"Well?" said the voice.
Heath and Nick looked at each other and then at the door for a quick escape. The door was bolted fast and guarded by two men. The Barkley brothers had been in many a scrape before but this was the worst. There was just no escape. Older brother looked at younger brother, each reading despair in the other's face. Nick's hazel eyes opened wide, Heath's eyebrow arched. This was it. They were trapped. It was the end of their world as they knew it.
"Well fellas, I ain't got all day. Whatcha got to say for ya'selves?"
The barrels of two guns were roughly shoved into the small of their backs securing their immediate attention, the force of the synchronized movement forcing them both to take an involuntarily step forward.
"You two boys need reminding of the question," said the grizzled voice from behind, his grip on both guns remaining firm, his patience with their stalling less so.
Nick would have raked his long fingers through his unruly hair if his hands weren't bound together, they were tied so tight that the circulation all but threatened to stop. As it was a stray lock of hair fell annoyingly into his left eye and he alternately tried to shake and blow it free before saying:
"Uh huh!!! Well yea, I think I would like to hear the question again."
"Ask it again Preacher, but this time just the basics, we ain't got all night. It seems the young'un here's turned deaf all of a sudden."
"Okay young fella," said the preacher, "but I advise you strongly not to try the old man's patience. He ain't a man to be crossed. Now where were we? Oh yea, here we are. Nick Barkley do you take Emiline Mary Prescott to be your lawfully wedded wife? Steady boy, don't be chomping at the bit, ya only gotta say two words," the preacher added seeing Nick's growing discomfort.
The barrel of the gun made its presence known in Nick's back again. Nick looked at his prospective father-in-law and then at his brother. Again the gun was shoved into his back for further emphasis.
"I do." The words spewed forth angrily.
Heath shot a despairing look at his brother, his own fate sealed in those two words. The preacher turned to the young lady at Nick's side.
"Emiline Mary Prescott do you take Nick Barkley to be your lawfully wedded husband?"
"I do." The response was eager, predatory and without Nick's hesitation. Nick felt her body move suspiciously up close and then her arm lock on to his. Oh boy! He thought. How did I get into this?
The preacher smiled and then turned to Heath who attempted to take a step backward. The gun directed on him stopped his progress and pushed him forward again.
"You ain't going to be as much trouble as your brother, are you?" The voice from behind said. "My hands are getting mighty tired holding these guns, could be I might have an accident and let one of them go off. Just at the moment it's my right hand that's feeling really tired. Know what I mean, son?"
Heath didn't need to know that the right hand was holding the gun directed at him. He swallowed hard and looked at the preacher. Surely a man of God wouldn't let this farce of a wedding continue?
The preacher leaned forward. "Come on lad, spit 'em out just like your brother, two words and ya done. It'll be easier in the end, less messy if ya know what I mean." He pulled his coat back to reveal the gun in his holster and smiled. Heath knew he had no choice.
"Do you Heath Barkley take Mercy Elizabeth Prescott to be your lawfully wedded wife?"
"I do," Heath said between clenched teeth.
The preacher smiled and this time turned to the young lady at Heath's side.
"Mercy Elizabeth Prescott do you take Heath Barkley for your lawfully wedded husband?"
Mercy was more restrained than her sister. She was getting a husband but the manner of his getting didn't please her at all.
"Daughter?" Her Pa's voice cut through her hesitation, his tone insistent.
"I do." She said in a barely audible voice. Heath noticed the reluctance it conveyed and realized that she too was as much a victim as he was.
"At last!" The preacher said, his mouth parched and ready for a shot of old man Prescott's finest whisky. "Then I pronounce both couples man and wife. You may each kiss your brides."
Emiline didn't wait for the words to finish. Taking advantage of Nick's bound hands she locked her arms around his neck and pulled his lips down to hers. The kiss grew long, very long, longer still. Nick felt the blood draining from his bruised lips and the air supply begin to cut off. Eventually, she released her hold and he gasped for air.
"Bet you've never been kissed like that before handsome?"
Nick struggled to regain his breath. "No ma'am. Can't say I ever have."
"Just wait till tonight." She said wickedly.
Nick's face turned ashen at the prospect. He could only hope she'd be gentle.
To their immediate left, the other couple were far more reserved. Mercy sensed Heath wasn't going to kiss her and so knowing that they were both being closely observed by her Pa, she leaned up and gave him the lightest of kiss. She paused momentarily struck by the feel of his insentient soft lips and then quickly pushed her confusion to the background as she took on the realization that this man was now her husband.
