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May 1893 Knotty Pine, Texas
H e needed a wife and he needed one soon.
Eli Reynolds strode through town, ignoring the intermittent drizzle as he pondered his current situation. According to the workmen he'd hired, the renovations to his newly acquired home would be ready by the end of next week. Once that was done he and Penny would no longer have a legitimate reason to remain at the boardinghouse.
Which meant his time was running out.
Because no matter what the cost, he was determined to be married, or at least have wedding plans, before he moved himself and his nine-year-old half sister into that house. Mrs. Collins, the widow who ran the boarding-house where he and Penny were staying, was doing a good job of watching over his sister for the time being. But leaving an impressionable young girl like Penny in the care of a housekeeper or governess every day while he went to his office at the bank was an unacceptable option for the long-term.
Trusting a servant with such a precious duty had already resulted in one tragedy. He wouldn't make such a costly mistake twice.
This business of finding a proper wife should have already been settled, would have already been settled, if he hadn't so badly misjudged his field of candidates. He thought he'd found the right woman in Myra Willows. She appeared intelligent, mature, of good character, competent in the domestic artsall the characteristics he was looking for. He'd actually been on the point of declaring his intentions yesterday when he'd been pulled up short by a bit of gossip.
He'd overheard a couple of bank clerks speculating that Miss Willows might possibly be the person behind that ridiculous pseudonym of Temperance Trulove, the very woman who penned the ridiculous and highly melodramatic bit of drivel titled The Amazing Adventures of Annabel Adams for The Weekly Gazette.
Eli didn't quite credit that the rumor could be trueMiss Willows seemed much too reserved and sensible a female to indulge in such nonsense. But at this point he wasn't willing to risk being wrong, not with his sister's upbringing hanging in the balance.
So he'd been forced to regroup, to review the remaining names on his list and chose another bride.
Eli turned his collar up against the weather as a spurt of water fell on him from the eaves of the nearby storefront. What a day! He wasn't just damp, he was beat. Bone-deep, soul-achingly beat.
Truth to tell, the turn his life had taken two months ago, and the nonstop effort he'd put into building a new life for himself and Penny since then, was beginning to wear on him. But soon it would be done and he could relax a bit. Until then, he would continue pressing on toward his goal.
"Looks like you could use yourself a rain slicker." Sheriff Hammond lounged against the doorpost of his office, whittling on a stick.
Eli moved closer to the building to take advantage of the meager shelter from the shower. "A bit of rain never hurt anyone." He winced as he felt a trickle of water make its way down his back. "Then again, I may have to look into getting myself one of those slickers if this weather continues."
The sheriff grinned in sympathy. "Spring showers tend to be unpredictable in these parts." Then he went back to whittling. "How's Mrs. Collins's arm doing?"
The boardinghouse proprietress had fallen and hurt her arm about a week ago. She seemed to be bearing her injury well, but having her out of commission had put the entire boardinghouse in disarray. And the arrival of her friend, purportedly to 'help out', had only served to add to the problem rather than alleviate it. Sadie Lassiter had breezed in from whatever distant cattle ranch she called home with all the grace and finesse of a brown-eyed, auburn-haired dust devil.
He pulled his thoughts back to the sheriff's question. "The doctor says she should refrain from using it for another week or so. But she seems impatient to be back at work."
Sheriff Hammond nodded. "That's Cora Beth for you. The woman can't stand to sit idle." He tipped his hat back with the point of his blade. "How's Miss Lassiter working out?"
It would be ungentlemanly of him to speak his true feelings on the matter. "She is trying," he temporized. "And I'm sure she's good company for Mrs. Collins."
Sheriff Hammond grinned. "As bad as all that, is she?"
Eli merely spread his hands.
"Ah well, Cora Beth's shoes would be hard for anyone to fill." He shaved another curl of wood from his stick. "By the way, mind giving Mrs. Collins a message for me?"
"Be glad to."
"Tell her I'm heading out to the Martins' place in the morning and I'll be happy to carry a food basket for the Ladies' Auxiliary if she still wants me to."
