Cowboy for Eliza Jane
What it's like to kiss a mountain man...
MAIL ORDER BRIDES ON THE RUN #3
“By the power vested in me by the State of Texas, I pronounce you husband and wife,” the minister from El Gato droned. He was one of those old-school fellows who adopted a singsong voice every time he preached. It was silly to use that tone at a wedding ceremony.
Then again, Reverend Bo Stanley hadn’t been in the position to be picky. An old-school minister was better than no minister in the room at all when you were the one getting married.
It’s not like I could’ve married us myself.
He gazed down at the petite blonde woman standing at his side in her faded green ballgown. It was a stark reminder that she’d once held a much more elevated position in the world — one of extravagant wealth, the prestige of being the only daughter of a renowned painter, and the expectation that she would someday marry a southern gentleman of equal wealth and social standing.
Instead, here she was exchanging vows with a poor pastor from Texas.
He seriously doubted that any of her daydreams while growing up had included a man that met his description. He was all too aware that the tragedy of war and her recently impoverished state were what had driven her to the point of signing a mail-order bride contract. He otherwise wouldn’t have stood a chance with a southern belle like her. He was too big, too rugged, and too unpolished. The few women he’d conversed with in the past had acted a little uncomfortable in his presence.
According to his cowboy friends, he looked part Paul Bunyan and part grizzly bear. He'd tried to tame down the grizzly side of his appearance this morning by trimming his beard. And wearing a suit. And trading in his coon-skin cap for a Stetson — at least for today.
But maybe that’s not enough to make her like what she sees. Or even find me tolerable.
He grimaced at the realization that Olivia Joy seemed to be having a difficult time meeting his eye. Though a blush was stealing its way across her cheeks, the rest of her face was pale.
She looked so lost and forlorn at his side that his fingers itched to smooth back her windblown hair. He longed to comfort her. What’s more, he longed to know what she was thinking — to be reassured that she was alright after their harrowing ride to the church, during which two outlaws on horseback had pursued them guns a-blazing. He was surprised she hadn’t fainted.
“You may now kiss your bride.”
Good gravy! Bo jolted at the minister’s words, since he’d specifically requested the man to skip that part of the ceremony. It was too soon for romantic overtures between them. He’d first laid eyes on her only an hour earlier at the train station. Because of the last-minute nature of her journey west, they’d not so much as exchanged a single letter. Though they were now married, they were still strangers.
He watched in alarm as her long eyelashes shivered against her cheeks. Then she tipped her face up to his.
For a breath-stealing moment, his gaze locked on her fathomless blue eyes. They were swimming with uncertainty and questions.
He bent his head over hers, speaking in a low voice intended for her ears alone. “You don’t have to kiss me if you don’t want to.” He cradled her hand between his much larger hands, trying to warm it. Though she was wearing gloves, they were threadbare. Her occasional shiver told him that she was cold. Or afraid. Or both.
“Please,” she whispered back. “Everyone is watching us. Just get it over with.”
Just get it over with? He dragged in a breath, hating the idea of kissing any woman who wasn’t ready to be kissed. In his own daydreams, he’d not once imagined kissing his bride simply to satisfy the expectations of everyone else who was present.
She was watching him as closely as he was watching her. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she hissed. Standing on her tiptoes, she pressed her lips to his.
He couldn’t have been more stunned…or pleased…or humbled by the gesture. Her mouth was unexpectedly warm for a woman who’d been shivering only moments earlier. Clearly, she possessed more courage than he’d given her credit for.
She’s not afraid of me! Bo was so overwhelmed with gratitude by the discovery that his arms came around her. Lifting her from her feet, he spun her in a full circle while their mouths remained sealed together.
He heard a few muffled snickers, and one of the younger Ford brothers muttered something about his savage mountain man ways. It sounded like Chevy, but it could’ve been Lance, the youngest whippersnapper in the room.
