RoundUp the Brides
RoundUp the Brides
Historical Western Romance ~ Back by popular demand! Many of the characters from Book 1 of the Happy Valley Series, reappear in Book 2, along with Several Romantic Newcomers . . .
English playboy, Stuart Braden, is a man on a mission to discover untold riches in the wilds of Wyoming, when he uncovers a treasure more valuable than gold . . . But from the moment he sets eyes on the beautiful Suzanne Gallagher, the path to winning this lively young lady’s heart is fraught with peril.
First, the stagecoach he’s sharing with the enchanting Miss Suzanne gets held up, interfering with his wooing. Disposing of the outlaws–he with his Colt .45 and she with her trusty Smith & Wesson–Stuart eagerly follows Suzanne to Happy Valley, where her family and neighbors are busy preparing for the annual roundup and cattle drive.
But alas! Courting this feisty rancher’s daughter soon presents an even greater test of his manly skills, when hired gunmen launch a surprise attack, aimed at taking over the ranchers’ lands, cattle, and water rights by deadly force. Caught in the middle of a range war, the ranchers are seriously outnumbered. All this death and destruction won’t end unless these ruthless killers are put out of business–permanently.
Trust the wily Stuart to come up with a solution only Cupid would approve!
RoundUp the Brides
After chasing after every prospector with a registered claim within a forty mile radius of Casper, Wyoming, Stuart Braden decided he was done with “roughing it.” Camping out over the past two weeks with a bedroll, fishing pole, and a few pots and pans, was definitely not his cup of tea. When he was on the move, he sounded remarkably like a second hand junk dealer clattering through the streets of London at dawn. But it wasn’t so much the rugged terrain and blowing sand that got into every pore and made him itch that convinced him there had to be a better way to search for gold and precious minerals. No, it was much worse than that.
Every miner he’d met so far had the half-mad, hollow-eyed look of a hermit on the lam from the Law. Well, possibly a few were outlaws, but whatever inspired these loners to “strike it rich” in this wilderness, the vast majority looked like half-starved wolves, as they grimly went about the impossible task of digging a fortune out in these desolate hills. No doubt about it: The vast majority of these prospectors must have been born stubborn to the bone, or just plain stupid.
A few diehards had dragged a woman along for company— poor, disheveled, unwashed creatures. No spirit left in them at all.
Sadly, one woman was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. For the life of him, Stuart couldn’t imagine a worse place to bring a child into the world than a a couple of filthy blankets hung over a tree branch for privacy, and a small deer carcass covered with flies in the hot sun. To help this young couple out a bit, Stuart found himself emptying his saddle bags of all his canned peaches and beans. Poor souls! They looked so gaunt they might easily blow away in the wind.
Later in the day, thirsty, dusty, and famished beyond belief, Stuart spotted a watering hole off in the distance. Instead of finding water, he waded in a couple of feet—and got a boot full of a greasy, scummy, black substance from the bubbling spring. Figuring it served him right for agreeing to undergo this insane expedition, he laughed until his ribs ached. What a mess he’d gotten himself into!
Though parched, he figured he still had enough energy and good sense to hightail it back to Casper. He could certainly do with a quick wash-up at the bathhouse and a meal at the local greasy spoon café. Then he’d catch the next stagecoach back to Cheyenne and report back to his father.
With an apology to his horse, he spurred his mount away from the foul smelling, noxious pond. As a souvenir from his first sortie into the wilds, he packed away a quart-sized jar of pond scum in his saddlebag.
With his first decent meal in a week under his belt, Stuart felt much more optimistic about life, as he approached the Casper Stagecoach depot. For one thing, the ticket in his pocket had only cost him a silver dollar. That included taking his rented horse along, tied to a long rein attached to the back of the stagecoach.
Jolly good price, considering the American economy, he thought. Securing his camping gear on top, next to a large Wells Fargo crate, he picked up his saddle bags, which contained his camera and other valuables, including—ahem!—the “priceless” specimen of smelly pond scum, which he hoped would amuse his father.
Eager to take his seat, Stuart nimbly leapt over a pile of manure and landed—due to sheer luck and athletic acuity—on the boardwalk in front of the freight office.
