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Abel Armstrong has some skeletons in his closet. In the year of 1873, it's quite the scandal to be a divorced man. Over the course of the last ten years, he's had to work very hard to get his reputation back. Meeting Sunny is like a breath of fresh air, but he can't afford to throw caution to the wind and force their joining by doing something disreputable.
Can spankings teach Sunny to have some patience and trust that Abel's way is the right way? And, can Abel deal with Sunny's impulsive scheming and keep his standing in the community intact?
Part of the new "Sons of Johnny Hastings" series. If you enjoyed this selection, please consider checking out the other books in the series (listed below). Each book is a stand alone story that can be read with or without the other titles (& in any order). All books are also available together in a "box set" for a lower overall price.
“And don’t let me catch you fussing with your gloves. A lady’s hands should sit calmly in her lap.”
“Be quiet. None of that giggling you’re wont to do. It’s quite annoying.”
“Yes, Mother.” Sunny sighed quietly, wondering when things had gotten so out of hand. They’d been at Aunt Elizabeth’s house for less than an hour. All of these strictures had been drilled into Sunny’s head over and over again, and then repeated a dozen more times on the train, coach, and wagon rides to Aunt Elizabeth’s farm outside Carrollton. Who did Mother think she would be fooling? Pretentiousness wasn’t going to make them any friends in their new home.
“You may speak when spoken to, of course.”
A little temper began to show. “Of course, Mother.”
“Don’t use that tone of voice with me, young lady.”
Sunny thought better about answering. She was not going to say she was sorry. Her mother was a harridan, and Sunny resented it through and through. If only her father hadn’t been in that hunting accident. She missed Daddy so much! There was no one like him. How they used to laugh together.
Something had died in Sunny when she lost her father. But, she reminded herself, Mother had lost her husband. That had to be taken into account.
Softening toward her parent, Sunny reached out and squeezed the older woman’s hand as they unpacked their trunk in the small room they were to share. She got a squeeze back, but nothing was said, and eventually her mother left the room.
The house was full of laughter, noise, squabbles. Sunny soaked it up as she put away her things. Having six other young people around was going to take some getting used to. Being an only child made for a lot of quiet afternoons reading or whispering gossip with friends during afternoon tea.
“Sunny!” her mother called. “You’ll be late to supper. Hurry up!”
“Yes, Mother.” Sighing deeply, Sunny hurried out to the big dining room that held a large, finely finished table. There were giant platters of food set about and a sideboard with more. A family of eight sure ate a lot, and now, of course, there were Sunny and her mother to feed as well.
Raymond Taggart, Sunny’s uncle by marriage, reached out to take the hands of his children to the left and right of him, and all joined hands around the table.
“Lord,” he prayed, “bless this food that our hands have brought to table by your grace. Give us strength and patience. And help us welcome Lila and Sunny to our home with love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
The Taggart family immediately went to town on the food, passing bowls and dishes, chattering away, while Sunny and her mother sat, a little dumbstruck, at the commotion and lack of decorum.
“Eat,” Aunt Elizabeth told them, as she passed a platter of fried chicken. “You’re both too skinny. What do they feed you in Kansas City?”
With a sniff, Sunny’s mother took the platter and genteelly helped herself. Although Sunny’s parents hadn’t been rich with servants galore, they had had Deborah, the middle-aged housekeeper. She did the cooking and much of the cleaning, leaving Sunny and her mother time to go a-calling and get involved with church activities and charitable causes. But now, of course, that had all changed. Sunny’s mother had moved them away from Kansas City to the Taggarts in Carrollton where Mother’s sister, Aunt Elizabeth, lived. The Taggart family would house them decently and give them respectability in the community. It was a fresh start.
Sunny smiled inwardly, watching her mother resist any temptation to let down her guard for even a moment. For herself, though, she was ready to dive into the melee, despite her mother’s dirty looks.
“Pass the biscuits, Ray-Jon,” she told her cousin on the left. “Why, I might even have two!”
Across the table, her mother choked.
