Sagebrush Bride

CHAPTER ONE

August 1865 Dakota Territory

“I need a man.”

The quietly spoken words had nearly the same effect as though they had been shouted at the top of the woman’s lungs, drawing every ear and eye within spitting distance. At least seven brows lifted in silent question, four hat brims rose in consideration, three card hands laid flat, and a disbelieving jaw dropped in stunned surprise.

The storm of voices abated completely, and the cessation of sound was punctuated by the noisy thumping of mugs as one by one they came down upon the wooden tables.

In the ensuing silence even the flickering gas lanterns seemed to roar in Elizabeth Bowcock’s tender ears.

The glass Josephine McKenzie had been wiping clean plummeted to the floor, shattering. “Are ya crazy?” she asked. Reaching over the counter, she slapped a hand over Elizabeth’s mouth to halt her impetuous words. “What do you mean coming in here spoutin’ off that hogwash?” Her eyes narrowed in censure.

With an exasperated sigh, Elizabeth smacked her friend’s hand away from her face. “Where else would I expect to find one?” She fought back the despairing urge to crawl over the bar and spend her tears upon Jo’s shoulder. Only the knowledge that everyone’s eyes were suddenly fixed upon them kept her rooted to the spot.

As though trying to calm herself, she removed her worn spectacles and blew at a nonexistent speck of dust. Replacing them haphazardly on the bridge of her softly freckled nose, she straightened her shoulders and tried to bolster her pride.

She’d never been anything more than Doc Angus’ spinster daughter. When her father had just up and died last fall, it had seemed only natural she take over his practice. Doc Liz, the men called her. And no, she didn’t attract men’s attention, with her ugly specs, her baggy clothes, and her thick, dark blond braid of hair hanging like a donkey’s tail behind her, but for the briefest moment, with those spectacles gone, she had felt… well, passin’ pretty.

Maybe it was simply the effect of those four little words: I need a man. But she did suddenly attract unusual attention—especially since there was such a shortage of women in Sioux Falls these days, both marriageable and unmarriageable alike.

Ears perked.

Jo’s dark eyes blazed. The red plume in her auburn hair shook determinedly. “Not in my place you won’t—leastways not the kind I reckon you’re hoping for!’’

With a glaring sidewise glance at their unwelcome audience, Jo came around the bar and seized hold of Elizabeth’s arm. “Look what you’ve gone and done!” She fired another anxious look over her shoulder. “Good Lord, no—don’t! Come on, we’ll talk in the back. Quick,” she urged. “Looks like you’ve hatched yourself a mess o’ trouble this time, sugar.”

With the sound of a chair being raked behind them, Elizabeth realized her blunder.

Too late.

“Now, now, Miss Josephine, where ya thinkin’ ta take the gal?” Dick Brady asked, keeping pace behind them.

Elizabeth could almost smell his liquor-charged breath as he slipped a hand over her shoulder and jerked her to a halt.

“Dadburn it, I said ta wait a minute,” he blustered.

Squaring her shoulders, Elizabeth swung about to confront the bristle-faced man.

“I believe, if’n I heard the gal right, Miss Josephine,” Brady continued, “she said she was needin’ herself a man. I don’t rightly think you ken help her out with that, now ken ya?” He scratched his heavily whiskered jaw, his face contorting with the brutish pleasure that skin scraping gave him. “Best you leave that business to me,” he crowed. “What ya got ta say ’bout that, Miss Lizzy?” He gazed at her lewdly. “You want