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Authors: Elizabeth Lane

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BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
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“You’re not going after my brother with a gun!” she
insisted, taking a step toward him. “I won’t have it!”

“You think I’m going to shoot him?” Brandon
swore under his breath. “After what he’s done, your
fool brother isn’t worth the price of a bullet. All I
want is to get my daughter back, safe and sound, so
we can salvage the mess he’s made of her life.”

“And if Will has a gun, too?” Fear rose like cold
black sludge in Harriet’s throat. Her brother didn’t
own a firearm, but he had friends who did. It would
be easy enough to borrow a weapon for the night.

Even now, the awful scenario took shape in her
mind—the confrontation, the threats, one man
drawing on the other, then a gunshot shattering the
snowy night…

“No!” Harriet flung herself at him with a desper
ate fury she had not known she possessed. Her momentum
struck his arm, knocking the pistol out of
his hand and sending the weapon spinning across the
floor. Her fists pummeled his chest in impotent rage,
doing no more damage than the fluttering wings of
a bird. “No! You can’t—I won’t let you—”

“Stop it!” He seized her wrists, his brute strength
holding her at bay. His stormy cobalt eyes drilled
into hers. “Damn it, Harriet, this isn’t helping anything!”

His use of her given name startled and sobered her.
She glared back at him, her face inches from his own.
“Don’t you see? This is a tragedy in the making. You
with a gun, angry and upset—anything could happen
out there. You’ve got to take me with you!”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then I’ll rip my clothes and go to the sheriff.”
Harriet could scarcely believe her own wild words.
“I’ll tell him that I came here looking for my brother,
and you dragged me up to your room and tried to
have your way with me!”

“Oh, good Lord!” Brandon’s hands released her
wrists and dropped to his sides. A muscle twitched
at the corner of his grimly drawn mouth. “You’d be
a fool to try it. Nobody in his right mind would believe
you.”

The implication of his words was all too obvious.
Only a depraved man would make indecent advances
to a priggish old-maid schoolteacher like her
self, and Brandon Calhoun was one of the town’s
most respected citizens. His arrogance stung Harriet
like lye in a cut, but she masked the hurt with
defiance.

“Wouldn’t they?” She hurled the words, wanting
to shock him, to hurt him. “Maybe the story wouldn’t
hold up in a court of law, but I have your nightshirt,
and I can describe your bedroom down to the last detail.
That should be enough to smear your precious
reputation with mud.”

Silence quivered between them like the hanging
blade of a guillotine. Harriet’s audacious threat, she
sensed, had hit its mark. Brandon’s livelihood depended
on the trust and good will of the townspeople. Lose that
and he might as well pack his bags and move away.

“You wouldn’t dare!” he snapped.

“Wouldn’t I?” Harriet’s eyes narrowed in what
she hoped was a menacing look. “You don’t know me
well enough to predict what I might do, Mr. Calhoun.
Can you afford to take that chance?”

He groaned, looking as if he wanted to strangle
her with his bare hands. “This is blackmail, Miss
Harriet Smith. You know that, don’t you?”

“Absolutely.”

With a muttered curse, he snatched up the pistol
from the floor and jammed it into the holster. “Let’s
get moving, then,” he growled. “Come on, we’re
wasting time.”

* * *

Brandon peered over the backs of the horses, into
the stinging blizzard. The hood on the elegant black
landau was fully raised, but the windblown snow
peppered his face like buckshot. He could barely see
the ears of the two sturdy bays, let alone the familiar
road that wound north along the creek bed toward
the county line.

Harriet huddled beside him on the seat, wrapped
in his long woolen greatcoat. A thick shawl, belonging
to Helga, swathed her head and shoulders. The
shawl’s edges were pulled forward, hiding her stoic
profile from his view. And that was just as well, Brandon
told himself. The less he saw of the insufferable
woman, the better.

Had he gotten away alone, he would have saddled
one of the horses and ridden through the
storm. But Harriet was not dressed for riding.
Moreover, after her performance in his bedroom,
Brandon was ill-disposed to trust her. Put her on a
horse and there’d be nothing to stop the fool woman
from bolting after the runaways on her own. The
landau was slower, but it would be safer—and as
long as he held the reins, he would be the one in
charge.

“How can we be certain they came this way?”
She leaned toward him, raising her voice to be heard
above the storm.

