Mac set up the alarm, barking and growling. Behind her wagon, Wren fumbled with the buttons on her dirty, old, chambray shirt and tucked it into her waistband. She heard the sheriff calling Mac off and hoped her dog would respect the sheriff’s authority.
“You’re a stupid, silly, undisciplined piece of free-market-ware, my girl,” she spit out between her tight lips, her voice barely a whisper. “One kiss and you forget where you are, and who you are. God help you, if anyone saw what you were doing out there, you’ll never be able to look any of these people in the eye, ever again.”
Starting to wind her hair up into a knot on top of her head, Wren realized she’d lost her hat…and her hair-combs. Having to hold her hair in place while she searched for some hairpins, she cursed her trembling fingers. Furious, she kept up her scold. “You’ve opened Pandora’s box, that’s what you’ve done. That man’s going to be after you. There was nothing honorable about that kiss. Ohhh, no, he’ll be looking for a quick tumble now. Remember your cousins, how they talked about girls who gave away their kisses. That’s you, now. You’re one of…those…girls. You gave the sheriff the impression you’re more than ready. You’re prime for the picking, my girl. Ripe, overripe.” Sputtering and fuming, she moaned with shame while her body trembled, ached for more.
Discovering two hair-combs behind her jar of bag balm, she stuck them into the coil of hair on the crown of her head. The combs dug into her scalp. It hurt. Wren considered the self-inflicted pain her punishment for her scandalous lack of discretion and self-control. Rechecking the buttons on her blouse to be sure she hadn’t missed one, or worse, buttoned herself up incorrectly, she then tugged at her skirt and smoothed it down over her hips. Squaring her shoulders, she put up her chin, prepared to face the good people of Laura Creek, and…the sheriff.
Telt waved to the seven men as they approached the freight wagons. “Jack, Archie, surprised to see you in town. Sorry to hear Grandma Tatom isn’t well,” he said after calling Mac off and ordering him to sit with Queenie under the wagon.
The Tatom boys lived on a big ranch about two miles outside of Laura Creek in a narrow little valley where they raised cattle and hay. Jack, the elder, maybe nineteen, and Archie, a couple of years younger, were the sole providers for their aging grandmother, their mother and little sister. Telt didn’t think they were the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they worked hard.
“Grandma told us to go to church and pray, so we did,” Jack said as he spread his thin lips into a wide smile, revealing a blank space where two front teeth should be. The two boys had on their Sunday best: boiled white shirts, gray wool suit coats, and trousers, both boys sweating profusely. As they approached, the smell of hot bodies encased in dusty wet wool hung heavy in the air.
“Hey, Sheriff,” said Jim Brandtmeyer, “we came out to talk to that O’Bannon woman about work. My missus said I’d better get over here. She wants a new cook-stove. I tried to tell her we can’t afford it, but she thought it’d be worth a try to work something out.”
The Tatom boys piped in, “Archie and me, we’d like to see if we could get Grandma a new mattress. We’ve been stuffin’ her old one with moss, but it’s all hard and it stinks. We both think she’d be better in no time if she could get some real sleep on a down mattress. We could work a week to pay for it, before we have to get in the second crop of hay.”
Telt nodded his understanding. Jim Brandtmeyer came forward with his hat in hand. He was middle-aged with six kids to feed. Jim owned the lumber and shake mill a few miles east of town. He had with him his two oldest boys. Both took after their father, built short, square and sturdy. Telt didn’t know any of the kids by name
, Jim Brandtmeyer had too many offspring, even Jim had trouble remembering all their names. The two boys stood behind their father with unenthusiastic, blank expressions on their pimply faces.
Telt nodded to Percy and Punk, who’d filed in behind Jim. Punk spoke for them all, “Well, where is she? We ain’t got all day.”
Telt shook his head and laughed, but before he could respond, Miss O’Bannon came out from behind her wagon. “Gentleman,” she said, ignoring Telt and pushing past him under full sail. He winked and grinned at her.
They had changed their course back there, during that kiss. Telt knew they couldn’t turn back and they couldn’t ignore it. She could try to pretend nothing happened, but he wasn’t about to allow that.
“Gentlemen, I assume you’re here because of my announcement in church this morning,” she said, shading her eyes from the noonday sun with her little black book and lead pencil. Telt tapped her on the shoulder and passed her hat to her. He noticed her hair combs were stuck in the felt fabric inside the brim. He watched her face turn bright pink, and winked at her again. She slapped the hat on her head, winced, then groaned. Those damn combs. He could feel her pain. Her big brown eyes flew open, filling to the brim with unshed tears.
