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Authors: Elizabeth Lane

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Harriet suddenly found herself at a loss for words.
Whatever came next depended on Brandon, and she
could only speak for herself. She groped for words
that would not come. Maybe it was time she left,
while she could.

“Don’t stop now, Harriet.”

The deep male voice startled her. She pulled back
with a little gasp as Brandon slowly opened one blue
eye. His expression was sleepy, sensual and melting.
“You were just getting to the interesting part,” he
said. “I’d really like to hear the rest.”

“Ooh! You insufferable—”

She reeled to her feet, but he caught her by the
waist and pulled her down on top of him. His
mouth captured hers in a dizzying kiss that went on
and on, until the taste and feel of him became like
part of her own body. His heat flowed into her,
through her, igniting currents of need. She felt the
swelling, throbbing ache in the deep core of her
womanhood. She knew what it meant and she was
not afraid.

“Tell me the rest, Harriet,” he whispered against
her lips. “What would you do if you knew that I
loved you? I need to know because I do love you….”
He kissed her chin, her throat, stopping at the edge
of her high collar. “I love every maddening, crazy,
beautiful thing about you, and I never want to stop.
So tell me what you’d do.”

Harriet could feel her heart exploding like a burst of
Independence Day fireworks. For the first time in her
life, she felt desirable and wanton and mischievous.
“You’ve just been shot,” she teased. “I’m not sure
you’re strong enough for what I’d want to do with you.”

“Try it and see,” he murmured, nuzzling her earlobe.
“If it’s too much for me, I’ll let you know.”

“First,” she said, pulling away from him, “I’d get
up and lock this bedroom door.” She flew across the
room, closed the door and slid the bolt into place,
then turned back to face him, her eyes sparkling.
“Then I’d get out of these muddy boots and this ragged
old horror of a dress.”

Her unsteady fingers removed the boots and the
gown. She stood before him now in her camisole,
corset and petticoat, her legs trembling beneath her.

His throat moved as she reached up and plucked
the pins from her hair, freeing it to tumble to her
waist in a cascade of dark waves.

“And then what would you do?” His voice was
raw with arousal.

She moved toward him, loving his vulnerability
and his undisguised need. “As a woman of limited
experience,” she murmured, “I would very wisely
leave the rest to you.”

She leaned over the bed, letting her hair fall
around him like the walls of a silken tent. He
groaned, pulled her close and buried his face in the
yearning hollow between her breasts. Closing her
eyes, she pressed her lips into his hair as he nuzzled
her softness. The rough edge of the bandage brushed
her skin, reminding her once more of how close she
had come to losing him. Fear blended with sweetness
in a surge of love that left her weak.

“Show me…” she whispered. “Show me what
to do.”

In answer he pulled her down to him, covering her
breasts, throat and mouth in nibbling kisses. His
tongue darted into her mouth like a butterfly’s caress,
then gently withdrew.

“More…more of that,” she moaned, her lips parting.

“Why, you little wanton!” He gave her the full
measure of what she’d asked for, his tongue thrust
ing deep, rippling over the sensitive surfaces of her
mouth, touching off rivulets of sensation. When she
repaid him in kind, his breathing roughened. His
arms tightened around her, pulling her hips flat
against his so that the long ridge of his maleness
pressed her through the coverlet. She moved against
the exquisite hardness, transfixed by the hot currents
of need that the slightest motion aroused in her.

“So, how do you like these lessons, Teacher?” he
muttered. “Are you ready for the next one?”

Her answer was a long, deep kiss that grew frantic
as the desire that had smoldered for so long exploded
into a burning conflagration. His hands molded her to
him, pulling the camisole off her shoulders, baring her
breasts to his touch. He cupped them, stroked them,
licked them, rousing her to a frenzy of need. Her
hands tore aside the coverlet and sheet that separated
their bodies. Beneath it, he was naked, his body warm
and golden and beautiful. Dear heaven, so beautiful…

“Touch me, Harriet.” He guided her fingers gently
downward. “Hold me.”

Her breath caught in wonder as her hand closed
around the hard, smooth shaft—like steel cloaked in
living silk, she thought. He gasped as she began to
stroke him, moving the skin lightly up and down
along his swollen length.

“I…don’t think you need any more lessons, you
she-devil,” he muttered, pulling her down beside him.
“Lie still before you drive me to ruin!”

She was still clad in her corset, petticoat and open
drawers. Without taking the time to remove them, he
parted her willing legs and found the wet, pulsing
center of her need. As he touched her, she exploded
in shuddering waves, again and again, against his
fingertips.

