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Authors: A Family For Carter Jones

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He wouldn’t have much time for finesse, and, anyway, when Jennie was around, his lawyerly skills seemed to totally disappear. “So how long do I have to wait before you’ll realize that you’re going to have to marry me?” he blurted.

Nicely put, Carter, he chided himself. Hell’s bells but the woman had a way of twisting up his tongue.

“When the devil’s den turns to ice. Would that be soon enough?” She definitely sounded grumpy.

He tried to remember the mood they’d been in when their physical union had seemed so inevitable last night. If he could just recreate that, it might be easier than making his point with words. He slipped an arm around her shoulder. She was shivering. “You’re cold, sweetheart. Here, lean up against me.”

She let him pull her against his side, but her voice stayed cool as she said, “This isn’t going to work, Carter. It’s absurd to think of the two of us getting married. Even if I
did
intend to marry someone, you and I would never suit.”

Though she seemed unmoved by the sudden proximity of their bodies, Carter was not. He could feel her firm breast against his side and it was all the trigger his body needed to bring the erotic images of the previous evening flooding back. “I think we suited quite well last night and this morning,” he murmured, and bent his head toward her mouth.

She was too fast for him, scooting away on the slippery wood of the swing. “I’m sorry, Carter, but this won’t do. I’m appreciative of all your help taking me to see Kate, and grateful for the way you stood up to the sheriff for me today, but you must see that
it’s simply not sensible for us to be alone together anymore. Not after…” The slight tremor in her voice told Carter that she wasn’t as cool about the situation as she was trying to appear. “Not after what happened,” she finished.

Her big brown eyes looked almost pleading, giving him a sudden pang of guilt. Her silverheels had been right after all. She was exhausted, much too tired for him to be trying to put pressure on her about a decision this important. Town gossip be damned, he’d have to wait until tomorrow to get this settled.

He stood and offered his hands to pull her up from the swing. “What you need is a good night’s sleep, young lady.” He tried not to be bothered at her expression of relief.

“Thank you for understanding,” she said, taking his hands and standing.

She did look tired. Her face was pale and there were circles under her eyes. But nevertheless he found himself looking down at her with a fierce desire to kiss her good-night. He shoved it away and said lightly, “I guess I’d better go to the office tomorrow and earn some of the salary the taxpayers are paying me, but I’ll be back tomorrow night for supper.”

She dropped his hands and walked toward the front door. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She sounded as if she were in a hurry to be rid of his company.

Carter nodded and stood next to the swing watching as she opened the front door and went inside. After a moment he heard the sound of her laughing at something one of the miners had said. It gave him
an irrational surge of anger so strong that he sat back down on the swing in surprise.

What in hell was wrong with him? he asked himself as his weight creaked the swing into motion. Why should he care if Jennie’s miners made her laugh? Because, came the inner answer,
he
wanted to be the one to make her laugh. And he wanted to make her cry in ecstasy as they shared each other’s bodies. He wanted to make her happy and safe and loved.

Carter planted his feet on the wooden porch floor to stop the swing from moving as the realization hit him like a gust of cold wind. All of his justifications about why he needed to marry Jennie—a possible child, a possible scandal—were just so many excuses. There was only one real reason.

He gave a harsh laugh. All his life he’d used people for his own purposes. He’d befriended men when expedient to further his ambition. He’d befriended women when the physical urgings of his body required. But something had changed. In the unsophisticated little town of Vermillion, a free-spirited, stubborn, beautiful young woman had unlocked feelings he hadn’t known he possessed. Carter Jones—the man born without a name and without a heart—had fallen in love.

The rest of the miners greeted Jennie with cheers when she arrived up at the mine the next day. You’d think she’d been gone a month. It kept her smiling all morning as she took special care in preparing a hearty dinner of roast beef and beans.

She’d tossed in her bed last night for some time
before falling to sleep, but then had finally slept soundly and felt much better today than she had the previous evening. She’d resolved to concentrate on her job and her boardinghouse family and not worry about Lyle’s influence on her sister or the town’s influence on her own and Kate’s future. Trust in the Fates, her mother had always said. Well, it was time the Fates started moving things her way for a change.

She’d also resolved to put thoughts of Carter out of her head, though she was less sure about how successful she’d be in this endeavor. Over and over her mind seemed to want to keep returning to moments they’d shared in the past few days.

