1ST PLACE -HISTORICAL/REGENCY CATEGORY - TEXAS GOLD CONTEST!!!

 

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE
Texas Brides Series
by Catherine Snodgrass
Historical Romance
March 2006
Amber Quill Press
ISBN: 1-59279-499-8 (Electronic)
ISBN: 1-59279-745-8 (Paperback)

Former Texas Ranger Paul Harrington is now a preacher trying to amend his former errant ways. It's a constant battle to keep his former self from surfacing. He fears that giving into passion will open the door to the man he used to be. The role of traditional wife isn't something that appeals to Belle Marshall. As the town healer and manager of the boarding house, independence is hers. A husband will only get in the way. The townsfolk have other ideas, and when they form a committee to find Belle a husband, well, that's something Paul just won't have.

 

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~ Reviews ~

FIVE ANGELS! Expected the unexpected in this story as anything can and will happen. Not only are you involved completely in this book right away, but the plot grabs you holding you spellbound from beginning to end... Strong and independent yet endearing characters pull you into this tale, so without fail make sure this book is one of those that grace your must-read list. If you are looking for a story that is a refreshing romantic tale or one that will enthrall you into a world of yesterday gone by, this is the book for you! ~Wendi, Fallen Angel Reviews

FIVE HEARTS! The characters of Belle and Paul are completely captivating people who capture the reader's attention from first reading about them... I loved this story and all the characters in it, especially Paul. This book is very enjoyable reading about a community of very colorful characters. I recommend it to everyone. ~Ellen, The Romance Studio

FIVE CUPS! Ms. Snodgrass...has made the hero and heroine such wonderful characters you cannot help but turn the pages. I loved this story, it was refreshing and, though a lot of it was playful, the characters shared their deep inner fears and dreams with the reader. Well done. ~Mary, Coffee Time Romance

FIVE ANGELS! Fallen Angel Reviews Recommended Read. The people of Cottonwood Bend wiggle their way into your heart and refuse to leave. You’re heart breaks for Paul and what his past has forced him to endure. You understand Belle’s need for independence and her struggle with her feelings for Paul. The plot is solid with twists that keep you turning the pages. The emotion and friendship that abounds will have you coming back time and again to visit. This story is about past mistakes, change, love, friendship and new beginnings. Catherine Snodgrass has weaved a tale that you won’t soon forget. ~Cindy, Fallen Angel Reviews

5 HEARTS!!! The story has given the reader a host of possibilities and conclusions yet the real answer is one worth reading the book for. It is a romance that should and hopefully will go down as one of this year's best and I for one am happy I read it. For those of you who love romance novels and make no mistake this is one in every sense of the word - do read this one. You wont regret it. ~Louise Riveiro-Mitchell, The Romance Studio

Catherine Snodgrass has created a down-to-earth, thoroughly enchanting historical romance in THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE. The earthy characters practically jump off the page, and the emotional aspect of the story is so realistic that readers will feel as if they’ve gotten a hidden peek into the mind of a good friend. Sweet, with just a hint of spice in the love scenes, THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE will hold your attention until the very last page. ~Janean Nusz, The Road to Romance

FOUR HEARTS!!! a fascinating read and is highly recommended for historical romance fans. ~Penny, Love Romances

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE is a madcap attempt to push two people together who are perfect for each other. Too bad they don’t see it that way. When the town gets together to marry them off, things get crazy. Matchmaking, romance, sneakiness, and jealousy are just a few things that make this story amusing and sweet. When I finished this book, I felt like the characters were all real people that I interacted with on a daily basis. Ms. Snodgrass’s ability to create life-like characters that step from the pages and make themselves real to the reader is a gift. If you enjoy a lighthearted romance with light love scenes and a sweet story, you will enjoy this book. ~Ansley Velarde, The Road to Romance

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE is a delightful excursion to the wilds of 1880 Texas. The author incorporates fully realized characters into a fast-paced and engaging narrative full of twists and turns. Paul is an exceptional hero, complex, wounded and wrestling with his demons as well as his passions. Belle is a strong heroine but flawed by her own indecision with regards to Paul. Together their passion is HOT. ~Melissa Fowler, The Romance Readers Connection.