“Oh…” she murmured, her head rolling on the pillow.
“Oh, Brandon, I’ve never…”

He raised up to look down at her. He was breathing
hard, but his gaze was loving and tender. “We can
stop,” he said huskily. “I love you, Harriet, and I
want you the way a drowning man wants air. But I
won’t take what you aren’t ready to—”

Her kiss stopped his words. With it, she gave him
her soul and her body and offered him her life.

He understood. A low groan escaped his throat as
he shifted above her and entered in a single, gliding
thrust that caused no more than a flicker of pain and
yet, in that instant, was like dying and awakening
again as someone else—someone warm and wise and
unafraid to risk her heart to love. She opened herself
to him, letting him fill her, letting him carry her on wild
wings to places she had only dreamed of, her body one
with his as they soared higher and higher, into the sun.

Afterward, spent and happy, they lay in each other’s
arms. He kissed her long and gently, then
laughed down into her blissful face. “Something tells
me we both need to get dressed, before someone
comes and finds us like this.”

“I did lock the bedroom door,” she murmured,
nuzzling his chest.

“Yes, but someone could come by to check on me.
It wouldn’t do for them to find you behind that locked
door, especially in my bed, Miss Harriet Smith.” He
kissed her again, playfully this time. “I’ll tell you
what. There’s a kettle of leftover soup in the kitchen.
If you’ll go downstairs ahead of me and put it on the
stove to heat, I’ll join you in a few minutes. That way,
we can share a meal and talk in a safer setting. I’d
like to get some things understood between us before
I let you go.”

“Things?” Her heart dropped. Was he going to
tell her their lovemaking had been just a game to him,
and she wasn’t to set any store by it? Was he going
to insult and humiliate her yet again? “What…
‘things’?” she asked cautiously.

“Things like when and where to have the wedding.
Do you want a big, formal affair with the whole town
invited, or would you rather just go off somewhere
and tie the knot quietly?” His face was a study in
bland innocence.

“Brandon—” She stared at him in utter disbelief,
fearful that she’d somehow misread his intentions
and he was joking at her expense.

“Hurry and get your clothes on!” he said with a
grin. “When we’re both properly dressed, we can
have this discussion in a more respectable setting.
Otherwise, we’re liable to end up back in bed!”

* * *

Fully clothed now, Harriet moved about the
kitchen with an uneasy sort of lightness, as if she
were walking on the rims of crystal goblets. She
ought to be giddy with happiness, she thought. And
she
was
happy. She loved Brandon deeply and completely.
Their lovemaking had been pure heaven, and
the thought of becoming his wife was like a dream
come true.

What if it
was
a dream?

Was that what troubled her now, like a shadow
hovering behind her, just out of sight? Things had
fallen into place so swiftly and perfectly, like gifts
she’d done nothing to deserve, let alone earn. Everything
she’d longed for was there before her on an engraved
silver platter. All she needed to do was to
reach out and take it.

So why, then, did she feel as if the platter were
about to be snatched away?

By the time Brandon walked into the kitchen, the
soup was simmering on the stove. Looking fit and relaxed
in his shirtsleeves, he moved behind Harriet
where she stood stirring the pot, wrapped his arms
around her waist and kissed the back of her neck.

“Don’t plan on spending a lot of time in the
kitchen after we’re married,” he murmured. “We can
hire a housekeeper for that. I want to dress you like
a queen and take you to all the grand places in the
world. New York…Paris…Venice…” He nuzzled her
ear between the names of places that made Harriet’s
head spin with dreams. She wrenched herself back
to reality.

“Brandon, how can we make marriage plans with
things still unresolved between you and Jenny?”

She felt him go rigid behind her. Her heart sank
as he released her, turned away and walked toward
the table.

“Things aren’t unresolved,” he said tautly. “Jenny
and I have agreed not to be part of each other’s lives.
In any case, what does my relationship with Jenny
have to do with you and me?”

“Why, everything!” Harriet suppressed the urge to
fling the soup ladle at his head. “Your Jenny is married
to my brother! I’d want to have them at our wedding,
and I’d certainly want them and their baby to
be part of our family afterward!”

“You could see them as often as you like,” he retorted
coldly. “You could even have them over to
visit while I’m not here. But don’t ask me to—”

“How can you be such a stubborn fool, Brandon?”
Harriet flung the words at him, all the rage and frustration
exploding out of her. “I know you have the capacity
to forgive! You’ve managed to accept the fact
that Jenny isn’t your natural daughter. Why can’t
you accept her now, with a husband who loves her
and a child on the way?”

