Tenacious Trudy – Jo Grafford

Rory Jude adored neatness and organization. Back in Boston, his laundress had kept his shirts, suits, and white work coats pressed and hung in a tidy row in his wardrobe. He was also a meticulous planner. He kept detailed lists of his medications and supplies. That way he always knew how many pills, syrups, and bandages he had left on hand and how soon he would need to order more. After moving to Headstone, Arizona six months earlier, he’d settled into the habit of updating his lists every Friday afternoon before walking down Main Street to enjoy a home-cooked meal at the Pelican’s Roost. Every Friday afternoon, except today, that is — because he quite frankly couldn’t tolerate another hour in the presence of his crotchety nurse. He inwardly vowed to finish writing out his work schedule for next week, then make his exit. Since he lived in the loft apartment upstairs, he could walk back down any time throughout the weekend to update his inventories in blessed peace. Mamie Hayes bustled into the room with a frown of concentration on her flushed, bulbous features. She blew a wisp of her salt and pepper hair from her eyes. Though she attempted to keep it pulled back in a severe bun, her energetic moments generally worked it loose by the end of the day. She wasn’t so much a fan of neatness, like himself, as she was of taking charge. “Up, up, up with your feet, doctor!” she ordered briskly, as she swished a broom around his desk in the small back room of the storefront that served as his office. He obligingly lifted his feet in the air, feeling a little foolish to have his legs suspended while attempting to jot out his upcoming work schedule.

He usually juggled as many house calls as office visits, and next week was already shaping up to be no exception to that rule. There were the five Wilson children to check on as they battled their way through the itchy trials of chickenpox. Then he planned to humor Widow Wilson with a visit, simply because she was lonely, not because he put much stock in her constant complaints about her delicate constitution. He’d also probably drop in — announced, of course — to examine the bullet wound sustained by Miguel, the general manager out at Shad Nicholson’s ranch, who claimed he’d been in a hunting accident. Since the wiry Hispanic man worked for a federal marshal, however, Rory suspected there was more to his story and planned to keep his eye on the developing situation. Oblivious to her employer’s discomfort, Mamie huffed and puffed her way with her broom beneath Rory’s desk and chair, bumping into the wooden legs several times with jarring thwacks. “Oh, for the love of Pete,” he muttered, waving his schedule in the air to dry it. “Why, Dr. Jude!” Nurse Mamie chided. “Surely you are not angry with me for doing my job?” He scowled at her, unable to recall asking her to clean his office — ever! Since the only verbal comebacks he could think of sounded surly and foolish, though, he hastily stood the moment her broom was clear of his feet.

He snatched up his black medical bag from the chair beside his desk and yanked his Stetson off the hook next to the door. He’d only recently traded in his black top hat for a style the locals seemed to favor, in an attempt to fit in to this wild, unkempt part of the country. “Have a safe and restful weekend, ma’am,” he said as politely as a man could through clenched teeth. With that, he jammed his hat on his head and stormed his way in the direction of the front door. “Watch out for my mop bucket!” Nurse Mamie called after him. But her warning came one step too late. The blasted woman had left a bucket of sudsy water just on the other side of the threshold. Rory’s black leather shoe stomped straight down into its white bubbling depths with a dreadful slosh. Of all the undignified positions to find himself in! With an animalistic snarl of irritation, Rory yanked his foot from the mop bucket and continued on down the hall, past his two exam rooms, and through the small parlor that served as his waiting area. His soaked right foot made squishing noises with each step and left a damp trail.

He knew he was leaving an extra mess for his crabby nurse to mop up, but it was far better for her if he left the building with haste. If he lingered a moment longer, he would surely fire the woman. He twisted the knob of the front door, feeling like a prisoner escaping, and stepped outside onto the covered porch. The floor was made of sturdy, weathered planks, and the walls were freshly whitewashed. A sign with Dr. Rory Jude painted in gold letters swung in the light evening breeze. It was a reminder of his reasons for traveling west in the first place — his desire for a fresh start, his need to take control of his own destiny for once. He just hadn’t expected it to be this difficult to gain the respect of his fellow citizens. No matter how hard he tried to fit in, they still looked at him like an uppity outsider. Even Nurse Mamie.

No, especially Nurse Mamie. She didn’t work very hard at hiding her condescending attitude most days, as if pitying him for not being born a true cowboy. God, give me strength! All irritations aside about his less-than-warm working relationship with his nurse, Rory had no regrets about traveling west. Maybe he hadn’t struck it rich, but he was earning an honest living, something his father and oldest brother had sworn he would never do if he walked away from their family medical practice in Boston. Still holding next week’s now-wrinkled schedule in one hand and his medical bag in the other, Rory pivoted right, fully intending to set his course for the Pelican’s Roost. Instead, he stopped short at the sight of a visitor. On the far-end of the porch was a dark-haired cowboy, swinging a hammer. Considering that the storefront next to his had lain vacant the entire six months he’d owned and operated his medical practice, Rory could only presume he was about to gain a new neighbor. “A good evening to you, sir!” Though Mamie had put him in a sour mood, he summoned his best bedside manner and pasted on a welcoming smile as he strode across the porch. The face that swiveled in his direction, however, gave him pause.

