Book three in the popular Men of the Saddle series by beloved author Lori Copeland. Six years ago, Susanne McCord tricked Cass Claxton into marrying her in a shotgun wedding. They haven't seen each other since that day, but when they cross paths again, everything has changed. Susanne has mended her ways—at least some of them—and she needs Cass to help her transport nine orphans cross-country in a covered wagon. They drive each other crazy as they encounter challenges along the trail, but through it all they find themselves falling in love as well. Who would've thought that a maverick like Cass could actually succeed in winning Susanne's stubborn heart? Tyndale House Publishers
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By LORI COPELAND
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Copeland, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSix years later, Saint Louis, Missouri
Thunder cracked then rolled along the quiet residential street. A young woman hurried on her way, her hand placed strategically on top of her head to prevent the gusty wind from carrying off her plucky straw hat.
Susanne McCord didn't mind the inclement weather, but she did wish the rain could have held off for another thirty minutes. Fat drops peppered down on the cobblestoned streets, scenting the air with the smell of summer rain.
She smiled, thinking of the changes the past six years had brought. She'd arrived at her Aunt Estelle Merriweather's a spoiled, flighty, temperamental young woman yearning for fun and parties. Instead she had found a dedicated woman struggling to maintain a small orphanage in her home. Now her aunt was gone, and Susanne was in charge of the children.
Her shoes skipped gingerly over the gathering puddles, her eyes scanning the numbers printed on the towering houses. The three-story frame dwellings nearly took her breath with their lovely stained-glass windows and hand-carved doorways.
When lightning flashed as bright as a noonday sun, she peered at the address scrawled on a scrap of paper that was fast becoming soggy in her hand.
Her feet flew purposefully up the walk as the heavens opened to deliver a torrential downpour. Pausing to catch her breath, Susanne stood for a moment under the shelter of the porch eaves, watching the rain pelt down. She noticed the old lamplighter, already soaked to the skin, hastily making his way down the street.
She called out, inviting him to take cover with her. He turned and scurried up the walk, his head bent low against the driving rain.
"Terrible, isn't it?" Susanne commented as the white-haired gentleman removed his top hat and shook the rain off.
"'Tis for certain, little lass." He grinned and his wizened face broke into a wreath of wrinkles. He set his lantern down and extended a friendly hand. "Thaddeus McDougal here."
Susanne returned his greeting. "Susanne McCord. It looks like we're in for a good one." Susanne had never acknowledged her married name, nor did she ever plan to. Since their journey from Kansas to Saint Louis, she had not seen Cass Claxton again. They had parted on bad terms, with Susanne declaring she would see him again when hades froze over.
Thaddeus sighed. "Aye, it does at that, lass."
"Well, we can always use the rain."
"'Tis true, 'tis true." Thaddeus glanced about the massive porch, mild curiosity on his face. "Wasn't aware the old house had finally been sold."
"Oh, I don't think it has." Susanne noticed that the house was not in the best of repair. The porch sagged, the paint was peeling, and several shutters flapped haphazardly in the blowing rain. It didn't matter though-it looked beautiful to her. "I'm here to see about acquiring its use."
"Eh? Well ..." Thaddeus's pale gaze roamed over the peeling porch ceiling. "Old Josiah would be upset if he could see his house now. Used to brim with love and laughter, it did." His eyes grew misty with remembrance. "Josiah never had children of his own, you know, but he took in every stray he could find. Fine man, he was. The world lost a bit of sunshine when Josiah Thorton was laid to rest."
"I never knew him," Susanne admitted.
"Fine man." Thaddeus sighed again. "Well now, little lass, why be you tryin' to acquire such a big old barn of a house?"
"I'm looking for a place big enough to be a home for nine children."
"Nine children!" Thaddeus took a step back, eyes wide. "Beg pardon, miss, but you don't look old enough to have nine wee bairns."
Susanne smiled at his obvious bewilderment. "I'm overseer of a small orphanage. The bank has been forced to sell the home we're presently living in, and someone mentioned that this house was empty. I've looked unsuccessfully for weeks for somewhere to move the children, so when I heard about the house I hurried right over." Her forehead creased with a frown. "I'm sorry to hear the owner's passed on."
Losing Aunt Estelle's house had been a blow, but running an orphanage was not a profitable business venture, and Estelle had been forced to mortgage her home for operating expenses. Now Susanne was desperate to find somewhere to shelter the children.
"Aye, Josiah died about a year ago."
