The Texan's Reward (Wife Lottery #4) : chap 1
JACOB DALTON BRACED HIS BROAD SHOULDERS
against the blast of wind howling through Lone Riv er
Cany on and urged his horse forward. Dusty , a stallion he
had trained from a colt, knew the shortcut across the
cany on as well as he did, but unlike Jacob, the horse
didn’t seem to share his urgency to brav e the treacherous
path in order to get home a day earlier.
Jacob knew he needed to concentrate while crossing
Lone Riv er after dark, but he couldn’t clear his mind of
the words he’d seen on a telegram four day s ago. He read
it only once, but once had been enough. He’d hardly
stopped to eat or sleep since.
When he checked in at the Texas Ranger office in El
Paso to pick up his mail, he hadn’t ev en opened the
message from the sheriff in Clarendon until he walked
across the street, ordered a whiskey , and relaxed into a
chair by the window. Jacob had no relativ es and, due to
his occupation, few friends. Most correspondence he
receiv ed came under the heading of business. But he
opened Sheriff Parker Smith’s note first, knowing the old
man cared about the same people Jacob did, and he hoped
for news among the sheriff ‘s correspondence.
He’d expected Sheriff Parker’s usual report: All quiet.
Nell still recov ering. But Jacob ripped the env elope in
haste, just in case Nell had taken a turn for the worse. If
so, he’d ask for leav e and catch the next train east,
whether she liked him worry ing about her or not.
But the news had left him no time to wait a day for
the train. He’d departed without finishing his drink.
Dusty ’s front hoov es slid ov er an icy rock, jarring
Jacob back to the present. He leaned forward, shifting his
weight, working with the animal with practiced ease. One
wrong step could land them both at the bottom of the
cany on with little chance of being found before spring.
Jacob forced his attention to the slow progress, but he
couldn’t rid his thoughts of the hundred images of the kid
he’d called Two Bits until she came home from school all
grown up and decided her name was Nell. She’d been the
orneriest brat ev er picked up out of the gutter. Mean, foul-
An old madam who owned a house near the tracks in
Clarendon took her in, claiming Two Bits was the
daughter of one of her girls. Two Bits said her mother
willed her to Fat Alice, and the old soiled dov e took her
responsibility to heart. She saw that Nell was fed and
cared for until she was old enough to go back East to a fine
school that wouldn’t hav e let Fat Alice on the grounds.
Jacob remembered the first time he saw the kid. He’d
been sev enteen, a month into being a Texas Ranger, when
she appeared one morning, following him around like a
lost puppy , all big brown ey es and skinny legs. She didn’t
look more than eight, but she stood proud when she told
him she had dreams. She planned to be the highest-paid
lady of the ev ening in Texas when she grew up. He swore
he’d marry her first and make an honest woman out of
Jacob laughed, remembering how she’d called him
ev ery name she could think of for try ing to interfere with
her dreams and y elled that she’d charge him double when
he came begging to her bed.
From that day on, he’d been cursed with the need to
watch ov er her.
He smiled. She’d been nothing but trouble for almost
a dozen y ears. He’d washed her mouth out with soap so
many times that first y ear, he thought his hands would
chap and bleed long before she stopped swearing. Ev ery
time Fat Alice tried to make her behav e, Two Bits ran
away , and the next thing he knew, Jacob would get a
telegram asking him to come back to Clarendon to
straighten out the hellion.
When he’d been twice her height, he’d managed to get
his bluff in on her. But as she grew, it didn’t take long for
her to wrap him around her finger. She thought he was
her own priv ate guardian. When Nell was in trouble,
she’d call him and, like an idiot, he came running, if for
no other reason than that she needed him. He’d alway s
managed to keep her out of serious trouble.
Except the last time. She’d been hurt bad, may be
ev en crippled for life, in an ambush. She held onto his
hand through those first day s of pain, depending on him,
needing him. Then as soon as she’d recov ered enough to
hire a nurse, she’d told him she nev er wanted to see him
Jacob had spent three day s drunk and angry , try ing
to figure out why . They ’d been in each other’s liv es for
y ears, fighting, caring. Now suddenly she wanted no part
of him. May be she’d seen the pain in his ey es when he
watched her try to mov e. May be he reminded her of
happier day s and lost dreams. The more he’d argued that
she needed him, the more she’d insisted he leav e.
Dusty reached the far wall of the cany on, and Jacob
relaxed. He’d be within sight of Clarendon by dawn. And
he’d better be on time.
Sheriff Parker’s telegram echoed through his
thoughts. “Two Bits plans to buy herself a husband.” Fat
Alice had left her enough money to do just that.