“We can’t be certain. This is just a likely guess.”
He shot her a sidelong glance and met the flash of
her coppery eyes. Framed by the shawl, her pale,
classic features reminded him of a Madonna’s. A
Madonna with the scruples of a whore and the disposition
of a bobcat, Brandon reminded himself. And
he had already felt her claws.

Would she have carried out her threat to ruin his
reputation? Brandon huddled into his hip-length
sheepskin coat, the pistol cold against his leg. Hellfire,
he knew nothing about the woman—where
she’d come from or what she was doing in a remote
place like Dutchman’s Creek. For all he knew, this
show of concern for her brother could be an act. She
could have encouraged the boy’s relationship with
Jenny, in the hope of snagging him a rich, pliant little
wife that the two of them could control.

Whatever her plan, he swore it wasn’t going to
succeed. Once Jenny was safely home, he would get
his lawyer to annul any marriage that might have
taken place. Then he would go ahead with his plan
to send the girl back east to have her baby.

Her baby
.

The images hit him like a barrage of body blows.
Jenny—his sweet, innocent Jenny, her body swelling
with child; Jenny giving birth in agony, screaming,
bleeding, maybe even dying in the process. Lord,
she was so small. The birth was bound to be horren-dously
difficult for her.

And if Jenny died, Brandon vowed, God help
him, whatever the consequences, he would hunt
Will Smith down and send him straight to hell
where he belonged.

Chapter Five

H
arriet sat with her fists thrust into the pockets of
the thick woolen greatcoat Brandon had lent her.
Falling snow danced hypnotically before her eyes as
the road wound along the bank of the rushing creek.
The wind that fronted the storm had lessened, its
voice fading to a breathy moan. But even through the
coat’s luxuriant thickness, the cold still bit into her
flesh, and worry rested its crushing weight on her
shoulders.

Questions beat at her like black wings. Where
were Will and Jenny? Were they safe? Was it too late
to stop them from marrying?

Dear heaven,
should
they be stopped? Was it right
that the baby who was her own flesh and blood, as
well as Brandon’s, be raised by strangers, without
ever knowing its true family?

Early in their journey, before they’d run out of
civil things to say to each other, Brandon had told her
about his plan to send Jenny back east to give birth.
His sister, who’d evidently married well, would keep
Jenny’s condition a secret and turn the baby over to
a church adoption agency. After a year or two of finishing
school, the girl would be introduced to Baltimore
society, where, in due time, she would choose
a suitable husband from among her suitors.

Suitable
. The word rankled like a burr.
Will
was
suitable. He was honest and kind and hardworking,
and he truly seemed to love pert little Jenny. Was it so
wrong that they should marry and become a family?

Struck by a gust of icy wind, Harriet tightened the
shawl around her head. What on earth was she thinking?
If Brandon’s plan succeeded, her brother would
be free of any obligation. He could carry on as if nothing
had happened—go to college, have a successful
career, even travel abroad. In time he could marry a
fine woman, one who’d be a helpmate and companion,
not a spoiled little doll who would demand to be
pampered and coddled every day of her life.

With the passing of years the hurt would heal,
Harriet promised herself. Will would have other children,
beautiful, happy children, to fill his life with
love and laughter. Perhaps, in time, he would even
come to forget that somewhere there was another
child with his blood and his features. His firstborn.

The child he would never know.

Harriet blinked back a surge of scalding tears. All
her life, she had believed that there was a clear line
between right and wrong, and that good, moral
choices led to good consequences. But there was no
good choice here—only the leaden weight of one
heartache balanced against another.

Beside her, as immovable as a granite boulder,
Brandon sat hunched on the seat of the heavy black
landau. From the shadows of the shawl, Harriet studied
him furtively. Cold anger lay in the taut line of
his mouth, in the set of his jaw and the white-knuckled
grip of his hands on the leathers.

He was as resolute as the march of time, she
thought. Untroubled by the conflicts that tore at her,
he was driven solely by the need to put things right—
to avenge the ruination of his daughter and to erase
the damage to her young life—if such a shattering
event could ever be erased. Brandon wanted everything
on his own terms, and he was a man accustomed
to getting his way.

What would he do if he didn’t get his way this time?

Straining to see into the darkness, Harriet brushed
the snow from her cold-numbed face. Not far ahead
the road entered a steep-sided narrows where the
creek had gouged a deep cut through the foothills.
Last summer, she recalled, she and Will had come
this way in the preacher’s wagon when they’d attended
a church picnic at a popular canyon grove.
Even in good weather the road along the creek was
treacherous—prone to slides and cave-ins and so
narrow that in many spots it was little more than a
ledge. She could only imagine what it would be like
in a winter snowstorm.

