Alone and pregnant, Erin Dunmore is desperate to find a husband—or risk facing a hard future as a single mother. She places an ad in the newspaper seeking matrimony, hoping beyond hope that her dreams of a home, family, and love will come true.
Mace Dalton needs a wife to keep his home, but between the hardships of living on his secluded ranch in Washington Territory and raising his rambunctious children, prospects are few. When he sees Erin’s ad in the newspaper, he reckons she may be his last chance at marriage.
Little does Erin know that while Mace has all the home and family she can ever want, he believes love to be a thing of his past. But as she settles into his house, Mace finds that she may be settling into his heart as well.
Now, in a touching story of love and trust from “one of the superstars of western romance,” they will both have to accept each other wholeheartedly if they are to find happiness together (Affaire de Coeur).
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November 1, 1873 Washington Territory
Ketch Larrabee guided the buckboard team around the sprawling log ranch house and down the lane to the barn. The high-stepping team showed little trace of their seventy-mile round trip to Walla Walla. A bitter winter chill cut through his sheepskin coat and he cursed the glaciers that had gouged and sculptured this valley where Mace Dalton had carved a home for the Diamond Bar D. But the wind was no more bitter than the look his boss shot him when he pulled up and wrapped the reins around the pole brake.
"She gone, Ketch?"
"Yep. An' that's the last time, Mace. Ain't haulin' no more female dragons. Ain't doin' the cookin' for this outfit. Ain't playin' nursey maid to your young 'uns. Ain't — "
"Spare me, Ketch. I've heard it all before."
"Heard me? Maybe. But you ain't actin'."
"And I won't. I don't want a wife."
Ketch shot him a narrow-eyed look. Mace was on edge. The words had come from between gritted teeth in a voice as cold and cutting as the sharp wind that came up from the Blue Mountains to the south. Ketch shook his head, jumped down and set about freeing the horses from their traces.
After a moment, Mace began to help him. Ketch had his own notions of why his boss refused to marry again. But he kept silent. Mace could be as hard as a whetstone, with a temper that, if crossed, would have a body believing that he had grabbed himself a snarling wolf by the tail. Ten years ago Ketch had come up from Oklahoma with twenty-year-old Mace, who had more savvy about cattle and horses than men twice his age. He thought he knew Mace about as well as any man could ever know another. It was that knowledge that made him back off now.
Mace led the near perfectly matched pair of bays into the barn toward their stalls. He heard Ketch moving around behind him, and knew the other man would finish taking care of the team. He wanted to walk away, but Ketch was right. He had to think of a way to solve his problem. But he did not lie to himself or Ketch. He did not want a wife. He never wanted to need another woman again. With a weary sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck and waited until Ketch had spilled grain for the horses.
With a lazy, off-centered smile, Mace took up the curry brush. "I'll tend to them," he offered, and then asked, "You real sure about not cooking for us?"
"Said so, didn't I?" Ketch snapped.
"Now, Ketch —"
"Save all that sweet talk for some gal. Ain't gonna do it. You had yourself eleven females in five years an' couldn't hang on to one of them. Never hired me on as no cook. Get Dishman to do it. Get Cosi or Heppner, but you ain't gettin' me."
Mace tossed him the brush. "Fine. I'll do the damn cooking."
Ketch grabbed the brush and stomped off to the bay's stall. He stopped and made an abrupt turn as Mace's words sank in. "Now, jus' you wait up, Mace. You're like a flounderin' stud in the kitchen."
Mace shot him a wide grin. "I know."
"Can't make biscuits worth a damn. Your porridge always has lumps that'll choke a man, an' you can't pick feathers off a chicken."
Mace didn't answer him. He hooked his thumbs in his belt, rocked back on his heels and waited.
"Figure we can strike us a deal?"
Once again, Mace didn't answer him. Ketch was the best hornswoggler he knew.
"I'll do the cookin', but you start lookin' for a wife."
"Gotta be that way, Mace. It ain't stablizin' for your young 'uns. Ain't too stablizin' for my constitution." Seeing the implacable stare coming from Mace's eyes, Ketch muttered, "Hard-nosed, cow-hocked longhorn."
Mace cupped his hand around his ear and angled his head forward. "What was that, old-timer?"
"You heard me well enough. You strike that deal with me or you can flounder till hell freezes."
The grin disappeared. The teasing mood vanished. Ketch knew what was coming and braced himself.
"Remember, Ketch, I live there. It's already frozen me to the bone."
"Mace, I'm an ole polecat that ain't got sense. Stay out of the kitchen."
Mace watched Ketch's rolling gait take him toward the main house. He couldn't deny that Ketch had a point. But marry again? The lump in his throat prevented him from swallowing.
"Papa, are you in here?"
The soft questioning voice of his daughter, Rebecca, forced him to move out of the shadows, not only the physical ones, but the shadows from the past that held him in their grip.
"Right here, Becky."
"Ketch said Miss Nolie is gone and that we won't have anyone to watch us again."
