Chapter excerpt by Romance author Leigh Greenwood

 

Seven Brides: Rose

Seven Brides: Rose

George Randolph, the oldest brother and patriarch of the family, needs someone to wash, cook, and clean for the brothers on their Texas ranch. Rose Thornton accepts that job. She arrives at the homestead to find six men ranging in ages from six to twenty-four years old. The house looks like it hasn't been cleaned in years, the clothes practically stand up and beg to be washed, and everything in the kitchen is black with soot and grease. She soon discovers she's in the midst of a truly dysfunctional family. The brothers don't seem to like anybody, and that includes each other. They don't much like Rose, either. Once they learn her father was an officer in the Union Army, they vote to send her back to town.

George Randolph was an officer in the Confederate army. He feels responsible for his family, but wants to rejoin the army, the only time when his life was ordered and predictable. Rose sets out to convince George that he's not only a father figure to his brothers, he really wants a family of his own. With her. At the same time seeks ways to repair the fragile bonds that hold this family together.

 

 

Excerpt

Texas, 1866

The women

"I wouldn't do for seven men if they was to offer me every cow between here and the Rio Grande."

"Too many Indians and rustlers in the brush country."

"There's a lot of poor widows in Texas since the war. They gotta find some way to live."

"Seven Men! Who's to say they ain't got more in mind than house work?"

The men

"He'd be hard pressed to tell those women from his longhorns."

"They'd take up with any man as long as he had one arm and a leg."

"Ought to get himself a squaw."

Rose Thornton noticed him the minute he walked into the Bon Ton Restaurant. Any woman would notice a man like that. And not just because he stood over six feet or because he looked so handsome you couldn't be a female and not notice him. Something about him said here stood a man who was a man.

"I never knowed anybody to be so slow. You got a man back in the kitchen?" Luke Kearney demanded, impatiently.

Rose's gaze never left the stranger. She noticed his pants. Confederate army grey. She noticed his hat, too, when he hung it on a peg by the door. Cowboys didn't take off their hats indoors. Ex-confederate army officers did. He took a table against the wall across the room. He showed no sign of impatience.

"You going to hang on to that plate the rest of the morning, or you going to set it down?" Luke asked.

Rose set the plate before Luke. As she turned to see what the stranger wanted, Luke grabbed her wrist.

"You needn't run off so fast." His grip hurt. "How about a little company?"

"I've got another customer," Rose replied. Her quiet, low-pitched voice contrasted sharply with Luke's tenorish twang.

"Let him wait. I ain't through talking to you yet."

Luke's friends, Jeb and Charlie, stopped eating to watch, smiles of anticipation on their unshaven faces.

"I don't have time to talk," Rose said, trying to wrench her wrist from Luke's grasp as she spoke. It mortified her to be mauled in front of anybody but especially this stranger. "Dotty didn't hire me to keep customers waiting."

"You've kept me waiting too damned long," Luke said, the harsh tone of his voice and the look in his eyes stating clearly what his words hadn't -- not yet. "And I ain't giving up my claim for no ex-soldier."

"You have no claim on me, Luke Kearney," Rose stated, her embarrassment replaced by anger.

"You can't hold out forever," Luke said as he attempted to encircle Rose's waist with his free hand. "One of these days you're gonna realize you were made for better things than dishing up grub."

"Slopping hogs would be better than having anything to do with you," Rose replied as she pulled away. "Now let me go."

Jeb and Charlie snickered. That made Luke mad. He jerked Rose's wrist so hard she nearly fell against him.

"I ain't letting go 'til you promise me more than a plate of hot steak."

"How about some hot grease down your front?"

Jeb and Charlie laughed.

"Watch your tongue. I might take a notion to teach you how a Southern lady ought to behave."

"How would you know?" Rose shot back. "A lady real would cross the street if she saw you coming."

Jeb and Charlie's laughter turned to guffaws.

"I've a good mind to..."

"I doubt you have a good mind at all," the stranger said, speaking quietly, unexpectedly. "It certainly isn't occupied with good thoughts."

