Heath has seen some trouble in his days, but none of it prepared him for Willow McAllister.
Widowed rancher Heath Wolfe worries he’s making a big mistake by bringing Willow McAllister home to his ranch. A known troublemaker around town, she can’t seem to keep a job or avoid skirmishes with the law, so the town marshal implores Heath to help. While Heath agrees to employ Willow, he certainly won’t allow misbehavior, and he’s even prepared to take the willful young lady over his knee for a sound spanking if warranted.
Orphaned and alone for several years, nineteen-year-old Willow is used to taking care of herself. She sleeps wherever she can find a soft surface and roams freely. She doesn’t drink whiskey every night and she only steals when she has to, so it doesn’t seem fair when the marshal insists she give up her freedom to work for Heath. She suspects that the rancher is as humorless as he is handsome.
Heath and Willow are as different as two people can be, but a tentative friendship forms. Old habits die hard, though, and it doesn’t take long for Willow to engage in familiar shenanigans. When problems arise, will Heath regret bringing trouble home, or will he get to the bottom of it, once and for all?
Publisher’s Note: Bringing Trouble Home is a standalone story in the series Lost and Found in Thorndale. It contains sex and adult punishment spanking. If that doesn’t appeal to you, please don’t buy this book.
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Heath Wolfe sat on a stool at his family’s square oak table. His two children were seated on either side of him. Steam from the stew in their bowls rose like ghosts, disappearing halfway up to the slanted log ceiling of the cabin. The scent was aromatic and comforting in its familiarity, a common supper that their housekeeper of two years had made for them often. It was the last meal she would prepare. She was moving north to live with her daughter and had said her goodbyes earlier that day.
To Heath’s right sat Bitty, who barely rose to his belt buckle, but who made up for her small stature with exuberance that seemed to redouble with every one of her five years. Her given name was Elizabeth, but ever since she was born scrawny as a kitten a few ounces shy of five pounds, everyone called her Bitty instead of Betty for short.
Jack sat to Heath’s left, squirming as young boys of eight do and looking down at his stew with hunger, impatient to be through with the inconvenience of prayer.
Heath folded his hands in front of him. “Jack, would you say grace?”
As his son murmured words of thanks for the food, for the green grass and fat cattle and the healthy calves, Heath prayed for the right words to tell his children. He was about to change their lives and wanted to sound resolved in his decision, though he didn’t feel it. He worried he was about to make a very big mistake.
At the end of the prayer, Heath placed his napkin in his lap and cleared his throat. “I have some important news to share with you, children. As you know—” He looked at Jack. “Son, use your spoon.”
Jack had already lifted the bowl to his lips. He lowered it only after taking a generous slurp. “But this way is faster, Pa,” he argued.
“That doesn’t matter. It’s impolite.” Heath tried to sound firmer than he felt. He didn’t want manners to go completely by the wayside, but it was difficult for him to care too much about such niceties, being the only living parent to two children who not only needed food, shelter, and clothing provided for them, but also those provisions prepared, maintained, and sewn. Table manners were low on the list of priorities, especially in the wake of their housekeeper’s departure.
Heath drained the stew from his spoon noiselessly in an attempt to model polite behavior, then dipped it in the fragrant broth again. “As I was saying, I have some important news. You both know Miss Willow McAllister, don’t you? She’s been known to sleep in the town livery from time to time.”
The children nodded their heads. It was as he expected. There was no one in town who didn’t know the wild Willow McAllister. She was practically a legend as a result of her troublesome behavior. Her mother had tried to steer her straight, but raising a child alone was no easy feat, as Heath could attest, and when Willow’s mother passed away three years ago, the teenaged girl had become even wilder.
Willow’s latest offense was public drunkenness and vandalism. In the middle of the night, she’d gotten liquored up with one of her hooligan friends. Together, they had thrown rocks at the windows of a house owned by a woman who had insulted her, breaking all but one of them. The town marshal arrested her and let her stew in jail for twenty-four hours before setting her free on the condition that she find a job within three days and stay out of trouble. Otherwise, he would lock her up again and press serious charges. Marshal Clyde told Heath all about it—how he was worried about Willow and what would become of her if she didn’t straighten up.
