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Authors: Carolyn Davidson

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BOOK: Big Sky Rancher
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The idea of being a mate to this man was frightening beyond description. She'd envisioned a more sophisticated gentleman, such as might have founded Thunder Canyon from his place behind a desk in an office on Main Street. Lucas O'Reilly looked as if he were a stranger to such an amenity as a desk, let alone an office from which he did his business.

She'd warrant he'd formed part of the thunder that inspired the name of this town, that his bellowing voice had cut down all who might protest his superiority when it came to putting his seal upon the forming of this community. Thunder Canyon suited him, with its ramshackle street, storefronts claiming to be reputable places of business and ragtag assortment of men who seemed to have nothing more to do with their time than to sit on backless benches in front of the general store and the town barbershop.

Only the bank, a sturdy building situated next to the jailhouse, lacked a clutch of men holding up the front wall, its stalwart boards gleaming with white paint, as if daring anyone to soil its pristine surface. Even the small building in front of her now, the parsonage wherein she would lose her single status to gain the title of Mrs. Lucas O'Reilly, held its own porch-sitter.

A young boy stood as she gained the bottom step. “Ma'am? Are you lookin' for my pa?”

“Is he home?” Lucas asked. “He said he'd be here this morning.”

“Yessir, he is,” the boy answered. “I'll go get him.”

Behind him, the screen door opened and a young man greeted them both. “Come on in, Luc. I'm assuming this young lady is the bride. Am I right?”

Lucas nodded, even as Jennifer shook her head.

“Well,” the preacher said with a laugh, “I think you'll have to agree on this before we perform the ceremony.”

“We'll agree,” Lucas promised him, and once more gripped Jennifer's elbow, turning her to face him. “Go on inside, Preacher. We'll be right there.”

The dark-clad man of the cloth smiled and stepped back inside the house, his son following close behind, probably at the urging of Lucas's threatening glare.

“Now, let's have no more foolishness,” Luc snarled at Jennifer. “We're getting married, and that's that. You made a promise and you'll live up to it. I'll see to it, ma'am.” His lower lip protruded a bit and his eyes narrowed as he spoke. No longer a deep blue color, they darkened beneath his lowered lids to a cast reminding Jennifer of midnight.

“You can't make me marry you,” she sputtered, aware of his proximity, his muscular frame and the scowl he bent her way.

“Ah, but I can,” he returned softly. “All I have to do is take you home and spend a few hours with you alone in my house. Maybe all night would be better, now that I think of it.” His smile was feral as he bent closer. “By morning you'd be about as ruined as any young woman can get, and primed for a wedding ring.” He pursed his lips and then grinned.

“We can do this the easy way and march in there to face the preacher, or we can do it
my
way. I'm not about to bicker over it. I'd just as soon bed you beforehand, but I'm giving you the choice.”

“Some choice,” Jennifer said. “Maybe we should see if the preacher is willing to marry a woman who's changed her mind.”

“That settles it,” Lucas said, turning her from the porch, hustling her back to the wagon. “We'll do it my way.”

Jennifer skidded to a halt, her feet dragging against the gravel path. Dark brows lowered as Lucas looked down at her. “Changed your mind?” he asked. “Ready to say your vows right now?”

“Why don't you just take me back to the hotel and I'll stay there till the next stage comes through and I'll be out of your way?”

“Not a chance,” he muttered. “I sent for a bride, paid the agency good money to get you here, invested a bundle in your fare and got my place all fixed up for you. You'll marry me, Jennifer Alston.”

She wilted, her stamina fading, her staunch will daunted by his words. She'd promised, true enough. She'd accepted his money for travel, for her food and lodging on the journey and now was committed to fulfilling her part of the bargain. Besides, returning to New York and the dubious welcoming committee of one awaiting her there was no choice at all, really. Having to face Kyle again was reason enough to marry this man. Remembering the lustful expression of her pursuer made her shiver even now. And so she only nodded, her lips firm, her teeth clenched as she faced her choices.