“Because my wife’s mistake wasn’t Jenny’s fault.”
He faced her, standing, across the kitchen table, his
eyes laced with raw pain. “The night Ada told me the
truth, after she’d collapsed on the chaise in a drunken
stupor, I went into the nursery and stood beside Jenny’s
bed, looking down at her while she slept. She
was so sweet and so innocent—I knew I couldn’t
blame her for anything that had happened. And I
couldn’t love her any less for having been fathered
by another man. She was my daughter in every sense
but one, and after a while, even that didn’t matter.”

“So what’s different now?” Harriet asked, aware
of how much she loved him and how much she
needed to break down this last barricade. “Why can’t
you forget and forgive? Is it because Jenny made the
same kind of mistake her mother did, and then
wouldn’t let you try to undo it?”

He glared at her across the table, saying nothing.

“All she wanted was to keep her baby and give it
a loving family. Is that so wrong, Brandon?”

“Harriet—” The undertone in his voice was a
warning for her to stop, but she knew that if she and
Brandon were to have any chance of lasting happiness,
nothing could be held back now.

“Is it really Jenny you can’t forgive?” She flung
the challenge in his face. “Or is it your wife—or
even yourself?”

In the silence that followed, one sound, so soft it
was barely perceptible, struck their ears with the impact
of a gunshot.

It was the quiet opening and closing of the
front door.

Brandon’s face blanched. Harriet flew to the kitchen
door that opened into the dining room—the door that
had stood ajar during their entire conversation.

No one was there, but as Harriet raced toward the
front hall, her foot brushed something soft. A little
cry escaped her throat as she bent and picked it up.

It was Jenny’s rose-colored shawl.

Chapter Fifteen

S
ick with dismay, Harriet turned around to face
Brandon. At the sight of her stricken face and the
shawl clutched in her hand, he crumpled as if he’d
been gut-kicked. Pushing past her, he raced through
the parlor to the front hall and flung the door open.

“Jenny!” he shouted, plunging out onto the porch.
“Jenny, come back here!”

The only answer was the whisper of spring wind
through the budding maples. There was no sign of
Jenny at all.

Harriet had burst outside behind him. Realizing
that he was about to rush off in search of his daughter,
she caught his arm and swung herself into his path.

“Stay here and let me go after her, Brandon. She’ll
be in no state of mind to talk to you. Not if she heard
what I think she heard.”

She felt him resisting her, pressing forward
against her grip. Then, as the sense of her argument
sank home, he exhaled raggedly, sagged into himself
and nodded his acquiescence.

“Just find her and make sure she’s all right,” he
muttered. “Lord, for her to hear something like that,
and in her condition—” A spasm of anguish ripped
through his body. “If she hates me forever, I’ll deserve
it, but that doesn’t matter now. Just find her for
me, Harriet. Hurry.”

“Don’t worry,” Harriet said, struggling to reassure
him. “She couldn’t have gotten very far. I’ll
send word when I find her.”

She might have reached out to comfort him, but
he was clearly in no mood to be comforted. Turning
away, she made for the road. Brandon
would
worry, of course. He would be frantic, as she was.
She had to find Jenny before something unthinkable
happened.

As she ran, her skirts flying, her ribs heaving beneath
her corset, Harriet scanned the length of the
tree-lined road. There was no sign of Jenny and no
one in sight who might have seen her. Only moments
had passed since the sound of the closing door had
betrayed the girl’s presence. Where could she have
gone in such a flicker of time? And where was Will?
He was supposed to be with her.

Maybe she and Brandon were wrong about what
had happened, Harriet thought, grasping at straws.
Jenny could have come to the house earlier, while
they were in the bedroom. She could have surmised
what was happening, decided to make a discreet exit
and dropped her shawl on the way out. If, by chance,
she’d left the front door ajar, the wind could have
closed it later.

But that story had its own share of holes. The rose
shawl had been found near the door between the dining
room and the kitchen, where Jenny would have
been drawn by the sound of their voices. And Harriet
recalled that she had distinctly heard the front
door open before it closed.

There was nothing to do but go home and check
her own house. With luck, she would catch up with
Jenny on the way. The poor girl was so heavy with
child that walking more than a few steps had become
a chore. How she could have made the mile-long
trek to Brandon’s home, then vanished so swiftly,
was a fearful mystery.

By the time she reached the little house by the
cemetery, Harriet was disheveled and out of breath.
She found the place in perfect order, the outside
doors locked, the rooms tidied but empty. There was
no sign of Will or Jenny.

Choking on her own panic, she raced outside. By
now the sun was setting in a crimson blaze above the
mountains. In its light, a lone, lanky figure trudged
homeward along the cemetery road. Harriet’s heart
dropped as she realized it was Will.

