When Stephen McCoy leaves the home he shares with his brother Daniel, Daniel’s wife Rosemarie, and their four children to go into town to load up on supplies, he never expects to return with a bride.
Calliope Bender steps off the stagecoach in a wedding gown, carrying a wilted bouquet. She is running from an unwanted marriage, but needs a husband who will meet her requirements.
Stephen agrees to one of her conditions, but the ”marriage in name only” doesn’t sit quite well with him. Neither one of them are looking for love, but will it creep up on them when they aren’t looking?
Stephen McCoy tightened the final strap on the wagon hitch, and happy with his work, headed to the white clapboard farmhouse. He pushed open the front door and strode to the kitchen. Rosemarie McCoy, his sister-in-law, sat at the kitchen table shoving mashed potatoes into his niece, Lucy’s eleven-month old mouth.
“I’m ready to go. Do you have your list ready?”
She nodded at a piece of paper on the table. “Right there.”
He picked up the list and looked it over. “All right, I’m headed out, then.” He touched Lucy on the tip of her nose, the baby smiling at him as mashed potatoes ran down her chin. “Where’s Daniel?”READ MORE
“He’s trying to tame that new stallion he bought last week. I swear he won’t be happy until he breaks his fool neck.” She stood and dropped the bowl of potatoes and the spoon into the sink. Then grabbing a cloth she ran it under the water spout and proceeded to clean up the baby.
Stephen watched her efficient movements as she tended to her baby and prepared to put her down for her nap. Once again he felt like the fifth wheel on a wagon. She and his brother had made a good life for themselves after the War Between the States had ended. Rosemarie’s three children, Chandler, Amelia and Jace, along with the addition of their daughter, Lucy completed their family.
Daniel worked hard on the farm Rosemarie had been left by her late husband, and Daniel had managed to put away enough money to start his own horse farm. Although Stephen was more than grateful for Daniel and Rosemarie taking him in when he’d returned from the War sick, wounded, and exhausted, the last few months he’d had the urge to have something of his own.
He knew exactly what that something was, too. He wanted his own horse farm. He and Daniel had been raised on a horse farm in Kentucky, which their mother had been forced to sell during the war to pay the taxes. Now Daniel was settled with a beautiful wife, four wonderful children, a thriving farm, and the beginnings of a horse farm.
Stephen’s dream, one he’d been saving for ever since he was able to rise from his sick bed and join Daniel two years ago. Every single penny he didn’t need he tucked away, along with money he’d picked up by doing odd jobs in town.
He slipped the list of supplies he was to get in town and headed for the door. Rosemarie stood with Lucy on her hip, ready to put the baby down for her nap. “Don’t forget to pick up Chandler and Amelia from school before you return home.”
“Have I ever forgotten my niece and nephew?” he asked as he opened the door.
“Yes,” his smart-aleck sister-in-law with a fantastic memory said.
“Once.” He grinned at her and the baby and left the house. Four year old Jace ran toward him from the barn where his papa was working the horses. “Can I go with you, Uncle Stephen?”
He ruffled the boy’s fine brown hair. “Sorry, partner. Not this time. After I get all the supplies your mama is wanting into the wagon, along with your brother and sister, there won’t be room.” He squatted and viewed the boy. “Next time, okay, partner?”
Damn. He shouldn’t have done that. The bullet he’d taken on a bloody field during the War still rested near his hip. The surgeon at the time said it wasn’t worth taking out, and now he suffered pain in that spot and had to be careful about getting on his knees.
At the glum expression on Jace’s face, Stephen leaned in close. “How about I bring you a licorice stick?”
The boy’s eyes lit up, and he nodded furiously. “Yes. I like licorice sticks.”
Stephen rose to his feet with a groan and climbed onto the wagon bench. “You stay here and take care of your mama while your papa is working with the horses, okay?”
“Yes, sir.” The little boy actually saluted which had Stephen grinning. He snapped the reins at the horses and started toward town.
The hour ride in the old wagon was taken up by him talking nonsense to the horses and pondering his life. He’d met a couple of women at church and church picnics, but no one took his interest. He’d like to have a family and a place of his own someday, but he still wasn’t sure he wanted to put his heart at risk.
The letter he’d received from Jenny Foster when he was recovering from his bullet wound had hurt more than getting shot. Although she’d promised to wait for him, she wrote that she was not getting any younger, and the war seemed to be dragging on forever. Consequently, she had accepted a proposal from Martin Devin, a store owner in their home town and had married the man before she’d even sent him the letter.
No, he would like to marry and settle down, but he wouldn’t marry someone he had fallen in love with. Once was enough for him. Maybe he could find a nice spinster, or war widow and marry to give her his name and financial support. She, in turn, would help with the chores and provide him with children.
He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. And offer her what? Room in his bed in his brother’s house? He really needed to make some plans. With four children, Daniel could certainly use the bedroom Stephen now occupied.