That was where Heath was to come in.
“Well,” Heath said, after swallowing another bite of stew, “she’s coming to live with us. I’ve arranged with the marshal to give her a job and home here.”
Jack cocked his head. “Really, Pa? You want her to live here? Don’t you know she’s nothin’ but trouble?”
“That may be so, but she needs a place to stay, and we need a lady in the house. She can do the cleaning and cooking. It will be to all our benefit.”
Jack’s brow furrowed in the exact same way his mother’s used to. Sometimes the resemblance between them would catch Heath by surprise and send a bolt of sorrow straight through him, like lightning through a lone tree in a meadow. It happened less frequently these days, but the saddening effect always was the same.
The boy shook his head. “She ain’t no lady. She chews tobacco and spits farther than any man I know. Plus, she steals. The teacher thinks it was her who stole our lunches from the mudroom of the schoolhouse a couple ‘a months ago. We hafta keep our lunches next to us every morning now, and it makes the whole room smell like rotten eggs.”
Heath knew about that, as well as many of Willow’s other exploits the marshal had made him privy to. He’d already weighed the risk of her misbehavior against the family’s need for help. He also felt obligated to do his part to help the girl. After malaria had spread throughout Thorndale at breakneck speed, many children were left orphaned, and good homes were in short supply.
At nineteen, Willow wasn’t a child anymore, but she couldn’t seem to provide for herself without stealing, and Heath made a good living doing ranching work. He knew it would be to Willow’s benefit for her to be part of a family and participate in making an honest wage.
“Well, son, I reckon she stole the lunches because she was hungry,” Heath said. “Until you’ve had hunger gnawing away in your gut for days straight, it’s best not to judge. While living here, she’ll have three square meals a day, so she’ll have no cause to steal.”
Heath didn’t share with the children the marshal’s request that Heath discipline the girl if she acted up while in his care, using whatever method he thought would be most effective. The implication was that Heath give her a thorough hiding whenever she got out of line, but he had never raised a hand to his children and could not see the benefit of spanking a full-grown woman, troublesome though she might be. He rather hoped he could convince her to settle into a new life using gentler methods of persuasion.
Heath looked at Bitty, who had abandoned the stew and was sliding down her chair while gazing out the window. He didn’t know if she’d listened to a word he’d said. “Bitty, sit up straight and eat your supper, please.”
She made a face but obeyed, slurping a spoonful of stew into her mouth.
Using a stern tone, he said, “I expect you both to make Miss Willow feel welcome and to help her with chores. If you don’t, I’ll come home and give you more chores. Is that understood?”
Their eyes rounded slightly at the threat. They nodded and murmured their agreement.
“I’ll be fetching her tomorrow afternoon. Jack, I want you to sleep in my room tonight, and Willow will take your room. Move everything from inside your desk and dresser to the office by tomorrow morning.”
Jack dropped his spoon and stared at him in horror. “But, Pa… That’s my room. I don’t want—”
Heath held up his hand. “No bellyaching. We’ll get a cot and clear out the office next week. It’ll be a fine room for you. We need to make sure Willow is as comfortable as possible. Giving her a home is the right thing to do, for all of us, and we’re going to do it.”
Heath wished he felt as confident as he sounded.
Willow McAllister scowled from the doorway of the livery at the man approaching her. Heath Wolfe walked with purpose, with his head facing forward, shoulders back, and jaw set. It was as though he had blinders on like the horses hitched to wagons, willfully ignoring anything happening around him.
He wore dusty brown boots and gray wool trousers that hugged his legs, which were muscled from calf to thigh from countless hours breaking studs. His plain white shirt was tucked in neatly and buttoned up to a hand’s length from his neck, revealing a tuft of bristly chest hair. His Stetson was in his hand and the hair on his head, though cropped short, ruffled up slightly in the wind. As he neared, Willow saw the piercing intent in his dark blue eyes and the beads of sweat on his sunburned brow.