Spinning around, Rose gaped at the stranger, too astonished at his intervention to remember not to stare. Even leaning against the wall, he made a strong impression. No one could miss the width of his shoulders or the bulge of muscles under his shirt. His large hands and thick, powerful fingers gave the impression of boundless strength.

But his expression affected her even more strongly. His black eyes, utter confidence in their depths, stared at Luke with icy contempt. No muscle quivered in his temple; no muscle emphasized the line of his jaw; no muscle clamped his jaw tight. His face showed no expression at all.

Only his eyes.

"You stay out of this, mister," Luke warned. "This is between me and the lady."

"If you treated her like a lady, there'd be nothing between you," the stranger replied.

The stranger smiled at Rose.

Bemused, she looked away.

"I've been patient with you 'cause you were a Johnny Reb," Luke said, "but I don't put up with nobody butting into my business."

"I have no interest in your business," the stranger assured him. "I'm only concerned with the young lady. She has asked you to let her go."

"This here ain't no lady."

"You just said she was. Are you a liar as well as a bully?"

Rose gulped. Calling Luke a liar was the same as an open challenge.

"Ain't nobody ever called me a liar," Luke growled.

"It seems the good people of Austin have been guilty of neglect," the stranger said, a mocking smile curving his lips.

Luke charged up from his chair.

"Luke, I don't think you ought to..."

But Luke paid no attention to Rose. As he moved to confront the stranger, he dragged her along, bumping her into chairs, her wrist still in his grip.

"Now you listen up, mister, and you listen good. You're a stranger in town, so naturally you don't know I don't like being messed with."

"Then you should understand why Miss -- I don't know your name," the stranger said turning to Rose, a smile once again on his lips.

Despite the pain, Rose smiled back. "My name's Rose-"

"It don't matter what her name is," Luke broke in. "She ain't no concern of yours."

The stranger's black-eyed gaze returned to Luke. "I spent four years fighting for the confederate cause, but I didn't spend so much as one minute fighting for men who mishandle women or interrupt them when they speak."

Luke flushed red with rage. Pushing Rose from him, he reached for the gun at his hip. But before he could bring it up to firing level, the stranger brought his hand down so hard across Luke's wrist he paralyzed every nerve in Luke's fingers.

The gun fell harmlessly to the floor.

"Let the lady go."

Recovering from his shock, Luke shouted, "I'll be damned if I will." Then he lunged.

The stranger's fist struck a blow that sent Luke crashing into the table behind him. As Rose jumped out of the way of a careening chair, Luke staggered to his feet, stunned, but too furious to see he didn't have a chance against this man.

Head down, Luke charged again.

The stranger merely stepped aside. Luke plowed into the table, and then the wall. He broke the table, a chair, and his collarbone.

A mountain of flesh surmounted by a bulbous face exploded from the kitchen; Dottie, the owner of the Bon Ton. "I won't have anybody breaking up my place," she screamed in a shrill voice as she surged toward the cause of the disturbance. "You'll pay for this."

"Take it out of his pockets," the stranger said, indicating the prostrate Luke with an indifferent glance. "And bring this young lady...Rose...a cup of strong coffee."

Rose didn't understand why the sound of her name on this man's lips should render her immobile. Or could it be the smile which still hovered on his lips? How about the warmth in his eyes?

"I don't pay her to sit down," Dottie screeched.

"Neither, I imagine, do you pay her to take abuse from your customers," the stranger countered, giving Dottie a look quite as severe as the one he had directed at Luke only moments before. "She needs a few minutes to regain her composure."

"And if I refuse?"

He turned his gaze to the broken chair. "I don't imagine you'd have many customers if all your chairs were reduced to kindling."

Dottie eyed the stranger with malevolent intent, but much to Rose's surprise, she apparently decided it would be wiser to deal with a comatose Luke than this imperturbable man. She rifled Luke's pockets, removing more than enough coins to pay for her broken furniture. "Get rid of him, and I'll bring the coffee," she said, and departed without a backward glance.

"Are you his friends?" the stranger asked Jeb and Charlie.

Both men turned back to their eating without answering. A third man dashed through the door, apparently intent on discovering the cause of the ruckus. One look at the stranger's eyes caused him to slide into a chair on the opposite side of the room.

