Read Carolyn Davidson Online

Authors: The Forever Man

Carolyn Davidson

“You shouldn’t be kissing me like that,”

Johanna said, breaking his hold as she stepped back.

“We’re married, Johanna,” Tate said. He reached to tug her shawl over her shoulders.

“Not really.” Her gaze fell from his, intent on the third button of his jacket.

“According to the law, we are.”

“You know what I mean, Tate. We have a bargain.”

He could barely stop his hands from fastening on her and hauling her into his arms. “I’m willing to make some changes in the deal we made.”

She turned from him and ducked her head. “I’m not, Tate.”

From the barn the noisy trumpet of the stallion sounded once more and Johanna’s shoulders stiffened at the sound. “You’d best find a secure place to hold that animal for the next two weeks, Mr. Montgomery. One male creature on the loose around here is about all we need…!”

Dear Reader,

Carolyn Davidson, author of
Gerrity’s Bride
and
Loving Katherine,
returns this month with a terrific new book,
The Forever Man.
This emotional story is about a reclusive spinster who, because of her past, has given up on love-until a marriage of convenience to a widower in search of a new life for himself and his two sons heals her broken heart and teaches her to trust in love again. Don’t miss this exciting new tale from one of our up-and-coming authors.

Sharon Schulze, one of the authors in this year’s March Madness Promotion, also returns this month with
To Tame a Warrior’s Heart,
a stirring medieval tale about a former mercenary and a betrayed noblewoman who overcome their shadowed pasts with an unexpected love. And in
The Lieutenant’s Lady,
her fourth book for Harlequin Historicals, author Rae Muir begins an exciting new Western series called THE WEDDING TRAIL. This month’s story is about a hard-luck soldier who returns home determined to marry the town “princess,” a woman who sees him as little more than a way out of an unwanted marriage.

USA Today
bestselling author Ruth Langan is also out this month with
Ruby,
the next book in her ongoing series THE JEWELS OF TEXAS.
Ruby
is the delightful tale of a flirtatious young woman and the formidable town marshal who falls under her spell.

Whatever your tastes in reading, we hope you enjoy all four books, available wherever Harlequin Historicals are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell,

Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont L2A 5X3

The Forever Man
Carolyn Davidson

Books by Carolyn Davidson

Harlequin Historicals

Gerrity’s Bride
#298

Loving Katherine
#325

The Forever Man
#385

CAROLYN DAVIDSON

lives in South Carolina, on the outskirts of Charleston, with her husband, her number-one fan. Working in a new/used bookstore is an ideal job for her, allowing her access to her favorite things: books and people. Readers’ comments are more than welcome in her mailbox, P.O. Box 60626, North Charleston, SC 29419-0626.

To my sisters, Marion, Norma and Nancy.
They knew me “when”…and love me still!
And to my sister-in-law, Thelma, who is an unpaid but much appreciated fount of information. What I don’t already know about horses, she does, not to mention apple orchards and some other good stuff. Best of all, she never laughs at my dumb questions!
But most of all, to my own “Forever Man,”
Mr. Ed, who loves me!

Chapter One

“I
believe I have a solution to your problem, Miss Johanna.” The Reverend Hughes folded his hands precisely and rubbed one thumb the length of the other, his eyes never leaving the young woman seated across the table from him.

Johanna nodded politely. Entertaining well-meaning townfolk had become a way of life over the past months. Seemingly, setting her life in order was the goal of every person who’d known Fred and Mary Patterson.

“When your daddy died, I knew it would seem like the end of the world to you, Johanna. That’s why we’ve all been putting our heads together, trying to help you get settled.”

She was about as settled as any old maid ever was, Johanna figured, but perhaps the preacher had a trick or two up his sleeve. If he could come up with a way to clean up the last of the garden, milk six cows and tend to a yardful of laying hens, besides lugging six bushels of apples into the fruit cellar during the next twelve hours, it would be a miracle fit for a sermon come Sunday morning.