“There’s no other way they might have gone?”
She spoke more out of nervousness than doubt.

“Not if they planned to get married.” Brandon’s
taut voice echoed faintly as they entered the narrows.
The granite cliffs that rose on either side of them offered
shelter from the wind and snow, but the cold
was intense, the silence almost unearthly. “Since
we’re not seeing their tracks, they most likely left
town ahead of this ungodly storm. They could already
be in Johnson City by now. Or they could be
stuck in the snow somewhere, unable to go on. I
know it’s miserable out here, and you’re suffering,
but it was your choice to come along. We can’t turn
back till we find them.”

“I wasn’t suggesting we turn back,” Harriet retorted.
“And I never said I was suffering. Have you
heard one word of complaint from me, Mr. Calhoun?”

Brandon muttered something under his breath,
but did not voice an answer. They were entering the
narrowest part of the canyon now. On their left was
a sheer rock face. On their right, a mere handbreadth
from the wheel rims, was a five-foot drop-off to the
rushing creek below.

Harriet held her breath as he guided the horses
around a hairpin curve. A fist-size rock broke loose
beneath one of the outer wheels. She swallowed a
gasp as it skittered down the steep slope and splashed
into the creek. Brandon would have had easier going
alone, on horseback, she realized. But she had blackmailed
him into bringing her along and, because she
was in no condition to ride, he had hitched the team
to the sturdy landau. If they slid off the road or broke
an axle on this treacherous night, it would be, in part,
her own fault.

The thought fluttered through her mind that she
should apologize. But no, she had done the right
thing. Whatever the risk, she needed to be there when
Brandon caught up with Will and Jenny. Lives could
depend on it.

As she remembered the pistol Brandon had loaded
and buckled at his hip, a dark chill rippled through her
veins. Even if she was there, she might not be able to
stop a confrontation between Will and Brandon. With
both of them roused to fury, it would be like trying to
separate two charging bears. And with guns involved…

Harriet shuddered as the ghastly montage of
events passed through her mind—Will’s body bleeding
in the snow, or perhaps Brandon lying dead and
Will in handcuffs, or Jenny darting between them,
her body stopping a hastily fired bullet.

Somehow she had to defuse the situation before
tragedy struck. And the only way to do that, short of
knocking Brandon out, was by careful persuasion.

“Have you given any thought to the baby?” Her
voice echoed in the silence of the narrow canyon.

“What kind of a question is that?” His gaze remained
focused on the road ahead, but his jaw tensed
visibly.

“Jenny’s baby will be your grandchild. Your own
flesh and blood. How can you be so heartless as to
pass it off like an unwanted puppy, to be raised by
strangers?”

His eyes shifted toward her, narrow and cold as he
weighed her question. “It’s Jenny I’m thinking of,”
he said. “If she gives the baby up, she can still have
the good life she deserves—a place in society and
marriage to a respected man who’ll provide well for
her and her future children. If she keeps the baby, it’s
all over for her. She’ll be branded a fallen woman,
an outcast for the rest of her life.”

“Not if she marries her child’s father,” Harriet responded
with sudden conviction. “Lord knows, I’ve
had dreams for Will, too, and I’m no happier about
this mess than you are. But we have to do what’s right
for the baby!”

“My sister will see that the baby goes to a good
home,” Brandon snapped. “Now put it to rest. You’re
only making things harder.”

“That’s because you know I’m right! But you’ll
never admit that, will you, Mr. Calhoun? You’ve too
much stubborn pride to see anyone’s point of view
except your own!” Harriet was trembling now, her
plan of a calm reasonable approach shattered. “Those
two poor, foolish children ran off in the night because
neither of us was willing to listen to them! Neither
of us could face the fact that Will and Jenny are the
only ones who have the right to decide their future
and their baby’s future! We drove them to this desperate
act, and if something terrible happens tonight,
I’ll never forgive myself—or you!”

Y
ou

you

you
. Harriet’s last word echoed off
the rocky ledges as Brandon glared at her through the
falling snow. The landau was inching along the narrowest
part of the road now. Its outer wheels
crunched through the soft snow along its edge, sending
small showers of gravel rattling down into the
creek. A horse snorted nervously in the darkness.

“Who made you an expert on life, Miss Smith?”
Brandon’s voice was as brittle as thin ice. “Lord, do
you even understand what your brother had to
do
to
my poor, innocent little girl to get her with child?”