4 SLIPPERS!!! A wonderful read. It is fast paced from the starting gate, delightfully written, and exciting. There are twists and turns that keep the reader involved and guessing and the plot is beautifully resolved at the end. I would highly recommend this story and am looking forward to reading more by this wonderful writer. ~Maci Walker, Novelspot.

5 FLAMES!!! COLLECTOR’S TREASURE. REVIEWER’S CHOICE. [G]rabs you from the first paragraph, and won't let you go. The characters are true to life and the dialogue sizzles. The story is compelling and you'll find yourself rooting for Belle and Paul with every word. The writing is crisp and first-rate. This is an exciting, suspenseful historical romance that will keep you up all night to finish it. Don't pass it by! ~Elizabeth Delisi, Word Museum

EXCERPT

Texas, 1881

Belle Marshall forced the grief to the deepest part of her heart. Doc had lived a full life. He had been an old man. His health had been failing for years. He had a right to pass on. To continue living with the pain he suffered…Well, she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy...if she had one. Why wish it for a man she admired beyond words? Still, losing him, no matter how much she knew it was coming, hurt more than she could bear.

She dared a look around. It seemed the whole town was gathered at the graveyard today, except for the Tanner bunch. The cowhands were off with the herd, headed north to Dodge months ago. Her sister and the rest of the Tanners had left for a visit to Virginia last month. They’d be gone until the end of this month. Belle had missed them before they’d been gone a day, but now she ached for their company. She felt lost without them, even in this crowd.

Her gaze wandered from person to person. Everyone had fulfilled one of Doc’s last wishes—no one wore black. He’d wanted bright, happy colors and he’d got them. Belle had chosen her pink gingham dress with white lace at the hem, neck, and cuffs. Doc had always said it made her look as bright and pretty as one of Mrs. Freebush’s roses. Everyone else looked plenty colorful too.

Mr. Cyrus’s vest matched the canary yellow in his wife’s dress. Mrs. Cyrus fingered the dark green ribbon around her wide waist. Florine Brady had chosen purple satin shot with cream panels. Her husband’s string tie was cut from the same cloth. Very nice. Bright. Happy. Doc would have been pleased.

The only exception was Paul Harrington. The preacher was limited in his wardrobe. But he honored Doc’s wishes the best way he could—with three daisies threaded through his lapel.

She shifted her gaze back to the Cyruses. Seeing the old couple lean on each other in their grief wrenched Belle’s heart. She knew what they were thinking—"We’re next." That’s what Mrs. Cyrus had said the night before over Doc’s body. Rather than think her selfish, Belle understood the fear and had wrapped an arm around her. It had helped to ease her own fears at the time. But in the warmth of this beautiful summer day, watching the Cyruses support each other, their light blue eyes misty with unshed tears, Belle’s agony doubled.

A breeze rustled the leaves in the cottonwoods edging the perimeter of the graveyard. Belle closed her eyes and turned her face into it, shutting out everything but the sound of Paul Harrington’s voice. She could listen to him talk for hours and never grow tired of hearing him. Not too deep, not high pitched, just perfect. He caught a person’s attention from the first word and held it, which was good for a preacher. Not too many people fell asleep during his sermons.

Belle wondered if it was because he was a young preacher. Most of the ones she’d known in the past were old, definitely set in their ways. They’d tote their bibles around, quoting Gospel in that holier-than-thou manner, and set themselves above their parishioners. Not Paul. He was…well, normal.

He’d make a good father. Belle’s eyes flashed open. Where in the world had that come from? Not that she hadn’t thought it before. But here? When she was burying her mentor? Doc would have gotten a big chuckle out of that. In fact, he’d have laughed so hard he’d have set off a coughing spell.

