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Authors: Elizabeth Lane

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BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
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But if Brandon Calhoun were to pay for Will’s education,
the money she had saved would be hers.
Dear heaven, she would be able to travel—to England,
to Italy, to all the places she’d dreamed of
seeing. Or she might even be able to buy her own
small house, with space for a garden and no landlord
to trouble her for the rent. It would be like a dream
come true.

All she needed to do was to strike a bargain with
the devil.

He was watching her, his steel-blue eyes wary but
confident. Harriet could almost read his thoughts.
This sorry spinster, so drab in her worn gingham
frock, could not possibly be foolish enough to turn
him down. Just like anyone else, the woman had her
price. For a few thousand dollars he would be rid of
her and her troublesome brother once and for all,
with no stain on his own conscience or reputation.

Brandon Calhoun thought he could buy them off,
as if they were common trash; as if they were so
poor and so devoid of pride that they would take his
charity—or bribery, to call it by its real name. She
was as anxious to keep Will and Jenny apart as he
was, but not at such a price. What a smug, self-righteous
prig he was!

The wave of outraged pride that welled up in Harriet
almost swept her off her feet. “How dare you?”
She flung the words at him. “I am not for sale, Mr.
Calhoun, and neither is my brother! I have enough
money saved to pay for Will’s education myself. And
as for our leaving, I have a two-year contract and
twenty-three children who will be without a teacher
if I desert them. If you’re so anxious to keep your
daughter from associating with common folk like us,
you might want to consider leaving town yourself!”

He glowered at her, his face burning as if she had
slapped him. Harriet fought the impulse to shrink
away from him. Even with her heart pounding and
her legs buckling beneath her petticoat, she could not
let this man intimidate her.

“Very well,” he said in a flat, cold voice. “I made
you a fair and generous offer and you rejected it. All
I have left to say is, keep your brother in line for his
own good, Miss Smith. If he so much as speaks to
my daughter, I’ll have the law on him!”

With those words, Brandon Calhoun turned on
his heel and stalked out of the schoolroom.

Harriet stood rooted to the floor, gazing after him as
he disappeared down the path in a swirl of fallen leaves.
Her hands were shaking and the inside of her mouth
felt as if she’d swallowed a fistful of dry sawdust.

Stumbling backward, she collapsed onto the
cramped seat of a first-grade desk. Outside, the sun
was sinking below the peaks. Its fading light cast
dingy shadows on the schoolroom walls. The breeze
that blew in through the open doorway had turned bitter.
Harriet wrapped her arms around her trembling
body, too stunned to even get up and close the door.

Had she done the right thing? Heaven help her,
should she have swallowed her pride and accepted
Brandon Calhoun’s offer?

Her spirit sank deeper as a gust of wind rattled the
trees, ripping leaves off the branches and scattering
the math papers on her desk. Maybe she should have
put the banker off, told him she’d think on the matter
and let him know. At least she should have spoken
with her brother before making such a rash
decision—but no, that would have changed nothing.
Will was head over heels in love with the banker’s
pretty, shy daughter. Young as he was, he had his own
share of family pride. His answer would have been
the same as hers.

Now what? How could she keep her brother from
pursuing Jenny Calhoun—especially when Jenny
seemed as eager as he was?

Harriet’s head throbbed at the thought of what lay
ahead. Brandon had spoken truly about one thing.
Will was eighteen years old, practically a man, and
the only control she had over him was what little he
allowed her. Her only hope was that her headstrong
brother could be made to listen to reason.

Keep your brother in line for his own good, Miss
Smith. If he so much as speaks to my daughter, I’ll
have the law on him!

The words rang in Harriet’s ears as she staggered
to her feet, shoved the door closed and bent to gather
her wind-scattered papers. Could Brandon Calhoun
really put her brother in jail? There was no law,
surely, against two young people falling in love, but
as the most influential man in town, the arrogant
banker had the means to accomplish anything he
wanted.

