As a Yankee in Texas two years after the Civil War, cowboy Broderick Monroe is given the jobs no one else wants to do—including keeping company with the cursed Widow Allen at the annual Valentine’s Day dance thrown by his boss’s wife.
After losing two husbands to the war, Valerie Allen has become a local pariah. Rumor has it that if a man touches her, he’ll be dead by morning. But Brody believes in curses about as much as he believes in love.
Then one secret embrace in the moonlight leads Valerie to think she has found a kindred spirit, but fate—and the curse—aren’t done with her yet…
Originally published in Be My Texas Valentine
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Broderick Monroe shouldered his saddle and moved across the corral toward the barn. He wore a week's worth of trail dirt sweated into his clothes and hadn't slept in three days or eaten in two. All he wanted to do was make sure his horse had plenty of food and fall into his bunk. After about eight hours' sleep, he'd have enough energy to wash and eat whatever the cook had left over on the stove.
"That you, Brody?" someone yelled from just inside the darkened barn. "I thought you'd make it in before dawn and looks like I was right."
Brody, as everyone in this part of the world called him, didn't answer. In the year he'd been at the Double R, he'd learned to keep quiet. Though it had been almost two years since the War Between the States ended, Southerners in Texas still didn't like the sound of a Yankee working among them. Brody had managed to find a pocket in East Texas where every man he worked with had either fought for the South or lost loved ones in the war. He'd thought of moving on, but it had taken him months to find this job and even the cook's leftovers were better than nothing to eat.
Caleb, the broken-down cowhand who took care of the barn and most of the gear, followed him through the darkness to the tack room. "You know, Brody, I'd clean your tack for you and take care of that devil of a horse you ride. It's part of my job."
"I do my own." He'd learned the hard way a month after he'd arrived and his saddle girth had been cut.
The old man leaned against a bench in the tack room. "Truth be told, I'm surprised you made it back this early. I figured you'd try to avoid this evening if you could, what with the dance and all."
"I finished the job. I plan to sleep through the dance. It's none of my concern." Brody knew that half the time the other cowhands made bets on whether he'd make it back alive. He always drew the worst assignments. If an animal was hurt or dying or crazy with loco weed, he rode out alone. Probably the only reason he hadn't been fired was because he kept more cattle from dying than anyone on the place.
"I knew if anyone could get those cattle out of the canyon, you could. Boss told me he'd already written them off for a loss so any you saved was money in the bank."
"I got eleven out and closed the gap that let them into that tiny canyon with enough rocks to stop any more from wandering in. Had to leave one. She was about to calf." Brody thought that if a storm didn't come in the next few weeks, he'd find time to go back and get her and the calf. He didn't like leaving the cow, but at least she could defend herself and there was enough buffalo grass to eat. The calf would be no match for a coyote, though.
Caleb rolled a cigarette with fingers so busted up they looked to have extra knuckles. "You may not care nothing about people, Brody, but you do seem to like animals, and I can't fault a man for that."
Brody didn't need the old man's praise. He didn't need anyone. He'd learned a long time ago that an animal, any animal, was more predictable than a human. He'd gone through the war sending his money home to buy a farm, only to find that his sweetheart was living on the place his money had bought with her new husband and had been for almost three years while she wrote him loving letters.
When he'd asked why she didn't wait, she'd said simply that she was just holding on to Brody in letters until someone better came along.
"You best get cleaned up." Caleb had been talking, but Brody hadn't been listening.
"You may think you can sleep, but every man's got to attend. Before the sun sets, this place will be all decorated for Mrs. Molly Clair's annual Valentine's Party. Folks will be riding in from any ranch within thirty miles. Red and white ribbons will be on every pole in the place. Every single gal from fourteen to eighty will be here."
"I'm not interested."
Caleb laughed. "Well, you better get interested. Mrs. Molly Clair says every one of the men on the place including me better be dancing ready because she's not having a girl going home without having worn a blister or two."
Brody walked out of the barn as the sun came up. He had no intention of attending a party. With all that was happening, no one would notice if he slept the night away. No one ever noticed him.
Men were leaving the bunkhouse, heading over to breakfast, as he walked in. A few cowhands had warmed up enough to give him a nod now and then, but most ignored him completely. He thought of grabbing a bite before he turned in, but reconsidered. It wasn't worth the hassle. When he tried to eat with the others, he was always reminded that he wasn't one of them.
The bunkhouse cleared as he propped his boots on the porch and removed his spurs. He walked to the back of the large quarters and found his bunk in the privacy of a little built-on bay that had once stored wood. It was drafty, cold in winter and hot in summer, but it was away from the others.
Brody stripped down to his long johns and crammed his dirty clothes into an already full bag. All he had left was his go-to-town clothes, a white shirt and black wool trousers. He'd have to wear them to work in if he didn't go into town soon.