Mace hunkered down beside his daughter and smoothed the braided black silk of her hair. Even in the dim light filtering from the open doors, he could see that her wide brown eyes were filled with resignation. He sought the words to dispel the anxious note in her voice and found that another image imposed itself on his eight-year-old child's face. He closed his eyes, fought the tightening in his chest and the pain that pierced him. He released a breath when he knew the leashed control he kept on his own emotions would hold.
"Does that make you unhappy, Becky? You and your brother will be fine. We don't need a woman to clutter — "
"But Jake won't mind me." She bit her lower lip and shrugged her shoulders, nervously twisting her thin body from side to side. "I liked Miss Nolie and Miss Jessica and Mrs. McKenize. They taught me things."
"You forgot Mrs. Quincy and Ellen Clayton and ..." Mace shook his head. He couldn't remember the rest of the names or faces of women who had come, stayed a few weeks, then left. He certainly did not want to think about the talk that followed each one of them. He didn't give a damn about the speculations people made concerning why the hired women wouldn't stay on here. And he didn't have the courage to ask his daughter what things some of these women had taught her. He still hoped that she never noticed Mrs. McKenize tipping her flask all day, or the repeated tries Miss Jessica had made to enter his room in the middle of the night until he had been forced to bolt his door.
Rebecca placed her small hand on her father's arm. "Papa, I really don't like Ketch's cooking."
"You like mine even less." Mace rose and took hold of her hand. "This one of the times you're feeling like clouds adrift in the sky?"
Becky offered him a solemn look and nodded.
Mace reassured her with a light squeeze of his hand. "Guess it's up to your papa to fix this one up."
"Ketch said you should marry again," she suggested in a timid voice. "Why don't you want to, Papa? I think it would be nice to have a mother. And I promise to be very, very good so she wouldn't leave us. I'd even make Jake obey."
"No one left because of you or Jake," he reassured her, but his voice was strained. Mace hid his guilt — guilt and the belief that because of him his children had lost their mother. No matter how he tried to stop blaming himself, the thought was ever present, ever near the surface.
Mace kept silent and shortened his long strides to match those of his daughter as they left the barn. Ketch was right. He'd need to make a decision, and soon. Thanksgiving was coming, and before he knew it the Christmas season would be here. It wasn't fair that his children should be denied knowing how a woman's touch could make those days special. But a wife ... somehow he couldn't force himself to see another woman by his side.
But the idea had been planted. The Diamond Bar D profits were good these last few years, he reminded himself. He could afford to offer a generous settlement to someone, if he found himself a plain woman who wouldn't expect anything from him. He would be blunt about his terms of marriage so that there could be no recriminations later.
The good Lord knew that he was damn tired of worrying about the laundry, cooking, order in the house and care of his children. None of his men wanted to milk the cow, feed the chickens or slop the hogs, believing that these were women's chores and beneath their dignity.
And Ketch was right about Becky and Jake needing a woman to look after them. A sober, respectable woman, that is.
If he married her, she couldn't run off if things were not to her liking. He'd cut himself a deal as if he were going to buy another prize breeding heifer. Nothing more than money in exchange for services rendered.
Breeding? What was he thinking of, he asked himself with a shake of his head. He'd never put himself or another woman at risk by trying to have her walk the lines of wife and mother-to-be. It was the only justification he could offer himself for the betrayal he felt just from thinking of another marriage.
Opening the back door to the kitchen, he called out, "Ketch, tomorrow you fetch me every damn territorial paper."
San Francisco, California
"Just tell me you'll think about it, Erin. It's a choice, at least. You can be flat on your back for one man or many."
"But, Maddie, marry a stranger? Be a thing that's ordered and paid for like a —"
"Whore like me?"
Erin's fair skin colored. "I meant no insult," she hastened to explain. "You know how grateful I am for all your help. But marriage?" Erin Dunmore shivered at the thought. The weak afternoon sun did not penetrate the gloom in her third-floor room. Her mood became reflective as she stood near the grimy window. Looking down, she again heard the constant drum of traffic, shouts and curses along with drunken songs from men in the street. Wrapping her arms around her waist, an unconscious protective gesture, she knew it would not be long before she was serving drinks to the same sort of rough men in the downstairs parlor.
Shivers once again chilled her flesh. She hated singing for them, hated their lewd suggestions, their fetid breath, their sly touches. And she despised them for thinking that their money would buy them whatever they wanted.
No city in the country could boast more men of solid wealth than San Francisco. They built palaces from their silver bricks and could sell their holdings for five million dollars each as mines of fabulous possibilities poured their dividends into the pockets of the Licks, the Lathams, the Sharons and the Haywards.
Erin knew them well. She had worked for several of them.
The bedstead frame groaned in protest as Maddie Darling shifted her weight. "You know you've got to decide on doing something else for yourself soon. The coast is no place for the likes of you."
Erin closed her eyes for a moment. If Maddie knew the truth, she would not be able to make that claim.
"What else can you do, Erin?"
"I wouldn't be knowing for sure," Erin replied in a soft, defeated voice. She leaned her forehead against the window. Even though she knew Maddie's badgering came from concern, she found it hard to bear.