Not one to mince words, Doc had never hesitated to point out Belle’s interest in the young reverend. She’d be lying if she said that wasn’t so. Thank goodness Doc kept his opinions to himself. Seeing that know-it-all look in his old eyes every time Paul came around was bad enough. Worse, because each time Doc would say, "That fella’s sure sweet on you."

Belle didn’t know if that was so or not. Mothers in town certainly noticed his availability. They took every opportunity to parade their daughters in front of him and offer their help at church. But it was Belle he turned to when it came time to organize social events and committees. Yet, in the three years they’d known each other, Paul never so much as hinted their relationship was more than friendship. And he certainly never spoke for her.

It was just as well. Belle had no place in her life for a husband, especially a preacher. They expected traditional wives, and Belle wanted more out of life than that. Not that she didn’t want a husband and children one day, but she wanted a man who understood she had needs beyond the boundaries of marriage. As far as she knew, there wasn’t a man like that who existed for her, certainly not Paul Harrington. He was about as traditional as a person could get.

She let the sound of his voice drift into her soul while she marveled at the way the sunlight made the gold in his light blond hair sparkle. She’d seen him with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his shoulder muscles flexed against the material while he leant a hand at a barn raising. He certainly wasn’t afraid of hard work. His skin was a light bronze from hours in the sun. What woman wouldn’t be interested?

But Doc had opened a world to her that Belle could have only imagined before. She might not be a doctor in the true sense of the word, but everyone knew she’d been Doc’s eyes, ears, and hands these last three years. Belle doubted anyone would call her on it now. She was all the town had. A husband would take her away from them.

Maybe that’s why no mothers trotted their sons before her. Not that Belle would have noticed. She was always too focused on her work. And she found Paul too much of a distraction as it was. Or maybe Doc wasn’t as quiet about his notions as she’d hoped.

Belle’s gaze drifted Paul’s way. He cradled his bible with those marvelously long fingers. Fingers that could dry a child’s tears with a tenderness that tugged at Belle’s heart. She’d seen those fingers at work and knew they were calloused. But they could right a bow in a little girl’s hair with as much skill as they wielded a hammer. And all Belle could wonder was how they’d feel brushed against her cheek.

Paul closed the bible, drew in a breath, and looked right at her. His green eyes mesmerized her, held her in place. They were the color of life itself. She couldn’t have moved if a stampede of longhorns were headed her way.

"Belle?" he said.

"Yes?" The word came out in a choked whisper. He wanted something of her.

He glanced toward the grave. Belle’s gaze followed. Of course. She was the closest thing Doc had to a relative. By that right alone, she was to toss the first handful of dirt on his coffin.

Heat rose to her cheeks. She was ashamed of herself, letting her mind wander in sinful pursuit while they were burying a good man.

She imagined Doc’s hearty laughter over that, his teasing afterward when they were alone. Tears flooded her eyes. She wouldn’t cry here. Please not here. She simply couldn’t deal with the sympathy of others right now. She had to hold herself together. God, how she was going to miss the old man.

Clenching her jaw against the grief, Belle squatted down and blindly grabbed a fistful of dark brown earth. Stepping carefully to the edge of the grave, she opened her palm and let the dirt drift from her grasp. It fell to the coffin below like a gentle rain, so much easier to deal with than hearing the clods plunk down harshly.

When the last was gone, Belle stared at her palm. She’d forgotten to take off her gloves. A dark brown stain blotched the ivory. It would take a lot of scrubbing to get it out. Maybe she’d leave it as a reminder of this day, not that she needed any.

Someone else stepped forward. The smack of dirt on the coffin jerked Belle from her daydream. She couldn’t watch this, but she couldn’t walk away either. She had an obligation to fulfill.