Looking to the faces of the men, Telt didn’t think any of them had noticed anything amiss. Stepping back, he leaned his hips against one of the wagons, folded his arms and crossed his ankles, ready to be entertained. Miss O’Bannon took her cue, now that he had moved out of her way.
She bartered with Jim Brandtmeyer for lumber for shelves and posts for a fence around her acreage. Punk offered to install a stove for her; that is, if she could get her hands on a stove. In addition, he’d keep her mules until she could get her pasture ready, all for some harness and a new anvil. Percy offered his and Shorty’s time to unload her wagons and stock her shelves, when they were installed, for new shoes and clothing.
“You’ll be wantin’ to talk to Lyle Claussen and Otto Meirs. They built the store. Otto’s a crackerjack carpenter and stone mason,” Jack told her. “I know they didn’t get to finish the job the way they wanted.”
“That’s true,” Jim said. “They put out cash money for lumber. Buttrum went all tight-fisted when they got the roof up. Buttrum told’em, ‘Good enough’.”
Telt saw her write everything down, her pencil moving, filling the pages in her black book. When she looked up, her eyes narrowed and her jaw set before she asked Jim, “I’ll want to speak to them. Are they in town today?”
“No, Ma’am, but I could send one of my boys out to let them know you want to speak to them. They’d like to break even on the lumber, I know.”
“Oh, I think they can do better than just break even. In time, I’m sure of it,” she said and gave all of them, with the exception of Telt, the benefit of her smile.
Feeling jealous as hell, he wondered, what did she mean…? They can do better than break even? And what the hell did she mean by “in time”? Feeling unsettled and edgy, Telt realized he hadn’t had a dull moment since Miss Wren O’Bannon pulled into town. She sure had a way of making things happen. Miss O’Bannon had marched into town and taken over like a general carrying out a campaign. No wonder Howard felt threatened.
Yes, sir, that kiss, that too felt like a threat, an exciting threat, but a threat no less. He had to grin. Just thinking about it gave his manhood a lift. Once the woman started something, she wasn’t one to quit; that he’d learned. A man better watch his step, or he could end up in over his head. Telt figured he better be sure he wanted to start something, before he…started something.
By the end of the day, Wren had laid out all of the repairs and storage problems before the good people of Laura Creek. Her store now buzzed and hummed with folks planning and plotting the possibilities. Even those who hadn’t attended church knew, via the grapevine, they could find opportunity for employment and gain at the new mercantile. All kinds of folks were in and out of the store all afternoon, everyone except the one person Wren wanted to see the most, the one person she dreaded and longed to see, Sheriff Telt Longtree.
One problem arose. She didn’t mention it to anyone, but as she began to tally up all of the merchandise she had promised to deliver, it became clear she would need to make a trip to her warehouse in Pendleton. If she could get away the day after tomorrow, with any luck she would be back by the end of the week. By then she might have shelves. If she had a storeroom, she could stock the shelves and prepare to open for business. And by then, surely, she would be over this fever for the sheriff that had taken over her mind and body.
She smiled a sly smile. She would open her store, possibly before the deadline. She didn’t think Mr. Buttrum would be pleased; on the contrary, he counted on her to fail. However, he obviously had not reckoned on the good souls of his community.
With her pencil suspended over a blank page in her little black book, her thoughts took her back in time to a day she would never forget.
While cleaning her father’s room, changing his bedding she discovered her father’s will hidden beneath his mattress. Curious, she slipped away to her room to read it and discovered he’d written her completely out of his will. She would have nothing, no home, no place in the family business, everything went to her Uncle Stanley.
She couldn’t believe it—she assumed that because of her father’s illness, his incapacity, and that she single-handedly ran her father’s half of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises, she was by all rights a full partner. She consulted with her father to keep him apprised of her progress, successes, and problems. Her father knew how much she loved her work—it was her entire life. The cold reality of his will struck her hard, pierced her heart like a knife.
Once the shock of betrayal began to subside, she made the decision to strike out on her own and cashed out a modest bank account, which she had received as an inheritance from her maternal grandfather. Hurt and angry, believing she had no one who would care, she proceeded to incorporate herself into the Big O’ Corporation.
The lawyer that helped her form her corporation helped her find a warehouse far away from Oregon City and the prying eyes of her Uncle Stanley. The lawyer wasn’t the family lawyer; she knew better than to trust the family lawyer to keep her dealings confidential. To add to that, the family lawyer would ask too many questions—where had she found the money—why form a corporation—why a warehouse in Pendleton, of all places?