"You said you got turned out of your place without a penny or a reference. And you've no family to help."
"You know I wouldn't lie to you. There's no one to turn to and I can't see what good it does to repeat all this, Maddie."
"Good? I'll tell you, Irish. It reminds you that you can't be letting the days go by. How long can you figure to keep Jaffery out of your bed? Lumpy as the damn thing is."
Erin shook her head. She didn't know the answer. "I try to keep out of his way. All of the downstairs is cleaned long before he awakes. But you know that." She turned to face Maddie, who was sprawled across the bed, draped in a satin wrapper of the palest pink. The cut and the delicate embroidery trim could have graced any respectable matron's wardrobe. But this was a Maddie few, if any, were given the opportunity to view. When she was working, Maddie wore bright, flamboyantly styled gowns that brought her attention, and full pockets.
And Erin was in no position to judge Maddie. Erin rubbed her head, which seemed to ache constantly, and glanced down at the shapeless gown she wore. She avoided the sight of her reflection in the hazed mirror hung over the bureau with its missing legs and two holes gaping where drawers should have been. Not that she had possessions enough to fill four drawers. The room was squalid, no matter how much effort she made to keep it clean.
"Erin, you listen to me and stop feeling sorry for yourself."
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I'm tired of being alone. You had a family. You could go back. For me there is an emptiness of wondering why my mother never wanted me. You can't understand the haunting I feel in not knowing who she is, or who my father is. Were they married? Was I an extra mouth they couldn't feed? Was I — "
"Stop it, Erin. You hurt yourself every time you think about this. No one can go back and change the past. You need to think about today and tomorrow. Jaffery is watching you all the time. It won't be long before he'll be making you choose. He'll tell you it's him or the street. And when he's done with you, you'll find yourself working one of the rooms." With a toss of her head that sent the thick honey blond curls tumbling over her shoulders, Maddie gave Erin's figure a thorough once-over. "You're getting too thin. You don't sleep, and the food you eat wouldn't keep a cat. Putting an advertisement in the western territory newspapers is a choice you can't ignore. You could pass yourself off as a respectable — "
"I was that, Maddie."
"Sure you were ... are, I mean. Damn every one of those moneyed matrons for blaming a girl sweet as you."
Erin stared at the floor. She knew it was true. She had worked for a respectable banker's family as a parlor maid until she fell for a line of blarney from one of the bank clerks that wouldn't have fooled a child. If she hadn't been so lonely, so needing of love, of someone to care about her who would make her dreams of having a home and a family of her own come true, if only — ruthlessly she stopped herself. She had been foolish to believe, she had been turned out, and if it weren't for Maddie's kindness, she didn't know what she would have done. Perhaps this was the choice that had faced her mother? Stop it! Stop it, she warned herself, knowing this way led to unbearable hurt.
And she couldn't deny the threat that Jaffery presented. He owned the house and would press her for an answer soon. The only nice gesture she could say Jaffery made was to give her a choice.
A feeling of being trapped overcame her. She could never let another man use her. She had given Silas Duelle what he wanted, but only because he had pressured her. Erin knew she had enjoyed the hugging and gentle caresses that came before. She had needed the human warmth, the knowledge that here was someone who cared about her. But those had been lies. Lies she had fed herself, just as Silas had. Lies she had believed out of a desperate hunger and loneliness.
"Erin, you told me that you want a home of your own and a family to love more than anything. Marriage is the only way for you. And you won't be finding that if you stay here."
"I will think about what you said, Maddie."
The other woman rose from the bed, tightening the ties on her satin wrapper. Erin envied Maddie for being all that she was not. Tall, lovely and lushly figured. Men seemed to set great store by a woman's looks. Another strike against her, Erin thought.
Maddie fluffed out the wild tangle of her hair and walked toward the door. "It's time for me to get to work."
"Maddie, don't you hate it? Does it — "
"Honey, I keep telling you, for me it doesn't matter. I lost — well, what I lost don't fit in a thimble. But you matter. There's still hope left in you."
With an unconscious gesture, Erin slid her hand across her stomach. She wanted and needed to say something that would ease Maddie's troubled look.
"I'll think about doing it and try to eat more. From the first day you found me wandering around, you've been very kind to me, Maddie. I'll never forget you."
"Oh, you get yourself married to a fine, respectable man and forget you know my name. And don't be getting all teary-eyed on me. No one ever gave me a chance to be anything but what I am. Maybe I want it to be different for you." She shrugged and opened the door. "Maybe I know something you don't, Erin. You're different from the rest of us here. Don't be long, or Jaffery'll come looking for you."
Maddie started to close the door after her, then stopped. "If you need pen, ink and paper, Jaffery keeps them in the top right-hand desk drawer."
"Thank you, Maddie."
"Honey, thank me when you're out of here and safely married far enough away that no one knows you."
Erin did think about Maddie's suggestion of placing a notice in the newspapers. She also thought of the lies she would be forced to tell. Lies that would go on and on.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gifts of Love"
Copyright © 1992 Theresa DiBenedetto.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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