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Hearts Tightly Knit (Volume 1)

By Jodie Wolfe

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Chapter One

Calder Springs, Texas 1875

"EllieMae, some fella's here to court you." Mrs. Wright's words meandered up the steps, along with the scent of fried chicken, to the small bedroom.

Ellie Stafford flicked the lace curtain aside and caught sight of a dusty horse tied to the hitching post out front. She shook her head and turned toward her sister. "Do you think our landlady will ever be able to tell us apart? We've been living in her boarding house for years, and she still can't. What's this make now? The tenth man who has come calling?"

"Twelfth, I think. At least here in Texas." Mae, her identical twin, stood and eased the kinks from her back.

"That's not counting all the proposals on the Orphan Train from New York." Ellie sank into the straight-back chair in front of a worn dressing table. She took one last look at her reflection and tucked a brown wisp behind her ear.

"Heavens no. There were too many to keep a tally of them while we traveled. Besides, that was seven years ago." Mae smoothed the wrinkles from her pink chiffon gown. "I may have lost count after the banker knelt on one knee in the middle of the street and almost got ran over by a runaway wagon."
Ellie snorted. "I almost forgot about that one. He didn't care which of us said yes as long as one of us—"

"Accepted." Mae nodded. "Men. They should know by now we aren't interested."

"EllieMae!" Mrs. Wright's voice raised another octave.

Ellie sighed and clasped her sister's hand. "Well, I guess we better get to it then." They padded down the steps.

"Remember our promise," Mae whispered before they entered the sitting room.

As if she'd ever forget.

Mrs. Wright stood in the center of the room with her hands jammed onto her plump waist, her wrinkled face dripping with sweat.

Mae hugged the woman's shoulders and murmured something to her. Must mean it was Ellie's turn to get rid of the intruder while the other calmed their landlady.

A tall, broad-shouldered man filled the room and made it feel cramped. His hip rested against the upright piano. He turned from gazing out the window and studied them. He swept his Stetson off, almost as an afterthought. Blond curls tumbled onto his forehead. His bright blue eyes held Ellie's before flickering to her sister. Stubble dotted his handsome face.

"I'm sorry, but we aren't interested in marriage." Ellie pointed to the door. "Thank you for coming."

His eyebrows arched high as he glanced between the two of them again. "Never said nothing about marriage."

Mae sidled up beside her. "What do you want then?"

"A cook." His fingers curled around the brim of his hat.

Ellie's hand flew to her bosom. "You aren't here to propose to—"

"One of us?" Mae shot a quick look her way.

He rubbed the whiskers on his chin. "What kind of fool would want to do that?"

Mrs. Wright puffed as she edged closer to the stranger and poked him in the chest. "See here. I run a respectable boarding house. If you don't have anything nice to say to the ladies, then you best be on your way."

He held up his hands. "I didn't mean no harm."

Their landlady whipped off her apron and swung it in his direction. "Git, I say." She flicked it against his arm.

The cowboy didn't flinch. Not that a piece of fabric could do any damage, but the stocky woman widened the cloth as if she faced a bull. She alternated between snapping the fabric and jabbing her fingers into his muscled body until she corralled him in the direction of the front door.

"You git, and don't come back." Mrs. Wright took one more swing at the man.

Ellie refrained from joining the fracas. His piercing eyes held hers for a fraction of a second before he left. An odd sensation stirred through her body and made her arms tingle like a lightning storm was headed her way.

Mrs. Wright's face flushed as she perched on the edge of a floral settee. "I'm sorry, girls. If I had known he didn't want to propose, I wouldn't have allowed him to step foot in here."

As usual, Mae's sigh accompanied her own, though Mae's was more pronounced.

"I don't understand why you two don't want to get married. Land's sake, every other woman your age has long since hitched their plow with a man. At twenty-five, you'll soon be left with nothing but slim pickings." Mrs. Wright fanned herself with the apron. "Mercy, it's hot in here. I never understood why my Homer wanted to live in Texas. Give me the East Coast any day."

Mae sat beside the portly woman. "Do you still have family back east?"

Mrs. Wright shook her head. "I wish. I'd sell this place in a heartbeat and head back there if I did. Nope. I'm stuck here like you girls."

Ellie didn't contradict the woman, but they were far from being stuck. They happened to like the warm climate and the opportunity to be in charge of their own destinies. That was certainly better than being bounced back and forth like a kite on the wind. No thank you. They had no desire to return to their past. Ellie sucked the memories back where they belonged—in the deep cortex of her brain.

"I do wonder where the fella came from though." Mrs. Wright continued to fan herself. "I haven't seen him before. Course, there's word around town that old man Rogers' son inherited his spread, just south of town. Maybe it's him."

"Odd he didn't introduce himself." Ellie glanced at the door.

Mae lifted an eyebrow. "Why would you care if he told us his name?"

She studied her twin for a second and then shrugged. Should they have given him a chance to explain more instead of shooing him out the door?

Mae's eyes narrowed. "You're awful quiet, Ellie. Something wrong?"

"What? No."

Mae stared at her. "You aren't thinking—?"

"Don't be silly. Of course not." Ellie crossed to the window and peered out at the silent street. The stranger was long gone. She turned away, avoiding eye contact with her sister.

"Silly me." Mrs. Wright shoved herself to her feet. "Here I am sitting and jawing when I should be checking on our supper before it burns."