“Like hell,” he mumbled to himself. He had to get
home in time to stop her. No sorry , money -hungry ,
worthless excuse for a man was going to take adv antage of
her while she was down.
If he missed the wedding, Jacob decided, he’d be
making her a widow before nightfall.
NELL LEANED BACK IN HER CHAIR AND WATCHED
A well-dressed man in his late twenties climb from the
best horse the liv ery in town loaned. He was taller than
most, a few inches under six feet, she’d guess. His jaw
square. His carriage proud. His dark hair had been cut
short. Ev ery thing about him seemed to be in place. Fat
Alice, Nell’s adopted guardian, would hav e said he looked
like a man who had generations of breeding flowing
through his blood.
“This one just might do, Miss Nell.” Mary Ruth, her
nurse, leaned ov er the back of Nell’s wheelchair. “Nice-
looking man, I’d say , and cleaner than most who come to
call.” Mary Ruth’s ey ebrow lifted almost to her salt-and-
pepper gray hair as she emphasized her point. “In
Number Twelv e we might just hav e husband material.
At least his clothes look tailor-made, which is more than I
could say about the past elev en men who’v e come to call.”
“I don’t care about the cut of his clothes,” Nell said
more to herself than any one. “I hate him already .” She
watched the stranger mov e down the long path toward
her front door below. Hadn’t Mary Ruth seen the way he
climbed from the horse? Like a man who hadn’t ridden in
a long while. Couldn’t the nurse see how he walked, slow
and careful as though fearing he might step in something
on the way to her door that he might hav e to wipe off? “I
could probably outride him, ev en crippled up.” She lifted
the curtain slightly . “And thin. He seems walking bones
inside that suit.”
Mary Ruth, as usual, paid no notice to Nell’s
grumbling. She rushed to tidy the room. The nurse had
been with Nell for three months, and she’d organized
ev ery thing upstairs a hundred times. She would hav e
liked to work on the downstairs, but that was Gy psy , the
housekeeper’s, territory . Mary Ruth considered herself so
far abov e Gy psy ’s station that she only talked to the old
woman through Nell.
At first Nell had found it interesting being the
interpreter between the second floor and the first, but
she’d long ago tired of the game. As she’d tired of
ev ery thing within the walls of her home, her prison. The
porch was as far as her wheelchair would allow her to
She looked down from the window once more. The
man walking toward her front door had shoulders that
weren’t wide enough. His smile seemed forced. She didn’t
trust a man who smiled with so many teeth showing.
What did he hav e to grin about any way ? He must be on
hard times if he was knocking at her door.
Dropping the lace curtain, she decided to cut the man
some slack. “Who knows? He might be the one.” Nell tried
to smile at Mary Ruth, who hoped for Nell with ev ery
v isitor who knocked.
Nell shrugged. “He doesn’t look all that bad. A little
thin.” At least she could think positiv e until he prov ed her
wrong. He’d been smart enough to pick a good horse to
rent. “I’ll get dressed before going down. I don’t want to
meet what might be my future husband in a robe and
The nurse let out a long breath as she headed for the
closet. “I’v e only been with y ou a few months, Miss Nell,
but one thing I’v e learned is that y ou’re particular. When
y ou told the sheriff to post a notice for a husband, I
thought y ou’d lost y our mind. I was sure that within a
week y ou’d be swindled out of all that woman named Fat
Alice left y ou.”
Nell only half listened as she carefully stood long
enough to pull a dress ov er her head. Six months ago the
dress would hav e fit her curv es; now it hung like a hand-
Mary Ruth tied the band of the dress, then mov ed the
wheelchair back in place. A few weeks back, Nell couldn’t
hav e stood for so long. She wasn’t sure if she was getting
better or simply getting used to the pain. To take her
mind off it, Nell planned what she’d say to this, her
twelfth caller. She’d grown used to Mary Ruth’s chatter
and knew she wouldn’t hav e to respond. The woman
rarely had any thing important to say . In the months
since the accident, Nell had adjusted to nev er being
allowed to be alone. First, there had been her three
mothering friends, hov ering around her out of concern
and may be a little out of guilt. The bullet that crippled
Nell had been meant for one of them.
Once she recov ered enough to mov e back to
Clarendon, her friend, a Texas Ranger named Jacob
Dalton, had stay ed by her side night and day . After a
month, she could no longer stand the sorrow in his ey es
when he saw her struggle to mov e. She’d finally ordered
him to leav e. Then a stream of nurses smothered her.
