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A Suitor for JennyA ROCKY CREEK ROMANCE
By Margaret Brownley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Margaret Brownley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA good man is like a good corset. He will always be supportive and never leave you hanging. -Miss Abigail Jenkins, 1875
Rocky Creek, Texas 1881
Old man Hank Applegate should have known trouble was brewing the moment the stagecoach thundered into town one week and two days late.
Not that anyone cared. Actually, no one but Hank so much as noticed the stagecoach, late or otherwise. He might not have noticed either, had it not been for the astounding amount of luggage tied to the roof and back of the coach. Few people of any importance or interest ever came to town on the Wells Fargo stagecoach anymore. Nowadays, most folks preferred to travel by train. And who in tarnation would travel with that much luggage?
A gust of wind followed the stage, kicking up a whirlwind as it traveled through town. Hats blew off like popping corks. Emma Hogg's skirt flapped like the sails of a storm-tossed ship. Not that Hank was interested in the old spinster's skirts or anything else about her for that matter.
The horses hitched in front of Jake's Saloon pawed the ground, and the bat-wing doors swung to and fro.
The stage came to a halt in front of the weathered two-story Grand Hotel. Its driver scrambled to the ground like a man trying to escape an angry mob.
His curiosity stoked, Hank rose from his rocking chair for a closer look, his bony legs creaking like a dried-out saddle.
Squinting beneath the brim of his leather hat, he spat a dark stream of tobacco juice over the railing of Fairbanks General Merchandise and clamped down on his jaw, letting his toothless gums rub against each other.
The door of the stage flew open, and he caught a glimpse of a dainty slipper and a slim, feminine ankle. Thinking he was seeing things, he leaned forward until the rickety railing wobbled beneath his weight. Not that he noticed. He was too busy watching a pretty miss emerge from inside the coach.
By thunder! If she wasn't a sight for sore eyes! Dressed in fancy blue garb trimmed with black lace, and a hat with feathers enough to tar a mountain, she tugged at her fitted jacket and gave her blue parasol a determined shake.
Still, he didn't suspect a thing, not a thing. Any thought that the town and its male inhabitants were in mortal danger was the furthest thing from his mind. Then two more women stepped out of the coach behind her, all dressed in kind and chattering like nervous young hens.
The blonde woman in blue appeared to be the leader of the petticoat troop, and the others referred to her as Jenny. With skirts awhirl, she ordered the driver to unhitch the luggage. Pointing here and pointing there with the tip of her parasol, she issued one command after another, never so much as stopping for air.
"Be careful with this," Jenny instructed. "Be careful with that." At one point she grabbed a bandbox from the driver and carried it to the porch of the hotel herself, muttering under her breath.
Hank could hardly take his eyes off her. That Jenny woman was something, all right. Bold, brash, and as subtle as a grizzly with a sore backside. Even the wind knew not to mess with her, the air as still as an old battlefield.
She turned to scold one of her charges, who had done nothing but gripe since disembarking. "Hush up, Mary Lou. You haven't stopped complaining since we left Haswell. How do you expect me to find you a husband when you never stop talking?"
Hank scratched his whiskered chin and inched his way down the warped wooden steps to make sure he'd heard right. Did she say husband?
The girl called Mary Lou pushed out her lips in a childish pout, blew a wisp of blonde hair away from her face, and fanned herself furiously. "You think you're going to find me a husband in this awful town?" She looked around with obvious distaste.
"Absolutely." Jenny lifted her chin, her eyes bright with determination. "By the time I'm finished with this town, both of you will have kind and loving husbands."
Hank blinked. Both? As the full implication of what the Jenny woman said took hold, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. It was no secret that from the day they were born, womenfolk devoted themselves to landing husbands. But never had he heard it stated so boldly. And when did the female population start searching for husbands in packs?
That's when it hit him like a ton of spit. Only one conclusion could be drawn from such a flagrant female presence: the town was under siege.
* * *
Jenny gave her younger sisters a warning look. She was in no mood for their complaints. She was hot and tired, and every bone in her body ached from the journey.
Traveling to Rocky Creek had been a nightmare. The stagecoach had broken down not once but twice. The driver blamed Jenny's unprecedented amount of baggage for their troubles, but she knew better. It was his reckless driving that caused the axle to break and the wheel to fall off. If only she'd used a little more tact in saying so. Maybe then they wouldn't have had to sit on the side of the road for three days waiting for another stage while he pouted.
Mary Lou heaved an unladylike sigh. "This has got to be the sorriest-looking town I've ever set eyes on."
"Watch what you say," Jenny scolded. "Any man hearing you carry on so is likely to take off in the other direction." She hiked up her skirts just above her ankles. "And Brenda, for goodness' sake. What are you eating now?"
Brenda was almost twice as wide as Jenny. "Nothing. You laced up my corset so tight I can't eat. I can't even breathe. You didn't lace up Mary Lou's corset this tight."