"Then his family will be disposing of the property?"
Thaddeus frowned. "Josiah didn't have any family-leastways, not that I know about. Rumor has it that he had a business associate, though. Could be he can tell you what's to be done with the house."
"And how might I contact this business associate?" Susanne hoped that wouldn't prove to be another time-consuming delay. The orphanage had to be out of its present location by the end of the month.
"Well ..." Thaddeus stepped over to the legal notice nailed to the porch railing and peered through his wire-rimmed spectacles. "It says here that anyone wanting information about his property should contact a Mr. Daniel Odolp, Attorney-at-Law."
Susanne took a small pad from her purse and prepared to scribble down the address. "Does Mr. Odolp reside here in Saint Louis?"
"Aye, his office is close by." Thaddeus read the address aloud for her.
"Oh, that's not far."
"Only a wee jaunt."
"I wonder if Mr. Odolp would still be in his office."
Thaddeus reached into his waistcoat and took out a large pocket watch. He flipped open the case and held the face of the watch toward the receding light. "Depends on how late he works. It's nigh on six o'clock."
Six o'clock. Susanne doubted Mr. Odolp would be working this late, but since she'd be passing by his office anyway, it wouldn't hurt to check. "Thank you, Thaddeus." Susanne replaced the pencil and pad in her purse and reassessed the inclement weather. It wasn't raining hard-just a nice, steady drizzle. "I'll go by and see if Mr. Odolp is still in his office," she decided.
"But it's still raining."
Susanne shrugged and gave Thaddeus a bright smile. "I won't melt."
"Well now, you just might. You're an unusually pretty piece of fluff with that flaxen hair and those violet-colored eyes. If you had wings you'd look like an angel," he finished wistfully.
"A half-drowned angel, surely, but I appreciate the lovely compliment. It's been nice talking with you, Thaddeus." Susanne reached down and quickly removed her shoes and stockings, then her hat. It was senseless to ruin them. Her toes peeked out from under the hem of her skirt.
Thaddeus grinned. "A barefoot angel. Nice visiting with you, lass." He picked up his lantern. "I must be about my work. It'll be full dark soon."
Susanne watched the old lamplighter step off the porch. A chance meeting and now they would go their separate ways. One set out to light folks' pathways; the other to find a home for nine waifs and strays.
Aunt Estelle had been a devoted, God-fearing woman who had taken seriously the commandment to give a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. No child had been turned away from her door. When Susanne had worried about unpaid bills, her aunt had quoted her favorite Scripture: "'Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.' Romans 12:10-13."
Estelle Merriweather had lived those words. She had been patient when times were hard, diligent in prayer, rejoicing in hope and believing that God would provide.
Susanne dodged another puddle. Well, she had been as patient as possible, which she acknowledged wasn't saying all that much, and the good Lord knew she spent a prodigious amount of time on her knees. But she felt the hope in her own heart was a feeble candle flame compared to the blazing torch of steadfast confidence that had filled her aunt's every waking moment.
Still, she had learned to trust in God's tender care. She sighed. Hope. It was all she had to cling to.
"Lord, I'm hoping you will help me get that house."
* * *
Saint Louis, Missouri, had been the gateway to the West for adventurers, explorers, traders, missionaries, soldiers, and settlers of the trans-Mississippi. Founded in 1764 by Pierre Laclede Liguest, a French trader, it began as a settlement for the development of the fur trade. One hundred and ten years later the area had turned into a thriving waterfront town where cotton, lead, pelts, gold from California, and silver from New Mexico poured through shipping lanes along the busy Mississippi levee. It was said that Saint Louis was admired for her hospitality, good manners, high society, virtue, and the sagacity of her women.
One such woman hurried through the night, intent upon her mission. Susanne could hardly believe her good fortune when she rounded the corner leading to the landing and saw the faint lantern glow spilling from a window of a second-story office.
Prominently displayed in bold black print across the window was Daniel R. Odolp, Attorney-At-Law.
She covered the short distance to the building and climbed the steep stairs leading to the second floor. A few minutes later she tapped softly on Mr. Odolp's door.
"Yes?" boomed a deep voice that brought nervous flutters to Susanne's stomach. The man sounded like a giant.
"I ... I wonder if I might speak with you?"
Susanne heard a shuffling, then the sound of chair legs being scraped across a wooden floor. Heavy footsteps approached the doorway.