The road became smoother as the town came into view. Bartlett Creek had been passed over and forgotten during the war, but now that so many Confederate soldiers were returning to empty plantations and burned out cities in the south, they headed north, and the sleepy little town had grown quite a bit.
Not necessarily in a good way, either. Vagabonds, derelicts, and flat out criminals had taken up residence in the southern part of town, making areas of the once safe and comfortable town almost as dangerous as the bigger cities.
The wagon rolled to a stop in front of the General Store. Stephen climbed out and headed into the store.
“Good morning, Stephen. Come for supplies?” Mae McFadden, owner of Bartlett Creek General Store greeted him as she dusted items on the shelves with a feather duster. A clean white apron covered her bulk. “Mr. McFadden will be down in a minute to help you with loading when you’re ready.”
Stephen pulled the list from his pocket and placed it on the counter. “Be sure to throw in some licorice sticks for the little ones.”
“Is that darling little Lucy ready to have one, too?” She grinned at him as she perused the piece of paper.
“Nah. I’m afraid not. If Rosie caught me sneaking one of them to the baby she’d have my head.”
“She’d also have your head if she heard you call her ‘Rosie.’”
He winked at the store owner. “Let’s keep that our little secret, eh? I like to call her that when she’s mad at me.”
“Now what would she ever have to be mad at you about? You have to be the easiest going fella I’ve met in a long time.”
“I think I’m too much like my brother.”
“She loves your brother.” Holding the list, Mrs. McFadden began to pull items off the shelves. She turned to him, two tins of tea in her hand. “You need a wife of your own, Mr. McCoy.”
He placed his hand over his heart. “Now why would you say that, when my heart belongs to you?”
“Go on with you. Not only am I married to Himself, but I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”
He grabbed a licorice stick and bit down on it, harder than he meant to. A wife. A place of his own. A family. All the things his older brother had. Would they always be just out of his reach?
“I have my great-niece, Barbara Sue coming to visit me at the end of the month. She just buried her husband.” Mrs. McFadden eyed him speculatively. “She needs some cheering up.”
Great, just call on Stephen McCoy, the cheerer up of recent widows. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He shoved the rest of the licorice into his mouth and headed for the door. “I need to see Hans about the wheel I left with him to repair the last time I was in town. I’ll be back in a bit.”
“No hurry,” she waved at him. “It will take me some time to get this all together. Leave your wagon and Mr. McFadden can load it up for you.”
The heels of his boots tapped a cadence as he strode down the boardwalk. He doffed his hat to several women who walked along, shopping bags dangling from their arms, some with little ones hugging their skirts. He stopped briefly to allow the afternoon stagecoach to pass in front of him before he crossed the street to the smithy.
After conducting his business there, he returned to the boardwalk just in time to hear a sweet voice. “May I have your attention, please?”
Stephen stared across the street and grinned. A young woman dressed in a wedding gown, holding a bouquet of wilted flowers had climbed onto the roof of the stagecoach and shouted from the top of her lungs. “I need someone to marry me.”
Calliope Bender took a deep breath and licked her dry lips. Waving her bouquet, she looked around at the few people who had gathered around her. “Is there a man here who is willing to marry me?”
This had been such a bad idea, but the only one she could come up with to save herself, and her farm, from the clutches of Rupert Melrose.
“Lady, you have to get down from there. I have a schedule to meet and I can’t be lollygagging around here while you hold a meetin’.” The stage coach driver spit on the ground and looked up at her. “Get down from there now before you fall and hurt yourself.”
“I will get down as soon as I have an answer to my question.” She looked around again. “Well? If there is no one here, does anyone have a brother, or son who is looking for a wife?”
Lord, she sounded like a dimwit. And at the moment that was exactly how she felt. But if she didn’t get some man to marry her, and sign her agreement that he would help her keep her farm, then go on about his business, she would lose everything she owned. And since she ran out on Rupert earlier this morning, it was only a matter of time before he figured out what she’d done and come after her.
A rotund man who hadn’t seen a razor in days, and probably not a bathtub either, shifted a wad of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other and leered at her. “I’ll marry ya, little lady. I could use me a wife.”
She gulped and tried her best to smile. “Thank you very much.” Looking around, feeling a bit desperate, she shouted, “Is there anyone else?”
Her attention was caught by a man striding down the boardwalk, his glare and the sheriff badge glinting in the sun not a welcoming sight. She gave him her best smile as he approached the stage coach. “Are you applying, sheriff?”
“Get off there, now. You’re creating a disturbance and keeping the stagecoach from leaving.” He waved his hand, gesturing her to come down.
Calliope looked at the ground. Goodness, it was a long way down. Her back had been to the dusty street when she’d hoisted herself up and climbed onto the roof, settling in alongside the bags strapped there. “I’m afraid it’s a long drop, sheriff.”
The lawman fisted his hands on his hips. “You got up there, didn’t you?”
A second man joined the sheriff, the grin on his face and humor in his eyes easing some of her tension. “Miss, jump and I’ll catch you.”