Mary Lou gave her head a jaunty toss. "That's because I come by my figure naturally."
"You don't have to act so superior," Brenda said, straightening her shawl and scowling at Mary Lou. "Especially since you are wearing-"
"Oh, hush up," Mary Lou said irritably.
Feeling sorry for Brenda, Jenny gave her youngest sister's cheek a loving pat. Brenda loved to eat and it showed, no matter how tightly Jenny laced her corset. Poor Brenda had been so nervous about making this trip and the prospect of landing a husband, she had practically eaten nonstop during the planning stages and now had a double chin to show for it.
"Stand proud, my dear sister. You are blessed with a loving, generous nature and a sweet disposition," Jenny said.
"What good is that?" Brenda patted the dark sausage curls that bounced beneath her hat. "Men don't care a fiddle about dispositions."
"Oh, they'll care. I'll make sure that they do," Jenny said with a determined nod. She'd planned this trip with meticulous care, leaving nothing to chance. If necessary, she would use every last penny from the sale of the family farm to procure husbands for her sisters and secure their futures. Nothing or no one would be allowed to stand in her way.
"Maybe you'll find a husband too," Brenda said softly.
Mary Lou shook her head. "Jenny's too independent to get married. Even Father said so. Besides, she's too old."
"She's only twenty-two," Brenda argued. "That's only old if you're a cow."
"I don't need a husband," Jenny said, giving her sisters a stern look. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Now, come along. We have work to do before I can start interviewing the men of this town."
Satisfied that the last of the luggage had been hauled down from the stagecoach, she handed the harried driver a coin, though the fool man didn't deserve a pittance. Her parasol tucked beneath her arm, she clapped her hands twice. With quick, efficient steps, she herded the two younger women toward the double doors of the hotel, issuing orders all the way.
"Stand up tall. Head high. Take little steps. And whatever you do, act like ladies ..."
* * *
At first, Marshal Rhett Armstrong couldn't make heads or tails out of Hank's ranting and ravings. The marshal lifted his booted feet from his desk and sat forward.
Had he heard right? Did Hank say something about the town being under siege?
"I'm a-tellin' ya, Marshal, we got ourselves a peck o' trouble."
Hank looked so distressed Rhett jumped up from his desk and tore open the door of his office. Stepping outside, he glanced up and down the narrow dirt road running through town. It was midday with not a soul in sight.
He slammed the door shut. "What are you carrying on about? No one's out there."
"That's because they're at the hotel."
"That makes sense," Rhett said, trying to tease the old man out of his ramblings. He took his place behind the desk again. "Strangers generally like to take a bath and rest before attacking a town."
"You're right." Hank made a face and grunted in disgust. "I wouldn't put it past them to get all gussied up before they confront us. I'm a-tellin' you, Marshal, not a man alive can defend hisself from the likes of that Jenny woman."
That got Rhett's attention. "Did you say woman?"
"That's what I'm tryin' to tell ya. We've been taken over by three womenfolk. The colonel's name is Jenny."
"Colonel?" Rhett studied Hank. As far as he could tell, Hank hadn't been drinking, at least not any more than usual. "Let me get this straight. Three women want to take over this town?" The idea was so absurd it was all he could do to keep from laughing.
Hank, however, remained serious. "Now you're ropin' the calf."
Rhett rubbed his chin. "Why would these women want to do such a thing?"
Hank's eyebrows disappeared beneath the brim of his hat. "'Cuz they want to catch themselves husbands, that's why. Heard it with me own two ears."
Rhett sat back in disbelief. "They came here to hunt for husbands?" Any woman aiming to find eligible men in Rocky Creek was either desperate or ill-advised.
"I'm a-tellin' you, Marshal, it was that crazy war. Nothing ain't ever been the same since. When that Lincoln fellow freed the slaves, he opened up a whole can of worms. Now womenfolk think they got rights too. And I'll tell you somethin' else ..."
Rhett stifled a groan. Once the old man got on his soapbox, there was no stopping him. The War Between the States had been over for a good many years, but folks still blamed everything that happened, good, bad, and otherwise, on the war. It was the bane of Rhett's existence. If people would stop talking about the war, maybe he could stop thinking about it-thinking about what happened there.
"I'm telling you trouble's a-brewin'," Hank continued. He studied Rhett with obvious misgivings. "So what are you aimin' to do about it?"
Rhett twiddled his thumbs. "It's not against the law for women to look for husbands. If it were, I'd be obliged to put Miss Emma Hogg in jail." It was common knowledge that the spinster's marital lasso was aimed straight at Redd Reeder, owner of the Rocky Creek Café and Chinese Laundry.
"If you ask me, that's where the fool woman belongs." Hank gave an emphatic nod. "It's your duty to protect the citizens of this here town from sneaky, connivin' scoundrels." He stabbed the desk with a tobacco-stained finger for emphasis. "And I'm a-tellin' you, that Jenny woman is 'bout as connivin' as they come."