“All right.” As simply as that, she accepted her future,
faced the man she'd promised to wed and pledged herself to go through with that bargain.

If relief touched his gaze, she ignored it, unwilling to accept that he had ever doubted her response. He
knew,
without a shadow of a doubt, that she would fall in with his plans. He'd held the upper hand all along, and well she understood her position. For she actually had no position to hold. She would be his wife. But the man was in for a few surprises.

Jennifer Alston was a lady, born and bred, with no working knowledge of keeping a house or tending to a man's needs, in any way, shape or form. And that included cooking and mending, the two things Lucas had specified in his request for a wife.

 

S
HE'D GIVEN IN
almost too readily, Luc decided, a finger of disquiet running the length of his spine. But, he'd never looked a gift horse in the mouth before and he'd not do it now. With one hand at her waist, he ushered her up the steps and into the front hall of the parsonage. The preacher's pretty wife greeted him and opened the doorway into her husband's study, following them inside.

“I'm to be a witness,” she explained to Luc. “Our neighbor, Ida Bronson, will serve as the second. Unless you've made other arrangements.”

“No, that's fine with me,” he said. “So long as it's official and legal, I don't care about the particulars.”

A fussy little female, probably well past middle age if her white hair was any indication, slid through the doorway and waved her fingers at Jennifer. Her smile was broad, her short, squat figure matronly and her excitement apparent.

“I simply love weddings. Especially when the bride and
groom seem to be so well suited and pleased at the prospect of being married.”

If Jennifer's sour look was anything to go by, she disputed the neighbor's assumptions, but he wasn't about to have a set-to in front of the rest of the wedding party. He nodded, smiled and looked to the preacher for guidance.

The words were short and to the point, the ceremony over with in minutes, and when the instruction was given to kiss his bride, Luc bent his head and sought the warmth of Jennifer Alston's mouth. Her lips were clamped shut but still lent a pleasurable glow to the whole event.

She was not willing to press her mouth against his, but he'd remedy that in short order, he decided, once he got her home and into his bed. He'd been told more than once that he had a way with women, and this one would be no different than the rest of the female sex.

They left the parsonage in a flurry of well-wishes and he lifted her to the wagon seat once more, tucking her skirts around her, even as she pushed at his hands in a futile gesture of denial of his right to do so. Delivering one last pat on her knee, he was the object of her anger as she scorned his smile and brushed away the traces of his touch.

He set off at a fast clip toward the big farmhouse outside of town, the place he'd bought with her in mind. Not that he'd known then who he would wed, only that there would be a woman in his home, a comfortable female to make his life pleasant and his bed more welcoming.

He'd sent for the remnants of his parents' belongings once he'd settled in, unwilling to admit, even to himself, the pleasure he gained from their presence in his home.

The gold he'd mined was safely deposited in the bank, and
the rich vein he'd uncovered seemed to be endless. The woman didn't know how well off she was, marrying the founder of Thunder Canyon, a man with a tidy bank account and the deed to a piece of prosperity known as a gold mine. The mine was shared with his partner, but there was plenty there for two men, and he had the utmost faith in the honesty and integrity of Alexander.

Probably more faith than he had in the woman he'd just committed himself to.

He glanced over at Jennifer now, caught a glimpse of her taut jaw and the frown she wore, and looked ahead once more. The backside of his team of horses was more welcoming than the woman he'd wed, and that thought didn't set well with him.

Getting married was a necessity. Having a wife was more of a needful thing than something he'd looked forward to as a pleasure. Yet beneath that god-awful blue thing she was wearing, he'd bet odds on Jennifer Alston O'Reilly having a round and luscious body, just made for loving.

He knew enough about women to recognize the curves and hollows of a lush, female form. Holding her against himself had given him good reason to venture an opinion. She was a female worth investigating, and she was his wife, two details that gave him hope that the distasteful issue of marriage might indeed prove to be worthwhile.