Another person edged forward—Florine, a businesswoman in her own right. She owned one of the best bars in town and did a good job of keeping her girls in line. Belle supposed she had to—Florine was married to Sheriff Bill Brady. Their professions made them an unlikely couple, but they looked like they belonged together—both tall, auburn-haired, slender, with a businesslike approach to life that rarely wavered. No one dared call him Bill or Billy. It was Sheriff or Brady. And God help the soul who used the name Flo. Florine would cut them dead with a glare.

Given her own full name—Mary-Belle Marshall—Belle sympathized with her. It had just taken longer, and the chance to leave home, for Belle to make her wishes known. She never wanted to be Mary-Belle again. That was the past, a different person, someone Belle longed to put far behind her.

Florine draped an arm around Belle and gave her shoulders a squeeze. "He was quite an old fella, wasn’t he?"

Belle allowed herself a smile. "Yes, he was. I’ll miss him."

But she wouldn’t miss the coughing that wracked his body each time he tired himself. Or that rattle in his chest when the days grew cold; a hack no doctoring seemed to cure. Or seeing him struggle to move his aching bones across a room. No one knew how much he’d suffered, but Belle and she would take that news, that promise of silence, to her own grave.

Brady slipped his hand through Florine’s arm. "You ladies might want to step back. The edge don’t look too stable."

Belle glanced at her feet. Sure enough a steady shower of dirt drifted down. Florine moved away. Belle followed suit, taking a giant step back. Her heel caught the edge of her dress. She toppled forward and felt the ground crumble beneath her.

The mourners gasped. Belle fanned her arms, then squeezed her eyes shut as she fell into Doc’s grave. A hard body slammed against her, knocking the wind from her lungs. Arms wrapped tight around her waist and cushioned her fall.

They hit the coffin hard. Belle heard an "oof" from her hero and opened her eyes. Paul lay beneath her. His face twisted with pain. It passed quickly, yet neither of them dared to move.

"Are you hurt?" he finally asked.

"No. Thanks to you. But I can’t say the same for you."

He pulled in a ragged breath. "I’m good. Just hit it harder than I wanted. I need a second."

"I’m afraid I’ve caused you to break something."

"No...really, Belle. Just be still."

She didn’t like the sound of his voice. It was strained, like agony tore through him. She glanced into his face and saw him staring beyond her into the sky. Belle doubted he was focused on anything.

She shifted to her forearms. Paul grunted, grabbed her waist, and hoisted them both to their feet. "Brady—"

"I got her." Before Belle could protest, Paul had her by the waist again. He lifted, Brady caught her under the arms, and she was on solid ground once more.

Florine and Mrs. Cyrus fussed over her, brushing the dirt from her pink dress. Belle let them. Only a good washing could save this dress now. She watched Paul leap from the grave unassisted, and marveled at his agility.

"At least no one’s hurt." A small tsk ended Mrs. Cyrus’s sentence.

"Only our pride." Paul flicked dirt from his trousers. "Mr. Tucker, you’ll be glad to know you’ve made a sound coffin. It survived the weight of both our bodies full force. Didn’t give at all."

Mr. Tucker’s wattle jiggled with his nod. "We should get on with it then before someone else decides to test it out. Been ages since I’ve seen ground this unstable. Must be from all the rain we’ve had this year."

"Hold up, Tuck." Brady jerked his head toward main street. "We got riders coming."

One by one people turned for a look. Sure enough a group of six men made their way up the main street of Cottonwood Bend.

"Texas rangers." Paul brushed dirt from his sleeve and squared his shoulders, but his narrow gaze never left the approaching men.

Belle shaded her eyes and studied the men. How could Paul tell who they were? Rangers wore no badges. Only the officers carried papers saying who they were. These men looked like tired cowpokes or, worse yet, a band of thieves creeping into town.

Their hats drooped from days exposed to the elements. Dust, dirt, and sweat etched stories into the fabric. The wide brims hid the men’s faces from the sun. Their shoulders sagged from exhaustion. And the horses looked like it was all they could do to put one hoof in front of the other.