“Are you listening to me, Miss Johanna?” Theodore Hughes leaned over the table, his eyes filled with concern as he sought to meet her gaze. “I feel the events of the
past months have sent you into a true decline. You almost appear to be in the depths of despair this morning.”

It was more she’d like to be in the depths of her feather tick this morning, Johanna thought. Her every muscle aching, her eyes burning from lack of sleep and her empty stomach growling were surely enough reason to feel despair. If she was the sort to fall into that trap.

“Perhaps I came too early in the day, my dear. However, I felt it could never be too early to bring good tidings your way.” Leaning over the table in her direction, the preacher smiled with kindly humor.

“Good tidings?” She’d heard nothing but foolishness and claptrap from the steady stream of townspeople heading her way lately. Good tidings might be a relief.

“Your daddy left you a fine place, Miss Johanna. But if you can’t tend it properly, you won’t be able to hold on to it, what with the mortgage at the bank and your stock to care for and the rest of the apple crop to get in.”

She knew all that, Johanna thought glumly. She’d had four solid offers from neighboring farmers wanting to buy her place, one offer to teach school in the next county, and a proposal from Neville Olson. Whether he wanted to marry her or her farm, she hadn’t quite determined before she escorted him off the porch.

“You’re a woman of means, Miss Johanna,” the preacher told her quietly. “I’ve been concerned that you not be taken in by any scalawags or given poor advice, even by well-meaning folks hereabouts. And late last night, the good Lord sent the answer to your problem right to my door.”

Johanna resisted the urge to place her head on the table and close her eyes. Whatever the man was nattering about, she was too tired to care. Moving the big ladder from tree to tree, then climbing it, to pick apples all day yesterday had about done her in. As a matter of fact, if she didn’t get
moving, chances were she just might not be able to resist taking a nap on the kitchen table, preacher or no.

“…one boy is about seven, the other just a little fella. Mr. Montgomery—Tate is his given name—is willing to come out here right away, this forenoon in fact, and talk it over with you.” Face beaming, the preacher paused for breath. “I’m just delighted with this turn of events, Miss Johanna. I feel it’s a real answer to your problem, one your daddy would have approved.”

Johanna blinked. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost track of this conversation. Who in the dickens was this Mr. Montgomery? And what did two little boys have to do with her?

“I’m aware you must be awestruck by the providential aspects of such a happening,” the preacher continued. “I felt the very same way when everything began to dovetail together last evening. Why, I almost drove right out here then, but it was almost sundown, and I knew you’d be ready to retire for the night.”

Fat chance, thought Johanna. At sundown, she’d been separating the milk and getting ready to churn the butter for delivery to the general store in town today. A two-mile walk, one way. She lifted her hand to press against her middle. No wonder her stomach was grinding away beneath her palm. She’d gone without supper last night, and now the preacher had dragged her in from the barn before she had a chance to eat breakfast this morning.

“I’m sure you’re at a loss for words, Miss Johanna. I understand that sometimes a heart is too full of thanksgiving to utter a sound.” Rising from his chair, the young parson offered Johanna his hand. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours, by noon at the latest, with Mr. Montgomery, my dear. God will surely bless this endeavor. You’ll see.”

The chicken feed sailed through the air with a
swish,
scattering over the hen yard. Clucking and pecking, the
pullets moved about, sidestepping and nudging each other as they attended to their breakfast.

Johanna watched with pride as her white leghorns preened in the morning sun. She’d raised this year’s batch from her own eggs, culling off the old hens and canning them up for the winter. Three young roosters still awaited the chopping block, the rest having become food for her table throughout the summer. Now her chicken coop held over thirty laying hens, their eggs providing her with a tidy sum every week at the general store, when she carried them in to Joseph Turner. That, with the butter she churned twice weekly, she was managing to keep her cupboards decently filled.

