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Authors: Elizabeth Lane

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BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
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Suddenly her gaze jerked upward. Her color deepened.
Brandon bit back a curse as he realized what
had caught her eye. The hem of his gray flannel
nightshirt hung just past his knees, revealing the
lower part of his bare legs and ankles—more naked
flesh than any proper lady would be fit to see.

Well, to hell with her, he thought. If the sight of
his hairy calves offended Harriet Smith’s sense of
propriety, that was her problem. It wasn’t as if he’d
sent her an engraved invitation to come calling tonight.
She could damned well take him as he was or
come back when he was dressed for company.

It was chilly in the front hall. Gripping her upper
arm through the robe, he steered her into the parlor,
where a few dying embers still flickered in the fireplace.
Two comfortable leather armchairs faced the
hearth. Thrusting her firmly into one of them, he
gathered some kindling sticks from the wood box and
began feeding them into the embers. Little by little,
small orange tongues of flame began to lick at the
splintered pitch pine. The crackling sound was warm
and welcome.

“Will’s gone.” Harriet’s low voice, rising from
the shadows of the chair, startled him. “I think he’s
run away.”

Brandon bit back a sigh of relief. It would hurt
Jenny’s pride to know that Will had deserted her, but
in the long run it would make everything easier. Now,
surely, she would stop fighting his plan to send her
to Baltimore.

He glanced up at Harriet, his expression deliberately
cynical. “So the young rooster’s flown the coop,
has he? Somehow I can’t say I’m surprised. I would
have wagered he wasn’t man enough to own up to his
responsibility.”

She surged forward, her eyes suddenly angry. “I
don’t know what responsibility you’re talking about,
Mr. C-Calhoun,” she said, her teeth still chattering
with cold. “But I didn’t fight my way through the
storm to sit here and listen to you disparage my
brother! I only came to ask you if you’d seen Will,
or if you had any idea where he might be. If you can’t
tell me, I’ll be on my way….”

Her voice trailed off, catching at the end as if she
were stifling a sob. Brandon stared at her in amazement.
Lord, didn’t she know? Hadn’t the young fool
told her what he’d done to Jenny?

Turning away from the fire, he seized her icy
hands—not out of affection or sympathy but in an effort
to hold her captive while he pummeled her with
the truth. Her thin, cold fingers were all but lost in
his big fists. Instinctively they sought the warmth of
his flesh, pressing into the hollows of his palms, even
as her eyes blazed resistance.

Heat and emotion had brought the color back to
her face. With the wind-tossed mane of her hair framing
her aquiline features, she reminded Brandon of
some wild, mythical bird goddess, held to earth only
by his determined grip. Let her go and she would fly
away, back into the storm that had brought her here.

Lowering his eyes, he forced his mind back to reality.
When he looked at her again it was dowdy,
stubborn Harriet Smith he saw. Harriet Smith, his
enemy, dressed in his own robe and a pauper’s gown
that gapped between the buttons.

He pressed her hands so hard that she winced.
“Didn’t your brother talk to you?” he rasped. “Didn’t
he tell you about the ungodly thing he’d done to my
Jenny?”

“What?” She stared at him, caught off guard.
“Will told me he’d changed his mind about going to
college. We quarreled…” Her voice trailed off. Her
eyes widened in horror as the realization struck her.

“Yes!” Brandon crushed her hands in his, wanting
her to feel the kind of pain he was feeling. “Your
no-account brother has gotten Jenny with child. She
gave him the news yesterday, and now he’s skipped
out on her, slunk off like the filthy coward he is!”

He watched her crumble then, like a mud figure in
a deluge—first her face, then her head and shoulders.
Even her fingers seemed to dissolve in his hands.

“No,” she murmured dazedly. “Will’s always been
such a good boy, so upright and honorable. He
wouldn’t do such a thing, especially to someone he
cared about!”

“He would and he did,” Brandon snapped, releasing
her hands. “I’m only thankful that he’s finally out
of Jenny’s life for good. The young scapegrace has
caused her enough grief.”

“No!” Harriet was sitting straight now, leaning
forward, her eyes like twin flames in the darkness.
“Tonight at supper, Will said he wouldn’t leave her—
that he would
never
leave her. He must have been trying
to tell me about the baby, but I refused to listen.
I just—”

She halted in midsentence, the color draining from
her face. When she spoke again, her voice was taut
and strained. “Where is your daughter?”