Unlike the others, he didn't pay the cook to wash his laundry. The first time he had, the shirts had been ripped and the jeans looked like they'd only been dunked in water once then left to dry in a ball. He'd used his entire first month's pay to buy enough clothes to last until he could have the laundry in town do them. Most hands rode into town on Saturday nights, but Brody picked Monday morning. The boss would have probably said something, but his wife, Mrs. Molly Clair, always had a list of things she needed.
After putting his few belongings away, as he'd been taught in the army, Brody finally tumbled into bed, too exhausted to care about anything beyond the plank walls of his little room.
He didn't know if he'd slept an hour or a dozen, but he awoke with a start when someone kicked his bunk.
"Wake up, Yank." Caleb's voice finally reached Brody's brain. "Mrs. Molly Clair sent me to fetch you. The boss says he's serious about firing anyone who doesn't show up to the dance, and Mrs. Molly Clair thinks she's got a job you can handle."
"Why don't you just tell her you couldn't find me?" Brody grumbled.
"I thought about it. Lord knows no one in this place would miss you." Caleb straightened and scratched his head. "Ever since you doctored her horse that the boss was going to put down, she thinks you're needed about the place. Says you're as good a vet as she's ever seen and the only man around the place who can read her writing and bring back what she needs from town."
"I'm not needed at the dance." Brody sat up and ran his hand through hair so dirty it felt stiff.
Caleb grinned, showing both his teeth. "Oh, yes you are. I heard her say she was going to sit you next to Widow Allen. Nobody likes to talk to her, and she never has two words to say to them that tries. So your job tonight might as well be sitting next to a post."
"What's wrong with the widow? Why doesn't she just sit with the other old women?"
"She ain't old and nothing's the matter with her that I can see from a distance. She's right pretty, and as long as she's in black, no man has to ask her to dance, but Mrs. Molly Clair don't like her sitting all alone."
"Why'd she come?" It crossed Brody's mind that the lady might have dropped by just to irritate him. Everyone else for a hundred miles had already had a turn.
Caleb shrugged. "I'm guessing that daddy of hers made her. She's his only chick so he's wanting the best for her even if she is nearly thirty. Her old man don't believe in the curse surrounding her."
Brody came full awake. "Curse. What curse?" For the first time the lady sounded like she might be interesting. He found it hard to believe that there might be another outcast living in the area besides him.
Caleb followed him to the washroom and watched while Brody pumped water for a bath. "Oh, it's nothing to worry about. I don't believe it myself, though I try not to take chances. You got more lives than a cat, near as I can tell. You'll be fine."
"What curse?" Brody repeated as he stripped and stepped into a cold bath.
"Well, they say a man cuts a month off his life if just her shadow falls across him." The old man's eyes opened wide as he settled, seeming in no hurry to go back to the barn dance. "And if a fellow should be dumb enough to touch her, say shake hands, he might as well saddle up for the doctor because he'll be sick, maybe dead by morning. I've heard several say they got to feeling poorly just passing too close to her place."
"I don't believe in curses," Brody mumbled as he scrubbed his head. In truth, he didn't believe in luck either.
He'd never known anything like luck from the point his parents died when he was fifteen to now. He might as well get cleaned up and go over to the dance so he could court a curse.CHAPTER 2
Valerie Allen sat alone on a bench near the back of the barn, waiting for the music to stop. She'd been at the dance almost an hour. Every woman in the place had stopped by to say hello in a polite, not too friendly, kind of way. Not one man had come within ten feet of her. If she even wanted to marry a man at the party, she'd have to introduce herself by mail, because none stepped near. She thought them all cowards for believing rumors whispered about her.
"Not that I care," she whispered to herself, thinking the night was offering poor pickings indeed.
She straightened the pleats on her black widow's dress and tried to smile. If she didn't, she knew she'd break her father's heart. He wanted her to be happy, and for him, happy meant married.
Her papa loved her so much, but he couldn't understand why she always stayed out at her husband's old farm. He told her she was still young, but she knew at almost thirty, her life was set. He claimed there was still time for her to find another, but with each year's passing, she believed him less.
Yet she couldn't move back with her papa. If she did, it would be like giving up any chance of having her own home. If she moved back to town with her father, she'd be his child until he died; then she'd be that sad old lady who lived on among her parents' things. She needed her own place, no matter how small, her own things no matter how few, her own life, no matter how lonely.
Papa never gave up. He kept talking her into socials like this in hopes she'd find another man willing to take a chance on her. Maybe because the doctor said he had a weak heart, Papa wanted her settled again. He undoubtedly feared he wouldn't be around much longer.
She'd tried marriage twice and didn't know if she could live through burying another husband. She had a place where she could grow her food and raise enough chickens and sheep to earn a little extra money. She milked half a dozen cows and sold to several homes in town. She'd never get rich, or probably even comfortable, but she could survive.