“Now to tend to filling my stomach,” she told the hens clucking around her feet. “As if you care, so long as you get your breakfast.” Edging them aside, she made her way to the gate of the chicken yard. One of the broody hens had escaped again, and was claiming a place for herself beneath the lilac bushes near the corncrib.

“You’ll end up in the stew pot if you’re not careful,” she called to the clucking hen. “I don’t have time to hunt down your eggs every day, and it’s too late in the year to be sittin’ on a clutch of eggs.

“I’m not up to chasing her today,” she muttered to herself, scraping her soles on the metal bar she’d placed just outside the gate. After removing the layer of chicken droppings she’d managed to gather on her shoes, Johanna headed for the house.

A bowl of oatmeal was about as nourishing as you could get, she figured, watching the water as it came to a boil in her smallest kettle. She scattered a handful of oats from the box over the water and added a pinch of salt. In moments she’d sliced a thick slab of bread from the loaf on the tabletop and spread it with fresh butter. The oatmeal bubbled as she worked, and she stirred it, testing the thickness. Pa had always said she made oatmeal just right.

The spoon held in midair, Johanna considered the thought. In retrospect, it had been about the only thing she’d ever done that pleased him. Mama’s bread had been lighter, her pie crust more tender. Even her chicken and dumplings had been ambrosia for the gods, if her father’s memory was to be believed.

Johanna, on the other hand, had spent the past ten years being judged as somewhat imperfect by the father she’d tried so hard to please. “I picked six bushels of apples yesterday, Pa,” she said into the silence of her kitchen. “If you hadn’t sold the horse, I could haul them to the fruit cellar on the wagon. Now Mr. Turner will have to make a trip out if he wants them for the store.”

Pa had done all sorts of strange things those last few months, as if his mind had slipped into another world. And perhaps it had. Selling the horse had been the final straw, to Johanna’s way of thinking. Then staying in town to play poker with the hired hands from around the county on Friday night…something he’d never done before. He’d lost every penny in his pockets before he headed home. Johanna shook her head at the memory. Pa had never been much of a hand at cards of any kind. He’d walked home at midnight, two miles down the road from town, and stretched out on the porch to sleep.

She’d found him the next morning, all the life sucked out of him, like the west wind had taken what little zest for living he had left once Mama died. Three months he’d been gone, and she could still see him there, a faint, rare smile curling his lips, as if he saw something beautiful afar off.

The oatmeal was tasty, sweet as two spoonfuls of brown sugar could make it. The cream was rich, yellow and thick, and she poured it with a generous hand. Her jersey heifer was worth every red cent she’d paid for her, and more maybe, from the color of that cream. Pretty little thing, too, with those big eyes.

*   *    *

The sun was hot, shimmering on the hay field east of the house. Another week or so would make it ready for cutting, Johanna figured. Hardy Jones at the mill in town had made arrangements to come in and take care of it. Shares were better than nothing, and close to nothing was what she’d have if she did the arranging herself. Menfolk were afforded more respect than women, no matter how you sliced it. At least she’d have hay for the cows, enough to last till spring, after this last cutting.

She counted the wooden crates of apples as she neared the orchard, knowing the number even as she sounded them out aloud. Pure foolishness, Pa would say. Prideful behavior, thinking well of herself for such a simple task. She flexed the muscles in her calves as she bent to pick up the first crate. The muscles had been hard to come by. Climbing a ladder, moving it from one tree to the next as she went, was a far cry from a simple task, as far as she could see. At least for a woman alone.

Her lips tightened at the thought. She’d better get used to it. Either that or cut down the apple trees. And that she could never bring herself to do. The three acres she’d devoted to her apples was her favorite place to be, even if the work did about wear her down.

A “Hallo” from the house caught her ear as she straightened, crate held before her. Lowering it to the ground, she lifted one hand to her brow, shading from the sun’s glare as she tried to make out the visitors waiting at her back door. She saw a wagon, filled to the brim, canvas stretched tight over the whole of it, the three figures on the seat looking at her. From the far side, the preacher waved from horseback.

