Marianne Arkins

No matter the decade, always Happily Ever After

 
 
 

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Buttons and Bows

By Marianne Arkins

Lula stomped into the house and slapped her filthy hat against her even filthier jeans, raising a dust cloud that could surely be seen to the next county. Damn if it hadn’t been the worst day yet. Why she had agreed with her father that ranching out west was the sure way to a fortune after they’d lost theirs, she’d never know. Her little brother was just lucky he’d been shot dead for cheating in the same game where he’d lost nearly everything they owned, or she’d have been tempted to shoot him herself.

Her legs buckled a bit at the memory of Joshua, and she would have traded it all and more to give him a big bear hug again. Instead, she wore his clothes and did the job he should have been doing. It didn’t help that Papa had busted his leg when that damn half-wild stallion, Cholla—appropriately named for a spiky cactus plant—threw him the week before.

She was truly on her own.

“Papa, I’m home!” she called down the hall.

“I’m in the kitchen with Molly,” he replied.

She strode into the kitchen and found Papa sitting at the table rolling dough into balls. A smile quirked her mouth. How things had changed. She was rounding up the small herd of cattle for branding, and Papa was kneading dough.

“We killed a sneaky, robbing fox just a little too late today,” he continued. “Molly’s making chicken and dumplings with the bird it grabbed. It should be done about the time you’re done cleaning up.”

“You’re making an awful lot,” Lula said after a quick glance in the pot. “I’ve worked up a fierce hunger, but even so, I can’t eat quite that much.”

Molly gave her a swat with her spoon. “We’re having company, young lady. So, you’d best get cleaned up and into some clothes fitting for a respectable woman instead of a ranch hand.”

“I am a ranch hand,” Lula retorted, but scooted out the door before Molly could paddle her again. If that didn’t bring back memories of their life before, nothing did. Molly had a mean swing and good aim. She also had a very real problem with Lula doing man’s work. Sort of like a man Lula used to know.

Her heart squeezed painfully as Ethan’s memory ran through her mind before she could stop it. He refused to understand why she had to do what she did. He said he’d loved her, but truth was, he loved the idea of her—dressed in some fancy outfit adorned with buttons and bows.

They’d never figured out a way to compromise, and eight months back she’d returned his ring.

With a shake of her head, she returned herself to the present, where she belonged. She didn’t have time for a full bath, of course, so she settled for a wash in the bowl on her dresser. All the parts that showed were nice and clean, though not the alabaster skin she used to have. Any more, she looked dark as an Indian.

She pulled on her best dress, which wasn’t saying much since she’d sold most of her wardrobe when they’d moved here from Boston, but it was clean and it was a dress. She pulled a brush through her hair, thinking again that she might cut it short. It really was a pain to take care of.

Oh well, nothing to do about it now. She pulled it back into a loose gather and secured it with a pink ribbon. A glance in the mirror showed that it was as good as it was going to get. Her stomach growled loudly, and she pressed a hand to her gut with a laugh. Hopefully whoever the company was wouldn’t mind it too much if she spent the time eating and not talking. She hadn’t had a bite since this morning.

She left her room and headed toward the dining room. Men’s voices rumbled, and she heard her father say, “Thanks again for helping out until I’m back on my feet. Lula tries, but she can’t manage the branding on her own.”

She bristled a bit, but had to agree at his assessment. She peered around the corner to see who was visiting and, just as her shocked eyes took in the familiar broad shoulders clothed in a dark blue shirt, Ethan spoke.

“I’m happy to help, Paul, you know that. If Lula had bothered to mention that you’d broken your leg, I’d have been here sooner.”

At that, she set her shoulders and swept into the room. “If I had needed help, I would have asked for it.” But not from you, was implied in the tone she used.

“Damn it, Lula.”

“Damn it, Ethan,” she mimicked him. But when his cobalt eyes raked her from head to foot, she couldn’t suppress a shiver of awareness.

“Walk with me a minute before dinner is served?” He took a step toward her and poked out his elbow.

“You’re asking?” She pressed a hand to her chest in mock surprise. “When did you switch from ordering?”

“Lula,” her father broke in. “Show Ethan what needs doing while Molly gets dinner on the table.”

“Yes, sir.” She placed the tips of her fingers on Ethan’s forearm and allowed him to guide her out the door.

They walked in silence around the house and toward the barn. Lula looked at the hem of her gown as it grew dustier with each step, looked at the clouds building in the sky and wondered if it would rain, looked at the tall grass waving across the pastureland. Looked everywhere but at the man beside her.

“So, how have you been?” he asked.

“Oh, just fine. You?”

“Good, thanks. I had a strong calving season. I’m pleased.”

Lula stopped and pulled her hand away from Ethan’s arm. She tipped her head back to look him straight in the eye and said, “Small talk, Ethan? Haven’t we progressed far past the need for that?”

His nostrils flared and she wondered if he would finally lose his temper, something he hadn’t done even when she’d broken their engagement. He began to get himself under control, so she prodded him again.

“Why are you here? We don’t need your help. Don’t need you.”

She swore she could see the thread of his temper snap. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her until she thought her head would shake off her neck. “Don’t need me? You don’t need me?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but was silenced by a quick, hard kiss that was over nearly before it started.

“Heaven help me then, Lula. Because I sure need you.”

Her heart sped up at his words. “I’m the same woman you didn’t want eight months ago.”

“Ah, honey.” He gathered her against him, wrapped her in a tight hug. “You’re the same woman I’ve always wanted.”

She pushed away and tugged on her dress, pulled the ribbon from her hair and waved it around. “This isn’t me. I dress in Joshua’s clothes. I ride straddle. I castrate cattle. I don’t dress in buttons and bows, and I won’t. Not for anyone. Not even for the man I love.”

His eyes darkened at her words. “Do you love me?”

“Oh, Ethan.” She reached up and cupped his cheek. “I’ve loved you since I met you. But I love you the way you are. Can’t you do the same?”

“Every day, Lula. If you’ll have me.” He pulled a ring from his pocket and held it out to her. The same ring she’d yanked off her finger and thrown at him. The same ring he swore he’d feed to his pigs.

“You kept it,” she whispered.

“In my pocket, every day. I’d hoped to have a chance to put it back where it belongs. I’ve missed you. And, whether you’re the woman I thought I’d be married to, or not, you’re the woman I love.”

“No matter how I dress?”

“You can wear pants during the day,” he said with a wink. “If you’ll give me buttons and bows at night.”

Despite the warmth that filled her cheeks she smiled and held out her hand. “Deal.”

He slipped the bit of gold around her finger and sealed the promise with a kiss.
 

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