"You know him?" the stranger asked the new arrival.

"Never saw him in my life."

The stranger picked Luke up by the back of his pants, dragged him through the open doorway, and dropped him in the middle of the boardwalk. Then he stepped back into the restaurant, closed the door behind him, chose a new table, and pulled out a chair.

"I'd appreciate it if you would join me, ma'am," he said to Rose. "You seem to be holding up pretty well, but you'll feel better once you sit down for a little while."

Rose hesitated.

"My name is George Randolph. I just got into town this morning, but I'd appreciate your company."

How could Rose tell him her hesitation had nothing to do with his being a stranger? After her dramatic rescue, she had difficulty thinking of him as an ordinary human being.

"I can't...I shouldn't," Rose stumbled, finding her tongue at last. She looked at the litter of broken furniture. "I have to pick this up. People will be coming in soon."

"Don't worry about that," George said. "Luke's friends will get it."

Jeb and Charlie looked up from their food, their expressions impossible to decipher.

"No!" Rose protested. She heard the fear in her voice. "They didn't do anything."

"I know," George said. "And now they want to make amends."

No one could misunderstand his meaning. The gun stuffed in his waist didn't seem necessary to back up his words. But it wasn't unimportant either.

Wordlessly, Jeb and Charlie went back to eating.

George still held the chair. Dottie lunged out of the kitchen and slapped two cups of coffee on the table. "You've got ten minutes," she said to Rose. "You meaning to eat, or you just here to cause trouble?" she asked, addressing George.

"I'd like some beef and potatoes. Hot. And some scrambled eggs if you have them."

"Fresh laid this morning. Anything else?"

George turned to Rose. "Have you eaten yet?"

"She don't have time to eat," Dottie snapped.

With one hand, George lifted a chair over his head.

"I'll bring her some eggs," Dottie offered, giving ground, "but that'll have to do. I've got dinners to cook. I don't pay her to dilly-dally with the customers."

"That'll be fine," George said before Rose could answer. He put the chair down. "The sooner it gets here, the sooner she can go back to work."

Dottie turned red in the face, but she rolled from the room like the outgoing tide.

"You'd better sit down," George said, an apologetic smile softening the lines of his face. "I have a feeling your employer will time your ten minutes to the second."

His voice -- calm, confident, comforting -- convinced her to sit.

"Dottie isn't bad," Rose explained as she stepped up to the table. "She's really good to me, but she's got to feed these men fast if she doesn't want them to go to the place down the street."

As she sat down, George's hand brushed her shoulder. Rose would never have believed anything so slight could cause such a intense reaction. He hadn't actually touched her, just the folds of her dress, but she felt as if he'd given her an intimate caress. Her body responded by becoming ramrod stiff. Her mind reacted by losing the thread of the conversation.

"Is their food better?"

"It's not easy for Dottie to make a go of this place," Rose replied.

"Do the other restaurants have better food than the Bon Ton?" George asked again.

"No," Rose said, her mind suddenly grasping the meaning of George's words. "Dottie's the best cook in town."

"Then what's the attraction?"

"The girls."

"Am I to judge from Luke's behavior that they..."

Rose nodded her head.

"And they expect you to..."

"Dottie doesn't. She knows I won't."

"Then why doesn't she make sure her customers know it?"

"She doesn't have time, not with all the cooking. Besides, I can take care of myself."

George raised his eyebrows.

"I know it didn't look like it, but Luke's the only one who won't take no for an answer. Jeb and Charlie would help if I needed it."

Rose followed George's gaze as it turned to the two men eating with their heads just inches from their plates, their eyes turning neither right nor left. "I'd hate to have to depend on them," George observed.

Dottie emerged from the kitchen, two plates of scrambled eggs in her hands. "The steak will be ready when you're done with this," she informed George. She slapped the plates down and flowed out again.

"You'd better start," George said. "Four of your ten minutes are gone already."

For a few moments they ate in silence.

"How long have you lived in Austin?" George asked.

"Most of my life."

"Why doesn't someone in your family take care of men like Luke?"

Rose lowered her gaze. "I don't have any family."

