Mail Order Cowboy (Harlequin American Romance), page 1
“How come you’re not married now?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Books by Pamela Bauer
“How come you’re not married now?”
The boy’s question startled Wood. “My—my old wife didn’t like living in what she called the wilderness.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem with my mom.” Jeremy gave Wood a knowing grin. “You know, I think she’s beginning to like you. I heard her tell Aunt Gabby you have possibility. Maybe she’s going to like the whole mail-order groom idea after all.”
Mail-order groom? The words echoed like thunder in Wood’s head. What was Jeremy talking about?
Fragments of conversation with Gabby replayed in Wood’s memory. “Hannah needs a man,” not “Hannah needs a hired hand.” “You’re perfect for each other,” not “you’ll work well together.” Wood felt moisture begin to bead on his brow.
“Jeremy, you said once you knew the real reason I was here.” At the boy’s nod, he continued. “Will you tell me now?”
He gave Wood a puzzled look, then said matter-of-factly: “Sure. You’re going to marry my mom.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pamela Bauer was born and raised in the Midwest and still makes her home in a small community in Minnesota, with a cornfield in her backyard. She and her husband of twenty-seven years have two children and a dog who, Pam says, thinks he’s human! Pam hails from a big family, and most of the books she’s written in her ten-year career feature the family relationships she knows so much about. And Mail Order Cowboy is no exception—what with a meddlesome matchmaking aunt, a young son who wants a dad and one unknowing husband-to-be!
Books by Pamela Bauer
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
668—THE PICK-UP MAN
236—HALFWAY TO HEAVEN
288—HIS AND HERS
330—WALKING ON SUNSHINE
378—THE HONEY TRAP
484—ON CLOUD NINE
487—SWINGING ON A STAR
546—THE MODEL BRIDE
605—I DO, I DO
Don’t miss any of our special offers. Write to us at the following address for information on our newest releases.
Harlequin Reader Service
U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269
Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3
MAIL ORDER COWBOY
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN
MADRID • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
This book is dedicated to Cheri Haack and the other
145,000 women farmers who every spring “lay it all on
the line” so that the rest of us can put food on the table.
Thanks, Cheri, for the inspiration and for taking the time to talk farming with this city slicker.
As James Woodson Harris sat astride his horse with his hands tied behind his back, his life passed before his eyes. In a split second he witnessed a jumbled sequence of images in a condensed history of his life.
He saw himself falling off the paddock fence when he was only three, his teacher slapping his knuckles with her metal ruler in the one room school-house when he was seven, his mother wiping his brow as he suffered with rheumatic fever at nine, his father lying in a casket in the parlor when he was fourteen, Jenny walking toward him on their wedding day, the stagecoach taking her away six months later.
Thunder rumbling in the distance brought the images to an abrupt end. Wood looked up at the sky and willed the dark clouds to part and deliver a bolt of lightning to the small gathering of men. It was probably the only thing that could save him now. That or a sudden appearance by the sheriff. Actually, he wasn’t sure if the lawman’s presence would change anything, for it was an out-of-control, angry group of men who milled about the oak tree.
A noose dangled in front of Wood’s face and he heard a stony voice order, “Get that damned thing on so we can get out of here before it storms.”
Jeering echoes of the sentiment ricocheted through the small crowd. Someone took great pleasure in pointing out the fact that Wood’s skin was the same sickly shade of green as the sky.
Wood gagged as the rope encircled his neck, momentarily cutting off his breath in a preview of what was to come. Panic rose within him. “You’re making a mistake,” he tried to protest, but there was barely enough air for breathing. There was none for speaking.
He felt a glove sting his cheek. “Shut your filthy mouth. Hangin’s too good for you. If I had my way I’d stretch you out like a piece of leather and let the vultures eat your flesh, peck by peck.”
The horse beneath Wood shifted restlessly, and more thunder rumbled. Angry cries for vengeance filled the air. Hopelessness engulfed Wood as rapidly as the dark clouds had swallowed up blue sky.
“Wait!” A raspy voice rose above the chorus. “I need to give him the sand of salvation. Let me through.”
Wood tried to get a glimpse of the person who spoke, but all he could see was a small, hunched-over, dusty figure of a woman whose head sported a large hat with a brim so wide it hid her face. If it weren’t for her tattered skirt, he might have mistaken her for a man.
“I said let me through,” she repeated irritably. “I need to give him his last rites.”
The man who had slipped the noose around Wood’s neck snickered. “He deserves no rites.”
To Wood’s surprise, however, the crowd parted as if this haggard woman were Moses at the Red Sea. The hangman spat in disgust. “I suppose it’s only fitting that the last person to touch you should be an old crone who spreads vile odors.”