Harriet burst through the gate and raced toward
him. Seeing her, he broke into a long-legged sprint
that brought them together in seconds.

“Where’s Jenny?” she gasped. “The doctor told
me you were with her!”

Startled, he blinked down at her. “I was. But she insisted
that I go back to work. She said she was fine and
didn’t want me to lose the pay on her account.” His
young face paled in the fading light. “Isn’t she here?”

Harriet shook her head. “As far as I know, she
went to visit her father. But she left his house without
seeing him—I was there with Brandon and we
found her shawl. Now she seems to have vanished.”

Will’s groan was like a wounded animal’s. “She
said she was going to rest. I should’ve known she’d
want to see her father after what happened at the bank!
Why didn’t she tell me? I’d have borrowed a buggy
and driven her there myself!” In an explosion of panic,
he pushed past Harriet and plunged toward the house.
“Jenny!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Jenny!”

“She isn’t here!” Harriet caught the tail of his jacket
and jerked him to a halt. “We’ve no time to waste, Will.
Do you know if the sheriff’s still out with the posse?”

“They rode into town as I was leaving work.
Somebody said they were going out again at first
light to see if they could pick up Harvey’s trail.” His
face went ashen. “Good Lord, you think he’s got
Jenny, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Harriet said, struggling to stay
calm. “But if he has, the sooner we go after her, the
better. I’m going back to Brandon’s house to see if
he has any more news. You find the sheriff and bring
him there. When we’re together, we can decide what
to do.”

Will’s face flashed ghostly pale as he wheeled
away and made for the center of town at a dead run.
Harriet caught up her skirts and raced back the way
she’d come, toward Brandon’s house.

Brandon paced the front porch, staring into the
dusk. He had searched the yard, the stable and the
sheds. Now there was nothing he could do except
wait for word from Harriet. And waiting, he thought,
was the hardest thing a man could do. Every instinct
he possessed screamed at him to leap into action, to
saddle a horse and gallop off in search of his daughter.
But as things stood, all he could do was stand here
while fear, worry and guilt chewed his guts out.

He’d behaved like a fool toward Jenny—insisting
that she give up her baby, then disowning her when
she defied him. Why hadn’t he realized that the decision
hadn’t been his to make? Jenny was a woman.
She was going to be a mother. She had the right to
make her own choices.

In shutting Jenny out of his life, he had only succeeded
in punishing himself. His stubborn pride had
left him alone and miserable. It had even alienated
Harriet, who had reawakened him to life and love.
Now, it seemed that pride could cost him everything
he treasured. If anything had happened to his daughter,
he would never forgive himself.

As he peered through the twilight, Brandon could
make out a slender, skirted figure moving up the road
toward him. It was Harriet, he realized at once. And the
fact that she was running hard likely meant bad news.

Striding down the steps, he broke into a sprint, meeting
her in the road, fifty yards from the house. Harriet
was out of breath. She clasped his hands, gulping air
as she struggled to speak. But words were hardly necessary.
Her face told him everything he needed to know.

“Jenny’s missing, Brandon…. She’s not at the
house, not on the road. Will’s gone for the sheriff.
They’ll be coming here. We’re to…wait for them.”

Wait
. That damnable word. Brandon felt himself
reel as if seized by a nightmare. Only the strong, solid
grip of Harriet’s hands seemed to anchor him to earth.

“Harvey Keetch.” The name left a sickening taste
in Brandon’s mouth. “It has to be him. He’s got her.”

“We don’t know that for sure.”

“What else could’ve happened to her?” he
snapped, wild with impatience. “And who else would
have any reason to harm Jenny? He took her to get
back at me! This whole miserable mess is my fault!”

Harriet’s grip tightened. “Stop it, Brandon. It’s
nobody’s fault, as far as we know. And casting blame
isn’t going to help us find Jenny.”

Her gaze was earnest, almost tearful. He had made
love to this woman and asked her to marry him, Bran
don reminded himself. His feelings for her hadn’t
changed, but right now Jenny’s safety had to come
first. Every second counted, and they were wasting
precious time.

“You’re right.” He swung back toward the house,
pulling her with him. “Come on. We can’t just stand
around and wait. Let’s get some lanterns, see what
we can find before the sheriff gets here.”