They ignored the shops and houses along the way. Didn’t look at the beautiful little flower gardens behind picket fences. Nor did the hitching posts or shaded boardwalks hold any appeal. They kept on a straight coarse for the graveyard.

"Stay here."

Paul hurried toward the riders. Brady was close behind. They met the rangers at the steps of the small church not twenty feet away. Several of the riders were wounded, one so badly he could barely seat his horse. Instinct urged Belle to rush to their aid. Caution kept her in place.

"Can we help you, gentlemen?" Paul asked.

They stared at him, eyes wide, mouths agape. Someone laughed, a hollow sound that echoed his weariness.

The leader swung down. "Well…I’ll be switched."

He tilted his hat back with the point of his finger. His dark whiskers matched his eyes. Weary as he looked, amusement still danced in them.

"This just about takes the cake." He shook his head and gave a half-hearted chuckle, then waved his hand to the men behind him. "We got wounded. We need a doctor."

Heads turned Belle’s way. Yes…it was her responsibility now. She wasted no time seeing to it.

"Get them over to the office. I’ll run ahead and get things ready." Belle lifted her skirts, ready to dash off.

A man on horseback stared down at her. He held his left arm close to his chest. Dried blood soaked his sleeve. "Her? She’s the doc?" He snorted. "Ain’t no woman gonna doctor me." For emphasis, he spat in the dirt.

Belle lifted her chin and met his glare. "We’ll see how you feel when the infection gets so bad you’re ready to have that arm cut off." She gave him a wicked smile. "Don’t worry, I’ll let you pick between the clean saw and the dirty one we use to butcher livestock."

She shifted her attention to the man next to Paul. "The reverend and the sheriff will show you the way. I’ll want the worst injured first."

He scratched the dark stubble on his cheek. "That’d be our prisoner. He’s a hard one. Can’t say his life is worth saving."

Belle drew a deep breath. He held up his palm before her lecture saw the light of day. She tucked it away. She had a feeling she’d need it again real soon.

"But we’ll get him to you, ma’am." A hint of a smile danced on his lips. Belle tried not to take offense. She was a woman in a man’s world. His attitude was typical of those who didn’t know her. She refused to let it keep her from doing her job.

* * *

Paul watched Belle walk away. She had the attention of every man there, even the wounded. And who wouldn’t look at the sway of her skirt as she hurried down the boardwalk? Those trim hips of hers had mesmerized him more times than he could count.

Belle Marshall was by far the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and Paul had met a lot of women in his time. He was smitten from the instant he’d first seen her three years before. Age and maturity since then made her all the more attractive.

He loved her ready smile. The way her forehead wrinkled between her eyebrows when she concentrated on work. The light that always sparkled in the depths of her light brown eyes. And her hair…It was enough to drive a man insane—dark brown with hints of red when the sun hit it just right. She always wore it up, never down. He craved to know how long it really was. Seeing those few tendrils that often drifted against the back of her long, creamy neck, it was all he could do to keep his fingers from curling around one.

Seeing her today so grief stricken tore at his heart. He longed to hold her close and tell her everything would be all right. Then she’d fallen. His instincts had kicked in. Somehow Paul managed to jump the width of the grave and catch her. He’d realized then what true agony was.

Never had his body reacted so quickly to a woman’s softness. Paul blamed it on the years of abstinence, the years he wanted her. Then she levered herself onto her elbows, pressing her stomach right into his problem area. He’d almost lost it right there—like an untried boy. He couldn’t get her off him fast enough and prayed for something to calm him down before he crawled from the grave.

Paul called himself a fool for loving her. Belle could do a lot better than him. She deserved better. There wasn’t a night or day that passed without him cursing the demons and the past that kept him from letting her know how he felt.