Later that night the new Mrs Heath Barkley undressed in her room behind the privacy of a screen, the dimmed oil lamp securing her privacy even more. Heath Barkley sat on the edge of her bed deep in thought, his hands still secured. His eyes kept drifting up to the screen and the shadows that bounced off the wall. How was he going to go through with this? He didn't know this woman and yet here he was, her husband, expected to consummate the marriage and then take her home with him. He imagined his mother's face as he and Nick rolled up at the mansion with their newly acquired wives. How they acquired them would forever be a joke played out at their expense, Jarrod would make sure of that.
At length Mercy reappeared from behind the screen. She was dressed in a nightgown buttoned up high and a robe which had been tightly secured at the waist. Heath doubted he would have been able to break into the robe even if he wanted to, her whole stance and manner was decidedly frigid. She went to a drawer and drew out a knife. Heath tensed. She slowly bent down in front of him, their eyes never meeting, and began cutting away at the rope still binding his hands. When at last its ties were severed she couldn't help but notice the rope burns on his wrists. Though moved by their marks she stopped short of tending them and stood up directly.
"Look, I don't like this anymore than you do," she said. "but the fact remains that we're married now. We might as well make the best of it. You can get undressed behind the screen. We'll share a bed tonight but that's all. Do ya hear?"
The knife still in her hand, Heath quickly agreed, relieved that there was to be no intimacy that night.
When he emerged from behind the screen, he was dressed in his long johns and was slightly embarrassed. He gingerly walked over to the side of the bed where he had previously been sitting as she had got into bed on the other side. Now Heath Barkley was no stranger to sharing a bed with a woman despite his unmarried status but this time was different. Tentatively he lifted the covers and caught sight of her reclining form. She had her back to him and he could see that she hadn't take her robe off but instead wore it like a armor plated defense against him. He slipped into the bed taking particular care to stay on his side and not venture on to hers, his tired body and mind ready only for sleep.
In another room Nick Barkley was having altogether different problems. Mrs Nick Barkley had plans for him that night and it didn't involve sleep.
"Ma'am we've only just met," said Nick as he fought off his wife's advances. Already his vest was being pulled off his shoulders and his shirt tail was being yanked from the top of his pants. In between manhandling him she was locking kisses on to him like they were going out of fashion. How many arms could a woman have? He needed an army to fight off this one. Breaking off from her last kiss to get the feeling back into his lips, he pushed her back firmly and held her at arm's length.
"Now ma'am let's just take a moment to get to know each other."
"What's there to know, we're married aren't we? It's all legal ain't it. After all, Pa got us a preacher an all."
"But ma'am. I mean Emmie."
"Call me Emmie again, go on I want you to say ma name out loud again, sounds kinda of pretty when you say it."
"Look Emmie, we've got all night." What was he talking about? All night? He and Heath should be making good their escape. He moved away to the door to open it. He'd had just about enough of this darned night. The marriages would have to be annulled. No way could they legally be upheld under threat of a gun. He just needed to find Heath and get outta there. He turned the door knob to open it. It was locked from the inside.
"What in blazes? Who locked this door?"
"I did," she said wickedly showing him the key. He lunged forward to grasp it before she dropped it provocatively down the front of her dress.
"Guess you'll have to come and find it," she said invitingly.
Nick looked at his wife and then at the door. He knew that if he didn't take up the invitation he would never get out of that room. He took up the challenge and did what a man had to do.
Heath Barkley woke in the morning surprised to find himself in a strange room. It took a few moments for him to remember the events of the previous night and then the reality struck. It all came back with startling reality.
He and Nick had been returning from a trip to Three Rivers to look at some horses. They had done it many times before and knew from the terrain they were now only a few days away from home. As nightfall approached they quickly made camp for the night, eager to bed down so that they could make an early start in the morning. Nick started up a fire whilst Heath checked the provisions for something to cook. After two weeks away both brothers were looking forward to getting home to Stockton, seeing the family, soaking in a long hot tub and taking their girls to the town social on Saturday.
As they settled down on their bed rolls, Heath played a wistful tune on the harmonica and Nick quietly joined in with the words, their sounds drifting across the plains and disturbing only the stillness. Both were unaware of the party approaching them, the small group making ready to surround them. The first they knew of it they had five rifles trained on them and they were being told to get to their feet. One man stepped forward and swiftly relieved them of their guns.
"What the hell is going on here?" bellowed Nick. "We ain't no desperados. We're just making camp for the night."
There were four young men in the party, headed by an old timer, his hair and clothes disheveled and a distinct mean look fixed in his eye. One of the group stepped forward and accused them of trespassing on Prescott land. Both Nick and Heath made their apologies, explaining that it was late and they hadn't realized that they had strayed on to their property. They offered to leave and make good any damage but the old man was having none of it. He stood in conference with what seemed to be his eldest son. A moment later the son appeared to look over their way and then say:
"But Pa, you can't be serious, Emmie and Mercy? No, you can't do it."
