Mail Order Bride: Journey of The Bride Complete Volumes 1 and 2: A Mail Order Bride Historical Western Romance, page 6
It was later in the evening when Courtney came to, but by then her actions had been dismissed as a result of the heat as well as that of excitement towards her engagement. Neither man brought up the name of the cowboy she’d been calling for in her sleep.
Preparations for the wedding had started that evening. Talbert wanted a short engagement. Her father didn’t seem to mind so much. In his mind, it meant a sooner possibility of seeing grandchildren.
So for a week, Courtney was pushed and prodded. Flowers, food, and a dress fitting. Her mind spun and she felt sick to her stomach. There was no way she could go through this. She had to stop the wedding. She had to tell her father the real reason Talbert wanted to marry her.
Her father would never believe her about Talbert’s involvement with their finances. She knew that before her father announced the engagement. Now, it was set in stone as her father’s fortune had begun miraculously re-appearing in his accounts. Talbert, of course, blamed the bank, claiming there had been mistakes. Her father believed him. Courtney did not.
Now, it was too late. She glared at the wedding gown she was supposed to wear in the morning, wishing it would burst into flame, but knowing it wouldn’t.
“This isn’t happening,” she whispered to herself, pressing a hand to her forehead. “This is all a bad dream, and soon I’ll wake up and realize what’s going on with me. I’ll wake up and find myself back at the ranch.”
That sounded like a pleasant idea actually. “Yes,” she whispered in a dreamy voice. “This is a premonition of what’s to come if I don’t convince Brandon he needs me to stay there with him. He needs a cook anyway. I’m sure I can convince him to keep me around, even if it means I’m no longer his wife. I just have to wake up.”
She glared at the dress again. It really was beautiful, but it was a reminder of the man she was supposed to marry, which didn’t please her. She repressed a shudder of disgust and began pacing again, her thoughts turning instead to Brandon.
Brandon. Her cowboy. Her tall, broad-shouldered, rugged cowboy. He was tall. He was gruff. He was everything Courtney had never experienced before. She remembered his heated gaze, the way he seemed to bare her soul with a single glance. She remembered the touch of his hand on her skin, the way he made her yearn for more with a single brush of his fingers. He remembered his taste, the way he’d kissed her until her breath was gone and she never wanted it to return if it meant he didn’t leave her.
A low, throaty moan escaped her throat at the memory of the way he’d taken her that first night. It was the one and only time a man had touched her in such a way, and while she’d never really thought of it before that moment, when it had happened, she had felt no shame, no guilt, nothing but need and desire. She’d enjoyed every minute of their tryst together, and if she could have had her way, it would have continued until the moment Paul picked her up to take her back to town.
That hadn’t been meant to be though. From the moment they’d finished, Brandon had closed himself off and made it clear he didn’t wish her anywhere near him. She’d become a plague, a reminder of the woman who he had loved and lost.
Curse that woman, whoever she was! She growled into the air and aimed a swift kick at the chair holding the wedding gown.
“Dammit!” she snarled, bending over and clutching her foot where she’d hit it. Tears stung the corners of her eyes. She didn’t know who she felt more anger toward: Talbert for putting her family in this position, Brandon for not being able to work through his past issues, herself for not realizing a lost cause when she saw it, or her father for being so gullible that he fell for Talbert’s sleazy ways.
“Now, my dear Courtney, that’s no way for a lady to talk. Where in the world did you pick up such manners?”
Courtney turned, still snarling about the pain in her foot, to face Talbert. “We’re not married yet, Talbert, and until such, you will call me ‘Miss le Brush’, not ‘Courtney’.” Her words came out as a hiss between her teeth, and she narrowed her eyes as she spoke, no longer even carrying to hide her dislike for him.
He stepped closer to her, tipping her chin up and glaring at her. “I will call you what I want, Courtney. You’re mind now.”
Her heart sank in her chest as he turned away, laughing as he left her alone.
“What do you mean, she’s getting married?” Brandon snarled. He moved toward Paul, his hands snaking out of their own accord and snagging the collar of his brother’s shirt. He yanked him close, his spittle spraying his face as he snapped, “Who is she getting married to?”
Paul reached up and jerked Brandon’s hands away from his clothing, straightening up and dusting himself off. He cleared his throat before he started to speak. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it once more and then put his hand to his chin as he thought about how he was going to word everything.
After several silent moments, he looked up at his brother. He looked tired, haggard, older than he really was. He heaved a heavy sigh, his shoulders sagging as he released it. “Will your men be fine on their own? This is going to take some explaining.”
Brandon wanted to know what was going on. He felt like he was left out of the loop and some information that was vital to his well-being had not been explained to him. He glanced among the men grooming horses and readying for the day’s ride. They had cattle to move. In another week or so, they’d be looking at driving the cattle three towns away for a local auction, but for now they were still grazing upon the grass shoots coming up in the far fields.