“Vile?” The woman made a sound of indignation as she pushed back the brim on her hat and stared up at the hangman. “You’re the one who’s vile. I bring sweet salvation.” She smiled a toothless grin that put to rest any suspicions that the lines in her face could be from the sun.
When she turned her attention to Wood, a wave of uneasiness washed over him. The grim smile disappeared, and her eyes pierced him with an eerie awareness. A pungent aroma assaulted his nostrils.
“Someone give me a boost up,” she spat out, in an order that went unheeded.
She repeated the command several times before a scruffy-looking youngster, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, stepped forward. The young man grimaced at the stench emanating from the old lady’s decrepit body, but did as she directed. He lifted her so that she was eye-to-eye with Wood, her bony frame only inches from his muscular torso.
In all of his thirty-four years Wood had never seen a woman with so many wrinkles on her face. Every inch of exposed flesh appeared to be creased by time, which was why he was surprised to discover her touch was as gentle as a summer breeze in evening.
She smoothed gnarled fingers across his forehead, down his cheeks and over his jaw, mumbling in a language unkn
“All right, all right. That’s enough,” a gruff voice interrupted her chanting. “You’re done.” The hangman ordered the lad to put her down, but she protested, claiming she hadn’t finished what she’d come to do.
She pried Wood’s fingers open, saying, “Hold tight to your salvation.” She poured sand into his palm, then closed his fist once more. “Whatever you do, don’t open your hand,” she warned close to his ear.
Another clap of thunder split the air, and suddenly a great gust of wind shook the tree. The horse whinnied and Wood knew the time had come. He had seen his life pass before his eyes. Next would come the flash of light.
“Let’s get it over with!” The leader of the vigilantes cried out as the storm clouds roiled overhead.
The old woman disappeared into the angry mob, and Wood heard the slap on the horse’s hindquarters. In a split second the noose tightened about his neck as the horse moved out from beneath him.
“I’m not guilty!” he wanted to cry out, but the rope choked back his words. At the realization of what was about to happen, he called out in despair, “Hannah!”
Then there was a flash of light so bright he thought his body would surely explode in its brilliance.
He heard nothing. No explosion, no voices, no angels calling him to the heavens. Again, life flashed before his eyes, but this time he recognized none of it. It was as if he were in someone else’s body, seeing events and places foreign to him. He closed his eyes and waited for the pain that was sure to follow, but he felt nothing, just an odd sensation tingling through his limbs.
Then he realized his hands were free. He reached for the noose choking him, only to discover it was no longer there. With a thud he felt himself hit the ground, and then there was blackness. There could be only one explanation.
He had to be dead.
His last conscious thought was that he would never see Hannah again.
After several hours of trying to balance the figures in the ledger, Hannah Davis finally gave up and closed the book with a decisive thud. Staring at the numbers wasn’t going to change a thing. She was still borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.
Once again she was playing her hand and hoping to win. Only in this game Mother Nature held the wild cards. It was the same gamble all farmers took when they planted their crops in the spring. Hannah laid it all on the line, betting the weather wouldn’t force her to fold.
It was what she liked least about farming—having to depend upon something so totally out of her control. And in Minnesota the growing season was short, meaning the gamble was a big one.
She scrunched up her scratch paper and tossed it at the trash can in the corner. It missed its target. “Damn.”
“Numbers must be pretty bad if you’re cussing this early in the day.”
At the sound of her great-aunt’s scratchy voice, Hannah got up to retrieve the paper from the floor.
“It’s not any worse than any other year. I need a little luck with the weather.”
“What you need is a man.” Gabby waggled a finger at her niece.
“I need a lot of things, but a man is not one of them,” Hannah retorted, although she knew it would do no good to argue with the gray-haired woman hovering at her side. As dear as she was, Gabby was set in her ways. Actually, cemented would be a better word.
“I don’t know why you’re so stubborn when it comes to men.”
“Yes, you do.” Hannah retorted, shoving the ledger into a drawer. “Men don’t stay.”
“Not all men leave. Your grandfather was married to your grandmother for thirty-seven years.”
Gabby clicked her tongue. “The reason the two of you clashed so often was because you’re a lot like him—you’re stubborn, but in a good way.”
“Gee, thanks for the compliment.” Sarcasm laced her voice.
Affection softened the edge on Gabby’s words. “I know it’s important to you to prove to the world that you can make a go of the farm without a man’s help, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a man around the place—and I’m not talking about a part-timer like Barry.”
