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One Texas Night
By Jodi Thomas
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Jodi Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFort Worth, Fall, 1889
Hank Harris squared his shoulders, forcing himself not to slump as he passed through the doorway of the Tucker dugout. He stepped into the one-room home with dread settling around his heart like sand.
At six feet six he knew he was destined to hit his head any time he ventured indoors. Seemed like houses all got too short about the time he started growing whiskers. Now, at thirty-one, he'd spent half his life watching out for low rafters.
He caught himself wishing that was all he had to watch out for tonight.
"Welcome, Mr. Harris!" a female bellowed as if he wasn't standing within reach of her. "Trust you made the five miles from Fort Worth without any problem. That north wind has sure been howling all day." The woman winked boldly. "I'll bet you think it's calling you home to that mound of dust folks call Amarillo."
Hank removed his hat and nodded, not wanting to encourage conversation. Dolly Tucker's shrill voice could strike kindling in a dry stove. He only prayed that her tone wasn't hereditary.
He couldn't stop the smile that wrinkled his normally hard mouth. Maybe he should be praying for himself. After all, he was the one fool enough to agree to meet Dolly's little sister. Most folks would say he had no right to be criticizing others. He wasn't the kind of man anyone would mistake as good-looking and, with the price of cattle dropping, any wealth he had lay far in the future.
I'm a hard worker though, he reminded himself. And honest. If I ever get a wife, I'll never mistreat her. That should be worth something in this world.
"You're looking all cleaned and pressed," Dolly yelled as she patted his arm. "You must have stopped at the creek." She waddled around him like a round little toy. "Your hair still looks wet."
Hank didn't know how to answer. He had no intention of discussing his bathing habits with the woman. In truth, he could never remember discussing anything but the weather with the fairer sex.
When he'd seen Dolly's husband, Charlie Tucker, at the stockyard in Fort Worth a few hours ago, it had seemed simple. Dolly's sister was visiting from Chicago and Charlie said they'd like him to meet her. He had even insisted that Hank stop by around suppertime.
Hank knew what that meant. They were introducing her to all the single men in West Texas. He'd played the game before a few times in the ten years he'd been ranching. He was respectable enough for a brother-in-law to introduce. He owned his own spread, was single, didn't drink to excess. But Hank also guessed that if Charlie was rounding up prospects, he might as well take his place at the back of the line.
On the bright side, he'd get a home-cooked meal for his trouble and Hank figured that made the ride out worthwhile.
"Would you like some coffee, Mr. Harris?" Dolly didn't give him time to answer before shouting, "Charlie Ray, pour him a cup while I go to the barn and find Agnes. It's almost dark. She should be able to guess it's about time for supper. The world can't always run on her schedule."
Hank swallowed hard. Agnes was close to the ugliest name he'd ever heard. That must be why they keep her in the barn. Either that or the girl talked like her sister and poor Charlie would be deaf if he heard the voice coming from two directions at once.
Another thought crossed his mind. What if Agnes wasn't bright enough to know the time of day? Some men in this part of the country weren't too particular, but knowing the time seemed a necessary skill.
Dolly's husband moved to the iron stove and burned his hand grabbing the pot. Hank fought down a laugh. What was it about some men? They seem to live perfectly well by themselves for years. Then they get married and act like they've never been near a stove.
"I appreciate you stopping by," Charlie mumbled as he finally managed to pour a cup.
Hank nodded, knowing he was just doing a favor for a friend. Men like Hank lived alone. No woman would have wanted to start out with nothing like he'd had to and, by the time he could afford more than a three-room house, he'd be too old and hardened for a woman to be interested.
Before Hank's coffee cooled enough to drink, someone tapped at the door.
Hank stood ready to offer his hand as more guests arrived. He wasn't surprised to see the young banker most of the cattlemen used while they were in Fort Worth. William J. Randell always seemed fair and wore clothes that looked like he must have ordered them from somewhere up north without bothering to take his measurements. He had a habit of playing with his watch fob when he was nervous, which would have made him easy pickings at a poker table. His hair curled in thin waves over his head making him look older than Hank guessed him to be.
The man behind Randell looked almost the same age, only Hank had never seen him before. He was stockier and stood with his feet wide apart as if expecting a fight to break out as he entered the dugout.
"Potter," the stranger said as he shook hands without waiting for Charlie to introduce him. "Potter Stockton at your service." His smile never reached his dark eyes.
Hank felt like counting his fingers to make sure they were all still there when the handshake ended. Something about Stockton didn't seem right. He was too friendly, too eager, too forward for a man not running for office. Hank found himself thinking a little less of the banker for keeping company with Potter.
