Copyright © 2011 Delilah Devlin
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“It’s time you boys found yerselves a wife.” Sam Logan made his pronouncement then waited, watching the four younger men seated at the table from the corner of his eye. He didn’t have to wait long for his words to sink in. They exploded in the room with the force of a silent grenade.
Johnny’s jaw closed with a snap, and he laid his spoon down on the scarred oak table. His black winged brows drew together, nearly meeting over his dark eyes as he raised his head.
Sam suppressed a smile. That look could make the toughest hombre gulp, but Sam wasn’t the least bit concerned. Johnny tended to look mean when things changed. His oldest boy hated any kind of change.
If any other man had said what he had, Johnny would have cussed under his breath and aimed a piercing, silencing glare. However, he respected Sam, trusted him as much as he could anyone. That trust and respect were the only things that kept his butt on the bench beside his brother Killian.
For his part, Killian’s eyes narrowed. The corners of his lips twitched. Likely he was amused by Johnny’s reaction and didn’t want to let him off the hook too quickly, but was already lining up all the reasons why Sam’s idea was ludicrous. He was quick that way.
Sam calmly ladled the hearty stew he’d made into his mouth and let his gaze roam to the twins. Jason was coughing into his napkin while Mace gave him “helpful” taps between his shoulder blades.
Mace caught his stare and grinned. “A wife, did you say?”
Sam grunted, ignoring the one word that had caught his son’s attention. “This is the third time this week we’ve had stew,” he murmured. Not to change the subject, but to point out a glaring fact.
“I like stew just fine,” Johnny muttered.
“This house misses a woman’s touch.” There, he’d said it. Sat the big gorilla in the room right at the dinner table. Impossible to ignore.
“Gracie can’t be replaced,” Killian said softly.
The permanent ache next to his heart echoed that truth. Sam nodded. “She’s gone. Three years. I miss her every day. Know you do too. But life goes on. You’re men now. You have an obligation. Ranchin’s a family business. Y’all need families.”
Johnny cleared his throat. “No disrespect intended, Sam, but you didn’t get sons the old-fashioned way.”
“Not because Gracie and I didn’t try. And in the end, we had no regrets. We both loved you all like you was our own.”
“So, you’d rather saddle us with—”
Sam aimed a quelling stare. “Think I felt like Gracie was a noose around my neck?”
“No sir, but…” Johnny’s hands fisted on the tabletop. “Hell, how’re we to find someone like her?”
Sam understood what he meant. Gracie’s passing had left a hole in all their hearts. The boys had loved her. Took to her the very first day he’d brought each of them home. Gracie had been born to be a mother, and she’d showered them all with the things they’d needed most—acceptance and unconditional love.
“Boys, Gracie wasn’t born a rancher’s wife. Truth is, she didn’t know a bull from a cow and damn near poisoned me with the first meals she cooked. But she learned. Find a woman willin’ to learn, one you kin love and who’ll love you back.”
“You said, ‘a wife’.” Mace wasn’t gonna let that slip of the tongue go.
Sam shook his head and gave the twins a faint glimmer of a smile. Those two could always see the humor in any predicament. “Thought I’d give you two options. I know one can’t piss without the other goin’ too. And there are damn few single women to go around these parts. ’Nough said?” When all of them nodded, he cleared his throat. “I’ll be out of town for the next four days. Auction in Abilene. The house is yours.”
Johnny glanced around the dinner table at his brothers, whose attention had been snared from the first moment Sam had made his firmly spoken pronouncement. They were accustomed to eating quietly, filling their hollow bellies at the end of a long, hard day’s work. Sam’s words echoed in the silence that followed and hung in the air like a sour-smelling cloud. At least to Johnny’s imagination. The thought of taking a wife, keeping a woman around on a permanent basis, made him itch.
The suggestion that they find “a wife” had come out of the blue. But the look on Sam’s face said he’d thought long and hard about it and would brook no arguments. His sly mention that the twins might share one should have been shocking but wasn’t given their recent escapades, as well as the unconventional relationships springing up like chokeweeds all around Two Mule, Texas.
The glint of humor in Killian’s eyes forewarned he was about to say something sly. Johnny grunted and shook his head. Now was not the time to make a joke.
Killian snorted. His lips twisted, but he gave a shrug to indicate he’d behave.
Johnny didn’t like the turn of the conversation, but it was Sam Logan giving the advice. When Sam spoke, which was seldom, they all listened.
After all, they owed Sam everything.
Jason leaned away from Mace and grabbed at the hand that been pounding his back. “Can we draw straws to see who gets saddled with one?”
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “Strange things been happenin’ around this town. Fact is, I don’t care whether you all find one woman to take you on or four. But it’s time for you boys to settle down.”
Johnny knew what this was about. From the flinty glint in Killian’s eyes, he did too. Apparently so did the twins, who shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, cheeks flushing a dull red.
“I’m not sayin’ it was a sin, what you two boys did,” Sam said. “The girl was willin’ and yer young. But word gets around. Decent folks’ll keep their women away from ya. Best to make your move fast before everyone hears the gossip and doors close in your face. This is a hard life. A man needs his comforts. Do I need to say more?”
All four younger men shook their heads.
“No sir,” Johnny muttered. Sam’s pronouncements weren’t suggestions. He folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate. He’d been hungry before his foster father had spoken, but now his food sat like a cold lump in his belly.
A woman. He had to find a woman. He’d offer no arguments. Just like any other chore, he’d get to it with quiet efficiency.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, glaring at the twins as he pushed away from the table. “I have business in town.”
Sam eyed him, then solemnly nodded. “You do indeed. Good luck, son.”
It didn’t take long for the other three to find him. The bathroom door opened as he slicked back his wet hair. Mace sidled inside while Killian leaned against the doorframe and Jason stood behind him with his hands in his pockets.
Mace grimaced as he sat on the edge of the bathtub. “Think he was serious?”
“When is he not?” Johnny said, keeping his tone even.
“You gonna do it? Just like that? Find yourself a wife?”
Johnny squared his shoulders. “It’s what needs to be done.”
“Because Sam said so?”
Johnny turned and shot out a hand to grip the collar of Mace’s shirt.
Mace met his glare with one of his own. “Didn’t mean it that way, bro. But hell, a wife? Shouldn’t we take our time? Do this thing right? It’s a big damn step.”
Johnny hardened his glare. “You two may have been the ones to draw attention to the problem, but we’ve all done plenty to answer for. If we’ve embarrassed Sam, it’s time we manned up.”
Mace’s lips firmed then he released a deep sigh.
Johnny let him go but stood with his hands fisted on his hips.
“Guess you’re right,” Mace muttered. “So, what’s the plan?”
Why was it they always looked to him for a plan? In this instance, he was the least qualified one to decide. But as always, Johnny gritted his teeth and kept it simple. “We find a woman, someone we all don’t object to, ’cause she’s gonna be underfoot. Then one of us has to marry her.”
“Think it’ll be that easy?”
“’Course not. But since when have we shied away from a challenge?”