“In her room where she belongs,” Brandon growled
impatiently. “I checked on her before I went to bed.
She was sleeping like an angel.”

It was only a half truth. Jenny had cried herself
into silence behind the closed door of her room.
Later, when Brandon had passed her door on his way
to bed, she had not answered his discreet knock. He
had left her in peace, resolving to settle things in the
morning.

Only now, as he gazed into Harriet’s stricken face,
did the truth leap like chain lightning from her mind
to his.

Not that! Dear God, anything but that!

Knocking over a footstool in his haste, Brandon
dashed for the entry and seized the lantern from the
table. Harriet sprang to her feet and plunged after
him, clutching her skirts as they pounded up the
stairs.

Brandon was not a religious man, but he found
himself silently praying as they reached the door of
Jenny’s room.
Please let her be here. Let her be
safe
….

But it was too late for prayers. Even as he fumbled
with the knob and flung the door open, he knew
what he would find.

Chapter Four

A
s the door to Jenny’s room swung open, light from
the upraised lantern cast Brandon’s features into
craggy relief. Harriet watched from the shadows as
waves of raw emotion swept across his face—first
disbelief, then despair, then a tide of helpless fury,
as if he were biting back a howl. She had never seen
a man look so angry, or so wretched.

Harriet braced herself for a tirade against her
brother, but it did not come. He only stood in rigid
silence, one white-knuckled hand gripping the lantern,
one taut muscle twitching in his cheek.

No words were needed. His expression made it
clear that when Brandon caught up with Will, there
would be hell to pay.

Tearing her eyes away, Harriet stared past him
into the silent room. The pretty little bedchamber
was in perfect order, as if young Jenny had given it
a farewell tidying before she’d vanished into the
stormy night. The pink satin coverlet had been carefully
smoothed over the canopied bed, with ruffled
pillows arranged against a headboard of inlaid mahogany.
A lacy afghan, crocheted in shades of rose
and mauve, was draped over the back of a carved
wooden rocker. Its colors matched those of the oval
rug, hooked in an intricate pattern of cabbage roses,
that lay on the polished wooden floor.

It was the kind of room Harriet had dreamed of as
a child, and never possessed. The kind of room a father
would want to provide for a little girl he loved.

Two exquisite French dolls, with mohair curls
and bisque porcelain faces, decorated the top of a
bookshelf. A third doll, with golden ringlets like
Jenny’s, sat in a miniature copy of the rocking
chair, dressed in a gauzy pink princess gown and
holding a tiny doll of her own. Harriet had never
seen such elegant dolls. The cost of any one of
them would probably be enough to keep a poor
family in beans and bacon for an entire winter.
Now they sat like abandoned children, their glass
eyes wide and vacant, silent witnesses to everything
that had taken place in this child-woman’s
bedroom.

From the far side of the room, a flutter of movement
caught Harriet’s eye. Her taut nerves jumped—
but it was only a lace curtain, blown by a sliver of
wind that whistled through a crack beneath the sash.
Jenny, it appeared, had not quite managed to close the
window when she’d climbed out into the darkness.

Crossing the floor, Brandon shoved the window
down with a snap that rang like a gunshot in the
room. Harriet saw him turn, then hesitate abruptly as
his gaze fell on a sheet of notepaper that lay on the
dresser, anchored in place by the weight of a silver-
framed looking glass.

Still gripping the lantern, he snatched up the paper
with his free hand. A lock of sleep-tousled hair tumbled
over his brow, casting his face in shadow as he
scanned the page.

“What does it say?” Harriet’s question broke the
tense silence.

He flashed her a contemptuous glance, then deliberately
crumpled the paper in his fist and flung it
to the floor. “Read it yourself if you’re so damned
curious!”

Harriet bent forward, then checked herself. Brandon
Calhoun’s insufferable pride demanded that she
grovel at his feet. But even now, while her whole
being screamed with the urgent need to know what
Jenny had written, she could not afford to give him
that satisfaction.

Straightening, she took his measure with emboldened
eyes. Any other man would have looked ridiculous
facing her down in his nightshirt and slippers.
But Brandon Calhoun was as fierce as a mythological
giant roused from sleep. The sight of his blood
shot eyes, tousled hair and whisker-shadowed jaw
triggered a leaden sensation somewhere below Harriet’s
stomach. She willed herself to ignore it.

“Stop behaving like a peevish child,” she ordered
in her sternest schoolteacher voice. “I’m just as upset
about this situation as you are. What makes you think
I want my promising eighteen-year-old brother saddled
with a wife and baby?”