She couldn’t deny that he was a handsome man. Ever since he’d become a widower, half the women in Thorndale were vying for his attention. Besides being good-looking, he was rich compared to most of the saddle stiffs around, owning one of the biggest ranches west of the Mississippi River.
It hadn’t escaped Willow’s notice how he affected the fairer sex. She’d often observed, with wry amusement, women’s sly glances, giggles, twitching eyelashes and nervous fanning, all of which seemed to roll off Heath like rain from a slicker.
Though the women in town would be jealous that Willow was about to receive some of the eligible bachelor’s attention, she herself wanted none of it. Willow and Heath were alike in only one way. They were both fixtures in Thorndale—as well-known and permanent as the tall oak tree by Riddle Creek. But Heath was viewed as the upper crust, being wealthy and upstanding, and Willow was viewed as bottom of the barrel. She barely scraped by and oftentimes used nefarious methods to do so.
It crossed her mind that she could run down the hay-covered aisle of the stable out the back to avoid speaking with Heath, but she decided instead to confront the problem head-on.
When he placed one fist on his hip in preparation for what appeared to be a lecture, she spoke before he could open his mouth. “I’m not coming with you, Mr. Wolfe,” she told him, in lieu of hello. She jutted her chin out sharply. Her purpose in doing so was twofold. She wanted to appear proud and defiant, but she also had to crane her neck to look up at the face that topped six-feet-plus-four inches of him.
Heath seemed prepared for that type of greeting. He skipped the hellos too. “Your mama wouldn’t want you sleeping in a stable and stealing food to get by, and I reckon it’d break her heart you goin’ to jail, wouldn’t it now, Willow?”
Her temper flared. She didn’t like how he’d so casually brought up her mother, the one person she’d ever loved. It was too shrewd, and it made her more resolved to be shed of him. She popped some tobacco into her mouth that she’d stolen from the pocket of a drunk man. “Play fair, Mr. Wolfe. No need to talk about my ma.”
“Call me Heath, please. And I’m not playing, fair or otherwise.” He rubbed the stubble along his jaw. By Willow’s estimation, he was three days behind in giving his face a scrape, yet it only seemed to add to his handsome appearance. “Look,” he continued, “the way I see it, you need me and I need you. You need a place to stay and someone to care for you, and I need someone to help around the house. I can pay you ten dollars a month, in addition to giving you room and board.”
“Yeah, the marshal told me about the little arrangement the two of you cooked up behind my back. I told him the same thing I’ll tell you. I’m not interested. I’ll find another job, thank you.” She tossed her head, waving the loose black hair on her shoulder to her back.
“Why aren’t you interested?”
“I’m nineteen years old and I can take care of myself. I don’t want to be part of a family.” She shuddered. The mere thought of being stuck in a cabin with three other people caused her to feel like she was in the bottom of a dark well with no way out.
“Everyone wants to be part of a family,” he argued. “Everyone wants to belong somewhere, and I think you’d do just fine with us.”
“You don’t know that. I’m not like other folks.” She spat out some of the juice from her chew.
He looked at the saliva she’d left on the ground before perusing her person from head to toe. “Well, I reckon that much is true,” he allowed, with disapproval evident in his tone.
Willow’s cheeks flamed from both outrage and unexpected embarrassment. While other women in town always made sure to wear the best frocks they could afford in their rainbow of colors and matching ribbons, Willow wore comfortable trousers and a man’s work shirt. Her feminine assets—flaring hips and generous breasts—were a source of consternation for her, not something she was eager to show off. Since she often stole food and goods to get by, being unnoticed was of primary importance.
“But you most certainly can’t take care of yourself,” Heath continued, his voice rising in volume. “Not if you have to steal to get by. And public drunkenness and vandalism points to a desperate need for supervision, before you get into any worse trouble.”