Bo couldn’t have cared less which brother it was. The only thing that mattered to him was that the woman in his arms didn’t seem to be objecting to his mountain man ways. He broke off their kiss long before he was ready and set her back on her feet. Then he lifted his head and anxiously scanned her features. With his eyes, he silently begged her to assure him that she was not offended by what he’d done.
The flush on her cheeks had spread to her neck and forehead, but she looked closer to laughing than weeping. There wasn’t a drop of censure in her gaze. She wasn’t displeased by the kiss.
He continued to gaze down at her in amazed silence while the white-headed minister spoke his final prayer that brought the four back-to-back wedding ceremonies to a close. Bo still wasn’t clear on the details, but some mix-up at the mail-order bride agency had sent four brides to El Vaquero at the same time, and he was one of the lucky cowboys who’d gotten to marry one of them.
Olivia Joy Banks stared boldly back at him. Correction. She was Olivia Joy Stanley now. My bride. He was still absorbing the miracle of being a married man. He’d hoped and dreamed he’d be married someday. However, there’d always been a part of him that doubted he’d find a woman willing to join hands in holy matrimony with a rough-around-the-edges mountain man like him.
Thank you, Lord, for proving me wrong!
Without thinking, he reached out to brush a strand of hair from her cheek. It got tangled around his thumb, and he ended up pulling it instead of smoothing it back.
Nice going, mountain man!
As he tried a second time to release the hapless strand of hair, Olivia Joy winced.
Feeling the heat rise to his own cheeks over his foolish fumbling, he waited until the minister finished praying. Then he hastily started apologizing. “Please forgive me.” Unfortunately, her strand of hair was still twisted around his thumb.
“It’s quite alright.” Her voice was gentle as she reached up to unwind the tangled strands. “It’s not your fault that your bride looks like something a hurricane blew in.”
It took a moment for his dazed brain to register the twinkle in her eyes. The lovely woman standing in front of him was actually jesting with him! His shoulders relaxed.
“Even so, you’re mine to worry about now.” He wasn’t sure where the words had come from, only that they felt right.
Her expression grew dewy soft. “And you are mine.” Her gaze flickered to his shoulder that had been grazed by a bullet only minutes earlier. He knew without looking that the bandage she’d applied to it was showing through his torn shirt and jacket.
She raised a hand toward the bandage but lowered it back to her side without touching him. “I’d like to remove your bandage as soon as possible to clean the wound better.” She’d done the best she could while they were on the road. He was enormously grateful for her fussing and tending, though he wasn’t entirely sure it had been necessary. The bullet had barely grazed him. However, he’d greatly enjoyed being the focus of her female attention.
“Don’t mind if you do.” He winked at her. “Just to be on the safe side.”
For some reason, his words made her blush again. Or maybe it was the wink he’d given her. He had no way of knowing.
As soon as the minister said amen, the Ford brothers hustled the small wedding party back into the carriages outside. As they’d done on the ride to the church, he and Olivia Joy ended up sitting across from the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Keegan and Eliza Jane Ford.
While Keegan was getting his bride seated and comfortable, a thought struck Bo that had him digging sheepishly in the pocket of his trousers. He’d forgotten all about his wedding gift until this very moment. He pulled out the ring, feeling proud all over again by the glimmering red ruby. It was set in an intricate swirl of gold vines.
“This is for you.” He held it out to Olivia Joy. “I meant to give it to you after we exchanged our vows, but…” I reckon I was too busy kissing you. Afterward, every coherent thought had evaded him right up to the point when the Fords started herding them back into the carriages.
“It’s beautiful.” Her classical features were stained with surprise. “I-I wasn’t expecting this.”
From a rugged mountain man, you mean? But she didn’t elaborate as he helped her remove her glove so he could slide the ring on her finger. It was a gift from a wealthy landowner in New Mexico, who’d wanted to show his gratitude for the way Bo had prayed him and his family through a bout of illness. Their baby had teetered between life and death for a few days, but all three of them had ultimately survived.