"Keep quiet boy, my mind's made up. They're men, aren't they? Tie them up and put them on their horses. We'll take them back to the ranch."
Secured on their horses and bound by their wrists, the Barkleys were escorted under guard to the Prescott ranch. One of the men rode away from the group as the road forked and it was left to the three men and the old timer to see them into the ranch. Neither Barkley brother had ever heard of the Lazy D or the Prescotts that ran it. They had only ever passed through this way and never got to know the names of the neighboring ranches. The ranch house and property was big but it was clear that both had seen better days and much of it was run down.
"Emmie, Mercy come here." The elder Prescott shouted as he walked through the door.
Nick and Heath got a chance to see their captors properly now. The old man broke into a toothless, whiskered smile.
"Sit yourselves down boys, make yourselves right at home. You ain't going anywhere for a spell."
Nick attempted to remonstrate.
"Look mister, me and my brother here are right sorry that we caused you and your family offense. We didn't know we were trespassing and are prepared to make good any damage. My name's Nick Barkley and this is my brother Heath. Our family is well known in Stockton. Let us put this right and we'll be on our way and not trouble you again."
The grizzled man holding on to his gun and retrieving another one from one of his sons so that he stood holding the two said forcefully:
"Sit down, you and your brother ain't going anywhere."
Rough hands pulled Nick down from behind and sat him down on the sofa next to his brother.
"Are you married?" the old man said eventually, chewing on a piece of tobacco.
Nick thought quickly. Instinctively he knew this was an important question or it wouldn't have been asked.
"Yep, we both are. In fact, that's where we're headed now, back to our wives. They're going to be worried that we're not home."
"Sit down. You ain't either of you married. I can tell that right off. Married men have a certain look. Lord knows I had it when my wife was alive. Ain't neither of you got it at the moment but you will have."
"What d'ya mean we will have?" piped up Heath, worried at the way the conversation was going.
"I won't beat about the bush with you young fella. I'm needing husbands for my two daughters and you fit the bill. My girls ain't fussy and y'all do on three counts. Ya single, ya here and y'ain't got no visible means of escape. Well not without getting a bullet in ya back leastwise. Soon as the preacher's here we're going to have ourselves a double wedding. You might as well wait peaceable until he comes."
Nick stood up only to be yanked down again by the faceless hands from behind.
"You can't be serious. Me and my brother ain't marrying anybody. Why, we've never even met your daughters."
He saw the barrel of a rifle come into view.
"Hey, you don't think we ... I mean that we... with your daughters.. I tell ya, it just ain't possible. I tell ya there's been some horrible mistake."
"Calm down young'un. I knows yuz ain't set sight on my daughters yet. Don't matter. It ain't 'cos their pregnant that I'm getting ya to marry them."
"Jeez, then why?" Heath said incredulously.
"Plain and simple lad. My girls need husbands. No prospect of them getting them round here. You'll do for them. Ain't no point in arguing son, my mind's made up. I promised their mother I'd see them settled. My way might be a tad unconventional but the results are the same."
At that point both daughters came into view. Nick was relieved that they didn't take after their father and brothers. Both were blonde, pretty and had good figures. Under different circumstances.....Nick let his thoughts tail off.
"Emmie, Mercy, meet your husbands to be. Don't care which you pick but be quick about it."
Nick saw the slightly taller of the two make a beeline for him.
"He's mine Pa," she said as she felt his broad shoulders and sat on his lap, stroking his face."
"But Pa" said the other one who was much more reserved. "You can't be serious. You can't surely want to see us married off to strangers."
"Quiet Mercy, you know that sister of yours scares off any likely suitors. Men don't come around here or hadn't you noticed. You two will marry them and I won't brook any argument. Now get yourselves ready. The preacher will be here any minute."
Emmie left Nick's lap reluctantly. "See ya soon lover."
Nick face went ashen. He'd honestly never been so scared in his life.
A knock at the door signaled the preacher had arrived. Both brothers knew they were cornered.
Now as Nick Barkley woke up to the morning he found his new wife wrapped around him like a second skin. Boy that had been some night. The woman was insatiable, he hadn't stood a chance. Her body had been all over him, what was a guy suppose to do? He wondered how Heath had fared in the other room. He tried to stir without waking her, thoughts of an escape still in his mind. He felt the key in his hand. It had been hard work but he had finally prized it from her. Now to get Heath and get outta here. She woke immediately and pulled him back into her. He prayed his body wouldn't respond. He didn't pray hard enough.
"Morning lover." Emmie smiled knowingly at her husband, she ran her hand over his chest. He stopped it traveling any further.