Would he carry out his threat, or worse? Either
way it was a chance Harriet could ill afford to take.
She had no means of knowing what lay in the darkness
of Brandon’s heart. The only certainty was that
she had made a very dangerous enemy.

Chapter Two

A
ll the way home Harriet struggled with the question
of what to tell her brother. Given the power, she
would have chosen to wipe out the shattering encounter
with Brandon Calhoun, the way she might
erase a child’s botched arithmetic problem from the
blackboard. That way, Will would never know what
she had thrown away out of pride; nor would she
need to make it clear that she was still dead set
against his courtship of Jenny.

But that kind of denial was useless. One way or
another, Will was bound to ferret out the truth. It was
best that he hear it from her.

The wind plucked at her thin skirts, raising gooseflesh
on her legs as she passed along the weathered
picket fence that ringed the cemetery. Blowing leaves
danced among the tombstones like ghostly spirits in
the twilight.

Harriet pulled her thin wool shawl tighter around
her shoulders. She’d been told that winters were long
and harsh in this high mountain valley, but she had
comforted herself with the thought that Will would be
with her through the cold months to shovel the paths,
chop wood for the stove and provide companionship
on dark, snowbound evenings. Now she found herself
wondering if it might not be best to send him to Indiana
before the storms set in. He wouldn’t be able to
start college until spring term, but maybe he could find
work and a place to board until then. It would be a dear
price to pay, for she truly wanted his presence over the
winter. But at least he would be far away from Jenny
Calhoun and her fire-breathing dragon of a father!

Harriet’s resolve began to crumble as she opened
the door of the unpainted clapboard house and
stepped over the threshold into its dusky interior.
The place would be so lonely without Will. Worse,
he was only eighteen, little more than a boy! And
they had no relatives anywhere who might take him
in. Sending him away to school was one thing, but
simply putting him on the train was quite another. If
he left now, he would be entirely on his own, easy
prey for any opportunist who happened along! Merciful
heaven, how could she just turn him out into the
world, so innocent and untried?

Harriet was still struggling with the dilemma
twenty minutes later as she sliced the bread and set
the table for supper. The fire in the stove flickered on
the rough-cut walls, lending a touch of warmth to the
bleak kitchen with its small alcove that served as a
parlor. Brandon had been right about the house. It
was a shack in every sense of the word. Even the
homey touches Harriet had added—the calico curtains,
the crocheted afghan draped over the rocker
and the framed family photographs on the wall—
could not relieve the drabness or stanch the cold
draughts that whistled between the boards.

She had rented the cheapest place she could find
so that she could save the remainder that was needed
for her brother’s education. True, she may have carried
frugality too far this time. But there was nothing
to be done about it now, except to thank the good Lord
that she and Will had a roof over their heads, food on
the table and the bright promise of days to come.

She was stirring last night’s leftover beans when
she heard the scrape of Will’s boots on the stoop.
Harriet could tell from the weary cadence of the
sound that he’d put in a long, hard day at the feed
store. At an age when many boys were sowing their
wild oats, Will did the labor of a man. But he would
not always have to earn his bread by the sweat of his
brow. She would see to that. She owed that much to
their parents, who had cherished such hopes for him.

Will stumbled inside as if the wind had blown
him through the open doorway. His hair and clothes
were coated with dust from loading sacks of feed. His
body sagged with weariness, as if he had spent the
past nine hours carrying the weight of the world on
his young back.

“Supper will be on by the time you’re washed,”
Harriet said, wishing she had a better meal to offer him
than bread and beans, and more cheering conversation
than what she needed to tell him. But the present trouble
was Will’s own doing, she reminded herself. Much
as she loved her brother, she could not condone what
he had done or shield him from the consequences.

As she was ladling up the beans, Will emerged
from the back of the house, his face scrubbed, his
dark hair finger-combed and glistening with water.
His lanky frame folded like a carpenter’s rule as he
sank onto the rickety wooden chair. He was still awkward,
like a yearling hound, with big feet and big
hands and a body that was all bone and sinew. His
face might one day be handsome, but for now there
was an unformed quality about his features. His nose
seemed too big, his jaw too long and gaunt and his
chin was punctuated by an angry red pimple. Only
his eyes, like two quiet black pools, showed the true
character of the man who waited within the boy.

