Authors: Jill Gregory
To Larry and Rachel—my favorite, and most beloved characters of all, with love forever
And to Karen A. Katz, Marianne Willman, and Ruth Ryan Langan—dear friends and most splendid kindred spirits, with enduring love and friendship
Print edition published by Dell
Copyright 1996, 2015 by Jill Gregory
Digital Edition published by Jill Gregory 2015
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Digital formatting by
A Thirsty Mind Book Design
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He’d never stalked a woman before.
He didn’t much like it. But there was no other way.
As he sat with his hat pulled low over his eyes and his long legs stretched out beneath a small square table in the Ginger Horse Saloon, the tall, quiet stranger drank whiskey and let the talk swirl around him, talk as thick and heavy as the tobacco smoke that drifted over the baize-topped gaming tables and the gleaming mahogany bar.
The place was like many others he had passed through in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada. Flocked red-velvet wallpaper, brass chandeliers. A big, crowded room teeming with cowboys and ranchers and townsmen. There were some gamblers and a half dozen red-lipped women in cheap, gaudy dresses and strong perfume—heady floral fragrances that vied for attention with the odors of tobacco, whiskey, and sweat. A piano player pounded at the keys of the instrument in the corner; coins clinked; boots scraped against the floor.
A typical place, the stranger thought, full of colors, sounds, smells.
Talk about Melora Deane.
She was the belle of the town, maybe even the belle of the territory, from the sound of it. Daughter of rancher Craig Deane of the Weeping Willow Ranch, one of the largest spreads around.
He’d already seen the ranch. But not the girl—not yet.
He finished his whiskey, ordered another, and listened some more.
Almost everyone in the Ginger Horse had something to say about her. People talked openly, admiringly. They said she was a handful. A beauty. They said she was every inch her father’s daughter.
And they said she was getting married tomorrow to Wyatt Holden.
The stranger was the only one who knew she wasn’t.
Because tomorrow at this time Melora Deane would have vanished. And the stranger in the gray shirt and sleek black pants, with the silver handled gun belt slung low on his hips and the dark blue neckerchief loosely knotted at his throat, was the only one who would know what had become of her.
He didn’t want her. But he was going to take her anyway.
Because there wasn’t going to be any wedding for this talked-about happy couple; there was only going to be a funeral.
An uproarious burst of laughter erupted from the poker players near the window, followed by someone shouting for another round of drinks.
The stranger paid for his whiskey, glanced neither here nor there, and strode out the double doors into the Wyoming dusk.
It was time.
Weeping Willow Ranch
Melora Deane hunched her tired shoulders over her father’s desk and frowned down at the sea of payroll ledgers before her.
A cold, hard lump of rage rose in her throat. “Those damned rustlers! I’d like to string up every single one of them!”
She brushed back several loose strands of dark gold hair that had escaped from her ponytail and forced herself to read the figures over again. Maybe there was a mistake.
There wasn’t. Melora closed her eyes, the lump in her throat tightening into a thick knot.
Outside the window a meadowlark sang, a beloved, familiar song she’d heard all her life. The sound was both lovely and painful, ripping through her heart.
She took a deep breath and compressed her lips, thinking of the vast, beautiful Wyoming rangeland that stretched for miles in every direction, of the cattle grazing freely across the rolling Deane property.
Anger flooded her.
She and Jinx were rooted here, to every inch of grassland and foothill that encompassed the Weeping Willow. It was their home, their birthright. And they were in danger of losing it forever.
First we lost Pop. Now we’re in danger of losing the ranch. I won’t... won’t... let it happen.
She dropped her head and scrubbed her knuckles across her wet eyes.
Don’t cry. Think!
she told herself furiously. But it was hard to hold back the tears. She loved the Weeping Willow with every fiber of her being, and so did Jinx. It was their legacy from Pop, it represented everything he’d built, everything he’d been.
But now the rustlers who’d murdered him were destroying the ranch too.
And so far she hadn’t found a way to stop them.
“For a girl who’s getting married tomorrow, you’re working much too hard.” Aggie Kerns scolded her from the study doorway.
Melora glanced up, then shook her head at the slim, tiny woman who had taken care of her and her sister since their mother died eight years ago. Nearly sixty, with small shell blue eyes and gray curls that sprang out all over her head, Aggie was a reassuring presence, firm and practical and loving. She possessed a brisk manner and a warm heart, and she was wonderful with Jinx. Especially lately, since the accident.
“Don’t lecture me, Aggie.” Melora grimaced. “I just have to go over another set of books—”
“No, you don’t, Mel. Not tonight. Why, tomorrow this time you’ll be on your honeymoon, and you haven’t even done all your packing yet, I’ll wager.”
As the girl conceded this with a guilty nod, Aggie sighed. Melora Deane was a beautiful, spirited young woman, and at twenty she had more energy than five cowhands put together, but since her father’s murder she’d darn near worked herself to death. Enough was enough. Aggie bustled into the study and placed both her spider-veined hands on the mahogany desk.
“Just as I thought. Now listen to me, honey. You let Wyatt take over all these financial matters for you after you’re married. See if he can’t sort things out. My word, you’ve done enough worrying about stock and rustlers and expenses to last you a lifetime.”
