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Authors: Carolyn Davidson

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BOOK: Big Sky Rancher
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“No,” she said. “I can do it.” And then she closed her eyes and lowered her head, whispering a quick word of blessing on the food, feeling more thankful today than she had yesterday.

“Did you bless mine, too?” he asked, and she thought she detected more than a smidgen of mockery in his words.

“Yes, much as I was hoping you'd choke on it, I still asked for it to be consecrated on its way down your gullet.”

He laughed, a genuine, rich, rolling sound that pleased her. She'd given him a moment of pleasure, and found that fact to be more palatable than the meal facing her.

“You're a real piece of work, Jennifer,” he said as he settled back in his chair and gave her a thorough, unsettling glimpse of his interest in her person. His gaze skimmed her robe, seeming to peel away the fabric from her body, and she felt the heat of her own response.

Then he picked up his fork and set to with gusto, cleaning his plate in moments, wiping up the remnants of egg yolk with his bread. He'd done a credible job of slicing it, she noted, much better than she'd done yesterday.

He stood, gathered up his plate and utensils and placed them in the dishpan. “Don't bother trying to wash these,” he told her. “I'm going to hitch the team. I'll be back in no time and maybe you'll have some help.” He halted by the door. “If I can't talk Ida Bronson into coming back with me, I'll do the dishes myself.”

“Mrs. Bronson?” she parroted. “The lady who served as witness?”

“Yeah,” he said, stuffing his hat atop his head. “She's a widow lady who hires out to help sometimes when one of the ladies has a baby or needs a hand around the house.”

And if anyone ever needed a hand around the house, it was the newly wed Mrs. Lucas O'Reilly. At least that was the message his eyes telegraphed in her direction before he headed out the back door.

 

C
ONTRARY TO HIS DOUBTS
, he'd been successful in his quest. Mrs. Bronson was pleased, it seemed, to earn a bit of money for her efforts. She seemed shaken when Lucas told her of Jennifer's burns and without a moment's hesitation packed a small bag, tucking in a jar of some sort of salve, before she put herself at his disposal.

Now the lady stood in the middle of his kitchen and took a quick survey. “I'd say your poor little missus needs more than just a hand at this,” she said, directing a dark look at Lucas. “I doubt those windows have been washed in a month of Sundays, nor the floor, either, come to think of it.” She went to the sink, where Jennifer had obviously done her best to wash up the breakfast dishes and had left them to dry on the sink board.

“You've even made the poor girl do dishes, burned hand and all.”

“I told her not to touch them,” he said, his defenses up.

Her reply was a loud
humph
and Lucas was tempted to laugh out loud at the sound. The lady obviously didn't believe a word he said, but so long as she pitched in and gave Jennifer a hand, he didn't care one lick about her opinion of him. He'd thought on occasion that being the mayor of this town didn't guarantee a whole lot of respect from some of the folk here, and Ida Bronson seemed not to be any exception.

“Where's that little girl?” Mrs. Bronson asked, eyeing the pantry door as if he might have hidden his bride in the depths of that narrow space.

“Probably gone back upstairs,” Lucas ventured. “I'll go take a look.”

He left the widow lady in his kitchen and climbed the stairs. Jennifer was, indeed, in their bedroom, half-clothed, intent on donning her petticoat. Somehow she'd managed to put her vest and drawers in place, and even a blind man could make out the assortment of curves beneath those two pieces of apparel.

Lucas was not blind. Far from it, in fact, and he halted in the doorway, enjoying the view in front of his eyes.

Jennifer looked up at him, flushed and frustrated. “Come and tie this thing, will you?” she asked, holding the tapes in one hand as she attempted to hold her petticoat in place with the other. Her bandages hampered her and she was obviously ready to cry again, spurring him into action.

“Just hang on, sweetheart,” he said. “Let me help.” His big fingers felt awkward. Strange, he thought, that it was simpler to get a woman out of her clothes than it was to put her back into them. Setting that image aside as unworthy of him as a new husband, he lifted her dress over her head and buttoned her into it.

“Shoes and stockings?” he asked, and was given a look almost guaranteed to sear paint from the wall.