“Colt Branson?” To the best of his knowledge, the cowboy rotated his way around the saloons in town, working as a faro dealer. What in tarnation could he possibly be opening in the way of a business next door? Unless it was another saloon… As if my afternoon wasn’t bad enough! Having a saloon next door to his doctor’s office was the last thing he wanted. “Afternoon, doc!” Colt’s gaze flickered to Rory and returned to the sign he was pounding into the wall. He looked many shades happier than the last time their paths had crossed, making Rory wonder if the man’s change in temperament had anything to do with his recent marriage to the delectable Belinda Fairfax, er…Belinda Branson, now that they were married. A woman Rory had briefly entertained the hopes of courting, himself… Wondering if his day could get any worse, his gaze focused drearily on the sign his neighbor was in the process of hanging. Much to his surprise, the sign read Boomtown Mail Order Brides. The words were edged with a flowery wreath. “You’re opening a mail-order bride business?” Rory couldn’t have been more aghast. He found himself utterly unable to picture the broad-shouldered cowboy earning a living by matching a never-ending line of blushing, hopeful brides with their would-be grooms. Colt reached up to push back his Stetson and shot a curious glance in Rory’s direction.

“It’s nothing new. My brother and I have owned this business for over five years. Why? Is moving next door to you going to be a problem, doc?” “Not at all. Why would it be?” Rory was just unaccountably glad to learn it wasn’t going to be another saloon. Their town had plenty enough of those! Colt pounded in a second nail. “I reckon you’re entitled to your curiosity. My choice of vocations has certainly earned mixed reviews around town, particularly from the Ladies Auxiliary.” “I can only imagine.” Rory chuckled. His oldest patient, the irascible Widow Wilson, was probably going to have plenty to say on the topic when she learned that a mail-order bride service was opening next door to her favorite doctor’s office.

“If you don’t mind me asking, do you get many customers?” The town of Headstone consisted mostly of ranchers and cowpokes, as far as he could tell. The few womenfolk around were either already married or long past the typical marriageable age. “It’s steady.” Colt’s answer was vague. “Why do you ask? Are you hunting for a bride, Dr. Jude?” His dark gaze turned mocking. Rory shrugged. He had no interest whatsoever in anyone running interference in his current romantic efforts, or lack thereof. “If you can find me a nurse who’s half the age of my current one and a dozen shades more pleasant to work with, maybe we’ll talk.” He was jesting, of course.

The idea of ordering a wife the way one might order a pair of shoes from a catalogue sounded rather callous and unfeeling. Seemed to him a man would be skipping some fairly important steps, like wooing and courting. And what if the married couple discovered they weren’t compatible a few days into their union? Then what? “As a matter-of-fact,” Colt’s gaze turned sly, “I just this morning received an application from a nurse back east. If you care to make an appointment with me, I’d be happy to discuss the terms of our contract over a mug of coffee.” Rory felt his eyes bug out a little. I was only jesting. Truly. “Maybe some other time,” he muttered, anxious to be on his way. His stomach chose that moment to give a hungry rumble. Colt chuckled.

“It’s getting close to the dinner hour, isn’t it?” He pounded in one last nail and stepped back to survey his work. “Does my sign look straight enough to you?” Rory cocked his head to give it a critical once-over. “It’ll do, matchmaker. Well, I’ll bid you adieu, since I’m on my way to the Pelican’s Roost.” Preferring to arrive before the tables filled, he neatly stepped around Colt as he headed for the porch stairs. Hopefully the man wouldn’t notice how badly soaked his shoe was. “An excellent place to visit for dinner!” Colt’s expression warmed a few degrees. “Babs’ potato casserole and pot roast is bang-up to the mark.” He suddenly seemed to notice the wet trail Rory had left across the porch floor. “What happened to you? Did you fall inside a well?” He smirked.

“Something like that.” Rory grimaced. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about it.” “Fair enough, city slicker. Say, if you can spare two or three more minutes, I’ll join you on your stroll to the boarding house.” His expression grew mischievous, “For your protection, of course.” Rory ignored the jibe about his lack of experience in living in the wild west. “Oh? Are you heading that way, too?” “I live there,” Colt answered dryly. Without giving Rory the chance to respond, he twisted open the doorknob to his new office and stepped inside, leaving the door ajar. On the other side was an empty room, a bit on the dusty side.