“We’ll see.” Melora opened the center drawer and replaced the ledger books. “I don’t want the Weeping Willow to be a burden to him, Aggie. It’s my responsibility. But at the very least,” she added as Aggie opened her mouth to argue, “I’ll get his advice.”
Wyatt had already offered to go over all the books with a fine-tooth comb for her, to turn his considerable business acumen to the task of straightening out the affairs of the Weeping Willow Ranch. He’d even offered to invest money in more stock and to hire on more hands so that the range could be patrolled at night.
she thought, her heart fluttering as she pictured the lankily handsome black-haired man she was going to marry in only a few hours.
But Wyatt had all his town businesses to look after, as well as his own neighboring ranch, the Diamond X, which he’d inherited four months ago from his uncle.
Keeping the Weeping Willow solvent is my job,
Melora told herself. She just had to figure out a way to do it.
But Aggie was right about one thing. The mounting debts would have to wait until after her honeymoon. First things first. She was just rising from her chair to go upstairs and pack when she heard the clatter of approaching hoofbeats.
“Goodness, who can that be?” Aggie demanded.
It was Melora who strode to the study window and saw the tall gray-hatted rider approaching, handling the splendid black stallion with the confident ease of a man long accustomed to being in control. At the sight of him the smile that had won Melora Deane countless hearts sparkled across her face.
“It’s Wyatt!” she exclaimed, and shot out the door like a firecracker.
Aggie watched from the window. She smiled contentedly as the slender gold-haired young woman dashed down the porch steps and across the yard to greet her intended. Even after a long day, wearing only a black and red checkered shirt and Levi’s, Melora cut a striking figure. Running lightly through the charcoal shadows of falling dusk, she glowed with the vibrancy and radiance that had always commanded admiration.
And tall, dark, roguishly handsome Wyatt Holden was the perfect complement to her slim, vivid beauty. As he dismounted and swept Melora into his arms, Aggie felt happy tears prick behind her eyelashes. It was about time Melora settled down with a man who would take care of her and help share her burdens. Yes, indeed, those two were the perfect couple.
* * *
“Let’s take a walk,” Wyatt said, after thoroughly kissing her. “I’ve brought you a present.”
“Give it to me right now, Wyatt. You know I can’t bear to wait for anything!”
He chuckled, drawing her along with him into the grove of cottonwoods beyond the corrals. “After tomorrow, honey, neither of us will have to wait for anything,” he said in a deep, low tone.
Melora grinned, and a faint blush stained her cheeks. She knew what Wyatt was referring to. Their first night of lovemaking. It would be so strange to lie in bed with him... and it would be beautiful too, she told herself quickly.
Anticipation tingled through her, with only a little bit of anxiety thrown in.
she thought in wonder, studying Wyatt’s smooth profile as hand in hand they strolled beneath the cottonwoods.
Tomorrow night this handsome man with the charming drawl and the adorable dimples will be my husband.
She’d known him only a few months, but it was all the time she needed. Wyatt had arrived in Rawhide after his uncle Jed Holden, the Deanes’ neighbor, had succumbed to pneumonia and left the Diamond X Ranch to him. From the moment Melora set eyes on him at the May Day town dance, she’d known that he was different from all of the other men who’d pursued her. Those others, both at school in Boston and here in Wyoming, had been boys. Wyatt Holden was a man. A self-assured, intelligent, sophisticated man, who didn’t fawn over her or show off in front of her or drive her loco trying to steal a kiss. That wasn’t his style.
He had quickly become one of Rawhide’s leading citizens, respected even by her father’s friends, the older, established ranchers in the valley. He had investments all over the West, he’d told her, a fleet of fishing boats in San Francisco, a freight company in Kansas, and a saloon in Nevada. He’d bought a livery stable in Rawhide already and was considering taking over the Paradise Saloon as well.
“I’m investing my future in Rawhide,” he’d explained the night he proposed.
“Because I love you.”
He’d gone down on one knee in the ranch house parlor, gripped both her hands in his, and urged her to share that future with him.
Now the future was about to begin.
she thought, thinking with shivery anticipation of the extravagant pink satin nightdress she had splurged on from Lacy’s catalog, which she intended to wear tomorrow night. She imagined herself gliding toward Wyatt in that lovely floating confection, pictured the way his eyes would light as he studied her. He would sweep her into his arms. And they would kiss—a long, dreamy kiss. And then he would untie the silk ribbons holding the bodice together and—
Her thoughts broke off abruptly as Wyatt halted beside a fallen log. “Have a seat right here, Melora. And close your eyes. Now, give me your hand.”
Into her outstretched palm he placed a small box wrapped with a yellow velvet bow.
The sight of it almost made her forget her worries about the ranch. Melora’s gold-flecked brown eyes shone with anticipation as she lifted the lid. Then she caught her breath, and her mouth formed a perfect O. “Wyatt, it’s lovely!” she gasped, carefully lifting out the exquisite ivory cameo nestled inside. Its thin gold chain glistened in the fading light. “I’ve never seen anything half as beautiful.”