"All right, if it'll make you feel any better, I'll keep an eye on things." Rhett rose and walked around his desk, hoping Hank would take the hint and leave. "If they cause any trouble, they'll have to deal with me."
Hank looked him over from head to toe, doubt written on his weathered face. "I ain't got nothin' ag'inst you personally, Marshal. I know you can outdraw, outride, and outsmart practically every man in Texas. I also know you've captured your fair share of crim'nals since you took over for that Briggs fellow. But this is different. This woman's out to find husbands. I'm a-tellin' ya, them's the worst kind."
Rhett reached for the doorknob and swung the door open. "I appreciate your concern, Hank, but I've never met a woman I couldn't handle."
Hank made a face. "That's 'cuz you ain't never met the likes of Colonel Jenny. We're in for trouble, Marshal, and you better be ready." Without another word, Hank left the office and Rhett closed the door after him.
Rhett sat down at his desk and chuckled. Imagine thinking the town was under siege by three women. What a ridiculous notion. Nothing of the kind was going to happen on his watch. Since taking over as marshal a year earlier, he had single-handedly turned Rocky Creek into a law-abiding town. Any outlaw who was fool enough to show his face soon saw the error of his ways.
Rhett liked to think of himself as tough but fair. A straight-shooting man who questioned God's will but never His existence.
People respected him. Outlaws feared him. Nobody ever got close to him. He didn't let them get close.
He had every reason to believe he could handle whatever came his way.
Even a bunch of husband-hunting petticoats.
Chapter TwoThe way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but never underestimate the power of a generous dowry. -Miss Abigail Jenkins, 1875
Jenny marched from building to building. She stopped only long enough to hammer a hand-printed billboard onto a door, wooden post, or siding with the heel of a high-button shoe before moving on. The notice read:
WANTED: HUSBANDS ONLY MEN WITH GOOD CHARACTER NEED APPLY INTERESTED PARTIES ARE TO MEET AT THE GRAND HOTEL 10 A.M. TO 4 P.M. MUST PROVIDE PROOF OF FINANCIAL SECURITY
The pounding of heel upon nail brought men running out of saloons. Others hurried from across the street to read the notices, their curiosity stoked by Jenny's presence. Those unable to read insisted the announcements be read aloud.
For the most part, Jenny ignored the townsfolk-mostly men-milling around in the late afternoon except for a polite greeting and nod. Most showed little regard for good manners. Some didn't even know enough to lift a hat when greeting a woman. One man actually splattered a stream of tobacco juice in her path, forcing her to lift her skirt and walk around it. Another stood scratching himself like a flea-ridden dog.
What few women she passed looked down their noses with obvious disapproval after reading the notices, then hurried away.
It wasn't just the uncouth citizens that worried her. The town was in a shocking state of decay and disrepair. Never had she seen a more sorrowful hotel. Grand indeed! The room Jenny shared with her sisters was sparsely furnished with only a lumpy bed, a desk, a small bureau, and a washstand. There was no place to hang their clothes, and she had to pay double to get clean linens.
She wasn't certain the town had a school or library, and it had only one eating establishment. The Rocky Creek Café and Chinese Laundry stood between two saloons like a slim book flanked by two oversized tomes.
Even the church on the hill tilted to one side as if looking for a place to fall.
The town certainly was not what she had expected. It wasn't by chance that she traveled to Rocky Creek. An article in the Lone Star Tribune stated that Rocky Creek had the highest number of rich bachelors per capita than any other place in Texas due to the recent cattle boom. Not that money was everything, of course, but an honorable man was an honorable man regardless of his bank account. For that reason, she saw nothing wrong in limiting the field to men with substantial financial means.
If what the newspaper said was true-and she was beginning to have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the claim-they were also the least civil-minded men imaginable. Not one penny had gone to improve the condition of the town.
Eager to finish hanging the remainder of her handbills and return to the hotel before dark, she hastened her step, but the feeling she'd made a terrible mistake in coming to Rocky Creek continued to haunt her for the rest of the night.
* * *
The following morning, Jenny rushed around the hotel room in a whirlwind. "Do hurry," she called, her voice thick with impatience. Her sisters' futures were at stake; this was not the time to dawdle.
She spent the better part of the morning supervising their toilettes, leaving nothing, not so much as the smallest detail, to chance. Every shiny hair on their pretty heads was perfectly coiffed, every fold of their dresses meticulously arranged, every piece of jewelry artfully chosen.
Already potential suitors lined up in front of the hotel in response to the handwritten notices Jenny had plastered around town the day before. Their rough, sometimes querulous voices drifted through the open window.
Excerpted from A Suitor for Jenny by Margaret Brownley Copyright © 2010 by Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission.
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