Read To Love a Stranger Online
Authors: Connie Mason
A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
Pierce’s eyes turned hard and his lips pulled into a taut smile. “So you want to marry me.”
Zoey didn’t like the sound of that. “Only for a short time. Until I can find the missing deed and prove Willoughby a liar.”
“You want this to be a marriage in name only?” Pierce qualified. His gaze rested on her breasts.
Heat suffused her. What was he getting at? “Of course, I’d have it no other way.”
Without warning, Pierce grabbed her arm and pulled her down onto the bed. She fell atop him, but he ignored the pain. “Tell me, Miss Zoey Fuller, what will you do if I demand my husbandly right?”
Pierce couldn’t resist the temptation of those moist lips, slightly parted and ripely lush. Grabbing a handful of hair in his fist, he pulled her head back and tasted her. Her breath was sweetly scented, and against his will Pierce was drawn deeper into the magic of the kiss. He heard her whimper as his tongue thrust past her teeth into her mouth, but he couldn’t have stopped now if he wanted to. And he certainly didn’t want to.
© 1997, 2011 Connie Mason. All rights reserved
Dry Gulch, Montana
ierce Delaney hammered a nail into the fence he was repairing, nearly shattering the wood with the force of his blow. His face was grim, his vivid green eyes brimming with anger.
“You got something against that particular piece of wood, brother? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to destroy it.”
Pierce paused in midstroke, glaring over his shoulder at his brother. His voice was sharp, almost rough, when he answered. “Don’t mess with me today, Chad. I’m in no mood for banter.” He turned back to the fence post, but Chad wasn’t about to let the matter drop. Something was eating at his brother, and he damn well wanted to know what it was.
“You came in awful late last night, Pierce. You said you were going to stop by the Doolittle spread on your way to town. What happened? Did Cora Lee corner you again?” he asked with a smirk.
“Don’t mention that bitch’s name to me,” Pierce gritted from between clenched teeth. “If it wasn’t for her father, I wouldn’t bother going over there at all. The man is close to death and his drunken son has run the ranch into the ground. The least I can do, since old man Doolittle and Pa were such good friends, is perform chores around the place. That’s the
the reason I visit the Doolittles.”
Chad sent Pierce a cheeky grin. “And here I thought you might be sweet on Cora Lee.”
“Shit! You know better than that. Women are a pack of trouble. Can’t trust the lot of them. Our own ma proved how faithless women are. Remember what Pa told us? When you need a woman, find a whore, they won’t disappoint a man. His advice was sound. There isn’t a woman alive I’d trust.”
“You don’t have to convince me,” Chad said grimly. “Hell, I remember what Ma did to Pa. I’ll never forget or forgive her for leaving us like she did. The only good thing to come of it was our trekking out west to homestead after the Indian uprisings were quelled. What’s got you so riled this morning?”
Pierce flung down his hammer and leaned his long, muscular frame against the fence. The bulging muscles of his arms and torso attested to the fact that he was no stranger to hard work. Tan and fit, Pierce Delaney, along with his brothers, Chad and Ryan, were well known in the tiny town of Dry Gulch, Montana. Whenever all three brothers rode into town, trouble usually followed. They were hell-raisers who relished a good fight. They drank hard, played hard, and fought hard. But they could
be charming when the occasion warranted.
The Delaney brothers were considered prime catches despite their wild natures. Aware of their reputations as troublemakers, parents warned their daughters to steer clear of the brothers, which made them dangerously attractive and appealing to those innocents. The brothers’ disdain for womanhood made them as irresistible.
“Mr. Doolittle was in a bad way last night,” Pierce said. “Cora Lee wouldn’t let me see him. We were alone, don’t know where her no-good brother was right then. Anyway, she sidled up to me and suggested we go up to her bedroom. She said she’d always had a hankering for me. I turned her down flat, and that set her off.”
Chad stifled a smile. “You turned her down? Am I to assume you’d rather pay for it in town?”
“I’d rather pay an honest whore than bed a woman with marriage on her mind.”
“So what happened?”
“I was heading for the door when Hal Doolittle walked in from the kitchen. Then things really got out of hand. I don’t know what possessed Cora Lee to do such a thing.”
Chad sent Pierce an exasperated look. “Dammit, Pierce, don’t keep me in suspense. What happened to make you so all-fired mad?”
“All of a sudden Cora Lee bursts into tears and rushes into her brother’s arms. Between sobs, she claimed that I seduced her on one of my visits to her father and got her with child.”
Chad gave Pierce a startled look. “Did you?”
Pierce looked as if he wanted to smash Chad in the face. “For Christ’s sake, Chad! Not you, too?
No, I didn’t seduce Cora Lee. I have no romantic interest in the woman … or any woman.”
“What did her brother say to that?”
“He believed her, of course, and demanded that I marry his sister. Do they think I’m stupid? That ranch is going under, and Cora Lee needs a husband with enough money to put them back into business. I happened to fit the bill. But I’m not gullible enough to fall for that. I’m not marrying anyone. Ever!”