He glowered down at her, his lips pressed into a
thin, hard line.

“Blaming me is only going to make matters
worse!” she declared, thrusting out her chin. “Right
now, nothing matters except those two foolish youngsters,
their safety and their happiness. Either you accept
that and we work together, or, heaven help me,
I’ll walk out of here and leave you to unravel this
mess by yourself!”

Brandon’s countenance was icy. Harriet searched
his face for any sign that his resolve was crumbling.
But she could detect no change in him. Like a
wounded animal, he was masking his pain with
tightly reined fury. The pain was real; but so, Harriet
sensed, was the danger.

The ticking of the tiny porcelain clock on Jenny’s
nightstand echoed in the stillness of the room. From
outside, Harriet could hear the rubbing of a bare
sycamore branch against the window—a nerve-grating
sound, like the scrape of fingernails against a
blackboard. Her damp clothes felt clammy beneath
Brandon’s robe—the heavy, satin-lined robe that
had enfolded his naked body countless times and
carried his essence in every fiber. Its richly masculine
aroma surrounded her, swimming in her senses,
filling her mind with forbidden images and unnamable
yearnings. Suddenly the little room
seemed too warm, his looming, male presence much
too close.

Harriet tried to swallow, but her throat was as dry
as chalk dust. Her lips parted but the power of
speech had fled. At the very time when she should
be defending her brother, she stood like a tongue-
tied schoolgirl, riveted by the raw power in those
cobalt eyes.

She willed herself not to avert her gaze or to back
away. Brandon Calhoun was the enemy. If need be,
for Will’s sake, she would fight him like a tigress.

“The…note.” She forced the words out with the
effort of a six-year-old writing them on a slate.

His eyes darkened in the lamplight. Then, with a
weary exhalation, he bent, scooped up the crumpled
note and shoved it toward her. “Here. Go ahead and
read the damned thing. It won’t tell you anything you
don’t already know.”

Still numb with cold, Harriet’s fingers fumbled
with the crinkled folds. Tilting the paper to the light,
she scanned Jenny Calhoun’s round, girlish script. As
she read, her hands trembled, blurring the letters on
the page.

Dearest Papa
,

By the time you read this, I will be Mrs. William
Smith. Please forgive me. I tried to make
you understand, but you wouldn’t listen. Will
and I love each other. We want to be a family
and raise our baby together. This is the only
way. I know you’ll be angry, but Will is a good
man. In time, you will come to like and respect
him. Please know how much I love you
.

Your Jenny

The paper slipped from Harriet’s fingers and fluttered
to the rose-patterned rug. When she looked up
at Brandon, his narrowed eyes were the color of gathering
storm clouds, grim and dark and angry.

“The county line’s about fifteen miles north of
here.” His voice was drained of emotion now. “Johnson
City’s just the other side of it. On the way into
town, there’s a justice of the peace who’d marry a coyote
to a mule if they had the money to pay him. That’s
where your brother will likely take Jenny—unless I
can put a stop to this foolishness once and for all.”

“What are you thinking?” Harriet stared at him,
alarmed by his cold resolve.

Brandon picked up the note and crumpled it in his
fist. “Jenny didn’t expect me to come in here and find
this until morning. If I leave now and travel fast, I
might be able to catch up with them.”

“And then what?” Harriet clutched at his sleeve
as he turned to leave the room. “What do you intend
to do?”

“Whatever I have to.” He shot her a threatening
glance, then jerked away from her and strode out
into the hall. Harriet plunged after him, the danger
screaming in every nerve. If he caught Will alone on
the road with his daughter, Brandon, in his present
condition, was capable of killing him.

“I’m going with you!” Catching up with him outside
his bedroom door, she seized his arm. “This is
as much my problem as yours! I need to be there
when you find them!”

“Don’t be a fool! You’ll only slow me down!” He
tried to pull out of her grip but only succeeded in
dragging her along the hallway, over the threshold
and into his dimly shadowed bedroom.

Harriet struggled to ignore the massive, rumpled
four-poster bed, its covers flung back to reveal a
slight depression where his body had been lying
when her knock had roused him from sleep. “I won’t
slow you down,” she argued. “I can ride as well as
any man, and I’m as anxious to find them as you
are!”

He twisted away, strode to the hulking wardrobe
and flung open the doors. “You’re already half-frozen.
You can wait here, if you like, but I don’t want
a whining, shivering woman on my hands, and I
won’t be responsible for your catching your death
of cold.”

