An improper proposal, p.1
An Improper Proposal, page 1
An Improper Proposal © Copyright 2017 by Davalynn Spencer
Print ISBN 978-0-9989512-0-1
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
The characters and events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.
To the one
who found me.
Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing,
and obtaineth favour of the LORD.
Table of Contents
Olin Springs, Colorado, 1880
The shooter did not flinch.
Neither did Henry Reiker. He merely slammed to the bank lobby floor with a hole in his chest.
Mae Ann dropped to her knees, ears ringing from the close gunshot. She lifted Henry’s head, and his blue eyes teared at her touch. Her first.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I … ” Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as he fought for a gurgling breath.
Mae Ann gently lowered his head and stood to face his murderer. Her fingers clenched into tight balls at her sides, lest she claw the smirk from the gunman’s face. Surely he would dispatch her to join her betrothed. Such a fate would be ten times better than what awaited her in this treacherous town. For she had no family, no means, no friends. Nothing—other than Henry’s offer of marriage.
Gun smoke veiled the lobby, stinging her nose and shrouding the robber and the other patrons too frightened to move. That had been Henry’s mistake. He’d moved in front of her when the gunman reached for the cameo at her throat.
She tore the brooch from her collar and threw it in the shooter’s face. The pin pricked his cheek and bounced to the floor, clanking against the hardwood. A red dot rose on the man’s face.
He stepped over Henry’s body with a threat in his cold eyes. No, a promise.
The harsh reprimand jerked him to a halt, but not before his tobacco-fouled breath washed Mae Ann’s face.
Stuffing money bags with coins and stacks of bills, his partner cursed from behind the counter. “Get over here and help me carry this. We ain’t got all day.”
The gunman’s disrobing glare swept her from neck to skirt hem before he spit on Henry’s coat and turned away. Only after the animal joined his companion did she dare look down at the shiny black spot marring the worn and faded fabric. Right next to a seeping hole.
A slight sound drew her to a tall man by the darkened window. He slid a finger behind the shade the robbers had hastily pulled when they entered. His dark eyes moved but his head did not, and he watched the bandits as he leaned toward the glass for a quick glance outside.
“You better go out the back.” His voice sent shivers up her spine. Deep and gravelly as if dug from a dark pit.
A hammer cocked. The murderer raised his weapon and pointed through the teller’s gate. “You tellin’ us how to do our job, cowboy?”
The man lowered his hand and met the gunman’s threat straight-on, neither fear nor contempt on his face. “I’m telling you the sheriff is headed this way, and your lookout is danglin’ over the hitching rail.”
The hammer slid back.
“Come on.” The leader yanked the gunman’s arm. “I told you no shootin’. Now we got the law on us.” He rushed into the back room and jiggled the doorknob until the door gave way.
The gunman paused at the counter, a gorged bag under each arm, his foul glare resting on Mae Ann. “This ain’t over, missy.”
The back door did not close, though she knew they were gone, as did the others, who all began talking at once. A woman fainted into her husband’s arms—a bit after the fact.
The man at the window raised the blinds and opened the front door but did not leave. Instead, he spoke with each patron, giving a firm handshake to the men and reassuring words and a tip of his wide-brimmed hat to their wives. Mae Ann remained the only woman alone.
Again kneeling beside Henry, she pulled a hankie from her sleeve and wiped the spittle from his clothing. Her hand shook, but no grief weighed on her heart other than pity for an innocent man slain. She knew little of Henry Reiker. Only what he had shared in his letters—that he was weary of loneliness and longed for someone to help him on his meager farm. He’d promised hard work but faithfulness as well, and joy in the small things of life. Could a woman in Mae Ann’s position ask for more?
She looked for a basket or spittoon to deposit her hankie in. Two dusty boots stopped beside her, and her gaze followed long trouser-clad legs to a belt, a chambray shirt, and a calloused hand offering assistance. The man from the window.
She accepted, and stood to look up into dark eyes. A rare occurrence for a woman as unfashionably tall as she.
“My condolences, ma’am.” He doffed his hat and glanced at Henry. “I’ll take him to the undertaker for you.”
She’d not thought that far ahead. Oh, Lord, what should she do? Only the wedding had been on her mind since meeting Henry at the train station, not a burial. She clasped her hands tightly. “Thank you, sir. I—uh—I appreciate your help.” Her hands trembled in spite of gripping them until her fingers ached. “If you could just tell me where that might be, I can make arrangements.” How she would pay for those arrangements, she had no idea.
Traitorous tears fought to escape. Blinking rapidly, she looked away, toward the counter where the teller leaned, ashen and shaken. In that time, another patron had come to help carry Henry’s body. The first stranger caught her eye and tipped his head slightly to his right. She followed them out the door.
A man did indeed lie over the hitching rail near Henry’s farm wagon. With his hands cuffed beneath him, he hung there like a sack of corn, crying.