“I'll wear my slippers,” she said, fumbling with one hand in her valise. The slippers appeared with little effort expended on her part and she dropped them to the floor, then slid her feet into them.

“Your help is waiting in the kitchen,” Lucas told her. “Mrs. Bronson came back with me, and she's all set to put things to rights. Starting with my dirty windows and floors.”

“It's not surprising,” Jennifer said. “And from there, she'll no doubt locate a dust cloth and start on the furniture.”

“Just don't let her forget to make dinner before she gets out of the kitchen,” Lucas said, deciding to ignore Jennifer's remark about dust. The reason that women got all het up about a little fuzz on the furnishings was beyond his understanding. His mother had been the same way, back when he was a child and thought that writing his name on a steamy window was great fun.

She'd quickly disabused him of that notion and handed him a vinegar dampened cloth to clean the whole set of panes, and
he'd learned his lesson: women had funny notions when it came to what went on in the house. Nothing had changed his mind on that subject since, even though his mother had tried.

He thought of the woman who'd borne him, recalling her soft voice, her rough hands that had spread warm turpentine on his chest when he had a cold, that had comforted him when he'd fallen and scraped a knee or cut a finger with his pocketknife.

She was dead and gone, leaving him only a few inanimate objects as a legacy—the apron he'd hung in silent reminder of the only woman who'd loved him, the box of home remedies he'd used for Jennifer's benefit only yesterday and the chest in the attic, holding mementoes of her past. Those long years when she'd worked hard at being a wife and mother had culminated with her dying on a spring morning, long after her only son had left home. He hadn't even made it back in time for her funeral.

“Are you all right?” This time Jennifer asked him the question and he blinked and nodded.

“Yes, I'm fine. Just thinking of something.”

“It must not have been a happy memory,” she ventured. “You looked almost…almost sad.”

He cleared his throat. “I suppose I was, there, for a minute.”

“Shall we go down and see Mrs. Bronson now?”

“You gonna do something with your hair first?” He wanted to know. “I like it that way, but it's not as neat as you had it when you got here.”

“Maybe Mrs. Bronson will braid it for me,” she said, lifting her left hand to brush loose strands from her face. It was a futile gesture, for the wave settled back into place in mere seconds. Snatching up a brush and a short length of ribbon from a small, metal box she'd taken from her valise, she faced him expectantly.

“I'm ready.”

And she was, as bright-eyed as the bluebirds that sat on the fence posts and seemed to take over ownership of the yard. Or maybe she was more like the chickadees, he decided, small and sassy, yet neat as a pin, even with her hair down and bare feet stuck into her slippers.

 

“H
ELLO THERE
,
MISSY
,” Mrs. Bronson said as they found her sorting through the pantry shelves. The jars and cans seemed to be in a different order, Jennifer thought, and indeed they were. Lined up by content, they made the pantry look like a mirror image of the room just off her mother's kitchen. Although not as complete a store of food as her mother's cook kept on hand, Lucas's supplies were adequate for their use.

“I see you've got you a lard barrel,” Mrs. Bronson said to her employer. Lucas stood in the kitchen, looking past Jennifer at the small, stout lady who had set about putting his kitchen in order.

“It's full of pork,” he said. “From the last pig I butchered, in November.” And then he corrected himself. “Well, not full exactly, but there's enough meat in there to feed us for some time to come.”

“Meat in a barrel of lard?” Jennifer asked. “I've never heard of such a thing.”

“Well, you have now,” Lucas told her. “How do you suppose we manage to keep meat without it spoiling?”

“I suppose that's never been at the top of my list of things to worry about.”

He frowned. “Well, you'd better start thinking a little more about such things. If you're planning on being a good wife, you'll need to take hold and work at it.”

“Now, don't be giving the girl a hard time.” Mrs. Bronson came to Jennifer's defense. “She's only gotten her feet wet, so to speak, and you're pouncing on her and expecting her to be up to snuff in one day. It doesn't work thataway, Lucas O'Reilly.” She smiled at Jennifer. “Here, let me fix your hair,” she said, reaching for the brush and bit of ribbon. Lucas's forehead creased in a frown and his lips tightened as he watched Ida Bronson set to work.