At least once he managed to lure her into his bed and make her his wife. For as it stood now, she was a bride, but that was a far cry from being a wife in every sense of the word. The sooner that was tended to, the better.

And that was a fact.

CHAPTER TWO

I
F
L
UCAS THOUGHT
for one minute that she would be willing to clean up the mess he'd made in this house, he was in for a big surprise. The floors were filthy and a layer of dust covered every available surface that could possibly hold dirt. And there were enough dirty dishes in the kitchen sink to feed a small army. An army of one, apparently. Lucas O'Reilly, by name.

Jennifer stood in the middle of the hallway, her vantage point allowing her to look into four rooms without stirring one step. In front of her was the parlor, an area of generous proportions, with a fireplace against the far wall, bookshelves reaching to the ceiling on one side and several pieces of comfortable-looking furniture scattered hither and yon.

To her left was a dining room, connected to the kitchen, which was behind her. The dining room held a massive table and ten chairs. A matching bureau, topped by a china cabinet of sorts, sat between the two windows. Filled to the edges of its shelves, half hidden by streaked glass, it was heavy with an odd assortment of dishes and glassware. Some of them matched, others were one of a kind, many of them obviously valuable. None of them appeared to be clean.

The other room visible to her eye was a bedroom of sorts, probably where Lucas slept. A narrow cot sat against one
wall, a tall chest of drawers beside it, three drawers left open, bits and pieces of clothing hanging over the edges. From the bottom drawer, an assortment of stockings dangled onto the musty carpet.

The whole house smelled stale, and she wondered how Lucas managed to smell as clean as he did. For the man was indeed well-kept, even if he lived in a veritable pigpen.

Perhaps pigpen was too harsh a word to describe his habitat, but it came pretty close, Jennifer decided. She walked into the kitchen and met the man head-on. He was solid, firm and unmovable. Unwilling to reveal her revulsion at the condition of his house, she merely looked to one side, where the stove sat, its surface covered with pots and kettles. A huge coffeepot seemed to hold a position of honor, due to its placement on the front burner.

The stench of boiled, burned coffee polluted the air and she was tempted to immerse the pot in hot water and use a scrub rag on it, well doused with lye soap. In fact, everything in the kitchen, let alone the rest of the house, cried out for care—for the use of soap and water, a good application of beeswax or simply the business end of a broom.

She shuddered. It was a full-time job for a woman well versed in the art of keeping house, not an occupation for one such as she, a woman with not the slightest notion of how to run a place such as the one she'd been offered.

For indeed, he'd offered it to her. “Here's your house,” he'd said blithely, ushering her through the back door, waving a negligent hand at the kitchen, where sagging curtains met her eye, barely disguising the dirt that streaked the windows they were intended to cover.

The kitchen dresser held a hodgepodge of dishes and the
table was barren of covering. She'd give much for the services of her mother's live-in cook and housekeeper right now. Even for just a couple of hours. Long enough to set the kitchen to rights and aim her in the right direction, arming her with instructions on how to make things livable.

“Here's your house,” he'd said, and she feared he was right on target with those words. She was stuck with it, but if he wanted to live in this disaster, she'd let him. Only her own living space would show the touch of her hand, only her own food would be served on clean tableware and only her own bed would wear clean sheets.

“Our bedroom is upstairs.”

She gawked at him.
Our bedroom.
Those were the words he'd said, but she found them unbelievable. Surely the man didn't expect her to crawl into a bed with him. Certainly not in broad daylight. She met his gaze and changed her mind. He had that same man-eyeing-a-bite-of-pastry look about him, his eyes blue once more, making a slow survey of her…her bosom, if she wasn't mistaken.

Although what he found so interesting about that assortment of curves was beyond her. Overabundant, her mother had said. Not in fashion, her best friend had told her. No woman of distinction had such a lush display attached to her chest, and for years Jennifer had lamented her overly endowed figure.

Now it seemed to be a point of interest to the man she'd married. He was making no bones about it, either. He stood in front of her and reached one hand to circle the back of her waist, the other idly working at the top button of her suit jacket.