He’d been a gentleman last night out on the porch—fortunately. When he’d put his arm around her and looked as if he were going to kiss her, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to resist. Every inch of her was wanting to snuggle up against him and feel his lips again. But where would that get her? She had to stop this nonsense and get these ridiculous notions of marriage out of Carter’s head—and out of her own.

It was easier to be here, working in the mine’s lean-to kitchen on a crisp fall day. Several of the miners found an excuse to break their shift and wander over her way to tell her that they’d missed seeing her the past two days. Her own silverheels had checked in with her at midmorning to see if she needed anything, almost as if they wanted to assure themselves that she hadn’t gone missing again. She felt wanted and happy and self-sufficient—the perfect combination for any woman.

She’d been a fool to let her heart get tangled up in
something as complicated and risky as romance. But, as her parents had always told her, she was a smart girl. She’d feed Carter the meals he’d already paid for, then gently suggest that he take his suppers elsewhere.

She’d learned her lesson—that she was no stronger than Kate had been when faced with the onslaught of an unscrupulous male. But she would be wiser than her sister. Definite chinks had been chipped in the wall she’d carefully built around her heart. But before it could tumble, she intended to cement it back together—stronger than ever.

The doyennes had brought male reinforcement. Mrs. Billingsley, Miss Potter and Mrs. Wentworth were once again standing before him, overwhelming the limited space in his office, but this time they were joined by the banker, Harmon Wentworth. Carter wasn’t sure why he’d come along, because he had not been able to wedge a syllable into the barrage of words launched by Mrs. Billingsley and Miss Potter.

“We’ll go to the county. We’ll go to the governor, if necessary,” Mrs. Billingsley was saying. “How can they expect a respectable town to uphold its laws if the person they send to take charge is con…tracting…con…”

“Consorting,”
Margaret Potter supplied.

“Yes,
consorting
with the lawbreakers. Why, you might as well be over there in the jail playing poker with the horse thieves.”

Carter was quite sure there had never been a horse thief in the history of the tiny Vermillion jail, but he
didn’t argue the point. He was finding the conversation enlightening. Two months ago, he’d have been on his feet, bowing and scraping, fearful of offending these key town citizens—worried that they might have some power to cast aspersions on his so-farimpeccable record.

Now he sat back in his chair and viewed the foursome with indifference. It was a surprisingly liberating feeling.

“Are you calling Jenny Sheridan a horse thief, Mrs. Billingsley?” he asked with a quirk of his mouth.

“The principle’s the same,” she huffed. “Tell him, Harmon. Don’t you charge the same kind of interest if you lend out ten dollars as if you lend out a thousand?”

Mr. Wentworth opened his mouth to weigh in on this analogy, but closed it again as Miss Potter took over the assault. “The nature of the transgression is not the point here, Mr. Jones. The point is that you can no longer handle the Sheridan case since you are obviously
involved,
involved in a way that implies questionable morals on the part of both parties.”

Carter’s half smile died. He sat up straighter in the chair. “Ladies…and gentleman,” he added with a nod to the banker. “As you evidently were informed by Lyle, I did Miss Sheridan the favor of escorting her to see her sister who is in a hospital in Virginia City. This trip is no business of anyone in this town other than Miss Sheridan and myself. However, since it seems to have ruffled feathers—” he gave a sardonic glance at the rather ridiculous plumed hats both
Mrs. Wentworth and Mrs. Billingsley were wearing “—I’ll add that I can’t imagine why it’s anything other than perfectly respectable for a man to offer such service to his fiancée.”

“Fiancée!” The two feathered women exclaimed in chorus like tamed parrots.

“My future wife. Miss Sheridan,” Carter added calmly.

There was a long moment of silence. Then Harmon Wentworth asked, “You’re really going to marry the girl?”

“I really am. Now does that clear things up about this trip that you all seem so riled up about?”

Harmon frowned and said to no one in particular, “I can’t believe how girls like that can get respectable men to throw over all good sense for them.”

He was obviously thinking of his own son. Carter let the comment pass. “Was there anything else today?” he asked pleasantly.

The women were still recovering from their astonishment over Carter’s news. For once even Henrietta was at a loss for words. Harmon pulled a watch from his waistcoat. “I’ve got to get back to the bank,” he said gruffly.

