by Anita Mae Draper,
Based on Sense and Sensibility
Naïve Marion McDermott spurns the love of quiet Brandon Tabor in favor of a handsome cowboy closer to her own age. An idealistic romantic, she wants to be swept off her feet, not aid a has-been Texas Ranger who walks with a limp. Yet something about the steadfast widower draws her close whenever he’s around, and it has nothing to do with her tripping at his feet. But, does Brandon have the fortitude to catch her when she falls?
Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s.
She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything:
her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.
She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.
~ Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
September 1882, Texas Hill Country
Even the jerking and jostling of wooden wagon wheels travelling on uneven ground didn’t drop Marion McDermott’s gaze from the herd of rangy cowhands watching the action in the corral. Why, the thought that her future husband might be in the batch of hardened, heavy-working, hat-wearing men set her heart a-thumping—something the dandies back in Austin hadn’t been able to achieve. Poppa’s smile would surely shine when he heard how seriously she’d taken his warning about marrying a man for his good looks alone.
Yet as Aunt Mattie steered their outfit toward the white pickets which surrounded the familiar verandah-decked house, Marion nervously smoothed the lap of her periwinkle day dress. With its layers of ruffles and lace, it hadn’t been the most practical choice for the hour trip from Austin, and as headmistress Mrs. Collins had repeatedly said, Marion should continue to work on virtues such as practicality even now that she’d graduated from the Jeannette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies.
Over by the corral the cowhands gazed in Marion’s direction even though the object of their recent attention still bucked with abandon in the corral behind them.
Spotting a familiar handsome face sent a hundred butterflies flittering in her stomach. Mr. Jeffrey Whelp could very well be the man to leave this ranch with a proprietary hand on her back.
As he left the rail and sauntered her way with the rest of the men, Marion faced the front, her gloved hands closing the silk parasol that matched her fancy travelling dress. Aunt Mattie reined in the team beside the fence where Marion’s favorite yellow roses rambled along the white pickets.
Marion leaned down from her seat for a satisfying whiff of their heavenly scent. “Everything’s always the same.”
Aunt Mattie tied off the lines. “Not much changes on a ranch, except for the men. You’ll recognize most of them, especially the ones your poppa sent over. My brother is as stubborn as they come, but he believes in family, and I value the support he has shown over the years since your Uncle Raith died. All his blustering at the beginning was only because that is what he thought a big brother was supposed to do. But he came around.”
She nodded toward the outbuildings. “I don’t think you’ve met my foreman yet.”
A tall cowboy in a black hat stood on the stoop of the foreman’s quarters. His off-white shirt and denims were much like the clothes of the other cowhands, but when he stepped down and headed her way, he lacked the rolling saunter of someone who spent hours in the saddle. Instead, his limping stride appeared jerky and torturous. Beneath a wide brim, his sun-creased face showed few signs of youth, and Marion guessed him to be about thirty or so. With his strong, clean-shaven jawline and wide shoulders, his overall appearance was that of a striking man any woman would have a hard time forgetting.
Their gazes locked, his directness questioning hers.
She looked away, annoyed that she’d been caught staring.
The cowboys drew near with Mr. Whelp in the lead, but the foreman was closer. Avoiding his eyes, she stood to greet Mr. Whelp.
An excited cowboy let out a sharp whoop and threw his hat in the air. One of the still-harnessed horses reared his head. The wagon jerked, tipping Marion off the edge of the open seat and sending her into the air. Balance. She caught the foreman’s determined look as he stretched his arms toward her—
Marion flailed her arms in an attempt to fall away from the foreman. Even if he tried, she’d probably fall through his arms and land at his feet. She closed her eyes, unable to stop her downward movement.
Strong arms caught her and lowered her to the ground. How could he—?
“I always imagined you back in my arms, Miss McDermott.”
Her eyes flew open at the velvety voice of Mr. Jeffrey Whelp. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, God had truly blessed him with fancy facial features. He held her close. Too close for propriety—not close enough for scandal.
A delicious dilemma.
She peered up at him coyly. “Mr. Jeffrey Whelp, of all people. Do you still work here?” His muscles tensed beneath her palms, and she imagined the perfect picture they made with her blond hair inches from his chest as he gazed down at her in ardent admiration.
On the other side of the wagon, a man cleared his throat. “That’s one way to make an entrance.”
The gravelly voice held no disrespect, yet Marion’s merriment diminished, instinctively suspecting the voice belonged to the ranch foreman. Did he think she’d fallen on purpose? Mr. Whelp’s warm hands pulled her closer. Aghast that he—or anyone—would think she was a wanton, she pushed out of his arms. “Thank you for being a gentleman, Mr. Whelp.”
The foreman and Aunt Mattie walked around the cowboy calming the jittery horse. With their heads bent together, their words were too low to catch.
As they approached, Aunt Mattie looked up. “Mr. Whelp, bring Miss McDermott’s things to the house. Serelli will show you where to put them.”