Charlie Tucker didn't seem to notice. He offered the two men a seat and grinned. Before he could pour more coffee, Dolly returned alone from the barn. Her little marble blue eyes sparkled as she counted the bachelors at her kitchen table.
Within minutes, Hank was forgotten, which suited him fine. Dolly made over first the banker, then Potter Stockton, who explained he worked for the railroad. As Dolly served the food and insisted they eat, she kept the questions coming in rapid fire.
William J. Randell told all about the big family he came from in Ohio and Potter Stockton said he had relatives in Tennessee who were related to the royals in Europe. Hank kept quiet. As far as he knew he had no living relative. His mother left them when he'd been three and his father worked their small farm around Tyler, Texas, until he died before Hank turned twenty. The sale of that farm had given Hank his start near Amarillo.
They were halfway through the meal before Charlie got a word in to ask about his sister-in-law Agnes.
"She'll be along," Dolly scolded her husband as if no one would have remembered the reason they'd all been asked to dinner if Charlie hadn't mentioned it. "We'll be eating at midnight if we wait on her."
Hank pushed food back and forth on his plate, feeling like the walls were closing in around him. He'd always hated dugouts. Everyone said they were warm and protected from the weather since they were built half into the ground, but he felt like he was half buried in them. Even through the cooking odors, he could smell damp earth.
When he stood, mumbling something about taking care of his horse, no one in the room noticed him leave. He felt cheated. Though he had no hope of finding a bride, he had thought Dolly could cook. He would have had a better meal at the café by the train station.
Once outside, he stepped into the blackness between the two small windows and took a deep breath, wishing he could ride back to town. Waiting on the platform for the midnight train north would be better than going back inside. But if he just left, it would be an insult to both Charlie and the invisible Agnes. There was an unwritten law that said the girl, no matter how homely or dumb, had the right to turn away any man who came calling.
And he'd been dumb enough to come calling, even if it was wrapped in a dinner invitation.
He knew he'd be leaving alone. Both men inside were better-looking, better dressed, and probably had more money than him. Potter said he could dance and was a crack shot. Hank had never shot at anything he couldn't eat. William Randell bragged about building a two-story house in town and said he was up for a promotion at the bank. Potter swore he'd be in the cream of Fort Worth society in five years. They were dueling braggarts and Hank wanted no part of it.
"It's bad in there, isn't it?" a voice whispered from the blackness on the other side of the window.
Hank jerked away, almost knocking himself out on the low-hanging roof. He had no doubt the voice belonged to the missing sister, but she'd scared a year off his life when she spoke. In the night, he couldn't make out even an outline of her. "Yep," was all he could think to say.
"Dolly and Charlie Ray mean to marry me off," she whispered after a long silence. "Dolly's been planning it all day."
He wasn't sure if she talked to him or herself. "You Agnes?"
Dumb question, he thought. Who else would be out here this time of night?
"Yep," she echoed him, but without the accent it didn't sound natural. "I'm the old maid sister who's being passed around. If I don't get married here, I'm due in Austin at my oldest sister's place next month. Kind of like a traveling sideshow. Dress me up and put an apple in my mouth."
Hank couldn't stop the laugh. "I'm sorry," he quickly added. "I never gave much thought to the other side of this game."
"Sorry for what? For laughing or for me?"
"Both, I guess."
"My poppa sent me west before I rotted on the vine in Chicago. You see, I'm the last of five girls. The only one not claimed. As soon as I'm married, my poppa plans to take another wife. There's not room in the little apartment behind his shop for two women. I'm delaying his plan. I'm as much in the way in my home as I am here."
Hank smiled. He knew how she felt. "The runt of the litter, last to be picked," he mumbled, then thought he might have offended her.
Before he could say he was sorry again, she laughed. "That's right. I'm only half the woman my sister is."
Hank glanced in the window and watched Dolly waddle past. He couldn't say anything without insulting Charlie's wife so he changed the subject. "Don't you want to get married?"
"Not really. Do you?"
"No," he said honestly. "I like living alone. Running on my own clock."
His eyes had adjusted to the night enough that he could make out her shadow. She appeared short, like her sister, but not as round.
"But why not marry? For a woman, it seems like the best life." He couldn't help but add, "Unless you hate the cooking and cleaning part?"
The shadow lifted her head with a snap. "Women do more than cook and clean."
He'd said the wrong thing. She couldn't even see how homely he was and she was still rejecting him. "I know, but it helps if they can cook a little."
Agnes laughed suddenly and he liked the sound.
"You've been eating Dolly's pot roast, haven't you?"
"Trying to." He wished she would step into the light. "What do you like to do ... Agnes?" Her name stumbled off his tongue.
"Back home, I helped my father in his workshop. He was a gunsmith. Sold the best weapons in the state and repaired the others."