“I can see I'll be battling the pair of you,” he said finally. “Well, just go ahead and do as you please while I take care of things out in the barn.”

His blue eyes flashed as he settled his gaze on Jennifer, whose hair was now all braided and ribboned. “I suspect you will anyway,” he said, and then he grinned, in a quick reversal that stunned her. “It's gonna be interesting,” he said, “this living with two women, both of you ready to take my head off if I make a misstep.”

“I already told him he was a jackass and I doubt I'll be changing my mind anytime soon,” Jennifer said as the screen door slammed behind her husband. In the pantry, Mrs. Bronson only laughed beneath her breath and continued to sort out the shelves.

“What are planning on fixing for supper, girl?” she asked, scooping up two jars from the bottom shelf of canned good. “And where do you suppose that man got these vegetables, all nicely put in Mason jars. I'll warrant you he didn't can up the garden himself.”

“Probably smiled at some pretty lady and persuaded her to feed him.”

Ida sniffed and passed through into the kitchen. “Can't say that I've ever heard a word of gossip about the boy, now that
I think of it. 'Course, that doesn't mean he hadn't done any wandering around in someone's rose garden on a dark night.”

She set the jars on the table and returning to the pantry. “How about some fried pork chops?” she asked. “Unless you have something else in mind?”

“How about ground glass?” Jennifer suggested, then regretted the words as Mrs. Bronson shook her head.

“Don't be nasty about the man, girl. He's just a man, don't forget. And that part of the population don't always use their heads. Except for a hatrack, my momma used to say.”

“Well, pork chops sound fine to me,” Jennifer told her. “I'd better let you in on a little secret, though. I don't know what to do with them, although I suspect I can put them in the skillet and cook them awhile.”

“Never mind, child. I'll show you how to bread them and bake 'em in the oven. Makes a real tasty meal like that, and we can peel some potatoes and fix them up with milk and flour and such. Your man won't know what to say when he finds out what a good cook you turned out to be.”

“I won't lie to him,” Jennifer said. “He knows better, especially after yesterday. I broke three out of four yolks when I fried the eggs and the meat I cooked with them crumbled up into a mess and got mixed up with the eggs and—”

Mrs. Bronson held up her hand. “Hush, now. I don't want to hear it. All good cooks break a few eggs now and then, and sometimes canned beef does thataway.” She looked askance at Jennifer. “It was preserved beef you used? In a Mason
jar?

“No, out of a can. It said it was corned, whatever that means.”

“Hmm. I'll bet that tasted interesting anyway, didn't it? Next time, stick to bacon, honey. Goes better with eggs, any day of the week.”

“Lucas managed to cook eggs for breakfast without breaking the yolks,” Jennifer admitted.

“He's probably had more practice than you,” the widow lady said, and then nodded at Jennifer. “You'll do just fine, girl.”

“Well, I'll do whatever you tell me,” Jennifer said with a lump in her throat. “But I don't even know where the potatoes might be, let alone how to fix them.” And wasn't that the truth? She was feeling more helpless and worthless by the minute, and cooking seemed to be an occupation for someone a whole lot more intelligent than she'd ever hoped to be.

“If he hasn't got any stashed in the cellar, then he's probably got some canned up by that friendly woman you were talking about a while ago,” Ida said with a grin. “Why don't you go down and scout around, see what you can find?”

“Where's the cellar?” Jennifer asked. “At home, we had a door off the kitchen and a set of stairs going down. I haven't noticed any such thing here.”

“Well, land sakes, girl,” her mentor said with a laugh. “I just thought you knew that any respectable farmhouse has a fruit cellar. You go out back and look for a door lyin' on the ground, kinda at a slant. Just lift on the handle and you'll find a set of stairs.”

Jennifer was doubtful, but managed to swallow her discomfort and go outside. There, just to the right of the back porch, was the slanted door. With relief, she pulled it open with a mighty effort, then made her way down the rough steps into a room under the house. It was cool and damp within, and she felt a tingle of fear climb her spine as she considered whether there might be mice or even snakes there. But not both, she thought, her good sense kicking in. Snakes were fond of eating mice. It was a fact she'd learned somewhere, sometime.

BOOK: Big Sky Rancher
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