Most of the hired nurses returned to Dallas on the train
within a week, but Mary Ruth had managed to stay . She
didn’t mother, only bossed and lectured, while Nell
ignored. In her mid-thirties, the nurse bore the height
and strength of a man. She could carry Nell’s tall body
down the stairs when needed, as if Nell weighed no more
than a rag doll. The nurse’s one ability had doubled Nell’s
prison, but little more.
“I’ll go put him in the study .” The nurse mov ed
toward the door. “If the last heart y ou broke isn’t still in
there whining. I’v e nev er seen a man take rejection so
hard. He must hav e felt deeply for y ou.”
“He hardly knew my name.” Nell combed her hair
with the brush Mary Ruth alway s left on the nightstand.
“It was my money he felt the loss of.”
“May be so, but I hate to see a man cry . I told him to
stop, but he didn’t listen, so I left him to his misery .”
“Tell Gy psy to offer Number Twelv e tea, and please,
be sure the study door is closed before y ou come back to
get me.” Mary Ruth had forgotten twice in the past week.
The nurse tended to forget orders she thought
unnecessary . She didn’t mind if v isitors saw her doing her
job, ev en if it did embarrass Nell.
Mary Ruth nodded once as she straightened her
uniform. There was no need for Nell to say more. They
both knew she didn’t want any one to see her being carried
—not ev en the man she planned to marry . They also both
knew that Mary Ruth considered the deception a bother
and would forget the request as soon as it suited her.
As the nurse hurried downstairs, Nell pulled her hair
up in a bun, making her look older, then rolled to the
shadows of the balcony . She stared down into the huge,
cav ernous room below. The stranger openly appraised the
place. The great room was a far cry from the gaudy red
and gold of its brothel day s. Nell had ordered most of the
new furniture from catalogs. Now the room was tastefully
div ided into groupings. No line of chairs remained along
the far wall where girls waited for their callers for the
ev ening. Only two doors, besides the entry , led off the
room. One to a small study . The other to the kitchen.
Nell remembered how the chairs had been all
straight-backed cane when she’d been a child. Fat Alice
didn’t want her girls getting too comfortable while
waiting for business. The old madam, who’d become her
guardian after Nell’s mother died, had also nev er allowed
Nell in the big room during what she called business
Today , the only personal touch to the room was Nell’s
pots of wildflowers along the windowsills. If she couldn’t go
to the land, a little part of it would come to her. Though
outside it might look like the last few day s of winter, in
the house it was spring.
The stranger below tapped riding glov es against his
palm as he waited.
Gy psy , Nell’s housekeeper, explained that since he
came unannounced, he might hav e to wait a while.
Nell smiled. Old Gy psy might be almost toothless and
spotted with age, but a hint of the hooker she’d been still
/>lingered in the way she mov ed. She’d spent too many
y ears in this house practicing her trade to ev er lose the
sway in her hips or the tilt of her head that told many a
cowhand that he was about to be in for the ride of his life.
“I’v e come a long way ,” the stranger’s words drifted
up to Nell. “I hope the lady will take that into
consideration and not keep me waiting long.”
Gy psy put her hands on her hips. “Well, there ain’t no
charge for hoping, mister.”
Mary Ruth reached the ground lev el before Gy psy
could say more. Her crisp white uniform at least earned
her a nod from the man, which was more greeting than
he’d giv en the housekeeper.
The tall nurse stared ey e lev el at the stranger. “You
here about the ad?”
Of course he was, Nell thought as she watched him
stiffen. No one came to this rambling old house by the
tracks. She had trouble getting merchants in town to
deliv er goods, ev en though the place hadn’t been a house
of ill repute for y ears. Her doctor had to ride the train all
morning to v isit her once a month because the town
doctor claimed to alway s be too busy to make calls out to
the house by the tracks.
“I’m here to pay a call on Miss Nell Smith.” Number
Twelv e’s v oice was deep and strong … and nerv ous. “My
business is of a priv ate nature.” He lifted his head and
stretched taller so that he could look down on the nurse.
“Would y ou be so kind as to tell her Randolph Harrison is
here to see her? I sent my card and introduction by post.”
Nell thought of the letters stacked on her desk, but it
was too late to sort through them and study the references
of one from a Mr. Harrison. As for his business being
priv ate, ev ery one in town knew about the ad wanting a
husband. Word was, men were lay ing bets at the saloon
on how many men she’d turn down before she settled on
“She already knows y ou’re here,” Mary Ruth
answered honestly . “She’s not blind and deaf. If y ou’ll
wait in the study , I’ll see if she wants to receiv e y ou.”
Gy psy winked at the stranger. “You’v e made it
farther than most. Some she turns down when she sees
them walking up the path. One fellow, I think it was the
fourth or fifth, didn’t ev en get off his horse before she
y elled for him to go away .”