“Thank you,” Olivia Joy breathed, holding out her hand to gaze at the ring. “It’s so lovely!”
Bo slid an arm around her shoulders and bent his head to speak against her ear. “Not as lovely as the lady wearing it.”
“You’re so good to me,” she declared softly. “Though I have no gift for you in return, I’ll find a way to thank you.”
His gaze dropped to her rosy lips. Another kiss would settle the score just fine with him.
A breathless chuckle bubbled out of her as she met his gaze. “Would it be unladylike to say that I read your mind just now?”
His heart pounded at her words. Leaning close to speak against her ear again, he retorted, “Now that we’re married, you’re welcome to say anything you’d like to me.” He waggled his eyebrows wickedly at her. Or do anything you want with me. He added that last part inside his head, not sure if she was ready to hear it yet.
While they admired her wedding ring together, Bo snuck a glance across the carriage at his best friend.
Keegan was clearly already smitten with the dark-haired beauty riding next to him. All she had to do was cast a worried glance at one of the bullets embedded in the windowsill for him to shed his suit jacket and wrap it around her shoulders.
“You’ll freeze,” she protested, trying to hand it back.
“Nah, I have you to keep me warm.” He curled an arm around her to tug her closer. “My lips are a little cold, come to think of it.”
“Liar!” Blushing, she rolled her eyes at him.
He gave an unholy snicker and looked up to catch Bo’s eye. Then his gaze dropped to Bo’s bandaged arm. They both knew his injury was so minor it was laughable. “If the reverend can get away with stretching the truth about—"
“I heard that.” Bo cut him off, not wishing for Oliva Joy to figure out just yet how unhurt he was. He was very much looking forward to her doing some more fussing and tending when they were finally alone.
Unfortunately, that alone time didn’t occur until after dark. Because of the outlaws who’d pursued the four mail-order brides to the train station in Atlanta, and because of the two outlaws who’d pursued them after their arrival in Texas, Bo’s friends had determined that it wasn’t safe for him and Olivia Joy to return to the parsonage this evening.
Instead, they’d ended up in a cozy guest room at one of the cabins on Ford Ranch.
Olivia Joy shyly twisted her hands in the long, faded skirt of her ballgown. “When do you plan for us to return to the church?”
He lounged against the windowsill, simply enjoying the opportunity to finally be alone with her. “I’ll go check on things there tomorrow. I’ll take you with me as soon as it’s safe.” He was grateful for the fire leaping on the hearth and the bed piled with quilts in the center of the room. He’d probably be sleeping on the floor in front of the fireplace tonight, and that was fine with him.
His bride’s blonde eyebrows rose in alarm. “You’ll do nothing of the sort,” she gasped, taking a step closer to him. “If it’s not safe for me to be there, then it’s not safe for you!”
Her vehemence made his jaw gape in amazement. “I am well armed.” He never carried less than two pistols. Plus, he had a knife tucked inside his boot.
“Something that didn’t keep you from getting shot this afternoon,” she reminded tartly. “No.” She shook her head firmly. “I forbid it.” There was a sharpness to her tone he hadn’t heard before as she continued moving in his direction. She came to a halt directly in front of him. “You pledged before God and man to protect and cherish me for the rest of your days, Reverend Stanley.” She reached out to rest the hand bearing the ruby ring on his folded arms. “It is my greatest hope and most heartfelt prayer that your days on this earth will be long.”
His heart pounded at the possessive way she was touching his arm. “You forbid it, eh?” He quirked an eyebrow at her, both bemused and enchanted by her words and nearness.
“Yes. I positively, absolutely do.”
“You’re not the least bit afraid of me, are you?” The words burst out of him. He’d not intended to say them aloud, but it was too late to un-say them.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Should I be?”