A man walked silently in and took the seat next to her on the bench. For a moment, she didn't move. Out of the corner of her vision, she studied the stranger, who didn't seem to notice her a foot away. He was tall and lean like cowboys got when they worked hard and didn't eat regular meals. His hair looked black, and his face and hands were tanned from years in the sun. She couldn't be sure how old he was, maybe as young as twenty-five, maybe closer to thirty. He seemed to be studying the people more than just watching them dance.
She straightened and continued to act like she hadn't noticed him. Even if she never spoke to the man, she knew one thing about him. He was brave.
On the side of his face nearest her, he had a scar along his cheek and another just above his eye, telling her that he, like most men, had seen the war up close. There was a hardness about him as if all kindness had been beaten out of him years ago.
Finally, he took a deep breath and turned toward her. Midnight blue eyes stared at her with the coldness of one who was looking at an object and not a person. "Good evening," he said in little more than a whisper. "May I offer you a drink, Mrs. Allen?"
He'd been polite, but his conversation skills seemed rusty.
"No, thank you," she answered coldly. "Mister ..."
He nodded as if knowing it was his turn to talk. "My name's Broderick Monroe but here they call me Brody."
"Which do you prefer?"
He eyed her more carefully as if trying to decide if her question was a trick. "I'll answer to either."
"Well, Mr. Monroe, tell me, who asked you to come over to talk to me?" She looked around the barn, but everyone seemed busy having fun. No one had even looked her direction in a long while. "And don't bother to lie, Mr. Monroe."
To her surprise, he answered, "Mrs. Molly Clair, my boss's wife." He raised an eyebrow as if facing her in a duel. "And, Mrs. Allen, I never lie."
"Please tell Mrs. Molly Clair that I'm happy here watching. I don't need to join the group and I don't need anyone sitting with me. I'm quite used to being alone."
Brody nodded his understanding. "She said if I didn't sit with you or dance that I was fired. If you've no objection, I'd rather sit with you."
They watched for a while, and then he rose and disappeared as silently as he'd come. Valerie shrugged. In truth, she kind of missed his company. The strange man seemed a cut above most of the men there. He hadn't flirted or tried to force conversation.
When he returned carrying two plates of sandwiches with desserts piled on top and two coffee cups, she was surprised.
He sat the plates and cups down between them without looking at her.
"Mr. Monroe, I believe I said I didn't want anything." She was always irritated by men who thought they knew what was best for her.
He glanced up from his plate as if just noticing she was still at the other end of the bench. "I know. They're both for me. I've been out on the range and haven't had anything but hardtack for days." He hesitated. "I don't mind getting you something when you decide you're hungry. If you've no objection, I'd like to continue sitting here for a while."
"Don't you want to dance with a pretty young girl?"
"No." His answer came out cold and solid.
Valerie watched as he finished both plates and all the coffee. "Feel better?" She smiled despite her irritation that he'd obviously been sent to baby-sit her.
He stood, lifting both cups as if to say he needed a refill. He circled behind other people sitting around the fringes of the dance floor and headed to the refreshment table.
A few minutes later, Emma Lee Cooper walked by as if on the way to somewhere and just happened to notice Valerie in her path. "Evening," she said, her smile sweet but uncaring. "I noticed you talking to the Yankee. That's mighty broad-minded of you, seeing as how his kind killed both your husbands."
Valerie looked down at her calloused hands, wishing she'd remembered her gloves, as she answered her childhood friend. "He was just sitting on the other half of the bench." She hated herself for even trying to explain. Emma Lee and her friends would say or think anything they liked; they always had. Sitting beside a Yankee couldn't do her reputation any more damage. "The war's over, Emma Lee. It has been for two years."
"I know, but my Earl says that Brody Monroe is a strange one. Says he never talks to anyone, and even when they play little games on him, he won't fight back or even say anything. Maybe he's a coward and that's how he survived the war." She looked out at the dancers as if bored by her own conversation. "He is good-looking, I guess, in a hard kind of way."
"Maybe." Valerie wanted to defend this man she didn't even know, but she didn't dare. "What kind of games do the men play?"
"Oh, you know, the usual. Passing food around and always making sure the empty plate ends up at him. Sliding a burr under his saddle to make the day start with a wild ride. Always forgetting to tell him when the boss says they can sleep past dawn."
"Earl said after a while they quit just because they could never get a rise out of him. He's like a walking dead man, no emotions, no feelings." She waved at one of the men standing by the small band. "You're probably the only woman here who'd let him get close enough to sit down. My Earl and his brother, Montie, told me they'd knock the guy out if he even tried to ask me or my friends to dance. The Timmons boys are the kind who'll take care of a girl."
Valerie almost said she didn't want that kind of man. She'd had two who'd promised and hadn't.
"Earl Timmons is a thoughtful man and handsome, too," Valerie lied. She had nothing against the man other than he probably had to prime his brain to get it working every morning.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Valentine's Curse"
Copyright © 2012 Kensington Publishing Corporation.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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