His heart leapt in his throat, as a young woman chose that exact same moment to step across his path. And what a sight she was to behold! In his wildest dreams he had always believed he was destined to meet such a creature. Blonde, cinnamon brown eyes, with a creamy complexion only faintly marred by a modest blush, as her startled gaze met his.
Quickly remembering his manners, Stuart bowed gallantly and extended his hand. “Ah, divine angel,” he rhapsodized. “Permit me to be of some assistance.“
This enchanting creature raised her eyebrows, looking faintly amused, as she exchanged quizzical looks with the plump matronly woman at her side.
Since both ladies were surrounded by an assortment of bandboxes, satchels, and other luggage, Stuart instantly sought to ingratiate himself with the older lady. Her mother, perhaps? Or an aunt?
“Perhaps I may be of help to you both.” He flashed his best dimpled smile. Naturally, he never expected such a gorgeous young lady—rather well dressed, too!—to materialize in front of Casper’s rather tawdry stagecoach stop. Indeed, he was so smitten that all memory of the damage his rugged adventures had done to his own appearance over the past several days completely escaped his notice. All he knew was that in the twinkling of an eye, he had met The Incomparable One.
Ah! The angel spoke.
But while Stuart was transfixed by her melodious voice, her companion shoved him aside and shouted, “Albert! Get yourself over here. Right now!”
“Coming!” a heavyset gentleman in dungarees hollered back. Sweating under the burden of the steamer trunk on his back, he stomped and shoved his way through a cluster of bachelors standing idly about, ogling the blonde beauty who would never, ever belong to them.
And why was that? Because Stuart had already made up his mind that this was The One.
“You fellas take a hike,” the rancher told the onlookers. “There’s alfalfa planting to be done back at the ranch, and I’ll dock your pay if you don’t skedaddle. Right now!”
Clearly the rancher and his wife meant it when they said, “Right now!” After a lot of boot scuffing and “Aw, shucks, boss!” these lovesick cowboys mounted up and headed out of town.
Hoping to win points with Albert, Stuart helped lift the steamer trunk off the man’s beefy shoulders. Staggering a bit under the weight, he passed it up to the guard riding shotgun. “There you go, my good man,” he said with a winning smile.
Meanwhile two dangerous looking men packing iron pushed past the young woman and commandeered the best two inside seats.
“Here now!” Stuart protested. “Those seats belong to this young lady and—!”
Before he could say another word, Albert reached inside, grabbed the two ruffians in a chokehold and dragged the pair out of the stagecoach.
The driver walked up, flexing his leather-clad fists. “Neither of you guys bought a ticket. Now scram!”
“Okay, okay,” the two men apologized, backing away. “We just figured the schoolmarm might enjoy a little company.”
“I most certainly would not!” the lady in question declared indignantly.
It pleased Stuart that she wasn’t afraid to speak up for herself—rather vehemently, in fact. However, such a delicate creature was no match for such low-life scum. It was a good thing he would be traveling with her. In the event any more unpleasant situations should arise, it would be his privilege to protect her honor.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Bardow,” said this same fair flower of the West, interrupting Stuart’s private musings. Opening her handbag, she pulled out a loaded six-shooter—Smith & Wesson, if he wasn’t mistaken. “I am an excellent shot.”
The door slammed shut, and they were off!
Stuart tipped the brim of his hat forward, hoping for a more dashing look. “I take it you’ve known the Bardows for quite some time?” he led off casually.
“Yes. ” She leaned out the window like the Queen of England, waving her handkerchief at all manner of storekeepers and pedestrians, all of whom waved back. “Goodbye, Mrs. Carstairs! Tell Tommy I’ll see him in the fall. Oh, Mrs. Jarvis! I hope Penny and Alvin get over the mumps soon. . . Mr. Prentice, how are you, sir?” This exchange of mutual cordialities lasted as long as it took the stagecoach to reach the southbound road out of town. Truly remarkable, Stuart thought. Miss Gallagher seems to know everyone in town!
Unbeknownst to the young lady, Stuart already knew she was destined for far greater things than teaching unruly children in a poorly heated, one-room schoolhouse. No doubt a noble-minded endeavor, but hardly the future he envisioned for such a charmer, he thought, studying her through his eyelashes. Indeed, what female among his many acquaintances back home could compete with the pure magic in those twinkling brown eyes? Indeed, her hour-glass figure put to shame last year’s most charming debutantes, bar none. And her daintily crossed ankles were exquisite, though modestly laced into high button shoes with a shorter heel than was currently the fashion in London.