"What about your friends. Surely a young woman as attractive as you--"

Rose looked up. "I don't have any friends, either. The family I used to live with moved to Oregon to escape the war." Rose pushed her chair back and got to her feet. "I'd better go. Thanks for breakfast. And for Luke."

George had risen with her. "I don't expect any thanks. No lady should have to endure such treatment."

Rose paused in the act of turning away. "What makes you think I'm a lady? You don't know anything about me."

"I just know," George replied. "My mother was a lady."

Rose's gaze locked with George's. That had to be the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. That a stranger, a man who knew nothing about her would say it -- he knocked Luke down so he must mean it -- well, it made her want to fling herself at his feet.

Abruptly, she dropped her gaze and hurried away. A moment later she returned with George's steak. Without meeting his gaze, she started to clear away the debris. He stopped her.

"They'll do that," he said, eyeing Jeb and Charlie.

Rose looked nervously in their direction, but neither man spoke.

"I think I'd better..."

"You'd better see to that man in the corner. He's waited patiently for quite some time."

With a fatalistic shrug of her shoulders, Rose went to take the order. Two more men came in before she finished.

Jeb and Charlie finished eating just about the time Rose finished taking the last order. Without saying a word to each other, they got up and began gathering up the broken pieces of furniture. They didn't look up until they each had an armload of splintered wood.

"Put it on the woodpile out back," Dottie said, entering broom in hand. "I'll use it for kindling." She handed the broom to Charlie. "And sweep up the splinters. I won't have the customers saying I keep a messy place."

Rose could have heard a deep breath, had anyone dared take one, as the men swept the floor and set the tables back in order. They left without saying a word or even once looking at George.

"You know you made three enemies this morning, don't you?" Dottie asked.

George finished he steak and got up. His cold gaze appraised Dottie. "I had several million during the war. Three more aren't going to make much difference." He walked over to the wall pegs and settled his battered hat over his eyes. "Good day, ladies," he said and walked out into the street.

"That man's going to get himself killed," Dottie said.

"He survived the war," Rose said. "What's he got to worry about in Austin?"

"Men who'll shoot him in the back and be glad of it," Dottie stated, disgusted Rose should ignore the obvious. "And Luke'll be at the head of the line."

"I don't think he cares about Luke," Rose said. "He's a gentleman."

Dottie turned on her angrily.

"He may be a gentleman, though I never knew a man who was out for anybody but himself, but that ain't going to help you when you're looking for another job."

"What do you mean?"

"I can't keep you on here. The minute you're done serving, come get your money."

The blunt announcement stunned Rose. "You can't do that. Nobody else will hire me."

"That's not my problem," Dottie said, not meeting Rose's eyes. "I can't afford no more cowboys breaking up the place. There won't always be someone like him to make sure I get paid. Who was that man anyway?" Dottie demanded, turning to her customers.

"Never seen him," one of the men volunteered. "He come into town this morning looking for a woman to do for him and six other men."

"There. Go offer for that job if you think he's so wonderful," Dottie said.

She waddled off to the kitchen.

Through the haze of shock and disbelief, Rose clutched at the only straw she could see. "Do you mean he's advertising for a housekeeper?"

"Guess so. He put up a sign outside the sheriff's office."

"Why doesn't he hire a cook?"

"Go ask him," the man said, a mocking smile on his face. "Seems like he's already got his eye on you."

Rose felt the heat rise in her face, but she refused to let Dawson's jibs get to her. She had to think.

But for the next two hours she had no thoughts to spare for George Randolph or herself. His turn-up with Luke had made the Bon Ton the most popular eating place in town. Everybody wanted to know where he sat and how many tables Luke broke. Long before the rush ended, she began to wish he had gone to another restaurant to eat.

But as she walked back to her room, she caught herself daydreaming of George Randolph somehow making her future bright and secure.

Don't be stupid she told herself as she sank down on the hard, narrow bed in the single room she rented. He doesn't even know your last name. And you can forget all the fairy tales you read about knights rescuing ladies. If your future is ever going to be secure, you'll have to do it yourself.

But how?