She swallowed, her throat gone dry. With only a small tallow candle splitting the shadows of the dark, narrow, forbidding hallway, she suddenly wished she'd decided to wait until morning to make her visit. Just as she was turning to leave, the door was abruptly flung open.
The man standing in the doorway was indeed a giant, at least six feet five. Bushy dark brows nested over his beady black eyes. His face was pockmarked, and his jowls hung heavily on his neck. Sweat beaded profusely on his ruddy forehead. Susanne thought he was the most unattractive and intimidating man she'd ever encountered.
"Mr. Odolp?" she asked meekly.
"I am Mr. Odolp!" he barked. "Good grief, woman, are you deaf?"
Susanne drew herself up stiffly, perturbed by his appalling lack of gentility. "No, sir, but I shall be if you continue to speak to me in that tone."
"You called my name," he boomed, "and I answered. You implied you wanted to speak to me, and when I opened the door, you asked again if I was Mr. Odolp. Naturally, one would assume you have a hearing problem."
Susanne jumped as he bellowed again.
"Yes, I am Mr. Odolp!"
"Well, you needn't keep shouting." She lifted her skirts and brushed past him.
He closed the door and stalked back to his desk, his eyes grimly surveying her bare feet. "Where are your shoes and stockings, young lady?"
Susanne glanced down and blushed. Her shoes were still in her hand, along with her hat and stockings. She must look as strange to him as he did to her. "I'm sorry ... it was raining."
"What brings you to my door at this hour?" the attorney demanded, curtly dismissing her stammering explanations. He sat down and reached for a wooden box filled with cigars, selected one, bit off the end, and spat the fragment into the wastebasket. His chair creaked and moaned with the burden of his weight.
Susanne flinched at his lack of manners, but her demeanor remained calm. "I understand that you're handling Josiah Thorton's estate?"
"I am." The lawyer held a burning match to the cigar and puffed, blowing billowing wisps of smoke into the air.
The humidity in the room was stifling. Susanne fanned smoke away from her face. "I was wondering if Josiah's house is going to be sold."
"Does he have more than one?"
Mr. Odolp turned his face upward and hooted uproariously. "'Does he have more than one?' You're not serious!"
"I'm afraid I didn't know Mr. Thorton personally."
"I'm afraid you didn't either." Mr. Odolp fanned out the match, propped his feet on top of his desk, and took a long draw on his cigar. "Exactly which house did you have in mind, honey?"
Susanne felt her hackles rise at his growing insolence. "The one on Elm Street. And my name is Miss McCord, sir."
"Well, what do you want to know, Miss McCord?"
"Some details about the house. For instance, who will be disposing of the property?"
"The house was jointly owned."
"Josiah and his business partner." Mr. Odolp brought his feet back to the floor and stood up. He lumbered to the files and rummaged for a few minutes before extracting a thick folder. "Since Josiah had no immediate family, we're waiting to see if anyone steps up to claim his estate." Mr. Odolp grinned as though he knew his next remark would certainly shock her. "Josiah's partner wants to be sure there aren't any illegitimate Thortons waiting in the wings."
Susanne was taken aback by his speculation and annoyed at his continuing impudence in a lady's presence. "And if there aren't?"
"Then the Thorton estate reverts to Josiah's partner." Mr. Odolp sighed, and Susanne detected a note of envy. "A sizable fortune, I might add. The partner will then decide what he wants to do with the property."
"Exactly how long will it be before a decision is made?"
"Six months or longer."
Susanne walked to the window and looked down on the rain-slicked streets. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. The house was exactly what she was looking for. Undoubtedly there were others available in town, but none so well suited to her purpose.
She'd hoped to stay in the house longer, but six months would be sufficient. If she could persuade Josiah's partner to lease the house to her for six months, it would alleviate her immediate problem. At least she and the children would have a roof over their heads until she could make other arrangements. "Would it be possible for me to speak with Mr. Thorton's business associate?"
"I see no need to bother him. What is it you want?"
Susanne turned from the window, meeting his beady eyes. "I would prefer to speak to the partner in private, Mr. Odolp."
"And he would prefer you to speak to me."
"Then let me phrase it differently." Susanne let a hint of coolness creep into her manner. "I insist on speaking to Josiah Thorton's business partner."
Susanne arched one brow. "Does the name Silas Woodson ring a bell with you, Mr. Odolp?"
"Yes, the governor of Missouri." Susanne tapped her finger on her cheek thoughtfully.
Excerpted from the Maverick by LORI COPELAND Copyright © 2005 by Copeland, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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