“I’ll be fine. Lend me a warm coat, or even a
blanket, and you won’t hear a word of complaint
from me.”

He glanced back at her, his dark brows knit into a
scowl. “And if I say no?”

Harriet drew herself tall, clutching his robe around
her still-shivering body. “Then, so help me, I’ll trail you
on foot, in the clothes that brought me here! Either way,
you’re not leaving me behind, Brandon Calhoun!”

Brandon swore under his breath as he set the lantern
on the nightstand and jerked a pair of heavy
woolen trousers out of the wardrobe. “If the sight of
a man getting dressed shocks your modesty, you’re
welcome to wait in the hall,” he said, scuffing off his
slippers to reveal long, pale, elegant feet.

Harriet felt the hot color rise in her face. She took
a step backward, then hesitated. Brandon would welcome
any chance to get away without her. She could
not afford to leave him alone to slip out the back window
as his daughter had done.

She shook her head, praying the darkness would
hide her furious blush. “Just hurry,” she said. “I raised
my brother alone. Seeing a man dress is nothing new
to me.”

It was only a half lie. She and Will had been decorously
modest in their years together. Harriet had
not seen her brother unclothed below the waist since
his early childhood. And this gruff, looming man
was definitely not her brother.

“Suit yourself.” Turning away from her, he tossed
the trousers on the bed and seized a set of long johns
that lay over the back of a wooden chair. In a series
of quick motions he thrust his feet into the legs and
jerked them up beneath his nightshirt. Harriet felt her
chilled flesh growing warm beneath her clothes. So
far he had not given her so much as an indecent
glimpse of his body. But the air of intimacy lay thick
and heavy in the shadowed room, dizzying in its
power. She fought the urge to avert her eyes, unmasking
the falsehood she had told him, leaving herself
exposed and vulnerable.

“Hurry,” she whispered, and was startled by the
husky timbre of her own voice.

The trousers came up next, then hastily donned
wool stockings and a pair of heavy brogans before
he stripped off the flannel nightshirt. For the space
of a breath he stood bare above the waist, his skin
glinting gold in the lamplight, his body spare and
rock hard, as subtly powerful as a puma’s. A crisp
dusting of chestnut hair formed a dark inverted triangle
between the mauve-brown beads of his nipples.
Harriet battled the urge to let her eyes trace the
shadowed line downward over his flat belly, to
where it disappeared beneath the bunched long
johns at his waist. Her mouth, she realized, had
gone dry.

He moved swiftly, yanking the top portion of the
long underwear onto his arms and over his shoulders.
With scarcely a pause, he bunched the discarded
flannel nightshirt in his hand and flung it toward
Harriet.

“Pull it on over your clothes,” he said. “You’ll
need an extra layer of warmth, and there’s not much
in this house that will fit you.” When she hesitated
he added, “It was clean when I put it on tonight. This
is no time to be fussy.”

Ignoring the jibe, Harriet slipped out of Brandon’s
robe, found the hem of the nightshirt and pulled it
over her head. The velvety flannel smelled of lye
soap and clean male flesh. Lingering warmth from
Brandon’s body surrounded her as she pulled it
downward over her frame. He was right about there
being little to fit her in this house. Jenny was a fairy
creature, as dainty as the dolls that decorated her
room. And the length of Brandon’s trousers would
dwarf even Harriet’s Amazonian height. As for their
German housekeeper, whom Harriet had seen at
church, she was as solid as an onion, no higher than
Harriet’s shoulder and almost as round as she was tall.

Brandon had flung on a thick woolen shirt and
was tucking it into the waist of his pants. He glanced
up from fastening his belt, his eyes troubled.

“I’ve thought on it,” he said, “and I’m not taking
you with me after all. It’s a miserable night, and I’ll
make better time on my own.”

Harriet slipped the robe on over his nightshirt,
jerking the sash tight around her slim waist. “If you
catch up with them, you’ll need me there. Things
could get out of hand—”

“Out of hand?” His black eyebrows slithered upward.
“Don’t be a silly goose! I’m a civilized man.”

Turning away, he reached into the depths of the
wardrobe and pulled out a cartridge belt with a
long leather holster attached. Harriet felt the color
drain from her face as he buckled the belt around
his hips.

“No.” The word emerged as a hoarse whisper.

“No?” He shot her a contemptuous look as he
opened a hidden drawer in the nightstand and pulled
out a hefty Colt revolver.

BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
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