He turned to leave and the three women followed with muffled goodbyes. Carter watched them go with relief. That was neatly handled, Counselor, he told himself with a disgusted shake of his head. The way the gossip mill churned in this town, Jennie would hear about their supposed engagement before he even had time to walk up the street to her house.

Perhaps he could press his suit again over dinner
at the hotel tonight. It would be dubious food, but at least she wouldn’t have to cook it. But he’d better hurry. If she learned that he’d already announced his intentions to the entire town, she’d slam the Sheridan house door in his face—slam it so hard they’d feel the breeze clear down to the courthouse.

He reached for his hat and headed out, clattering down the office stairs, a grin on his face.

Chapter Fourteen

I
n the end it was the silverheels who made it impossible for Jennie to refuse Carter’s invitation to supper. He’d gotten to Sheridan House just as the miners were arriving home from the mine. Jennie had been in the garden cleaning up what might be the last of the season’s harvest.

She’d simply laughed at his suggestion of dinner in town, but then Dennis Kelly had added his encouragement. “We can do up our own supper tonight, lass. You deserve to have a relaxing meal after the long days you’ve been putting in.”

Brad and Smitty had agreed, and Barnaby had come sailing around the corner from where he’d been cutting down the vines from the side of the house to say breathlessly, “Of course you should go, Miss Jennie. I wish I could eat in a fancy place like the hotel.”

Carter had stooped down to put his arm around the lad, retrieving the shears that he was waving around with dangerous abandon. “Barnaby, we’ll have that fine meal, I promise. In fact, I’ll take you down to
Virginia City to have one that’s really fine at the International.”

“Is that the hotel where you and Jennie stayed?”

“Yup. And you can ride the elevator, too.” Barnaby’s eyes widened. “But it won’t be for a little while. Tonight I need to talk over some things with Jennie privately.”

This last comment should have told her right away that she was crazy to agree to the evening, but when she’d tried to refuse again, the silverheels kept at her until she would have had to sound downright rude to say no.

So she’d donned her blue silk, which had been hanging outside all day to air after she’d cleaned it yesterday, and they’d headed down to the Continental Hotel, which, unlike the International, did not live up to its elegant name.

“You’re going to have to stop doing this, Carter,” she said as the waiter showed them to a table in the otherwise deserted dining room.

“Doing what?”

“Coming around, asking me to supper. The silverheels think you’re courting me.”

Carter grinned at her, his white teeth flashing and his gray eyes glinting with humor. “Smart fellows,” he said.

She refused to let his charm soften her. “No, really. It just won’t do. Now you’ve got Barnaby all excited about a trip to Virginia City.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, nothing, I suppose if…” She stopped.

“If I actually take him there?” he supplied, his
smile gone. “Jennie, do you think I would offer a special treat to a youngster who’s had very little joy in his life if I had no intention of carrying through on it? Do you really have that little faith in me?”

She shook her head and looked down at the snowy-white napkin folded on top of her plate. “I don’t know, Carter. I’m confused by all this.”

He didn’t answer for a moment, but finally he said softly, “Look at me, Jennie.” When she lifted her eyes to his he continued, “We’re never going to get anywhere until you let down some of that prickly guard of yours and start to trust me.”

When his voice was low and intense like that, she’d believe anything he said. “It’s myself I don’t trust, Carter,” she replied.

He closed his eyes briefly. When he started in again, his voice was lighter. “I’m hungry as hell. Let’s eat and then we can decide who’s going to trust whom about what.”

“You’re sounding like a lawyer again, Carter.”

“I am a lawyer, sweetheart. But don’t worry about it, we’re not in court. Now here’s a little challenge for you—find a dish on this menu that can be cut with something less than a Bowie knife.”

She laughed a little and let herself be pulled once again under the spell of his charm. The silverheels had been right. She had been working hard and worrying too much. It felt good to leave everything behind for an evening and enjoy being served food that she hadn’t had to plan and cut and prepare. Even if it tasted more like squirrel than chicken.

“What was that fancy name they put on the menu
for this?” she asked as she cleaned the last bite of the flavorless dish.

“Coq au vin, which is their way of saying chicken that’s too old to serve anymore unless we soak it in vinegar. I’m afraid haute cuisine is not one of the Continental’s strong suits.”

“Hot what?”

“Fancy cooking.”