She beckoned Marion forward. “Marion, I’d like you to meet my foreman, Mr. Brandon Tabor.”
The Rocking R’s foreman tapped the brim of his hat. “Miss McDermott.”
She tipped her head with all the elegance taught at the Academy. “Mr. Tabor.”
“I understand you’ll be staying with us for a month.” His voice rasped across the dry air without a speck of emotion, although his turbulent green eyes reminded her of Travis Lake in a storm.
“Yes, I’ve completed my studies at the Jeannette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies and have one month to spend with Aunt Mattie before going back to my father’s ranch.”
Jeffrey Whelp passed them, his arms full of travel bags. “I’ll be back for the trunk, Tabor, since I don’t suppose you’ll be able to carry it.” He nudged the picket gate open with his hip then strode up the walk with long, even strides.
Aunt Mattie tsked. “Brandon, I don’t know why you keep that young man. If it weren’t for you, I’d have fired him months ago.”
Fire Mr. Whelp? Marion bit her lip to curb her outburst—something she never would have done before attending the Academy. Although Poppa would be pleased at her restraint, something more important had come to light in that exchange—the confirmation that Aunt Mattie had handed control of the ranch to Mr. Tabor. Who was he that Aunt Mattie would place in him the trust of everything she owned?
Mr. Tabor shifted his weight. He grimaced and shifted again, his palm pressed against his hip. “Can’t fire a man for speaking the truth, Aunt Mattie, and it appears he’s right.” His rueful gaze settled on the lone trunk in the wagon, but he made no attempt to get it.
Used to Poppa’s hard-headed need to prove himself better than anyone else regardless of his age and health, Marion stared in wonder at Mr. Tabor. Was he truly a man who understood his own capabilities and was confident enough to step back when required? If so, she owed Aunt Mattie credit for her choice, because a ranch foreman needed wisdom above all else.
Aunt Mattie looped her arm through Marion’s. Instead of escorting her through the gate, however, she drew her toward the group of cowhands loitering nearby. “The men are waiting to meet you. Come along and put them out of their misery.”
As they approached, the cowboys who still wore their hats yanked them off with sheepish looks. Their humble gallantry touched her heart. In turn, she didn’t rush the introductions, giving equal time to each regardless of their age.
At the end of the line, an older-than-Poppa bandy-legged cowboy crumpled his sweat-stained hat in his hands. “Name’s Ned, Miss McDermott. I worked yer Pa’s ranch when you was just a squirt no bigger’n my knee.”
A pleasant feeling warmed her as his old-timer’s voice coupled with his lopsided grin tickled the edges of her memory. She tapped her forefinger on his arm. “Why, Ned, you’re the one who told me all those Bible stories.”
He seemed to grow taller before her. “Yep, that was me. Telling them stories was the only way to keep ya outta trouble.”
Still smiling, she lowered her tone. “Shhh…it wasn’t the stories, Ned, it was the peppermint you sweetened every story with that did the trick.”
“Now don’t go telling yer Pa ’bout that. But even with all them sweets gummin’ up yer teeth, you’ve growed into a fine lookin’ lady.” He nodded as if that said it all.
Marion ran her tongue along her white teeth. She’d missed Ned when he’d left their ranch, but perhaps it had worked out for the best.
“Ned, I swear you wear my patience.” Aunt Mattie turned Marion away from the blustering old cowhand. “Don’t give him another thought, dear. Your poppa’s always been proud of your pearly teeth. And you have grown into a beautiful woman.”
Marion basked in the loving attention.
That is, until she saw the foreman waiting for them with only one side of his mouth turned up in a smile. Did that mean he approved? Or he didn’t? The thought of either answer warmed her cheeks. Oh, bother, she had no wish for Mr. Tabor to see her red-faced like a schoolgirl.
At the gate, she unwound her arm from Aunt Mattie’s, saying, “I want to take in these wonderful roses. Go on, I’ll be along soon.”
Mr. Tabor bestowed a full-fledged smile on Aunt Mattie and offered his arm.
Alone, Marion leaned in to inhale the fragrance of the yellow beauties. If Serelli remembered, there’d be a vase of them waiting in her room.
The front door banged as Mr. Whelp hurried through. He leaped down the steps, passed Aunt Mattie and the foreman, and stopped near the gate beside Marion. “Did I hear Miz Mattie say you’ll be here for a month?”
Marion swayed one way, then the other. “Yes, that’s correct.” She dipped her lashes, peering up at him. “And will I see you often, Mr. Whelp?”
“As much as Tabor will allow.” He looked at the foreman, then back at her. His chin notched up an inch. “As much as you want.”
She brushed a wisp of hair off her ear. “I doubt I’ll have much say in the foreman’s decisions.”
“You’ll have him wrapped around your little finger if you keep looking like that.”
Warm pleasure flowed through her at his obvious appreciation. She began to sway again.
“Marion?” Aunt Mattie called from the foot of the verandah steps, Mr. Tabor by her side.