At the time, she chose the Pendleton location, believing it far enough away from the eyes and ears of her uncle and cousins that she could keep her activities a secret. As it turned out, the location made sense. The cargo vessels working the Columbia River could carry her inventory directly from the port of Portland up the Columbia to Umatilla Station, and from there, overland to Pendleton. Wren had no plan of how to proceed or where she would go, she just started buying and storing merchandise for her warehouse in Pendleton under the name of The Big O’ Corporation.
She searched for bargains, bid on inventory from businesses that were moving or going under. She became obsessed with the challenge of getting the best deal.
One day while searching The Oregonian for the next bargain, she spotted an intriguing ad. “Come join our friendly, growing community. Newly built mercantile for sale in Laura Creek, Oregon, ready and waiting for the right owner”.
After speaking to Judge Crookshank, and finding out that he knew the mayor of the town, she decided to make the purchase. It seemed serendipitous at the time.
Retreat, Telt had once read, was the better part of valor, or something like that. It felt more like cowardice. With no excuse, other than to spy on her, he didn’t feel like hanging around the mercantile like some useless clod. She was right over there, just a few steps from his door. If he got close enough to her to look into her eyes, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her. He burned to get her in his arms again. Wren O’Bannon wasn’t more than a spit in the wind; short and firm, warm and supple, a woman who didn’t wear corsets, bustles or stays… damn, she was all woman.
Besides, he needed to fix his chair. It would keep his mind occupied for the afternoon.
All afternoon there came a stream of high traffic up and down Main Street, folks in wagons and folks on foot heading for the mercantile. Telt didn’t need to be right there in the doorway watching her every move. Wren O’Bannon had set forth a movement towards getting that store up and running, and he had to let her do it. In his mind, he could see her, with that black book and her pencil in hand, bargaining and dealing like an auctioneer on sale day—in her element.
With the new leg for his chair blocked and nailed to the underside of the seat, he discovered the darn thing rocked and wobbled from side to side. He’d tried sanding all the legs down without much success. While scratching his head thinking about what to try next, the door to his office opened and Miss Bledsoe, carrying a dinner plate beneath a linen napkin, entered.
Seeing the hopeful gleam of adoration shining in her cornflower-blue eyes, and the sweet smile on her lips, he felt guilty as hell. The woman would not easily give up her pursuit. Two days ago, that had seemed to be an okay deal. But today, Telt figured he better try to discourage Miss Bledsoe from her infatuation. Even if he wasn’t sure in which direction his heart would take him, he now knew that no woman would erase from his memory Miss O’Bannon’s unbridled passion in his arms.
Furthermore, he wasn’t interested in anything less than all-out heat when it came to kisses. Lottie Bledsoe didn’t have it in her. He compared the situation to his experience with some of the horses and dogs he’d met and had owned over the years—some had spark and others didn’t. Funny, but two days ago he hadn’t known what it was that was missing in his relationship with Miss Beldsoe. He shook his head. Because of one kiss, he’d become as fickle as his dog.
“I’m pleased to find you in your office,” Lottie said, a sweet smile on her thin lips. “Uncle Howard said you were probably at the mercantile, but I told him you wouldn’t want to be over there. It’s so crowded. Whatever can that woman be doing?” Lottie set the plate on his desk and pulled the napkin off to reveal fried chicken, potatoes covered with chicken gravy, and green beans, all still hot.
When Telt took his eyes off the plate of savory food and looked up into Miss Bledsoe’s limpid pools of blue, he thought of Miss O’Bannon. He would bet his best pair of boots she hadn’t eaten all day.
During the afternoon Wren bargained with Mr. Baker for a sign for the mercantile. She wanted a sign much like the one he had over his stable entry. While standing there in the doorway of the mercantile, Wren glimpsed Lottie Bledsoe entering the sheriff’s office, balancing a plate of goodies between her lace-gloved hands. The harder Wren tried to focus on Mr. Baker and his ideas for her sign, the more distracted she became.
Thinking of Lottie Bledsoe soured her stomach, and try as she might, Wren couldn’t get the woman out of her mind. The fact of the matter, she was jealous of the girl’s pretty clothes, her willowy body, her fair complexion, her blue eyes, and in general, the way she exuded frail femininity. Jealousy came as a new and unwelcome emotion to Wren.
For the rest of the afternoon she could hardly think straight. She scolded herself, telling herself she had no time for such foolishness. The desire to march over to the sheriff’s office and strangle the woman threatened to override her good sense. At the very least, she wanted to squish Miss Bledsoe’s homey offering of food down her scrawny neck. Then, in a futile attempt to be reasonable, she reminded herself that she didn’t want the sheriff—Miss Bledsoe could have him.