“What do you think you're doing?” she asked, aware that
her voice held a certain breathlessness, her words faltering as she asked his intentions.

“What do you think?” he answered, which was really not an answer at all, merely a leading question that confused her. For indeed, she had no idea what he was up to.

“Leave my buttons alone,” she told him, reaching to slap away the errant fingers that had managed to dislodge the first of a whole string of buttons holding her jacket together. His hand was like a chunk of wood, she decided, dead set on moving down the line of buttons, undoing each one in order.

Well, no need to be flustered, for beneath the jacket she wore a neat blouse, also bearing a line of fastenings. Fastenings he could no doubt undo with very little effort, she realized as her sense of comfort ebbed away.

In a moment her jacket had been pushed off her shoulders and left to fall on the floor. She bent to pick it up, heard his soft laughter as she lifted it and shook the dust from it. One big hand took it from her and he tossed it on the table, then pulled her into his embrace and held her tightly against himself.

Built like a tree trunk, not just a single chunk of wood, he was massive and sturdy against her own soft curves, and she winced. His whole body seemed to be made from some hitherto unknown mixture of muscle and bone, surely not the average, everyday ingredients most men were constructed with.

A wide chest formed above his narrow waist and his arms were well muscled and firm to the touch.
Her touch,
she realized.

She'd automatically held herself from him, pushing against his shoulders and then allowing her hands to fall to the tops of
his arms. It did no good. He was not about to release her, if she was any judge. His mouth was a straight line, his jaw set.

“Are you going to hurt me?” she asked. If he was a wife beater, she wanted to know right now just what she could expect from him, and be prepared to defend herself. As if there were any defense against the inordinate strength of a man well over six feet tall and as wide in the shoulders as a normal door frame.

He blinked and his eyes fixed on her. For just a moment she thought she'd surprised him, and then he laughed. “I haven't hurt a woman in quite a while, honey. At least a month or so, I'd guess.”

“Are you teasing me?”

He shook his head, a slow movement that was a threat in itself. “I don't tease, sweetheart. I might coax you, or seduce you, or even swat your sweet little behind, but I don't tease. If I tell you something, you'd better believe it, 'cause I don't tell lies and I don't say anything I don't mean.”

She'd latched on to only a part of his soliloquy, that bit where he'd spoken of swatting her behind, which was neither sweet nor little as far as she was concerned.

“Swat me anyplace on my anatomy and you'll be sorry,” she muttered. “I mean it, Mr. O'Reilly. I don't take kindly to threats against my person.”

“I didn't think you would, ma'am, but believe me when I tell you that I'll keep you in line any way I have to, and if that involves treating you like a child, then just make sure you act like a grown woman and we won't have any problems.”

“And how does a grown woman act, in your estimation?”

“In your case, like a grown, married woman. Like a woman who's come clear across the country to be a wife to a hard-
working man, who's promised to love, honor and obey that man, and who is about to set to work, cleaning up this house and cooking a meal for that hardworking man, while he goes out to do the chores.”

She stiffened her spine and jutted her chin forward. “You made the mess in here, mister. You can just clean it up yourself if you want it set to rights.”

“You're telling me you won't keep house and take your place as a wife?” She noted that his jaw was rigid again and his shoulders squared as if he prepared to do battle.

“I'll cook something for myself to eat,” she began, “and if there's any left over, you can have a bit. But don't expect to give me orders and have them followed.”

“Well, don't expect access to the food supply unless you plan to include me in your plans,” he said. “I'm not about to feed a wife if I'm to be left out of mealtimes.”

Her glance around the kitchen left her with no clue as to where he hid the food. “I don't suppose you have any supplies on hand, do you?” she asked.

“Wouldn't you like to know?” He smirked. There was no other word for the gleam of enjoyment in his eyes as he laughed at her.

“I don't suppose I need to eat after all,” she said. “I've managed to go without food for the past day or so. One more meal isn't going to make much of a difference, to my way of thinking.”