“Luke, you’re in charge until I get back.” A dark-skinned man with a grizzle face spat at the ground and gave Brandon a curt nod. It wasn’t the first time Brandon had left him in charge of the men. He’d proven himself the most trustworthy of the men, he knew cattle like he knew the back of his hand, and he listened to Brandon. The others listened to him. It was a good choice.
His command heard and accepted, Brandon pulled off his hat and wiped his brow. “Now, tell me what in all of Heaven’s creation is going on, Paul.”
“Let’s go inside. I think a good cup of coffee is needed in such a situation.” Brandon didn’t say anything. He just followed Paul inside the house, letting the door slam shut behind him. He wasn’t in the mood for any games, and he couldn’t shake the feeling he’d been played from the start, and by his brother no less. The feeling didn’t sit well in his stomach and he thought his last meal might rebel against him in retaliation for the thoughts running through his mind.
As his brother bustled around the kitchen to start a pot of coffee, Brandon’s eyes never left him. It was an intimidation thing, he knew. He was trying to scare Paul into talking, but he also knew it wouldn’t work. It hadn’t worked on Paul growing up. It wouldn’t work on him now.
“Where do I begin?” Paul asked as he sat down at the kitchen table with two steaming tin cups of coffee in hand. He sat one before Brandon who didn’t touch it. He continued to watch Paul and wait.
“How about at the beginning?” Brandon snarled, impatient to know what was going on.
Paul held up his hands in surrender. “Alright. It’s just that it’s difficult to know who’s story to start with—mine or Courtney’s.”
When Brandon growled, Paul only responded with a purse of his lips. He continued to sit in silence, whether drawing the conversation out or attempting to annoy his younger brother more didn’t matter.
“You know why I put the ad in the newspaper. I told you my opinion. I thought you needed a good woman at home with you. One who could cook and clean and share your bed at night. I still think you need a good woman for such.”
“Get to the point, Paul,” Brandon snarled. He wouldn’t admit it aloud, but he wanted to know what all this had to do with Courtney getting married. The thought of his wiry woman getting married to another man lit a fire in his soul. Anger burned through his entire body, making him clench and unclench his fists. If Paul didn’t start speaking soon, he just might thrash him again.
“Talk faster, Paul. Explain.” There was no denying the growl of frustration in his voice.
A sigh filled the air around them and then Paul continued his explanation. “Courtney’s family isn’t as well off as everyone suspects—at least, not at the moment. She suspects they’re being blackmailed.”
“Blackmailed?” Brandon asked. He sat back in his chair and stared ahead of him.
Paul went on to explain what Courtney had told him of her father’s admittance that they were broke, how she suspected it was the work of their accountant, Simon Talbert, who seemed to show more interest in her than necessary or proper, how her father didn’t suspect foul play, and how Courtney had agreed to the marriage to help her father out.
“So she really was only after money,” Brandon scoffed.
For the first time, Paul’s eyes narrowed in anger, and he slammed his fist down on the table before Brandon. “Maybe at first, yes,” he snapped, “but I saw the way she looked at you. She would have done anything for you. She did do everything for you. You sent her away, and she went, because that’s what you wanted. She was going back to the same situation she’d been trying to escape all along—all because you were too proud to keep her around and try to make it work.”
He sat back once more, but the anger didn’t dissipate from his face. “And I believe her theory was correct because yesterday she told me that her father’s given his permission to Talbert to wed her.”
“Talbert?” Brandon snarled. “The accountant?”
Paul nodded. “The accountant,” he confirmed. A smirk crossed his face. “And guess what. The money that was missing from the account has shown back up.”
A growl erupted from Brandon’s throat and his chair scrapped against the floor as it slid back when he found his feet. “That bastard!”
Brandon had never met Simon Talbert, but he knew that if he ever did, he’d probably rip his silver-snake tongue out of his throat. Fury burned through him at the thought of the accountant, that sneaky backstabbing accountant, with his hands on her body. Brandon thought of him kissing her mouth, that warm delicious mouth that threatened to send Brandon to his knees; about him touching her skin, that soft skin no one had explored before Brandon had held her in his arms; about his—
His whole body trembled as he shook his head in an attempt to clear it. There was no way he wanted to think about the accountant’s sex life. It didn’t matter who the woman was he was sticking his dick in. Knowing that in a couple of days it would be Courtney though bothered him. It made his skin itch, made his blood boil. He growled and clenched his fingers tight into a fist, ready to throw a punch at something or someone. Even better if that someone’s name was Simon Talbert, the yellow-bellied snake who was about to take Courtney away from him.
Courtney. His Courtney. His wife.
Ex-wife, he told himself in an effort to calm down. It didn’t matter. The thought remained. Courtney was his, dammit! No man, especially not one like Talbert, was going to lay his hands on her.