He was too thin, Harriet thought. He worked too
hard and laughed too seldom. And now he was hopelessly,
determinedly, in love. Heaven help them all.

She murmured a few words of grace over the food,
then waited until he had buttered his bread and taken
a few bites of food before plunging into her account of
Brandon Calhoun’s offer and her own defiant refusal.

She had expected him to be upset, but he ate as he
listened, chewing his beans and bread in silence as
the story spilled out of her.

By the time she’d reached the end of it, Harriet felt
as if she had lived through the encounter a second
time. Her pulse was ragged, her breathing shallow, as
if an iron band had been clamped around her ribs.
Gazing into Brandon’s angry blue eyes had been like
facing a charging buffalo or leaning into the face of a
hurricane. Even the memory left her nerves in tatters.

“The man was simply monstrous,” she said. “He
threatened—actually
threatened
—to see you in jail
if you came near his daughter again, and I’ve no
doubt that he has the power to do just that. Be careful,
Will. Brandon Calhoun owns a good piece of this
town. He has influential friends and people who are
in his debt. A word from him and your whole future
could be ruined.”

Harriet’s gaze dropped to her untouched plate as
she struggled to collect her emotions. All her life she
had protected her young brother. Now he was nearly
a man, but it was clear that he still needed her protection
and good judgment.

She raised her eyes to find him sopping up the last
of the beans with the crust of his bread. His face
wore such a faraway expression that Harriet found
herself wondering whether he had heard a word she’d
said. Will had seemed unusually preoccupied of late.
She had chalked it up to the vagaries of puppy love.
But maybe there were other things troubling him.
Maybe she should have been talking less and listening
more.

“Are you all right, Will?” she asked, feeling the
weight of sudden apprehension. “Is there something
you need to tell me?”

He raked his lank, dark hair back from his brow.
For the space of a breath he hesitated, chewing his
lower lip. Then he shook his head. “No, there’s nothing,”
he muttered. “Nothing you can help, at least.”

“Maybe it would be best to send you to Indiana now,
before the snow sets in,” Harriet said, grasping at the
possibility. “You could find a place to live, get a better-
paying job than the one you have at the feed store—”

“I’m not going to Indiana, sis,” he said quietly.

“Well, of course you don’t have to go right away.”
She was babbling now, unwilling to face the reality
that lurked behind his words. “As long as you’re
there in time to get settled in before the beginning of
the term—”

“I’m not going to Indiana.” There was a grim finality
to his words, as if he were telling her that
someone had died.

“But—” she sputtered in disbelief. “What about
your schooling, Will? What about your future?”

His eyes were like a wall behind their dark pupils.
“I’m not going to college. I’m staying right here in
Dutchman’s Creek, with Jenny. We’re going to be
married.”

* * *

Brandon strode through the fading twilight, his
boots crushing the aspen leaves that littered the path
like spilled gold coins. Damn Harriet Smith, he
thought, muttering under his breath. Damn her to hell,
and double damn that randy, calf-eyed brother of hers!

He’d done his best to reason with her, but the woman
had more pride than common sense! Now Brandon
found himself at an impasse, with only one way out.

His offer would have made things better for everyone
concerned. He had made it in the spirit of fairness
and generosity. But Miss Harriet Smith had
reacted as if he’d just proposed to buy her spinsterly
body for a night of unbridled lust. Her eyes had
drilled into him, their expression making him feel as
crass as a tin spittoon.

Who did she think she was, anyway? For all her
shabby clothes and skinned-back hair, there was an
aura of fierce pride that clung to the tall schoolmarm;
something regal in those large, intelligent eyes that
were the color of moss agate flecked with copper and
set in a pale, cool ivory cameo of a face. And there
was something almost queenly in her graceful, erect
carriage. Given the right clothes and a decent hairstyle,
she might be a handsome woman, he mused.
But never mind that fantasy. The high-minded Miss
Smith might be made to look like the Queen of
Sheba, but she had the disposition of a hornet. He
wanted nothing more to do with her.

