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"The Chicken Coop? Aunt Adele willed me a poultry house?"
Sheriff Adam Caldwell looked down at the woman who'd recently disembarked from the stagecoach and scratched the back of his neck. "Well, not exactly, ma'am."
She looked back at him with eyes the color of strong chicory coffee. "What exactly is it, then?"
He blew out a breath, considering how best to tell her. Not being much of a conversationalist, he usually left things like this--things not involving shooting folks--to his deputy, Will Martinson. Unfortunately, Will was also the town doctor and he'd been called away for a fever, leaving Adam to meet the stage and Miss Adele's niece.
Rebecca Hamilton was a mousy little thing, the top of her head barely reaching his armpit. She wore a plain dress in an ugly gray color, and had light blonde hair pulled back into a knot so tight he was surprised it didn't pull her eyes closed. She was dainty, but possessed of plain features and very pale skin. Her eyes, though, those could drown a man.
"Sheriff Caldwell, I don't mean to sound rude or ungrateful for your time, but I am utterly exhausted. As you may imagine, the trip from Springfield, Massachusetts to Gardiner, Texas is quite grueling. I would like to settle this business so I can visit my aunt's final resting place before retiring."
There was nothing plain about her voice, either, an attribute she shared with her mother's dead sister. It was deep and smoky, and sounded like pure sin. If she could sing anything like her aunt, every man in town would throw himself at her feet.
"It's a whorehouse, ma'am."
He hadn't guessed she could get any paler, but he'd beenwrong. Maybe he should have softened up the news a bit. When she staggered he thought he might have to catch her, but she righted herself, although she did drop her ugly, gray bag into the dirt street next to the trunk he'd lugged for her.
"Are you saying Aunt Adele bequeathed to me a house of ... of..."
"But that's ridiculous! I don't know anything about running ... such a place. I've never even--"
She broke off, covering her mouth with one hand, but she couldn't hide the red blush of embarrassment staining her white cheeks.
Adam felt an answering flush of heat down below his gunbelt. She was a damn virgin. And pretty, despite not being his usual type. Since he never trucked with whores--ever--and he had no wish to find himself staring down the barrel of an irate papa's shotgun, Adam tended to stick to widows.
But it seemed to him that initiating a woman in the ways of pleasure would be a mighty sweet thing. And also maybe something he should think about when she wasn't staring at him like he was in her worst nightmare in a black hat.
"My aunt was a ... a..."
There wasn't much chance she could run the place if she couldn't even say the word. And dammit, but Will would know just the right thing to say to her if only he were there. "Miss Adele was a good woman. She was beautiful and smart as hell, too, so don't go thinking she was just any old whore."
She slapped him hard, right across the cheekbone. Coming from the mouse, it took him by surprise and actually stung a bit.
He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and squeezed just hard enough to make her gasp. "I've shot people for less offense than that, Miss Hamilton."
"Then shoot me," she snapped, wrenching her hand free. "Just stop saying that word."
"Ma'am, I'm real sorry about your situation. But the fact is, your aunt was a whore. She owned a whorehouse. Now you own a whorehouse. It may not be pretty, but not saying the words don't make it any prettier."
She sighed deeply and, though he felt like a heel, he couldn't keep himself from watching what that did to her breasts. Like her eyes and her voice, they couldn't be considered plain, either. Why, he bet loosed from that ugly gray dress, they'd--
"What am I supposed to do?" she whispered with a tone of despair that made him feel pretty damn rotten about the direction his thoughts had headed.
"I can take you to the hotel, ma'am, and you can wait for the next stage back to where you came from."
"And what about my..." she waved a hand at the Chicken Coop, "...whorehouse?"
Adam admired the way she managed to spit the word out. Her back was nice and straight now, and she was picking her chin up. "We can arrange for you to sell it, I reckon."
"I can't go back. And I have no other place to go."
It fascinated him, the way he could almost see her reaching deep down, digging up some backbone.
"I can do this," she continued, almost to herself. "I can ... wait! I wouldn't have to actually ... you know ... myself, would I?"
"No!" Adam replied a little too emphatically, drawing the attention of a lot of passers-by. Everybody in town knew who was expected on the stage, and he didn't need to be yelling at her in the street. But the thought of Rebecca Hamilton giving her virginity to the first randy cowboy with a dollar in his pocket made his gut knot up tighter than her hair. "I'll marry you."
Holy shit, where the hell had that come from?
It was that damn Will Martinson's fault. Since the doc went and married that damn women's libber of his two weeks back, he'd been about the most contented fool Adam had ever seen. Made marriage look downright attractive.
And it maybe wouldn't be so bad. Rebecca seemed like a solid, quiet type of woman who'd keep a good house and cook a fine meal, but not get hysterical with the vapors when he had to shoot somebody. It wasn't a half-bad idea at all.
The woman, on the other hand, looked as though a rattlesnake had just slithered up her drawers and bitten her on the ass.