* * *
Church services were over. The sermon had been on licentiousness. Abel wondered if it was licentious of him to be interested in the young women who came to the church and engaged in the after-church potluck. Unmarried women with eagle-eyed mothers brought all their best cooking creations to tempt the unmarried men and get them interested in courting. It was basically the same dance every week, and Abel, at age forty, was more an observer these days. Over the past two years, after a long time being relegated to the rubbish heap, Abel was seen as an acceptable potential suitor. The attention was flattering, but he didn’t want to take on a project. He’d done that when he’d married Lorelei, for all the good it had done him. She’d run off with some actor in Dallas after cursing Abel for being unexciting. He’d had to do the unthinkable and divorce her. That got him ostracized in Carrollton for more than eight years, though it had eventually blown over. But the divorce had been necessary. Once Lorelei was installed in the acting troupe, and it became clear that the troupe was loose and unsavory, she was irredeemable in Abel’s eyes. Lorelei had been pretty, though not a virgin, when he married her. She wouldn’t say who her prior lover had been, but they were married, so Abel, though disappointed and a bit jealous, accepted her the way she was. Abel had cared for her, but he’d never been in love with her. He’d wanted to, had tried to, but, in the end, he was too conservative, and she was unwilling to compromise. When and if he got married again, it would be to someone who was ready to settle down and be a wife and partner. The young women of his acquaintance were flighty and undisciplined. That wasn’t the kind of girl for him.
These days, flirtations involved widows, mostly with children of their own. Abel didn’t much mind that, but he’d yet to find one he could fall in love with. The chemistry just wasn’t right. He kept giving it time, but his time was running out.
As he put on his hat against the afternoon sun, he observed a game of blind-man’s-bluff a group of young women, somewhere between seventeen and twenty-one years old, were playing. They were laughing and giggling, flitting around each other and trying to confuse the one with the blindfold over her eyes. She was laughing as hard as the others and her attempts to tag one of them were vigorous but fruitless. Her hair was dark blonde with sunlit streaks, and her mouth was a rosebud, pink and tender. The girl’s laugh trilled in the air like the crystal bells the ladies played at church concerts. She had a fine figure, too, petite and perfectly proportioned. A woman that size would make Abel feel like a giant among men.
Eventually, the woman tagged someone, and then fell to the ground with breathless giggles, pulling off her blindfold as she fell. Her eyes were as blue as cornflowers, glowing with youth and vitality. Abel pegged her age at nineteen or twenty. And, best of all, she was new around here. He’d never seen her before. It seemed unlikely that anyone was already courting her�unless she was maybe already married. It was common enough for women of such an age to be married, some with children already. She probably wouldn’t know about his societal scar.
He tried to make out if she had a ring on her finger, but he couldn’t quite tell.
His friend Bruce sauntered up, offering him a glass of lemonade, which Abel took and absentmindedly sipped at. “Now that’s a pretty sight,” Bruce said with a smile, as they watched the girls playing.
“A single man like you could have his pick, Abel. I don’t know why you haven’t settled down yet. It’s been nearly ten years.”
Looking at the new girl, he was wondering the same thing, but it didn’t take him long to remind himself that a giggly girl barely out of the schoolroom was hardly the right mate for man of his age. He needed a widow, maybe. It wasn’t as exciting as having a young woman, of course.
The game broke up, and a few of the women went off arm-in-arm to get lemonade and shyly flirt with the young men. Young men with whom Abel could no longer compete. He was successful, which few young men could say, but there was no denying that he was in his middle years. Abel could carry on in his smithing business for a good many years to come; why, his father had been smithing when he was seventy, though his heavier projects had long-since been transferred to Abel. And Abel was fit. He hadn’t run to fat. He was, he was certain, perfectly capable still of siring babies. At least, all the machinery worked. He’d never had children, so he wasn’t one hundred percent positive he was potent that way.
He grew warm thinking about that new girl spread upon a marriage bed, waiting for her bridegroom. Abel would like to be that lucky man. But maybe not so lucky if she was a ninny like so many girls of her age.
Bruce waved a hand in front of Abel’s face, startling him back to the here and now. “You’re starin’.”
Abel shook his head. “I guess I was. Do you know who that new young lady is?”
“Hmm. Met her mother a few minutes ago when I was standin’ next to my missus. The mother is Lila Winslow, late of Kansas City. I guess she and the daughter have moved in with the Taggarts, the mother’s sister. The father died in an accident recently. I don’t know the particulars.”
“Ah. I heard from someone that Elizabeth Taggart’s sisters had both married into money. If that’s the case, what’s she doin’ in Carrollton?”
“Can’t help you there, Abel. The daughter is Sunny Winslow. I remember her name now.”