"Will do." Apparently part of the sheriff's duty in these parts was to periodically look in on the various families on the outlying farms and ranches.
With a wave, Eli moved along the wet sidewalk again, eager to reach the boardinghouse where he could dry out and get something filling to eat. Too bad it wouldn't be one of Mrs. Collins's always excellent meals. If he was lucky it would be more edible than the scorched roast Miss Lassiter had served last night.
Eli had barely taken a half dozen steps, however, when he found himself hailed again. One of the benefitsand hazardsof small town life he supposed.
Mrs. Danvers, who ran the mercantile with her husband, stood in the doorway of her store. Swallowing the urge to keep walking, he tipped his hat. "Good day, ma'am. Is there something I can help you with?"
"It's such a dreary day that I thought you might want to come in out of the weather for a bit." She gave him an ingratiating smile. "I'm sure Imogene would be happy to fix you a hot cup of tea while you dry off by the stove."
The woman would be better served to focus her matchmaking schemes elsewhere. Eli had scratched Imogene Danvers off his potential-bride-list early on. She was too timid, too much under her mother's thumb to provide the kind of oversight he wanted for his sister. And having an overbearing, meddlesome woman for a mother-in-law was not something he was inclined to look favorably on either. "That's very kind of you, but the weather doesn't show signs of letting up any time soon and I need to see to my sister."
A flicker of disappointment flashed in her eyes and then she rallied. "Such a thoughtful brother you are. Perhaps another time."
"Perhaps." He tipped his hat again and moved on.
And yet another reason for him to find a wife soon. He was well aware that his wealth and newcomer-to-the-area status had made him the target of every matchmaking momma and marriage-minded female in the area. Time to take himself off the market.
Which brought him back to making his selection. He'd given the matter careful consideration most of the day and had decided that the widow Collins was now the obvious choice. The only reason she hadn't been his first choice was the fact that she had three children of her own and a younger brother to raise. But while this meant Penny wouldn't have her undivided attention, perhaps it would be offset by the fact that Penny would have other children in the house to play with.
As for appearance, she wasn't an eye-catching beauty, but with her light brown hair, bright green eyes and ready smile there was a sweetness to her appearance that was quite pleasant.
Yes, this might work out for the best after all.
Eli finally reached the boardinghouse and sprinted up the steps, pausing under the shelter of the front porch
roof to shed his wet hat and brush the drops of water from his coat.
After stomping his boots on the porch, he stepped inside and hung his hat on the hat tree in the entry. His attention was almost immediately caught by the sound of unruly giggles coming from the dining room.
Apparently the weather-confined children had found some sort of amusement indoors. There were five other youngsters besides Penny currently in residence here. Mrs. Collins's three girls, Audrey, Pippa and Lottie, and her young brother Danny were, of course, permanent residents.
The other child, Mrs. Collins's niece Viola, had moved in just last week. The child's parents were currently on a trip out of the country. Viola, it turns out, was also Miss Lassiter's niece since Miss Lassiter's brother Ry was married to Mrs. Collins's sister Josie. From what he could tell, that nebulous relationship was the only thing the two women had in common.
It seemed odd that a woman who professed to have grown up on a cattle ranch would be so inept at cooking and housework. Since Miss Lassiter's arrival, routines had gone out the window, the meals had been barely palatable and housework seemed to be handled with a less-than-impressive 'lick and a promise' approach.
About the best one could say for her in the way of domestic skills was that she had a way with children. In fact, his normally reticent sister had taken a keen liking to the flibbertigibbet of a woman. Then again, Miss Las-siter acted as if she were little more than an overgrown child herself. It was probably just as well he'd be moving Penny away from her unfortunate influence soon.
Speaking of which, was that Miss Lassiter's voice mingled in with the children's laughter?* * *
Sadie, blinded by the cloth wrapped around her head, felt a half dozen hands turning her this way and that, leaving her completely disoriented. The sound of laughter blended with that of the rain pattering against the windows.