“Yoo-hoo, Miss Johanna! I’ve brought Mr. Montgomery along, like I promised.”

What the dickens had he promised? Johanna’s brow furrowed as she struggled to remember the conversation she’d had so little part of. Whatever his plan, she’d apparently
agreed to listen. She set off for the house, her long-skirted strides hampered by the tall grass between the orchard and the house.

The man had shifted on his perch atop the wagon seat to face her. His enigmatic look was measuring as she headed toward him, and his mouth was drawn tight. Looked like he’d swallowed a persimmon. Not a bit of friendly to him, if she had him pegged right.

And then her breath drew in sharply as she caught sight of the ridged scar that rode his high cheekbone. He lifted one hand to tilt back the brim of his hat, exposing his face to full sunlight as she watched. He lowered that broad, long-fingered hand to rest against his thigh, and his mouth twisted at one corner, as if he were daring her to react to his imperfection.

He wore the scar almost proudly, she thought, her gaze leaving it to sweep once more over the stern visage he presented her. Except for a faint tightening of his mouth, he was unmoving beneath her scrutiny. His shoulders were broad beneath the fine fabric of his coat, his trousers clung to the strong line of his thigh as he shifted after a moment, lifting one long leg, propping it against the front of the wagon.

He was a big man, a strong man, if the size of his hands, the flexing muscles in his thigh and the width of his upper body were anything to go by. Her gaze moved to tangle with his, meeting dark eyes that were narrowed just a bit against the sun’s rays and held her own with unswerving intensity.

“What can I do for you, mister?” She drew to a halt several feet from the wagon, her irritation at the interruption vivid in her voice. The wind blew a lock of pale golden hair across her eyes, and she lifted an impatient hand to brush it back.

“From the looks of things, I’d say the question is what
can I do for you?” His words were harsh against her ear, and she bristled.

“You’re the one comin’ hat in hand, mister. Looks to me like you’ve got something to say. Spit it out or leave me to my work. I haven’t time to do much entertainin’ this morning.”

“Miss Johanna! I’ve brought Mr. Montgomery here to do you a service.” Reverend Hughes slid from his mount to hurry to her side. “If you can come to a mutual agreement, it will greatly benefit you both. I urge you to give him a few minutes of your time.”

Johanna sighed. “I haven’t got much time, Reverend. If Mr. Montgomery wants to sign on as a hired hand, he’ll find the pickin’ pretty poor here. Lots of work and not much pay to be found. And it looks like I’d be feedin’ three more at my table.”

“I’ve no experience as a hired hand, Miss Patterson.” Tate Montgomery’s voice vibrated with a multitude of impatience. “I thought we might come to an understanding, perhaps an agreement, but now I’m thinking your attitude would not be beneficial to my children.” He turned in the wagon seat, speaking in a low voice to the young boys who were peering past him at Johanna.

“My attitude!” Her hands lifted to rest against her hips as she challenged his judgment. “I’ve been called from my work to speak to you, Mr. Montgomery, and you look me over like a side of beef at the general store. I’ve been judged and found lacking, and I don’t even know what you’re doin’ on my property.”

Looking down at her from his perch, he hesitated, then spoke quickly, in a voice that was pitched at a level she strained to hear. “I’ve been looking for a place to invest in, where my boys can live a peaceful life and I can build a future for them. But from the looks and sounds of things here, there wouldn’t be much peace to be found.” His eyes
rested on her, darting to take in the telltale stance she’d taken, her hands propped belligerently against her hipbones.

His quiet words were chilling in their finality as he lifted the reins in one hand. “They’ve already lived through all the wrangling any soul should be obliged to contend with.” Slapping the leather straps against the broad backs of his team of horses, he averted his gaze as the wagon creaked into motion.

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