Randolph Harrison appeared bothered by the old
housekeeper’s attempt to be friendly . He handed her his
hat and glov es without a word and walked into the study .
After securing the door, Mary Ruth climbed the stairs
and carefully carried Nell, while Gy psy bumped the chair
down the steps.
“As soon as this one leav es,” the nurse said, “I’ll put
y ou down for a nap. With this much excitement, y ou’ll
need to rest another hour today .”
“I’m fine,” Nell insisted. She felt like she spent most of
her life in bed.
Once Nell was back in her wheeled prison, both
women fussed ov er her until she shooed them away . Nell
nodded, and Mary Ruth opened the door. She braced
herself for what she’d see. First he’d smile, noticing her
face. Then he, like the others, would stare at the chair,
and his greeting would change. He’d stop seeing her and
only see a cripple.
She hated what came next. Pity . Ev ery man who
came about the offer to marry , in exchange for a full
partnership in her holdings, looked the same. He wanted
to help her, poor cripple that she was, but he wasn’t sure
he could tie himself for life to someone who couldn’t walk.
They ’d ask questions about the accident, the future, the
possibility of children. They ’d ev en hint that the terms
might need to be altered. After all, a partnership didn’t
hav e to include marriage. It wouldn’t be fair to her, not
knowing him. May be they should start with a business
agreement first and see what dev eloped.
Nell nev er allowed the conv ersation to progress
further. She ended it. Better to reject them before they
rejected her. She needed a partner but wanted a husband.
She’d hav e both or nothing at all.
Holding her breath, Nell glanced up, expecting to see
pity in Number Twelv e’s ey es. To her shock, there was
none. His slate gray gaze studied her without any
emotion. Either he’d learned to hide his feelings quite
well, or he had none. She couldn’t tell which.
“Miss Nell Smith?” His v oice hinted of a formal
Nell offered her hand. “Mr. Harrison.”
His grasp felt solid. He knew he was being tested. “I’m
here in answer to y our ad. I see now why y ou would
benefit from a partner in running the sev eral properties
of y our estate.”
He didn’t lean down but remained straight, his
manner cold. “I believ e y ou’ll find my references
satisfactory . Though it’s been ten y ears back, I did the
accounting for a large ranch in East Texas once.”
She couldn’t believ e his total lack of interest in her
condition. Was he being kind or indifferent? “And y ou’d
agree to the terms?”
“Half y our properties in exchange for managing the
entire estate.” He stepped a few feet away and lifted a book
from her desk. He glanced at the spine and returned the
book to the exact place. A man of order. “I believ e those
were the terms, and I consider them fair.”
“And the marriage? You’d agree to this bargain for
He hesitated only a moment, looking down at her
chair before meeting her stare. “I assume y ou mean ‘in
name only ’ to the bond.”
Nell nodded, not trusting her v oice. She’d hoped the
marriage would be on paper only , but had been afraid to
make it part of the agreement.
He studied her with his cold gray ey es. “Until death
do us part. You’ll hav e my name and my word.”
“Yes. Just like a real marriage, except I’d liv e here
and y ou’d hav e y our pick of the ranch houses to use as
headquarters. I hav e sev en properties in all: one farm,
four working ranches, and two places I consider near
worthless. We’d manage them jointly . This house and the
land around it would not be part of the holdings.”
“Bound in a full partnership for life.” His hard v oice
seemed to carv e the words in stone. “I’d like to set the
rules and terms of the agreement before we marry . I’v e
made a few notes about how often we’ll meet and what
will happen if we disagree on the management of y our
properties. I’d like ev ery thing clear between us before we
Something in the way he said the words made her
shiv er. He was exactly what she’d hoped for. A man who
looked like he could run her holdings. Intelligent. Well-
mannered. Capable. So, what was wrong with him?
“Do I need to formally ask for y our hand in marriage,
or can the details be arranged along with the
“I’ll not marry before all agreements are signed.
Without the proper papers, all I own would become y ours
with the marriage. I want to know this house and half of
ev ery thing I hav e will stay in my name.”
“Fair enough. Shall we send for the lawy ers?” He
didn’t hesitate, only politely asked, letting her set the
“I’d like some time to think about it, Mr. Harrison. To
get to know y ou.” Nell tasted panic. Alway s before she
couldn’t think of one reason to say y es; now she couldn’t
think of one to say no. “I’ll make notes of my own before
we talk again.”
He raised an ey ebrow, as if considering her request.
“Would a week be sufficient? During that time, we can
meet at y our conv enience to discuss details, and I would
hav e the opportunity to v isit each of y our properties. I
wish to put no stress on y our condition.”