“Calm down, Brandon. I haven’t gotten to the best part.” There was a twinkle in Paul’s eyes. Brandon knew that look well. He may have been a lawyer, but Brandon had grown up with him, and he knew the inner workings of his older brother’s mind better than anyone else suspected. He was up to something.
“What’s the best part?” He was cautious. He knew he would have to be. He gripped the back of the chair in a vice grip, ignoring the splinters that sank deep into his palm as he slowly lowered himself back into his chair. It groaned under his weight. It sounded as if Paul had a plan of sorts, which was good. He couldn’t go through with this without a plan of sorts. “Talk fast, Paul. What’s the best part?”
From his vantage point across the kitchen table, his brother’s face broke into a knowing grin, which sent a tremor of fear through Brandon.
The next words that exited Paul’s mouth sent a tremor of fear through Brandon, and he was glad that Paul seemed to be on his side. His words held the hint of a chill that spooked him. “I’ll tell you the best part.”
Heat beat down upon the back of Courtney’s neck and sweat dripped down her forehead. It was mercilessly hot outside. There were no clouds in the sky and the sun beat down without a care in the world for the thoughts of mortals and all they desired.
Hell on Earth, she thought as she used a kerchief and blotted at the sweat upon her brow.
Movement bustled all around her as the servants working for her father whirled around her, prepping her dress, her face, and her hair with products meant to make her look even more like a bride.
She didn’t feel like a bride, and she definitely wasn’t a happy one. She remembered Talbert’s whispered words in her ear as he left her at the doorway to the room she now sat in. His grip on her elbow had been anything but pleasant, and the words he hissed in her ear even less so.
For a moment, she’d struggled against him, trying to free her arm from his grasp, but he’d only clutched tighter, his short nails digging into her flesh and leaving half-moon imprints upon her skin. She’d had to bite her tongue to keep from crying out, but she couldn’t hide the pinprick of tears in her eyes. He hurt her, and as she glared up at him, hating him with every fiber of her being, she knew it would only get worse the longer they were married.
It was the first time she’d ever prayed for death. This was not a marriage she wanted to enter into. She’d rather the heavy black shadow of Death claim her before this man did.
She’s swallowed a hard lump in her throat and forced herself not to blink as she glared into the angry face of the man before her, the same man she’d call her husband in a couple of hours.
He was not her rough-and-tumble cowboy. He didn’t wear a hat that she wanted to steal and put upon her own head, knowing she’d look pretty either way and quite possibly turn him on. For a moment, his face faded before her vision to be replaced with Brandon’s. She shook her head. Brandon was gone, and she was stuck with Talbert.
A hallow ache filled her belly to be replaced with a quell of fear as Talbert’s words registered in her mind.
“We’re getting married today, Courtney,” he hissed. “After today, you will obey my every command or I will slap you.” A hideous smile curled on his face. “Or worse.”
Then he’d kissed her. It had been a harsh kiss, a clashing of teeth and tongues that left her feeling dirty and used. It had taken everything in her not to bite Talbert, which had been the only thought running through her mind the moment his lips touched hers. There was nothing soft about the man. The past few days had proven that, but his kisses sealed the deal.
Even her thoughts hated him. Disgust washed through her. God, I’ll be cleaning my mouth out for a month.
It wouldn’t matter though because in another few hours, she would belong to him. She would be his wife. She would have to feel his kisses every day and deal with his desire and his lust.
Another wave of disgust washed through her. He’d groped her the night before, squeezing her breast through the fabric of her dress. When Brandon had done it, desire and lust ran rampant through her and a heady need had to be fulfilled. When Talbert did it, she felt nauseous and sick, repulsed with both his action and the lack of any on her part.
What could she do though? Her father had no intention of saving her. For all he knew, this marriage would save her. As if she needed saving.
Oh, who am I kidding? No one will save me. Even if I did, no one can. No one understands everything that’s going on. Talbert’s a respectable man of the community. He’d never hurt a fly for all anyone knows. Ha! If only they knew the truth.
The truth was no one would believe her. She knew her father wouldn’t. Talbert might as well have been Jesus and walked on water. Looking a
“Are you alright, Miss?” one of the women, Sheila, asked.
Courtney felt the gentle touch of a hand on her shoulder and looked at the reflection of the two women helping her. The second woman, whose name she could never remember, gave her a soft smile. “You look beautiful, Miss. Is that why you’re crying?”
For a moment, she wondered what the woman was talking about. Then she looked down at the entourage she wore and felt a gasp leave her throat. She was gorgeous. The women had down her hair up in a bun with flowers curling in and out of her hair and wisps of it falling down around her face, framing her soft features.
She didn’t recognize her own face. She’d always known she’d looked soft and delicate, but the woman blinking back at her was more so than usual. I look like a doll, she thought. One of those expensive handmade, hand-painted ones. She’d seen them every once in a while on the shelves of the other women she visited from time to time. They were fragile things, just as she was now.