Tugging at her velvet jacket, she disdained its snuggly tailored fit, much too warm for the afternoon. But it held her together and upright, kept her from crumbling, as if it were emotional armor. She lifted her skirt at the alley and followed Henry’s bearers, who mounted the next boardwalk and continued on, unceremoniously carrying her future to its end.
She reached for her reticule, forgetting it had been snagged by the gunman’s greedy paws. Her fingers habitually felt for the brooch, the cause of poor Henry’s death, and she could not remember if the murderer had stooped to pick it up or if it still lay on the bank floor. Everything of value was gone, other than her trunk in Henry’s buckboard. She glanced back but could not see the wagon for the people rushing in and out of the bank.
When she looked ahead again, the men were gone. She stopped and pressed a hand against her waist and the rising fear within. Never had she felt so alone, so abandoned. Not even after her mother’s consumptive death at the rooming house. Why had Henry insisted they stop at the bank before going to the church? That singular decision changed everything. It cost her a husb
And it cost a gentle and innocent man his life. Oh, Henry, why did you have to defend me?
Across the street, storefronts advertised a saddle shop and livery, a small bakery, and the mercantile, but no undertaker. Just ahead, a shingle hanging above the boardwalk said Hardware. She bent slightly to read the one beyond it. Barber. In smaller script below, Undertaker.
The stranger’s head and shoulders popped into view from the doorway, and he motioned her inside.
She hurried to the threshold, but halted at the sight of Henry lying on a table inside. A spectacled man in a barber’s apron stretched a measuring tape alongside him, then scribbled something on a small paper and applied the measure to Henry’s shoulders.
Mae Ann gripped the door frame, afraid she might lose what little breakfast she’d had before boarding the train in Denver that morning. The stranger came to her, took her elbow, and pointed to a settee, a small table, and an old ladder-back chair across the room—the undertaker’s efforts to dress up his sorrowful establishment.
Mumbling her thanks, she chose the hard chair. Comfort seemed inappropriate for such a time and place.
He took a knee before her, a most unexpected gesture regardless of her situation. His warm eyes posed no threat, nor did his strong jaw, and he removed his hat to reveal dark hair dented from its constant presence. A man accustomed to hard work, she presumed, consistent with the calloused hand that had helped her earlier.
He did not smile, but sympathy tinged his expression. “Can I help you in any other way, ma’am?”
The thought came suddenly and clear, as if it were the most logical and well-suited idea. She weighed her options—which were nonexistent—squared her shoulders and met his unwavering regard. “Do you have a wife?”
He glanced away and his mouth worked as if sorting through possible replies. “No, ma’am, I do not.”
She schooled her features as best she could, feigning confidence. “Would you like one?”
Mrs. Reiker’s question shot Cade Parker to both feet. He set his hat and regarded her openly. Was this offer for herself or for another mail-order bride? An acquaintance or a sister? He knew of her expected arrival—the whole town did. For the last two months, Reiker had talked of nothing else every time Cade saw him at the church house or the mercantile.
He cleared his throat. “Thank you kindly, ma’am, but I’m not looking for a wife.”
She cut a look to her dead husband, then back to Cade as if he hadn’t given an answer. “I am a woman alone. As are you.”
He swallowed a smart reply. “Beg pardon, ma’am, but I do believe that is not what you intended to say. Last time I checked …” He left off.
Her brow furrowed and realization smoothed it, painting her cheeks a becoming pink. Not only was she bold, she was a handsome woman to boot. Not too thin. Eyes and hair the color of coffee, a fair neck beneath her torn collar. She bit her lower lip and its color deepened. Reiker’s gamble on a mail-order bride had paid off.
During the holdup, Cade had expected her to fly into the bandit, and had thought what a loss if the rough killed her as he’d killed her husband.
She let out a breath, impatience insinuated. “I meant if you have no wife, as you say, then you are also alone. As am I.” Her eyes shot suddenly to his. “Unless you have family.”
“None here.” Not counting Deacon, his dog, and his horse.
“Well then.” Her bearing relaxed. “In light of your bravery and kindness, I would like to make a business proposition.”
Bold, handsome, and quick to judge. He’d been called a lot of things, but never brave or kind. Pigheaded flitted by on a memory, but he swatted it down with a dozen other titles he didn’t care to face. “I’d have to say your husband qualified on both counts you mention, and it got him killed. Shouldn’t you be mourning him instead of making business deals?”
She interlocked her fingers, squeezing them until her knuckles whitened. Not the hands of a pampered woman, but neither were they red or cracked. In a low voice she answered his question. “He was not yet my husband.”
Full of dandies, this one. He folded his arms across his chest and darkened his tone. “You know nothing about me. I could be a hornswoggler, an outlaw. A gambler.”