Besides, he hadn’t bothered to set eyes on her all afternoon—so much for her kisses meaning anything to the man.
That kiss was a tease, a wicked experiment. Men!
Disgusted with herself for being disappointed that the flirtatious sheriff had not flashed his winking blue eyes or his big white-toothed, teasing grin at her all afternoon, she marched her sorry-self out across the meadow to her lonely wagons.
The sheriff could go straight to perdition; she did not care one way or the other if she ever set eyes on him again…ever. She was glad he hadn’t shown his face all afternoon. Very, very glad.
The sun, low in the sky, slipping over the side of the mountains, provided a splendid show of coral, violet and silver hues. She had a headache, no doubt caused by the lack of food, finding no time to return to her wagon for lunch. With her throat raw from talking all afternoon, and feeling hot and sticky, she wondered what she could fix for herself that would be satisfying and quick for her evening meal.
A soft, warm breeze ruffled her skirt as she crossed the meadow. She removed her hat and the combs from her hair. Instantly her headache receded to a dull throb at her temples, as opposed to the battering-ram that had been slamming at her forehead just a few moments ago. Closing her eyes, she rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath; and congratulated herself on a very productive afternoon. She had hope. She might be able to do all that she had promised.
As she drew closer to her campsite, she saw the sheriff’s dog lying there under the wagon with Mac. This would never do. The sheriff had to take responsibility for his own dratted dog.
In the twilight, she could see the glow of a lantern shining between and coming from beneath her wagons. She had company. She knew of only one person who might think he could just come into her camp and make himself at home—just one person who might think he would be welcome. Oh, how she wished she had her pistol with her. She would give him a welcome, all right. Maybe a rock? Yes, she would knock him in the head with a big rock. Probably wouldn’t even put a dent in that thick skull of his.
“Good evening, Miss O’Bannon,” greeted the sheriff with a congenial grin on his big face as he stepped in front of her, coming from between her wagons and affording her no time to find her weapon of choice.
“Eeek!” she squealed, in the foolish way that women often responded when taken by surprise, which she found exceedingly irksome. He’d managed to scare her even though she knew of his presence. She could just cry. Of all the nerve, the gall, and now to get all goosish and fluttery…even thrilled to see him…it didn’t seem fair, not fair at all.
“I made a pot of my venison stew,” he said, his big blue eyes full of uncertainty, looking like a big silly, sorrowful hound. She could almost imagine his tail going between his legs. “I figured you hadn’t bothered or had time to eat today.”
Wren stood there a second, hat in hand, her headache pulling her brows together over her nose, preparing in her head the set-down he had coming. The offer of food never entered her mind; she’d assumed he’d come for something else entirely…just one thing…her surrender…and maybe he had, but he had food. He’d thought of her. He’d stayed away, but he’d thought of her. Oh, dear, she could feel her resolve melting away.
“You’re hungry, you gotta be hungry?” he probed, looking confused and endearing, his eyes full of hope and nothing but good intentions.
Wren expelled her breath and with it went all of her fight. Oh, hell, she couldn’t resist. “You know darn-good and well I’m starving.” Her half-hearted acceptance brought his grin back. She flopped down on the warm grass, and he handed her a plate full of stew, a big slice of bread with butter, and a tin cup of cool water. Oh, she despised him for leading her into temptation. And she despised herself for not bashing him over the head with a rock like she wanted: maybe then he’d go away and leave her alone.
At the cabin, lying in his bed, Telt couldn’t get Wren O’Bannon out of his mind. Beside the fact that he wanted desperately to explore every inch of her luscious little body, it worried him that he’d had to leave her out there alone in the meadow, vulnerable to the elements and predators. He couldn’t forget that she’d told him she wasn’t used to anyone looking out for her.
How had it come about that a bright, attractive, strong woman had no one to care where she slept or how she lived—if she had food?
Well, Telt mused, old Howard wasn’t the only one who thought it strange Wren O’Bannon didn’t appear to have any strings attached. She answered to only one person, herself. If she were a man, he wouldn’t find that strange at all, but somebody should be looking out for that young woman.
Wren, lying with Mac stretched out beside her, threw her arm across his furry chest, watching the dark clouds gather overhead, catching now and then a glimpse of the stars. A tear rolled down her cheek. She’d lost the battle, she couldn’t fight the attraction she felt for Telt Longtree. She couldn’t resist a man who cooked for her. As she suspected, he had intelligence, ethics, a strong sense of humor, all in all a good man. Somehow, he’d gotten her to talk about her plans, whom she’d bargained with, and for what.