"The name's Nick ma'am, Nick will do........"
"Ma'am? Kinda formal, ain't ya? What happened to Emmie? Emmie Barkley, Mrs Nicholas Barkley, it's got a nice ring to it, don't ya think?"
Nick didn't bother to answer. He was desperately trying not to be stirred by the sight of her breasts which she was slowly and teasingly revealing to him from under the sheet. She was a temptress alright and he was surely being tempted. He fought to take control of the situation.
"Lookee here Emmie, it's all been very nice but you can't seriously think me and Heath can stay married to you and your sister. We've got to get serious here. You've got to help us out."
Emmie looked at him bemusedly, her hand was slowly caressing her left breast and she could see he was transfixed by it's movement. Did he really think she was going to let him go after last night? He maybe a reluctant husband but he showed no reluctance in bed.
"I can't go against my Pa," she said innocently. "He promised my Ma we would be looked after and that he'd find us husbands. That's simply what Pa did. Nope, I can't ever go against my Pa. Besides......" she attempted to stroke his chest once again, "you weren't so keen to be shot of me last night. Seems to me you enjoyed being married to me last night or had you forgotten." As she said the last words, she moved her hand from his chest and put a finger up to her mouth, bringing his focus to their soft ruby color. She moistened her lips with her tongue and unbeknown to him he mirrored her actions. Again, he fought to control the situation.
"Well it's a new day today and we've got to face it. Your father forced my brother and I to marry you and your sister. Aww, c'mon Emmie. You can't want to be married to a man who doesn't want to be married to you."
Within moments her mouth was devouring him.
"Can't I Nick?" she said, her kisses and body covering him, possessing him, crushing all his defenses.
The reluctant husband found himself surrendering all too easily. What was a man to do?' he thought before hungrily kissing her back.
Heath Barkley woke up to find his bed empty save for himself. His wife was nowhere to be seen. His mind locked again on how all this could have happened. He sat up and pulled his legs to the side of the bed and stretched out his arms. As he did so the door opened. His wife walked in carrying a tray.
"Morning." He said, covering his lower body quickly with a sheet.
He was still wearing his longjohns but their close fit left little to the imagination. He didn't bother to cover his upper body and she took in the muscled tone and chest hair that peeked out from the buttons he'd left open, his practice being never to button the front up fully. She was glad he didn't see the blush that spread across her cheeks. He was too preoccupied in making sure he was covered up elsewhere.
She put the tray down on the dressing table and caught a look at him in the reflection. She could see he was searching for his pants. He was strikingly good looking and she knew she had got herself a catch but the method of the wedding had shamed her. He hadn't wanted to get married. Only the threat of a bullet in his back had made him utter those vows. He meant nothing by them. They meant nothing to him. She knew she couldn't go against her father or her brothers. Pa's heart was in the right place but he could be a fierce man when he was riled. She'd felt the back of his hand too many times over the years to think otherwise.
She looked in the mirror again and decided to put him out of his misery. She went behind the screen and retrieved his pants. "Here. You left them behind there last night."
"Thanks." he said, unsure of what to say next.
He didn't need to for just at that moment the door burst open and in walked old man Prescott.
"Don't you know how to knock?" said Heath contemptuously.
"It's my house, don't see any need to," the old man replied.
"The fact that your daughter and I are married don't make a difference?" said Heath questioningly, unable to believe that the old man would just walk in on them that way.
"Married is you? Don't see much evidence of that looking at the state of this bed."
Heath saw Mercy crimson and he wasn't sure he wasn't reddening too. It was clear from the bed that Heath and Mercy had spent the night apart from each other.
The old man moved to where his daughter was standing and roughly caught her by the wrist.
"Girl, I hope you know where your duties lie. That man's your husband now, don't be shaming me or the family."
Mercy was mortified but more afraid that he would strike her.
"I understand Pa," she eventually managed to reply.
Heath grew angry at her rough treatment, his anger already simmering from when the old man had walked into their room. He noticed her trembling. She literally cowered in front of her father.
He got up from the bed ignoring the fact that he was still in his underwear and with force removed the father's hand from Mercy's wrist. The father resisted but eventually had to yield to the younger man's superior strength.
"Prescott, take ya hands off my wife. Lay a hand on her again and you'll have me to deal with."
The old man gave him a grinning and toothless smile and then drew his gun up from his holster to Heath's abdomen.
"Ain't you forgetting something? You don't exactly call the shots around here or am I missing something?"
He looked the tall man up and down in his underwear and then turned back to his daughter.
"Daughter heed what I say. Next time you lie down with your husband make sure you do your wifely duties. You're married now and there ain't no turning back."