It was an apt name. The girl was still smiling as she and Danielle and Nan Taggart made their way to the punch bowl. Her hair was slightly mussed from the blindfold, but it only added to her charm. Abel had to meet her, if only to satisfy his rather gloomy expectation that she was as flighty as the other girls.
He drank all the lemonade in his cup and went to the punchbowl where the three cousins were milling about. “Ladies,” he said, tipping his hat.
“Hello, Mr. Armstrong,” said Danielle Taggart, the eldest of the Taggart daughters. “It’s nice to see you here. And isn’t it a lovely day?”
Smiling, he dipped himself some lemonade. “It is a beautiful day, made lovelier with your presence, my dears.”
“Oh, Mr. Armstrong,” said Nan Taggart, her cheeks getting pink.
The object of his interest smiled prettily at him. “And who might this young lady be?” he asked Danielle, nodding toward the newcomer.
“Oh, I’m sorry. How silly of me. Mr. Armstrong, this is Sunny Winslow, my cousin from Kansas City.”
Sunny offered her hand, and Abel raised it and gave it a squeeze as he nodded his appreciation. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Winslow.” He was staring and he knew it, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. She was like an angel, brightening up the same old church social and making it new and shiny again.
“Thank you, Mr. Armstrong. It is my pleasure.” Her eyes glittered with mischief. There was more to this girl than a pretty face. Realizing he was still holding her hand, he released it.
“You’ll have to forgive my manners, Miss Winslow. I’m out of practice where ladies of your refinement are concerned. Your cousins put up with me because they’re gracious.”
Both the Taggart girls giggled. “Nonsense, Mr. Armstrong,” Danielle said with a grin. “You are as courtly as a knight from days of old.”
He laughed. “I suppose I could make a suit of armor, but I’d have trouble fittin’ myself in.”
“You are a metal worker, Mr. Armstrong?” Sunny asked.
“I am a blacksmith, Miss Winslow.”
“I might have known by the breadth of your shoulders, sir.”
The Taggart girls’ eyes got round. It was extremely forward of Sunny to mention his body parts. But her pertness interested him, not to mention the fact that she noticed that he was a strong man.
“I give myself away, I’m afraid. No secrets from observant young women like yourself.”
“I read a book about a blacksmith once, Mr. Armstrong. I feel as if I understand your profession, though, of course, books bear little resemblance to reality. I’m sure your daily chores are far more involved.”
“Do you like to read, Miss Winslow?”
“I confess I am a bookworm. When we came to Carrollton, I brought all my favorites with me. Mother was quite put out.”
“We have a small lendin’ library here in town,” he told her. “Perhaps you’ll find somethin’ to interest you there.”
“Do you go there, Mr. Armstrong?”
Abel laughed. “I do. I am rather fond of the classics. But my work doesn’t allow me much free time.”
“Surely your wife must miss you if you are constantly at your forge.”
He arched an eyebrow. She really was flirting boldly. “I am not married, Miss Winslow.”
“And neither am I,” she said softly. If Abel hadn’t been so focused on her mouth, he might not have known she spoke.
Danielle Taggart started to say something but snapped her mouth shut when an older woman approached.
“Girls,” said the woman, her voice clipped and prissy, “are you succumbing to a sweet tooth, standing here by the lemonade?”
Danielle and her sister laughed politely. “No, Aunt Lila. We were just talkin’ to Mr. Armstrong. Have you met him?”
The woman, a petite matron who looked well-kempt but had the beginning of wrinkles that come with middle age, responded with a polite smile. “No, we have not met.”
“Mother,” Sunny said, her tinkling voice now subdued and serious. “This is Mr. Armstrong. He is Carrollton’s smith.”
“A pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” he said, though from the sour look on the woman’s face, it was his pleasure alone. But she offered her hand and Abel took it, giving it proper attention but not too much.
“My pleasure, I’m sure.” She hardly paused. “Sunny, girls, we should help serve the pot luck dishes now. Hurry along to the tables, please.”
Each of the Taggart girls gave him a brief curtsy and turned to leave. Sunny’s curtsey, however, was slower, a bit of a tease as her eyes fixed on his face and she smiled.
Abel’s urges went into a full-out gallop.
“Sunny,” Lila said, “do not dawdle.”
“Yes, Mother.” With a tiny backward glance where her mother couldn’t see her, Sunny left Abel, who was staring, flummoxed.
“Please pardon my daughter. Her manners are usually better.”