She opened and closed her mouth a few times before anything came out. "I just slapped you."
"That's true. I guess it wouldn't be right for the sheriff to marry such a violent woman." Damn, but this was awkward, and wouldn't be happening at all if Will didn't have to go running after every kid who felt a little warm to his mama.
The sun beat down hot as blazes on his head, and right then Adam wanted nothing more than to put his hat on and walk away. He was making a fool of himself, and that was a rare occurrence.
"Why in heaven's name would you propose to a total stranger?" the woman asked, and he supposed it was a reasonable question. Just one he didn't have a reasonable answer to.
"You don't seem to have too many choices, and I guess I could do with a wife."
"How very flattering, Sheriff Caldwell."
"And you're pretty enough."
"You should stop talking now."
"Okay." That suited him just fine. Nothing good ever came of talking. Shooting people, now that was an effective form of communication.
He watched her look over the front of the Chicken Coop. It was a big building in decent repair. A small, discreet sign in the front window gave only the name of the place. The curtains were thick and always closed. Lucy Barnes, self-proclaimed leader of the Gardiner Bible Brigade had caught a too-young man peeking in the windows a while back and, after a feud that threatened to level the town, Miss Adele had conceded to the curtains.
The tall false front was allowed to weather naturally, as were most in Gardiner. The wind and the sand made whitewashing a mostly useless endeavor. But along the front of the building, in the sporadic and shallow shadows where the Coop met the sidewalk, the chickens grew flowers in clay pots. It took a sight of work to keep them thriving, but the girls never said a word if a child picked a bloom for a mama's birthday or when a man couldn't resist taking one home to his sweetheart.
Yup, those chickens were good women. Too bad about the whoring, though.
"You're very kind to offer marriage," Rebecca said after a few minutes. "I'm simply too overwhelmed and too exhausted to make any decisions regarding my future just now."
"I understand," Adam said, surprised to feel a little disappointed. He didn't even know the woman. Maybe it was just on account of her being a virgin.
"I suppose I should go in and meet the..."
"Chickens," Adam supplied for her.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Miss Adele referred to the ladies as her chickens. She loved them all something fierce and treated them real good."
"That's good to know." She swallowed hard. "Will you introduce me to them?"
Now it was Adam's turn to sigh. "I would, ma'am, but I make it a point not to visit the Chicken Coop."
"Since you proposed, you may as well call me Rebecca. And isn't that attitude slightly hypocritical considering what you've said to me?"
"It ain't that I don't like whores, ma'am. Rebecca. I just avoid them as a rule. An old woman once told me ... never mind all that."
"What about my trunk? It's too heavy for me to carry inside."
"I can set it by the door. Doc will be by soon to introduce himself and he'll drag it in."
Rebecca shook her head. "I can't leave it outside. It's all I own in the world. Well ... besides a whorehouse, of course."
Then she managed a smile and Adam felt it like a mule kick to his gut. Lord almighty, the woman had dimples. He was a sucker for dimples. Always had been. Chivalry wasn't the only thing that raised its head.
"I reckon I could make an exception just this once," he said as--manners be damned--he put his hat back on. He was burning up, and it had to be the sun. "On one condition."
"There's always a condition," she muttered.
"I'd take it as a kindness if you didn't tell anybody I proposed marriage to you."
There were those damn dimples again. "Having cold feet already, Sheriff?"
"Sweetheart, you say the word and I'll fetch the preacher right now. When I say something, I stand by it." He ran a hand over the back of his neck. "The thing is, my reputation for being a cold, mean son of a bitch--excuse the language--goes a long way toward keeping the peace around here."
"I won't tell anybody you have a soft spot for damsels in distress," she promised, her dark eyes crinkling when she smiled.
It must have been the voice getting to him, because he leaned down close to her. "I meet a lot of damsels in my line of work, little mouse, but you're the first one I've ever offered to marry."
Rebecca Hamilton hadn't been in trouble since she was a young girl, but she knew it when she saw it. Or when she was neck-deep in it.
For fifteen years--since her mother's death--she'd been a model young lady, tirelessly and quietly maintaining her father's household. She'd been as sturdy and functional as a fine piece of furniture, only less noticed, right up until his recent passing.
Now she was a thief, owned a whorehouse and had a marriage proposal from a man who made her body feel all sorts of things it wasn't accustomed to feeling.
Overwhelmed didn't even begin to describe her current emotional state as the sheriff bowed his head close to say those words to her.
He was so ... big. Big and dark and hard looking, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. His tanned leather skin and longish black hair would have made him stand out dreadfully in the New England society from which she'd come, and his eyes were even darker than her own. So dark in fact, she could scarcely make out the pupil.
He was obviously uncomfortable making conversation, but everything about him was so intense she doubted he ever had trouble getting his point across.
Not waiting for her reaction to his remarkable statement, he easily hoisted her trunk and nodded for her to precede him through the door.
Rebecca took a deep breath before reaching for the latch. She'd never even seen the outside of a house of ill-repute that she knew of, never mind the inside. And now this one belonged to her.