She wanted him. She’d had crushes before, and she’d made a fool of herself a time or two, but Wren had never gone so far as to give herself, body and soul, to any man. Telt Longtree, if she let him, would take all she had to give; she knew it. By nature, she gave her all to everything she tried or wanted. Passion, she didn’t suppose, would be any different. She suspected that’s why she’d kept her virginity all these years. She knew once she made up her mind to give in to desire, she wouldn’t be able to stop. Finding someone who could accept that kind of dedication for the long term, she knew, wasn’t likely.
He didn’t push for her all-out surrender tonight. That gave her pause. Lying here, looking back over the evening, replaying their conversation, she could see that he had wooed her, coaxed her into relaxing, gentled her with his presence as he would a horse he wanted to bring to harness. She wanted to laugh, admitting to herself that it hadn’t bothered her at all; she’d found his way of talking and joking endearing, and of all things, sensitive.
Groaning in despair and shame, she whispered in the dark, “Telt Longtree, sensitive. Oh, my God. No man is sensitive. Calculating, yes. Don’t be an idiot. Sensitive. That man wants something. Of course he didn’t rush you tonight. He worked on you, broke down your defenses. He’s got you mooning after him, lying here in the dark talking to yourself.” She rolled her head back and forth, then took a deep breath. “Oh, you would’ve given in tonight. You wanted to, you even hoped he’d try, but he didn’t, he didn’t have to, he knows it’s just a matter of time.
“Hell, Telt Longtree might be the only offer I’ll ever get. Uncle Stanley says I’m destined to be an old maid. Do I want to be an old maid who’s never been kissed? That is the question.”
A conversation she had with her uncle right after her father’s funeral came to mind. Gloating that he’d inherited all of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises, which included all the properties, warehouses as well as the house she’d lived in her whole life, her uncle had made her a half-hearted offer to keep a roof over her spinster’s-head if she would agree to running the house, cooking and cleaning up after her uncle and his sons.
No, Wren told herself, at age twenty-six, if Telt Longtree offered her the opportunity to experience the pleasures of the flesh, she wouldn’t refuse on the grounds that she needed to preserve her virginity. After all, getting a little long in the tooth, with no prospects, no hope of finding a mate, a partner, a lover, keeping her virtue didn’t seem very important. Most men found her too strong-minded, determined and, some added, cold and pushy to the list of faults. So why should she save herself? She knew better than to think a prince would come to her rescue. No, she didn’t believe in fairytales.
Enough of that, she scolded, tugging the quilt up around her ears. Tomorrow couldn’t’ come soon enough. She closed her eyes to pray the coming day would pass quickly. She had a lot to do, a lot to keep her mind from going astray. Work would keep her from fantasizing about Telt Longtree and his broad shoulders, black wavy hair, and his blue, blue eyes, eyes that made her knees go weak when they smiled at her.
“I need to get out of town,” she said to Mac, who resented her restlessness and jerked his hind leg in protest. “I know, we just got here, but we need to get out of town. We’ll go to Pendleton to the warehouse. The sooner I put some distance between temptation and myself the better. This thing I’ve got for the sheriff came on way too sudden. It’s like a bad cold. I need time away from the source of my affliction, maybe build up some immunity. If nothing else, I’ll slow down the inevitable.”
Wren, unable to drift off to sleep, sighed, remembering the way his eyes lit up when he smiled. How he’d taken his handkerchief and tidied her up after she’d dribbled stew down the front of her blouse, cleaning her up as if she were a two-year-old. She couldn’t remember anyone ever doing such a thing for her. With a sense of doom, she considered they could very well become friends once their lust had cooled.
Of course there would be consequences if she followed through, had an affair with the sheriff. Everyone in town would know. Branded a harlot, she would suffer for the foolishness of her actions. The sheriff, she knew, wouldn’t suffer at all. She doubted it would do much damage to her business. Laura Creek needed her mercantile. She wouldn’t have a social life, of course. Mrs. Buttrum and the other ladies of the town might shun her. She wouldn’t be invited to teas and socials.
Well, she wasn’t a social climber anyway, but…she had hoped her life would be different here. She wanted to belong, be part of the community. Her whole life she’d lived alone, with no real, true friends, certainly no women friends. Once she started working in her father’s business, she’d no time for friends. She liked working. She never really thought much about what she’d missed, that is until now. The welcome she received upon her arrival in Laura Creek gave her a glimpse of what could be. With these disturbing thoughts on her mind, Wren drifted off into a deep sleep.