Hannah briefly closed her eyes. What was the use in arguing with a woman who had lived all her life in the shadow of her older brother... a man who had thought he was an authority on what a woman could and couldn’t do? No, Hannah couldn’t blame Gabby for being her grandfather’s sister.
“Well, we don’t have a man, so we’re going to have to get by without one,” she stated flatly.
“For now, maybe.” Although Gabby had been retired for ten years from her position as head librarian at the county library, she often sounded as if she were still behind the checkout counter collecting fines on overdue books. That was the voice she used now, when she said, “If you’re going to town, you’d better wash that spot off your shirt.”
Hannah dabbed at the dark smudge. “I bet it’s grease. I changed a belt on the combine this morning.”
Gabby clicked her tongue again. “I thought Barry was supposed to do all that mechanical stuff.”
“He is, but you know how busy he’s been, what with taking Caroline to those expectant-parent classes. Besides, I can take care of the machinery.”
“That’s not the point. You shouldn’t have to do iL Your grandfather—”
“Grandfather is the reason I’m in the financial bind I’m in,” Hannah finished for her. “And you and I both know that it’s because he had old-fashioned ideas that a woman couldn’t run a farm without a man’s help.”
“You’ve proved him wrong.” Gabby’s voice held admiration. “If he were alive today, he’d be proud of you.”
“I wouldn’t be running the farm if he were still alive,” Hannah said soberly.
“But you are in charge and you’re doing a wonderful job. And if it weren’t for the debts...”
“We’ll manage the debt,” Hannah told her confidently.
“But you shouldn’t have to. If you would just reconsider his suggestion.”
“Don’t you mean his order?”
Gabby sighed. “You’re running out of time. Next month you turn thirty. The money will be gone...” She let the words dangle temptingly.
“I don’t care about the money.” It wasn’t exactly true. Hannah did care about her inheritance, but the one thing she would not do was marry to get it. Which was exactly what her eccentric grandfather decreed was necessary. Just because he didn’t trust a woman to run his farm, he had put a provision in his will making it necessary for her to marry before her thirtieth birthday or lose the farm. So far Hannah had been able to borrow enough money to keep going, but one more poor harvest could spell financial disaster.
Needing to put the subject of her grandfather and his will behind her, she lifted the hem of the lace curtain covering the window. A bank of clouds lingered on the western horizon. “Is it supposed to rain?”
“The gal on channel seven said there’s only a twenty percent chance for showers late this afternoon.”
“It looks like Filmore County could be in that twenty percent.” Hannah gazed pensively out the window for several more seconds before letting the curtain fall. “I wonder if I should skip going to town.”
“But what about your appointment at the beauty shop?”
Hannah glanced at the clock on the wall. “I could reschedule it for tomorrow.”
Disappointment caused Gabby’s mouth to droop. “You should go. You’ve been complaining that your hair is too long. And I bet Marlis is counting on you coming in today.”
“I don’t think she’ll mind if
“But’what about the chicken bedding? Didn’t you promise Jeremy you’d pick it up?”
If Hannah didn’t know better, she’d think her aunt wanted her out of the house. The thought of her niece not going to town was putting additional furrows in her already-wrinkled brow. The question was Why?
Hannah eyed her curiously. Gabby looked pretty well groomed for a weekday. A fresh coat of lipstick outlined her mouth, and the faint aroma of lilacs drifted through the kitchen. Instead of slippers, she wore shoes and nylon stockings. Maybe the bloom in her aunt’s cheeks wasn’t from the heat, which was unusually oppressive for September. Could it be her aunt was expecting a guest?
If she was, why hadn’t she told Hannah? Unless it was someone she wanted to keep secret. Like a man.
The idea was almost too incredible for Hannah to contemplate. Gabby had been single all her life. It was true that old Bernie Lamphart had had a crush on her ever since they’d been teens. The whole town knew about that, and they also knew Gabby had no time for the retired grocer. She had no interest in men.
Or did she? Hannah wondered.
Lately Gabby had insisted she be the one to bring in the mail. Hannah had attributed her anxiety to sweepstakes fever. She knew her aunt entered every contest she could get her hands on, with the hope of becoming the next millionaire. Now Hannah wondered if maybe it wasn’t a personal letter Gabby anticipated. Was she corresponding with a man...a man who was coming to visit her today?
“Are you expecting company?” Hannah asked, getting straight to the point.
Gabby looked flustered by the question. “Er, Mabel said she might bring by some of her freshly canned tomatoes.”
It was a lie. Hannah could tell by the way her aunt’s eyes avoided hers. “Oh. Is that why you baked the strudel?”