“I have.” Wyatt tipped her chin up and gazed down at her, his expression so intent she felt her pulse begin to race. “Every time I look at you, Melora, I see the most beautiful treasure on earth.”
Was there ever a sweeter, more wonderful man? Melora flushed with pleasure as he fastened the clasp for her. His touch was warm, sure, and gentle. She imagined those sure hands touching her tomorrow night in their hotel suite. Imagined them undressing her. And a quivering warmth spread through her, filling her with anticipation.
Wyatt’s smile was full and satisfied as he studied the cameo circling her throat. Pleasure gleamed in his deep-set, piercing blue eyes. “There now. It’s not half as pretty as you are, honey, but as a little pre-wedding token of my affection, it’ll do. Are you excited about tomorrow? All packed for the honeymoon, I hope.”
“Actually I have a little more to do. I’ve been working on the payroll... oh, let’s not talk about it.”
He sat down beside her on the log. His dark eyebrows drew together as he smoothed back a strand of her silken hair, which had fallen over one eye. “I hate to see you tiring yourself out and worrying endlessly about the ranch. After the wedding I’m going to take over for you.”
“I can’t ask that of you. The Weeping Willow’s debts are my responsibility—” she began, but Wyatt cut her off, frowning, placing a finger against her lips.
“And you’re my responsibility, Melora. Don’t you trust me to straighten out your affairs?”
“Of course I do!” Distressed at this very notion, Melora threw her arms around his neck. “It’s not that at all. Wyatt, I just hate to bother you with my problems.” She searched his face anxiously. “You’ve had your own share of troubles to deal with; the rustlers have been stealing from the Diamond X as well. And you have all your other businesses to keep track of.”
Wyatt paid no heed at all to the squirrels chasing one another through the brush or to the purple darkness gathering all around them. His vivid blue eyes fixed themselves upon her intently, and his voice was low and strong.
“There’s nothing more important to me than your happiness, Melora. Nothing. And I know you won’t be happy if you lose the Weeping Willow. Believe me, honey, I’ll do everything in my power to help save it for you.”
Gratitude swelled within her. For so long she’d wrestled alone with the burden of keeping the ranch going. It still took some getting used to, the notion that she was going to have a husband who wanted to help her, a man whom she could depend on to stand by her and Jinx. Relief, gratitude, and love poured through her as she tightened her arms around Wyatt’s neck and kissed him.
“Thank you, Wyatt. I can’t thank you enough. I promise not to dump all my problems in your lap, but I would appreciate some help. Some advice...”
“Whatever I can do.” His lips nuzzled hers, warmly, excitingly. “We’ll tackle all these problems right after the honeymoon. In the meantime,” he told her, tracing a finger across her delicate jaw, “I don’t want Mrs. Wyatt Holden worrying her head over matters that her husband can attend to. You’ll have your hands full searching out the right doctor for Jinx and making her travel arrangements—”
A shrill cry rang out from the ranch house, breaking into the fragrant peace of the night.
“That sounded like Jinx!” Melora jumped up, fear darkening her eyes. She heard something carried on the wind that sounded like a sob. “Something’s wrong!”
She started to run, with Wyatt right after her. Terror struck deep in her heart as she darted back the way they’d come, past the bunkhouse and the stables, the outbuildings and corrals. Suddenly the cry came again, and this time she could make out the words.
Wyatt pounded across the porch before her and swung open the front door. Melora bolted inside. “Jinx, where are you?” she shouted frantically.
“Here, she’s in the kitchen,” Aggie called, and together Mel and Wyatt sprinted through the hall and the parlor and halted as they reached the kitchen door.
Huddled there on the floor was Jinx, a small, bony vision of waist-length red-gold hair and huge olive green eyes brimming with tears. She was lying a few feet from her invalid chair, sobbing heartbrokenly as Aggie knelt beside her and cradled her in her arms.
“I t-tried to walk. I wanted to s-surprise you... to walk down the aisle at your w-wedding.” The little girl wailed as Wyatt moved forward and lifted her from the floor.
Melora pushed the cane-backed invalid chair out of the way. “Wyatt, please bring her into the parlor.” Seizing Jinx’s hand, she hurried along with them as Wyatt carried the eleven-year old across the kitchen.
“Are you hurt?” she asked anxiously, scanning the small pale face as Aggie followed close behind.
“N-no, I banged my elbow, but—”
“Anything else hurt?” Melora sat beside her as soon as Wyatt set the child upon the chintz sofa mounded with pillows.
“No. I’m sorry to... scare you, but I wanted to surprise you. It was going to be my w-wedding present!”
“And it would be the best present in the world!” Melora assured her, fighting to keep her own tears from spilling out of her eyes. “But it can wait, Jinx. There’s no hurry. Once the doctor finds out what’s wrong, I’m sure you’ll be walking in no time!”
Jinx hadn’t taken a step since that early morning last spring when Craig Deane had been shot by rustlers on his own south range. Jinx, who had been out riding, had made the horrible discovery by herself, stumbling across their father’s body lying in the brush. He’d been shot in the head.