Harriet’s face blazed. “I won’t even dignify that
question with an answer,” she snapped.

“For that alone, I could rip him to pieces with my
bare hands. But no, I’m a civilized man. If my so-
called heartless plan is carried out, he’ll be as free as
a bird! He can go on with his education, and his life,
as if nothing had happened! Isn’t that what you told
me you wanted?”

“Yes.” Harriet stared straight ahead into the swirling
snow. “I just don’t know if…
Look out!

The huge, tawny cat shape that flashed across the
road and bounded into the rocks was gone in the
blink of an eye. But that brief glimpse was enough
to send the horses into a rearing, plunging frenzy of
terror.

“Whoa…easy there…” Brandon pulled steadily
on the reins and spoke with masterful calm, but it was
too late. The landau had already lurched to the right
and was tilting perilously over the creek bed. Gravel
clattered down the slope as the wheels bit into the
crumbling bank.

“Get to the left and lean out!” Brandon shouted at
Harriet. “If she starts to fall, jump!”

Harriet did not need to be told a second time. She
flung herself to the left side of the buggy, pushing behind
Brandon to add her weight above the two stable
wheels. But even when she leaned outward, as far
over the side as she dared, it was not enough. With the
horses bucking and the bank caving in, the heavy landau
was canting farther and farther toward the creek.

“Hang on!” Brandon slapped the reins down with
all his strength, using them as whips in a desperate
effort to get the horses moving forward. But even as
the sturdy bays pushed into their collars, the edge of
the road caved in and the carriage tumbled sideways,
toward the rushing water.

“Jump!” Brandon yelled. “Damn it,
jump!

Harriet clambered over the left side of the carriage.
She caught a glimpse of Brandon still struggling
with the reins as she gathered her strength and
flung herself into the darkness.

The scream of horses filled her ears as she hit the
road with a force that knocked the wind out of her.
For a terrifying moment she lay still on the snowy
ground, listening to the sound of splintering wood
and the crash of the landau falling into the river.

Brandon!
Her mind shrilled his name but she
could not breathe deeply enough to shout. As she
crawled toward the road’s caved-in edge, she could
hear the horses screaming and thrashing.

She was all right, Harriet realized as each of her
limbs responded to her will. The snow on the road
and the thickness of Brandon’s coat had combined to
cushion her landing. But where was Brandon? Had
he gone into the water? Her gaze darted up and down
the road. She could see no sign of him in either direction.
That could only mean one thing.

Growing more and more frantic, she clambered
shakily to her knees and stared down the slope. Through
a swirling veil of snowflakes, she could see the broken,
overturned landau, lying wheels-up in the creek. One
horse was on its feet. The other lay on its side, its head
raised above water. She could not see Brandon at all.

Sliding on snow and gravel, she skidded down to
the water’s edge. The creek was not deep, but an unconscious
man with his face under water could
drown in no time. If she didn’t hurry, Brandon could
be dead by the time she got to him.

“Brandon!” She found her voice. “Can you hear
me?”

“Yes.” His voice came from somewhere under the
chassis, muffled by the sound of the creek. “Don’t
worry about me. See to the horses.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, damn it! Just something on my leg.” He
seemed to be biting back pain. “You’ve got to take care
of the horses! There’s a pocketknife in that coat you’re
wearing. Use it to cut them loose. Can you do that?”

“I’ll try.” Harriet found the knife in one of the
pockets and managed to get it open.

“Listen to me.” Brandon’s voice sounded fainter
than before. “I just honed that blade last week, so it
should be sharp enough to slice through the leathers.
From what I can see, Captain looks all right. Cut
him loose first and get him out of the way. Then you
can go to work on Duchess. If she can’t get up, I’ll
hand you the gun and you’ll have to shoot her. Do
you understand?”

Harriet stared at the downed animal, her heart
plummeting. If the horse couldn’t get out of the water,
it would drown or freeze. Better to put it out of its misery,
she knew. Still…

“Harriet?”

“Yes, I understand,” she said. “Hold on. I’ll do everything
I can.”

Gathering her courage, she waded into the water
and hacked at the twisted lines that fastened the
standing horse to the landau. Seconds crawled by at
the pace of hours as she sliced into the tough leather,
but at last the big gelding was free. It snorted, shook
its wet coat and lurched up the bank, onto the road.

BOOK: Her Dearest Enemy
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