He walked on as the glow of sunset faded into
gloomy autumn twilight. From up the roadway, at the
top of the hill he could see the glimmer of lamplight
in the windows of his stately redbrick home—not a
grand place by Denver standards, but by far the finest
house in Dutchman’s Creek.

Most nights it gave him a sense of satisfaction,
seeing what his hard work and shrewd business sense
had built. He had come to Dutchman’s Creek and
started the bank during the silver boom; and he had
invested its profits wisely enough to thrive even after
the mines played out and the economy shifted to
farming and ranching. He owned a handsome assortment
of properties in the valley and was wealthy
enough to live anywhere he chose. But he was a man
who liked to put down roots, and his roots were here.

Most nights he would sit down with Jenny to share
the hot meal that Helga Gruenwald, their aging
housekeeper, had prepared. While they ate, Jenny
would chatter about the day’s events, her girlish voice
like music in his ears.

Most nights he looked forward to coming home.
But tonight would be different. Brandon’s footsteps
dragged as he realized those sweet evenings with his
daughter were about to end, perhaps forever.

All the way home, he had wrestled with the
wrenching decision. If he could not get rid of Will
Smith, then he would have no choice except to send
Jenny away before things got any further out of hand.
His sister in Maryland had offered to take Jenny in
so that she could attend a nearby girls’ preparatory
school. Jenny had shown no interest in going, so
Brandon, reluctant to part with her, had not pushed
the plan. But now…

He paused in the shadow of a gnarled pine tree.
His clenched fists thrust deep into his pockets as he
gazed up at the cold, silver disk of the moon.

She was so innocent, his Jenny. A reckless, uncaring
boy could easily take advantage of her. Someone
needed to tell her the facts of life for her own protection.
But who? Brandon sighed wearily. It would
hardly be proper for him to instruct her. And he could
not imagine the grim, taciturn Helga broaching such
an intimate subject.

He should have remarried after Ada’s death, he
thought as he forced his steps toward the house. Not
for love—he had long since given up on that sentimental
nonsense—but he should have taken a wife
for Jenny’s sake. He was just beginning to realize
how much the girl had missed having a mother in the
past six years. In remaining single, he had shielded
his own heart but he had failed to meet his daughter’s
needs. No wonder she was so vulnerable, so
hungry for the affection he’d had too little time to
give her.

With a leaden spirit, he mounted the three steps
to the wide, covered porch. Even the aroma of Helga’s
succulent pot roast, which enveloped him like a
warm blanket as he opened the door, did nothing to
raise his spirits.

The house seemed strangely quiet. To Brandon, it
was as if the silence floated ahead of him, casting its
phantom shadow down the tiled hallway with its oak-
paneled walls and tall grandfather clock, through the
parlor with its hefty leather armchairs and into the
dining room where the long table seemed to dwarf
the slight figure in pink who sat in a high-backed
chair on its far side.

Only as he saw her did Brandon realize how much
he’d feared that his daughter might not be here to
welcome him.

“Hello, Papa.” Her voice was thin, her smile as
tenuous as a cobweb. The two of them had not spoken
since last night when he’d caught her opening
her window to young Will Smith. In a rage, Brandon
had ordered Will off the property and sent his
daughter back to bed. Even later, when the house
had quieted down, he had been too upset to go talk
with her.

“Hello, angel.” Brandon tried to sound natural,
but his voice was hoarse with strain. No words could
change what had happened last night. The trusting relationship
they’d shared for so many years would
never be the same again.

They sat on opposite sides of the table, the painful
silence a wall between them as they picked at their
food, pretending to eat. Helga, who took her own
supper early, shuffled in and out with the dishes, her
wrinkled face as impassive as a slab of burled oak.

BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
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