After standing in the overly bright Texas sunlight for so long, she couldn't see a thing after stepping inside. But she could hear the growing buzz of feminine excitement.
"Oh my gosh, I can't believe you're here!" a woman squealed.
Rebecca blinked and tried to muster a smile as her eyesight adjusted. Then she realized the breathless welcome wasn't for her. Four ladies, in various stages of undress, were gathering around the sheriff.
This, at least, Rebecca was familiar with. Comfortable in her renewed invisibility, she drifted into a shadowy corner, taking in her surroundings.
She didn't believe she'd ever seen a red velvet settee before, but now she'd not only seen two, she actually owned them. The walls were covered in a pattern consisting of gilded trellises sprouting red roses. Colorful and expensive looking rugs softened the hardwood floors. Gilt lamps, ornate painting frames and tasseled throw pillows accented the room. Gaudy was the first word to come to mind.
"No, I ain't staying," Adam said in a voice that got her attention. "I only came in to carry Miss Hamilton's trunk."
Four sets of kohl-lined eyes turned her way. They were sizing her up, waiting for a reaction, and all she could think about was how they had intimate relations with men for money.
"I'm Fiona," the youngest-looking of the four said. She had china-fine skin and black curls, and a slim figure clad in an emerald corset and matching skirt. "We surely are glad you've come, Miss Rebecca."
"Thank you," she managed to say, but further words escaped her.
Fortunately Fiona was the talkative type and introduced the other three women. Chickens, she reminded herself. The sheriff said Aunt Adele had called them her chickens.
Betty was a plump, busty redhead with a warm, charming smile. Holly looked anxious and shy, twirling brown strands of hair around her fingers as she stood slightly behind the others. And Sadie, who had blonde hair a little darker than her own, had a hand rested protectively over a swell in her dressing robe.
"Are you--" Rebecca started, but she bit off the words. It didn't seem polite to ask.
"I have a baby in me," Sadie said quietly, almost sadly. "Miss Adele, she was letting me do chores to earn my keep until after it's born, and I been hoping you'll let me continue on that way."
"I ... of course."
It took every ounce of strength left in Rebecca not to sway on her feet when she realized she was not only responsible for her own well-being now, but for that of these four woman. And one of them expecting a child.
"That's your bedroom straight down there," Fiona said, pointing down the hall. "Sheriff, you take her trunk back for her. Sadie made you some refreshments and we'll get a bath run for you."
Relieved to be free from the scrutiny of the women, Rebecca preceded the sheriff down the hall so she could open the door for him.
After everything else, Aunt Adele's bedroom was almost too much. She blinked, trying to get her eyes to take it all in. From what little she'd seen, Rebecca had already guessed her aunt harbored a predilection toward garishness, but the woman had clearly given herself free rein in this room.
While the wallpaper and carpets were the same, this bedroom contained even more gilt and scarlet, along with some artwork that made her feel so faint she had to look away. And the centerpiece of the room was a massive bed with brass rails, all done up in red satin. A great deal of red satin. Rebecca felt downright sinful just looking at it.
A masculine throat-clearing behind her made her jump. The poor sheriff still had her trunk, waiting for her to move, so she very reluctantly stepped aside.
But he stopped just as she had and stared around the room in horror. "Damna ... holy..."
"I gather my aunt was fond of scarlet," Rebecca said when she realized Adam Caldwell wasn't going to come up with any response he could speak in her presence.
"How's a person supposed to get a decent night's sleep in a room like this?"
Rebecca didn't think decent was the point, but she wasn't about to say it aloud.
"I hope it's all right," Fiona said from behind the sheriff. "We cleaned it up and laundered everything. Dusted and such, trying to make it pretty."
"It's very..." Rebecca floundered for a word. "Cheerful. It's very cheerful and bright."
And even as she said it, she realized it was true. After spending her entire life in the tastefully subdued and quiet tones of her father's home, this room practically shouted in unabashed joy.
Or unabashed ... something. Rebecca found her eye drawn to the oil painting hung over the dressing table. The voluptuous nude reclined on a settee, her head thrown back in abandon as she fondled her own very ample breasts. Rebecca's fascination and curiosity kept her gaze on the seemingly rouged nipples peeking through the woman's fingers until she realized the sheriff was watching her.
His dark gaze was so intense, almost devouring her, and she felt a rush of heat through her body she'd never felt before. She knew the burn of her cheeks must be visible to him, but she prayed he wouldn't guess the turmoil his look caused.
His eyes flicked to the portrait, then back to her. Without uttering a word he set her trunk down with a thump, tipped his hat and fled the room. Rebecca heard the front door slam a moment later.
"The sheriff don't care much for whores," Fiona explained, "and he ain't well-mannered, so don't mind him. I'll go start your bath."
Just like that Rebecca found herself alone with her thoughts overwhelmed and her body besieged by new sensations in a den of iniquity that now belonged to her.