He shrugged. “I’m a big man. I’ve been compared to everything from a grizzly bear to any number of fictional beasts. Most people take a wide path around me.”
Her smile took the breath clean out of his chest. “Taking a wide path around you will be next to impossible in the coming days, don’t you think?” Her fingers tightened almost imperceptibly on his forearm, but he still felt it all the way to his soul. “Not only are we married,” she continued in the same soft, teasing voice, “we’re sharing one of the tiniest bedrooms in the country.” A chuckle escaped her as she gazed around them. “I didn’t think it was possible to stay in any place smaller than our boarding house room in Atlanta. It appears I was wrong.”
His eyelids grew heavy as he chuckled along with her. As glad as he was to discover that his size didn’t intimidate her, the other fear weighing on him made him sober again.
Her smile slipped as she watched his expression change. “Unless I’m mistaken, you seem a little afraid of me, reverend.”
“Bo,” he corrected quickly. “I want you to call me Bo.”
She didn’t so much as blink. “Why are you afraid of me, Bo? Am I too bold for your tastes?”
“I like bold. You’ve nothing to worry about there.”
“Then what is it? I can tell you’re bothered about something, so don’t try to deny it.”
His mouth twisted wryly. “I’m a big, clumsy man who doesn’t want to mess things up between us.” He unfolded his arms to take her hands in his.
“But what if I do?” He threaded his fingers through hers, rubbing the underside of her wedding ring with his thumb. “I accidentally pulled your hair already,” he reminded.
She made a scoffing sound that warmed the deepest parts of his heart. “You’re a good man, Bo Stanley. I could sense it the moment we met, and there are no words to express the relief I’ve been feeling ever since.” Without warning, her blue eyes misted with tears.
“Please don’t cry!” He tugged her closer, pulling her flush against his chest. To his amazement, she tipped her head to his shoulder, allowing him to simply hold her. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world to have her in his arms again. He felt content and complete with her there.
“Though I apologize for my tears, I can’t help them,” she quavered. “After all the awful things I’ve endured in recent months, I finally feel safe again. A man your size probably can’t fathom what it feels like to live in constant fear for one’s safety.”
No. He couldn’t. Instead of answering, he cuddled her closer. To his wonderment, her arms crept around him.
“I can’t believe you ever worried about your size,” she continued with a damp sniffle against the front of his shirt. “Because of your size, your wife will never have to be afraid again.”
“Good.” He reached up to tangle a hand in her hair, glorying in the softness of it.
They simply stood there, holding each other, hearts beating in wild tandem.
A few minutes passed before she tipped her face up to his. “I just thought of a way to thank you for my wedding ring. For giving me your name and protection. For everything else you’ve done and are planning to do for me.”
“Oh?” He studied the beautiful lines and curves of her features in the firelight. At the rate he was going, his feelings for his new bride would quickly reach the besotted point.
Rising to her tiptoes, she slid her arms around his neck to tug his head down to hers. “It’s the only thing I have left in this world to give, and you are the one I want to give it to.” Without another word, she touched her lips to his.
For a moment, he couldn’t move, only feel. A split second later, he deepened their kiss, unable to resist what she was offering. Her trust. Her loyalty. Herself.
He tasted both sadness and hope in her, uncertainty and longing. A sense of fierce protectiveness welled inside him. The amount of confidence she was placing in him was both heady and humbling. He would find a way to be worthy of it — to be worthy of her, so help me, Lord God!
He dragged his mouth over hers, tenderly exploring the feelings she was stirring in him. As far as he was concerned, she could quit worrying about him returning to the church parsonage without her tomorrow. With the way he was feeling right now, he might not be done kissing her by then.
He might not ever be done kissing her.
Olivia Joy was his wife now. His new ministerial partner in the small but growing Church of El Vaquero. A gift straight from Heaven. His personal miracle.
She was also the woman he was fast falling for and would soon grow to love. She was going to love him back, too.
Sometimes, a mountain man just knew things.