"You liked working in his shop?"
"No," she answered. "I liked repairing guns in the back. I wish I'd been born a man. I'd love working on my own little workbench all day and coming home to a hot meal. It's always appeared to me that a wife was more an unpaid servant than a partner. I'd hate that, so I don't see much point to marriage.
If I could, I'd open my own repair shop, but I have no seed money and none of my family thinks it would be a respectable kind of place for a woman to have. So, I'm cursed to circle my sisters' houses looking for a husband."
Hank leaned against the building. He could hear Dolly's voice asking if anyone wanted more pie, but he didn't glance toward the window to see if any victims had volunteered.
"Would you marry someone if it was a true partnership? Each taking care of himself, taking turns with shared duties. Each supporting the other in whatever work."
"No one bossing the other, or controlling?" She leaned closer, almost crossing into the light.
Hank had no idea where his thoughts were going, but for once he wasn't talking to a woman about the weather, so he decided to keep talking. "Right. Just two partners sharing the same house. Both bring in what they can as far as money goes. Both respecting the other's privacy."
"No wifely duties? No children coming every year?"
Hank thought he knew what she was talking about. He shook his head, then remembered she couldn't see him and added, "None. They'd each have their own room, their own things, their own lives." He'd seen men who ordered their wife around as if she were a slave. On the other side, he had watched a few women bossing their man in the same tone. In truth, he couldn't remember ever seeing a couple stand as equals.
The one memory he had of his mother circled among his thoughts, not quite substance but more than dream. A tall woman sitting by the window, ignoring all the world around her, including him. Long after she'd gone, Hank remembered asking his father why she'd left. His father had only mumbled that she didn't want children. They'd never spoken of her again.
Hank glanced across the darkness, pushing the image aside, trying to understand the woman only a foot away.
They were both silent for a few minutes, then she whispered, "I'd marry like that. A partnership. In fact, I'd consider it heaven. But even if I found a man willing to follow those rules, what's to make him keep his word? He could lock me in the house and beat me, and no one would stop him."
"You're the gunsmith, Agnes. You should be able to figure that one out. Ask for his guns as a promise. No man but a fool would stand in front of a barrel, even in the grip of a woman."
She laughed, then offered her hand across the light of the window. "It was a pleasure talking to you, but I have to go in and turn those two down before they die of food poisoning."
He took her tiny hand in his. "I wish you luck, Agnes," he said, realizing how much he meant it.
Just before she shoved at the door, she whispered, "My friends call me Aggie."
He placed his hand above her head and added his strength to hers. "Aggie," he said so close to her that he could feel her hair brush his face as the door opened. "I like that name."
Chapter TwoHank blinked at the light as he stepped inside. Aggie walked ahead of him and stopped just over the threshold as if too afraid to go on.
He looked at the two men at the table. They both glared open-mouthed at her as if she were some kind of creature and not human. His fist clinched, and if she hadn't been in front of him, he might have closed their mouths with one blow. He didn't care what she looked like; she seemed a kind person who had a right to some degree of respect.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she said as if she hadn't noticed the way they stared. "One of the calves Charlie brought home from the stockyard is sick, and I had to make sure he'd eat before I came in."
Charlie smiled a lopsided grin and shrugged as if taking the blame for his sister-in-law's tardiness. "Once in a while they cull out the little fellows too weak to make the trip north. If I don't bring them home, I have to bury them behind the lot."
No one but Hank seemed to be listening.
Potter and William bumped heads trying to stand at the same time. Both were stumbling over words.
Hank stood behind Aggie, proud of her. She timidly offered her hand to each as if these two idiots made sense. The banker started playing with his watch chain and Potter talked even faster than he had at dinner. They were both "honored" and "privileged" to meet her.
The banker pumped her hand up and down so fast Hank feared he might break bone.
Potter kissed her fingers while he mumbled something in French. Hank would bet even money that he learned the phrase in Fort Worth's rough section called Hell's Half Acre.
If Hank didn't know better, he'd swear both men had been drinking.
"And Agnes, I believe you must have met Hank as you came in." Charlie sat down, adding only, "He often does business at the stockyard when he's in town."
Aggie turned to offer her hand to Hank.
"Nice to meet ..." was all he got out before he saw her face. He'd braced himself for a plain girl, maybe one with pockmarks or scars, thick glasses or a birthmark. But what he saw almost buckled his knees.
She had the face of an angel, with perfect skin and curly auburn hair tied into a mass of curls at the base of her neck. And, he noticed, the devil twinkling in her blue-green eyes.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Harris," she said shyly. "Would you like a slice of my sister's pie?"
Excerpted from One Texas Night by Jodi Thomas Copyright © 2013 by Jodi Thomas. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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