Jennie giggled. “If that chicken was any example, I’d say it’s not even a weak suit. In fact, they’d be wise to fold their hand and take up dice.”

Carter sat back and watched her with a warm glow in his middle that had nothing to do with the mediocre wine they’d had with their supper. When she wasn’t thinking about all her problems and responsibilities, she seemed younger. Her smile was brighter, her laugh happier. He had a sudden fierce desire to keep her that way.

“Have I told you how pretty you are when your eyes sparkle like that?” he asked in a low voice, leaning close to her.

She blushed and looked pleased, but said, “I can’t hope to best you in a flirting contest, Carter. I don’t have your experience.”

He grinned at her. “It’s easy. You simply bat your eyelashes and say back to me, ‘Oh, Carter, you say such sweet things.’”

She giggled. “That sounds silly.”

“Well, flirting is silly. So then I say back, ‘I just tell the truth, darlin’.’”

“And I say, that’s not what Constance Williams
told me after you kissed her behind the schoolhouse at recess last week.”

Carter gave a hearty laugh. “See? You do have experience flirting. Was there really a Constance Williams?”

Jennie grimaced. “Yes. Now
she
had experience with flirting.”

“And she’s now happily married with six young’uns.”

“Three, but a fourth on the way. She’s married to Jack Foster, who was the one and only boy who ever made any pretense of courting me.”

“Until me.”

She gave a little sigh of resignation. “Yes, until you.”

Carter shook his head. “The men of this town are idiots.”

His vehemence was flattering. Jennie had thought the same thing herself a time or two. But that had been back when she hadn’t yet decided that she’d be better off living her life without men. In defense of her schoolmates she explained, “Oh, I think they had their reasons. The Sheridan family was always considered a bit odd. My parents lived for years in the mountains and even after they came to town to live, they never felt too obligated to do things like everyone else.”

“And their daughters grew up with the same opinion.”

“I guess we did. We were always happy just the four of us. We never needed the approval of everyone else.”

“But sometimes it’s easier to have that approval.”

“I suppose. It’s certainly easier if you want to keep a business going in this town in spite of all their stupid regulations.”

Carter nodded his agreement, but then his eyes left her face and focused with a frown on a point over her shoulder.

Jennie cranked around to see Harmon and Lucinda Wentworth coming in through the dining room door. She gave an inner groan. Up to now it had been a pleasant evening.

The waiter came to show them to a table, but they detoured on the way to walk over to Carter and Jennie. With obvious reluctance, Carter got to his feet. “Evening, Mrs. Wentworth, Mr. Wentworth,” he said.

Jennie exchanged greetings with the older couple, then sat back in her chair as Lucinda said brightly, “So it
is
true, Mr. Jones. I told Henrietta that I didn’t think you’d just tell us an outright lie.”

Carter looked as if he still had the last piece of chicken caught in his throat, as Jennie asked, “What’s true?”

Mrs. Wentworth leaned over and gave her a little pat on the cheek. “Congratulations, my dear. Mr. Jones told us the news this afternoon. When’s the wedding to be?”

Jennie looked in horror from Mrs. Wentworth to her husband, who was frowning as usual, to Carter. He looked sick…and guilty. Slowly she got to her feet, folded her napkin and pushed back her chair. “You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth,
but I have to be getting home. As to the wedding—” she smiled pleasantly “—well, now, why don’t you just ask Mr. Jones about that?”

Carter wasted little time trying to satisfy the Wentworths’ curiosity over Jennie’s abrupt exit As soon as he could arrange payment of the bill, he excused himself and took off after her. It probably looked a little strange to see the town prosecutor running up the middle of the street late in the evening, but he was beyond caring.

He caught up to her just as she was opening the gate to her yard. “Jennie, wait!” he yelled, but she ignored him and proceeded up the walk after closing the gate behind her.

Carter was forced to slow down to open the gate himself, and by that time she was up on the porch. “You might as well wait for me,” he called to her, “because if you go inside I’m just coming after you.”

She turned around. “We have nothing to talk about, Mr. Jones.”

He stalked up the path. “Yes, we do. I’m sorry the Wentworths blurted that out at the restaurant, but I only told them about our engagement—”

“Our
imaginary
engagement,” she interrupted.

“I told them because people were starting to spread nasty gossip about you.”