She opened her drawer and counted her small horde of coins. Less than twenty-five dollars. How long would that last? What would she do when it was gone?

The men had been getting more bold in their advances, more rude in their suggestions, more persistent in their demands. She didn't know where she could find another job, but she'd starve before she'd let anybody make a whore out of her.

Rose shuddered at the sound of the word. She'd never said it out loud, never even let herself think it. She could leave Austin, but would it be any different in another town? She would still be a woman alone, without family, without money, support, or protection.

She thought of her father's life savings, her only inheritance, lost in a bank failure caused by the Union blockade. She thought of her uncle's family, cold and distant when her father refused to let her live with them on their New Hampshire farm after her mother's death; silent and uncaring after she refused to leave Texas at the outbreak of the war; angry and bitter since her uncle's death at Bull Run.

She felt more alone and vulnerable than ever.

Rose dragged over to a small table and picked up a hand mirror. What did Luke see in her face that made him so sure she would share her body with him?

It couldn't be beauty. She was always too tired to look her best. Besides, she did everything she could to make herself look ordinary. Her dresses were dark and loose-fitting. She parted her rich, brown hair in the middle, pulled it back from her face until all traces of natural curl were gone, and captured it in a braid at the base of her head.

Did he think desperation would force her to yield? She tried to smile, but nothing could hide the fear in the back of her eyes, the lines at the corners of her eyes, or the tightness of her mouth.

Luke wouldn't be thinking about lust now. He'd be thinking about revenge. And what about Jeb and Charlie? Mr. Randolph would go back to his ranch in the middle of nowhere, and she'd be left here with three men determined to ruin her.

Unless she answered Mr. Randolph's ad.

Rose could hardly credit the thrill that electrified her body. She had never met a man she liked as much or one as kind, but he was a stranger. How could she be thrilled by the idea of keeping house for him?

She couldn't deny her whole body trembled at the thought of being near him, but she didn't know anything about him. Any woman who rode off with a man gambled with her fate. A woman who rode off with a stranger gambled with her life.

But it was different with George.

She remembered how she felt while she sat with him at the table. Safe. She hadn't felt that way since the Robinsons left for Oregon. If he would protect a woman he didn't know, wouldn't he be even more ready to defend someone who worked for him?

She remembered the Confederate grey of his trousers and felt her body tense, her hopes dim. He had been an officer, too. No such man would hire her, not once he found out her father had fought for the Union.

But she couldn't stay in Austin, not without a job. She'd soon be forced to beg.

Or...

She was desperate enough to grasp at straws.

She would write her uncle's wife again, even though she hadn't answered any letters in five years, not even when she wrote them of her father's death.

Maybe one of her father's army friends would help. If she went through his letters again, maybe she would find some names. She only needed one.

But even if someone decided to help her -- she knew they wouldn't. It was foolish to expect it -- she couldn't wait two or three months for a reply. She needed help right now. Her twenty-five dollars wouldn't last long. She had to do something immediately.

Today.

"Don't know what kind of response you'll get," Sheriff Blocker was saying to George later that afternoon. "Lots of people came by, but they don't cotton to the idea of living in the brush. Too much trouble with rustlers and Mexican bandits."

"We don't have much trouble around our place," George told him. "The boys don't allow it."

"Maybe not, but you ain't likely to convince people around here of that. Not a month goes by they don't hear of a raid by Cortina or the men he protects."

"I'm not asking anyone to go who's afraid."

The sheriff gave him a good looking over. "I imagine you could do a pretty good job of taking care of your own. What about your boys?"

"They're my brothers. We're all pretty much alike."

"That might make it better with the ladies. They attach a lot of importance to family."

Several male spectators had also gathered outside the sheriff's office. One of them, an ancient coot with a scraggly growth of beard and a sunken mouth which ejected a stream of tobacco juice every few minutes, climbed up on the boardwalk next to the sheriff. He looked too old and thin to stand by himself, but George could see plenty of life dancing in his eyes and in the wicked expression on his face.

The old man laboriously read the sign, looked at George, cackled merrily, then spat a stream of tobacco juice over the head of the nearest spectator.

"Ain't going to get nobody worth having," he said.