“Not until someone agrees to marry me.” His eyes mesmerized her, made her insides clench.
He studied her for a few moments, then in a soft voice, said, “I’ll marry you.”
The sheriff turned to him. “Are you crazy, McCoy? The woman could be a criminal or loony, or both?”
The second man looked up at her. “Are you a criminal, or loony?” He still had the glint of mirth in his eyes. This man at least looked like he had a relationship with water and a razor. In fact, he was quite handsome. Black wavy hair that fell across his broad forehead. Piercing blue eyes never left her face, and didn’t wander down her body like the first man’s had.
“No. Just desperate.”
He gave her a curt nod. “My offer stands, Miss. I’ll marry you.”
“Now wait a minute,” the sheriff said, “you can’t just up and marry this woman. You have no idea what she’s all about.”
“Unless you have a wanted poster with her picture on it back there at the jail, sheriff, you have no say in what this woman does. Or what I do.” He looked up at her and reached out both arms. “Jump, and I’ll catch you.”
Why did she feel as though he meant a lot more than simply removing herself from the top of the stagecoach? “Are you sure, mister? You wouldn’t be tricking me just to get me off so the stage can leave? I really do need someone to marry me.”
“No. I’m downright serious. If you need a husband bad enough to climb onto the roof of the stagecoach and ask strangers to marry you, then I’m willing.”
Why the devil was she hesitating? This is what she wanted, what she planned for when she ran out on Rupert this morning. This man was handsome, clean, kind, and the sheriff seemed to know him by name, so he must be an upstanding citizen. Why the uncertainty? She sighed and took a deep swallow. “All right.” She shimmied to the edge of the roof and pushed off, landing with a thud into two strong, muscular arms.
“How do you do, Miss? My name is Stephen McCoy.” Now that she was closer, she noticed the slight dimple in his left cheek and tiny scar near his full lips. He grinned at her as if this was all a joke. Not to her.
“Please let me down, sir.”
“If I’m to be your husband shortly, I think I have the right to hold you in my arms.”
His words slid over her like warm honey, causing a slight quickening of her breath. “Not yet, sir. Please release me.”
With another teasing grin he set her on her feet. Either the height of her stagecoach perch, or his disarming smile caused her to stumble a bit, slightly dizzy. He grabbed her arm, his brows furrowed. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” She smoothed out her skirts. “Is there a place we can talk? I have a few things I need to go over with you before we, ah, . . .”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Just a minute, McCoy. As your friend, and peacemaker in Bartlett Creek, I insist on checking this woman out before I allow you to hitch up with her.”
“Really, sheriff, do you think I would ride into town and make a public announcement if I was wanted by the law?” Now that she had a closer look at the other men who had gathered at her request for a husband, she didn’t want to lose Mr. McCoy.
The sheriff pushed back his hat and scratched his head. “I don’t know what to think, ma’am. All I know is this stagecoach has to be on its way, and I have to keep the peace. Do you have any luggage the driver needs to take off before he leaves?”
“Nah, she don’t have nothin’. She got on the stage right outside of Sterling with nothin’ but that bunch of flowers.”
Mr. McCoy regarded her. “If you’ve been on that stage with nothing but flowers since this morning, I’m thinking you could use a meal right about now. Why don’t we go on over to Bella’s Café and have some dinner? Then you can tell me all about what it is you need to go over with me.”
His suggestion was exactly what she needed. She was, in fact, pretty hungry right about now. Too nervous to eat her breakfast, she hadn’t had a bit of food since supper the night before. Before she could even answer, he’d taken her by the elbow and moved her away from the stagecoach that was pulling out of the town.
“Go on. Y’all can go on about your business now. The show’s over. Miss—” Mr. McCoy looked in her direction with raised brows.
“—Bender,” she supplied.
“Me and Miss Bender have things to discuss.”
The sheriff shook his head. “I think you’re plum crazy, McCoy, but seeing as how you’re both adults, I’ll leave you be.” He pointed his finger at Calliope. “But I will be checking my wanted posters.”
She allowed Mr. McCoy to escort her across the street and down a few stores to a small café. Now that she was half way through her plan, all she could think about was eating. Her stomach gave a very unladylike growl.
The café was small, but bustling with diners. Mr. McCoy grabbed a table near the wall, which gave them a bit of privacy. He held out her chair and then sat across from her. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “So why does a beautiful woman like you feel the need to ask strangers in an unknown town to marry her?”
Just then the waitress approached. “’Evenin’, Stephen.” She cast a curious glance at Calliope. “What can I get for you two?”
“I’ll have the meatloaf.” He looked at Calliope. “The meatloaf is very good, but so is everything else. In fact, the chicken and dumplings is the absolute best I’ve ever had.” He grinned at the waitress. “Don’t you dare tell Rosie I said that.”
Rosie? Lord sakes. Did she just sit down to dinner with a man who accepted her proposal only to find out he was already married?