While Stuart was secretly rhapsodizing over Miss Suzanne’s physical attributes and outgoing personality, she was not as unaware as he supposed of the handsome young Englishman sitting across from her.
For one thing, she was thoroughly intrigued by his English accent.
Everyone she knew spoke in a hodge-podge of American dialects, nasal twangs, soft Southern drawls, and some with foreign accents. Wyoming had been settled by people from so many different places that a person could expect just about any form of speech. Not to mention those who resorted to cuss words!
If for no other reason, she felt it was incumbent upon her, as a teacher, to cultivate an ear for “proper English,” especially since she had never met a proper Englishman before! Yes, she decided, this was her lucky day.
“You’re English, are you not?” she asked, to open the conversation.
“Indeed, yes. Stuart Braden, at your service.” He nodded graciously. “Currently visiting Wyoming with my father, who is in Cheyenne on business.”
“I see.” She nodded. “So you are—what? Sightseeing? Just traveling about?”
“Yes, I find the countryside quite stimulating,” he said, cursing himself for allowing her beauty to rob him of his usual savoir faire. “What about you? I gather from your chat with the locals that you’ve been teaching school?”
She blushed and gazed modestly at the gloves in her lap. “Yes, I enjoy it immensely.” She glanced out the window at the scenery rapidly passing by.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “And where is ‘home’ when you’re not teaching school?”
“In a beautiful place called Happy Valley. At least that’s what we call it, because we have such happy memories of growing up there.” She clasped her hands to her heart with an ecstatic sigh. “Just thinking about everybody back home kept me from getting homesick.” She stared at him earnestly. “Have you ever known a place like that, Mr. Braden? A place that cheered you up, no matter where you were?”
“Why, no,” he had to admit. “Where is this magical place?”
“Oh, it’s not on any map, but it’s real, I can assure you,” she beamed. “It’s just, well, you know—home! A place where love grows and grows, until you’re so filled up with gratitude that it’s always a part of you!”
“Home,” he echoed, feeling as empty as a brass drum.
She nodded earnestly. “It’s all the memories you carry with you wherever you go.”
Stuart captured her hands in his, overwhelmed with the same desperation a man feels when the ship beneath his feet is sinking fast. “Miss Gallagher,” he asked, slipping to one knee in front of her. “Do you think, if I went home with you for just a little while, that I might capture some of this Happy Valley enchantment you speak of?”
“What an outrageous suggestion, Mr. Braden! And how dare you take such liberties!” This exquisite fulfillment of all his fondest dreams delivered a solid kick to his shinbone, damn near crippling him for life. She jerked her hands free. “Do you have any idea how disillusioned I am with you, sir? I expected better of you, being an Englishman!” Furious, she turned up her pert little nose and stared out the stagecoach window. “I am completely and utterly disillusioned.”
Stuart didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, though he allowed that such beauty would inspire any man to undue recklessness.
“You are a wicked, wicked man,” she added, refusing to look at him.
“I apologize, Miss Gallagher.” He winced painfully and, gritting his teeth, resumed his seat. “I assure you, I meant no offense.”
“I cannot imagine what gave you the idea you could behave in such a lascivious manner!” she went on, fluttering her lace handkerchief. “Apparently one cannot hold Englishmen to the same high standard as American men.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” He was done with sweet innocent creatures, he decided, his nostrils dilated with fury.
“I was only trying to describe the joy of anticipation,” she sniffed, playing the martyr rather well for an amateur actress, he thought sardonically. “I love Happy Valley and the people who live there. Of course, you would probably look down your nose at us and call us a bunch of homesteaders!” She ran her eyes over his carelessly sprawled body with scorn. “I’ll tell you one thing, Mr. Braden: You don’t hold a candle to the men who live in Happy Valley! So there!” She jerked her chin at him, then furtively looked away with a tight little smirk.
“Is that a dare?” he asked, as foolhardy as she.
“Certainly not. Why, even I can rope a calf faster than you!”
“What a bizarre idea,” he laughed. “You, a mere female, dare to make such a claim?”
“No, I’m just saying you’re a hopeless tenderfoot, Mr. Braden,” she informed him.