Oh, there was a time when she first arrived where he thought he could. Then the Tanners had run into a bit of trouble and the old Paul, the Paul he fought, the Paul he feared had leaped in to help. It shocked him how quickly the ghost of his former self appeared. Since then he’d done everything in his power to tamp down passion of any kind. He simply could not afford to be that person any more. And now his past had just ridden into town.

Brady was the only one in Cottonwood Bend who knew Paul was a former Texas ranger. And he knew why Paul had switched professions. Brady had accepted the decision and offered Paul the chance of a church in this quiet little town once the former preacher had moved on.

But the men before him now…well, that was a painfully different matter. They might not have known about Paul’s new line of work, but they sure knew what had happened before he’d dropped out of sight. The way they gabbed when liquored up, it wouldn’t be long before the whole town knew. What would they think then of their wonderful, kind, thoughtful reverend?

"Paul, what the hell—"

Paul cut Cal Webster off without so much as a glance. "You’ll find the doctor’s office behind the boarding house on the corner just a block away." He couldn’t risk talk out here with the whole town gaping at them. Already they whispered among themselves, and Florine and Mrs. Cyrus were headed his way.

Cal stared at him. His faced screwed up in that funny look he always got when something confused him. Paul noticed he hadn’t changed much since he’d seen him four years ago. Of course, it was hard to tell as dirty as they all were from being on the road.

Stony, Clarence, Sid, and Marty still stared at him. But their gaped-mouth astonishment was gone.

Paul glanced at the fifth man on horseback between them. His arms were bound at the wrist. Splotches of blood stained his torn clothing. He slumped lower in the saddle with each second that passed. Marty controlled his reins.

Cal tucked his hat back into place and jerked his head toward Stony. "You heard the good reverend. Get the wounded over there and keep a good eye on Jessop."

Paul’s lips tightened to a thin line. Which Jessop? Frank? His past was truly slamming him in the face.

Not one for talk, Stony motioned the others on with a flick of his bony hand.

Cal splayed his fingers on his hips, just above his holster. "Sheriff, soon as the little lady’s done with our prisoner we’re going to need a sturdy cell for him."

Brady hooked his thumbs in his breeches. "He doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. We’ll let Miss Marshall decide when it’s best to move him."

Florine edged her way up front. "And if you know what’s good for you, I wouldn’t be calling her little lady around here. People have a lot of respect for her and they won’t take kindly to it."

Cal’s cheeks reddened, darkening his sun-tanned face. At least he still had the decency to know his place. He dropped his gaze to the patch of grass nestled against the church steps. "We’ll be needing a place for the horses. That stable down the street any good?"

Mrs. Cyrus puffed out her ample chest. "Why, it’s the best in town."

Not to mention it was the only one in town.

Cal nodded. "And a place for us to bunk. Which boarding house is the best?"

Paul crossed his arms and rocked on his heels. "Depends on what you’re looking for. Busby’s has plenty of room this time of year. It’s a bed and food." Although it took a strong soul to put up with Mrs. Busby’s sour disposition.

"If it’s whoring you want, Fran’s is the place for you. For the right money, she’ll rent you a room and all the extras that go with it. If you’re looking for a clean bed and good food, then you’ll want Cyrus’s. That’s where you’ll find the doctor’s office. Big two-story house on the corner. White fence, wide porch, yellow trim."

"Good enough for me." Cal snagged the reins and hauled himself into the saddle. "We need to talk. Catch up on old times."

Paul jerked his thumb toward the graveyard. "We’ve got a man to bury. We could use an extra hand."

Cal glanced that direction. "I’ve buried enough men, Reverend."

"Then one more shouldn’t hurt you."

"You oughta know." He tipped his hat to the ladies, turned his tired horse around, and rode away.

Paul measured each step. Too bad Cal wasn’t on his way out of town.

"Whoring?" Florine flicked the back of his head with her fingers. "What kind of talk is that coming from a preacher?"

