Sweeter Than Honey
Honey Cafferty lives a happy but precarious existence as a traveling saleswoman, searching for a sense of belonging. From her colorful wagon she brews decoctions to cure ennui, sleeplessness, hysteria — and after a visit from a mysterious Mexican curandera — she believes she’s found the way to improve a man’s libido. But how can she package her “Elixir of Love” without being run out on a rail from the nearest town for selling something that produces such carnal effects?
Sheriff Joe Tanner is protective of his little town and downright hostile toward anyone who takes advantage of the fine folk in Two-Mule, Texas. When sees the gypsy wagon roll into town, he’s ready to hurry the snake oil salesman on his way, but Honey isn’t what he expected. When the men of the town begin to plead exhaustion and place the blame for their state squarely on the pretty little redhead’s shoulders, he has to investigate.
Warning! Be prepared to sweat and laugh! Sweeter Than Honey is a prequel story to the Lone Star Lovers series!
The novella was previously published as “A Taste of Honey,” but has been revised.
Read an Excerpt
“Sheriff, you’ve gotta do somethin’ about that woman!”
The note of exasperation in Curly Hicks’ voice was one Joe Tanner had heard often in the past couple of days—at least from the unmarried men of the town. He didn’t need to ask which woman he was talking about—he already knew who was responsible for Curly’s agitation. Her name was on everybody’s lips, although the tones with which her name was spoken varied widely.
He was curious what the normally reticent shopkeeper had to say about the lady in question. “Just what do you want me to do about her, Curly?”
“Send her packin’! She’s up to somethin’. Cain’t tell you ‘xactly what, but ever since she came, nothin’s been the same.”
So, he wasn’t the only one to notice. Since the day Honey Cafferty’s fancy painted wagon had rolled into town, the mood around Two Mule had seemed…expectant, like the town itself was wakening from a long slumber and suddenly discovering it was every joyful holiday all wrapped inside one bright, shining moment.
Which posed a dilemma for Joe. Two Mule had elected him to keep the peace and things had been riding smooth like a Conestoga over flat land–no bumps, no bone-jarring thuds. So far, the townfolk had been pretty satisfied with their lives. It was a quiet place—the right kind of town to set down deep roots—and he intended to keep it that way.
However, Honey Cafferty had a way about her that was anything but quiet. She radiated shimmering sensuality, from her vibrant red hair and cat-like green eyes to her lushly curved lips and body. Everything about her shouted like Fourth of July fireworks and crazily spinning whirligigs, eliciting a restless hunger in him that had no place in his tidy little life.
Just looking at the woman made his teeth ache, made him want to touch the fire he sensed smoldered just below the surface of her sweet-smelling peaches ’n’ cream skin.
“Whatcha gonna do, Sheriff?”
Not what he really wanted to, that was for damn sure. “Has she committed a crime?”
Curly’s cheeks reddened. “You’re not list’nin’ to me. Amos Handy didn’t open his smithy shop ’til half past noon, yesterday. That ain’t never happened before.”
“Why do you think Miss Cafferty had something to do with that?”
“Amos’s wife bought a bottle of her special ee-lixir the day before.”
“So, you think Miss Cafferty poisoned Amos?”
“I’m not sayin’ she did it on purpose, but Letty was sure lookin’ happy when I came to see what was wrong. And you know that woman has the sourest disposition of any female this side of the Mississippi.”
“What about Amos? Did he look like he was sickening?”
“Well, no. But he’s mighty tired, he says. Said he was gonna close his shop for a couple of days—take a vacation. You ever heard such a load of horseshit in all yer born days?”
“Still don’t see where Miss Cafferty fits in with all this.”
“Sheriff, you need to open your eyes,” Curly said, his own eyes bugging wide. “Look at all the married folk. The men are lookin’ glassy-eyed and the women are hummin’ like mosquitoes. I tell you, it’s that woman’s fault!”
“What about you, Curly? Do you have any complaints?”
“I’m plain tuckered out keepin’ one step ahead of Sally. She’s been tryin’ to get me to stop by for her apple pie, but she has that look in her eye, again.”