“That was one time! It’s not fair that I should be forced into being your servant for one mistake.”
“Balderdash,” he scoffed. “We both know you’ve been kicking up rows since you were knee-high. Besides, you wouldn’t be a servant if you came to stay with me. I would expect you to contribute to the household like I do and like I expect my children to do. That’s called being a family, not being a servant.”
“Oh right, a family. So what would that make you, my fake daddy?”
“Yeah, more or less,” he said, shrugging one broad shoulder. “I’d make sure you were well cared for, like any good daddy would. I would also make sure you behaved yourself, and…” He seemed to hesitate, “and I would discipline you if you didn’t. That’s what the marshal has requested of me.”
His response was not what she’d expected. She narrowed her eyes and stared into his. “Discipline?” She found it hard to say the word. A shiver of anticipation cascaded over her spine.
“That’s right. It’ll be my job to help straighten you out, but I promise to be fair. I’m not a cruel man.”
She studied him a long time. She could find no deception in his eyes to indicate an ulterior motive to what he’d proposed, but she was still wary. It didn’t make sense that he would want to take her home, when—as he’d pointed out—she’d been causing trouble for years.
“Why me, Mr. Wolfe? Surely you know there’s more women willing to cook and mind your young’uns than lazy minutes in a Sunday afternoon. Why would you bring trouble to your home?”
“Now that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said yet. It’s a good question. How about we sit down and I’ll explain?” He held his hand open in the direction of the small bench against the livery wall. After she sat, he seated himself next to her, so close that his muscled thigh brushed against her markedly smaller one.
The closeness between them made her feel strangely shy. She stared at her hands, suddenly noticing the dirt under her nails and calluses on the tips of her fingers. Heath’s hands were clean, similarly callused, and darker than hers. The open-range tan ran deep and permanent in his skin. A raised white scar lined the back of his left hand and added to its tough appearance. His paws looked like they could squeeze water from a brick.
He balanced his Stetson on one knee. “I suppose there are a couple reasons why I want it to be you who comes to stay at the house. I’ll tell you the noble reason first.”
She was intrigued, though she didn’t show it. She continued to stare at her hands like they were the most interesting thing within her view, as opposed to the handsome man taking up so much space beside her.
“Your ma was a good friend to my wife, and if my wife were alive, she would have taken you under her wing. I know it. I should have done something to help long ago, but I suppose I was busy feeling sorry for myself after losing Rose.”
Willow stayed quiet. Her annoyance that Heath had once again brought her mother into the conversation was quelled by him bringing up his own grief.
Willow’s mother, Martha McAllister, had been kind, generous, and well-liked by most everyone in town. Though she had never been rich, she was so proud that most people didn’t know how destitute she and Willow had been.
“She was quite a woman, your ma,” Heath continued. “And I can’t help but think you are too, even if you choose not to act like it.”
Willow scoffed. “I see. So you want to take care of me because you liked my mother, and you think I’m good like her, way deep down under my coal-black heart?”
He ignored her sarcasm. “I feel like it’s the right thing to do. You’re a good kid. You just… Well, you didn’t have the most normal upbringing, did you?”
She didn’t respond to his understatement. Growing up, she had lived with her mother in the cramped quarters above the saloon, a place Martha hated, but the only place she could afford. Willow had spent her childhood carefully tucked away from the happenings in the saloon by a mother who insisted she do hardly anything in her own home but sleep and eat. As Willow grew into a strong, active child, her mother had encouraged her to play outside far away from the bar with little supervision. Still, the saloon always felt like home, and over the years she developed a taste for spirits.
Willow never knew her father, and her mother hadn’t said much about him. All Willow knew was that he’d never married her mother. As Willow began her transition from girlhood to womanhood, her mother has been adamant that Willow pay no attention to boys and end up with child as she had. It wasn’t a hard feat. Her mother had been beautiful, and Willow looked nothing like her. Boys didn’t give Willow any amorous consideration anyway.