Unmoved by his words, she raised her chin a notch. “On the contrary, sir, I know as much about you as I did my betrothed.” Her eyes strayed to the undertaker, who continued to measure and mark. Returning her attention to Cade, she met him brace for brace. No whimpering female, she.
“I know you are not a self-centered man, or you would have fled the bank at the first opportunity. I know you are brave but thoughtful, based upon how you spoke to the robbers. I know you are gentle by the way you regarded each woman in the bank after the robbery—and Henry’s murder—and I know you to be respected by the men impacted by the situation, for each spoke to you with goodwill and friendliness.”
She paused and studied her hands, then looked him in the eye. “And I know you are kind, for you are the only one of ten who offered to help me with Henry.”
Where was she last fall when he was dickering with the cattle buyers?
“Nor are you a gambler, for your hands and attire speak of a man acquainted with hard, honest work.” She sighed and glanced again toward her dead intended. “But if you are employed as Henry was, a farmer, then you may well indeed be a gambler.”
A wittier woman he’d never met. She’d be a hard match for any man not up to snuff. But she’d picked a cold trail, and he’d already told her so.
He’d considered a wife once. Thought he couldn’t make it in this country without someone beside him, the way his ma was for his pa. But he’d chosen poorly when he settled on the fair and flirtatious Alexandra Hemphill, who’d sashayed under his nose at a church social, hobbled his good sense, and then taken up with a flashier man. They’d left for parts unknown. San Francisco, he’d heard later.
But Cade and his cows had done all right.
“Well?” The widow, or whatever she was, queried him from her seat, ramrod straight, not a begging bone in her body.
He must be out of his mind, though he had been thinking about hiring a housekeeper. This gal’s throat-choking riggin’ and air of respectability spoke to sound morals. And if she could cook, well, so much the better.
He shifted his weight and stood squarely. “A business proposition, you say.”
Hope glimmered in her eyes before she masked them by considering the plank floor. “Yes, a business proposition. I am quite a good cook, I’ll mince no words. And I keep a clean house. Wash, mend, tend to a garden.”
The offer became more appealing as she tallied all the things he did himself besides work the ranch.
“Can you ride?”
She blinked up at him. Then again.
His answer, but he asked again anyway. “Can you horseback?”
Her chin rose higher. “I can learn.”
He held in a snort. She’d not answered him directly, but she’d not lied either. “This business proposition—what’s in it for you?”
At that she stood, and he noticed for the first time that she had no lady’s handbag. No satchel. Her hands smoothed the sides of her suit, dark brown like his bay gelding tied near Reiker’s old wagon. A rip in her collar bore witness to the brooch she’d thrown at the gunman.
He saw it now—her desperation.
“A home and respectability. Safety.” Her color heightened and she lowered her gaze and her voice. “I have seen my twentieth birthday—plus a few—so if I do not appeal to you, we can live as man and wife in name only.”
Plus a few? He’d wager one, maybe two. Nearly a decade stood between them, a surprising discovery since Reiker had been closer to forty.
“I have no expectations other than that if you ar
Shame nicked his conscience for forcing such an admission from her. But taking on a wife—before God and man—was no small thing. He removed his hat, plowed his hair back, caught her eye. “I’ll put you up at the hotel tonight and cover your fare home on the next train.”
Her steel melted and she sank to the chair.
“Mrs. Reiker.” The undertaking barber lifted his hand. “A word, please?”
Before should could rise, Cade crossed the room and pulled a silver coin from his vest pocket. “Will this cover a decent burial in the town cemetery?”
The barber nodded and accepted the offer. “It will. Thank you, Mr. Parker.”
Cade returned to the woman who’d also made an offer—herself, as a matter of business. A risk he’d not take if the roles were reversed. But if offers were being made here today, why couldn’t he accept hers? It wouldn’t be the first time a couple married sight unseen. Under different circumstances, he might have been the letter writer requesting a bride rather than Henry Reiker.
He took in her squared shoulders, her tight jaw, and the absence of Alexandra-like mewling. She’d faced down a gunman, been cheated out of a husband and probably all her money, and considered him trustworthy. Was he? Or was he plumb loco?
She regarded him mutely, dark eyes clouded, back straight. A fighter to the finish.
“We’re done here.” He offered his hand as he had at the bank.
She accepted and stood, but did not cling to him and withdrew her fingers.
He stepped in closer than acceptable, but hang it all, not one thing yet today had been acceptable. Moving closer still, he caught her hair’s flowery scent and the fading traces of fear. He lowered his voice. “Were you and Reiker to be married this afternoon?”
Pain flickered across her lovely face, but she settled on his eyes. “Yes.” A whisper.
He turned slightly and offered his arm. “Then if you wouldn’t mind becoming Mrs. Cade Parker, I’d like to see if the preacher is still available.”
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