“Which one’s that?”
“That marryin’ look. The one what’s got me too sceert to step outside her mama’s parlor for a kiss. It might be all over for me,” he said dolefully.
Joe suppressed a smile. Not that he blamed Curly for his skittishness. Despite his longing to set down roots, the thought of marriage made him itch, too. “Do you know anything about this special elixir the Cafferty woman’s selling?”
“Nope. Soon as she sold her dyspepsia cures, she shooed the menfolk away for a private chat with the ladies. They sure as hell aren’t talkin’ about what she give ’em.”
“Have you asked her straight out what she’s been selling to the womenfolk?”
Curly’s cheeks grew a fiery red. “I cain’t do that, Sheriff,” he said, his tone mournful. “I open my mouth to have my say, and all she has to do is aim those pretty green eyes my way and I’m meltin’ like icecream on a hot summer day. Before you know it, she’s done sold me somethin’ else I don’t need!”
Joe pressed his lips into a straight line to keep from laughing. Yes siree! Looking into the woman’s eyes did test the mettle of a man. If a man wasn’t on guard against her charm, she’d tie his tongue in knots and swell his…
Best not let his mind head down that dusty trail. “Tell you what, Curly. I’ll pay a visit to Miss Cafferty. See if there’s anything to your story.”
“Don’t have to go out to her campsite. She’s in the saloon, right now. That was the other thing I was gonna mention. No righteous woman like she claims to be oughta be rollin’ on the floor of a saloon with Paddy Mulligan! It’s just not seemly.”
Joe stiffened. “She’s in the saloon?” At Curly’s solemn nod, he grabbed his hat and stomped out of his office onto the planked walkway, making a beeline for the Rusty Bucket. Miss Cafferty had seemed so coy, so modest, when he’d sold her the permit to solicit. She’d dressed in an outfit any Eastern-raised schoolmarm would have given the nod. He should have listened to his gut in the first place. No decent woman had ever made him so damn out of control. She was just like the rest of those independent-minded women who thought society’s rules somehow didn’t apply to them.
The red hair had been a bright glaring clue to her true nature–no matter that it was always neatly styled and pinned. She’d snookered him just like she had the rest of the townsfolk.
He slammed his palms against the swinging doors leading into the saloon and came to a halt. A ring of men filled the center of the room. Those on the outer perimeter stood on tiptoe to peer over the shoulders of the men standing at the center of the circle.
He elbowed his way inside and sucked a slow breath between his teeth to calm the anger that burned hot and fast as a match to gunpowder.
The sight that greeted him only raised the pressure pounding in his head another notch. The “shy and modest” Miss Cafferty straddled the barrel chest of the town drunk, her petticoats rising above her knees. Her woolen stockings hugged an expanse of ankle and calf that drew every male eye watching her wrestle the behemoth.
Paddy Mulligan groaned beneath her, sounding like a cross between a drunken bear and a man in the last throes of lust. Given his sorry state, Joe suspected his moans were due more to the heat from the woman’s open legs rubbing his wide belly and her bottom bumping his private parts than the wicked set of shiny pliers she had shoved inside his mouth.
Joe’s own body reacted swiftly, urgently. That was the last damn straw! “Woman, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Honey Cafferty blew an errant curl of flaming-red hair from her eyes. “Not now,” she said, not looking away from Paddy’s tonsils. “Now Paddy, if you’d let me give you my special painkiller first—”
“Smelled like skunk fart,” one of the men in the circle said. “Don’t blame him for refusin’.”
“Shoulda just let him get drunk first,” another said.
“Drinking spirits makes a man bleed faster.” Honey muttered and twisted her wrist, eliciting a strangled groan from Paddy.
“Yeah, but then he wouldn’t give a damn,” said the bartender, who stood with his arms folded over his chest, a glower darkening his usually jovial face.