She didn’t get in the family way, but she’d gotten into plenty of other kinds of trouble. She never took school seriously, and she never mastered how to cook and take care of a household like her female peers. Instead she learned how to ride, fish, and hunt. When her mother died, she learned how to steal, simply because she couldn’t survive any other way.
Willow often wondered if her ma would have been secretly proud of how Willow had handled herself. Instead of going down the most likely path and working in the saloon like the other destitute and unmarried women her age, she’d become a scrapper. She’d never opened her legs for any man, let alone a customer, and she always managed to get by.
“What’s the other reason for wanting me to come live with you, Heath, the reason that’s not noble?” she asked. His name tasted foreign on her lips, like the first time she’d sipped gin. She’d always thought of him as Mr. Wolfe, the rich rancher, voice of authority and reason. Calling him Heath felt too familiar, but he had called her Willow, and she wanted to assert that she was not beneath him.
He tapped the dirt with the heel of his boot a few times. “Don’t rightly know how to explain it without sounding like a braggart, but here goes. You mentioned that many women would be willing to come stay at the house and work for me. That’s the truth. Problem is, if I hire any skirt of marrying age, she might get it into her head that’s where we’d be headed. To the chapel, I mean. And frankly I’m not interested in marrying again. That’s the long and short of it.”
“I’m of marrying age,” Willow pointed out. “But I suppose it would be completely outlandish to think a girl like me might want to get hitched.”
Heath’s ears slowly turned bright red, and he looked stricken. “That’s not what I meant. You’re so much younger than I am and—”
Willow burst into laughter, saving him from having to explain himself further. She knew what he meant. There was nothing about her appearance or attitude that made her seem to want a man. She lacked the coquettish nature and fashion sense. To her all that was a waste of time, and she had no desire to trap a man. She’d rather trap beavers and sell the fur.
Heath shook his head, but there was relief and a twinkle in his eyes. “You’re going to be a handful, aren’t you?”
“I haven’t agreed yet. What exactly would you require me to do?”
“Nothing difficult. Just cooking, milking the cow, cleaning, minding the children, mending clothes and curtains, that sort of thing.”
“Oh, is that all?” she huffed. It never failed to amaze and infuriate her how men thought women’s work was easy. She’d tried both men’s and women’s work in her life, and those tasks which often were thought of as male duties, like tending to horses and hunting, were vastly more interesting and less arduous than the day-to-day female burden of housework. She’d like to see Heath, or any man for that matter, spend years on end maintaining a household instead of cutting cattle.
“Now don’t get your dander up,” he said. “All I meant is working at the house wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. It would be what most every woman in Texas does.”
“The thing is, I’m not all that motherly. I can chase out dust bunnies, but the idea of running after children all day makes me want to pull out my hair.”
His eyes narrowed, and he hesitated a beat before saying, “I’m not looking for you to be a mother to my children. They lost theirs and they’ve had to adjust to that. No one can take her place. As for running after them, they’re well-behaved and shouldn’t require much in that way.”
There was no missing the ice in his tone. He’d put her in her place with a clear message. She would never attain a whit of his late wife’s worth to the family. It made her feel even worse about the prospect of going home with him. At least around town, she commanded some respect from the other wanderers and troublemakers. If she went home with Heath, she’d be nothing but inferior hired help.
“How about we give it one month?” he said, with a less-chilly voice. He stood to his feet. “That’s what the marshal suggested. If you hate it, you can always leave, but I think you should at least try. It’s better than Clyde locking you in jail.”
Willow stood too. “Fine. One month,” she said sullenly, staring at the third button down on his shirt, which was eye-level to her.
“Don’t sound so sulky,” he admonished, holding out his hand to shake on their deal. “You’re going to live on a ranch, not in the calaboose. It won’t be all that bad.”
Willow allowed her hand to be swallowed inside the rancher’s paw. She suddenly felt small and fragile, something she’d rarely felt before. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant feeling, but it was new to her, and she realized soon everything would be new. Dread welled up and lodged itself deep inside of her. What was she getting herself into?