He held the door for her as they mov ed into the main
room, where Gy psy had set up tea for them. “Will y ou join
me for tea, Mr. Harrison?” She needed time to think and
also time to watch him.
“Thank y ou.” He walked beside her, not offering to
push her chair, for which she was grateful.
Before she reached the table, the front door jerked
open with such force it almost rattled off the hinges.
Randolph widened his stance. Nell froze.
A broad shouldered, dust-cov ered Texas Ranger
barged through the room like a tornado at full wind.
“Nell!” he y elled. “I’m not hav ing any of this.”
Randolph stepped forward. “Now see here! You can’t
rush into a lady ’s home and y ell at her. I don’t care who
y ou think y ou are.”
Jacob Dalton glared at the man as if he were no more
than a gnat pestering him. “Who are y ou?”
“I’m her future husband, Randolph Hamilton.”
Nell had had enough of Jacob’s bully ing. “What do
y ou think y ou’re doing here? I told y ou I didn’t need y ou
He leaned down an inch from her face. “Well,
someone needs to ride herd on y ou, Two Bits. I’v e had the
job most of my life, and when I leav e for a few months,
look what happens. You go crazy !”
Mary Ruth rushed into the room like a palace guard
protecting the queen. But before she could attack Jacob,
Nell found her v oice. “I’m doing just fine. I’m getting
on with my life. Stay out of it.”
I’ll hav e to ask y ou to leav e, mister.” The nurse
pointed to the open door as if Jacob would take such a
hint. “I don’t know who y ou are, but y ou’re upsetting my
patient, and I’ll not allow it.”
Jacob didn’t seem to notice the almost six foot of nurse
standing before him. His powerful body heav ed in rage as
he stared down at the thin, injured woman like he wanted
to strangle her.
Nell gained control first. “What do y ou mean it’s good
that I’m marry ing Mr. Harrison? If y ou approv e, why are
y ou y elling?”
Jacob straightened. “I said good because if he were
already married to y ou, I’d hav e to kill him.” He said the
words too calmly for them to be a lie.
Mr. Harrison paled. Mary Ruth hesitated between
helping him and protecting Nell.
When Harrison hit the floor, Nell motioned for the
nurse to assist him.
The ranger stepped ov er the fiance and opened a
window. “You’re not marry ing any one.”
“Like hell I’m not. He’s the twelfth one to ask and by
far the best, if y ou didn’t frighten him to death.” Nell
wished she could run. She’d put half a world of distance
between her and Jacob Dalton. “I want to be married.
Respectable. I’v e nev er had a last name except the one Fat
Alice gav e me when I went away to school. I’ll giv e up half
of all I inherited for it, and y ou’re not stopping me, no
matter how much of a big brother y ou think y ou are to
me. I’m old enough and rich enough to get what I want in
this one thing.”
Jacob paced a few feet, then let out a long breath. He
stared out the window as if seeing clearly for the first time
in a long while. Propping his muddy boot on the window
box, he almost sent a flowerpot tumbling. His big frame
made the room shrink.
Nell watched him. A part of her would alway s
worship the ranger she’d followed around when she’d been
a kid running the streets. But she couldn’t let him back
into her life. She couldn’t stand to see the sadness in his
ey es when he looked at her. Ev en though he’d been miles
away when her accident happened, she knew he blamed
“All right,” he said in little more than a whisper. “If
marriage is what y ou want, then marry .” He glanced at
Randolph, still out cold. “But not him.”
“Then who?” Nell glared at Jacob. She wasn’t about to
let him pick her partner.
“Me.” His single word rattled across the room.
He turned and straightened like a man preparing for
battle. “I’m stepping into the line of men who’v e come
“Number Thirteen,” Mary Ruth whispered.
Nell whirled her chair around and left the room.
JACOB DALTON STOOD IN THE STUDY DOORWAY
AND watched the nurse carefully lift Nell from the
wheelchair and carry her up the stairs. Nell didn’t look in
his direction, but he guessed she knew he watched.
To know that he saw her helpless would hav e hurt her
pride, but he would be damned if he’d turn away . She
needed to know he didn’t care that she was crippled. He’d
been her friend and protector most of her life, and he’d be
it now if she needed him. The chair wasn’t part of her. It
was only something she used, nothing more.
When Nell and the nurse disappeared into the
bedroom at the top of the stairs, he y elled, “I’m not
leav ing, Two Bits, so y ou might as well talk to me!”
“My name’s not Two Bits,” she y elled back.
At least there was nothing wrong with her lungs. She
might hav e come home from that fancy school back East
all looking like a lady , but get her mad, and the scrapper