The evening sun was pouring through the windows, leaving an elongated reflection of square panes on the floor. Colt returned with a folder in hand. “I have my office set up in the back,” he explained. “My side of the building is a mirror image of yours.” Rory nodded, not knowing what to say. A picture formed in his mind about Colt’s line of business that resembled something akin to a cattle auction. “I’m still waiting on the delivery of beds and wardrobes for the loft rooms, as well as sofas and armchairs for the interview and waiting areas.” Then again, maybe Colt’s office wouldn’t look much like a cattle auction, after all. They set off together down the hard-packed clay that formed Main Street, keeping to the side so horses and wagons could pass them. “Loft apartments, you say?” Rory wondered if Colt Branson intended to rent out rooms in addition to drafting up wedding contracts.

He eyed the various businesses along Main Street. Most were in the process of turning their Open signs to Closed for the day. The General Store, Post Office, and Telegraph Office were already closed. The saloons and dance halls, however, were notching up to full swing. It was the weekend, after all. Many a young farmer and cowpoke would be ambling into town this evening to celebrate the end of another long week of work. “Sure,” Colt retorted cheerfully. “Sometimes our brides need a place to stay a few nights before they tie the knot.” “Ah.” Rory had to shade his eyes with the work schedule he was still holding, to block out the glare of the setting sun.

They were walking right into it, which was nearly blinding. “Like our lovely nurse from Boston will need to do. She is already on a train, making her way here.” “Is that so?” Rory felt an accountable burst of disappointment that the bride in question had already been matched. He wasn’t in the market for a wife, per se, but he certainly could be dragged into the market for a new nurse. “Yes, she is desperate to leave the city, so we’ve offered to advance her the funds for traveling west. Train fare and such.” He casually waved one large hand as if to imply the money was no big deal. “If she’s as lovely as my brother claims, I won’t have any difficulty placing her in a marriage.” So the young woman wasn’t yet spoken for.

Rory was relieved to hear it, not that it was any real concern of his. “Your brother has already made her acquaintance, then?” Rory found himself more curious than he should have been about the Branson brothers’ matchmaking process. “Yes. So has his wife, Olivia.” Colt nodded in satisfaction. “They run our Boston office, which is where most of our brides hail from.” “I see.” Rory didn’t see, actually. It still made no sense to him why any man or woman would agree to marry, sight unseen. However, it sounded as if the Bransons had managed to turn the gig into a profitable one.

The brother in Boston signed up the marriageable brides. The brother in Headstone signed up the marriageable grooms. Rory still had no idea how they decided which bride to place with which groom. “We facilitate all the paperwork and logistics for our happy couples, so it’s a fairly painless process all around.” Colt started to whistle beneath his breath. So you say. “All we expect is for the groom to cover the cost of his bride’s train fare and a few incidentals, plus our finder’s fee. That’s it. Why, you could be a married man in less than a week, Dr. Jude.

” “Hmm.” Rory perceived he was being courted as a prospective groom, though he couldn’t have been less interested in meeting any woman in such a haphazard way. Colt didn’t seem to mind Rory’s silence. “Our newest bride-to-be graduated from the Boston School of Nursing last month, but her family had other plans for her than a future tending patients. One of those old blue-blood families,” he scoffed, looking like he was tasting something abhorrent. “Their children either bend to the will of their elders, or they can wave their inheritances goodbye.” “I am sorry to hear it.” Rory’s sympathies were piqued, despite his intention not to care about anything involving Colt’s mail-order bride business. He understood first-hand how old blue-blood families operated. He was the second son to one of them, which meant he was doomed to be second in everything — second in his father’s affections, second in line to inherit the family business, even second in his former fiancée’s romantic interests.

His chest still smarted from the sting of rejection after she’d broken their engagement to pursue a courtship with a wealthier man. “It would be a sorry thing, indeed, if our mail-order bride fell in line with her father’s plans to marry her to his aging business partner.” Rory was incensed at the information. Arranged marriages were such a barbaric practice, in his opinion. How any nineteenth century families found the practice even remotely acceptable was beyond him! “Fortunately, this especially lovely nurse found her way to our agency, preferring to take her chances on carving out her own destiny.” “By simply marrying a different man?” Rory’s tone waxed more sarcastic than he intended. “I reckon that’s a fair question, doc.” Colt grinned instead of looking offended. He removed his hat to run a hand through his hair, then clapped it back on his head. “Do not forget my own wife was a mail-order bride.