When she awoke, before she crawled out of her bedroll, she ordered herself to stop fantasizing about Telt Longtree. Feeling in control and resolute, she vowed to stick to business today, and dressed accordingly; first came black thigh-high stockings held in place by plain black garters. Her pantaloons and chemise of course, three white under-slips, adding a modest bustle tied at her waist with a satin ribbon. Over it all, she donned a plain black skirt and tucked in her highly starched white blouse into the waistband, then fastened a black satin stomacher at her waist for good measure. She wore her sensible black walking shoes, freshly polished, naturally. With her hair pulled up all neat and tidy, held in place by her tortoiseshell combs beneath her straw hat and wearing white gloves, she put up her chin and headed off across the meadow to the telegraph office to send a wire to Judge Crookshank.
She composed her wire, keeping it brief and to the point. Arrived safe: stop No loss of life or supplies: stop People accommodating: stop.
She omitted most of the details, of course. Now wasn’t the time to complain that her mercantile, the mercantile she’d purchased sight unseen, needed a lot of work or that it had been left, deliberately, unfinished. Or that the judge’s friend, Mr. Buttrum, insisted on giving her grief. The store would be ready to open on time. Mr. Buttrum, eventually, would have to account for his actions, and the judge, she knew, would see to it that he paid for his deceptions, all in good time.
Out of the corner of her eye, Wren sensed a shadow pass before the office window. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her sense of foreboding. Her nemesis, Mr. Buttrum, had run her to ground. He stood watching through the window, waiting for her to leave, no doubt to take this opportunity to intimidate her.
Mr. Terrel became very nervous, asking her if she needed a reply, would she like a receipt, and so forth. Wren gave him a reassuring smile, a thank you, and started for the door, to find Mr. Buttrum had moved. She could still see him. Oh, not all of him, just his shoulder; he had positioned himself to the side of the door, waiting to ambush her. Wren squared her shoulders, prepared herself for a confrontation, determined to make it as brief and painless as possible.
She deliberately lowered her eyes, seemingly fiddling with her reticule while opening the door. Accidently on purpose, she slammed into Mr. Buttrum’s chest, giving him a shove with her hands. Thrown off balance, he stumbled back, his hand flying out to grasp her forearm, his fingers digging into her flesh.
“My goodness, Miss O’Bannon, what is your hurry?” he said with a nasty sneer on his lips, not bothering to tip his hat to her as any other gentleman would most certainly do. “You’re about early. Always busy, aren’t you? Always up to something. Most women have a home, but not you. At this hour most young women your age are busy seeing to their families, taking care of their men.”
With her head held high, Wren met his sarcastic sneer and, with a cool smile on her lips, said, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Buttrum. I didn’t see you lurking in the doorway; don’t you have a bank to run?”
After looking up and down the almost deserted street, she turned her gaze back to Mr. Buttrum and said to his face, “Yes, I am very busy. I have a lot to do, thanks to you and your unethical business practices. As to what I am up to, I am trying to meet my promises, unlike you, Mr. Buttrum. Yes, I am a busy woman, too busy to loiter about in front of the telegraph office, as some are wont to do. Good day,” she said, and stepped around him without saying another word. Fuming, with her back to him, she crossed the street to the mercantile, declaring the mayor the rudest man she’d ever met.
From inside the mercantile she watched Mr. Buttrum enter the telegraph office and shivered as a sense of dread and impending disaster washed over her. The mayor’s disapproval went farther than mere prejudice against women owning a business. The man had become obsessed with her downfall. He could learn nothing from the telegram she’d sent to the judge—could he? She didn’t doubt for a moment that he would do all in his power to keep her from opening the mercantile. The why of it didn’t make any sense to her, but she knew the man wouldn’t give up until he’d pulled every dirty, underhanded trick in the book.
When Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs, the builders, arrived shortly after her confrontation with Mr. Buttrum, bringing with them a wagonload of lumber, Wren forget all about the mayor and his wicked machinations.
Both Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen were well past fifty, and yet they juggled lumber and hammers, and went up and down ladders, as agile as men half their age. It wasn’t even close to noon, and she felt confident everything would get done, her storeroom, the shelves, everything, because of these two very experienced and energetic carpenters.