They emerged onto the porch minutes later, the light
from their lanterns flickering around the yard. Their
chances of finding tracks were slim at best, Brandon
realized. The area around the house was landscaped in
grass and shrubs, while the walks and drive had been
graveled, at considerable expense, to cut down on mud.
The property itself was well suited for a kidnapping.
It was grandly set at the edge of town, on the side of a
long, sloping hill. Stands of pine and aspen rose behind
it, continuing all the way to the mountains. It would
have been an easy matter for Harvey Keetch—assuming
it was Harvey—to tether his horse in the trees,
steal down to the house, crouch in the shrubbery and
wait for someone vulnerable to appear. By chance or
design, that someone had been Jenny.

“Brandon!” Harriet’s urgent voice came from the
side of the house. “Come here! I’ve found something!”

He raced around the corner of the house to find
her crouched next to a low-spreading juniper bush.
One hand held the lantern, shining its light on the
damp earth beneath.

“Here,” she said. “Look at these prints.”

An ugly lump congealed in Brandon’s throat as he
stared down at the impressions in the dirt. Hands,
knees and scuffed prints from the kind of hobnailed
hunting boots that he’d seen both Keetch twins wearing.
While the posse was combing the countryside for
him, Harvey had been right here. He had crouched
behind the corner of the house and waited for someone
to come outside and start down the front walk,
allowing him to creep up and attack from behind.

“He couldn’t have known it would be Jenny.” Harriet
voiced Brandon’s own thoughts.

“He was more than likely waiting for me,” Brandon
said.

“Or me, if he’d been there long enough to see me
go in.” Harriet told him about her encounter with the
Keetch brothers in the alley behind the stable. “I wish
it
had
been me! Why did it have to be Jenny, of all
people? Think how terrified the poor girl must be!”

They gazed at each other in the flickering light,
neither of them daring to voice their worst fear. Jenny
was so fragile. With her baby nearly due, any kind
of rough handling could start her labor early. If they
failed to find her in time, she could die in agony, out
there in the cruel darkness.

If Harvey Keetch didn’t murder her first.

“Let’s see what else we can find.” Battling
panic, Brandon raised his lantern and scanned the
yard. The ground was still damp from snow melt.
Now that they had a better idea of where to look,
they might be able to find more impressions, even
in the grass.

Harriet moved forward in a line from the corner
of the house. “He would have come this way,” she
muttered half to herself. “That would mean he’d have
caught up with her about here and… Oh, Brandon!”

She shone her light higher, illuminating the clear
trail of flattened grass where Jenny had been dragged
behind the house. Brandon remembered the sound of
the front door closing, then Harriet going into the
parlor and returning to the kitchen with the rose
shawl. After that, they had both dashed for the front
door, missing Jenny by mere seconds. As he’d stood
on the porch, shouting her name, his daughter had
been close enough to hear but unable to answer.

Brandon had never wept in his adult life. But he
was on the verge of tears now. He had come so close
to finding Jenny in time—and he had failed her.

The sound of horses coming up the drive pulled
him back from the edge of grief. Two riders reined
up and dismounted in the circle of lantern light. One
was Matt Langtry. The other was Will Smith.

Brandon met Will’s gaze across the scant distance
that separated them. This was the man who had defiled
and stolen his precious daughter, the man he had
cursed and hated for months.

Now, suddenly, none of it made a dime’s worth of
difference. They both loved Jenny and they were
both desperate to save her and her unborn child.
Nothing else mattered.

Harriet glanced from Brandon to her brother as if
she expected them to go for each other’s throats. As
if to reassure her, Brandon turned around and shone
his light on the strip of flattened grass. “Come over
here,” he said quietly. “Let me show you what we’ve
found so far, and we’ll take it from there.”

Matt Langtry, who had the tracking instincts of a
Comanche, had picked up the trail by lantern light.
He’d found the place where Harvey Keetch had tied
his horse and the four of them, on foot, had followed
the hoofprints upward through the trees.

It was Harriet who’d found the most vital piece of
evidence. Bringing up the rear, she’d snagged her
skirt on the thorns of a wild rose that grew amid the
tangled underbrush. In reaching down to tug herself
free, she’d discovered a single thread of blue chambray.
Its fresh color matched the dress Jenny had
worn that day. Now their fear that Jenny had been
kidnapped was a certainty.

“Chances are good she’s still all right,” Matt
mused, examining the thread. “If Harvey had wanted
to kill Jenny, he’d have done it near the house and left
her for you to find. The fact that he’s gone to the trouble
of taking her with him means he plans to keep her
alive, at least for now.”

“But why?” Will’s voice shook. “What would the
bastard want with Jenny? She’s never lifted a finger
to hurt him.”

“My guess is that he plans to use her as a hostage,”
Matt said. “We’ve got Marlin locked in jail. Harvey
wants his brother.”

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