” Belinda? Rory shook his head, recalling his brief attempts at courting her when she’d first arrived to town. “I thought the two of you were previously affianced.” That wasn’t quite the same thing as a woman riding into town with no inkling of who would be waiting for her at the train station. “We were.” The two men reached the Pelican’s Roost, a weathered wooden building with a wide, welcoming front porch. A pair of flower pots were displayed on either side of the entrance. Colt bounded forward to open the door for them. “It’s a long story. The short version is that circumstances outside our control kept us apart for a while. Too long.

” His expression sobered. “After five years of waiting, Belinda finally had enough. That’s when she signed one of our contracts and came west.” “To marry the first man available?” That made little sense to Rory. Colt gave a long-suffering sigh. “I like to think she did it in the hopes her path might cross mine again.” “She did,” a female voice agreed gayly. Rory reddened to realize he’d been so engrossed in his conversation with Colt that he hadn’t noticed Belinda Branson’s approach. “There you are!” She launched herself at her husband. He wrapped his arms around her, lifted her, and gave her a twirl before setting her back on her feet.

They drank each other in with their eyes, sharing a moment so intimate that Rory had to look away, not wishing to intrude. Envy tightened his throat. It sure would be nice to have someone who missed him when he was away and expressed such unbridled joy upon his return. Maybe he should look into adopting a dog. The next time he ventured a peek, Belinda’s laughing gaze was surveying him. “Would you grace us with your company for dinner, Dr. Jude?” He tucked his very crumpled work schedule under his arm so he could wave away her offer. “Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude, ma’am, but thank you for inviting me.” “Stuff and nonsense!” she exclaimed. “Since you and my husband are about to start working next door to each other, there’s no reason for you to sit way across the dining room from us.

Do come!” She beckoned for him to join them. He shrugged but complied, not knowing what else to do without seeming rude. Besides, he was lonely. He really hadn’t been looking forward to eating alone. She led them past the front parlor to the dining room. She chose the second largest of four table, which was set for four. As Colt held out her seat for her, she glanced at Rory from beneath her lashes and turned her head aside to speak in undertones to her husband. “Did Trudy Crandall send you an update at her last train stop? Is she still scheduled to arrive on time?” Trudy Crandall? Rory grew very still, unable to help overhearing the name. It was one he recognized. His gaze narrowed in speculation on Belinda’s.

This was the identity of their latest mail-order bride? “Is everything alright, Dr. Jude?” Her expression grew concerned. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” Or heard about one. He grimaced. “I beg your pardon for listening in, but I thought I heard you mention Trudy Crandall’s name.” “That you did.” She frowned. Then her eyes grew as round as teacups. “Oh, my lands! Have the two of you previously met?” Yes, they had.

Rory could easily picture the beautiful, dark-eyed, dark-haired nymph of a debutante. As the only heiress to a family heavily invested in railways, she’d been highly sought after in terms of courting. They’d shared a dance a little over a year ago. It was right after Rory’s fiancée had feigned a dizzy spell and left him alone on the dance floor. He’d exited the ballroom by way of a balcony, and there was Trudy. In tears over how opposed her family was to her desire to attend nursing school… As a doctor, Rory had empathized with the need she felt to care for the injured and sick. He’d strongly encouraged her to follow her dreams. Apparently, she had. “Did her family disown her, then?” he inquired sharply. What a travesty! He knew of the Crandalls’ reputation.

They were quite capable of doing exactly that. “They threatened to if she refused to honor the marriage they’d arranged for her. They’d already drawn up the contract and agreed upon her dowry price, you see.” Rory shook his head, hardly believing that selling one’s daughter was still legal. “I can only presume her intended groom did not approve of her nursing career?” “Not one bit,” Belinda’s dark eyes snapped with anger, “which is why we are going to do everything in our power to help her find both a job and a husband.” Her dark gaze narrowed speculatively on him. “Are you certain you don’t need a new nurse at your office? Pardon me for being so bold, but your other one lacks a certain…” She waved her hands, wrinkling her nose. “Mamie Hayes lacks a lot of things,” he supplied tightly. Her crass bedside manner had already generated numerous complaints from his patients. “I would replace her in a heartbeat, if the right person came along.

” “Maybe she has.” Belinda arched her dark brows suggestively. Rory’s breath came out in a huff. “As I’ve previously stated, I would very much like to hire a nurse. I’m afraid that marrying one is another matter entirely.” He couldn’t believe they were even discussing something so preposterous. Highly educated, highly civilized men like him had no need to procure a wife via the mail. Period! “Just read the letter she wrote to her prospective groom,” Belinda urged. “Here.” She reached inside her reticule and produced a flowery scented letter on a fine grade of stationary.

She carefully removed it from its envelope, smoothed it open, and slid it across the table to him. “If you decide not to marry Trudy Crandall after reading it, my husband and I would be delighted to cover the cost of your dinner to compensate you for your time and trouble.”

.

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