The Texan's Reward (Wife Lottery #4) : chap 1



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-

mouthed, stubborn.

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.



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

go further.”

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

mothering me.”

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.



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

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