for the boy, just pointing where the rope should go, nudging it—and Kenny—in the right direction.
“Papa!” Kent hollered around Brody’s bicep, holding the finished knot triumphantly above his head.
Jem nodded, a wide, sincere smile creasing the corners of his eyes. “Mr. Easton will have you climbing into a crow’s nest in no time, won’t he?”
Brody smiled, but his attention had already shifted to Jamie, who’d mastered the bowline and moved on to securing the porch railing with a clove hitch.
When he’d first started hanging around the ranch house, it’d been plain to see that Brody had no experience with children, but under the tutelage of Jamie, Kenny, and the gregarious Miss Lily, he’d improved rapidly, bringing three lengths of rope now instead of one for knot-tying lessons. And he’d long ago stopped looking curiously from Kenny to Jem and from Jamie to Colt. They were just children to him now, no matter who’d gotten who on whom.
Kenny skipped over to hang on his father’s knee. “What’s a cow’s nest, Papa?”
Everyone laughed at that, and Jem stood, lifting Kenny with him. “Let’s see if we can find a picture of one, shall we?”
Kenny’s eager chatter drifted out through the open library window, an echo of Jamie’s occasional comment from Brody’s side. Lily had been “knotting” with them ten minutes earlier, but now she was napping with the dog, both of them curled on the floor by Catherine’s chair. Brody smiled when he looked around to find her, kaçak bahis his eyes softening as everyone’s did when they looked at Lily, as pretty and porcelain-fine as a china doll.
Catherine had noticed it, too—Brody’s inexperience with children and his rapid climb to familiarity with hers. He’d been awkward with them at first but not shy or condescending, and her children had sensed that. He spoke to them like they were small adults, asking questions about what they were doing and listening to their answers. From being around the family, he learned naturally how to break a large topic into bits a child could comprehend.
Even Topper liked him now.
Her husbands, on the other hand . . . Cat smiled as she snapped her thread off at the end of a seam. Mr. Easton’s manners were surprisingly impeccable, but Jem and Colt were wary and didn’t bother to hide it, asking more detailed questions of Mr. Easton than was strictly polite. Catherine tolerated most of it, because they were wary on her sister’s behalf, but occasionally she shot a glance at Colt after some comment too gruff for her liking. Jem got a few quelling looks himself, but more often it was Colt, not bothering with “stupid rules,” as he called them.
She smiled, capturing her husband’s attention.
Colt rolled his eyes and winked. He was seated behind Becky, where neither she nor Brody would see his face. They likely wouldn’t have noticed his mockery if he sat between them clucking like a chicken, as immersed as they were in their current conversation. This one was about the origin of sisal, or the word sisal, or maybe it was rope itself. Catherine seldom paid attention anymore.
When Mr. Easton had first begun stopping by to sit with the family, Rebecca had been stand-offish, speaking to him only when he spoke directly to her. Mr. Easton was clever, though: he paid no special attention to her. Soon, she’d forgotten her ill-ease and begun treating him like any other visitor, and then like an annoying older brother. She argued with him purely for the sake of arguing, it seemed. Becky teased Colt and Jeremiah occasionally too, but she argued with virtually everything Brody said. Catherine had trouble not laughing at some of Becky’s more outrageous statements. God forbid she should meet Nanny’s eyes—both of them would end up on the floor with tears running down their cheeks.
She was nineteen years old, but Becky was behaving like a smitten school-girl, whether she recognized the fact or not.
After an inexplicable week in which Mr. Easton had stayed away and Becky sulked ceaselessly, she’d finally consented to his paying calls, but now it almost seemed as though she didn’t want him here. Cat figured Becky couldn’t make up her mind: her younger sister liked Brody, but she had a lot of hurt left behind after what Uncle Harrison had done to them. In Becky’s mind, marriage would risk her security, putting her body, her fortune, and her future in the hands of a man who could do exactly what he wanted with all three.
In Catherine’s opinion, Brody Easton was exactly what Becky needed. Her husbands might be suspicious of the man and his motives, but Catherine was already convinced. She wouldn’t care if he mucked out stables for a living; he was kind, funny, intelligent, and he loved her little sister. Colt and Jeremiah weren’t ready to concede that point, but when Becky wasn’t looking, Mr. Easton’s gaze on her alternated between passion and tenderness, and that was more than enough for Cat.
She just hoped Becky figured out for herself what a catch she had in the tall, handsome sailor-miner-cowhand.
Becky swung her door shut with unnecessary force, seething, but she spun on her heel and caught it at the very last moment, closing it quietly instead. Because it wouldn’t do to have her brothers asking questions about a purportedly peaceful walk in the woods.
She tore her hat off and flung it onto her bed, but the resultant whisper of straw on fabric made the moment supremely unsatisfying. Becky wanted to smash glass, to scream, to use her fists on something other than a pillow. There was no possible way she could tolerate six months of visits from that man!
Becky threw herself face down next to the hat, considering the possible implications of telling her family she’d gone for a swim in quicksand, rather than enduring Mr. Easton’s blackmail. She punched the pillow after coming to the same old conclusion: she couldn’t distress Catherine that way. If only she’d been this concerned with the consequences of her actions before she snuck off to go exploring!
Becky rolled to her back, studying the ceiling as she tried to control her breathing.
Until tonight, she’d been certain she could manage to tolerate Brody Easton’s visits for a mere six months. She’d ignore him when she could, annoy him whenever possible, and put up with his attentions until her debt was paid—or Mr. Easton gave up his foolish pursuit. That was the plan, anyway, and until tonight Becky thought she could countenance his presence on their porch and in her life for just a little while longer. Tonight, he’d shattered that plan with one short stroll.
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