“No pardon necessary. I wonder if you’d allow me to call upon her�I mean the two of you�sometime soon.”
Lila’s eyes narrowed. “That is out of the question, Mr. Armstrong. We come from a long line of bankers and businessmen. I’m afraid we’d have little to discuss with a tradesman.”
He kept the smile on his face, but inside his temper flared. She was calling him beneath her station. Well, maybe he was, but here in Texas, things weren’t the same as Kansas City. A new town like Carrollton was far less divided into class structure and considerably more egalitarian. “As you wish, Madame. You’ll excuse me, please?”
“I must be off to help with the meal anyway, Mr. Armstrong.”
“Good day to you, ma’am.” He tipped his hat, turned on his heel and went over to where the men had gathered, plates in hand. Maybe a conversation about bass fishing would take his mind off Sunny Winslow and her snob of a mother.
* * *
He reminded her a little of her father, but not really. More like�Well, she didn’t know what like. He was himself. Mr. Armstrong was as handsome as sin and charming. Plus, he liked books.
As Sunny doled out German potato salad and apple pie with cheese, she wondered what it would be like to have those strong, heavily-muscled arms around her. The thought heated her cheeks. It was inappropriate to be thinking about those things. As the preacher had said that very morning, she had to beware of licentious thoughts.
But Mr. Armstrong made her toes tingle and her breath hitch. She’d never been kissed. How would it feel to be kissed by Mr. Armstrong? She wondered what his first name was. She’d have to listen for clues or ask Danielle or Nan. Of course, asking would make it abundantly clear that she was interested in the man for more than just a two-minute flirtation. Danielle and Nan were shocked enough. And, in fact, Sunny had rather shocked herself by flirting with him so boldly. Although she was no shrinking violet, Sunny was usually aware of decorum more than she had been with Mr. Armstrong. Oh, what was his first name?! Was it Michael? Rudolph? No, he didn’t seem like a Rudolph. Maybe it was something unappealing, like Percival. Although Percival had been a knight of the round table, hadn’t he? That would suit Mr. Armstrong. He looked like a burly knight, with his broad shoulders and big hands. His dark hair was slightly too long, a bit shaggy. That was undoubtedly because he didn’t have a wife to trim it for him. But he looked so perfect in his Sunday best, wool suit and patterned waistcoat, his shoes shined and neck tie properly knotted despite the hot Texas sun.
Sunny tried to shake herself out of those thoughts. Her mother would never accept a tradesman as a suitor for her. Mother would have been dismayed to think that Sunny would. But Mr. Armstrong, with his friendly brown eyes with the tantalizing green flecks, and his confident way of handling himself, was too appealing. Far more appealing than the younger, callow men she’d met in Carrollton thus far.
Sunny didn’t know what to do about it. Probably there was no answer for it. And, after all, Mr. Armstrong hadn’t actually said he’d want to pursue her. He’d flirted, yes, but that had been mild and non-committal. Maybe he’d ask Uncle Raymond, since Raymond was the man in the household where she was currently living. If he didn’t ask Mother, there was a chance� If he asked. If he wanted to pursue something more than their casual flirtation. Sunny would be embarrassed and frustrated if he didn’t. She’d made it clear she was interested, which put her out on a limb in terms of acceptable behavior for a young woman. It probably would make him think she was loose. Oh, no, that would be about the worst thing!
Fretting over it, Sunny barely realized when she gave out the last of the apple pie. Someone made a disappointed noise and brought her out of her reverie. It was time to put her own lunch together and go off with the other girls. Her appetite had fled, however. She got a biscuit to nibble and a cup of lemonade and wandered away from the throng, deciding to sit under an oak tree and mope a bit over what was probably a hopeless situation.
Mr. Armstrong wasn’t too far away, eating his lunch with a group of men and arguing good-naturedly about something. He smiled at a joke, and Sunny’s heart melted. She must have been staring because he glanced over at her.
At first, she thought he’d look away again, disinterested. But he winked. Of all things, winked at her! What did that mean? She smiled back�her best come-hither smile, she hoped. Not that she’d ever used a come-hither smile before. She hadn’t actually ever wanted a man to come after her.
He gave her a slight nod and a smile and went back to his conversation.
Heart pitter-pattering, Sunny ate her biscuit and wondered whether she could ask her mother about Mr. Armstrong and possible courtship. Maybe Mother would be easier to deal with in this new town and situation. Maybe.