Punk Baker showed up shortly after Mr. Meirs and Mr. Claussen to install her woodstove in the back corner of the store. She’d hauled the wood stove in her second wagon, along with the farm implements. Using it now in the mercantile made one less thing she had to worry about storing in the lean-to in the pasture. She’d brought the stove for an example of what she had in her warehouse. She also had small replicas of the different styles and sizes of stoves, pie-safes, wardrobes, furniture of all kinds, and farm implements for her customers to choose from.
When Queenie came prancing through the open door of the mercantile, she knew the sheriff couldn’t be far behind. Mac got up from his blanket in the back of the store to greet them both.
Telt Longtree sauntered into the empty store, filling it up with his broad shoulders and big smile. Looking around, he said, “Good morning. This town hasn’t seen such a flurry of activity since, well, since I came to town a little over four years ago.” He picked his hat off his head with two fingers at the point, nodded in her direction and put his hat to his chest. “I thought I caused quite a stir, but nothing like this.”
Just hearing his voice made her feel warm all over. She fought the urge to walk over to him and plant a kiss on his big jaw. With a mischievous smile on her lips, she volleyed her response, “But I’ve got something you, no doubt, didn’t have, Sheriff.”
He grinned back, “Oh, I am of aware several things you’ve got that I didn’t have. But do tell, what is it, do you think, that draws people in?”
“Why, merchandise, of course,” she said.
“Oh, uh, I was thinking along another line altogether,” he said with a silly smirk on his face.
“Yes, I’m sure you were.” Feeling particularly bold, she put her head to one side to say in all seriousness, “The citizens of Laura Creek are anxious to spend their money, and they’re willing to put in some time and effort to make it happen. I don’t think anyone is going to complain about a little flurry of activity if the gain is to the good of the community.”
He nodded and agreed, “No, I don’t suppose we’ll hear any complaints. Maybe Buttrum will spout a few. But in this case, I think almost everyone will agree to ignore him.” The hammering up on the side of the building made it almost impossible to hold a conversation.
He chuckled, a throaty rumbling sound that gave her goose-bumps. “Yup, you’ve got everybody jumping around. You like that, don’t you?”
Wren giggled. Oh, yes, she liked it. She liked stirring up the whole town. She liked stirring him up too. Grinning at her like that, she knew he was enjoying himself too. They were standing there smiling at one another when Eula Buttrum crossed over the threshold.
Sashaying around the sheriff with a swish of her skirt, Wren greeted the mayor’s wife, “Good morning, Mrs. Buttrum.” Having to raise her voice to be heard over the sounds of construction, she felt her cheeks grow very hot. “I’ve been hoping you would come by. I want to talk to you about your pies.” Taking the woman by the elbow, she guided her to the back of the store where it wasn’t quite so noisy, and managed to slow the pace of her racing heart. “You make delicious pies. Your huckleberry is heavenly. Would you be able to bake some to sell here at the store? I thought a half-dozen to start. We could work out a trade, say, fabric, lace, a bonnet or gloves, perhaps?”
Eula put her gloved hand to the lace at her throat, appearing surprised by the offer.
If she had to guess, Wren would say Mrs. Buttrum had come over to look her over, and look over the mercantile. Her expressive gray eyes kept sliding toward the sheriff, then back to Wren.
Wren did understand. Lottie was Mrs. Buttrum’s niece, of course she would be watching, wondering, looking for signs that the sheriff had wiggled off Lottie’s hook. Wren watched the play of emotions flicker across the woman’s face, but held fast to her composure. If she meant to accept the inevitable, then she had to start now to set the tone for herself and her relationship with Telt Longtree. All would be revealed, her dirty laundry, her low morals, her lack of decorum, soon enough the whole town would have a lot to talk about.
“That’s a lovely dress you have on this morning,” she noted, her voice sincere, but counting on the subject to distract Eula from her speculations.
The dress, an unusual shade of smoky lavender, complimented Eula’s fair complexion. A delicate row of pale cream lace enhanced Eula’s swan-like neck, with the same lace trimming the cuffs and sleeves of the dress. “Do you sew?” Wren probed, before Eula could catch her breath from the first proposal.
“No, oh, no,” laughed Mrs. Buttrum. “Lottie is the seamstress.”
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Wren, and clapped her hands with real joy, “perhaps I could work out something with Miss Bledsoe also.”
This opened the conversation to current fashions, interests and dislikes. In no time, Eula assured her she would give the proposition of supplying the mercantile with her pies careful thought. And she thought her niece would jump at the opportunity to work up some dresses, blouses, and maybe some bonnets as well, in the fine fabrics Wren had in her inventory. It would give the dear girl some extra pin money, Eula had declared with enthusiasm.