"Go on, Sulphur Tom, clear off," the sheriff said. "We don't need you here putting up folks' backs."

"You listen to me," the old man warned George. "Nothing here you can take to your bed. Not without you're dead drunk first."

"Here," the sheriff interrupted, "I'll have none of that talk. This here is a respectable young man with a ranch and I dunno how many head of cattle."

"Don't matter. Won't get nobody to stay below the Nueces. Sure to get kilt or lose her scalp."

"He doesn't live below the Nueces. Now scram before I put you in jail."

"Won't do no good," the incorrigible said. "I'd slip between the bars."

As the hour drew near, George wondered if Sulphur Tom might not know more about the women of Austin than the sheriff.

Several women had mixed with the crowd, but none had come forward. Much to George's chagrin, he found himself searching for Rose. Even more disturbing, he felt disappointed when he couldn't find her. It's just as well. She's not the kind of housekeeper you need.

George knew it was true, but the knowledge did nothing to erase his disappointment.

On the dot of five o'clock, the sheriff addressed the crowd. "Anybody here meaning to answer this ad?"

Three women stepped forward.

Only George's military training prevented him from turning tail on the spot.

"This is Mrs. Mary Hanks," the sheriff said of the first, a tiny woman who looked old enough to be George's mother. "She lost her husband during the war."

"I got seven kids of my own," Mrs. Hanks announced. "Don't reckon I'd know the difference if I was to find myself doing for seven more." But Mrs. Hanks's appearance, as well as that of two urchins George guessed were part of her brood, told him her idea of "doing" for a family probably didn't come close to matching his.

Sheriff Blocker turned to the next woman, a strapping blond of indeterminate age, decidedly unattractive features, and an intimidating ear-to-ear grin. "This is Berthilda Huber. She's German. Her family died on her this winter."

"Ya," Berthilda commented.

"Doesn't she speak English?" George asked, his calm shaken.

"Nothing you could say in mixed company," the sheriff explained.

"Ya," repeated Berthilda.

George turned to the third candidate.

"Peaches McCloud is my name," the imposing woman announced, stepping forward to speak for herself in a manner George associated more nearly with his commanding officer than a housekeeper. "I'm strong and willing. I'll cook and clean for as many men as you like, but you come messing with me in the middle of the night, and I'll put a knife in you."

The crowd laughed. Some men nudged each other. Several of the women nodded their approval.

George knew he had found exactly what he needed in Peaches -- a big, strong woman who would work like a horse and expect nothing in return but a roof over her head.

He didn't doubt meals would be ready on time, the house neat as a pin, and the linens freshly laundered every week. Yet the moment he knew he had found what he had come for, he didn't want her. A woman of Peaches' insensitivity could easily destroy the fragile ties that held his family together.

But where was he to look for someone else? Would things be any better in San Antonio or Victoria or Brownsville?

No. None of these towns had Rose.

George cursed. However much he might be unable to forget her big, brown eyes, he didn't need Rose. Besides, she wasn't here. What he needed and wanted had nothing to do with her.

"Said you wouldn't get nothing but scrubs," Sulphur Tom cackled from the fringe of the crown. "Peaches is the best of the lot, but she'll wear you down to a nubbin inside six months."

"Shut up, old man, or I'll wring your neck," Peaches threatened.

Sulphur Tom deposited a stream of tobacco juice at Peaches' feet to show what he thought of her threats. When she charged after him, the crowd fell back, most of them laughing. Sulphur Tom danced beyond her reach.

"Take the foreign one," Sulphur Tom advised. "At least she won't talk back to you."

"I don't think any of you ladies would be happy with us," George began. He couldn't go back without someone to keep house for them, but he couldn't hire any of these women.

"I'll be content anywhere I make up my mind to be content," Peaches declared, her expression belligerent.

"Ya," echoed the Fraulein Huber.

George started over. "I'm sorry if I've inconvenienced you..."

"We'll have none of your inconveniencing," Peaches stated. "You advertised for a housekeeper, and we showed up. Now you've got to choose one of us."

"We may not be what you was looking for," the Widow Hanks added, "but we're the only choices you've got."

"He's got one more."