Mr. Whelp lost his grin. “Much as I’d like to spend the day staring at your beauty, I can’t have Miz Mattie thinking the worst of me. You’ll find your things in that pretty room upstairs.” He flashed another grin before heading back to the group of cowboys hanging around the corral.
Marion tried to pay attention to Aunt Mattie and the foreman’s discussion on a sick calf, but her thoughts centered on the man who had been upstairs in her room. Mr. Whelp’s easy familiarity wouldn’t have met the approval of Mrs. Collins, the Austen Abbey’s headmistress, yet it filled Marion with the same excitement as she’d experienced during their dance at the Valentine’s Ball when he’d crushed her against him, then let her go so fast she thought she may have imagined the momentary contact. Again, her cheeks flushed at the thought.
She watched him stride away with Poppa’s directive on her mind. A month with Aunt Mattie was time enough to see what kind of man Mr. Whelp was both on the range as well as after a full day of riding. Someday her husband would inherit everything Poppa spent his life working for, and that man needed to do the same for his own children. Was Mr. Whelp as strong inside as he seemed to be on the outside?
The opening door drew Marion’s attention. A slim woman with greying hair emerged from the house carrying a tray with a pitcher and three empty glasses.
Aunt Mattie patted Marion’s arm. “There’s Serelli and our tea. Will you stay for refreshments, Brandon?”
“Thank you, but not this time, Aunt Mattie.” He nodded at Marion. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss McDermott.”
Her gaze followed the foreman as he limped across the hard-packed yard to the line of outbuildings. Without pausing, he wiped his brow with the back of his hand before he made it halfway across. Her heart tightened as if she, too, could feel his pain.
Brandon sat on his cot clenching his jaw. He adjusted his clothing to expose the mass of scar tissue covering his right hip. The salve wouldn’t stop the pain—only make it more bearable.
He reached for the tin container, keeping his hand clear of the small brown bottle standing innocently behind it. As he massaged the gooey stuff into his scars, his gaze swung back to the bottle. Although fifteen months had passed, Doc’s warning about the addictive powers of modern medicine had taken root, sending shoots of fear through Brandon’s brain. He’d seen what cocaine, laudanum, and other opiates had done to others in the hospital—others who either didn’t know God or didn’t trust Him enough. Brandon did. And if this was how God planned for him to live the rest of his life, he’d live with it, pain and all.
Except it rankled that he’d seen Miss McDermott flailing her arms like a windmill and instead of allowing him to catch her, she’d closed her eyes and given up. Since Whelp had appeared beside him ready to catch her too, Brandon had backed off and walked around the outfit to help Aunt Mattie down instead.
He couldn’t decide if he felt worse about backing away, or because of the way she’d looked at him. One thing was for sure—he would never have forgiven himself if Whelp had missed.
With the salve already working, he stopped his ministrations and dropped his head back against the scratchy, woolen blanket.
Miss McDermott sure was a lively one. Full of fire with enough breeding to keep it bridled. The moment he’d seen her up on the wagon sitting pretty-as-you-please, his tattered Texas Ranger’s heart had leaped off a cliff. He patted his chest, guessing it was for the best that she hadn’t reciprocated any such feelings. Her brown eyes had questioned his familiarity with her aunt. And they’d softened dreamily when they looked at Whelp.
Aunt Mattie’d said her niece was all of nineteen. Nineteen. An old geezer like him had no business thinking of a nineteen-year-old’s eyes—or any other part of her. Just as well she’d fallen for Whelp’s charm like a flower in a drought.
After capping the salve, he slid it on the dresser. The little brown bottle appeared bigger and closer. He should empty it in the pig sty and be done with the temptation.
Three sharp raps interrupted his thoughts. “Boss? That sick calf ain’t lookin’ so good.”
“Hold on to your hat, Ned.” Brandon adjusted his clothes. “Come on in.”
Ned stepped in, his face furrowed with worry. “She’s scourin’ something bad. Thought I’d check the rest of the herd.” He extended his right hand.
Brandon accepted the offer and allowed himself to be hauled off the bed. “No, I’ll do it. You stay here in case the ladies need something.”
A light flared in Ned’s eyes. He headed for the door without a hint of argument. “You’re the boss. I think I’ll let Miz Mattie know where she can find me.”
Brandon caught the extra spring in the older man’s step. “You do that, Ned.” If the old cowhand wasn’t careful, the whole Rocking R would discover his little secret, and he’d never live it down.
With the salve working to deaden his pain, Brandon eased toward the door. Time to get back to work. And those hotheads better be at it, too, because he’d be full of steam if he caught them lounging around and drooling at their guest.
Their guest. As if he owned the place. A ranch like this deserved a big family to fill the house and lots of little feet running through the yard. The merest twinge tightened his chest at the thought of his Savana. He’d had his turn at wedded bliss and enjoyed every second while she’d been alive, even though their union hadn’t been blessed with offspring. And as damaged as he was, no woman in her right mind would consider him for a mate now, so he’d better stop pining about it.