He was one step below her as she stood on the porch, making their eyes level. “You mean they were spreading it about
you,
which, of course, wouldn’t do. Mr. Upstanding District Attorney must not be tainted by a breath of scandal.”

“I don’t care about that,” he said, but he knew the words weren’t entirely true.

“Of course you do. Which is why I’m saving you from yourself by not marrying you.”

He took her hands. “Jennie, I’m not doing this to avoid a scandal. I
want
to marry you.”

For just an instant, she believed him, which made her realize that part of her
wanted
to believe him. Part of her wanted to take a step down into his arms and say, yes, I’ll be yours. But the sensible part of her knew it would be disastrous.

“Carter, there’s no way I could be the kind of wife you need. I’d never be doing the right thing.”

“I don’t want a wife who’ll do the right thing. I want a wife who’s loving and generous and spirited and smart. I want
you,
Jennie.”

Her heart had sped up and was doing its best to let her know that it wanted to be convinced. She backed a step away from him. “I can’t marry you. The doctors say Kate will be weak when she comes home. And there’ll be the baby to care for.”

“So we’ll live here. You can keep doing everything you have been doing, only you’ll have my help.”

She cocked her head. “You’d live here in this mixed-up household with a sister-in-law who has an illegitimate baby?”

“I’d live where you lived—wherever that had to be.”

It was insane. She was never going to marry, and if she did, Carter Jones would be the least likely candidate on earth.

Carter felt his patience draining. “If you don’t agree to marry me, I’ll go to Kate, tell her that I seduced you and have to marry you to make an honest woman of you.”

“You wouldn’t!”

No, he wouldn’t. But she didn’t know that. He remained silent.

“We’d live here?” she asked, her voice weak.

Carter nodded. “As long as you need to. And as long as we can steal away to our own room and our own bed every night”

His words sent a rush through Jennie’s midsection. Their own bed every night.

“So how about tomorrow?” Carter said, stepping up to her level and gripping her arms.

“What about tomorrow?” She felt dazed.

“For the wedding.”

Jennie gasped, “Tomorrow?”

“Sweetheart, Kate’s too ill to be here, so unless you want the lovely ladies from town making a big fuss over you, I don’t see any reason to wait And, as you know, after Virginia City, there may be reason
not
to wait”

There was that—the thing that had started this whole talk of marriage. What if she was carrying his child? She hugged her shawl around her. This was not the way to make this kind of a decision, but then, nothing about her dealings with Carter had made much sense. “I’d like to ask the Millards,” she said, not believing her own words.

Carter gave something resembling a whoop. “Ask anyone you like, sweetheart. I’ll stop by the church
and tell the reverend to come by tomorrow night around seven.”

Jennie nodded.

Carter leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, then turned and actually
leaped
down the entire flight of stairs to the walk below. Jennie gaped at him in the darkness.

“Go on into bed, now, sweetheart. I’ll see you tomorrow night.” She started to turn around obediently, then stopped as he called out one more time. “Jennie, do me a favor and don’t think too much between now and then.”

She gave a reluctant smile to which he responded by throwing her a kiss. Then he watched as she turned and went inside the house.

Jennie lay on her bed, fully dressed, too dazed to remove her clothes and find her nightgown. She’d just agreed to be married! It was beyond belief. But for some unknown reason she had not the least desire to run after Carter and tell him she’d changed her mind. She tried to tell herself that Carter had bullied her into it for his own purposes, as was the way with men. But she kept remembering instead the way his eyes had warmed when they’d looked at her just now in the moonlight. And how her heart had skipped when he’d talked about the two of them sharing a bed in her house.

It was time she admitted the truth. She loved him. It was impetuous, probably unwise and happening far too fast, but then, so had everything else in this past crazy year. It was as if, with the death of her parents
last spring, she’d stepped onto a gigantic wave that was carrying her along to some unknown shore. And she was still riding.

Her room was dark, the house quiet. It must be past midnight. But suddenly she rolled to her feet All right, if she was going to be married in less than twenty-four hours, there was work to do.

Resolutely she lit the lamp on her bedstead and pulled open her wardrobe. She’d never been much for female fussing, but she’d be darned if she was going to be married looking like a frump. And there was food to prepare, for the wedding, as well as for the miners at midday. Lordy, she still hadn’t told Carter about that. Well, it would probably be only one of the many surprises they’d discover about each other after they became husband and wife.

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