"Enough, enough," she protested, "I'm getting dizzy." Please, Heavenly Father, help me get through this without showing signs of panic.
"One more turn," replied one of her tormenters. It sounded like Audrey, who, though only seven, was often the ringleader of any mischief the group got into.
Finally the hands fell away and Sadie was left standing with no point of reference to tell her which direction she faced. She took a deep breath, keeping the smile planted firmly on her face. "All right, you little imps, look out 'cause here I come."
Because of her fear of small, dark spaces, blindman's bluff had never been one of her favorite games. She'd promised Cora Beth to keep the restless children occupied for an hour or two, though, and she'd made the mistake of letting the children pick the activity.
Really, this wasn't so bad. Even though she was blindfolded, there was lots of room to move around. It wasn't like her nightmare of being trapped in a closet or chest.
Muffled giggles, from Pippa and Lottie this time, cued her that the five-year-old twins were located to her left. She already felt a touch of anxiety thudding in her chest at the prolonged darkness, but she resisted the urge to go after the two youngest and instead turned to her right.
Holding her hands out in front of her at chest level reassured her that there was lots of room to move around and Sadie took a couple of tentative steps before she made contact with the sideboard. Ah-ha! A point of reference. The sound of footsteps scampering away to her left brought a smile to her face.
"Remember, you can't leave the dining room," she warned with mock sternness.
Something brushed against her ankle, startling a squeak from her. A moment later her heart returned to normal rhythm as she realized who the culprit was. "Does it count if I catch Daffy?" she called out.
"Cats can't play."
So, Viola was straight ahead. Her eight-year-old niece hadn't been 'it' yet. Sadie took a couple of confident steps, straining to catch any sound that might indicate her target was on the move.
Then she caught the sound of a heavier footstep, coming from the direction of what she judged to be the hallway. It wasn't Cora Beth. Uncle Grover, then. Thank you, Father.
All she had to do was tempt the good-humored older gentleman to enter the room and she'd have an easy capture. And the sooner she could remove this blindfold, the easier she'd breathe.
Moving as quickly as she dared under the circumstances, Sadie headed in the direction of the hallway. "Would you step in the dining room for a moment," she called out in her sweetest tone.
Sadie's hand connected with a sleeve and she latched onto her quarry's arm with an iron grip. "Gotcha!" She smiled in relief. "Sorry, Uncle Grover, but I caught you fair and square."
Why was his sleeve wet?
Uh-oh. She recognized that stern tone at about the same time she realized the arm beneath her grip was much too firm and muscled to be Uncle Grover's.
Sadie released his arm as if it were a snake, then yanked off her blindfold. She looked up into the disapproving gray eyes of the much too proper Mr. Eli Reynolds. His censuring stare made her feel smaller than her five-foot-three height.
The man disapproved of herfor the life of her she couldn't figure out whybut this was no doubt going to add another entry to his list of her shortcomings. "I'm so sorry." The heat climbed in her cheeks. "I thought you were Cora Beth's Uncle Grover."
"So I gathered." He didn't raise his voice and his tone was conversational. So why did she feel as if she were being scolded?
"You've obviously found an enjoyable way to pass the afternoon," he continued. "Much more enjoyable than, say, chores would be."
Oh yes, there was definitely a barb buried in that smooth-as-corn silk tone. "Most of the chores are done," she said. "The kids and I were just having a bit of fun while supper simmers on the stove."
"How pleasant." He gave her a pointed look. "I wonder how Mrs. Collins is faring? Perhaps I should send Penny to check on her."
And to think she'd thought him interesting and in need of a friend when she'd first met him a week ago. "Cora Beth is resting at the moment." Not that she owed him an explanation.
Then a smile twitched her lips as an impudent idea took root. "But it is time for me to check on things in the kitchen." She handed the blindfold to Audrey. "Looks like Mr. Reynolds is 'it' now. Y'all have fun."
With that, she swished past the suddenly disconcerted gentleman and headed toward the kitchen.
That should give the too-stuffy-for-his-own-good Eli Reynolds something new to frown over.