As soon as Eula walked out the door, Wren turned to Telt, a self-satisfied smile firmly in place, feeling decidedly triumphant. As she flounced past him, where he’d been propped up against her back wall, she told him, “I’ve made sandwiches for lunch. I thought you might come by, so I made an extra one for you. I’ve got a couple of apples, too. We could go out back. There’s a bench next to the building…it’s in the shade.”
He grinned and obediently followed her out the back door. The dogs, Mac and Queenie, shouldered their way around them to get outside. The rough wooden bench sat at the back of the mercantile, in the shade. They had the bench and the shade to themselves. The pounding had stopped. Wren assumed Mr. Claussen and Mr. Meirs were enjoying their lunch in the shade of their wagon to the side of the mercantile.
After a short silence between them, Telt nodded his head and made the comment, “Looks like everything is going to work out for you here.”
“It certainly looks that way,” she said. “Everyone is very friendly.” She sat down on the bench and, when she looked up, he was smirking. Blushing, it took her a minute to regain her composure, then, feeling saucy, she added, “Some more friendly than others.”
He burst out laughing. She held her skirt aside, making room for him to sit beside her on the bench.
“I wish you didn’t have to sleep out there on the ground,” he said, taking his seat, his face losing its smile.
She turned to look into his eyes. They were warm with concern. She shrugged, uncomfortable to think he cared. “I’ll put my bedroll in the wagon as soon as I’ve unloaded the goods,” she said offhandedly, making it sound like a vast improvement in her situation. “It will only be for another week or so.”
“Still, I don’t like it,” he grumbled while she made a lot of work out of unwrapping his sandwich from its brown paper and handing it to him.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said, then took a bite of her ham sandwich to keep herself from saying more. He sat there staring at her. Growing more uncomfortable by the minute, Wren found it hard to swallow. “If I stay in the wagon I can keep an eye on the goods in the lean-to, which to me, is a matter of common sense.”
“I can keep an eye on that lean-to for you.” She watched him open his mouth, and in two bites, he had his sandwich half eaten. “I suppose you have a close inventory of what’s out there?” he asked, his eyes going out to the meadow and her lean-to.
“I certainly do, Sheriff.”
He smiled and nodded before he bit into his apple. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.” For a moment, he chewed as she polished her apple on her skirt to avoid looking into his eyes. “You know Laura Creek is a dry town, no liquor, Miss O’Bannon?”
She set her apple aside and turned her body towards him to meet his gaze. “Yes, I do know. Judge Crookshank informed me, and it was one of the conditions of the sale. To tell you the truth, it had a lot to do with my decision to buy the store and settle here. My father drank, Sheriff. I should say, my father, my uncle, my cousins were…are fond of their whiskey. It did nothing for their dispositions or for their health. I am happy to be far away from them.”
“I see,” he mumbled after he took his time to swallow. “Some folks get mean when full of drink.
She folded her hands in her lap and looked to the mountains and the peaceful meadow. She sat there a moment, trying to decide if she should take a chance and reveal something of her former life. She took a deep breath before she spoke, “My father wasn’t mean,” shuddering, she looked down to her hands, “He was just sad, very, very sad.”
Telt studied her, she didn’t dare look up, or she would burst into tears. Drawing herself up, she took a deep breath, set her spine and pulled herself together. “My uncle, he’s a mean drunk. I didn’t have much to do with him; maybe twice a year he would impose his presence upon us. He owned the mercantiles in Salem and Corvallis. He lived in Salem most of the time. That is, he did, until he inherited my father’s half of the business; now he lives in my old home in Oregon City, and he owns all of O’Bannon Brother’s Enterprises. He does travel a good deal up and down the Willamette Valley. As for my cousins, they like to fool around. Unfortunately, I’ve always been their prime target and often the butt of their tomfoolery. In my opinion they’re simply ignorant pawns of their father.”
He nodded, but Wren sensed he still had a lot of questions. She didn’t want him to pry any deeper. “I have to get back to work, Sheriff,” she said, and pushed up off the bench.
“Yeah, I have things to do, too.” Taking her hand and looking into her eyes, he said, “Maybe I’ll drop by your wagon later?” His fingers traced the calluses on her palms. She tried to pull her hand away, her cheeks growing hot under his gaze.
His dark brows drew together. The look he gave her made her cringe. She didn’t need his pity. He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a lingering kiss to her palm, his eyes holding her gaze. In that second, Wren knew she wouldn’t say no to him, and she knew he wasn’t going to leave her alone until he got what he wanted.
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