He sobered swiftly. “What are you talking about? You haven't eaten? Since when? Yesterday? What happened to the money I provided for your meals?”

She shrugged. “A thug stole my purse two days ago on the train, just as I was getting off, in fact. I already had the ticket
for the stage tucked into my—” She halted, unwilling to reveal the hiding place she'd used for the purpose.

“Tucked into—where?” he asked, his eyes making another slow survey of her person. Her shirtwaist seemed made of some transparent fabric, for she would have sworn he could see beneath it to the lacy vest and chemise she wore.

“None of your business,” she retorted. “And as to my eating, I've been without food more than once in my life. Another day or two won't kill me.”

“You'll eat,” he said. “While you live in my house, you'll eat.”

“You just got done telling me—”

“Never mind what I told you. I've changed my mind. You're entirely too skinny, and you need regular meals.”

She looked down at herself in disbelief. “I'm not skinny. In fact, my mother once told me—” She halted again, taken aback by the expression he wore, as if he could see into her mind and knew her very thoughts.

“Yes? Your mother told you—what? That you were well-endowed?” He grinned. “She would have been right on that account. Your bosom is beyond reproach.”

“Well, thank you very much, Mr. O'Reilly,” she sputtered.

“As to the rest of you, I'll warrant I could trace every rib if I were so inclined, and I'd be willing to bet you haven't an extra pound of weight on your —” His pause was long, his words slow in coming. “On your sweet little behind,” he finished softly, as if the words held some special import.

“Please,” she whispered. “Don't say things like that.”

He frowned down at her, and then in a swift movement that caught her off guard, he tugged her off balance and held her in a tight grip. “You'd better get used to it, sweetheart,” he murmured. “I plan on saying a lot more such things in the fu
ture. You seem to forget that you are my wife. Maybe in name only for now, but legally, and that's what really counts. We're married, honey, like it or not.”

“I don't,” she said. “You weren't what I expected at all. I thought I'd marry a gentleman, someone with class, the founder of a town, a man with dignity.”

He hooted, his laughter rebounding from the walls. “You want a man with dignity? You wouldn't know what to do with such a man. I could introduce you to the banker, Walter Powers. He's dignified. But then, he's also as ugly as the back end of a mule, so I can't see where you'd be any better off with him than with me.”

“What makes you think you're so great to look at?” she asked, even as she considered the question to be most foolish. He was rough and uncouth, but with the dark hair and sparkling eyes and the smiles that caught her unaware, he was a handsome man. And the idiot knew it, she'd warrant.

“I've been told I cut quite a figure,” he admitted. “Not that I care about what folks think of me.”

“Only the feminine part of the population.”

“Well, there is that,” he conceded. And then he sobered. “I care mostly what you think of me, honey, and right now, I don't think your opinion of me is very high.”

“I won't argue with that,” she agreed. “I've seen rats in the city with more to offer than the one I found here in Thunder Canyon.”

“Did any of them offer to marry you?” he asked “I not only paid your way here, but I married you without any hesitation. What more could you ask?”

“A little choice in the matter.”

“You made up your mind when you got on that train. Hell,
even before that. When you accepted the money for your fare, you were committed to me.”

“I didn't know you then,” she said.

“You don't know me now. But, you will, sweetheart. Sooner than you think.”

“I'm not sleeping in the same bed with you,” she told him, anticipating his insistence on that issue. “You can stay right down here in the same bed you've been using and I'll go upstairs and find somewhere else to put my pillow.”

“What pillow?” He grinned. “I have custody of all the pillows in the house. Not to mention the sheets and feather ticks.”

“You'd deny me a bed to sleep in?”

“Now,” he began, with a smile that threatened to become a full-blown chuckle, “you know better than that. I've got a nice, clean bed, soft as goose down, with clean sheets and nice, fluffy pillows. It's right at the top of the stairs, just waiting for you to set your dainty little feet inside the bedroom door and take possession.”

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