“Someone’s standing in my light,” Honey said and looked over her shoulder. When she caught sight of Joe, her eyes blinked and she gave him a weak smile. “If you’d just shift to your left, Sheriff, I’ll be done with this extraction in just a minute.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed, but he moved sideways, taking a deep breath to calm the fury building inside him. He’d bide his time for now, but he and the little “lady” were gonna have a talk.
Her hand twisted again, and Paddy’s eyes rolled back in his head.
“Thank the Lord, he passed right out,” said the bartender, looking as pale as a ghost.
Both Honey’s hands wrapped around the pliers and she leaned back. Everybody drew a deep breath and more than one man’s face winced as she yanked a blackened tooth out of Paddy’s mouth.
“Got it!” She raised it high for everyone to see. “When he wakes up, he’ll feel so much better.”
She plucked the tooth off the end of her pliers and tucked it inside Paddy’s shirt pocket. Then she reached for a tapestry carpet bag lying on the floor beside her. She pulled out a small folded paper and poured a rough yellow-brown powder into her palm, then packed the powder into the bleeding hole she’d left in Paddy’s gum. “That should stop the bleeding and help him some with the pain.”
She wiped her hands on a bar towel, and then clambered off his chest and smoothed down her skirts, pulling her cuffs back down her forearms, cool as a cucumber, while the crowd of fascinated men watched her put herself to rights.
Joe had no doubt that every man there was reversing the process in his mind. His cock surged again against the placket of his trousers, which only made him madder.
When she finished, she flashed a bright smile. “Now, if anyone else has trouble with an aching tooth, you know who to come to.”
There were a lot of heads shaking and low mutters among the men. However reluctant they might be for a visit from her plier-wielding hands, half a dozen men still reached down to pick up her bag.
“Thank you, gentlemen. I’ll leave you to your business.”
The crowd parted like the Red Sea for Moses, and she sailed right through, brushing past Joe with a ladylike nod.
He clamped his jaw tight and turned to follow her out the doors. On the planked sidewalk, he caught her arm. “Now, wait a minute there. You and I are gonna have us a little talk.”
“Oh? Do you need a tooth pulled, too?” she said, a smile tugging the corners of her lips.
He narrowed his eyes. She wasn’t wriggling her way out of this with charm. A quick glance behind them, and he realized the swinging doors were open and the men had spilled onto the walkway to watch them.
All he needed now was for a few of that beer guzzling crowd to decide a rescue was in order. “You’re coming to my office.”
“Anything you say,” she said, her voice soft and a little breathless.
Her feminine tone had his loins tightening again, and he dropped her arm like he’d touched a red-hot poker. Hectic color rose on her cheeks and her gaze widened as she stared up at him. She was starting to look worried, which suited him just fine.
Extending his hand in front of him, he let her precede him down the walkway. She took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and glided down the sidewalk like she owned it.
A breeze caught her light rosewater scent and wafted it right under his nose. Without her gaze keeping his appropriately engaged, he was free to look his fill–and he did, his glance sliding down the slim straight line of her back to the flare of the womanly hips that twitched from side to side. It was all he could do not to reach down and adjust the front of his trousers.
They passed the front of Curly Hicks’ store and several interested gazes followed. At the doorway, Mrs. Sessions, the preacher’s wife, gave Honey a wide, beaming smile.
Honey shook her head and murmured, “Not now, Daisy. The sheriff wants a word with me.”
Daisy Sessions’ gaze landed on him and two round spots of color rose on her cheeks. “Later then, my dear.”
Odd, but the woman looked flustered, almost guilty.
Finally, they reached his office and Honey breezed inside. He closed the door behind him and turned to find more faces peering through the window. He cursed under his breath and pointed to the inner room where the jailhouse was.
Her back stiffened, but she didn’t demur and stepped inside. When he had her out of sight and hearing of all the interested folk of Two Mule, he lifted a foot and nudged the door closed behind them.
Honey had her back to him and her slim hand lifted to smooth back her hair.
He stayed silent, deciding to let her stew for a minute. When a body got nervous, she tended to talk and Joe wanted to hear everything the little lady had to say.
At last, she cleared her throat and turned, a small, tight smile pasted on her lips. “Am I under arrest, Sheriff?”
