Cinders had never in his life seen eyes as big as the chocolate pools Shannon possessed. Her sun-kissed brown hair hung braided down her back to her waist. Her hands trembled as she sat down but he knew her to be a brave woman. How could a woman who traveled across the territories to marry an unknown man and survive tangling with Hardy be anything but brave?
“Cinders, have a seat,” the judge instructed.
When he pulled out his chair the wooden chair leg scraped against the dirty wood floor. It looked as though Eats was suddenly a place to be. People milled in to gawk at the three of them.
“I’m Judge Gleason, Miss…?”
“I’m Shannon McMurphy, sir.” The toll speaking took reflected in her eyes.
“John Hardy sliced her face. I drove the wagon in yesterday and Hardy was instructing two of his goons to grab Miss McMurphy and bring her back into the saloon. I put a stop to it and Edith allowed me to carry her to the upstairs of the mercantile.”
Judge Gleason turned his gaze to Shannon. “Are you and John Hardy married?”
She shook her head and winced. “No. I came from New York to marry him. He said he was a wealthy rancher and you can imagine my shock to find him the saloon keeper. I told him I couldn’t marry him. My words angered him and he backhanded me hard enough to send me flying across the room, hitting the wall. He said if I didn’t want to marry him, he’d make sure no one would ever want me. He, he said I could work off my debt upstairs.”
Cinders didn’t want to feel sorry for her, in fact he wouldn’t have gotten involved with her if it hadn’t been life threatening and if it hadn’t involved John Hardy. The slimy bastard tried to buy his land out from under him.
Tilting his chair back on two legs, the judge eyed Shannon for a while before he turned his gaze on Cinders. He righted the chair. “I’m hungry. Eats!”
The gathering crowd had the none too sturdy walls practically bursting. “Damn, can’t even get Eat’s attention.” He put two fingers in his mouth, whistled loudly and then silence ensued. “All you gawkers leave. If you’re not buying, you’re loitering. Now git before I get mad.”
There was much grumbling from the crowd as one by one they filed past their table and out the door. A well-rounded man with uncombed hair and over grown beard hurried to the table.
“I’ll have your breakfast ready faster than a prairie fire with a tail wind.”
“I appreciate that, Eats. This here is Miss McMurphy why don’t you bring her and Cinders here something to eat too.”
Eats nodded. “Nice to meet you, miss.”
“Thank you.” Her voice was barely audible.
“Now the way I see it is you have two choices, miss. You can either marry John or Cinders here.” He looked at Cinders with humor in his eyes.
Cinders stood up. “Now wait a minute. I said I’d hire her. No one said anything about getting hitched.”
Shannon’s face turned a deep shade of scarlet and Cinders silently cursed. He didn’t want to be the cause of her discomfort.
Judge Gleason ran his long fingers through his gray hair. “Sit down, Cinders, I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to.” He paused as Cinders sat. “Of course she could always go and work for John or be his wife. After all he did pay for her to come out.”
“I don’t see why she can’t just come work for me.” He hoped the judge could hear the annoyance in his voice. He didn’t want or need to be hog-tied to any woman again.
“Cinders, you know how it all works. You marry her so you don’t sully her good name. You know how the gaggle of women around here are. They’ll treat her no better than a whore.” He stopped talking and turned to Shannon. “No offense, Miss.”
Shannon nodded and her eyes dulled as she stood. “Thank you for coming to my rescue, Mr. Cinders. I’ll always be grateful but this is my mess. I accepted his proposal, and I’m going to keep my word.”
She stepped from the table and started for the door.
“Hell, I’d rather you marry me than go to John.”
She stopped and turned around. “You are a kind man but the judge did say it was my choice.”
His eyebrows rose. “You are choosing John Hardy over me?” he asked in disbelief.
“It’s not a choice really it’s more of a duty, and I wouldn’t want you stuck with me. I have a pretty good idea what my face will look like once the bandage comes off. It’s not fair to you.”
The sadness in her voice touched him and he couldn’t let her go. “If you’d rather it could be a marriage of convenience.”
Her dark eyelashes fanned her face as she closed her eyes. She wanted to say yes, he could tell. “You’ll be wanting children.”
“No,” he said firmly. “That won’t come up.” Cinders quickly glanced away from her probing expression. He wasn’t about to go down that road again.
Swallowing hard she nodded her consent. “Thank you.” Her voice quavered and she looked a deathly white as though sentenced to the gallows.
“Well, Judge, you might as well marry us now.” Cinders stood next to Shannon noticing for the first time just how much smaller she was than he. He knew she was small but next to him she seemed tiny.
The humor in the judges blue eyes fled. “Now? I haven’t had my breakfast.” He sighed and nodded. “Eats hold the food. I need you and Poor Boy to come witness the wedding.”
Eats came rambling over, his dark eyes full of excitement followed by a giggling thin boy with brown hair and brown sullen eyes. “Ain’t never had a weddin’ in here afore.”
This is my inspiration for Cinders:
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