"I'll help you." Mae stood. "Are you coming, Ellie?"

If she refused, Mae would barrage her with questions once they returned to the comfort of their room. She nodded, unsure why the cowboy's visit had stirred such unease within her and prayed her sister wouldn't pick up on it.

What had the man really wanted? Did he really desire a cook and not a wife? Could she sneak behind Mae's back and find out more about him? Ellie thrust thoughts of the tall cowboy as far away as possible.


Luke Rogers's stomach roared as he kneed his mare toward home. Smelling the chicken frying in the boardinghouse had been pure torture. If only he could live there just for the night so he could eat a decent meal. Worst of all, he'd failed his mission and would have to answer to his men when he returned to the ranch.

Too bad the Good Fixin's Diner only stayed open for breakfast and lunch. Didn't they know a body had a hankering for an evening meal too? Actually, he had a hankering for any decent meal. He and his men hadn't had one since Leroy upped and left two weeks ago. He stole away in the dead of night leaving nothing behind but a note saying he'd got hitched and was returning east with his new wife.

No warning. No suggestions for a replacement cook to feed a bunkhouse full of hungry men. Men who weren't going to be happy when Luke returned home without a cook in tow.

Luke hefted a sigh. He needed to earn the men's trust, or he'd soon have a mutiny on his hands. They already questioned his authority. Had ever since he took over his father's spread a month ago.

A heavy weight pressed on his chest. He'd never had time to say good-bye to his pa or make things right. Instead, the gulf of their last argument stretched between here and heaven with no way for Luke to ask Pa for forgiveness.

His mare snorted and picked up her pace as the ranch came into view. At least she'd have a decent supper, but he couldn't say the same for him and his men.

"Howdy, Luke," Bart greeted. The old timer had been Pa's foreman for as long as Luke could remember. "How'd it go, boy?" He clapped Luke on the back as soon as he dismounted.

Luke chewed on the inside of his cheek. Might as well fess up. The men would know soon enough. "She said no."

"You don't say." Bart tilted his Stetson. "I heard those two can be a handful. They give you what for and send you packing?"

Luke grunted. "Something like that." He chose to leave out the part where the landlady swatted him like a fly. He untied the cinch and heaved the saddle over a rail in the barn, picking up a brush on his way to the doorway.

Bart unbridled Lady and hung the bridle on a hook.

"I don't suppose one of the fellas made any chow?" Luke brushed even strokes across Lady's back.

Bart leaned against a fence post. "They were counting on you to bring a cook home."

"Guess I'm making grub again." Luke's gut clenched at the thought.

"Fellas won't be too happy about that. Too bad your mama never taught you to cook." Bart snickered.

"If you remember, I spent most of my days riding beside you and Pa." Luke chucked the brush into a wooden box just inside the barn and then stepped outside to open the fence to the pasture. Lady trotted past and joined the other horses grazing in the field.

"Too bad your mama never had a gal. Maybe if you had a sister, she'd take pity on you and move back home to cook." Bart rubbed a hand across his gray whiskers. "Course you could always marry a gal, so we'd have our bellies full each night."

Luke pinned his foreman with a glare. "You know that's not going to happen, especially after…"

Bart held up a hand. "Never mind, boy. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories." He fell into step with Luke as they headed to the bunkhouse. "We'll think of something."

They slipped into the long wooden building and every man's head swung in their direction. Might as well fess up before they started asking questions. "I haven't been able to secure a cook yet."

The men grumbled.

"I'll have something ready for you all in two shakes."

"That's what we're afraid of, boss." Slim Williams stood. "Every time I eat yer cookin' I end up with a bellyache."

Several cowpokes echoed similar sentiments.

Luke didn't stay to hear the rest of their complaints. He meandered into the small kitchen and started opening up a mess of cans of beans. The fellas wouldn't be happy with the simple meal, but surely he couldn't ruin the plain fare.

He dumped the beans into a pot and shoved it onto the hottest part of the stove. He threw in a couple logs for extra measure. Soon sweat dripped from his nose and sizzled when it hit the hot stove. A strange smell filled the air.

The beans! He grabbed the pot and cried out. Pain seared through the palm of his hand and down to his fingertips. His grip slipped, and the pan dropped to the wooden floor with a loud clunk before tipping on its side and spilling their supper all over the dirty boards.

Luke checked over his shoulder. Nobody had come to investigate yet. He grabbed a spoon and a rag from the table. With the cloth covering his pulsating hand, he loosely grasped the handle and scooped beans back in the pot.

He made sure to avoid the clods of dirt and manure. Most of the meal could be salvaged. He prayed the fellas wouldn't notice any strange tastes in their supper. He shoved the spoon into the pot and grabbed the handle with his good hand as he carried the beans to the table in the main room of the bunkhouse.

"Grub's on the table."

The men congregated like vultures on a dead deer. They grumbled about having to eat beans again but scooped the meal into their bowls. After a simple prayer, they dug in. They didn't talk. Only slurping sounds and metal spoons scraping against dishes filled the room.

"Hey, what's this?" Slim held up his spoon with a suspicious clod hanging from it.

Luke swallowed. He thought he'd avoided every speck of manure. Apparently he had missed one. He closed his eyes. Come tomorrow he'd do whatever it took to convince the cook from Good Fixin's Diner to fill in until he could find a permanent replacement.

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