“Should you be?”
Her breath gasped, lifting her gently rounded chest against her staid gray shirtwaist jacket. “You’re angry with me.”
He crossed his arms across his chest and leaned his back against the door and tried not to think too hard about the fact they were completely alone. A tantalizing prospect he’d imagined often the past couple of days.
As he watched her standing in the narrow, darkly lit room with the bars of the cell block behind her, his imaginings became disturbingly carnal. He cleared his throat and forced his mind back to business. “I sold you a license to solicit your medicines,” he said, keeping his voice even although the memory of her straddling Paddy Mulligan still burned hot. “Yet I found you rolling on the floor of a saloon performing surgery.”
She gave a short, strained laugh. “I wasn’t rolling on the floor–Paddy’s a large man and I couldn’t see into his mouth when he was seated. Besides, I only pulled a tooth. I do have some expertise–”
“I’m getting complaints about possible poisonings–”
“Poison!” Her finely arched brows rose. “I don’t deal in poisons, sir.”
“Then explain why all the married men in town have taken to their beds.”
She opened her mouth, but quickly clamped it shut. Her back straightened.
“You don’t deny you’re responsible?”
A blush the color of the pink roses his mama used to grow spread quickly across her cheeks and down her neck to disappear beneath her collar. “It’s not what you think, Sheriff.”
He wondered if the blush extended to her breasts, but didn’t dare let his gaze fall below her rounded chin. “Then tell me exactly what it is.”
She lifted that stubborn chin high. “I can’t. That information is privileged. Meant to remain private between me and the persons I sold the medicine to, like a priest receiving confessions or a doctor—”
“You’re no doctor. Those rules don’t apply.”
“Have you talked to these men? Have any of them made complaints against me?”
“No, but you’re up to something, and I don’t want any trouble.” And she was trouble with a capital ’T.’ “I’m thinking you should hitch up your wagon and head on down the road.”
She blinked and, for a moment, her expression faltered. “I had hoped to winter here. Mrs. Sessions—”
“—is an innocent lady. She’s not wise to your ways.”
Her stillness cut him, and he felt heat warm the back of his neck and the tips of his ears. He’d crossed the line between being professional and being cruel.
Then her chin jutted higher, and her hands fisted on her hips. “You’re implying I’m not…innocent?”
His gaze swept over her, from the tip of her red-haired head to her toes. Another insult. He couldn’t seem to help himself where she was concerned. Something about her had him firing with both barrels blazing. “You travel alone—without chaperone. What’s a man supposed to think about that?”
She took a step closer, her eyebrows drawing together in a fierce scowl. “Being alone in the world means I’m a whore?” she said, her voice rising.
“A decent woman,” he bit out, “would set roots in a community—seek help and protection from a husband or her neighbor.”
“I don’t need any man to protect me or my virtue, sir.”
“I’ll grant you had me and most of the town fooled. But your charm’s a little too practiced, and you’ve got a slick tongue—”
Her mouth gaped and her cheeks went from pink to a dark red that clashed with her bright hair. “A slick tongue?”
Her anger goaded him on like a burr under a saddle. “You’re a snake oil salesman, a charlatan—”
She stepped so close her chest nearly touched his, and she glared up into his face. “Now, you look here, buster!” she said, pointing a finger at his chest and giving him a nudge. “I’m a business woman. I sell cures people need. I haven’t broken any laws, and I sure as hell haven’t poisoned one damn person in this town.” She paused to catch her breath…and that’s when it happened.
Her breasts brushed his chest, and he felt a spark arc between their bodies, igniting a fire as fierce as lightning striking dry prairie grass. It filled his loins with a heavy, pulsating heat and drew his balls tight and close to his groin. His hands shot out and grasped her shoulders to pull her flush against his body, but he halted, holding her an inch away. What he wanted of her wasn’t very civilized. Best not cross that line.
“Sheriff!” Her plump pink lips gasped, but her head tilted back.
Invitation enough. He slammed his mouth down onto hers even while he damned himself for being a fool.