Chad shook his head, sending a shower of dark brown hair into his eyes. He brushed it carelessly back into place. “Hal Doolittle has more balls than I gave him credit for. As for Cora Lee, she always was a conniving little bitch. Do you really think she’s in the family way?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s precisely what I told Hal, but he didn’t seem to understand. I had to use some … uh … persuasion to make him back off.” He rubbed his bruised knuckles, recalling the fight that had resulted when he tried to leave. He’d left Hal bleeding on the floor and Cora Lee crying.
“I reckon you won’t be going back any time soon,” Chad predicted. “Too bad, but it can’t be helped. Maybe we can send our little brother to help old man Doolittle with the chores. Ryan tends to be more levelheaded than either you or I.”
Distractedly Pierce shoved his fingers through his rich, dark hair. “No one in this family is to set foot on Doolittle property. I’m the head of this family and I aim to keep you and Ryan out of trouble.”
“Well, maybe there’s time to save us, but I’d say you’re in a heap of trouble, brother. It appears that
Cora Lee is desperate for a husband and has set her sights on you.”
“Like hell!” Pierce shouted angrily. “Has Ryan returned from town yet?” he said more calmly. “I’m running out of nails.”
“No, but he should be back soon. Relax, Pierce, we all know you didn’t get Cora Lee with child. Forget it.”
Pierce picked up the hammer, aiming a fierce blow at a nail he’d just set into place. Chad winced as the wood splintered; Pierce’s temper was obviously still hot and volatile. Pierce had always been the hotheaded brother, while Ryan, the youngest, wasn’t as excitable. Chad liked to think he was the one who looked at things from all angles before reacting. Despite their differences, all three were tough as nails, dead set against marriage, and fiercely protective of one another.
Pierce kept up a steady pounding, venting his anger and frustration on the hapless fence post. If he didn’t keep his hands and mind occupied, he’d explode. He could still recall the look on Hal Doolittle’s face when he’d refused to agree to marry Cora Lee. He hadn’t wanted to hit Hal, but the man drove him to it. Hal was big, but he was soft. He was no match for Pierce, who had decked him with one well-aimed punch.
“There’s Ryan now,” Chad said, shading his eyes against the glare of the sun. “He’s riding hell for leather. Wonder what’s wrong.”
Pierce looked up, surprised to see Ryan whipping his mount into a fine lather and shouting something they couldn’t make out.
“It’s not like Ryan to whip his horse like that,”
Pierce said, tossing the hammer aside and taking off at a run to meet his brother. Chad followed close on his heels.
Ryan reined in sharply, causing his mount to rear up and paw the air. Skillfully bringing the roan gelding under control, Ryan leaped to the ground, his breath coming in harsh pants.
“You’ve got to get out of town,” he gasped as he grasped Pierce’s shoulders and pushed him toward the barn. “They’re not far behind me.”
“Slow down, Ryan,” Pierce urged. “What happened? Why do I have to get out of town? Who’s coming?”
“The vigilantes, that’s who. Hal Doolittle was in town early this morning, insisting that you seduced his sister, got her with child, and refused to marry her.”
“Hell, I never touched the woman,” Pierce roared.
“There’s more,” Ryan said. “Hal brought Cora Lee to town with him. She was roughed up pretty bad. Old Doc Lucas treated her. Hal claims Pierce beat her when she insisted he do the right thing by her.”
“That’s a lie! I never laid a hand on the woman.”
“Tell that to the vigilantes, but don’t expect them to believe you. Cora Lee was a pitiful sight. She verified Hal’s story. Riley Reed got the men so worked up they formed immediately a vigilante party. Since there’s no regular law in this part of Montana, they can pretty much do what they please. They’re coming after you. If you don’t agree to marry Cora Lee, they’re going to string you up.
There’s no time to lose. You’ve got to leave until the furor blows over.”
“You’d better go,” Chad urged. “Unless you plan on getting hitched. There are some in town jealous of our prosperity, including Riley Reed. Others resent us because we won’t settle down and marry their daughters.”
“I tried marriage once and it didn’t work. Hell, I’m not going to run,” Pierce said stubbornly. No vigilante party was going to scare him from his land.
“You’ve got to,” Ryan insisted. “You weren’t in town. I saw how angry the men were, and how skillfully Hal and Riley incited them. I saw Cora Lee myself. Someone worked her over good. It won’t hurt to hide out for a time. Chad and I will handle things here. Between us we might be able to figure out what really happened.”
“Ryan is right, Pierce, you’ve got to leave. You’ve seen what the vigilantes can do when they’re worked up. They’re the only law in these parts; no one will stand up to them. Take whatever money we have in the house and go. Send word where we can reach you. Meanwhile we’ll do our damnedest to get to the bottom of this.”
Ryan cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. “They’ll be coming up over the hill any minute now. I’ll saddle your horse while you gather a few things to take with you.”
“And I’ll get money from the safe,” Chad said. “How long do we have, Ryan?”
“Five minutes, no more. Probably not even that.”
“I’m not—” Pierce began.
“Yes you are,” Chad said. “You may be the eldest,
but you’re too hotheaded for your own good. I know you too well. You’d stay here and fight till the bloody end. Riley Reed is the leader of the vigilantes and one mean bastard. He’s hated you ever since Polly married you instead of him. They’ll burn down the ranch house if we hole up inside and try to fend them off.”