He smoothed his hair into place and frowned at her. "One trying to make a point that we don’t want any trouble in our town…from anyone."

Brady scuffed his boots against that tiny patch of grass. "And trouble’s just what we’re in for if that’s really one of the Jessops they’ve got with them. You know they’ll do anything to get one of their own back."

And with the Tanner ranch hands and owners gone, the town didn’t have the muscle to protect itself.

Mrs. Cyrus tucked her handkerchief into her sleeve. "Then we’d best be seeing what we can do to help Belle put those rangers on the mend and on their way. Come along, dear."

"You go on. I’ll be there shortly." Florine waited until Mrs. Cyrus was halfway down the boardwalk before turning to Paul and Brady. "We’ve got another problem."

Naturally. Didn’t trouble always come in threes? "What’s that?" Paul asked.

"Several of the women—most of the women are concerned about the—exposure Belle will receive from men now that Doc is gone."

Brady chuckled. "You mean they’re afraid she’ll see a naked man."

Florine jabbed an elbow in his ribs. "She’s an innocent young woman."

Paul snorted. "Who’s been doing Doc’s work for him since she got here. I’m sure she’s gotten a gander at a man by now." Although the thought didn’t set well with him either.

"But until now, the fine ladies of Cottonwood Bend could convince themselves Doc was handling all the dirty work." Brady laughed. "Now they can’t lie to themselves any more."

Florine shot him a glare from the corner of her eye. Gathering her composure, she flashed a sweet smile Paul’s way. "It’s time Belle was married. It’s time you spoke up."

He stumbled back. A punch to the gut would have shocked him less. Even Brady stopped laughing and stared at his wife in stunned silence. Paul found his voice somewhere in his hip pocket. Using it wasn’t as easy.

"What?" he choked out.

Florine’s mouth tightened. "You heard what I said. People have been talking for years about that puppy dog look you give Belle. They figured you were waiting for her to grow up more. Then they figured you were shy. Now…well, let’s just put in this way, Reverend…"

She smoothed her gloves over each finger and avoided his gaze. "Belle is the best thing this town ever had. We can’t lose her. If seeing her married will ease the minds of some of our more prissy residents, then so be it." She dropped her hands and nailed him with a look. "So, what’s it going to be?"

Paul’s mouth moved but the words wouldn’t come.

Florine laced her fingers and tapped her thumbs together. "In other words…We will not lose Belle. We can’t afford to. And that’s exactly what will happen if this matter isn’t resolved. First, the women will refuse to let their husbands go to her. Then they’ll refuse. And, finally, the children. You know how people are when they get a notion. So…if you won’t speak up, we’ll find someone who will."

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Anger swooped in. He didn’t respond well to threats of any kind, no matter how well intentioned. He fought a snarl and looked steady into Florine’s amber-colored eyes. "Then I think you’d best be doing that."

Her eyes widened a fraction. This obviously wasn’t something she anticipated. To her credit, Florine recovered quickly. "Then we shall. In fact, I think we’ll form a marriage committee. With the Fourth of July celebration days away, it should fit in quite nicely. Good day, Reverend Harrington."

Her footsteps clicked a hasty retreat down the boardwalk.

Brady gave a low whistle. "Boy-howdy, you’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest now. I’m going to have to hear it tonight."

"I don’t like being cornered."

The other man clasped him on the shoulder. "And you’re going to like seeing the woman you want married to someone else?"

Paul shrugged his hand away. "It’s a bluff. That’s all."

Brady stared after his wife. "Florine don’t bluff." His voice softened. "Come on, Paul. You can’t keep living like this. This isn’t you. You want her. Go after her."

"I can’t. You know that."

He slowly shook his head never once breaking eye contact. "No…I don’t suppose you can. Living the life of a martyr has too much appeal."

Paul’s jaw tightened, so did his fists. "I’ve got a man to bury." Without another word, he strode back to the graveyard.

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